A 2-Mile Swim, a 112-Mile Bike Ride, and a Marathon are No Match for this Triathlete with Epilepsy
As the sun's crest begins peeking over the gentle horizon, and as its subtle heat begins burning off the early morning fog, all that can be heard in Doylestown, Penn., are Mark Ashby's feet pounding against pavement.
It's approximately 6 a.m., and while most of us are just now awakening from deep slumbers, Ashby has been up for awhile – probably already a couple miles into a workout that will last at least an hour.
As he efficiently navigates the varied landscape before him, he exercises his mind just as hard as his body. He maintains a fixed concentration on three goals he long ago established, goals his brain continuously recycles: a 60-minute swim time, a five-hour and 20-minute bike time and a four-hour marathon. Over and over again he'll run those numbers through his head, never allowing his thirst, pain and shortness of breath stop him from trying to eventually achieve them.
"Sixty minutes, five hours and 20 minutes, and four hours; 60 minutes, five hours and 20 minutes, and four hours; 60 minutes…"
Ashby is a triathlete, and if he achieves these goals he'll earn the right to go back to Hawaii to compete in the ultimate test of endurance, strength and perseverance – the 2006 Ford IronMan Triathlon World Championships.
On Oct. 15, 2005, Ashby competed in the annual IronMan Triathlon and finished the three-category competition in 13 hours, 32 minutes and 49 seconds. He won the opportunity to race by receiving the "Gatorade Hometown Hero Award" from a local television show, Your Morning. The IronMan Triathlon is comprised of a 2.4-mile swim, then a 112-mile bike ride, and finally, a marathon (26.2 miles). If Ashby wants to be eligible for the 2006 race he'll have to race in a qualifier in June and shave about three hours off his 2005 time, hence the reason he set the aforementioned goals.
"There's an expression when you get to be an 'Iron Man,'" the light-hearted Ashby said. "'Some people strive for marathons, but we call those cool-downs.'"
While some might look at men and women like Ashby and shake their heads in disbelief and utter confusion – "Why would people actually put themselves through that?" – it's also hard not to look upon them with some degree of silent awe…particularly Ashby. After all, it's hard enough for physical specimens to endure the rigors of a triathlon. But for a person with epilepsy to do it, it's downright incredible.
Ashby, 42, has lived with epilepsy for 25 years. His first seizure occurred in 1981 while he was in the Marines. He was subsequently discharged. He has since managed to keep his seizures mostly under control, only rarely experiencing a breakthrough seizure. This, therefore, begs the question, "How are you able to safely swim, bike and run in a triathlon?"
According to Ashby, it requires a mix of appropriate preparation, physician approval and adequate safety precautions. Not to mention a willpower that won't let anything stand in the way of what he desires.
"I think human beings are capable of doing far more than what we would or could ever imagine, and a good portion of us don't challenge ourselves as much as we should – physically and mentally," Ashby said. "I'm of the opinion that you should never say 'no' to anything unless you try, and if you have the spirit to try, you should have the power to succeed."
'Mark Ashby, you're an Iron Man!'
Ashby's drive and never-say-die mentality is similar to some of America's most accomplished, most historical runners – one in particular: Steve Prefontaine.
"Most people run a race to see who is fastest," Prefontaine once said. "I run a race to see who has the most guts."
Widely considered to be America's best-ever distance runner, Prefontaine also had to overcome limitations and work tirelessly to experience success.
In high school, Prefontaine initially had little athletic achievement. He wasn't big, nor was he terribly strong. It wasn't until he discovered cross-country his freshman year that he found his knack, albeit not immediately, as he placed 53rd in his first state meet. That experience, however, lit a fire under the would-be super star. He began a high-mileage training program and placed sixth the following year.
Granted, Ashby is not Steve Prefontaine. He will never go down in history as one of America's most celebrated distance runners, nor will he be setting records anytime soon. But Ashby knows this. He firmly believes that a little adversity never hurt anyone, and actually, it is this mentality that drives him. It's all about knowing that when he crosses the IronMan Championship finish line, he'll have done something millions of other people couldn't. He'll have done something millions of people respect. He'll have done something that inspires those who also live with epilepsy.
"At the end of the IronMan marathon, there are two final turns in the course of a half-mile. There are thousands of people lining Ahlehe Drive, and when you make the final turn onto that street, the place goes nuts," Ashby recalled. "They're all cheering you on and that completely restores your energy. You're light in your step again and it feels as if you've just moved a mountain. It feels like you could do anything in the world.
"In the distance you can hear the voice of 'Iron Man' screaming each finisher's name and announcing, 'You're an Iron Man!'" Ashby added. "Just by crossing that line you're a winner."
Ashby is unquestionably a winner, as well as a source of inspiration to the 2.7 million people living with epilepsy. Not only because of his grit and determination, but also because of his courage to stare down traditional barriers to people with epilepsy: long-distance swims, long-distance bike rides and overly strenuous physical activity.
Proper Preparation, Safety Precautions Eliminate Concerns
Entering unprepared into an event as physically grueling as the IronMan Triathlon - for anyone - is foolish, if not downright dangerous. Even the most superior athletes can be broken down along the way due to the race's demanding nature. So, to ensure he did not succumb to the pressure, Ashby enlisted the support of two trainers: Todd Wiley, a professional triathlete, and John Marino, his chiropractor and running partner. Wiley provided Ashby his training schedule and Marino served as a running coach.
Eventually a third person boasting Olympic credentials was even added to Ashby's team of advisors. When he landed in Hawaii, Faris Al-Sultan – who eventually won the 2005 IronMan Championship - introduced Ashby to Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen, the 2004 Masters Swimmer of the Year. Not about to pass an opportunity, Ashby excitedly accepted her offer to take a look at his swimming stroke. After a couple minor adjustments, she considered him ready to go.
But it was Pipes-Neilsen who, upon learning of his epilepsy, expressed the most worry regarding Ashby's safety.
"She said, 'Mark, aren't you worried about having a seizure in the water?' And I said, 'No, I wasn't until you just reminded me. Now I'm really worried,'" Ashby recalled. "Of course I was joking. I really wasn't worried, and for two reasons. First, you take your medication with discipline, make sure you're therapeutic and test yourself before the race. Second, from a safety perspective, the IronMan officials did a great job about having enough people in the water on surfboards, in kayaks and various boats to keep an eye on everybody. I had a marking boat specifically keeping an eye on me the entire time, and they were no more than 15 seconds away while I was in the water."
IronMan rules require each contestant to obtain medical clearances from doctors prior to racing, and even though Ashby has epilepsy, his neurologist had no qualms about letting him compete.
"My doctor, a local neurologist, is also a triathlete," Ashby said laughingly. "So, he was like, 'You're in great shape. We're monitoring your medicine. Your therapeutic range is great. You have no reason not to do this.'"
The Pain and Fatigue All Worth It In the End
The most special time in a parent's life is when he or she realizes they've had a significant impact on their child's life. Or when they realize something they've done earns them a lifetime of respect. For Ashby, that moment came shortly after he completed the IronMan Triathlon. Not long after he crossed that finish line, Ashby's 16-year-old son, Seth, turned to him one day and said, "Dad, you're my hero."
"Man, that melts you," Ashby said.
Seth was on to something when those four words passed his lips. His father is not only a hero to him, but a hero to the millions living with seizures. He's a testament to what a person living with epilepsy can do in the face of the condition - succeed.
"Why am I doing this? It's to show my sons that anything is possible, and equally important to that, to teach myself that no matter what adversity we face, we can push through it," Ashby said. "We can make it. We can do what we put our hearts to."