The Inner Strength of an Ironman Champion

Read about these people who have overcome adversity and what's truly at the core of their inner strength.

Ironman champion Tim Don knows better than most the dramatic swing from being on top of the world one moment to being lucky just to be alive the next.

In May 2017, Don smashed the world record for the Ironman, completing the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride, and 26.2-mile run in 7:40:23. Then in October, just days before the 2017 Ironman world championships, Don was hit by a truck while training. The accident broke his neck and set him on a long road to recovery wearing a metal brace — known as a “halo” — to stabilize his head.

A recent documentary tracks his remarkable comeback. Just months after the accident, Don was again atop the podium at the Costa Rica Ironman. Don said of the film, “If anyone can watch this and go through a tough time, whether it’s an athletic injury, or another area in their life, and can see that by drawing on the community, and their friends, and having that belief and grit, that determination that they can overcome adversity — that’s everything.”

Don could easily point to the film as proof positive of how singularly amazing he is (which he is, obviously). But while the camera was focused on him, his attention was outward. In his experiences of despair as well as triumph, Don sees opportunities to push himself, and pull others along with him.

Suffering, from the trivial to the life-threatening, can lead us either to bitterness or empathy. We can get swallowed up by our own situation, feeling sorry for ourselves and envious of others. Or setbacks can remind us of our own vulnerability and sensitize us to the challenges those around us carry.

What does it take to move toward empathy instead of bitterness in the face of suffering, like Don did? Though it was nothing close to the severity Don faced, a recent injury helped me to confront this very question.

Focus on core strength

The day after limping home from a soccer game, the doctor confirmed what I had feared: my big toe was fractured.

Just rest, ice, and elevate it, he explained, and the toe would heal naturally at its own pace. I peppered him with questions: How soon could I run? How about getting back on the soccer field? Biking is still okay, right? Surely swimming won’t hurt it? Sensing the anxiety behind my questions, the doctor would have been justified to give me an even more crucial diagnosis: an inability to slow down.

I’ve come to appreciate this forced time off from running as an opportunity to refocus on the source of true strength. As a cardio/aerobic junkie, I’m all lungs and legs. I’d much rather go for a run outside in 15-degree weather than do strength work in a climate-controlled gym. Not being able to run for the time being, I’ve re-committed myself to a remedial regimen of push ups, sit ups, and planks. While I know that we’re only as strong as our core body strength (abs, back, trunk), this foundational strength work is often the last thing I want to do.

This kind of strengthening pertains to the spiritual life, too, if we want to grow more resilient when we face adversity. It often comes more naturally for me to knock out a few more tasks than to work on my interior “core” by spending time in quiet and prayer. As with physical strength that begins with the body’s core, I know that my real source of energy and strength comes from a connection with God in prayer.

Take Mother Teresa, for example. She has become synonymous with an outwardly-oriented life working for the good of others. But for all she did to help others, a commitment to prayer came first for her.

Sure, as a religious sister, she maintained a life that few of us could imagine keeping pace with, but she lived by two principles that can be applied in any life circumstance. First, on her busiest days, when her most important work was on the line, instead of cutting prayer, Mother Teresa believed it was even more critical. And second, she established a realistic ratio between work and prayer. Her community set aside a few hours each day for prayer and recreation; they take one day off each week for additional recollection; and one week each year they spend in silence on retreat.

We’re all busy people with pressing obligations and deadlines, but some of the most famously busy and productive people — from Mother Teresa to JRR Tolkien — remind us that the inner strength from prayer is what fuels a truly productive life. For however busy I might feel, I’m certainly not at the helm of an international organization like the Missionaries of Charity or writing The Lord of the Rings in my spare time. If they can do it, I can, too.

Strength for service

An energetic prayer life gets us firing on all cylinders — it moves us inward in self-reflection and upward in looking to God, but prayer also moves us outward to the concerns of others, which is key for confronting adversity with resilience. We might not be accustomed, though, to thinking about this outward dimension of prayer. In prayer, we can take the whole range of what we’re struggling with — from stress to real suffering — and ask God for the strength and insight to not cave in on ourselves and get mired in our own hardships.

But prayer is not all about us and what we’re going through. One of the most concrete forms of prayer — and sometimes the best service we can offer — is praying for others and lifting up their needs before God.

Prayer nourishes us for the road ahead. There is no better example of this than the Mass, although we often forget its social dimension. The term “Mass” refers to the final words the priest used to say in Latin right before everyone leaves: ite, misse est. Or, to put it in a very un-Latin way: “Now get out of here — put the food you just received to good work building the kingdom.” This dismissal and sending out from prayer into service is so essential that we call the whole thing the “Mass.”

While most of us aren’t Ironmen and Ironwomen capable of covering 140 miles by land and sea in less than eight hours, we’re all marathoners in one sense or another. Instead of swimming, biking, and running for eight hours straight, we each cover a fair bit of terrain on any given workday, whatever our work may be.

In the early Church, they talked about saints not as perfect beings that seem more angel than human, but as spiritual athletes. St. Paul was the original Ironman, in a sense, logging hundreds upon hundreds of miles and enduring all manner of wear and tear on his body to tell the good news. He’s at the starting line of our own daily races, shouting out the same encouragement he gave the Corinthians: “Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.”

If we’re going to not only run, but run so as to win — and not only run so as to win, but train so that we can recover when we stumble into an accident — we need strong spirits just as much as strong minds and bodies. Prayer and service build the kind of internal resources that help us not only survive adversity, but actually grow from it.

Grotto quote graphic about people who have overcome adversity: "As with physical strength that begins with the body's core, I know that my real source of energy and strength comes from a connection with God in prayer."

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