From Couch Potato to Ironman

Going from couch potato to Ironman required a lot of changes.

With wife Deb prior to the swim stage of the Ironman Triathlon

I gave up smoking after a catastrophic event. On Friday, March 14, 2003, I was in my garage smoking my first cigarettes of the morning while I drank coffee. At 5:35 I stubbed out my cigarette and collapsed with a heart attack, and let me tell you, it hurt! I dragged myself into the living room, where my wife Deb found me and insisted that we go to the medical center. I wanted to stop at work first, but Deb wouldn’t have it: I’d had a similar episode the week before — which I chalked up to pleurisy. In the parking lot, I collapsed again. Nurses from the medical center came and called the ambulance, which took me to the ER. I was 51 years old.

Evidently there were uses for me other than dying in a parking lot from 35 years of abusing my body. I was certainly surprised by the events of that Friday morning, but it was no surprise that I had heart disease. I was a poster boy for bad habits. I smoked too much. I worked too much. Ate a horrible diet. My only exercise was finger calisthenics with the TV remote. I was a 5-foot-6, 200-lb couch potato.

Jim before his heart attack

The doctors in the ER saved my life; the next day I had a triple bypass. In my hospital room Deb and I promised each other we would take up a healthy lifestyle. I did a lot of web research and saw the American Heart Association had immense heart-related information. Along with the free eating-right clinics at the hospital, that website showed us new ways to eat and exercise better.

We converted our den into an exercise room and used it. I lost 50 lbs. in six months. By the end of 2004, I wanted to do something with all my newfound energy. Watching the highlights of the Boston marathon, I thought, ‘I’m in shape, I can do that.’ That’s when I discovered there’s a huge difference between "being in shape" and being a runner. Despite being in shape, I couldn’t run a quarter mile.

Determined, I signed up to run a local 5K (3.1 miles). You should have seen my sons’ faces when I told them! Between April and November 2005, I ran 17 5K races. In June 2006, I ran my first sprint triathlon event — 500-meter swim, 18-mile bike ride and 5K run. Crossing the finish line was such an incredible feeling that I did two more events that year.

In February 2007 I ran my first full marathon (26.2 miles) in Myrtle Beach, Florida, and when I crossed the finish line I cried because I didn’t believe I could do it. The next month — four years after my heart attack — I finished a half-Ironman® triathlon (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile ride, 13.1-mile run). And that was just the beginning. Since then I have competed in 22 half- or full-Ironmans plus innumerable 5Ks, 25Ks, half-marathons, full marathons, cycling time trials, hundred-mile rides, aquathons, sprint triathlons and Olympic distance triathlons.

Going from couch potato to Ironman required a lot of changes, but the hardest was changing my routine of smoking a few cigarettes with my morning coffee. I loved every one of those cigarettes! I think it’s in our DNA not to change, but I had to because I didn’t want to go through the pain of having my chest split open and sewn back together again. Pain is a great motivator.

Another big change was finding a new circle of friends who could support us in the changes we were making. I won the American Heart Association Lifestyle Change award, and that has drawn healthy people into our lives, as has running. No man is an island, and I have an amazing support network that helps me succeed.

I’m 62 years old, and I typically run four Ironmans a year, so I am in training for about 48 weeks a year. Sometimes it’s hard to swim laps in the morning — that water is cold — but I remember what one of my first trainers said when I was complaining about how much I hurt: "Does it hurt more than a heart attack?"

The answer to that is no, no training hurts that much.

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