Attacking heart disease one lap at a time | INstride

His wife, Jane St. John, didn’t mind when he joined a mostly women running group, consisting of female runners 15 years younger than he and in perfect physical shape. In fact, she encouraged him.

St. John, having run the New York City Marathon, understands athletes; more important, she wants her husband, Bob Woolford, to live a few more decades. “Bob’s goal is to be 100 years old and still doing Ironman,” she said.

Woolford’s father and grandfather died young of heart attacks; Woolford had his heart attack at 56. And, as sometimes strangely happens, he had always been in peak physical condition, had even been recently examined by his doctor, who had pronounced robust health.

But after transporting a 250-pound corner post in a wheelbarrow, he began to feel sick. He called a friend, who happens to be an emergency room physician, and they went to Bloomington Hospital. Woolford was indeed having a heart attack.

So after recovering (he now sports five “coated” stents), Woolford kept doing what Woolford does: running. While visiting during his recovery, friend Sue Aquila said, “Bob, you have no business running by yourself anymore.”

Woolford was soon running en masse — and hearing Aquila, as well as the rest of the running group, discuss the outrageously competitive and demanding Ironman Triathlon.

“I thought it was pretty crazy,” he said, after watching his first Ironman, in 2008. But ever the competitor, he spent the next few years training for it. Ironman is not for the faint-hearted, or for the faint-anything.

In 17 hours, participants must cover 140.6 miles. They swim 2.4 miles, bicycle 112 miles and run a 26.2-mile marathon.

“Triathletes are superior athletes because they train so hard in three (different) sports, which also keeps injuries down,” St. John said. “They are the kinds of people who do things with intensity.” She added that she believes her husband’s epitaph (after he completes one of his last Ironmans at age 100) will read: “Bob was a competitor.”

By 2012, four years after he had lain in the acute cardiac unit, Woolford had finished his first Ironman. In total, he has done five full Ironmans and 10 halves, with many more to come.

Two qualities jump out as being essential for anyone who finishes an Ironman: superb physical condition and an insane (St. John’s word) zeal for competition.

When Woolford and St. John (now married for 27 years) began dating in 1989, St. John had recently run that New York City Marathon.

“He was keeping up with ‘The Janes-es’” (as in Jane St. John), she said. Eleven years his junior, she provides him with just the right degree of incentive to show her up.

A helpful aspect of Ironman is that it divides athletes into age-groups: a participant competes against others within five years of his or her own age.

“When you get into your 40s or 50s, you’re not going to win [Ironman] anymore,” Woolford said. “So that makes it more interesting. I’m only competing with people in my age group.”

Ironman requires proficiency in three sports, but, naturally, many people are better at one sport than another.

Woolford’s strength is running, so he had to develop his cycling and swimming. Living near Bryant Park, he swims there and also visits the IU outdoor pool and the YMCA’s indoor one.

His next Ironman will be in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in September.

“In the past, I nearly fainted at the end,” he said. But things change with training; now he feels fine at the finish line.

A supportive wife, his five stents, running with a group of collegiate athletes and a good cardiologist named Dr. Jim Fix — “Fix fixed me,” Woolford said — have facilitated his leap to health and success. His drive and focus don’t hurt, either.

For more information on the Ironman Triathlon, or to register for participation, go to ironman.com.

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