Kirk Wolfe’s Story – April 10, 2011

By: Kirk Wolfe

kirk wolf riding a bikeKirk WolfeI woke up at 5am ready to tackle my first triathlon. I had traveled from Chicago down to Miami with a group of 8 buddies from my neighborhood to participate in the Nautica Miami Triathlon along South Beach. We had signed up to compete in the Olympic distance flight – 1 mile swim, 25 mile bike, and 6 mile run. Needless to say, this Sunday morning triathlon turned out to be much more eventful than I could ever have anticipated.

While I don’t know the exact number, the heat index was high that day. After making a short bike ride from our hotel to the triathlon set-up & transition area, it was clear it was going to be a hot and humid day. Having trained all winter & spring in Chicago, I was clearly not acclimated to the heat and humidity. My lack of attention to the conditions and the humidity, in particular, would turn out to be my first mistake.

I brought my bike into the set-up area, found my assigned station for all my gear, started setting everything up, and began mentally preparing for the event. Even though the air and water temperature were high enough to go without a wetsuit, I chose to wear the wetsuit I had recently purchased anyway. More than anything, I wanted the “peace of mind” associated with the wet suit while doing my first open water ocean swim. The wetsuit would make me fully buoyant and if I ever needed to rest during the swim, I could simply flip over on my back and float for a bit. Going into the triathlon, I knew my swim and bike were going to be weaker, relative to the run. I had only been training for the swim and bike for a few months and have been running 10–15 miles a week since college.

The swim started at 6:56am ET. The frenzy at the start of the race as the triathletes plunged into the water and worked to make the turn around the first buoy was both exhilarating and frightening. After the spending several minutes in the water, it was comforting to have the pack of swimmers start to separate out a bit. With that separation, it became clear this was not going to be an easy swim given the conditions. The waves were powerful and it was going to be a grind to swim that mile. The strength of the waves made it harder to breathe without taking an occasional gulp of salt water. While the swim was more than I anticipated, I ended up finishing in a little over 40 minutes. I took my time walking out of the water, peeling back the wet suit, showering off the salt water, and moving into the transition area to dump my wet suit and grab my bike.

After completing the swim, I was more than ready for the bike. I had found during my preparation for the triathlon I enjoyed training on the bike much more than training for the swim. So, I welcomed the idea of leaving the wet suit behind and jumping on the bike. The ride itself went smoothly and I really enjoyed it. It offered incredible views as we went up and over the primary causeways connecting Miami Beach and Miami. At one point toward the end of the ride, I did glance down at my arm to see whether the sun was burning my arms. While I did not see any signs of burning, I was focused on the wrong thing and did not pay attention to the fact I was not sweating heavily. This would ultimately turn out to be a mistake. By the time I had finished up on the bike, I was a little over 2 hours into the race and felt good knowing I would finish up with a run I was well conditioned to attack. I had been consuming fluids throughout the bike ride, including before and after the transition, 2 bottles of water on my bike, and during the ride with water stations.

As I took off on the run, I also felt fairly good about my ability to hit my goal to finish the race in less than 3 hours. This goal could not have been any more arbitrary, but it had become my target as I trained. I cranked up my intensity knowing my running muscles were ready relative to those that got me through the swim and bike. This increase in intensity would ultimately turn out to be a mistake. While I continued to consume water and vitamin water at the water stations, since my muscles were feeling good, I did not slow down to walk through the water stations. As a result, I did not consume as much water as I could have or should have given the conditions.

I remember looking down at my watch, seeing I was tracking at 2 hours and 50 minutes, realizing the finish line was less than a mile away, and thinking I should have no problem beating my goal and finishing in less than 3 hours. Shortly thereafter, I was turning thru one of the few bends on the running course and everything quickly became fuzzy. The last thing I remember was slowing down and then crouching over to catch my breath. One of my neighborhood buddies, Dan, was not too far behind me on the course and noticed I was having difficulty. Fortunately, he stopped to check on me, realized I needed help, and took immediate action that proved critical in saving of my life. Dan tracked down an EMT that had finished attending to another triathlete 50 yards down the course and brought him over to help me. The EMT recognized the signs and took the initial steps to begin the process of cooling down my body.

I was suffering from heat stroke and my temperature had elevated into dangerous territory reaching a height of 105.7 degrees. The first 10–15 minutes of treatment for anyone suffering from heat stroke are the most critical. The EMTs took all the appropriate steps including moving me into the shade, applying ice packs, and inserting an IV to pump fluids into my body. Dan’s awareness and the rapid response of the EMTs saved my life.

