Saturday, November 06, 2010

Against the Odds ~ Battling Crohn's Disease to Become a Triathlete.

Guest Post by Ari Meisel

When you’re lying in a hospital bed, overcome by wave after wave of excruciating pain, the last thing you can imagine is ever being drug-free, let alone training to become an endurance athlete.

Four years ago I was unceremoniously given a diagnosis for Crohn’s Disease, and what was predicted
to be a life-long drug regimen complete with severe and entirely undesirable side effects. Crohn’s
Disease, which is currently incurable, is a disease that can affect any part of the gastrointestinal system,
but typically shows up in the form of constricted intestines. Frequent (as in, every 15 minutes) trips to
the bathroom, severe pain, malnutrition, and the danger of obstructions when food gets stuck, make life
At the time my doctor called, I had just started dating the girl who was to become my wife, absolutely the
last thing you need when you are embarking on a new relationship, and are supposed to be enjoying every
second of each other’s company. That and the fact that discussing your stomach problems is difficult at
the best of times, let alone to a girl you like, let alone when your drugs are inducing daily nausea, hairloss
and steroid induced aggression. My own body was my enemy and I was in a deep, dark hole for a
long time.
For those around me it must have been distressing. I had grown up as someone who loved life, loved
challenges, could see opportunities and seize them. I started my first company at the age of 12, and after
graduating a year early from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, moved to Binghamton
to spend the next three years working eighteen hour days learning every kind of construction trade
imaginable, so that I could convert a number of run-down historic cigar factories I had managed to buy,
into luxury lofts.

Although I was in my early twenties and exerting myself each and every day, I was drinking every night
after work, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, and surviving almost exclusively on fast food. It’s hard
to know what causes Crohn’s, and it’s been suggested that a combination of lifestyle factors can lead to
the appearance of the disease. However, in my mind there was no doubt that the stresses of my lifestyle
at that time contributed to my diagnosis, and I knew that if I was to get through the years ahead, it would
all be down to improving my health and becoming as physically fit as possible.
I’d been on the track team at school, but had always hated running, and after rupturing my patella tendon
rock-climbing, hadn’t been to a gym in years. I decided to begin my new fitness regime by purchasing a
Wii Fit.
It sounds silly, but if you haven’t worked out in a long time, the program is an ideal way to become
accustomed to the idea of working out. I’d get up at 6am everyday and stumble into the living room
to exercise, and after three months decided I should step it up and go back to the gym. I was still
experiencing pain everyday and constantly fatigued, and despite moving up to a weight training program,
bench pressing 220 pounds, was still overweight and dissatisfied with my progress.
Another visit to the Emergency Room after yet another obstruction, and a warning that I would most
likely need surgery to remove part of my intestines sent my head spinning. After a lucky escape, and a
chance viewing of a TV advert for the Insanity Workout, I vowed to get back on my fitness program and
take control of my body once and for all.
An hour’s worth of reverse interval training, in sports specific drills is enough to bring even a fit person to
their knees by the end, but in my state, it took only thirty minutes before I collapsed on the floor, gasping
for air. Sheer determination kept me going and by the end of the first week I could make it through a full
hour. Two months later I had lost thirty pounds, my blood pressure and cholesterol had dropped more
than 20% and my resting heart-rate had dropped from eighty-two to sixty.
Next came yoga. Anna, who was by then my wife, had decided to become certified as a yoga instructor
and open her own studio. While I had managed to manage my pain, and avoid any further hospital visits,
I was still on a lot of drugs and wanted to take a more holistic route. With three, four, sometimes five
practices a week, the twisting motions would massage my internal organs, the inversions stimulated
blood-flow and nervous system, and the overall calming effect of yoga had an immediate and profound
effect on my mental state, as well as my body. On my own I started to reduce my drug intake.
Over the next few months my life was transformed. I started practicing Krav Maga, the Israeli martial
art (incidentally, there is nothing quite so cathartic as landing a perfectly aimed kick at someone’s liver)
and training as an EMT. It was during these studies that my classmate Jonathan, a veteran triathlete,
convinced me that I should set myself a goal, a real competition, and we decided to enter the Mighty
Montauk Triathalon.
Soon I was getting up at 5am, to bike, run, or swim, go to the studio for yoga or krav maga or teach my
own cardio conditioning class, part of my own training but a complete hit with my friends, who had
caught my enthusiasm for the workouts. With Anna now qualified as a Holistic Health Counsellor,
I changed to a vegetarian diet and overnight stopped taking all my Crohn’s medicine. No symptoms
returned, I was no longer fatigued, and even my seasonal allergies had disappeared!
Endurance sport is about mental strength as much as it is about physical conditioning. The body is
extremely resourceful, and much more resilient than we imagine. Race day quickly arrived and diving
into the lake for the 1-mile swim, I just pushed myself as hard as I could. “You’re swimming farther
than you’ve ever swum before”, is all I kept thinking. The bike ride went by in a flash and I was into
the run. By the last mile every part of my body wanted to quit, “You good? PUSH THE BUTTON
BABY!!” yelled Jonathan who had appeared at my side. I listened, and pushed.
Completing the race in 2 hours 37 minutes, the feeling was indescribable. On every level the road to the
finish line had been hard, but somehow I had made it. The mental and physical freedom from illness sent
me soaring, and it’s a lesson I constantly pass on to others. It’s about finding what it is that drives you
and then amplifying it until you become an unstoppable force. The committed mind cannot be overcome,
so don’t let anybody, least of all your own body, tell you that you cannot do something.
Next up for me, Ironman France. A 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike-ride and a marathon. Think I’m crazy?
Just watch me do it! 


Ari will be competing in Ironman France on June 26, 2011. He’s a member of the board of the
Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. For more information visit

Incidentally Ari, amongst his many business ventures writes one of my favourite blogs ( and is an all around great guy!
I can relate to his story as I too came back from the ravages of Crohn's Disease to win 2 World Titles in All-Round Weightlifting and set several World records for feats of strength.
You can recover and live the life of your dreams. Ari's done it, I've done it. Now it's your turn! :)

~ Cliff

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