Training for Ironman triathlons at age 70

Published Nov. 18, 2010 12:00 a.m. ET

A little over half way through the running portion of the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, triathlete Joseph Maroon was struggling.

"I'm in the lava fields and I started walking. I was ready to quit," he says of the Oct. 9 race. Then he heard a "click, click, click" sound behind him and a competitor laid a hand on his shoulder, telling him not to give up.

"When the guy passed, I realized he had two prosthetic legs. I mean, how can you not be inspired to keep going?" says Dr. Maroon, a neurosurgeon.

Inspiring, sure. But Dr. Maroon set an example of his own. He finished the 26.2-mile run, and the 112-mile bike ride and the 2.4 mile ocean swim—at the age of 70.

Dr. Maroon, the team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers football team and a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh, has raced in more than 65 triathlons. These include seven Ironman-distance events in Hawaii, New Zealand, Canada and Europe. He says of his age and competitive instincts: "It's never too late to start."

Dr. Maroon completed the Kona Ironman in 15 hours, 40 minutes and 31 seconds—in the top half of his age group. He wasn't always in triathlon-ready shape. He played football at Indiana University but then stopped exercising while in medical school and during his early years as a surgeon.

When his father died in 1980, Dr. Maroon fell into a depression and needed to take a year off work. "I was 40 and out of shape," he says. "A friend called to see if I wanted to go for a run and I agreed. We ran one lap around the high-school track. It took me 20 minutes, but afterwards it was the first night I had slept in four months." Dr. Maroon returned to the track the next night and ran one mile, then one and a quarter miles the following night, then one and a half miles the next. "I was like Forrest Gump," he says, comparing himself to the Tom Hanks character in the 1994 movie of the same name. "I just kept running, gradually going farther, and slowly the depression lifted."


The next year he returned to practicing surgery. "Running really kept me in the surgical game," he says. "Neurosurgery is like an endurance sport. I'm much more focused and efficient now."

In addition to work at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and School of Medicine, Dr. Maroon sees players from the Steelers year round. He has been working with the team for more than 20 years and attends every game during the season. "I evaluate players with concussions, neck or back injuries and operate when necessary for disc herniations or brain or spine problems," he explains.

Time spent with the team and trainers has helped him learn the importance of cross-training, he says. When he developed knee trouble from running, he began incorporating biking and swimming into the mix.

Dr. Maroon got into competitive running by starting with a 10K in 1982. Three years later, he started signing up for sprint triathlons, and eventually a full Ironman-distance triathlon in 1993. He tries to compete in an Ironman every two to three years.

"After a race you always say 'I'm never going to do this again,' " he says. "But when you cross that line and hear the announcer say, 'Joe Maroon, you are an Ironman!'—there's no greater feeling in the world."

The Workout

Dr. Maroon spends six to seven months preparing for an Ironman. At the peak of his training, he swims four to six miles, bikes 200 to 225 miles and runs 15 to 35 miles each week.

The only way for Dr. Maroon to fit in his training during the work week is to do double sessions, morning and night, and sometimes squeeze in a lunchtime workout. He swims for one hour, three mornings a week at the YMCA near his home in the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley, Pa. In the evenings, he will either bike or run for one hour. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays during peak training times, he tries to get in a longer bike ride, between two and four hours, and a longer run, up to two hours.

Saturdays are devoted entirely to training. Dr. Maroon might swim two miles, bike between 70 and 100 miles and run 10 to 18 miles outdoors. Sunday is his day to rest. Dr. Maroon also includes daily stretching and regular sports massage in his training and tries to get between six and seven hours of sleep each night.

During the off-season, Dr. Maroon does a minimum of one hour of cardio five days a week, alternating between biking, swimming and running. He also does strength training twice a week at the YMCA, using machines and resistance bands.

The Diet

Before Dr. Maroon started running, his meals consisted of doughnuts, sugary cereals, hamburgers and hot dogs. "Now, I consider all of that poison," he says. "The body is a fine-tuned machine. It needs the right fuel."

Dr. Maroon is a proponent of the Mediterranean diet—lots of fruit, vegetables and protein. "I avoid all whites," he says. "No white rice, sugar, pasta, salt." Dr. Maroon eats salmon, which is rich in Omega-3 fats, three to four days a week. He eats foods that he says naturally reduce inflammation, such as green tea, which he drinks three times a day.

For breakfast, he makes a bowl of oatmeal with blueberries, bananas and nuts and will also have a poached egg with a piece of lox for extra protein. Lunch is a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread and a piece of probiotic dark chocolate. For dinner, Dr. Maroon cooks his salmon with steamed asparagus, Brussels sprouts or broccoli, and will drink a glass of red wine.

Cost & Gear

Dr. Maroon owns three bicycles, including a new racing bike, which, with helmet and cycling shoes included, cost $4,500. "It sounds like a lot, but a good racing bike can run you $10,000," he says. His running sneakers cost about $100 a pair and he replaces them every 500 miles. His YMCA membership costs $650 a year.

His biggest expense is his races. For example, after acceptance into the Kona Ironman, the entry fee is $550. Dr. Maroon estimates that he spends $3,000 for the round trip to Hawaii and his hotel accommodation once there.
Fitness Tip

"When you do an endurance event you get down to the essence of what's important in life. At [some] point in the race, it's nutrition and spirituality," says Dr. Maroon. "Half of finishing is mental. If you can focus the mind, the pain becomes secondary."

Quick Fix

Dr. Maroon keeps a set of resistance bands in his office. "They are so versatile," he says. "If I can't get to the gym I'll do five to 10 minutes of strength exercises and stretching with the bands after surgery and before rounds."

The Playlist

Dr. Maroon doesn't listen to music when he trains or races. Instead, he repeats Psalms in his head. "I go into a trance and just repeat Psalm 23, 'The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…' It puts me in a state of mind where I don't feel pain and just have incredible power."