Pressing the keyboard, Nick Green felt a mixture of excitement and terror as the message flashed onto the screen. “Congratulations,” it said, “on entering the AJ Bell London Triathlon.”
Every triathlete is familiar with that mixture of emotions on signing up for a big race. But for Nick, a dad of two from Cardiff, it was particularly daunting, because he’d grabbed one of the few remaining spots while lying in a hospital bed recovering from his fourth open heart surgery.
Despite muscle wastage and weight loss of 10 kilos after three months in hospital he was determined to get racing again.
Nick’s heart problems became apparent from the moment he was born in a rural community in north Queensland, Australia, 37 years ago.
“I was blue when I was delivered,” says Nick, a sports therapist.
X-rays confirmed that Nick had a serious and rare congenital heart defect in which the two main arteries leaving the heart are reversed. This causes a shortage of oxygen-rich blood flowing from the heart.
The condition had a huge impact on his life, and he was operated on at just one year old. “I was wrapped in cotton wool,” he recalls.
“I was always sick, and in and out of hospital. I loved sport but wasn’t allowed to play it. If the teachers caught me running in the playground I was pulled inside.
“After five minutes of exercise I’d be really tired. I was on lots of medication and occasionally I’d have a catheter put into my groin to widen the arteries to my heart which was working at 100 miles an hour.”
When he was 12, Nick underwent surgery to insert a conduit (tube) into his heart to redirect blood flow, and at 19 Nick underwent his third open heart surgery to replace the conduit.
“The difference was amazing. I no longer needed medication and was able to do more.” Nick was finally able to take up running and spent the next 10 years living between the UK and Australia.
Eight years ago, he became dad to Matthew. By now, Nick was leading an active, healthy life. “I was working for Virgin Active, trained in the gym, cycled and did Parkrun every Saturday.” Nick’s work offered him a place in the London Triathlon in 2012.
“I was already cycling lots so I just stepped up the swimming and running. I loved it.”
Shortly afterwards he settled in Cardiff with his partner Helen, and two years ago Naomi was born. In winter 2014, the couple entered the Survival of the Fittest, a gruelling obstacle race.
Shortly afterwards, Nick fell ill. “I’d done three Parkruns in a row and got a PB each time. I’d never felt fitter. But on the fourth week I was five minutes slower. I put it down to a bad day but even pushing the buggy was hard work.”
Nick’s GP prescribed antibiotics, but when he finished the course, the symptoms returned. His GP became concerned and referred him to a consultant.
“I had a heart infection” says Nick. “I was immediately admitted then transferred to a specialist hospital.”
Eleven weeks of continual IV antibiotics failed to clear up the infection. Eventually, doctors said there was no alternative but to replace the infected conduit and valve. The surgery was risky but, with no other option, Nick signed consent forms.
“My parents flew over from Australia and Naomi was brought in to say goodbye to me,” he says.
“As I was wheeled to theatre Helen was very emotional.”
With the operation under way, on 23 March last year, doctors were shocked at how badly damaged Nick’s heart was.
“The infection was actually a blessing in disguise as a heart attack was imminent. The only reason it was still beating was because I was so fit,” Nick explains.
“Normally the operation would have taken three to four hours, but because of scar tissue and other complications, it took 10 hours,” he says.
For the next 48 hours Nick’s condition was touch and go. “One doctor couldn’t hide his surprise I was still there the day after surgery.
“When I responded to something Helen said, they decided to bring me out of the induced coma. But they warned I could go back to sleep again and never wake up.”
But Nick stayed awake and rallied. “Afterwards one of the surgeons said ‘No one in this hospital could have come through that. Whatever you’ve been doing, it’s the right thing.”
It was while recovering in a hospital bed that he entered the London Triathlon. “I’d seen the highlights in January before falling ill and it reminded me how much I’d loved it last time. I vowed to enter it this year.
“When the confirmation flashed up I thought ‘Well, it’s too late now. I’m in.” After being discharged on 15 April, Nick knew his recovery would be slow but he started walking tiny distances to gain strength.
“Eventually, I built up to jogging then rode my spin bike until I got the go-ahead to ride on the road. I still had to avoid swimming as it would put pressure on my chest cavity. I realised early on that this race was going to be tough and I’d have to lower my expectations. But I was determined to do it.
“I wanted to be a role model and show my children that you can do anything you want to. Yes, some people said I was mad. But my surgeon said ‘It’s a goal – why not?”
Just 20 weeks after surgery, on 8 August, Nick was standing nervously on the start line in London Docklands “The swim didn’t quite go to plan,” he says. “I’d lost so much weight that my wetsuit filled up with water and I almost sank.
I had to doggy paddle just to stop water flooding down the neck. You couldn’t have a worst start to a race. I remember thinking ‘Jeez, what have I done?’
“I emerged carrying so much water I looked like the Michelin man. Pulling off the wetsuit I was absolutely exhausted but the embarrassment at having to pull the plug kept me going.
“By the time I got to the run there was a fair bit of walking. Even running up the ramp to the indoor finish area was hard, but seeing my kids spurred me on and Matthew crossed the finish line with me in 2:21:21.
Helen was emotional but I just felt enormous satisfaction and pride.”
To mark the anniversary of his operation, in March this year, Nick will take on the Cardiff Half Marathon. He also has plenty of other triathlons on his “to do” list including a return to the London Triathlon with Helen, who is expecting their second child, this summer.
“It was thanks to the London Triathlon that I recovered as well as I did. That race will always have a special place in my heart and my ultimate goal is to complete an Ironman before I’m 40.
“I still have regular check ups but I’m feeling great. At my last check-up, the doctor shook his head and said ‘Your heart has been through so much for it to be performing the way it is. It’s very impressive’. In fact, doctors have said that all these years of being fit is the only reason
I’m still here. That’s the best compliment I’ve ever had.”
To follow Nick’s progress visit his blog at thegreeninfinity.com.
Words: Fiona Duffy