BRIDGEPORT - Dr. Joseph Maroon believes the journey to physical and mental well-being begins with small steps that gradually increase in size.
Maroon, 73, leaves next week to compete for the fifth time in the Ironman World Championship, scheduled for Oct. 12 in Kona, Hawaii. The endurance competition starts with a 2.4-mile swim in the Pacific Ocean, followed by a 112-mile bike ride then a 26.2-mile run.
This will will be his eighth overall Ironman competition since first qualifying for the Ironman World Championship in 1993.
Maroon, a Bridgeport native who now lives and works in Pittsburgh, first began his path to the Ironman more than 30 years ago after deciding to run four laps around Triadelphia Middle School's track.
Today, he has been in training for about seven months for the Oct. 12 Ironman competition. Maroon reports swimming six miles this week, biking 230 miles and running 35 miles.
"The trip of a 1,000 miles begins with single step," he said. "You just have to make up your mind to do it. The rest falls into place."
Maroon balances his training schedule with the concerns of his day job. He serves as vice chairman and professor of the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
He also helped create the IMPACT system, which stands for Immediate Post Athletic Concussion Testing. It sets a baseline for athletes so that concussions can be detected and properly treated.
Maroon said staying fit assists with surgery. "The surgery I do is kind of an endurance sport in a way, in the sense that you have to be totally focused, concentrating at all times and your hand-eye coordination has to be perfect. I've tried it both ways in the sense that at one point in my life I was deconditioned, not working out, and I wasn't functioning at the highest level I could. I learned that if I spent an hour a day in some kind of physical fitness program, that my mind, my body, everything works at a much higher level. Staying in condition is not an option for me, it's a necessity. I have to do that in order to function at the level I want to function at."
He may find exercise hard to come by for the next few days, though, as he is spending today in London with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Maroon serves as the team's neurosurgeon.
Just how does one prepare for an Ironman? For Maroon, most days start with a 5:15 a.m. swim, then a bike ride or run after work. He also spends a full day most weekends exercising.
"It's amazing the time you can find when you prioritize things," he said. "I didn't just go from zero exercise to triathlons. I started out with a one-mile run.
"You start easy, and incrementally increase the distance. Your weight changes, your body changes, and your mind changes. Exercise completely changes your mind and body."
Nutrition also is an important part of physical and mental health, according to Maroon. He noted he partakes in a Mediterranean diet, consisting of fruits, vegetables, beans, lean meat and fish.
"Learning to handle physical and mental stress is actually a prerequisite to improving physical and mental health, but the Ironman must always be mindful of limits to avoid injury," Maroon noted. "I use my mind to monitor the (physical) stress on my body, just like a tachometer on an automobile; I want to gradually increase the (revolutions per minute) to go faster and longer, but I want to avoid the red zone at all costs. That is where injuries occur, the immune system becomes suppressed, colds and infections develop, and the 'engine' breaks down."
One of the most rewarding aspects of intense training is the "increased sensuality that comes from stretching the body to its limits," he continued. Taste, smell, hearing, touch and vision are all enhanced by purging the body of toxins - both mentally and physically, according to Maroon.
He's going to need enhanced physical attributes to finish the Ironman next month.