Ironman triathlon puts surgeon to the test
Dr. Joseph Maroon, 68, is a surgeon at the Univerity of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He competed in the Oct. 11 Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii.
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At age 68, Dr. Joseph Maroon, vice chairman of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, has completed a test of strength, endurance and will that most athletes in their 20s would fail.
Dr. Maroon, who is also the team neurosurgeon for the Steelers, was in Kona, Hawaii, to compete in the Oct. 11 Ironman triathlon. After swimming 2.4 miles in the ocean, he cycled for 112 miles, and then ran a marathon (26.2 miles). He did all this in 15 hours and 56 minutes, which placed him 19th (out of 30) in his age group (65-70). It was the sixth time he has run this race.
The swim was the hardest part for Dr. Maroon, which isn't surprising, since he didn't learn to swim until he was in his mid-40s.
"Once [the race] starts, it's a real melee," Dr. Maroon recalled. "People swim over you. I've been kicked, scratched, had my goggles knocked off.
"I ran through a school of jellyfish a mile out," he said. "I've got jellyfish bites all over my legs.
"And the waves -- it was pretty wavy that day," he said. "You can actually get seasick swimming out that far."
The cycling was easier, but the course was "a lava field with a ribbon of asphalt running through it," and the temperature was more than 90 degrees.
The marathon was conducted mostly at night, which provided relief from the heat, but had challenges of its own.
"They pick the night of a full moon to hold the Ironman, because it is totally dark outside of the city," Dr. Maroon said.
Dr. Maroon had attended the University of Indiana on a football scholarship, but his physical activity tapered off in medical school and during the early years of his medical practice in Pittsburgh.
"I played a little squash, a little racquetball, but nothing too intense," he said.
It took a double tragedy to turn Dr. Maroon into the amazing athlete he is today.
Dr. Maroon was going through a divorce at age 40 when his father, who owned a truck stop in Bridgeport, Ohio, across the river from Wheeling, died of a heart attack. Dr. Maroon suspended his medical career to help his mother run the truck stop.
"These factors combined to make me deeply depressed," he said.
At the height of his depression, a friend, a local banker, asked Dr. Maroon to go running with him.
"I think because I owed him so much money, he wanted to make me healthy," Dr. Maroon joked.
The pair jogged a mile on a track. Dr. Maroon was gassed at the end of it. "But that night was the first night I slept well in a year," he said.
Bitten by the running bug, Dr. Maroon ran more and more each day, becoming, he joked, "the Forrest Gump of Bridgeport, Ohio." His spirits lifted as his health improved.
"Exercise is the key to mental as well as physical health," he said.
A running injury led Dr. Maroon to other sports.
"I was getting ankle and knee pain, so I started to swim," he said. "I'd never done that before." He also took up cycling.
As his exercise levels increased and he began entering competitions, Dr. Maroon developed a strong interest in diet and nutritional supplements, and has become an authority on them. He has written with Jeffrey Bost a book on the benefits of fish oil, "nature's safest, most effective anti-inflammatory," and the pair are collaborating on a book on how the resveratrol in red wine can lead to longer life.
"For one hour or less of aerobic activity, you don't need anything special [in terms of nutrition]," Dr. Maroon said. "But if you're going to exercise for more than an hour, you need the right balance of carbs and minerals."
Dr. Maroon has three fundamental dietary rules:
1. Approximately 80 percent of each meal should be plant-based, and no more than 20 percent should be animal-based.
2. Try to consume 40-45 grams of fiber each day.
3. Avoid white flour, rice, pasta and cream sauces.
A typical breakfast for Dr. Maroon is a high fiber cereal with fruit -- typically blueberries and/or bananas -- washed down with a glass of pomegranate juice. Sometimes he supplements this with a poached egg on whole wheat toast.
Lunch is often a big salad, with half a turkey sandwich and an apple.
His favorite dinner is salmon with broccoli or brussels sprouts and a big salad, topped off with soy ice cream. He also often has a glass of pinot noir.
Dr. Maroon stays away from most dairy products.
"Hormonally, you don't know what has been done to pump up milk production," he said.
The primary supplements Dr. Maroon takes are fish oil and the Mega Men multivitamin.
"These antioxidants help protect against cell damage resulting from the stress placed on the body during exercise, and the Omega-3 fatty acids [in fish oil] have natural anti-inflammatory properties to help adjust everyday joint stress," he said.
You'll want to make dietary changes once you adhere to an exercise regimen, Dr. Maroon said. When he is not training for the Ironman or other races, Dr. Maroon works out for an average of six hours a week.
It matters less at what level you start your exercise program than that you work steadily to increase it, Dr. Maroon said.
"You've heard that stress is a killer, but that's not right," he said. "Controlled, incremental stress is good for the body and the mind."
Training for the Ironman has improved the clarity of his thinking and his surgical skills as well as his physical health, Dr. Maroon said.
"There's no question that I'm more efficient mentally and physically when I'm training for this. The benefits so far outweigh the effort it takes to do it."
First Published October 22, 2008 12:00 am