Tommy Puzey of Flagstaff won the 2016 Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon then repeated as champion in 2017. (Photo: Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic)
Flagstaff elite runner Tommy Rivers Puzey, a two-time Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona marathon champion, was transferred to a hospital in Scottsdale on Thursday with hopes of helping his recovery from a life-threatening respiratory condition.
Puzey, 35, was hospitalized in Flagstaff for more than three weeks and for a week has been in an induced coma and on a ventilator to assist his breathing.
Jacob Puzey said transferring his younger brother to Shea Medical Center will allow him to receive extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) on a machine that replaces the heart and lungs function.
“Even with the ventilator, he wasn’t able to get enough oxygen into his lungs,” Jacob said. “They oxygenate the blood (on ECMO) rather than trying to pump it straight into the lungs. There are risks, but it didn’t seem like the ventilator was doing enough.”
In early June, Puzey had a major medical scare while running in the Grand Canyon with friend Derrick Lytle, unsure if he would survive. “Somehow after 12 hours we made it out as the sun rose,” he wrote on a social media post. “Life is a fragile thing. Be grateful for each new day and hold tight all the good things this world has to offer.”
Jacob Puzey said his brother has not tested positive for coronavirus and believed the issues in the Grand Canyon were due to dehydration and heat stroke. “He realized it was more in his lungs so it felt like pneumonia,” which Tommy had when he was a child, Jacob said.
Puzey still resisted going to the hospital, in part for financial reasons, until it became clear to him and his wife Stephanie that there was no alternative. The couple has three young daughters. Tommy works as a physical therapist in addition to his running career.
“They’ve tested for bacteria, viral, fungul, all sorts of things,” Jacob said. On Friday, he confirmed via social media that Tommy has cancer in his lungs, which will require chemotherapy treatment.
Tommy Puzey of Flagstaff repeated as Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona marathon champion in 2017. (Photo: Michael Chow/Arizona Republic)
Puzey is an internationally known trail runner who obtained a doctorate in physical therapy from Northern Arizona University in 2017. His road racing successes including Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona titles in 2016 and 2017 and finishing 16th at the 2017 Boston Marathon in 2:18.20. He also won the Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in 2018 and 2019.
At the 2020 Houston Marathon in January, Puzey was on pace for a personal best and to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials when tripped in a pothole late in the race, suffering meniscus and hamstring tears.
“He doesn’t care what the end result is in terms of who wins the race,” said Jacob, also a distance runner and running coach. “The way we were raised is wastefulness is an unpardonable sin. You don’t waste your talents and opportunities.
“He knew he was in 2:14/2:15 shape at Houston. He was leading the charge of the pace group and pulling away. He never felt better in his life. The only regret he would have is that was his last shot in this Olympic window. He was knocking on the door of his full potential.”
Puzey is widly admired in the running community for his work ethic, personality and intellect. In less than a week, more than 5,000 people donated more than $250,000 to a GoFundMe account on his behalf.
Even while in the hospital in Flagstaff, Puzey posted several Instagram videos explaining his situation and reflecting on his love for his family and others.
“It’s been inspiring and humbling and at the same time not at all surprising,” Jacob said. “It speaks to the incredible humanity that exists in the running community and to the impact he has add on individuals.
“One thing that makes people love him and want to support him is because even if they’ve never met him, they’ve felt loved by him. He has intentionally chosen to be vulnerable to people who feel there are parts of them they need to hide, they still feel seen and heard and loved.
“I’m hopeful he comes out of this and will wake up, and I know there will be gratitude because gratitude is his default. But I also know he will feel embarrassed to be the one in need, and I’m OK with that. I’d rather he and Steph and their kids don’t have mountains of bills following them the rest of their lives.”
MORE: Thomas Puzey wins second consecutive Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8053. Follow him on Twitter @jeffmetcalfe.
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