Issue: May 2006
May 01, 2006
4 min read

Ironman competitors push at fitness boundaries

Orthopedists endure physical poundings and mental bouts to pursue prestigious title.

Issue: May 2006
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In the pre-dawn hours of the morning, orthopedists Randall G. Norris, MD; Christopher Jones, MD; and Joseph L. Polio, MD, are running, biking or swimming.

Last year, Jones finished in Hawaii in less than 11 hours. He says that the race is also a mental competition.

Courtesy of Christopher Jones

As triathletes, these surgeons have competed in the Ironman triathlon, which are held in Hawaii. A prestigious and grueling hours-long event, the race tests both physical fitness and mental endurance. Contenders swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and race 26.2 miles across Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Participants must qualify for the contest through international Ironman events — there are 27 qualifying races worldwide.

Norris, an orthopedist from Indiana, raced in the 2004 and 2005 Ironman Hawaii triathlons and has qualified for the 2006 competition. “The first year I was seventh in my age category and last year I was eighth,” he told Orthopedics Today.

The former five-time Boston marathon runner, switched to triathlons to spare his joints. To prepare for an event, he swims 3.5 hours, bikes 250 miles and runs 50 miles a week. “In addition, I do weight-training and all of that other stuff, so it ends up being somewhere between 15 to 25 hours a week,” he said. He also receives online coaching from a former professional triathlete. “The training is sort of a lifestyle discipline for me, and it helps me with my work life, my mental life and my spiritual life,” Norris said.

His activity also serves as an example for his patients. “You can help people by your profession but you can also help them by the lifestyle you portray to the public,” Norris said.

The 52-year-old noted that he is now experiencing the best physical and mental condition of his life. “You can really challenge your body to improve during your middle age and you can be very competitive,” Norris said. “It’s cool to compete in these big races and beat a lot of people who are 20 years younger than you are.”

While many triathletes log endless miles alone, 38-year-old Christopher Jones, MD, works out with another Ironman — his wife. “My wife and I have date nights where we’ll go and get a babysitter and we’ll go ride our bikes,” he told Orthopedics Today. The Colorado-based orthopedist competed in Hawaii last year and finished in less than 11 hours. “It’s just about finishing and it’s about racing against yourself.” He said. “You’re not really racing up against anybody else.”

The on-going mental struggle that athletes experience during the race proves his greatest obstacle. “You go through periods of doubt and [wonder] whether you can finish and why in the heck are you subjecting yourself through this misery,” Jones said. “You kind of regroup and hammer forward.”

The drive that compels orthopedists to perform complex surgery parallels the motivation of triathletes. “Our nature, as orthopedists especially, is that we’re very competitive,” Jones said. “We’re not going to go out and do something and go half way at it.”

Like Norris, Jones uses his fitness routine to inspire patients to lead healthy lifestyles. “Most of them are pretty taken back that I could train, have a job, a family and everything else,” he said. “I just tell them, ‘Hey, you could do it if you want.’ You’ve got to figure out what’s important to you and stop watching television at night and go exercising.”

Randall G. Norris, MD, an orthopedist from Indiana, switched to triathlons to spare his joints.

Courtesy of Andrew Otto, The Herald, Jasper, Ind.

Christopher Jones, an orthopedist from Colorado, often trains with his wife, who is also an Ironman competitor.

Courtesy of Christopher Jones

Jones finished with a personal best at Ironman Florida in 2004 with a time of 9 hours and 57 minutes. His wife, who has qualified for and completed the Hawaii race, has a personal best just under 11 hours at Ironman Lake Placid.

With his goal of competing in Hawaii reached, Jones now plans to enter local races and half Ironman (a condensed version of the race) events. “I basically register for races and use that as my motivation to stick with it,” Jones said.

In addition to motivation, training for races requires personal and financial sacrifices. “If I’m going after it and am really going to do an Ironman and train really hard during a season, it costs me over six figures in income,” Joseph L. Polio, MD, told Orthopedics Today.

He has participated in eight Ironman distance events since 1998. “I’ve always finished under 12 hours, even in my worst ones,” the orthopedist from Kentucky said. In 1999, Polio finished Ironman Florida with a personal best of 10 hours and four minutes. He placed sixth in his age group and qualified for the 2000 Ironman in Hawaii.

The extreme challenge pushed Polio past his physical limits. “I got really sick and I finished in 11 hours, 55 minutes,” he said. “I was vomiting and [my] sodium [level] was 122. I just got really sick and dehydrated.”

The experience has not diminished his drive to compete. “Anymore, it’s easier to stay in shape than to get out of shape and then try to get back in shape again,” he said. In addition to regular workouts, his training includes long sessions — a 100-mile ride and 20-mile run and a 5000-yard swim. “My dieting is not near as anal as most triathletes. My answer to that is train more and eat what I want.”

Polio finished his last race, Ironman Canada, in 11 hours and two minutes. He hopes to do a half Ironman in June and wants to qualify again for Hawaii. “I really haven’t slowed down much,” he said. “I’m capable of going as fast as I did 10 years ago.”