Arrow-right Camera


Aylward, 62, gets closer to his objective with every workout

Spirit Lake man a latecomer to fitness and nutrition

A dramatic lifestyle change has melted 78 pounds off Tom Aylward’s 6-foot-4-inch frame and introduced him to healthy eating habits for the first time in his 62 years.

Fifteen months ago, the Spirit Lake man weighed 319 pounds and couldn’t walk upstairs without losing his breath. Stepping on the scale made him feel bad about himself.

Now the retiree has completed three sprint triathlons, the Coeur d’Alene Triathlon and the Spokane half-marathon.

Each accomplishment moves him a step closer to his goal: finishing Ironman. The day after the 2010 Ford Ironman Coeur d’Alene, Aylward signed up for the 2011 race. It includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon – 26.2 miles.

Aylward’s new lifestyle of training and monitoring his nutrition helped lift him from the depression that hit him 2  1/2 years ago when his wife died. He and Donna had been together for 35 years. They’d moved to North Idaho from Truckee, Calif., thinking the change of scenery would be good for Donna, who had multiple sclerosis and asthma. But to no avail.

When she died, Aylward weighed 300 pounds and quickly packed on another 19.

He joined a gym but said he didn’t know anything about nutrition so he didn’t lose any weight, although it helped him mentally. A longtime career in food sales and an aversion to vegetables had turned him into a “meat and potatoes” man, he said.

“The only way I had vegetables is if I had Chinese food,” he said.

Then he watched a sprint triathlon in Hayden, and seeing the fit men and women cross the finish line, Aylward felt a strong desire to be like them. A friend suggested volunteering at the Coeur d’Alene Triathlon a week later. When he did, he experienced the same feeling.

“I got this feeling – testosterone was flying around that day – these guys all look so healthy and so strong and I said, ‘I want to do this,’ ” Aylward said. “Holy Jesus, I want to be like that.”

Aylward began training in August 2009, starting from scratch in each of Ironman’s three disciplines. His trainer, Shawn Burke, had to jog behind Aylward’s bike to steady it so he wouldn’t fall over. Swimming half a lap in Coeur d’Alene’s Kroc Center pool left him exhausted, as did walking around the block. Aylward had high blood pressure and arthritis in his knees.

When Aylward first connected with Burke, he wanted to do the 2010 Ironman, but Burke told him it would take two years to prepare. Now, Aylward is off all medications, has a clean bill of health and has a new outlook on life, Burke said. “It’s a life change,” Burke said. “He’ll inspire a lot of people.”

Burke said Aylward’s situation is similar to that of a child from an abusive home who has no confidence but has a vision of what could be. “That was Tom,” Burke said. “It’s like he knew he wanted to do it, but no one told him he could do it. I’m not just talking about the Ironman; I’m talking about changing his life.”

Just as Aylward is a novice at fitness, he’s also taken a crash course in nutrition. His diet has become a carefully monitored blend of lean meat, vegetables, fruit, whole grains and limited fats, such as olive oil or small amounts of flavorful cheese.

“I’m even going to buy an avocado,” Aylward said recently. “I’ve never had it, but I saw all the protein in there.”

Except when swimming or showering, Aylward wears a “BodyBugg” strapped to his left arm. The electronic device measures the steps he takes and the calories he burns. At night, he downloads the information so a software program can track his progress. He also inputs the food he eats so the program can weigh calories burned versus consumed to show whether he is training properly.

Burke monitors Aylward’s progress online and sends him daily e-mails detailing his training program. Currently, Aylward works out about two hours a day, but that will ramp up to four. During a Thursday morning two-hour personal training session, Burke gently urged, “C’mon Tom, c’mon Tom,” every time Aylward tried to take a break.

Aylward gradually has learned that the food he puts into his body one day becomes the fuel that drives it the next. On one recent day, he was certain he was dragging during a workout because of the sugary cocktail sauce that topped his shrimp the day before.

“I look a lot at the labels now (and eat) the leanest of meat,” he said. “Even though I love the fat in meat, when I put it into the computer, I notice it isn’t so beautiful anymore.”

Aylward intends to lose another 31 pounds before race day, putting him at 210.

He has a daily image in his mind about crossing the finish line. It’s dark – one minute before the midnight cutoff time. He doesn’t expect anyone to be there, but as he crosses the finish line, a volunteer wraps him in the silver finisher’s blanket. The daydream ends with him eating pizza and drinking beer.

But he’s saving that for June 26. Training has been a series of sacrifices. He switched from whole milk to 1 percent and is considering skim. He’s quit eating Hershey’s Kisses and poured the remains of his Canadian Club whiskey down the drain two weeks ago.

Aylward manages his workouts around a schedule of caretaking his 81-year-old mother-in-law, Marcia Urban, who moved here two years ago. She goes to dialysis at Kootenai Medical Center twice a week, and there are doctor appointments in Spokane, hair and nail appointments, trips to church and to Macy’s.

“He makes sure she is able to do the things that are important to her,” said Aylward’s training partner and good friend, Karin Walker, who is training for a half-Ironman.

It was Urban who connected him with Burke, her physical therapist at KMC who also runs a personal training business on the side, U Aim High Fitness & Nutrition. Photos on Burke’s company website show a much-heavier Aylward climbing out of the lake, running and biking during sprint triathlons – shorter versions with about a half-mile swim, a 12-mile bike ride and a three-mile run – in Hayden and Coeur d’Alene.

Aylward ran the Spokane half-marathon in 3 hours, 7 minutes and thought, “I’ll never run that slow again.” But Burke thought that was OK because it meant Aylward could do twice the distance – a full marathon – in six hours, which is under the cutoff time allowed for Ironman.

The lifestyle change already is paying off, Aylward said. He’s beginning to feel that one day soon, he might just fit in with that athletic group of men and women he saw at the finish line.

“I feel wonderful,” he said. “I’m stronger, I’ve got energy and I feel like I’m ready to bust loose all the time.”

There are four comments on this story »