Great-grandad with passion for marathon running survives for record time with one lung

By Vicki Newman
don cantrell split image

A great-grandad has defied the odds to live longer with one lung than any other man before him.

Not only that, but Donald Cantrell (USA) has even run marathons and taken on triathlons.

The Fairfield, Ohio, resident, who is turning 84 on 2 June, marked the longest time to survive with one lung (male) with a total of 66 years 204 days, as of 15 January.

Soon, it’ll be 67 years since Don had his left lung surgically removed.

Despite having just one lung for the majority of his life, Don has never considered himself to be disabled and has lived a very active life.

Don now

He told us: “I feel blessed to have lived long enough to achieve a Guinness World Records title that I never tried or even thought of accomplishing.”

Don’s record-breaking journey began when he was just two years old and contracted pneumonia after getting the flu.

He was hospitalized in April 1943 and spent almost a week in a coma.

He regained consciousness and was allowed to return home, but his condition worsened over the next few weeks and he found himself back in hospital.

By the age of 17 and after completing his second year of high school, Don says he was continually plagued by bad chest colds and coughs.

A doctor examined Don and found that his left lung had been destroyed by an abscess and the best course of action was to remove it.

Worried about how the family would afford the surgery, Don says his mother assured him they’d find a way, even if they had to sell their farm.

Don running a marathon in 1996

Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary.

Don was admitted to hospital in June 1957 for the surgery, and soon discovered members of his church had pulled together to raise the money to pay his bill.

“I was discharged on 4 July, with instructions to return for a follow up in a month,” Don said.

I never went back. I was doing so well it did not seem like I needed to go back.

The first ever lung transplant did not take place until years later in 1963.

When Don had his surgery, it simply wasn’t a possibility to replace his damaged lung with a healthy one.

But it turns out he didn’t need one anyway.

Don as a younger man

He said: “By the time this possibility became known, I was healthy and strong, having run many road races, including four 26.2 mile marathons. 

Transplant never crossed my mind. In fact I did not think of myself as having a disability.

“Only my family and close friends ever knew of my lung removal. In competitive racing I never told anyone. Even today, most of my acquaintances do not know. I will tell them soon when the certificate arrives.”

Don went on to work in the manufacturing industry, marry his loving wife Janette in 1960, and welcome two sons and a daughter, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

And he also found his passion for running.

He told us: “I remained active in sports, I played basketball, softball, disc golf, bowling with my wife, and golf. Eventually running would be my sport of choice.”

And Don was brilliant at it.

don cantrell in running gear

He took up running in January 1969, when initially, he couldn’t even run around the block.

With practice and hard work, he went on to compete in over 100 races, running five marathons and completing several 30-mile triathlons too.

Don found that running had a huge positive impact on his health.

His remaining lung even got bigger.

Don continued running until he was in his late 70s and unable to because of his neuropathy, a type of nerve damage.

His final race was The Shark Tooth 10k in Venice, Florida, in 2011.

He believes he has even run a marathon quicker than any other one-lunged athlete – completing one in Colombus, Ohio, in 1984 in 3 hr 37 min 2 sec.

don cantrell running

Don said: “My competition in sports brought only benefits. I was never injured and never trained for a race I didn’t run and finish. It certainly strengthened my lung. 

“My lungs doctor, whom I visited for the first time earlier this year, in order to complete the application for the record, said that my right lung had expanded, so that my lung capacity is equal to 3/4 of a man with two good lungs. 

My overall health dramatically improved when I began to run and became more active all the time. 

“I have rarely been sick in the last 40 years. The Lord blessed me greatly through running.”           

Don said he did not know what kind of longevity he could expect after having his lung removed.

He said: “I’m not sure what I expected, but I do know that other people that know about the surgery did not expect me to live very long.

“My brothers and I were at a local country store soon after my operation and the subject came up about me being scheduled to return to the hospital in Lexington for my check-up, and the store owner commented, ‘You will probably be doing that for the rest of your life’.

Some of Don's running trophies

“Perhaps that is one reason I didn’t ever go back for a check-up. But I truly think I just didn’t let others influence what I thought, it was not up to me or them, it was in the Lord’s hands.”

Although Don can’t run anymore, he still walks an average of two miles every day.

He gets up so early for his walks that he even started a Facebook page he calls “COD”, as in ‘Crack of Dawn’, where he’s been posting pictures of sunrises for the last 10 years.

Don lives at a slower pace these days, taking care of the home, garden and his wife.

He’s also struck up a friendship with a man from Oklahoma named Greg Gerardy, who also has just one functioning lung.

Don and Greg share a passion for running and they often chat about which marathon, triathlon and other events Greg is training for.

Don will have plenty of good advice to share.

If you like watching records being broken you should check out our Records Weekly series on YouTube...

Want more? Follow us on Google News and across our social media channels to stay up-to-date with all things Guinness World Records! You can find us on Facebook, Twitter/X, Instagram, ThreadsTikTok, LinkedIn, and Snapchat Discover.

Don't forget to check out our videos on YouTube and become part of our group chat by following the Guinness World Records WhatsApp channel.

Still not had enough? Click here to buy our latest book, filled to the brim with stories about our amazing record breakers.