Vitality: How a retiree went from zero to Ironman

Harry Cornwell got his wake-up call looking at a photo of himself.

The retired Snohomish teacher and coach had been active his entire adult life, but time and poor eating choices had left a mark on his middle.

“I really didn’t like the way I looked,” Cornwell said. “That’s the moment I realized I needed to do something. I was way overweight and I was used to being fit. That was the ‘aha.’ “

That was four years ago. Today, Cornwell at age 64 is a new man: lean, strong and energetic enough to complete one of the toughest endurance events on the planet, an Ironman triathlon.

He shed 55 pounds and no longer needs to take cholesterol medication. His blood pressure dropped. His resting heart rate is 51. He feels fine.

It wasn’t easy or fast. There were no gimmicks or special products. Cornwell set goals, worked hard and changed his bad habits. He kept plugging forward, even when things didn’t always go right. And there were a few setbacks.

“It’s a lifestyle, not an activity,” he said. “That’s what makes it easy.”

Cornwell retired in 2006 after a long career teaching and coaching at schools in the Snohomish School District. In 1986, he was working at Valley View Junior High and was one of the finalists who didn’t make the cut to ride into space with the ill-fated space shuttle Challenger.

Later, he taught at Snohomish High School, coached sports and helped with the high school’s strength program.

“Teaching and coaching — it’s a full-time job,” he said. “There’s a lot of involvement and not much time to take care of yourself as well as you should.”

Over time, he found himself working out with his athletes less and stopping off at fast food restaurants more. By the time he retired in 2006, he weighed 240 pounds.

After the “aha” moment, Cornwell decided to train as if he were going to complete a short triathlon. The goal was to work out consistently, not race.

Those first few months were brutal. At the beginning, he could hardly swim a length of the pool or run a mile without walking. He had no experience cycling at all. He joined a triathlon group at the Monroe Y.

By the next year, he found he wanted to try a short triathlon. The day was wet and miserable, but he had a great time anyway.

Then, in 2011, he did something a little crazy: He put his name in the lottery for the spot at Ironman Hawaii, the world championship of Ironmans: a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run.

Only a few hundred “regular” people are selected by lottery each year. Thousands enter.

“I thought foolishly if my number got picked I could try to do it,” he said.

Cornwell got picked. In Hawaii, he successfully completed the swim, but didn’t get to finish the race after he missed the cutoff time on the bike by 25 minutes. He remembers the devastation when an official walked over and told him he was through.

“An NBC crew was filming the conversation, but, fortunately, it never made it to the broadcast,” he said.

Cornwell went home determined to finish an Ironman, and that meant working on his cycling. He had been self-coached up until that time, using books and other references to figure out his training. He hired Mary Gandee of BlueFire Fitness.

“Harry did a great job of organizing his time and making sure to get in each workout,” she said. “He is thoughtful in planning when he is going to train, what he is going to eat and how he is going to recover. Doing this really helped him achieve his goal.”

Gandee suggested that anyone starting a fitness program should talk to a medical professional first. Long-distance athletes in particular need a support system, too.

Last November, Cornwell traveled to Florida and completed his first Ironman in a respectable 16 hours, 8 minutes. “I think the difference was when I went to Hawaii, I hoped to finish,” he said. “When I went to Florida, I knew I would finish.”

He’s training to give the Hawaii Ironman another try next year, if he can qualify. “I’m happy to be able to participate,” he said. “I’m grateful I can, and that’s the most important thing to me.”

He has some advice if you want to follow in his footsteps.

The longer the event, the more preparation and expense are involved in training and competing.

“It’s a long day,” he said. “You can’t just go out there and wing it.”

Many people in decent physical shape, however, can handle what’s called a sprint-length triathlon — a far shorter race than the Ironman. That’s a good place to start if you want to give it a try.

Even though he was self-coached for the first few years of training, he still had a network of people who offered help and advice. They included his wife, people he met at the Monroe Y, the Snohomish Bicycle Shop, BlueFire Fitness and the Snohomish Tri Club. Cultivate your own support network and consider joining a training group, such as a masters swim team or cycling club.

When it comes to diet, Cornwell focuses on eating a variety of unprocessed foods, such as lean meats, whole grains and fruits and vegetables. He avoids “empty calories” that have sugar and refined carbohydrates.

He doesn’t count calories but he does keep track of the types of foods he eats to make sure he’s getting enough of the right stuff. For example, he keeps track of the number of servings of protein he consumes daily.

His last piece of advice: “It’s never too late to start doing something as long as you have realistic assessment of what you can do and you progress slowly.

“You’ve got to enjoy it. If you don’t like it, you won’t do it.”

Harry Cornwell’s favorite resources

  • “Chi Running” by Danny and Katherine Dreyer (2004)
  • “Triathlete Magazine’s Essential Week-by-Week Training Guide” by Matt Fitzgerald (2006)
  • “Zinn and the Art of Triathlon Bikes” by Lennard Zinn (2007)
  • “Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance” by Matt Fitzgerald (2009)
  • “Your Best Triathlon” by Joe Friel (2010)

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