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Triathlons saved my life
February 7th, 2011
11:57 AM ET

Triathlons saved my life

This week we’re kicking off the 2011 Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge. Six CNN viewers, dubbed the “6-Pack,” have been chosen to race the Nautica New York City Triathlon with Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. You'll meet them in the coming days on The Chart, CNN's health and medical news blog.  The sport of triathlon has grown more than 50 percent in the last two years, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. Today, Dr. Joseph C. Maroon, 70, a neurosurgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a veteran of more than 70 triathlons, including seven Ironmans, shares his story of how the sport saved his life.


Twenty-five years ago my father died suddenly of a heart attack, my marriage came apart and I quit neurosurgery - all within the same week. The week before I was doing complicated brain surgery at the University of Pittsburgh and the week after I found myself filling up 18-wheelers in my father’s near-bankrupt truck stop trying to help my mother. I was overcome by stress, depression and a totally unbalanced life.

After three months of barely existing, a well-meaning friend called and said, “Joe, how about going for a run - it may help you?” Having done nothing physical for several years because of total commitment to my profession and 25 pounds overweight, I apprehensively joined him at the local high school track. Talking as we walked and jogged I was totally exhausted but completed a full mile. For me, at the time, it was equivalent to Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute barrier. But that night was the first night I slept in months!

I found myself back at the track the next day and then the next and then the next. One mile became two then three. My depression began to lift, my spirits improved and my first 10k race ever was completed in 55 minutes - slow, but another personal record!

Because of joint pain from Forest Gump-like over running, I began cross training with swimming, which I had never tried before, and biking. In 1986 I entered my first “tin man” triathlon - a .9 mile swim, 25 mile bike and 6.2 mile run.

It pushed me to the equivalent limits of my first run around that high school track. The incredible feeling of well-being, the return of mental clarity and confidence and the new found fitness and tone of my body had me hooked on triathlons. Like Sidney Carton in "A Tale of Two Cities," I was being “recalled to life”!

My improved physical conditioning quelled the anxiety and alleviated my depression. I found myself choosing better foods and supplements and secondarily without even trying, losing weight. I also rediscovered the faith and spirituality that served me so well through the travails of medical school and residency. One year later, with my life back in balance, I returned to neurosurgery and indeed the most fulfilling part of my professional career.

I recognized, however, that my mental state, inner balance and even my surgical ability and delicateness of touch was directly related to the consistency and quality of my physical well being. With improved conditioning, each year I “raised the bar” going farther, faster and higher. In 1993 I qualified for my first Ironman distance triathlon (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run) in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. It is the world championship of triathlons and has been compared to the World Series, Tour de France and Super Bowl –- all in the same day!

It was an exhaustive but a truly transcendent experience. Scott Tinley, three-time Hawaiian Ironman champion, characterized it differently. He called it “the cruelest, baddest, toughest one day show in all of endurance sports."

The psychologist and philosopher, Csikszentmihalyi, in his book "Flow: The Ultimate Psychology of Optimal Experience," expressed it best: “The greatest moment of our lives,” he wrote, “is when our mind or our body is stretched to its limits in the voluntary pursuit of something both difficult and worthwhile.”

Since that serendipitous call from my friend 25 years ago, I have since competed in over 70 triathlons and seven Ironman races around the world - the last in Hawaii, October 2010. I have discovered it is through adversity (stress) that we grow or die. Nietzsche, the philosopher, concurs.

“What does not destroy me,” he wrote, “makes me stronger.”

Incremental controlled physical stress (exercise) strengthens our psyche as well as our body. It enhances memory, concentration and increases physical and emotional healing - the body-mind connection. It is a much more effective anti-depressant than Prozac and other pharmacological drugs.

Exercise accomplishes this by, among other pathways, increasing a specific brain growth factor called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) production, which promotes the formation of new brain cells (neurons), increases the connections (synapses) between brain cells and increases telomerase activity, which actually prolongs life. In my case not only was physical fitness and triathlons career and life saving, but it provided a joie de vivre that I continue to experience daily with my workouts, prayer and meditation.


soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. MissAmErika

    A year and a half ago, my sister talked me into running. I've never been athletic and I thought it would last maybe a month before I would throw in the towel. Flash forward to now, I've completed a 5K and will, with any luck, complete my first 14K this Saturday. I've lost 20lbs and feel better than ever!!! Health issues derailed my first half marathon last year, but I consider it to be a small detour, not the end of the line.

    February 7, 2011 at 13:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Spence

    Truly regular running can be a lifesaver, as this man's story attests. I found that dealing with divorce to be one of life's hardest trials, but there IS life, and although I have done running my whole life, I find it to be not just a pleasure to be enjoyed unto itself, but a very good way to cope with all that life throws at you. You don't need to run marathons or do triathalons to benefit from exercise. Any amount is good, and it's vital that you enjoy doing it, not because you feel you HAVE to.

