Throughout his triathlon journey, Phillip has embraced 'the process' with great energy and enthusiasm shares his coach, Brad Seng. From his early years racing with the CU triathlon team to the present, Phillip has always been a true "team" player while making impressive individual gains. His interest in pursuing medical school is rooted in helping others. This passion became readily apparent with his selfless act of donating a kidney back in July. Putting his own racing and training goals on hold, he made the brave decision to donate a kidney to someone he had never met or knew. After extensive testing to ensure he would be a viable match, the surgery was successfully completed on July 9th. Eleven weeks later Phillip was toeing the line at the Oktoberfest sprint triathlon en route to a 2nd place age group finish. His preparation for 70.3 Arizona went well and gave him a 6th place AG (25-29) finish. And he has another late season 70.3 to look forward to as well. While Phillip's success in sport has been fun to watch, I have been truly amazed and inspired by his genuine interest in the health and well-being of others.
It's a pleasure to turn the spotlight on Phillip and we hope you enjoy his Q&A.
1. You were on the CU Triathlon Team; is that when you started racing or does your history with triathlon date back further?
I started training with the CU Triathlon Team the summer before my senior year. I ran cross country (albeit not well) in high school and had never heard of triathlon. To be honest, I didn't care much about running then either. At the beginning of my freshmen year of college, I ripped a piece of cartilage off of my femur and ended up having five surgeries over the next two years. After about eight months of waiting, I received an osteochondral allograft for my final knee surgery. It took about a year to fully rehab, but there was still a significant chance that I would not be able to run again. About three months into the physical therapy rehab I purchased a road bike as my new form of cardio. At the time, my top speed was around 12 mph. I can be a bit stubborn, so when I was told I would not be able to run that made me want to run. I began to look into cross training and became more and more interested in triathlon. If I was going to run, I knew I would need to supplement my running with other activities to limit the stress on my joints. Once I was cleared by my surgeon to ease into things I contacted the CU team and began training under Brad's guidance.
2. Now you are pursuing a medical career, how does triathlon fit into your studies/professional responsibilities?
A career in medicine is actually on hold for the time being. Eventually, I plan on going back to school and reapplying for medical school. After applying twice, I'm taking a brief break. I'm working for a local tech startup and volunteering at a student-run free clinic a couple times a month. Training is a great relief and supplement to working/studying. It helps me relax, feel good, and focus. I'm sure much to Brad's chagrin, training is a flexible priority for me. Showing up to race in great shape is very important but I try not to lose sight of other things in life. If I'm in the clinic after work, I often will miss my workout to not sacrifice sleep and if friends are getting together for drinks at the last minute I'll occasionally push my workout. That said, there's not much of a point spending more money to race longer distances if I am not going to show up prepared. I've found that I can only focus on so many things at once. When I maintain a balance between structuring my life so that I can train and allowing myself to focus on other things I seem to be the happiest and most eager to train hard. Brad has always been fantastic about helping me plan and is great about adapting my training if it becomes necessary.
3. You made a very big decision to donate a kidney which meant hitting the pause button on your training and racing. Please tell us whatever you would like to know about this decision, the experience, etc.
After waiting for a graft for my knee, paying it back was in the very back of my mind. Before my graft, a knee replacement in my late twenties was on the table. I went from worrying about walking without pain to running faster than I ever did before. Waiting for a kidney is far worse than waiting for a cartilage graft and most people die waiting. After doing extensive research I began to more heavily consider taking actionable steps to donate. If I was going to do it in the next ten years, I knew that it would need to be before I entered medical school. After applying to medical school, I began the testing process. It took about 8 months of testing for the transplant team to determine if I was physically and mentally fit to donate. After the transplant board approved me they began looking for a paired-donation match. Since I was a non-directed, anonymous donor I wanted my donation to trigger another donation. Paired donation takes a non-directed donor, like me, and matches them with an incompatible donor/recipient pair. Paired donation can unlock multiple incompatible donor/recipient pairs.
The testing process was not too bad. All in all, it involved a few mornings off of work, a couple X-rays and CAT scans, a few urine tests, and a lot of blood draws. The transplant team wants to ensure that donors are physically and mentally capable and have a commitment to living a healthy life. Kidney donors can live a very lengthy and unaffected life, but the ramifications of becoming obese and developing diabetes are more severe.
The first few days after surgery were rough. I didn't stay on top of my pain medication the first night in the hospital which set me back a bit. I went under Monday afternoon, spent two nights in the hospital, and was back home Wednesday afternoon. I stopped taking the pain medication over the weekend and was back to work on Tuesday. Overall, the recovery from surgery was smooth. It's important to not lift anything or strain your core for the first four weeks, but in many ways, the recovery after the first week was easier than some of my past surgeries.
