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Double Double has new meaning for fundraising triathlete

Kyle McLaughlin is a successful man.
Kyle McLaughlin is running two IronMan triathlons to raise money for Mito-Canada.
Kyle McLaughlin is running two IronMan triathlons to raise money for Mito-Canada.

Kyle McLaughlin is a successful man. An emergency room doctor and recreational triathlete raising a young family with his loving wife in Canmore, the 35-year-old exudes positive energy when describing his training, consisting of lung burning mountain climbs around the Bow Valley.

“I just finished a 120 kilometre ride. It was my first test since the last Ironman, and I’m optimistic how it will go,” McLaughlin said from the seat of his road bike.

Day after day, he sees people at their worst, mending patients in emergency rooms in Banff, Canmore and Calgary with care and expertise. However, one family he met through triathlons shook his outlook.

Blaine Penny is also a successful man. At 36, he’s an athletic projects manager for an engineering firm in Calgary, overseeing 2,000 projects when he’s not running ultra marathons. However, two-and-a-half years ago, his life changed when his four-year-old son Evan complained of a sore stomach. Doctors told him it was likely appendicitis – something that could be fixed with routine surgery.

After surgery, Evan went into a coma. When he emerged, he couldn’t talk or eat. The active little boy’s health rapidly deteriorated, as he lost the use of his arms and legs. Physicians were initially puzzled, but later settled on a disturbing conclusion. Mitochondrial disease was the diagnosis.

Mitochondria are tiny cells inside almost every cell in the body. They transform food and oxygen into energy to feed the body. Mitochondrial disease occurs due to a genetic mutation that causes the mitochondria to fail.

Penny enlisted the help of friends in the athletic community, including local triathlete guru Tony Smith. Smith raised awareness by hosting events for Mito-Canada, including the Father’s Day Tri-a-Triathlon, which is where McLaughlin and Penny met.

Mitochondria was only a vague medical school memory when McLaughlin heard of Penny’s plight. But the story of Evan Penny affected him.

“It struck me, having two young kids of my own. Evan was six. He was a healthy four-year-old, got ill and over the course of a few months became a quadriplegic. He can’t walk or speak,” McLaughlin said.

What truly struck McLaughlin was the energy from the Penny family, who began Mito-Canada, when faced with the disease.

“They’re remarkable people. You see illness and sickness on a daily basis, but I was blown away by how they reacted to the situation. They had dark times to begin with and tough times. But you can’t stay sad forever,” McLaughlin said.

The young doctor was determined to do something to help. He wanted to add another dimension to his running.

“I was doing triathlon for five years or so. I had done two Ironmans – in 2008 and 2009 – and I was trying to find a better reason to do this rather than personal achievement,” McLaughlin said.

He spent hours reading up on the disease, learning it can be diagnosed at any age and has a wide range of symptoms that make it difficult to diagnose. That turned into a pair of lectures for medical staff in Calgary, and consultation with a mitochondrial disease expert.

“Being a doctor, where we can misdiagnose this illness, I wanted to raise awareness amongst my peers,” McLaughlin said.

One Ironman didn’t seem enough as a fundraiser, so he came up with the Double Double challenge – complete two Ironmans in two months.

The feat isn’t unheard of. Most triathletes can only manage one Ironman a year, if that. However, it’s not recommended.

“Some of the people I’ve talked to said it’s possible, but you don’t feel completely recovered from the first,” McLaughlin said.

Experts usually tell long distance athletes to take a day off for every kilometre they run. However, after swimming 3.8 kms, cycling for 180 kms and running 42 kms, there’s no time to follow that advice.

McLaughlin has always been an athlete, but not a prototypical triathlete.

A rugged, bruising defenceman patrolling the blueline for the Nepean Raiders, McLaughlin had a bright future as a teenage hockey player. He was drafted by the OHL’s Ottawa ’67s, with a playing weight around 215 lbs, but chose the U.S. college route. He earned a degree and chose medicine, where he met his wife. They decided to get into triathlons and, now weighing in around 174 lbs, he hasn’t looked back – after he learned how to swim.

“When I started, I couldn’t swim 25 metres without stopping,” he said.

He’s improved substantially, of course, but meeting the Penny family gave him new purpose to his challenge.

“There are two things I could contribute with: my triathlon history and ability to raise awareness,” McLaughlin said.

“It changed the way I trained. It’s now easier to train long and hard and it changed my goals from results focus to racing in the moment,” McLaughlin said.

The training has worked. He finished the first Ironman – the Coeur D’Alene Ironman in Idaho on June 27 – where he recorded a personal best, despite getting hit with a drafting call penalty.

“The race was in cold, choppy water and I was five minutes off my swim, and had a difficult transition. But my focus was to be strong and finish well. I felt I ran quite well,” McLaughlin said.

Penny hasn’t stopped his athletic pursuits either. He just ran a blistering marathon in Ottawa and promotes the idea one must be healthy in order to help. Often, when a child is sick, parents fall into a 24-hour care cycle, spending every waking moment trying to help their child. However, Penny says help includes balance.

“I’m extremely inspired by what they’ve done. They’ve turned it into a positive. We’re similar families with two kids, athletic backgrounds,” McLaughlin said.

His next triathlon will be the Ironman Canada championship in Kelowna on Aug. 28 and he’s increased his training after two weeks of limited activity.

“The build up to the first race was so big I feel I can get back to normal training this week. The six weeks leading up are the most crucial time,” McLaughlin said.

What hasn’t tapered off are his fundraising efforts. While he originally expected to raise $5,000, he’s now only $100 short of $13,000.

“The support has been overwhelming,” he said.

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