Heart transplant recipients competing in Ironman Arizona Sunday

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It takes a strong person to compete in an Ironman event. It takes a uniquely strong person to do it after a heart transplant. Five such people are in town this weekend, ready to swim, bike and run to the finish line.

At Ironman Arizona on Sunday, 2,800 people will swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run a marathon -- 26.2 miles -- as they vie for one of 50 qualifying spots for the 2014 Ironman World Championship in Kialua-Kona, Hawaii.

Derek Fitzgerald will be among those competitors. He is the second heart transplant recipient to finish a triathlon and the first heart transplant recipient and cancer survivor to ever compete in an Ironman.

Fitzgerald beat cancer, but the treatment cost him his heart. Then he received a transplant and his life changed forever.

He competed in his first full-distance Ironman event over the summer.

"I'm here for my second Ironman this year," he told 3TV's Javier Soto.

Fitzgerald, who got his new heart about 2.5 years ago, is one of five "Tin Men" -- heart transplant recipients -- to tackle Ironman Arizona this weekend. By the end of the day, they will have covered more than 140 miles each.

"The Tin Men swim, bike, and run for two equally important interests: because our words alone cannot adequately express the gratitude we feel to our donors and their families, and because every person currently waiting for an organ transplant deserves to live the same full and complete life that we are now lucky to enjoy," reads the Team Tin Men Facebook page.

"It's a gift to be here, to be alive -- the very fact that we're able to go out there and enjoy being active and healthy," Fitzgerald said.

Kyle Garlett's story is similar to Fitzgerald's. After several bouts with cancer, he spent five years waiting for a new heart. He never expected to see his 35th or 40th birthdays. He's 42 now.

"I knew I would never be healthy enough to walk up a flight of stairs and now here I am riding and biking and swimming," he said.

Team Tin Men member Dan Smith is celebrating the eighth anniversary of his heart transplant.

Trevor Kecskes and Justin Feria round out the five-man team.

As a group, Team Tin Men hopes to become the first team of heart transplant recipients to complete a full-length Ironman.