Terry Crowley’s back problems motivated him to become a triathlete. See story, page 2. (Courtesy of Mountain Man Triathlon)

This Sunday Forest Park resident Terry Crowley will do the Chicago Triathlon. That includes a .9-mile swim off Belmont Harbor, 26 miles on his bike and a 6.1 mile run at the end. 

He said all triathlons include swimming, biking and running, but they come in a variety of distances. An Ironman, for example, includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and ends with a full marathon, a run of 26.2 miles. The event in which he will participate on Sunday is called an Olympic Triathlon.

In the last three years, with time off for COVID, the 45-year-old has completed one full Ironman and three half Ironman’s, one Olympic and two or what are called sprints.

Crowley described the events that led him to become a triathlete in terms that sound a little bit like testimonies of religious conversions. He played soccer in grade school and football in high school — made the team but was not a star athlete. It was while he was in his early thirties that a series of experiences that most people would call bad luck turned out to be the doorway to a healthier lifestyle.

“In my thirties,” he said, “I took a year off from drinking, because I realized that I was drinking too much. I discovered that I had a lot more energy when I wasn’t drinking and became very active doing sky diving, riding dirt bikes and golfing. Then, he said, he broke his arm while riding a motorcycle, and at the same time had back issues caused by a slipped disk in his back. 

Terry Crowley pedals during the bicycle portion of a triathlon. (Courtesy of Mountain Man Triathlon)

“I had been pounding Vicodin for six months when one day the pain was so bad that I found myself lying in a fetal position on the floor, and as I lay there, I told myself that when my back gets better I’m going to get moving. I’m going to do a marathon.

“It took about six months for my back to heal enough for me to start running,” he said, “and six months after that I was doing a marathon. So the real impetus for becoming a triathlete was my back going out!”

 When he began the training for that first marathon, Crowley discovered that there are techniques based on science which have to be learned to enable triathletes to even finish these tests of endurance. He said marathoners run differently than does a baseball player trying to beat out a bunt or a basketball player driving for the basket.

Another example he cited is that long distance races on a bike require that he maintain a pedal cadence of about 180 revolutions per minute. At first he wore a watch that told him how many rpms he was maintaining and how his heart was doing. Now, he said, he just knows his body so well that he doesn’t need the technology.

Another technological decision involves which of his two bikes he is going to use. If the course is flat, he will choose his triathlon bike on which he rides hunched over the handlebars to increase his aerodynamic efficiency. If the course is hilly, he will use his road bike.

Nutrition is a huge part of his formula for getting through the event. He said a body has enough calories stored up for about two hours of strenuous activity. After two hours, he said, what he called his “sweet spot” is about 20 ounces of water and 200 to 300 calories per hour while on his bike and 150 calories per hour while running.

Before his daily training run he’ll eat an apple and a banana because they digest in just 10 minutes and provide quick energy. A piece of bread and a steak can take up to three hours to digest. “I get my protein,” he said, “after my workout.”

That said, Crowley knows the biggest part of doing a triathlon is mental. “The mental part,” he said, “is the biggest part. As long as you have decent training, the rest is mental. How much pain can you take to finish the race. Most people only give 40% at anything they do. Your body is capable of so much more. Their mentality is what stops people, not their bodies.”

He admitted there are days when he doesn’t want to get out of bed and do another round of training. That’s where discipline and habits come in. Discipline, he said, is what pushes you to do what you don’t want to do. But, he added, that disciplining yourself to do over and over what you don’t want to do produces habits that carry you over those mental hurdles that try to prevent you from taking more steps toward your goal.

He said the habit of training every morning is engrained in his mind now that when he wakes up and sees his running shoes, his mind stops thinking and he just allows the habit to get him out for a run. He no longer decides whether or not he’s going to train that day. He said the habit gets him past the protests his body is telling him, and that once he is out on his run he’s glad to be out doing it.

He got philosophical and said, “I guess you learn a lot of great life lessons while participating in endurance events.”

He said getting that runner’s high after working out does help and that having the goal of finishing a big test is also high motivating.

Understanding that most people picture triathlons as torture, he said that it takes a few months to get into the habits that sustain him, but after that the training, swimming, biking and running are actually enjoyable.

“Besides,” he added, “Pain is temporary, wounds heal and chicks dig scars.”