Getting Back on Track

Claire McCarty has competed in endurance sports for over three decades. Now, the 59-year-old Malibu personal trainer might be embarking on the biggest athletic challenge of her life.

McCarty is set to begin stem-cell therapy on June 1 to remedy a meniscus tear in her right knee and cartilage degeneration in both knees. The triathlon and Ironman event competitor said she is undergoing the therapy in order to excel in her sport again.

“It’s my livelihood and my joy to be at the pinnacle of health and fitness well into my ‘twilight years,’” she said.

McCarty said she has been plagued by a sharp pain in her right knee every time she would run at a high level the last few months. The pain would result in swelling and derailed any attempts to effectively compete in sporting activities that McCarty has excelled at since the 1979 Hawaiian Ironman. 

McCarty said she learned about stem-cell therapy from a friend who suggested the regenerative health procedure as an alternative to surgery.  

“Stem-cell therapy can rebuild my cartilage loss,” McCarty said. “If I can get 50 percent back and run again without having to cut my knee open, that would be great. It would mean avoiding all those things that are associated with surgery: the swelling, the recovery, the pain from that, the hard work to get range of motion back.”

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Dr. Peter Fields, a Santa Monica-based sports physician, will give McCarty a series of shots in her knees of stem cells removed from bone marrow in her pelvis. McCarty said she plans to document her stem-cell therapy experience with pictures and posts on her Facebook page. 

“The go-to solution for most joint injuries is surgery,” she said. “I want people to know you can look at stem-cell therapy as a viable option, unless your finances just can’t do it. I want to get that word out there that we have all been kind of hearing about stem-cell therapy, but it’s kind of in the realm of the high-level athletes that can afford it. It has come down in price a lot, and there are doctors out there that can do it for the general public.” 

McCarty said she will also share when she begins running again. 

“I know I will be able to swim,” she said. “I’m going to try running on a zero gravity treadmill or a water treadmill to keep the pressure off the knee once I get the clearance to do that.”

McCarty’s career in triathlons and Ironman competitions began shortly after she graduated from UCLA in 1979. She placed fifth in the women’s division of the first triathlon she ever competed in and proceeded to finish in the top tier in several triathlon events and placed in the top 10 of Ironman competitions. 

While living in Australia from 1989 to 2001, she placed in the top three of events so often that she was considered a professional. McCarty had the second fastest time of a Malibuite in her age group in the international distance category during the Malibu Triathlon last September. 

McCarty said she probably won’t be able to compete in the latter half of the 2016 triathlon season due to the three- to four-month recovery time from the therapy, but has her sights set on returning to compete in 2017, including in the Malibu Triathlon in September.

McCarty hasn’t competed on an Olympic level — 1,500-meter swim, 25-mile bicycle race and 12-mile foot race —  in races since 2010, first due to a left Achilles injury, then just being burnt out by all the training and competing. She is not ready to end her athletic career though.

“I’m not ready to throw in the towel,” she said. “Since I’m aging up into the old lady age group of 60 to 64, I thought this would be a perfect year to come back.”

McCarty said seeking to compete after the six-year hiatus is a challenge.

“You see so many athletes in their sports try to attempt a comeback,” she said. “For me, in my sport, it’s not so bad because I can race in my age group.”

McCarty said special moments like finishing a race strong and standing on the podium after a race are experiences she wants to have again.

“That feeds the flame of wanting to come back,” she said. “With any athlete that has tried to make a comeback, you are trying to recapture that feeling. I will be really happy if I can get in and be competitive.” 

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