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Front Lines to Start Line
Having reported from the front lines of natural disasters in Haiti and New Orleans and war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan, Dr. Sanjay Gupta has shown the ability to remain cool in the most intense of situations.
But like many multisport newbies, CNN’s Emmy award-winning chief medical correspondent was just a little uneasy about committing to train for his first triathlon. “I had concerns if I would be able to do well or even complete all the various components of triathlon …,” says Gupta, who has run a couple of marathons but was an inexperienced swimmer. “I think (I had) the same hesitations that anyone has that maybe hasn’t done one.”
However, Gupta had at least six good reasons for taking the plunge and signing on for this month’s Nautica New York City Triathlon.
As a part of CNN’s Fit Nation program – a multi-platform grassroots anti-obesity initiative – the cable network sought out viewers to join Gupta in a six-month training program that culminates with the July 18 Olympic-distance triathlon. The group has committed to race together and will hit the Hudson River as its own starting wave.
With members of Team Fit Nation scattered across the country from Tallahassee, Fla., to Molalla, Ore., CNN provided trainers in each city. USA Triathlon member Laura Cozik, Fit Nation’s athletic director, served as the team’s main contact, offering tips and answering questions throughout the training process.
Training together and bouncing ideas off each other forged a bond within the group. “We work out, we teach each other things, but I think more than anything else, I’ve made some good friends in the process,” says Gupta, also the associate chief of neurosurgery at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital.
The nation feels like it has made some friends as well. CNN documented the journey of each individual with regular television and web updates, and the stories of these everyday Americans have resonated with the network’s viewers, according to Gupta.
“I think that when we talk about personal responsibility, I think people’s eyes glaze over, but when you start to have an on-air partner or an online partner – maybe not one that you’ve met necessarily, but one that you can really relate to – I think that’s how you start movements,” he says.
While CNN viewers may have noticed some physical makeovers among the group over the past few months, Gupta says the changes go much deeper than the surface. The psychological, emotional and scheduling changes that his team has made can last long after race day.
“The triathlon is just the final step in this,” says Gupta, a University of Michigan alum. “All the other steps, all the training, changing the way you live your life, the diet, having some sort of scheduled exercise is probably far more important than the triathlon itself.”
While the bettering of nutrition and fitness habits is the long-term benefit of this program, race day, which Gupta describes as “a monumental day,” is still the carrot out in front of this group.
Gupta himself is also excited about the culmination of his training journey. “I’m looking forward to the camaraderie. I love New York City for all the energy, as you’re moving around the city. I’ve heard with the triathlon, there’s just so many people out there cheering you on and moving you along, so I think that will be the best part.”
Always the knowledge-seeking doctor, Gupta has used his training as a research vehicle, too. Before committing to the race, he read all he could get his hands on about the sport. He received lots of advice from his Twitter followers and delved into books on chi running and Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run.”
“I think I’m a pretty athletic guy,” Gupta says. “I exercise just about every day in some fashion, but this was a big decision for me personally to do it.” Once fully educated, he dedicated himself to what was sure to be an exciting ride.
His training off to a great start, Gupta explored brick workouts and began to build the stamina needed for race day. However, training was put on hold when a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in January, and the veteran news correspondent was one of the first journalists on the ground.
Gupta made many subsequent trips to the island nation report on the earthquake’s resulting medical issues, and – while fitness was far from a priority during this tragic assignment – he managed to squeeze in occasional workouts in Haiti. “I couldn’t run there, I could not bike and obviously could not swim, but I still was able to do certain activities,” he says.
The on-the-go Gupta is used to adapting his workout to his surroundings, providing lessons for any busy athlete. He carries workout bands with him on the road, which can instantly turn any hotel room into a gym. “While there are three events that are associated with triathlon, there’s lots of different ways to be fit that could also help you complete or perform better in a triathlon,” he says.
Now on a more normal schedule by his standards, Gupta’s training is back on track as race day quickly approaches. He has enjoyed varying his training to test his muscles’ responses, including “trying to figure out things like how to not let my quadriceps act like a brake with every step.” In the water, Gupta has been experimenting with the “Total Immersion” swimming technique.
He’s shooting for a “reasonable time,” but Gupta has different goals on race day than most multisport athletes. “My goal is to obviously have a lot of fun but also to really learn as much about human function and physiology and watch it all play out,” he says.
Regardless of their results this month, Gupta and his crew are already victorious. Thanks to their efforts, Americans have become more in tune with multisport and the healthy lifestyle it promotes. CNN realizes it has a platform and hopes to build upon the success of its Fit Nation program.
“The idea that (our children) could have a shorter lifespan despite all the scientific and technological advancements that we make and report on everyday … is just too tragic,” he says. “As a media company, I think we’re just going to continue to take it on.”
John Martin is the communications and media relations manager at USA Triathlon. Martin joined the USAT staff in January 2010 after working for six years as an assistant director of athletic communications at the University of North Carolina, his alma mater.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of USA Triathlon Life magazine, which hits members’ mailboxes between July 15-20.