Next thing I remember, I awoke in the Emergency Room and began screaming as the doctors took the necessary steps to keep me alive. I was fortunate Dan and the Miami Beach EMTs were in the area when I crouched over on the course. I was equally fortunate the hospital was just a 5-minute drive away and I had some highly competent ER doctors attending to my situation. The doctors worked feverishly to stabilize my body on multiple fronts including increasing my blood pressure, reducing my heart rate, and getting my kidneys working again. Without getting into all the details, the work done by the ER docs was equally important to saving my life.

One of the side effects of heat stroke is hallucination. As I started to stabilize in the ER and my brain started to function again, my mind started racing and hallucinating. As I lay there in my ER bed recovering, I knew I was in Miami, 38 years old, married with 3 kids, and lived in Illinois. It took awhile, but I was able to communicate most of this information to the doctors in one-word blocks and with nods of the head. At the same time, I was hallucinating I had been running the Miami marathon (not triathlon)and had been struck by a car or truck as I ran thru a downtown intersection. The hallucination was so powerful I could (and can still) picture the intersection and the initial impact of the car with my body. I even started thinking about how ridiculous it was the Miami police had failed so miserably to protect runners on the course.

It was absolutely agonizing to sit there alone with a hallucinating brain that was racing to make sense of the implications. My hallucination had convinced me most of my bones must have been broken and there was a strong chance I would never walk again. To make it worse, even though my brain was racing, I was not able to put 2 words together. So, I began questioning whether I would ever be able to talk normally again. My thoughts immediately went to my wife and kids. My relationship with them as a husband and father would be forever changed. I thought about how I would never again be able to function on my own. No more walking, talking, working, kicking the soccer ball with Grace, shooting hoops with Henry, dancing with Lily, and more. It was not until I reached the ICU many hours later and my wife, Amy, had arrived at my bedside that my brain had recovered enough to reconcile what had actually happened. A car had not hit me, I had suffered a heat stroke and I would fortunately have a chance at 100% recovery.

I spent 5 days in the hospital in the initial stage of recovery from my heat stroke. I had elevated CPK enzymes in my blood that, if not flushed and brought down to normal levels, could have caused renal failure. The CPK enzyme is a protein released from the muscles and into the bloodstream during a workout. After a normal workout, these enzymes elevate and the body naturally flushes them out. The normal range for CPK enzymes in the blood is 100–200. In my case, as a result of my muscles being so fried, my CPK levels were off the charts and, at one point, registered as high as 5,800. After a massive diet of fluids and rest, my CPK returned to the normal range almost 2 weeks after suffering the heat stroke.

As I have learned in researching heat stroke, I clearly checked all the key boxes that lead to heat stroke. I was not acclimated to the Miami climate. As a result, the high humidity took its toll. Interestingly, from what I gathered from my buddies who spent time in the ER waiting room, most of the triathlon participants who suffered from heat stroke were also from northern states and likely also trained in vastly different conditions. As well described by one of the leading researchers on heat stroke…

The primary factor predisposing people -especially those in shape -to heat illness, though, seems to be lack of acclimatization to the heat. “It’s much harder for the body to cope with heat if it’s not used to it,” Dr. Casa says.

The increased intensity on my run also took its toll. My already overheated body put more trained running muscles in motion and exerted more energy, 75% of which became body heat… Scientists have a pretty clear picture of what happens inside these athletes as they exert themselves. They bake. Muscles in motion generate enormous amounts of energy, only about 25 percent of which is used in contractions. The other 75 percent or so becomes body heat.

Among other things, I am determined to do my part to increase awareness regarding heat stroke -particularly for athletes participating in marathons and triathlons. While I did the requisite amount of training for this event and felt well prepared to complete it, I was naive regarding the impact the conditions and my resulting actions might have on my health and my life. As a first step in increasing awareness, I want to get my story out there.

I feel blessed and lucky to be alive. April 10, 2011 is a day I will never forget. Without question, it was the most traumatic and terrifying of my life. The impact of my near-death experience has yet to fully settle in. I do know it immediately makes all the clichés very real -life is short, enjoy every day, stop and smell the roses, take nothing for granted, don’t sweat the small stuff, and more. With each passing day and as I put distance between today and April 10, I become more determined to turn this experience into a positive and transformative one in my life.

Enjoy every day!