Ironman Triathlon Competitor Shad Ireland Refuses to Let His Grueling Lifelong Battle with Life-Threatening Kidney Disease Prevent Him from Accomplishing Astounding Goals
Like countless young boys before and after him, Shad Ireland dreamed as a child of becoming a professional athlete like the ones he watched on TV. But whereas other boys might be encouraged by the adults in their lives to strive relentlessly toward their dreams, Shad was given a different message. Diagnosed with kidney failure in childhood, he learned early on that he probably had just two to five years to live and would not reach adulthood at all, let alone become a strong and capable man someday. “When doctors tell you that they have one hundred and fifty years of combined expertise and this is what they know, why would you question them?” he points out.
Of course, the doctors weren’t really saying this to the child. They told Shad’s mother of the prognosis, and she was honest with her son about the grim prospects. It wasn’t any great surprise, though. As young as the age of ten, he was undergoing regular dialysis which left him so sick he became suicidal. “I remember spending hours in the bathroom, lying on the cool tile floor, just wanting to die because I felt so awful. I was frantic and angry and petrified,” he recounted.
And from what he saw, there was little cause for hope. Nine other children started a program of dialysis at the University of Minnesota Medical Center along with Shad; over time he would see every last one of them die. The hope that he might fare better was a difficult one to seize, and his teen years were full of desperation.Raised without a father, he saw his mother struggle to care for him and meet his medical and financial needs, sometimes going without food herself so that she could pay for his medicine and treatment.
At eighteen, Shad underwent a kidney transplant and briefly had hope that his life would change. But unfortunately, recovery would prove to be elusive. The transplant failed within three years, leaving Shad in a coma. His parents were told to make funeral arrangements. But he rallied, and eventually became well enough to leave the hospital, though not much better than that. At the age of twenty-one, he found himself lying on the couch in his mother’s house, weighing seventy-five pounds, so sick it would take him an hour to walk to the kitchen for a glass of water. “I had to relearn how to walk because the muscles in my legs were so weak,” he said.
Then something transformative happened. He turned on the TV and chanced upon coverage of the Ironman Triathlon competition in Kona, Hawaii, an annual contest consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run.
“I found myself sitting on the side of the couch screaming at the TV,” Shad said. “I had no idea who these people were, but I was watching them do something I thought was impossible. And then there was the backdrop of Hawaii: the palm trees and ocean. I was raised in Minnesota; I’d never seen anything like that. I fell in love with it. And as I watched one of the athletes crawl across the finish line, I told my mom that was going to be me one day.”
His mother, who had struggled to put herself through night school and became a licensed nurse, knew how improbable that was, but it gave Shad a new sense of purpose. “For the first time in my life since I was diagnosed, I had hope. I had something to focus on besides this nasty disease,” he said. “I fell asleep on the couch that afternoon dreaming of Hawaii. I made a promise to myself that day. It was that promise that gave me the strength to fight.”
For a while, Shad did fight toward that goal, trying to gain weight and build up enough strength to start functioning normally again. “That process was horrific and extremely painful,” Shad said. And somewhere along the way, he gave up. “At some point over the next few years, I forgot I’d made that promise to myself, and I fell back into my pattern of being self-destructive. I told myself I was told I wouldn’t live past the age of twenty-five. On my twenty-fifth birthday, I awoke angry that I was still alive and in that same body. For fifteen years, I’d been told I was going to die, and I didn’t die, but I also wasn’t getting any better.”
In his mid-twenties, Shad resolved to meet his mother’s goal for him to get a college education. “I attended Metropolitan State University,” he said. “One of the first classes I took was called ‘Perspectives,’ led by a professor named Philip Bell. I walked into class that first day weighing maybe eighty pounds, skin and bones, with terrible self-esteem. Professor Bell said to us, “Today is the day your life changes. Today is the day I teach you to ask questions and seek answers.”
Professor Bell then asked each student to describe his or her source of inspiration. One student announced her wish to end world hunger. Another student said he wanted to cure cancer. Shad got up to leave the room, but the professor called him back and insisted he answer the question for himself. Caught off guard, Shad responded that he wanted to be rich enough to drive a Ferrari. The other students looked appalled, as Shad recalls, but Professor Bell just smiled. “I think he knew the next few weeks would change my life,” Shad said. “He forced me to examine myself inwardly. He told me to pick up a pen and write about something traumatic. I said my whole life had been traumatic. He said, ‘Then you have a lot to write about don’t you?’ At that moment I hated him, but I started writing just as he told me to do, and I haven’t stopped writing since. My third book is coming out next year.”
