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UPMC surgeon trains for Ironman

| Friday, July 18, 2008

There are overachievers, and then there is Dr. Joe Maroon.

Three or four days a week, he swims an hour at Sewickley YMCA, beginning at 5:15 a.m., before heading to his job as vice chairman of the department of neurological surgery at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He'll operate, see patients or both, and then he'll bike or jog for about an hour.

Every weekend, Maroon does his own version of a triathlon, swimming one to two miles, biking 50 to 75 miles and running between eight and 15 miles in one day. Last weekend, it was a 1.5-mile swim, 75-mile ride and 12-mile run.

"The problem is I have to double that for Hawaii," Maroon said.

Maroon, who is the Steelers' neurosurgeon, is in training for the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, this October.

The race consists of a 2.4-mile open-ocean swim, 112 miles of biking and 26.2 miles of running.

Maroon is 67 years old and will be 68 at the time of the race.

A year ago, Maroon's colleagues were telling him his racing career was over.

The trouble started five years ago, when the Sewickley resident was competing in his fifth Ironman race and injured his left knee. He continued to race, but his last major competition was in 2005, when he finished in sixth place in his age group in the triathlon at the Senior Olympics, held in Pittsburgh.

Last year, Maroon was told by two orthopedic surgeons that he was going to need a knee replacement.

That was unacceptable.

"They told me if I had an artificial knee, I'd never run again," Maroon said. "I could walk, but I'd never run again."

Maroon started researching on the Internet and found Dr. Christopher Centeno and his Colorado-based company, Regenerative Services. Centeno developed a procedure called Regenexx, in which he extracts stem cells from a patient's own bone marrow, cultivates them, then injects them into the affected area to regenerate bone and cartilage.

Eight months ago, Maroon got the first of two injections into his left knee, and last weekend he completed a half-Ironman distance race in Muncie, Ind. He finished fifth in his age group and qualified for the Ironman World Championship in the process.

The procedure, which costs $5,000 to $7,000, is not covered by insurance. Maroon knows of no one in the Pittsburgh area doing similar work.

Centeno said that while his typical patient is active and between 40 and 60 years old, Maroon will be the first to go on to compete in an Ironman.

"I kid Joe that I think he's the biggest overachiever that I know," Centeno said. "We're thankful he did well."

In 2007, nearly 1,700 athletes competed in the Ironman World Championship, ranging in age from 19 to 78, with an average age of 37. In 2007, 23 men competed in the 65-69 age group. Only 32 others competed in higher age groups, 70-74 and 75-79.

Blair LaHey, director of communications for Ironman, said they've seen an increase in their 60-plus age groups, and a few years ago they had their oldest athlete cross the finish line in Hawaii at 80 years old.

"We continue to be amazed at the number of athletes in the 60-plus age divisions, not only in their involvement but in their continued participation," she said. "It's a testament not only to their fitness but also to them continuing to challenge themselves and continuing to add accomplishments to their life's to-do list."

This will be Maroon's third trip to Kona.

"I started 20 years ago doing triathlons," he said. "Each year I just increased the bar, just like I do with my training now. That's the remarkable thing about it; you see what your body can do and adjust to."

Additional Information:

Better with age

Sewickley's Dr. Joe Maroon will be 68 years old when he competes in October in the Ford Ironman World Championship (consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run) in Kona, Hawaii, this fall. In 2006, Mt. Lebanon's Roger Brockenbrough finished second in the men's 70-74 age group with a time of 13:47:53. Brockenbrough, now 73, will compete Sunday in the Pittsburgh Triathlon alongside his son and defending champion John, 49, of Murrysville.

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