James Peterson woke up in jail with no memory of how he got there. Alone and terrified Peterson experienced the triple sting of his addictions (smoking, drinking and abusing drugs.) To start over, he’d need new, lasting strength, but where to find it?
Help came via a phone call nearly two years later but not until Peterson lost both his father (lung cancer) and his mother (broken heart). Peterson’s cousins Sean Murray and Bob Harazin found Peterson during a time of soul searching and challenged him to train for an Olympic distance triathlon.
Peterson hesitantly said he would sign up. But hearing his cousins’ and friends’ wager on his chances of sticking with it sealed his decision. Peterson was in and knew he’d later finish the 1-mile swim, 25-mile bike and 6.2-mile run. He booked sessions with a trainer (Tony Designer) at a local gym and began spinning, running, doing core work and circuit training. As his body became lean and strong Peterson felt more confident and found his sobriety easier to manage.
Nine months of hard work later Peterson arrived on race site prepared but also sick with anxiety. It’s common to be intimidated on race morning. Every athlete seems fast, fit and more prepared.
“At first I didn’t feel like I belonged there,” says Peterson. It helped having his cousins with him. “I was intimidated for sure but I met a few nice people. The mental aspect of your first race is unlike anything you can imagine.” As is the finish line!
Once Peterson crossed his first finish he wanted more. He met again with his trainer and decided to train for Ironman Louisville the following year. A new plan combining weight lifting, core, hi-intensity cardio, swimming, biking and running, kept Peterson busy. He also tightened his diet and improved his nutrition.
Peterson calls Ironman Louisville astonishing, and says he learned much about himself on race day. For example, due to his past failures and low self-esteem Peterson says “I never thought for a million years that I would accomplish anything like the Ironman.” But, in the end he found anything is possible with hard work, dedication, passion, a lot of sweat and a few tears. You can make your dreams come true, he says.
Peterson finished the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run in 13:17. Bob Harazin, Peterson’s cousin, was so inspired watching Peterson race in Louisville that he decided to sign up for Ironman Wisconsin 2010.
“Bob is the reason I started triathlon,” says Peterson. “I can’t wait to see him finish his first Ironman with me this September.”
Peterson’s life has changed in many ways since becoming a triathlete. Physically he lost over 25 pounds and reduced his body fat to less than nine percent. “I feel amazing,” he says. “Nothing better than taking your suits in to get fitted and having the tailor say “was this your suit?” Peterson kept one old suit to try on when he needs reinforcement and to realize how far he’s come in the past two years.
“It’s so rewarding to know that a person can make a change if you make up your mind,” he says. “The human spirit is an amazing gift that God has given and if we channel it we can do anything.”
Emotionally Peterson feels closer to God and to his parents who passed away. He says he’s now able to manage his sobriety with a constructive outlet that gives him an avenue to deal with the stress of life.
For others currently struggling with depression or addiction Peterson says triathlon training can help people deal with anger, sadness and pain by fighting back with physical activity. He says first you must acknowledge addiction is hurting your life and also ask for help. Finally Peterson realizes triathlon alone won’t cure depression or addiction. And like anything triathlon can become an unhealthy addiction if training and life choices become unbalanced.
“The one thing I want people to know about my story is that you don’t have to be on thin ice in life or have a tragedy to find a reason to get involved with triathlon” says Peterson. “It was and has been and will be a great way for me to meet friends, to live a healthy and meaningful life. I’m no different than anyone else. I’m not a pro-triathlete and will never become one. I love to compete and triathlon is a way I can deal with life on life’s terms.”
Peterson’s friends and family were proud and surprised to learn that Peterson became an Ironman triathlete. “I still get the introduction of ‘hey, this is my friend, cousin, brother, nephew, grandson, or sales manager Jimmy, he’s an Ironman.’ I don’t think that will ever get old for me to hear!”
- Learn about other athletes' experiences with addiction and endurance sports in this CNN article "Former Drug Addicts Find New Fixation on Triathlons."
I discovered Mr. Peterson’s story in this article on X8 -- an active lifestyle network in South Florida. Its mission is to motivate people to eXceed their limits and to take their lives to the next level and to provide the #1 local active lifestyle network.
Photos submitted by Mr. Peterson via his friends and family.