Three weeks after the class ended, Shad realized just how powerful his professor’s influence had been. “I was walking out of the dialysis clinic” – a regime of three or four dialysis treatments per week has been the norm throughout Shad’s life – “and it was a beautiful day. I walked past a young man in a wheelchair, paralyzed from neck down. He looked at me and smiled. My first thought was ‘What do you have to smile about?’ And then I realized, there but for the grace of God go I. What would this young man give to spend twenty minutes in my shoes – to be able to walk, to run? At that moment, it was as if the world went from black and white to color. I suddenly felt that God was telling me that I needed to do something, that I needed to beat this disease.”
For the first time in his life, Shad took matters into his own hands. “I started to do research into kidney disease. I looked to see what kind of information was on line. I did just what Professor Bell had taught me: ask questions, find answers. I learned about some possible ways to tweak my therapy and improve it a little. I started to feel a little bit better for the first time in my life, and that made me want to work harder to feel even better still. I started gaining confidence.”
Shad finished college and found work as a network engineer, but sitting in a cubicle working with computers disheartened him, and when the job ended, he considered losing it a blessing. “At that point, I remember that promise I’d made to myself at twenty-one. I walked into the dialysis clinic and said, ‘I’m going to do the Ironman World Championship.”
At the moment he made that announcement in the dialysis clinic, the odds against him were nearly insurmountable. “I couldn’t lift a 5-pound dumbbell or walk thirty seconds on a treadmill,” he said. “I walked into a fitness center and saw all these guys who looked like football players watching me. I felt humiliated, and then I got angry. I told myself by the end of the week I would be able to walk thirty seconds on the treadmill.”
And it was that kind of determination that carried Shad through what must surely have been the most remarkable transformation anyone around him had ever seen. Despite the skepticism of his medical team, he did find one doctor who ran ultramarathons and wanted to help Shad, despite first warning him that no one with his condition had ever competed in the Ironman Triathlon. Dr. Michael Somermeyer oversaw his medical care as Shad underwent training, nearly doubling his weight and increasing his strength exponentially.
Sponsored by Amgen, a company dedicated to serving the communities of nephrology and oncology, Shad made his way to the Ironman qualifiers in Lake Placid in July of 2004. “Today I realize that I was delusional,” Shad admitted. “I arrived in Lake Placid with no idea what to expect. There were 2,500 other athletes in the water as we began the swim; I put myself in the front because I wanted to win. The cannon went off and everyone else swam right past me.”Adding to the poignancy, his mother, though only in her mid-fifties, was by then dying of small cell cancer – she would live only another six months – and could not make the trip to watch him, but forced herself out of bed to monitor his progress by computer. As a professional nurse, she not only wanted to cheer him on but wanted reassurance that he would survive the competition, being well aware of how grave his condition was.
To the astonishment of the crowd, many of whom had by now heard about the then 31-year-old Minnesota native with no working kidneys competing in their midst, Shad pushed his way through the biking and through the swimming components of the competition. Then he started the 26-mile run. “I completed the first mile and then ran out of gas,” he said. “I had 25 miles left. I started walking it.”
Paramedics, aware of his condition, ran over to pull him off the course and get him medical attention. Shad refused. “I said, ‘I’m finishing this race.’” It was well into the evening; he’d been up since before dawn getting ready for the race. “By the time I was three miles from the end, my white Nikes had turned red from my feet bleeding. I had one mile to go and needed to sit down. Just then a man ran out of the crowd and said ‘I know who you are! You’re the guy with no kidneys! I’ve been following you. You are awesome!’”
Too exhausted to be flattered, Shad tried to shake the man loose and sit down, but his fan persisted. “He said, ‘I’m going to run with you to the finish line. We’re going to do this together.’ So he starts running and says, ‘C’mon, let’s go!’ My run resembled a penguin waddle, it hurt so bad. Then he told me something I hadn’t realized: the Ironman has a time limit of seventeen hours, and we were sixteen hours in. If I didn’t finish it that hour, it would be as if I’d never competed at all.”
He later learned that the man who urged him along was a representative from the drug company Merck whose role at the race was to cheer people on, just as he had done with Shad. In the end, the race took Shad sixteen hours, twenty-five minutes and ten seconds. “I’ve never been happy with that time,” Shad admitted. “But I’m very proud of the fact that I made history that day. By crossing the finish line, I did the very thing that people told me couldn’t be done.”
It would turn out to be a transformative event. Since then, Shad has never stopped using the position of influence that he gained by doing that race to try to inspire people. “Athletes yield influence, whether they are in the NFL, the NBA, the MBL, or a triathlete. We have the ability to influence the communities we care about.”
