Ours is a sport full of contradicting perspectives. To many it is the domain of the super elite, the fittest of the fit, the folks who will swim, bike and run all day long and never get tired. These notions are held by people that haven’t been to an Ironman or a Coast to Coast. Those who have will see it as a sport for everyone and anyone. All shapes, backgrounds, ages and abilities. Sure, everyone has their own reasons for being there, but the fact is anyone is both welcome and embraced in endurance sport.
I met Simon Lucas last week in the lane beside me at Barooga swimming pool here in country New South Wales. He asked about my hand paddles and I was immediately drawn to him. There was something about the energy, passion and genuineness radiating from him that soon had me pausing my watch in the middle of my 100’s and striking up a yarn. It’s all the same attributes he is exuding as we now sit together in a coffee shop here in Tocumwal and I ask him about his story.
His is a story that has blown my mind. He is quite simply one of the most inspirational people I have met in my 12 years in endurance sports. At this point I want to thank Simon for his friendship, his openness and honesty and his willingness to share with me in great detail where he has come from in the past couple of years, where he is now and where he is going (and believe me, he is absolutely going there, not a shadow of a doubt).
It’s October 2015 and Simon has just been told by his doctor that he is very likely to die of a heart attack at any second. Not even 40 years old, morbidly obese, chronically depressed and suffering serious anxiety issues, dangerously high blood pressure and now within the past few minutes being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, he is at absolute rock bottom. He is 176kg at this point and on heavy doses of medication for both depression and anxiety. Being given the double dose of news that he now had diabetes and may die very soon, he is spiralling deeper into a dark world.
He gets in the car to drive home to his family and their dairy farm. During the 20min drive he finds his mind drifting towards his cousin, Peter Short, who raced the Ironman World Champs in Kona a few years back and completely captured Simon’s imagination. He knows he needs to make some big changes. He doesn’t want to die, his kid’s need a father and he knows the only way to survive is to change his thinking and change his health.
“I am going to race Ironman in Kona” he tells his wife Donna as he arrives home and looks at his three children. His wife smiles in suspicion but ensures he knows she’ll support any major changes he chooses to make. So the deal is done and Simon knows that for anything to change it needs to begin with his mind. He chooses to make a complete mental switch to positive thinking. As simple as that. “I started to watch Kona races on YouTube, read books about healthy eating and find ways to help people around me” he says. These were the ways he was able to make the initial changes in his mind set to positive thinking. Next came walking and running around the farm instead of driving. Then there was giving up sugar completely. The withdrawals and cravings lasted a fortnight but his commitment was never going to wane.
“I find the more I help people and give to those around me, the more I personally get in return, it makes me happy” Simon explains. He is known to show up randomly at friend’s houses with a cup of coffee. Those that he knows suffer from mental demons much like he has. Often he will sit there in silence and let them speak. By the time he leaves he can see the changes in their eyes, just by being there for a mate, listening and accepting.
Simon quit his work on the farm run by his wife and sister-in-law. His passion for helping others led him to enrol to study nursing. “Money means nothing to me. It obviously helps and I need it as much as anybody, but my decisions are now made on what makes me happy and what is best for my family. Nursing is about helping people every day, which is sure to make me happy doing what I love every day”.
Alongside his studies he is training wholeheartedly towards the first of 12 planned Ironman triathlons. He ran 20km from home this morning to meet me for coffee (he had a peppermint tea). He laughs as he reflects on his ability to run up to 200m when he first made the decision to change his life. That was 76 kilograms ago and his blood pressure is now 120/80, he no longer has diabetes, his resting pulse is about 50bpm lower and he is taking roughly 10% of the medications he was on for depression and anxiety. “They (medications) are designed to change the chemical imbalances in your brain” he explains; “I am now changing those same brain chemicals through exercise”.
So why 12 Ironman races? It is all about that initial goal, Kona. There is a “Legacy” program, on offer to age group athletes that complete 12 Ironman races which gives them an increased chance of scoring a slot to the ‘big dance’ in Hawaii. Most folks take several years to chew their way through this undertaking. “Whether it takes me 2 years, 4 or 10, I am going to Kona” Simon declares with absolute conviction. He stares constantly at the finishing photo of his cousin Peter in Kona; he wants one of his own.
“I am at my happiest when I am helping make someone smile” Simon reasserts as I ask him what is driving him forward. Then his face changes and I can see his mind drift off to somewhere specific, where ever his thoughts have just travelled, I know it is to a place or a person deep in his heart.
“Kylie grew up with my wife. She is one of my best mates” he begins. Kylie is a middle-aged wife to Nigel and mother to 7 year old Bella. She is a sufferer of Cystic Fibrosis, diagnosed later in life and in desperate need of a lung transplant. As an ‘older’ sufferer of the disease she is well down the list of recipients and it is highly unlikely she will ever receive one. Her life is likely to be much shorter than it would otherwise have been. She doesn’t have a lot of time left. Yet she works full time to help sustain her family and the medical bills and massive doses of medications involved in fighting the disease. “I want to raise money as part of my journey to help Nigel and Bella” Simon states. It’s a hell of a situation for me to digest, but within all of this I can see the greater purpose that Simon is serving as he continues to forge a life that couldn’t be of greater contrast to the one he lived until that day at the doctor in 2015.
The empowerment the sport has provided him is evident in everything he says and does. “I never used to aim for anything higher than where I felt like I belonged. I lived every moment within my comfort zone. Now I don’t doubt myself. I tell my kids they should never doubt themselves. I will aim to do anything that I feel strongly drawn towards, and right now that is Ironman”. He has found a new community at the local gym, crediting the owner Jamie with much of his health and fitness gains to date.
So onwards he goes, towards his debut Ironman at Busselton in December. I am privileged to be racing that same event and I will be at that finish line to see him come in. It will be the first of 12 big finishes he will experience before the 13th one in Kona. Next week he will set up a fundraising page to help generate some funds to help off-set Kylie and her family’s financial stresses. I for one will be contributing. Because this is a guy who gives to so many. He is someone who makes Ironman tangible to anybody through his openness, his honesty and the journey he has had to get to his first event in December. He told me this week how inspiring it was to meet a pro athlete. It made me feel embarrassed, because to whatever extent he feels inspired by me, I can guarantee it pales in comparison to the inspiration I feel in his company. It is people like Simon that make this sport what it is and keep people like me focused on the real reasons we choose to do it. Good on you Simon and I wish you every success in the world.