I run around with a lot of crazy people. The kind of people who like to swim, bike or run pretty much every day of the year and who sometimes do all three on the same day for about 15 hours straight to get a medal and a t-shirt. The kind of people who like to run practically non stop for a hundred miles over really big mountains to break the 30 hour deadline so that they can get a belt buckle and a sweatshirt.
Now as awesome as those tangible rewards sound (who doesn't want a huge, gold, gaudy belt buckle that almost disembowels you every time you sit down?) there must be something else going on that makes these crazies do what they do. I've been around these people for a long time, so I have a pretty good handle on the 'why', and it's not that complicated. We (okay I'll admit I'm one of them) do it to get in shape or to stay in shape, whatever that means to each of us. We do it to get some alone time (it's hard to chat while you're swimming across a lake) or to feel like we belong to a group (when you shave your entire body and wear a one-piece Lycra catsuit out in public it's reassuring to know that you're not the only one who does this). We do it because we like a challenge. We do it because somebody said we couldn't. But my absolute favorite reason - and one that we all share - is that we do it because we can.
So now that we settled that, the bigger question is why do we keep on doing it? To train for and race in these events invariably means that at some point or another you'll deal with some or all of the following: severe blisters and chafing of very sensitive body parts; muscle aches, strains and sprains; joint pain; tendinitis, tendinosis, and bursitis; stress fractures; falling-off-bicycles fractures; vomiting, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal embarrassments; almost drowning, almost wiping out at 40 miles per hour on a bike, tripping over logs, rocks and your own big stupid feet on trail runs, and other near-death experiences. The decision to stop doing this should be a pretty easy one to make, or, as my 11-year-old son likes to put it, "dad, by your age you'd think you'd know better."
Now the smart-arses among you will simply say that we keep on doing it because we can keep on doing it. What I would say to you is 1. stop using my own logic against me and 2. yes, that's part of it but it also comes down to what (or who) motivates and inspires us to keep doing it. I'd like to focus on that concept of inspiration and the "who".
Meet Sean Lindsay. Sean stinks at swimming. Those are his words, not mine; my words I believe were more colorful and scathing. He would also admit - without too much pressing - that his biking is pretty average and 'running' is not always the best way to describe what he does while moving himself on foot from point A to point B. But, as you can see from the photograph above, he very recently finished an Ironman Triathlon.
Sean has had three surgeries in recent years for an arthritic shoulder, one operation earlier this summer for a torn meniscus in his knee, a stress fracture in his lower leg just before that, severe hip problems, and a chronic sinus infection that makes it hard to breathe. But in the face of all of that he got the training done and he finished an Ironman Triathlon.
Early in 2015 Sean was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. On October 9th, 2016 he finished an Ironman Triathlon.
Parkinson's Disease (PD) is a chronic and progressive movement disorder. Considering that triathlon tends to involve an awful lot of movement, it's perhaps not the best choice of pastime for someone with PD. The cause of PD is unknown and there's no cure. Sean's symptoms are fairly typical, although every PD patient is a little different and some days are better than others. Most people would recognize the 'classic' tremors: just don't sit next to him when he's attempting to drink his morning coffee (suggesting that he try decaf will not help, trust me). Other symptoms include bradykinesia (slowness of movement) and rigidity or stiffness of the limbs. Add to that postural instability, otherwise known as 'falling over a lot', and the idea of engaging in prolonged and intense and sometimes dangerous (see near-death experiences, above) physical exercise every day must be extremely daunting and incredibly frustrating for anyone with PD.
I first spoke with Sean Lindsay in May of 2015. His wife had seen one of my posts on Facebook and suggested that he call me. He wanted a coach to get him ready to start (and presumably finish) an Ironman triathlon. I got excited - it's what I do! He told me he had PD, and that caught me a little off guard. I quickly scanned my internal hard-drive to determine if this was something I knew anything about - it wasn't, and I admitted as much. He didn't hang up, and I'll forever be glad he didn't. We spoke for a while. I probably asked some pretty dumb questions but Sean was patient with me, and honest, and candid. And so began our journey.
