Celebrating an OT Ironman

I recently received an email from an OT that I had worked with many moons ago, Allysin Bridges. Allysin is one of those superb people that has positive energy and is just wonderful to have around, a great representative of OT daily and even with the state legislature. And in an example of good things happening to good people, Allysin was selected from a lottery to participate in one of the greatest races in the world- the Ironman Triathlon Championship in Kona, Hawaii. If you're not familiar with triathlon, it is a three part race requiring the athlete to swim, bike, and run. The Ironman takes this to a level that only an accomplished athlete can finish: 2.4 miles of open-water swimming, 112 miles biking, and a 26.2 marathon run! I think that participating in an Ironman is reason enough for joy, but Allysin is taking it to another level of awesome by racing to benefit the Blazeman Warrior Foundation for ALS! Read on to learn more about Allysin's story and her challenge which is much bigger than a bucket of ice water!

- Where are you working now?

I am working for JHU School of Nursing on the CAPABLE study with Dr. Sarah Szanton. It is a grant funded program to help low income, Baltimore City older adults age in place safely using a three discipline approach - an OT, RN and a handyman (we are working with CivicWorks). I love it!

- How did you get interested in triathlon? Have you completed an Ironman before?

I had returned back to MD in 2002 after finishing grad school at NYU and had picked up a few (ahem) pounds. I was bored with the gym and was looking for another outlet. A neighbor told my mom about triathlons (she had been doing them for years) and that was her outlet. So I looked into it and I had been a mountain biker since I was 18 and loved the water so I figured it would be a good fit. So I did my first experience was Dewey Beach Sprint. I was pretty green going into it not really knowing the logistics of it (like transitions!) but I finished with a huge smile on my face and knew I had been bitten by the tri-bug. I then went into longer tri's (1/2 Ironmans) with Team In Training and I really loved the spirit and comraderie of the tri community. I trained a year for FL IM 2006 with 10 of my TNT friends and we all but 1 finished (she went back the following year and crushed it!). I took a hiatus after that to have babies and went back to it in 2011 and don't plan to stop until my body tells me so (but I don't listen well).

- How many hours are you training now each week? How do you find a balance between work, family, and training?

Training for an Ironman is a different animal. And knowing it's the World Championship, even more so. My big training days are on the weekends. And those usually add up to be 5-7 hours each day at this point since I am only 8 weeks out from the big day! A week, I average 15-23. It's basically a part time job. The balance of life while training for this type of endurance event is difficult. I rely on my mom, Jason (my sons' dad) and Dennis (my partner). Many people joke and call themselves "Ironman Widows." It is definitely a lot of time dedicated to this one thing, but in the end, this is a once in a lifetime experience and fortunately, my loved ones understand that and back me up.

- Have you found support from your colleagues in your athletic pursuits?

Aside from them thinking that I am clinically certifiably nuts, they are very excited for me. My boss knew that I was getting close to crunch time and offered a different schedule that will work out great for the next couple months. I'm very lucky. I can't get any of them to train with me though!

- You are racing for the Blazeman Warrior Foundation for ALS because you have a personal connection with this disease. Can you tell us more about that?

They are personally invested in finding a cure and raising awareness as they lost their son, Jon, in 2007 to the disease. Jon did the Kona IM in 2005 after being diagnosed and finished! ALS hits me hard. My dad died of it in 1997 after being diagnosed 2 yrs prior. It was devastating to watch an incredibly healthy and vibrant man turn into a shell with no movement, speech but had all his mental capacities. I think that's the worst part of it; being completely aware that your body has betrayed you. Imagine how annoying it is when you can't reach that itch on your foot when your shoes are on. It's like that but he couldn't scratch it and eventually couldn't even tell us he had an itch. I also feel that the caregivers go so unnoticed and they are in need of so much support.

When I became an OT, I knew that I was not capable of treating patients with ALS. I would break down as soon as I saw the diagnosis. I tried again in 2012 in an outpatient, multidisciplinary setting. They appreciated my personal connection to it but not so much what I had to say. There isn't anything positive I can tell people because it ends the same - the diaphragm shuts down and that's it. I tried comforting the patients and caregivers especially but I just didn't feel I was doing them any good as an OT. I was too close. To this day, I am haunted by the death of my dad. That's why I am passionate about finding a cure. It has to stop.

- Do you have any tips for families dealing with ALS or therapists who many not be used to the disease?

Advice: give the caregivers TLC because they are going to need it during and after. Keep researching and keep up with the newest technology for communication. Coping strategies are going to be important for all involved. It's hard for us, I think, as OTs to separate sometimes from our patients, especially when there is a personal involvement. But for those who are good with ALS patients, I thank you, applaud you, and owe you! They need you!

- Have you found any part of your OT training to be helpful in triathlon training?

Great question and I had to think on this a little. A lot of the sport is mental, whether it's during training or the race itself. It's funny how your brain can get in your way. So I have to refer back to skills I've taught my patients (a lot of psych stuff). Planning out tasks, setting goals (that's a big one), asking for help (this is a work in progress). Anatomy and physiology really helps when I have to describe and locate my pain! Actually, A&P and kinesiology help a lot during strength training, stretching and simple modalities.

- Do you have any advice for finding balance between work, family, and leisure pursuits?

Let them all mingle and be involved whenever possible. On the same coin, be sure to set aside time for just those roles/aspects - they deserve it.

- Any other info you want to share is welcome!

After I finished FL IM, I told myself that I'd do one more, and if at all possible, it was going to be Kona. I knew I wouldn't qualify so when I thought the timing was right, I put my name in for the Lottery. April 15th, Mike Reilly made that dream come true when he called me and told I was going to Kona, baby! He actually has the phone call on his website :)

Way to go Allysin! Completing such an awesome athletic pursuit is great, but to do it to fundraise for others is absolutely terrific! If you can, please consider making a donation through Allysin to the Blazeman Warrior Foundation. The Ironman championship takes place October 11 and is televised (in an abbreviated format) in the US.