Ironman, 65, focuses on moving forward

For 14 straight hours, Dr. Jim Crowell focused on nothing but moving forward.

A 65-year-old competing in the one of the world’s toughest tests of endurance — the Ironman Florida triathlon in early November — Crowell pushed himself through a two-hour ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride, then ran a full marathon.

Running those final 26.2 miles, when his body wanted to quit, Crowell continually repeated a mantra to himself: “Keep it together.”

“All of a sudden you go from absolute death, like I can’t take another step,” he said, “then you come across that finish line.”

Crossing the finish line, Crowell collapsed into the arms of his wife.

“It’s so amazing, the emotional roller coaster that Ironman is,” Crowell said. “You’re just all over the place.”

A doctor for the past three decades and the chief of emergency services at Baton Rouge General, Crowell excels at work and at play. He ran several marathons in the 1970s and ’80s but never thought he could compete in an Ironman — swimming 2½ miles seemed impossible.

Years of challenging himself “with things that seem impossible” — like running a cattle ranch while working as an emergency room doctor in Colorado and riding a mountain bike across the humongous peaks on the Tour de France — changed his outlook.

Training for the Ironman dominated Crowell’s life for a year. He hired a coach, and his wife, retired gynecological oncologist Sterling Sightler, became his nutritionist, focused on fueling his body for hard-core training for an incredibly tough race.

“It’s all you can talk about, all you can think about,” Crowell said. “You live and breathe this stuff.”

Crowell was already physically fit. A competitive ballroom dancer with Sightler, the pair even danced in the national championships for their age group. In 2007 he ran the New York Marathon, his first marathon in 20 years. Crowell learned to swim well enough to compete and raced in the Ironman 70.3 New Orleans, a triathlon half the distance of the full Ironman race.

But when he hired Will Jones of 4th Dimension Fitness, a former Ironman competitor himself, Crowell said Jones told him, “I’ve never coached a man your age (for triathlons). I might kill you.”

The race would require a punishing training schedule of long-distance running and swimming — and a lot of recovery time for a man in his 60s. “The question I had was how would his body hold up to preparing for the race?” Jones said.

Crowell usually trained six days a week, mixing in long endurance efforts swimming, cycling and running with shorter times to help his body recover. Every day he filled out a questionnaire Sightler created on what he ate and drank and how his body felt during exercise. His wife analyzed the data and critiqued his nutrition.

“I would badger him about you’re eating too much fat, too much protein and not enough carbs, but I didn’t control what he ate,” Sightler said.

The morning of the race, Crowell lined up before dawn with 3,000 other racers to swim a 2.4-mile course.

The first mile of swimming was “just a dogfight,” he said.

Crowell exited the water 11th — last in his age group. During the six-hour, 112-mile bicycle race, he made up time, surging to fifth place.

After the marathon run, Crowell finished sixth of 11 in the 65-69 age group.

“I was proud of him being able to finish,” Sightler said. “I didn’t have any goals for how much time he did.”

For now, Crowell doesn’t see himself completing another full Ironman, but his competitive spirit won’t die down. He does plan to compete in shorter triathlons.

Endurance sports will likely not add a year to his life, Crowell said, but it improves his time here.

“I consider myself really blessed, lucky that I don’t have any big issues, joint problems, health problems at this stage in my life,” he said. “I’ve got this body. I might as well put it to good use.”