You might say Nels Matson was born with a broken heart. • When he was 2, surgeons discovered that he was born with a hole in his heart, and that three of his four pulmonary veins were returning blood to the wrong chamber. • But Matson was one of the lucky ones; his surgery was a success. • Now he's 27 and his once imperfect pumper is strong enough to power him on a cross country bike tour.
On June 8, the Bradenton resident began his journey from the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles. He's headed for a July 20 finish at Times Square in New York City. This weekend, according to his website, he's scheduled to be in Colorado.
His goal is to raise hope, awareness and $100,000 for the Children's Heart Foundation, an organization dedicated to funding congenital heart defect (CHD) research. He plans to cover 15 states and more than 3,700 miles in 43 days, with just four days of rest.
"I'll be averaging about 100 miles a day," he said. There will be 11 stops in cities along the way to honor a child who has survived a congenital heart defect, or one who died of the condition. Little ones on Big Wheels and parents who have lost a child will be joining him for short stretches. He'll also be collecting signatures on his bike from those affected by congenital heart defects.
He will face some formidable terrain along the way — pedaling through the Rocky Mountains, crossing the Mojave Desert and peering over Death Valley.
"I figure this is nothing compared to the challenges these children have to go through every day," he said.
His girlfriend, Denise Pizzo, will be riding in a car in front of him.
And when his energy wanes and he needs motivation?
"All I have to do is look down and see the names on my bike," he said.
He trained hard for this event, biking up to 300 miles a week for the past five months, mixing it up with occasional swims and runs.
Fueling his regimen is a 4,000-calorie diet, mainly chicken, fish, vegetables, pastas and his favorite, ice cream.
"It's a pretty loose diet but I do avoid fried foods," he said.
Sponsors and friends are helping with rooms and other necessities. He raised $5,000 in advance through social networking and help from the foundation's chapters.
A couple of years ago, Matson, an English lab coordinator with the University of Miami at IMG Academies in Bradenton, wanted to know more about the 6-inch scar on his chest.
He began online research and learned that one in 100 children are born with heart defects and that 10 percent won't reach their first birthday. "It's the leading cause of infant death in the U.S.," he said.
Matson began reflecting on his own active life — he wrestled for Iowa State University and is a runner and biker — and wanted to do something to help other children with defective hearts reach their full potential too.
So he decided to raise money for the Children's Heart Foundation, which has chapters all over the nation, including one in Oldsmar, by participating in athletic events. During his second triathlon, a Half Ironman (1.2 miles of swimming, 56 miles of cycling and 13.1 miles of running), he raised $2,100 for the foundation.
He has high hopes, both for his ability to meet his $100,000 fundraising goal and for the future of children with CHD.
"Over the last 10 years, the death rate for CHD has decreased by 30 percent. Research is helping — it's just really under-funded," he said.
Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at [email protected]