Live Well:

What It Takes To Be An Ironman: Part I

Published: September 17th, 2013
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Part I: The Mental and Spiritual Approach to Training

“The greatest moments of our lives are when our mind or our body is stretched to its limits in the voluntary pursuit of something both difficult and worthwhile.” 
-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience

In 1977 on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, a spirited debate occurred about which athletes were more fit – runners, swimmers, or cyclists. John Collins, a US Navy commander and fitness guru, suggested the debate be settled with a one-day race that combined all three long-distance endurance events already held annually on the island: the Waikiki Rough Water Swim (2.4 miles), the Around Oahu Bike Race (112 miles), and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles). Collins stated, “Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Ironman.” In February 1978, the first Ironman triathlon took place. The winner was Gordon Haller, a US Navy communications specialist, who finished with a time of 11 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds.

A Sports Illustrated journalist wrote a 10-page pictorial account of the race, which piqued the interest of athletes worldwide, and the event has grown to include hundreds of thousands of competitors from more than 120 countries. In 1981, it was moved to the Big Island of Hawaii, where the strong, gusting crosswinds and the intense heat radiating from volcanic rock qualifies it as the most punishing of all endurance races.

To be one of the 1,700 annual competitors in the Ironman Triathlon World Championship, one must win an age group race or qualify via a lottery. Anyone finishing in less than 17 hours is referred to as “an Ironman,” regardless of gender. It is the perfect venue to allow athletes to stretch both their physical and mental limits.


Ironman Maroon 2013 (4)

What motivates an individual to train 20+ hours per week in a test of human endurance that stretches the mind and body to dangerous extremes? Most say it’s the opportunity to improve both their physical and mental conditions. But for me, the motivation came from adversity, and the races now represent for me a spiritual quest that defines the balanced life.

Thirty years ago, my father died, my marriage fell apart, and I had to leave my job as a neurosurgeon – all in the same week. My father had left my mother a dilapidated, debt-encumbered truck stop. One week I was performing intricate brain surgery, and the next I was filling up 18-wheelers, flipping hamburgers and trying to help both my mother and me survive.

After several months of fighting debilitating depression, a friend invited me for a run around the local high school track. I was terribly out of shape and twenty pounds overweight, but he cajoled me into four laps around the high school football field. Although exhausted, a spark of life returned; that night was the first night I had slept soundly in several months. I found myself at the track the next day, alone, running for 1.5 miles, and then 2 miles, 4 miles, 6 miles. I felt like Forrest Gump!

It was around this time I read about cross training and triathlons. I vividly recall watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports’ special on the college student, Julie Moss, who collapsed near the finish line of the race. She crawled to the finish, creating one of the most iconic moments in Ironman history. To compete at that level for me, at that time was an impossibility – not even a consideration. But I did sign up for a “Tin Man” race that year (1-mile swim, 25-mile bike and 6.2-mile run). The feeling of accomplishment, the exhilaration and – most importantly – the eradication of my depression, enabled me to return to the most fulfilling part of my neurosurgical career.

Each year, I slowly “raised the bar” in terms of my distance training until finally, in 1993, I qualified for the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona. Nothing before or since has given me such a feeling of accomplishment. Most importantly, it forced me to become focused, adaptable, flexible and more efficient in all aspects of my life.

Mental Preparation

Others who have completed long distance triathlons would likely agree with me that the mental aspect is far harder than the physical. Self doubt. Being intimidated by others who seem to have iron quads and bionic arms. Extensive highs and lows. Confronting one’s own fears. Repeatedly asking, “Tell me again why I’m doing this as well as my ‘day job’ of neurosurgery?!”

James “Doc” Counsilman, legendary swimming coach at Indiana University, preached to his swimmers, “HURT, PAIN, AGONY!” Most athletes, he stated, stop competing or training when they hurt – and as a physician, I must say – for good reason! Stronger athletes, however, learn to compete through the inevitable and necessary pain, and champions often push on even when pain turns into agony.

One of the most rewarding aspects of such intense training is the “sharpness” that comes from stretching the mind and body to their limits. Taste, smell, hearing, touch and vision are all enhanced by the purging of mental and physical toxins from the body. It is the same biological acuity evolved by our ancestors on the African savannah. Calorie restriction (C.R.) or hunger – endemic in them and in triathletes – is the ancient genetic switch that enhances all senses for survival.

Learning to handle physical and mental stress are actually prerequisites to improving physical and mental health, but the Ironman must always be mindful of limits to avoid injury. I want to gradually increase the RPMs to go faster and longer, but I want to avoid the “red zone” at all costs! That is where injuries occur, the immune system becomes suppressed, colds and infections develop, and the “engine” breaks down. I use my mind to monitor the stress on my body like a tachometer on an automobile.

A Spiritual Approach

I have been asked what I think about to overcome the boredom of swimming laps, riding endlessly on a bike, and running mile after mile. For me, the intense training is like the fire used to heat gold ore to extract the pure gold; with the dross removed, I am left with the very essence of mind, body and spirit.

And when I stand with 1,700 other competitors, waist-deep in the surf of the Kona harbor, it is one of the most incredible and spiritual sights I’ve ever seen. At precisely 7:00 AM, the cannon booms to start the race just as the sun rises over the rim of the Kona Mountain and highlights the spire of St. Peter’s Church projecting into the sky. At this point, I find psalms particularly useful in helping me to focus and to suppress the inevitable pain and discomfort to come.

As I anticipate the heat and winds of the day, knowing that it will take me at least 15 hours to finish under the moon at night, and as I struggle during the marathon, my body crying out for respite, I find these words from the 121st Psalm very consoling:

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains –
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

Dr. Maroon’s reflections on what it takes to be an Ironman continue in Part II: Physical Preparation, Nutrition and Finding Balance.

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