Tucson surgeon balances medicine with ultrarunning

2014-08-04T05:00:00Z 2014-08-04T22:43:13Z Tucson surgeon balances medicine with ultrarunningBy Stephanie Innes Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

At 3:45 a.m. seven days per week, rain or shine, Dr. Luis León’s alarm clock goes off and he heads out for a 2½-hour run.

Running 15 miles per day is routine for the 45-year-old Tucson vascular surgeon. It’s a long way, but necessary for the ultramarathon races he regularly completes.

On Sept. 5, León will tackle his longest-ever race — a 200 miler starting on the west shore of Lake Tahoe in California. The distance works out to nearly eight marathons.

León, who works for Pima Heart and practices extensively out of Tucson Medical Center’s interventional vascular operating rooms, will be using the race as an opportunity to raise awareness of peripheral artery disease (PAD). PAD is a buildup of plaque in the arteries that supply blood to the legs, arms, brain, kidneys, and other organs.

All the money León raises will go to the Louisiana-based My Leg My Choice Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works at preventing amputations due to PAD. León was recently named chair of the foundation. His fundraising page is online at fundly.com/my-leg-my-choice

PAD can manifest in several ways, including a stroke or gangrene of the leg, depending on the location of the affected artery. Symptoms include wounds or sores that won’t heal, darkening skin, muscle pain, and numbness in feet or legs.

“The medical term is atherosclerosis. It means plaque buildup inside the arteries,” said León, who is a native of Peru. “Aging will make your arteries get hard and so will things that you do to yourself like smoking, which is in my opinion number one of the bad things you can do to yourself.”

Forty to 50 years ago, the only therapy for gangrene of the lower extremities was amputation, and that is still the case in many parts of the world.

León wants to get the word out that losing a limb due to blocked arteries is no longer inevitable. Vascular surgeons are now doing less amputating and more fixing — removing the plaque buildup with minimally invasive surgeries, he said.

León’s aim in the 200-mile race is to do the race faster than the “cutoff” time of 100 hours, which works out to four days and four hours. But beyond that, he has set no time goals. His last race was a 100-miler in Utah, which he completed in 24 hours, 25 minutes.

“Two hundred miles is very different, I don’t know what my strategy will be,” he said.

“At some point I have to sleep but I am just afraid of sleeping and then waking up very stiff the next day for another 50 or 60 miles.”

Two weeks after the Tahoe race, León plans on doing a 170-mile event at the Grand Canyon called the Grand to Grand Ultra. That race has a seven-day time limit and is run in stages that range from approximately 8 to 52 miles. In between the staging areas, there will be no aid stations, so León will need to carry his own food and water in a backpack while he runs.

When he’s not racing, León follows a vegan diet, which means no meat, eggs, dairy products or fish. He eats a lot of quinoa, lentils, and soy burgers, he said. During races he primarily relies on vegan protein powder, which he mixes with water, to meet his nutritional needs.

León believes the health effects of endurance running are positive and questions studies that have suggested long endurance exercise events may have an adverse effect on the heart. He noted that various studies have come to different conclusions.

Indeed, a study released this year by researchers at the University of California Davis and Stanford University suggests better health outcomes for ultrarunners. The study found that, compared with the general population, ultramarathon runners have a low prevalence of serious medical issues including cancers, coronary artery disease, seizure disorders and diabetes. Researchers also found ultramarathon runners reported fewer missed work or school days due to illness or injury.

His co-workers say León’s charisma and passion for both medicine and running make him an inspiring role model.

“He is well-known in the hospital physician and staff community. He runs with a lot of our staff and motivates them,” Tucson Medical Center spokeswoman Julia Strange said.

“He is an elite runner. But he does not act elite. He focuses on encouraging people of all levels.”

Running every day is difficult given León’s schedule as a surgeon, and sometimes he has to swap morning runs for afternoon. But he makes the time because he’s passionate about both running and helping to prevent and minimize vascular disease.

León says he prefers ultramarathons over the regular distance because of the mental endurance that’s required.

“As you age you lose speed but you gain resilience; mentally you are much stronger,” León said. “The more you get into it the more you realize how amazing the human body is, and how far it can take you. As long as you have the mental tenacity to do that.”

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at sinnes@tucson.com or 573-4134.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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