Two years ago, Art Rascon could barely walk to the edge of his driveway before he needed to stop and catch his breath.

The longtime anchor at ABC-13 spent four days in a hospital after he came down with COVID-19 just after Christmas in 2020. The virus took such a toll on his lungs that he needed to use an oxygen machine for another two months after being discharged.

He never expected to be training to compete in his first Ironman triathlon just two years later.

Rascon, who retired from ABC-13 in the fall of 2021, is set to compete April 22 in the Ironman Texas competition in The Woodlands. The grueling race involves a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon in succession. He’ll have approximately 17 hours to complete them all.

The prospect seemed unfathomable after COVID-19, when Rascon barely had the stamina to leave his home. In time, though, he was able to return his oxygen machine to the hospital. He soon began running in 30- or 40-foot increments, then for longer distances. By the fall of 2022, he was ready to begin training for the Ironman.

“My goals are always set enormously high,” Rascon said. “It sounds crazy, especially for someone who is still dealing with long-term COVID. But you don’t look at it that way. I feel like we can accomplish anything if we do it step by step.”

Rascon has run marathons in the past, but the Ironman will be his first attempt at a triathlon. He was inspired by his sister, an Ironman veteran who has competed in the annual Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. Four of his siblings are also training for Ironman competitions.

“I don’t know how smart that is, with my first triathlon being a full Ironman,” he said. “But I’m going to see how it goes.”

Rascon’s experience with COVID-19 changed his outlook on life and placed a greater emphasis on his health, especially since he is now 60 years old. He hopes it will inspire others to do the same and is sharing his experience of training for the Ironman in his role as a spokesman for KelseyCare Advantage, a Medicare Advantage plan affiliated with Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. 

“I'm grateful that I went through (COVID-19), as tough as it was,” Rascon said. “I just believe that all experiences could be for our good if we allow them.”

‘It just shocked me’

Rascon and most of his family members got sick shortly after they gathered for Christmas in 2020, before the COVID-19 vaccines were available. Many of his relatives had mild symptoms, but his persisted and were more serious.

“It was just awful,” he said. Imagine yourself in the evening and throughout the day just struggling to breathe. I had just never felt that before.”

He went to an emergency room, where a test showed his oxygen levels were dangerously low. He was rushed to Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital in an ambulance.

Doctors determined Rascon had COVID-19 pneumonia in both of his lungs. They told him that his symptoms might have been even worse if he hadn’t been in good shape before he got sick.

“It just shocked me that I was even there,” he said. “I never considered that I would be hit so hard with COVID because I thought, ‘Well, I'm in relatively good health, so I should be OK.’ That was not the case.”

Age, ethnicity and underlying medical conditions, such as obesity and diabetes, are known risk factors for developing a severe COVID-19 infection. Rascon is Hispanic, and data shows that Hispanic individuals are nearly twice as likely to be hospitalized or die after contracting COVID-19.

However, even someone who is young and otherwise healthy can develop a severe COVID-19 infection, said Dr. Puneet Patni, a pulmonologist at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic.

“Some people’s bodies just react that way, where they get that intense inflammation,” Patni said. “Sometimes the inflammatory response can be overexuberant to where the lungs get inflamed.”

Rascon remained in the hospital for four days, praying that he would not need to be placed on a ventilator. He still gets emotional when he remembers how he woke up in the middle of the night in a panic, surrounded by monitors that were keeping track of his vital signs.

Fortunately, Rascon improved to the point he could be released, though he was sent home with an oxygen machine that helped him breathe as his lungs continued to recover.

A slow recovery

Recovery was a gradual process for Rascon, as it has been for many patients whose lungs were damaged by COVID-19. It’s hard to predict how any patient will recover, though most patients do improve over time, Patni said.

“It’s going to vary from person to person,” Patni said. “It’s hard to know for sure.”

Rascon had regular appointments with a pulmonologist, who told him to walk as much as he could without overdoing it. His wife, Patti, helped him walk beyond the edge of the driveway to the street, and then to the end of the block.

Recovering from a COVID-19 infection can be a “long haul” for many patients, Patni said.

“You exercise to the point that you can tolerate, but ultimately, the lungs have to get better on their own,” Patni said.

Soon he could take his oxygen machine to the grocery store, where ABC-13 viewers and other members of the Houston community would offer support. He was also encouraged by positive messages on social media.

“I really believe their faith and their prayers helped me survive and get through this,” he said.

After two months, Rascon returned his oxygen machine to the hospital. He was relieved but also worried, because the machine had been a lifeline since he’d been discharged.

Even today, Rascon isn’t fully recovered from his illness. He needs to “listen to his body” to make sure he’s not overexerting himself. If he does — or if he breathes in too deeply — he starts coughing.

“My pulmonologist says I'll eventually get over that, but I'm still waiting,” he said. “It's been two and a half years. but it's getting better. I just have to pace myself.”

Training for the Ironman

Rascon began running six or seven months after he was released from the hospital. At first, he just wanted to be able to exercise like he had before his illness.

“I had never really dreamt of doing an Ironman at that point. I really didn’t,” he said. “I was just wanting to get back to maybe running a few miles a week.”

As his stamina improved, though, he decided to set his sights higher. He’d seen his sister and his son complete Ironman competitions and decided to make it his goal.

He took it step by step. He bought a bike and started riding around his neighborhood. Swimming was the hardest, he said, because he struggled with the proper technique needed for a competition.

Six months later, Rascon is able to complete 2.4 miles in a local pool and ride 80 miles on his bike. He’s hungry all the time because of all the calories he’s burning as he trains.

“Here I am, 60 years old, and still trying to develop these things,” he said. “It just points to (how it) doesn't matter how old you are. It doesn't matter. You could always be able to do so much.”

Rascon won’t attempt the full Ironman until the competition on April 22; he’ll top out around nine hours of training at one time. He’ll have roughly 17 hours to complete the race, and his goal is to finish by the midnight deadline.

Rascon’s experience with COVID-19 taught him to appreciate his life even more than he did before and reinforced the importance of health as he gets older. He plans to continue focusing on exercising and eating well, and he hopes he can inspire others to do the same.

Once the Ironman is over, he even plans to keep swimming and riding his bike, too — just not at the distances he’s doing today.

“It's not the mileage that matters,” he said. “It's just doing something that matters.”

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