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Tom Aylward has transformed himself training for Ironman

A puddle of sweat covers the concrete floor below Tom Aylward’s indoor training bike.

But his trainer, Shawn Burke, doesn’t give Aylward much slack. As soon as the warm-up is complete, Aylward hits the ground for push-ups and squat thrusts, jumps laterally against a resistance band, then pulls almost 300 pounds, arm-over-arm, across the gym with a heavy rope.

This pace would not have been possible 18 months ago when Aylward first approached Burke and asked for help training to participate in the Ford Ironman Coeur d’Alene. The 62-year-old man was more than 100 pounds overweight and had never biked, swum or run any distances, let alone completed one of the nation’s most challenging endurance races.

Now he has completed a half-marathon and several smaller triathlons and is on track for his goal. The 2011 Ironman race – a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run – looms June 26.

Burke was hesitant to take Aylward on in August 2009, but could see the desire in his eyes. The training plan Burke devised led Aylward through baby steps – football-style drills, strength training and walking for months before ever starting to run. Getting used to just being in cold lake water before starting to swim. Learning to switch his bike’s gears before starting to ride.

“His lifestyle was that he wasn’t exercising,” said Burke, a personal trainer and physical therapist assistant. “He was eating a lot of fats. He had no routine. It seemed like he was scattered. I had to take all that information that he gave me and say, ‘How do I put this plan together?’ ”

Aylward was raring to go, but Burke held him back, fearing if his client got injured or mentally lost hope, he’d give up – maybe on more than just the race. Burke firmly believes Aylward was on a self-destructive path, eating and drinking too much, and depressed following the death of his wife in May 2008. The trainer said if Aylward hadn’t seized onto the goal of completing Ironman, he might not be here today.

“He was a walking time bomb,” Burke said.

Aylward agrees that he was in a dark place. “I was a very unhappy person,” he said simply.

Fast-forward to last weekend when he biked 15 miles then ran six and felt “wonderful” afterward. On Saturday, he was scheduled to bike 25 miles then run a half-marathon.

“He’s made a remarkable change,” Burke said. “He’s got a glow about him now. He walks in and people are just like, ‘Tom!’ ”

Personal trainers throughout the region, including Burke, say several factors should be considered when training an obese, sedentary person for Ironman. When presented with Aylward’s scenario, several trainers said they would have needed to be convinced Aylward was serious and doing it for the right reasons. They said they’d focus first on weight loss and strength training. And they said they would prefer at least two years to get a client like that ready for the race.

“With a de-conditioned person, just one year is not enough time to build the base,” said Heath Wiltse, lead personal trainer at Peak Health and Wellness in Post Falls. With Ironman’s strong presence in Coeur d’Alene, Wiltse added, people around here think it’s “Ironman or nothing,” but numerous other shorter running, biking and swimming races will help prepare a person for that ultimate challenge. “Doing a half-marathon, doing a bike race, doing a marathon – all of these things are something to be proud of.”

Burke felt the same concerns and considerations when he created Aylward’s fitness and nutrition program. He sent Aylward to a doctor to ensure he was healthy enough to train. He had the Spirit Lake man wear a BodyBugg, an electronic device that monitors steps taken, calories burned and nutritional intake. He also pushed Aylward toward a diet of lean meats, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and limited fats.

Then Burke took each of Ironman’s three disciplines and began chipping away.

Aylward began a circuit-training program at the Kroc Center to build strength on machines that would support his body. He and Burke did calisthenics in a field for months before Aylward ever started to run. They bought him proper footwear at Fleet Feet, a Coeur d’Alene running store.

Burke would have Aylward walk for five minutes, then run for 30 seconds, gradually working up to a minute, then two, then three. Five months after beginning his training, Aylward completed his first five-mile race, on New Year’s Day.

“Everything was a small progression,” Burke said. “I had to set it up to where he could see the success of his accomplishments. He had to see the success to realize – ‘I’m making progress. I’m starting to make progress.’ ”

When they began swimming together, Burke said, Aylward first had to learn the proper strokes and pacing. Aylward got into the pool and “at first, he was going like mad,” and would instantly tire himself out, Burke said. “We started from square one. Let’s work on your swim stroke. Then I was giving him drills to do. We were swimming in the pool, side by side.”

That first summer, in 2009, Burke took Aylward to the lake just to see how he would respond. Once in the lake, Burke said, Aylward “completely freaked out” from the cold and the inability to see the bottom. “His eyes were as big as saucers.” But they kept going back, and over the course of a month, built distance.

Aylward also joined a twice-a-week swimming group at the Kroc Center with trainer Dee Fraser.

When he first came in, Fraser said, Aylward’s technique, balance and power were “out of whack.” Over the course of about six weeks, though, he got it, Fraser said. “Instead of just surviving the water, he became a swimmer.” When Aylward first started training, he bought a wetsuit rated for up to 256 pounds. He was crushed to discover he couldn’t fit into it. He returned it to the shop, but unbeknownst to him, Burke asked the store employees to hold on to it. Burke used fitting into the wetsuit as motivation for Aylward and, six months later, told him to go get his wetsuit.

“This year, it should fit pretty good,” Aylward said with a smile. He has lost 80 pounds and now weighs 239. He said swimming is his strongest of the three disciplines.

When Burke and Aylward began biking together, Burke had to show his client how to adjust his seat to fit the bike properly and how to shift gears. They began with two miles, then moved up to three, then four, and added hills. Riding up steep hills, Aylward would fall over, his heart racing, with not enough strength or balance to get through, Burke said.

But he’s chalked up plenty of milestones that have kept him moving toward his goal.

Here’s one:

Burke and Aylward were riding together, trying over and over to get up a steep hill, and Aylward kept failing. Burke told Aylward he planned to ride up the hill then return and in that time, he wanted Aylward to think of something that would motivate him to get up the hill.

“I turned around and there he was, up the hill,” Burke said. “And I said, ‘What was it?’ And he said, ‘I thought about my wife.’ ”

Burke paused and looked away. “And those are the things you never know,” he said, his eyes filled with tears. “It’s something I, as a trainer, try to think, ‘What can I do to get this guy to break through?’ It’s breaking through those barriers that you don’t know why they’re stopping him. That’s been the process of learning Tom. I have to figure out: What is it he needs to keep him going?

“Now we call that ‘Tom’s Hill’ because that was a breakthrough for him.”

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