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.

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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.