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People we've met on the road to fitness this year

By Lenny Berstein
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 11:50 AM

The endless quest for fitness is largely a solitary endeavor. Even if you take yoga or spin or Pilates classes with other people, the hard work of sticking to your program and putting in the effort every time is up to you.

But we all draw resolve from the sometimes remarkable determination of others. I wrote two weeks ago of marathon coach Mike Broderick's ability to help hundreds of runners reach their goals before his sudden death, and I realized how many other inspirational stories I'd encountered in 2010 alone.

As you get ready to make those New Year's fitness resolutions, here are a few stories to help you along.

A blind athlete sees it through to the finish line

As Doug Powell plodded, exhausted, through the final miles of Ironman Wisconsin in September, other racers kept shouting out to him. Not the usual "You can do it" or "Keep going," but "Thanks" and "You're such an inspiration."

Powell is almost completely blind. The 60-year-old Falls Church resident did the 140.6-mile swim-bike-run in 16 hours, six minutes, tethered to a sighted racer.

"At first I was embarrassed," Powell told me the other day. But later he realized that "I've touched something in other people that they resonate with."

Think about how exhausting and mentally taxing it would be for any of us to train for such an event, and then add the obstacles Powell had to overcome. Anytime he wanted to train on the road, on a bike or in open water, he needed a sighted partner, someone willing and able to go hours at his pace. This was not infrequent; Powell logged two one-hour training sessions a day for the better part of a year, plus a long run or bike ride every Saturday.

When last winter's snowstorms hit, Powell logged an unbelievable four-hour session on his treadmill and 71/2 hours on a bicycle trainer. The commitment needed to train for the race was so great that he missed a memorial service when his wife's father passed away.

I ventured that it is impossible to come through such an experience without some sort of epiphany, and Powell, an athlete all his life, said the year "reinforced that I will do what it takes. I don't think I could have said that about myself for all of my life.

"I don't think I've changed," he added, "other than I've done something that no one can take away from me."

Training for the Ironman, retraining for a healthy life

Camilo Ramirez has changed too, physically and mentally. One look at the "before" and "after" photos on this page will give you an idea of how the 27-year-old communication specialist's body has developed, but here are a few particulars: He gained 15 pounds of muscle. He wasn't able to do a single pull-up when he started training for a half-Ironman triathlon; now he can do 10 or 15 at a time. He dropped his run time from eight minutes a mile to 7:40. He now typically swims 40 or 50 minutes continuously in the pool, where he once could log only 10. He finished the grueling race in 5:53.

But that's not all. The lifestyle changes that his training demanded were almost as difficult and, ultimately, as rewarding. He had to limit his partying and drinking and, in the final two months, stop altogether. He had to get his sleep, eat healthfully and, with 20 hours a week devoted to training, live life more efficiently. He had to make every minute count.

"Training overall gave me a real sense of balance, with work, with the relationships in my life," he said. Friends have used his example to motivate themselves, he said.

Now fitness is an ingrained part of Ramirez's routine, a change that health experts are asking all of us to make. "If I'm not in the gym 3-4 times a week, something is off and I notice a difference," he wrote me in an e-mail. "Training/exercising is a central part of my life."

Learning to walk before she can run

You don't have to finish a triathlon to make real change in your life. For lots of us, conquering bad habits learned over years and years can be nearly as big a victory.

When I talked to her nearly a year ago, Betsy Lowrey had stopped exercising, gained 60 pounds and was suffering from high blood pressure and asthma.

Today she is exercising once a week, has lost 10 pounds and kept it off and lowered her body mass index by a few points. She is the first to acknowledge that her progress has been modest, but she is encouraged that she has restarted her fitness routine. It includes a quarter-mile walk on an indoor track followed by 30 minutes of resistance work in the gym at the Pentagon, where she works.

Sometimes the 67-year-old Springfield resident will take the elevator to the fifth floor and walk down the stairs to her second-floor office. She parks farther away from the shopping mall than she once did to force herself to walk more.

"The fact that I've kept my weight off and I'm feeling better is a victory," she said. "I'm trying to change my lifestyle to the point where I build in more physical activity."

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