And Shad has made it his life’s work to build upon the message of determination and resolve demonstrated by his life story. Among the many people who have told him that he inspired them was a 63-year-old from the Czech Republic with kidney disease who emailed him to say that because of the way he had inspired her, she was going to take a walk in the woods and watch the birds, just as she loved to do. “It was emails like that and from all over the world that made me decide I would start a foundation for people with kidney disease and try to help people to find stability despite their diagnosis.”The mission statement of the Shad Ireland Foundation (www.shadirelandfoundation.org) is to assist those with kidney disease and their families in the areas of education, prevention, awareness and access.
Although the Shad Ireland Foundation is dedicated specifically to kidney disease, Shad emphasizes that his story transcends any one physical condition. This is why he recently embarked upon another endeavor directed toward helping people meet whatever goals they set for themselves. This new project, done in partnership with Impact Enterprises, is called“Inspired2Finish” (www.Inspired2Finish.com). The website will house inspiring videos that begin with Ireland’s journey, but will include other famous athletes and celebrities sharing their own personal “finish lines.” “My story isn’t just about kidney disease – it’s about being an underdog,” he said. “It’s about meeting the goals you set for yourself. You could be a single mother whose goal is to get a GED. Or a man struggling with addiction whose goal is to beat that addiction. The Inspired2Finish is intended to show that people who are sufficiently inspired can do what they set out to do, and it provides technology tools to help people meet their goals.”
At the moment, what Shad has set out to do is qualify for the 2014 Ironman World Championships, which will require him to earn one of fifty available slots by competing in Idaho next June. As recently as earlier this year, he has continued to face down physical setbacks: surgery for vascular necrosis in his ankle last winter caused him to almost lose a foot, and his medical team warned him that even if the foot could be saved, his running career was surely over. But after six weeks, when the cast was removed, his surgeon expressed astonishment at the speed with which he had healed and cleared him to continue training. Now Shad is preparing to run the New York City Marathon on November 3, followed by a half-marathon in Las Vegas two weeks later, both of which he is determined to complete.
Shad sees the upcoming Ironman World Championships as not only a testament to his own ceaseless drive but also as a tribute to his mother and her courage in battling cancer. She died in January of 2005. “My mother put her faith in Jesus and approached death like she lived her life, with dignity, faith, respect, courage, and compassion,” Shad wrote in a tribute to Margaret Smythe after her death. “My mother was always there for me and together we faced every medical challenge. As I return to racing, and set my sights on fulfilling my dream, I want to honor her memory! I will wear her name proudly on the front of my 2014 race jersey and together we will face every challenge this race season has to offer and cross every finish line together! Cancer tried to take my mother from me but she will always be with me because a thought is never far away.”
And as proud as Shad is of the astounding athletic abilities he has developed, he credits God and not himself with all his successes. “It’s God’s grace that I’m here and it will be a miracle if I can pull this off, but I’m going to do it,” Shad said with unshakeable determination.“That’s my dream. And I think He’s going to give me the tools I need to pull it off. It all comes from Him. It isn’t about me. I always ask why. Why did I end up with this diagnosis? Why have I had to face so much physical hardship? But I know that all I went through as a child made me the man I am today. I’ve found my passion; I love what I do. If I can show up in Hawaii for the Ironman a couple of decades after I made that promise to myself, maybe a little boy who’s connected to a dialysis machine now doesn’t believe he’s going to die but instead decides maybe he’s going to be a doctor. Or maybe it’s about helping people make the lifestyle changes that can help prevent them from ever getting this disease. Maybe some 300-lb guy sitting on a couch eating a bag of chips hears my story and decides to change his own life by getting up and going for a walk. If I can be that beacon of light that helps people find their way out of the darkness, then the disease was worth it. Then my life makes sense.”
For his abiding faith, his unflagging determination, and the powerful resolve with which he’s already overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Shad is the first honorary (non-NFL) member to be named to the Insightful Player® team. To follow Shad’s progress and learn more about him, go to www.ironshad.com.
Instant replay of Shad’s Guiding Principles:
- Have faith in God, and understand that whatever happens to you is in God’s power.
- Find a source of motivation and lock onto it, so that you can accomplish whatever you set out to do.
- Realize that a power greater than yourself has a plan for you.
- Look for the meaning behind adversity; understand how you are growing from your own suffering.
- Stay humble, knowing that it is God who drives all of your successes.
- Allow other people to motivate and lead you; look for people from whom you can learn and take inspiration.
Triathlon competitor Shad Ireland is a valued member of the Insightful Player® team. To be named to this team, one must be a person of integrity, such as a current or former NFL player, who shares their personal message of hope for the sole purpose of lifting the spirits of all, especially children. As an athlete outside the realm of the NFL, Shad Ireland is the first honorary member to be named to the Insightful Player® team.
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