I told Brad of my plans very early on because the donation obviously changed my plans for racing in 2018. Outside of Brad and family, I told very few people. I love Casey Neistat and he recently said something along the lines of "less sharing intention, more sharing action." It felt odd to talk about something so serious yet uncertain before it happened. Now that the donation is in the rearview mirror and I've regained my fitness I'm a bit more comfortable talking about it. My experience receiving a graft sparked my interest in donating, but after reviewing the risks and the potential impact it just made sense to me. Kidney donation is one of the most significant medical interventions that modern medicine affords patients. There is no comparison between a patient that receives a donation and one that does not, especially a living donation. My donation added 10-20 years to someone's life. There are certainly risks associated with donation, but they can be minimized. I was comfortable with those risks, especially in the context of the potential impact and the dire need that goes unmet every year. I still feel a bit weird and slightly self-aggrandizing talking about donating an organ and my "why", but I've realized that's counterproductive. I hope that my donation, and even racing, can remove some of the stigma surrounding living donation and will encourage people to consider the possibility. It's certainly not for everyone, but if more folks took the time to consider the possibility of donating we could put a dent in the more than 100,000 people that are currently waiting for a transplant and will likely never receive one. If anyone would like to chat with me more about my experience please don't hesitate to reach out.
4. How was the transition back into training? Did you have to work with a doctor to monitor vitals in any fashion, or how did you get cleared?
The transition back to training was great. I had a follow-up appointment with the transplant team after leaving the hospital and a couple of phone calls to check in. One of the biggest concerns following abdominal surgery is exerting too hard and developing a hernia. I began spinning with little to no resistance about a week post-surgery. I began slowly easing back into jogging on a treadmill about two weeks post surgery. I would jog for about thirty seconds and walk for a few minutes and slowly ramped that up over the following two weeks. I wasn't able to swim for six weeks after the surgery due to the incisions and hernia risk. I'll return to have more follow up tests done at six months, one year, and two years. Knowing that I wanted to race AZ 70.3 motivated me to rehab properly and quickly but also kept me from pushing anything too hard. I knew that if I didn't rest enough and allow my body to adapt or if I developed a hernia that I wouldn't be racing anytime soon.
5. You had a great finish at AZ 70.3, describe your experience racing this event, on the heels of your recovery.
I had a solid, but short, build going into AZ 70.3. Excluding the six week recovery time where I was slowly increasing my cycling and running, I had about 2 months to prepare. I knew that I wasn't going to set any PR's but I still wanted to be competitive. Most of all, I wanted to have a positive race day. For me, the race was a bit of a culmination of my recovery. I was the most inconsistent with my swim training leading up to the event so I was focused on swimming smooth and easy. For the bike, I wanted to stay just under my target wattage and fuel properly. I had a limited idea of what pace I could hold on the run but I planned to listen to how I was feeling and try to remain consistent. For my limited training, the swim went well. I was dropped by the faster folks and ended up swimming mostly alone. I zig-zagged a bit too much but left the water feeling fresh. The bike felt great although the curvy course definitely took a toll on my legs. I started the run feeling strong but the muscular fatigue set in and took a bit of the spring out of my step. I ended up walking all the aid stations and running about 7:30 pace in between aid stations. I wanted to ensure that I stayed properly hydrated throughout the day and listen to how I was feeling to see what I was capable of post-donation. I was really happy to come in under 5 hours. I was even more happy to finish feeling mentally present, relatively well hydrated given exercising for 5 hours, and strong albeit tired.
6. How did Coach Brad help you balance your training with recovery and into the 70.3?
Brad has kept me healthy and free from overuse injuries for the four years that I've been racing. That's huge. His plans and adaptability have also helped me recover from surgeries and this was no exception. Without Brad's guidance and the importance that he places on recovery and overall health, I would not have felt comfortable trying to race AZ 70.3. I knew that if I listened to my body and was smart, Brad's guidance would lead me to a fast and healthy recovery to life and racing. I love triathlon, in part, because it keeps me fit and healthy. Brad has ensured that I remain healthy, even when recovering from something as substantial as kidney donation.
7. What else would you like to share about yourself, triathlon, studying medicine, or anything?
If I look back at the kidney donation process and life over the past four years the one thing that has become crystal clear for me is just showing up. I learned this from a buddy a few years ago when I was working in the food industry. Over the past few months, I've realized the importance behind the statement: just show up. If I just show up every time, when it's convenient and inconvenient, I can have an outsized impact on life, relationships, and even racing. I can't wait to see what next season has in store!