Two years ago, Tom Aylward couldn’t ride a bike. On Sunday, he rode 112 miles in 8 ½ hours.
Two years ago, the 62-year-old couldn’t swim more than 25 yards. On Sunday, he swam 2.4 miles faster than many much younger competitors.
But when the Spirit Lake man reached mile 80 of the bike ride in the 2011 Ford Ironman Coeur d’Alene, his legs locked up and his shoulders throbbed with pain. He pushed on through the remaining 32 miles, completing the ride just short of the 5:30 p.m. deadline.
He had nothing left for the marathon – 26.2 miles – but set off down the street before stopping after a few blocks.
“So ends the story,” Aylward said Sunday. “I knew when I got off that bike that it was over, but I tried.”
Stiff and sore and barely able to walk, Aylward acknowledged defeat with no regrets. By Monday morning, though his injured left foot was “killing” him, he was planning to begin training for next year’s half-Ironman in Boise.
“That’s probably more my speed,” he said. “I could probably do that.”
That indomitable spirit is what inspired so many people throughout the Inland Northwest as they heard of Aylward’s story through a six-month series in The Spokesman-Review, or just met him and experienced his determination.
A young female staffer at the Kroc Center in Coeur d’Alene said she began training for and competing in triathlons after watching Aylward’s steadfast progress.
A 70-year-old man randomly approached Aylward outside the Coeur d’Alene Resort on Friday night and said the story had inspired him to train for next year’s Ironman.
A Washington State University professor started a chapter in her nutrition textbook with Aylward’s story after hearing about how he lost more than 80 pounds – dropping from 319 to 237 – and became an athlete.
And Aylward inspired Terri Oates, a breast cancer survivor, to begin training for her first marathon. The two met when Aylward brought his mother-in-law to dialysis appointments, where Oates is a nurse.
“He’s been an inspiration, and that’s what counts,” said Oates, 62, standing with Aylward after Sunday’s race. “You did it,” she told him. “You put everything into it, and that’s what counts.”
Aylward’s Ironman odyssey began in May 2008, when his wife died and he began a downward spiral. More than 100 pounds overweight and drinking too much, he said he thinks he might have died if he hadn’t found a way out of that “dark place.” After watching first a shorter triathlon, then the Coeur d’Alene Ironman, he began training for the event in August 2009.
He volunteered for Ironman last year and told his section captain he’d be back as a competitor the following year.
“This is like a dream right now,” Aylward said as he moved along with a throng of competitors toward City Beach for the swim start on Sunday. “It’s just like I remember it, all the thousands of people.”
Friends hugged him, shook his hand, and wished him luck. Upbeat music blared over a loudspeaker – “Don’t Stop Believin” by Journey and “Working on a Dream” by Bruce Springsteen.
He completed the swim in one hour and 40 minutes and felt tired but ready for the bike ride. He said there were a lot of “banged up bodies” in the water. “I’m sorry to say I did a lot of it myself,” said Aylward, who is 6-foot-4.
By mile 40 on the bike ride, Aylward’s legs were tiring out. He hit an aid station there to replenish his water from the spirited Lewis and Clark High School cross-country team.
Incoming freshmen girls Hannah Schoultz, Desmond Goodwin, Nikki Ihlemann and Hanna Fahsholtz danced and cheered for tired bikers while passing out water.
About 20 miles later, Aylward said his legs were killing him as he climbed the Bennett Bay Hill near the beginning of the second bike loop.
He made the turnaround point near mile 90 with only 25 minutes to spare and was trying to decide whether to continue. Despite fierce pain in his feet, shoulders and legs, he pushed on. But sitting on a bench in the transition zone from the bike to the run, he said he had nothing left.
“My foot is killing me. … Damn, I’m in pain.”
He started to stand then fell back to his seat. He pushed up again and limped off to start the marathon but quit shortly after.
Aylward said it would have been wonderful to finish, but he knew he’d given it all he had and he couldn’t have asked for anything more.
“You get tired. No matter what you eat, no matter what you drink. You still get tired,” Aylward said. “Is this really the worst thing that’s ever happened to me? It’s not.”
Not by far.
Two years after his journey began, Aylward is strong, fit and excited about life. He’s planning to compete in sprint triathlons in Hayden and Coeur d’Alene this summer and run the Spokane half-marathon in the fall. He relishes the connections he’s formed with everyone from the barista at the Kroc Center café to close friends and training partners.
“I want to stay alive. I want to keep the friends I’ve made,” he said. “I don’t want to go back to what I was.
“I definitely will stick with it.”