An Ironman Triathlon, Really?

An Ironman Triathlon, Really?

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Back Pain!

An Ironman Triathlon, Really?

I have been suffering from spondylolisthesis (“spondy”) at L5 (which is basically a slippage of the vertebrae so they become out of alignment) since I was in high school, but I didn’t know it at the time. I was a gymnast for quite a few years until it got to the point where I was in constant back pain and couldn’t compete anymore. Those were the days before spring floors! So, I switched to become a cheerleader. In hindsight, this wasn’t the best idea because then I was doing gymnastics on hardwood floors instead of on the more cushy mats. But I was a teenager and wasn’t thinking about that or any long-term consequences of this decision.

For several years, every few months my back would “go out” on me. I didn’t know why. When my back went out, I could not lift my legs without pain that took my breath away. When I was in my early twenties it got so bad that I finally went to a doctor, who diagnosed the spondy. He said that if I did exercises to keep my middle section strong, it would help, but that this condition was chronic and could not be fixed unless I had surgery, which could cause its own problems.

To make it worse, when I was twenty-eight I was showing my four-year-old daughter a gymnastics move on the playground. When I landed the “trick,” my body couldn’t remember how to hold the move and I tore my Anterior Crutiate Ligament (ACL). Three months later I re-tore the reconstruction and had a second ACL reconstruction on the same knee. So then I not only had spondy in my lower back, but my strength was lopsided in my legs, which did not bode well for keeping my back in alignment.

In my twenties and thirties, I went to the gym and did some aerobics classes, but did not try to run. In my late thirties the spin craze started and I started to do that two times a week. I thought this might be good for my knee strength. It was in one of those spin classes that the instructor said to me, “Diane, you should join my triathlon training this summer and do a triathlon. I just know you will love it.” I thought she was crazy. I hadn’t been swimming since I worked at a day camp when I was a teenager. I didn’t even own a bicycle. And, I couldn’t run more than a mile.

Not to mention, with my back and knee issues, wouldn’t I get worse? I was pretty active at the gym and didn’t want to jeopardize what exercise I was able to do at the time. After several attempts on her part to recruit me, I finally acquiesced. It sounded like fun. I never really considered myself an athlete, so this would certainly be a challenge.

I embarked on the most amazing journey ever. I started training with her group two times a week and adhering to the training schedule she gave all of us to do when we were not together. I also added core training, which I knew I had to do. But at the time, I really knew nothing about what real core training was.

During this eight-week period, my back would hurt every week, but it didn’t completely slip out because I was being very cautious in building up my running distances. I ran as little as I thought would still prepare me for the race. Week after week I got stronger and the prospect of actually finishing a triathlon got more exciting.

Finishing that race was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done, but also one of the most rewarding. I got a taste of athleticism that I never knew I had. I not only completed that sprint distance triathlon but seven more like it over the next year. I caught the bug! But, after each race and training season, I was in a lot of back pain. I decided that if I was going to continue doing triathlons, which I knew I just had to do, I really needed to learn more about how to protect my back.

I read absolutely everything I could on all aspects of training and injury prevention. Along with all the swim/bike/run training, I do lots and lots of core exercises to help protect my back. Within the group that I coach, they have dubbed me the “Core Queen!” Of course, I couldn’t do it all by myself. My coaches, physical therapists, massage therapists, orthopedic doctors, chiropractors and acupuncturist all play key parts in keeping me going. They are now collectively and affectionately known as “Team Diane.”

I love everything about the process of triathlons — the learning, the training, the racing, and encouraging others to do it. So I decided to become a triathlon coach myself. I started by becoming a workout leader and helping the coach who recruited me. After two years of increasing my knowledge on my own and assisting other coaches, I flew to New Orleans and spent four days in a clinic with USA Triathlon to become a triathlon coach. One of the people I coach has a degenerative back injury. Working with her has been so rewarding.

I never thought that I could progress past the sprint distance triathlons, which are usually a half-mile swim, 12-13 miles on the bike, and a six-mile run. However, as I learned more about strength and core training, I was able to go farther. I actually completed several half marathons and the full Boston Marathon, and also a full iron distance triathlon, several Olympic and half iron distance races as well. Imagine, someone with my physical issues swimming 2.4 miles, riding 112 miles and then running a full marathon, all in the same day!

I still have back pain if I do too much or don’t keep up with a core exercise program, but in my mid-forties and nine years after starting triathlons, I’m able to compete in any distance triathlon I want to. I do know that as I get into my fifties and sixties I’ll probably need to hang up the longer distance run and triathlon races. But for now, I’ll keep doing my core exercises and working with Team Diane to keep my body balanced and my back healthy.

~ Diane Stokes ~

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