    February 7, 2011 at 13:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. logrog

    My running Mantra: "Running doesn't add days to my life, it adds life to my days" I think Dr. maroon has found the essence of running....

    February 7, 2011 at 14:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Cougar Fan in the Stand

    I started running 18 months ago and haven't looked back since. I've finished a handful of 5ks, a 10k and a half marathon. I have never been first (or even in the top half of the pack), brought up the rear in the 10K, and was initially disappointed with my 3:01:35 HM, but discovered it's about finishing, not winning. Some of my best times have been spent running. And even better, I use that time to pray for everyone dear to me. Running (even though I'm slow) is peace.

    February 7, 2011 at 14:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Doc

      Dear Cougar! Keep on running...eventuallly, you will be the only one in your age group and you will WIN! This is my goal with my sprint triathlons! 53 y.o. female and still "TRI-ing!" Good for you!

      February 7, 2011 at 17:06 | Report abuse |
  5. Rob

    Dr. Maroon's incredible story gives hope to those of us facing similar battles. As an aging academic physician who also aspires to be an Ironman, I am most thankful for his advice to me on my knee struggles as well as his writings and Longevity Factor supplements. He has helped me find a path to improved fitness and wellness. I even saw him on the sidelines last night at the Super Bowl! We can age gracefully – if we stay active! Thank you Dr. Maroon!

    February 7, 2011 at 15:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Vera

    Please exercise a for at least 2.5 hours a week! This will save your life! The World Health Organization issued a press release regarding the necessity of exercise: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/multimedia/podcasts/2011/cancer_20110207/en/

    February 7, 2011 at 15:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Manny

    Super Agree, exercise is the best antidote against stress, depression and it will totally changed a persons life

    February 7, 2011 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Manny

    I have encouraged a best friend , i will encourage more friends to change a lifestyle (Exercise for Life )

    February 7, 2011 at 15:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. tutuncommon

    I have been running as part of my daily activity since 1995. The wife says i am obsessive – compulsive because i make it a priority. Now... that's what i call support!

    February 7, 2011 at 15:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Phil

      Now you have a new goal: Find someone that WILL support you. That will do you more good than all the exercise in the world.

      February 7, 2011 at 22:25 | Report abuse |
  10. Anne

    A triathlete in his 70s! Totally inspiring. That's what I'm going to be.

    February 7, 2011 at 16:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Doc

    Start with a "sprint" triathlon. Distances for these are approx. 400meter swim, 15 mile bike and 5K run. I am 53 y.o. female who also developed a 35 lb job related "spread". The triathlons helped me loose it and continue to help me keep it off. The sprint distances are great because one can participate in these distances, train daily for them and still have a life without being consumed by the time it takes to train for full ironman or half-iron distances. My goal is to complete them and to improve my overall time each time. I figure if I keep participating...eventually, I'll be the only one in my age category and I will WIN! HA!

    February 7, 2011 at 17:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Althea

      :Just about all I can express is, I don't know what to raelly say! Except of course, for the fantastic tips which have been shared using this blog. I'll think of a million fun methods to read the articles on this site. I'm sure I will ultimately take a step with your tips on those things I could never have been able to take care of alone. You are so clever to allow me to be one of those to profit from your valuable information. Please know how a great deal I enjoy the whole thing.

      April 8, 2012 at 05:43 | Report abuse |
  12. BJC

    This is what its all about – what a great article.

    February 7, 2011 at 17:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. nicole

    I feel very motivated and inspired by each and every comment shared. March 20th I'll competein my first 5k race.
    Thanks to all for the inspiration!!

    February 7, 2011 at 17:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. wilson

    What a great article. I am a 50 year old man who took up triathlons with my wife a year ago. We got hooked. Now we are training for an Ironman. We both say we will only do one Ironman but I know we will continue triathlons for as long as our bodies will allow.

    February 7, 2011 at 17:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. tangozuluimports

    I'm a lifelong insomniac but it goes away when I am running regularly. I would run for that reason alone, but as mentioned by others here, there are numerous other physical and mental benefits. I don't know how many times people have said things to me like "all that running is going to ruin your joints." (Usually by someone who is straining their joints by being overweight.) Or they assume I run only to maintain my weight, when that is at the bottom of my list of reasons to run. Nice to read all the comments here from people who get it.

    February 7, 2011 at 18:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Abah

    agree with you all, keep running!!

    February 7, 2011 at 20:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Alexandru

      :*There are certainly a lot of daietls like that to take into consideration. That is a great point to bring up. I offer the thoughts above as general inspiration but clearly there are questions like the one you bring up where the most important thing will be working in honest good faith. I don?t know if best practices have emerged around things like that, but I am sure that your job is clearly identified as a fair game. Both boys and girls feel the impact of just a moment's pleasure, for the rest of their lives.