Those of you who have ever been crazy enough to train for an Ironman already know what the training entails. For those who don't, imagine getting in to a routine of waking up two hours earlier than you already do during the week, and using that time to swim in a pool or cold lake, ride on a stationary bike staring at a blank wall or worse: reruns of the Gilmore Girls, or choosing between running on a 'dreadmill' or outside in the snow. Now repeat that weekly sleep depriving routine for months on end. And that's just Monday to Friday. The weekends are reserved for all the really fun stuff, like riding an horrendously uncomfortable bike further than you'd ever consider driving on a Saturday, or running for three hours on a Sunday when any normal person would use that time wisely with a visit to IHOP followed by a nap on the couch. Now imagine doing all of that with a movement disorder that makes it hard to control what your arms and legs are doing at any given moment.
It became very apparent very quickly that Sean would attempt to do whatever I asked him to do. That's how coaching is supposed to work but more often than not it doesn't. It also became apparent that things were never going to be quite as smooth as we'd like them to be. That also happens a lot in Ironman training: people get sick and injured and tired (and tired of their coach) and they get broken. In a perfect world we all get plenty of sleep and we eat well: PD patients take so many drugs with so many side effects that they typically have trouble sleeping and spend a fair amount of time either throwing up or feeling like they want to throw up. That makes training exponentially more difficult and adequate recovery almost impossible.
So we bounced from setback to setback and found solutions to problems that led to other problems. We found solutions for those too. There were a few good days, the occasional good week, but never quite a good month. Not once did Sean talk of giving up. We celebrated a few successes and tried not to dwell too long on the spectacular failures. In the last three months before Louisville Sean resolved in writing to "do what I can every one of the next 90 days to perform the workouts you put on my calendar. And if circumstances arise to prevent me from performing the specific workout, I'll do as much of it as I can". He asked me to hold him to that commitment, so I tried to ensure that the workouts wouldn't 'break' his bad shoulder or his bad knee but would still be taxing enough to improve his fitness and readiness to complete an Ironman. I'm not sure how confident either of us were but before we really had time to have that discussion we found ourselves standing together on the banks of the Ohio River in northern Kentucky on a beautiful October morning.
But this story is not really about Sean. It's about everybody else in his life and how they are affected by who he is and what he does. His family, his friends, his colleagues and clients at work, his triathlon buddies and training partners, his social network; we are all connected to him in different ways but we share some or all of the same reactions. Surprise, shock, disbelief: "you're doing what?" Then respect and admiration: "that's amazing! I could never do that!" And, I am absolutely sure, inspiration. Speaking personally I am inspired to up my game in so many ways but certainly as a coach and confidant and, I hope, as a friend. I am also inspired to spend less time thinking about myself and my problems and more time trying to understand what the people around me are going through. I am inspired to train harder and complain less. I have heard similar sentiments from the people around me who are also friends with Sean.
Race day was crazy and nerve-racking and emotional and exhausting. My three athletes (Sean, Corey and Chris) had it easy that day compared to what I was going through! I hugged all three at the finish line, excited and proud of their accomplishments. If Sean's hug was a little longer than the other two it was partly because we were both exhausted and needed that physical support, but mostly because we were celebrating the fact that we'd done something really quite incredible, together.
The journey is not over. We met for our customary breakfast meeting a week or so after the race and started planning for next season and the season after that. While Sean can still swim, bike and run I'll keep asking him to swim, bike and run and we'll figure out all the little stuff (and some of the big stuff) as we go along. I went home from that meeting, marveled at Sean's strength and determination and his attitude to life in general, strapped up my injured ankle, and went for a run.
About the author: Alan Greening is Chief Fitness Officer of Benefitness Partners, a Denver-based company committed to the health and wellness of companies and their employees. With a focus on event-based coaching, Benefitness Partners gets employees moving in a fun, educational, and inclusive manner, helping companies develop a healthier, happier, more engaged workforce.