Vegan diet, determination, support and training lead to healthy lifestyle.
At nearly 400 pounds, Ira Goldberg was lying on the floor one night, watching TV. When he tried to stand up, he wasn’t sure he’d make it.
“It was a complete struggle to get off the ground, and I had a very sobering thought: If this is the best life has to offer you, you are missing the boat,” he recalled. “I was 47 years old and the quality of my life was pretty substandard.”
Goldberg, a teacher at Berkley High School, was taking 11 medications and injecting insulin twice a day for his type 2 diabetes.
“As my physician put it, it’s a matter of how often you want to inject yourself. I was not even coming close to controlling my diabetes and already starting to show the early signs of kidney disease,” he said.
That night, he vowed to change course. Five years later, he’s shed some 200 pounds, completely recovered from diabetes, requires zero medications — and attained the lofty title of Iron Man, a grueling feat completed by just 0.01 percent of the world’s population.
How did the Farmington Hills resident go from morbidly obese to elite athlete in just a few years?
“It was a process of learning new habits and changing my life in terms of how I could,” he said. “I adopted a plant-based lifestyle and am completely vegan. Eighty percent of the food I would get in trouble with is not even an option anymore, so it’s a line that won’t be crossed.”
Though he’d never run competitively — or even around the block — Goldberg became intrigued by an ad he saw for the San Francisco Marathon.
“It was very, very enticing because you run over the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said. “I turned to my wife, Nancy, and said, ‘I am going to do that.’ She said, ‘You’re crazy. If you’re going to train for a run, why train for one of the hilliest ones?’”
Undeterred, Goldberg signed up for the half-marathon in San Francisco just one year later. “Every day when I went to the gym I would envision myself running over the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said. “It was a beautiful run, and I knew I had done the hard work to get there. But the bridge was so encased in fog, everything I had envisioned was out the window. It was still a great moment.”
His appetite whetted, Goldberg still never dreamed he’d do something as arduous as the Iron Man competition, which entails swimming for 2.4 miles, biking for 112 miles and running 26.2 miles. “Steve Elkus, a parent of one of my students, said, ‘If I can do it, you can do it,’ and he started training me and really encouraging me,” Goldberg said.
He gave it a go on a day in September 2016 in Chattanooga, Tenn., where the heat index hit 107 degrees. “The first half was fantastic, and the second half was like a scene from the movie Platoon,” Goldberg said. “Forty percent of the field did not finish. I was 1 mile from the finish when I literally passed out on the bike. The last thing I remember was the sound of my helmet hitting the pavement.”
Rather than view it as a failure, Goldberg decided to consider it a momentary setback. “Not completing was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I learned that I am a bigger person than what happened at this one moment in time. How determined can I be to finish this goal?”
Plenty determined, in fact. Less than a year later, in July 2017, Goldberg competed again in Santa Rosa, Calif. After 15 hours and 30 minutes of continuous motion, he crossed the finish line and heard the words he’d been dreaming of — “Congratulations, you are an Iron Man” — uttered by Mike Reilly, the event’s famed voice.
“It was a very emotional moment. You’re in so much discomfort but on the other hand, it’s kind of like your life flashes before you, and I really mean that,” Goldberg said. “For every time someone said, ‘You can’t do this, you’re not capable of that,’ you realize you knocked every single barrier down. I thought of that 400-pound person who had no reasonable right to expect that he would earn the title Iron Man, and I thought of both my parents, who would have been so unbelievably proud.”
BOTH SIDES NOW
Goldberg, who attends Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield, still holds onto two pairs of clothing from his former life to remind himself how far he has come.
“I look at them and think I never, ever want to go back there, but I also look at that person with a great amount of compassion,” he said. “I always lived my life with a tremendous amount of dignity and self-respect, but I would beat myself up over being 400 pounds. It was very liberating to get to that point where I could say I was genuinely proud of who I am as a person.”
Giving up all animal products also changed Goldberg’s outlook in an unexpected way.
“This has opened the door to exploring how Judaism addresses animal welfare in a very real way. Going vegan has caused me to ask deeper questions about the way we care for the animals we share the Earth with. Life is such a central core part of Judaism. Why do we give life to something with the intent of just taking it away?”
But he’s not about to get on a soapbox to extol the rights of animals.
“Most of my friends — and my wife — are not vegan and I want to keep them,” he said. “My focal point is what is on my plate, not what is on theirs.”
Learn more about the Iron Man competition, which Goldberg said has “a huge Jewish contingent,” at ironman.com.