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Ironman-in-training won’t let foot pain keep him from finish line

Tom Aylward toughs it out while aqua jogging at the Kroc Center in Coeur d’Alene on Wednesday. (Kathy Plonka)
Tom Aylward toughs it out while aqua jogging at the Kroc Center in Coeur d’Alene on Wednesday. (Kathy Plonka)

The Ford Ironman Coeur d’Alene race is in 10 weeks and Tom Aylward hasn’t been able to run for a month.

The 62-year-old, who has been training for the grueling race for nearly two years, has a nagging nerve irritation in his left foot. He got two cortisone shots last week to relieve the pain and plans to get another in a few weeks.

After losing 80 pounds and transforming his formerly sedentary lifestyle, the Spirit Lake man won’t think of budging from his goal.

“I’m going to give it everything I have,” he said. “I’m just going to lay it on the table that day. It’s all I’m thinking about.”

Personal trainers say the final three months before Ironman are the toughest. That’s when injuries crop up because athletes are increasing speed, distance and intensity. It’s also when self-doubt kicks in as the seeming enormity of the challenge sinks in.

“It’s never a straight shot,” said Shawn Burke, Aylward’s trainer and a 17-time Ironman finisher. “You can get through the training. It’s the mental toughness you have to deal with. When you’re doing Ironman, you always have that doubt. But it’s the people who say ‘I’m not going to let that beat me’ that get to the finish line.”

The June 26 race includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.

Aylward “was due to run 20 miles this weekend,” Burke said last weekend. “The running is out of the question right now.”

Aylward has struggled with the foot issue for months. He’s tried an air cast to cushion his footfalls. He’s had orthotic inserts custom-made to support his feet. And now he’s resorted to cortisone shots, which will break up the scar tissue around the nerve, helping to increase blood flow and expedite healing. Physical therapy, including heat and massage, also is helping him heal.

His doctor, Bryan Thompson, of Post Falls, said the anatomy of Aylward’s foot – a high arch and a tight Achilles tendon – stresses his metatarsals, resulting in the nerve flare-up and inflammation in the joints.

Despite his inability to run on pavement, Aylward still runs. Several times a week, for at least an hour at a time, Aylward jogs in water at the Kroc Center swimming pool. In the water, his body is fully supported and his feet never touch the ground, allowing him to progress without hurting himself further.

With permission from the Kroc Center, Burke works on-site with his client, striding along the pool deck and giving direction as Aylward runs through the water. His arms reach out and pull him along as his body remains upright, as though treading water. Another exercise isolates Aylward’s hamstrings by having him hold a kick board behind him as he moves forward. Then Aylward holds the board in front of him and flutter-kicks backward as fast as possible to work his quadriceps.

“Kick, kick, kick, kick,” Burke chants. “Good, good. Your body is perfect.”

Aylward is totally focused and staring straight ahead, breathing hard. “Two hours of this, and you’re done,” he said.

“It’s a good workout,” Burke said. “The only benefit we’re losing is pounding on the pavement, and we’ll get that. Doing this for two hours is like running for three to four hours.”

Burke expects Aylward to be running outside again by the end of this week.

Aylward continues to push his miles up on his bike, and on April 9, he completed his longest ride: 84 miles in 5  1/2 hours. He was scheduled to ride 60 miles Saturday. He also swims regularly at the Kroc Center.

Burke learned water therapy techniques during an internship in the mid-1990s with Igor Burdenko, a specialist in aquatic therapy in Newton, Mass., outside of Boston. The Burdenko Water and Sports Therapy Institute has trained elite athletes, including Olympic figure staking medalists Nancy Kerrigan, Paul Wylie and Oksana Baiul.

In fact, when Burke was there, he participated in the team that helped rehabilitate Kerrigan after the infamous 1994 attack by associates of rival Tonya Harding. Seven weeks after her injury, Kerrigan won the silver medal at the Lillehammer Winter Olympics. Burke said Kerrigan would perform her routines in the water as she recovered.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of athlete you are – this is the alternative,” Burke said of aquatic therapy. “If (Aylward) was an Olympic athlete, a world-class athlete, this is where he’d be. Then when you get on land, it’s easier and not traumatizing the body.”

Thompson, the doctor, said he’s confident Aylward will be able to complete Ironman, but maybe not as fast or as comfortably as he’d like. Thompson said he’s encouraged by the fact that Aylward is not in pain while biking and swimming.

Aylward is stressed about his setback but confident he can complete the race. That attitude, also, is typical of Ironman competitors this close to their goal.

“You kind of just convince yourself, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to do what it takes,’ ” said Derek Garcia, a five-time Ironman finisher and personal trainer from Post Falls. “I think if you go into the race with anything other than that mindset, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

Burke, who is also a physical therapist assistant, said athletes should know when they suffer certain injuries that alternatives exist to allow them to continue training. Of course, he said, serious injuries require clearance by a doctor.

When Coeur d’Alene’s Cindy Clutter crashed on her bike three weeks before her first Ironman in 2003, she said, “My only thought was, ‘I don’t care if my leg is broken. I have to do Ironman.’ ”

Her leg wasn’t broken, but deep bruising kept her from running or biking for those final weeks before the race. Emergency room doctors advised her not to race, but she thought she could heal by staying off the leg, icing and elevating it and swimming to stay loose. She finished the race in 15 hours.

“In the race, it became mind over matter. It was, ‘Doggone it, I don’t care what it takes,’ ” said Clutter, who is 51 and has now completed four Ironman races.

That could be Aylward talking. He’s been training for 21 months and has lost 80 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame, down to 240 pounds. He’s learned from scratch how to run, bike and swim competitively and how to eat properly to fuel his body.

“I’m going to be OK,” he said. “I’ve made my mind up that this is not going to bother me.”