      April 8, 2012 at 03:02 | Report abuse |
  17. runphas7

    So true, great article. The benefits of running are amazing. More people should run. Dr. Maroon looks really fit and healthy. The running community is full of good people from all walks of life.

    February 7, 2011 at 21:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. veryslow

    Great article!I have done several marathons and half marathons over the past 10 years but am just venturing into the world of triathlons. I like the variety to my workout but have yet to find a training schedule for a very slow and out of shape beginnner. Any recommendations?

    February 7, 2011 at 21:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. charles s

    Exercise is one of the elixirs of life. I cannot run since my knees start to hurt; instead I love to ride my bike for mile after mile. The rhythm of cycling makes my knees feel better. A few days ago, I fell backwards and caught myself with my hands. My left knee too the brunt of the fall and I could feel it. I expected it to be swelling in the next few hours. I slathered on Vitamin E oil all over the left knee and my hands. I went for a bike ride at the lowest speed for about two hours. The rhythm helped the blood circulate through the knee. The next day I had a little stiffness but no swelling.

    I found rhythm in exercising; whether it a trip to the gym or shoveling snow. I like the rhythm of shoveling. The major thing is to only lift a small amount of snow and to stop when you are tired or cold or the heart is beating hard. I try to go to the gym every day. If you do not make exercise a priority, it will not get done. Whether it is running or biking or lifting weights at the gym, you have to make exercise the most important thing in your life.

    Dr. Maroon has found the essence of life. Too bad more people do not find it.

    February 8, 2011 at 07:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Dr Bill Toth

    Thank you for sharing this story. America needs to see more stories like this. Life is motion, motion is life. Keep moving or someone will put dirt over you. Live with Intention, DrBillToth.com/blog

    February 8, 2011 at 07:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hayden

      :There are definitely a lot of ltiaeds like that to take into consideration. Thatb4s a amazing point to bring up. I will offer you the thoughts above as general inspiration but clearly there are actually questions just like the one you bring up exactly where the most critical point definitely will be working in honest very good faith. I donb4t know if most excellent practices have emerged around things like that, but I am certain that your job is clearly identified as a fair game.

      April 8, 2012 at 07:13 | Report abuse |
  21. Dr Phil Nivatpumin

    Thank you for a truly inspiring story. I always tell my patients that, just like a person can "spiral down" in life, he or she can also "spiral up". Stop smoking or drinking, read different books, lose a little weight, get rid of some toxic relationships, meditate, exercise, etc. It's never too late. I think we all need stories like yours to help us understand that we are in control of many of the factors of life that guide our happiness. And that equanimity and contentment are things that must be worked on and worked towards, not just attributes that wondrously appear from nowhere. Thank you again.

    February 8, 2011 at 08:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. taimichal

    Usually the comments that follow a story are fraught with negativity, abrasiveness, or hopelessness. All of the responses to Dr. Maroon's life changing acceptance of exercise being primary in his life have been supportive and life enhancing. Movement is the elixir to a long and fruitful life. Thank you for the inspiration

    February 8, 2011 at 08:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. second-chances

    Love this story!! Triathlon is possible for me because of brain surgery!

    February 8, 2011 at 09:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • second-chances

      sorry, link should be http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEk6-onJgeE

      February 8, 2011 at 09:30 | Report abuse |
  24. Corbin Kappler

    My experience couldn't be more similar. After struggling with some adversity in life, I found triathlon. The discipline which is required for training has pervaded throughout the other aspects of my life and provided me the strength to endure. The confidence gained from success has led me to achieve unthought of goals. It's a great sport and which demands an incredible lifestyle.

    February 8, 2011 at 10:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Greg

    If you're looking to get involved in triathlons, check out training programs on Holosfitness.com. Holosfitness.com is a free online fitness tool. The site offers step-by-step instruction on hundreds of exercises, including swimming, running, and biking activities. The site also offers a way to meeting other triathletes and share tips.

    February 8, 2011 at 11:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Lorraine

    Joe,
    You have been and still are my inspiration to keep in shape! My sincere thanks.

    February 11, 2011 at 13:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. kiara ashanti

    I'm still trying to get over the traumatic break up from my finance of 7 yrs and have not been able to get motivated to exercise on a consistent basis. This story gives me a little hope that things can get better.

    June 29, 2011 at 01:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Manoj

    I haven't read a lot of her work, just some of the stories collceted in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, but is kind of a classic. (Scifi.com has several of her stories in its archive, and Wikipedia lists a few more at the end of its Tiptree .)

    September 13, 2012 at 23:12 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.