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People On The Move - Jason Gers
03/07/2012 - By Chad Safran
Living Life to its Fullest and Fastest
Jason Gers has always been fast. During his time as a cross country runner at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, he earned All-County honors twice. Even in his late 30s, he can still run three miles in under 17:30. Yet, a childhood condition nearly slowed him forever.
At 12, Jason was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis. It’s a disease where your body attacks your liver, and unfortunately his was diagnosed too late and caused cirrhosis, which was irreversible at that point. “The condition did not affect me for many years, other than not being able to drink and get hit in the stomach,” says the Monmouth Beach resident. “I led a pretty normal life. I continued to run recreationally and intramural at Penn State.”
However, after one intramural race, he began throwing up and excreted blood while going to the bathroom. He was transported by helicopter to a trauma center in Pennsylvania, losing over half the blood in his body. The liver disease had caused the varicose veins in his esophagus to bleed (due to portal hypertension). “It was definitely the most traumatic experience I have ever had, and I nearly lost my life. I spent a few days in intensive care, and at that point I realized that one day I would need a liver transplant,” he says, noting that the fear of a repeat episode kept him from running any longer.
The liver transplant would not take place until nearly 10 years later when his condition deteriorated into end-stage liver disease. He had visible swelling in his abdomen and legs as a result of water accumulation. He would not stop bleeding. After a few months on the transplant waiting list, he received a new liver on August 26, 2001.
Once the swelling went down, and the cuts began to heal, his life was changed forever. “I felt like a completely different person, full of energy,” says Jason. “I was eager to go back to my career in the financial services industry and missed only five weeks of work. I wanted to get back to a normal life as soon as possible.” He also laced up his running shoes once again and started running longer distances. Jason wanted to lift weights to put some muscle back on, but the doctors did not approve since the combination of medication, building muscle, and protein shakes inhibited kidney function. Instead he began running more.
Just a little over 13 months after the transplant, Jason finished the Jersey Shore Half Marathon in 1:31:29 - good enough for a 35th place finish in a race with over 500 runners. This would be the start of his pursuit to become one of the country’s finest age group athletes. A month after that race, he finished the Phildelphia Marathon (his first) in 3:18:52. He continued to run, but in June 2003 entered his first triathlon because, “It seemed cool.”
As he trained more, he repeatedly won awards in local running races and triathlons. Despite earning medal after medal, he trained harder, sometimes as much as 18 or 20 hours per week. He wanted to finish an Ironman race in under 10 hours and that moment came in the 2009 edition of the Ironman Lake Placid. “I really worked hard in training for the race and I just remember pushing the run the last few miles because I knew I would be close to getting under 10 hours. When I saw the 9:59 on the clock, the experience was just surreal for me,” he recalls. He also earned a coveted spot in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.
After competing in several long distance triathlons in the first half of 2011, Jason took a much needed break from the sport, but this year he’s aiming to qualify for another trip to Hawaii. It’s not easy balancing training, work, and family, but Jason has found a way. “My wife Loretta is very accommodating and we work things out,” says the 38-year-old father of one. “I like to get started early so I have the rest of the day with my family.”
Even though 10 1/2 years have passed since his transplant, Jason remains at risk for skin cancer because of his medication. He visits the dermatologist three or four times per year for this and gets blood tests every one to two months to ensure no rejection of the new liver or flare up of his autoimmune disease has occurred. Considering where he once was, it’s a small price to pay for being able to live life to its fullest and fastest.
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