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 (514 Responses)
  1. reupholstery services near me


    May 7, 2021 at 23:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Internet Marketing Quotes

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you penning this article and the rest of the website is also very good.


    May 8, 2021 at 02:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Social Media Marketing Pro

    I’m impressed, I must say. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s both educative and amusing, and without a doubt, you've hit the nail on the head. The issue is something that not enough people are speaking intelligently about. Now i'm very happy I found this in my hunt for something concerning this.


    May 8, 2021 at 07:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Internet Marketing Store

    I like reading a post that will make men and women think. Also, thanks for allowing for me to comment!


    May 8, 2021 at 07:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Video Marketing Companies California

    I couldn’t resist commenting. Well written!


    May 8, 2021 at 13:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. motorhome remodeling companies


    May 8, 2021 at 14:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Seo Marketing Videos

    Hi, I do think this is an excellent site. I stumbledupon it 😉 I will return yet again since i have saved as a favorite it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to help others.


    May 8, 2021 at 14:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. RV Collision Repair California

    You've made some decent points there. I checked on the web to learn more about the issue and found most individuals will go along with your views on this web site.


    May 8, 2021 at 19:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Social Media Marketing Pro

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you writing this post and the rest of the website is very good.


    May 8, 2021 at 23:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Social Media Marketing Reviews

    I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Perfectly written!


    May 9, 2021 at 01:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Seo Marketing Help

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you writing this write-up and also the rest of the website is extremely good.


    May 9, 2021 at 01:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Video Marketing Consultant


    May 9, 2021 at 02:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Internet Marketing Near Me


    May 9, 2021 at 05:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. RV Fabrication Riverside

    This is a very good tip especially to those new to the blogosphere. Simple but very accurate info… Thanks for sharing this one. A must read article!


    May 9, 2021 at 08:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Content Marketing Events


    May 9, 2021 at 12:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Social Media Marketing Santa Ana

    After looking at a number of the blog articles on your site, I really appreciate your way of writing a blog. I bookmarked it to my bookmark site list and will be checking back soon. Please visit my web site as well and tell me how you feel.


    May 9, 2021 at 13:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. RV Shower Near Me

    After I originally commented I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on whenever a comment is added I get 4 emails with the exact same comment. There has to be a way you are able to remove me from that service? Kudos!


    May 9, 2021 at 17:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. RV Steps Los Angeles


    May 9, 2021 at 18:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. RV Furniture Los Angeles


    May 9, 2021 at 20:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Internet Marketing Agency Near Me


    May 10, 2021 at 13:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Digital Marketing Associations


    May 10, 2021 at 18:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Digital Marketing Program

    May I simply just say what a relief to discover somebody that really knows what they're discussing on the internet. You definitely realize how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More and more people need to check this out and understand this side of your story. I was surprised you aren't more popular since you surely have the gift.


    May 10, 2021 at 20:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Seo Marketing Videos

    This is a very good tip especially to those fresh to the blogosphere. Brief but very precise info… Thank you for sharing this one. A must read article!


    May 10, 2021 at 22:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Social Media Marketing Specialists

    Your style is really unique compared to other people I have read stuff from. Many thanks for posting when you've got the opportunity, Guess I will just bookmark this web site.


    May 10, 2021 at 22:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Digital Marketing Ideas

    I was very pleased to discover this web site. I want to to thank you for ones time for this particularly fantastic read!! I definitely appreciated every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to look at new information in your website.


    May 10, 2021 at 23:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Content Marketing Quotes

    This site truly has all the information I wanted about this subject and didn’t know who to ask.


    May 11, 2021 at 00:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Digital Marketing Job

    Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you penning this article and the rest of the website is also really good.


    May 11, 2021 at 03:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Google Marketing Job


    May 11, 2021 at 04:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Digital Marketing Quote


    May 11, 2021 at 04:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Digital Marketing Ideas

    There's certainly a great deal to know about this issue. I like all the points you've made.


    May 11, 2021 at 06:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Video Marketing Services

    This website was... how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I've found something which helped me. Kudos!


    May 11, 2021 at 09:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Digital Marketing Businesses

    Hello! I could have sworn I’ve visited this website before but after looking at a few of the articles I realized it’s new to me. Anyhow, I’m definitely pleased I discovered it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back often!


    May 11, 2021 at 10:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Digital Marketing Companies Near Me


    May 11, 2021 at 10:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Social Media Marketing Jobs Near Me


    May 11, 2021 at 12:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Video Marketing Quotes


    May 11, 2021 at 13:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Digital Marketing Events

    I really like it when individuals get together and share thoughts. Great website, stick with it!


    May 11, 2021 at 13:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Google Marketing Jobs

    Pretty! This was a really wonderful post. Thank you for supplying this information.


    May 11, 2021 at 14:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Internet Marketing Services California


    May 11, 2021 at 14:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Social Media Marketing Services


    May 11, 2021 at 16:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Social Media Marketing Quotes

    There's definately a lot to find out about this topic. I love all the points you have made.


    May 11, 2021 at 18:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. toy hauler upgrades

    Good day! I simply want to offer you a big thumbs up for your excellent info you have got right here on this post. I am returning to your blog for more soon.


    May 11, 2021 at 19:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Rust Repair Sprinter

    I like it when people come together and share thoughts. Great site, continue the good work!


    May 11, 2021 at 19:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. rv window leak repair

    Right here is the right site for everyone who really wants to find out about this topic. You understand so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I actually will need to…HaHa). You definitely put a brand new spin on a subject that's been discussed for decades. Great stuff, just wonderful!


    May 12, 2021 at 00:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. dashboard restoration near me

    The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesn't disappoint me just as much as this one. After all, Yes, it was my choice to read through, but I truly believed you'd have something useful to say. All I hear is a bunch of complaining about something you could fix if you weren't too busy seeking attention.


    May 12, 2021 at 01:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. RV Tires Los Angeles

    After I initially commented I seem to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now whenever a comment is added I recieve 4 emails with the exact same comment. Is there a means you are able to remove me from that service? Kudos!


    May 12, 2021 at 02:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. rv floor repair cost

    Good web site you have here.. It’s hard to find quality writing like yours these days. I really appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!


    May 12, 2021 at 03:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Parthenia Reddout


    May 12, 2021 at 03:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. upholstery places near me


    May 12, 2021 at 05:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. car paint shop orange county

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you penning this write-up and also the rest of the website is very good.


    May 12, 2021 at 06:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. RV Paint Shop Near Me


    May 12, 2021 at 08:24 | Report abuse | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

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.