When Dr. Kevin O’Toole was a kid, he loved to ride his bike. In high school, he became a runner. Then, as a cadet at the Air Force Academy, he swam intramurals.
So the first time he heard about a triathlon, he thought it sounded like a fun challenge. He did it for the first time in 1982.
“I was hooked,” he said.
O’Toole, a physician with UCHealth Occupational Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinic – Harmony Campus in Fort Collins, has been competing in triathlons ever since.
He recently took third place in his age category (60-64) at the Alpe d’Huez, in the French Alps. The race includes the usual swimming and running portions as well as one of the toughest bike segments in the triathlon world. The event includes a nine-mile stretch that gains 4,000 feet in altitude and is often included on the annual Tour de France race.
He’s lost count of how many triathlons he’s done.
“I raced a lot until 1997,” when his twins were born. He took a bit of a break after that, as family took up much of his time. But he never stopped training.
“It’s just part of my lifestyle,” he said. “I ride my bike to work, and I run before work and swim after work. I try to be smart about it. When I was growing up a lot of triathletes were fanatical about it (training). I couldn’t do that. I was in med school and so I had some time constraints. I had to do quality training rather than quantity.”
The toughest triathlon he’s done?
“I’d have to say Ironman, in Hawaii,” he said. And he did it five times.
“I think the most challenging part for me is the swimming. I’m not a natural swimmer so I have had to work harder at that.”
Despite his success in the triathlon, he’s ready for a new challenge.
“I think I might do some trail running races in the mountains,” he considered. “I just want to keep doing things as long as I can.”
Besides keeping him fit, he thinks his athletic pursuits make him a better doctor.
“Part of the reason I do it is to take care of my body. I try to eat well and get enough rest, as well as moving and being physically active. I just like it. I like the way it makes me feel.”
And “I like being a good role model for my patients,” he added.
Some of his occupational medicine patients have been inspired by him enough to pursue their own athletic endeavors. He’s even coached some of them with their training.
When he had a herniated disc a few years ago, it didn’t keep him from working, but it did keep him from working out. But he overcame it with physical therapy, massage and light exercise. He did not need surgery in the end.
O’Toole feels like patients maybe listen to him more because he practices what he preaches.
“It helps me, too. I find that some patients don’t understand their bodies well enough and they think if they do some of this (activity) it will cause their bodies to break down. I say no, it will make you stronger.”
Everyone has to find what works for their body, he said. He said occupational medicine “is very much a preventative medical specialty. So while taking care of work injuries, for example, he can educate his patients and their employers on how to avoid injuries in the future.
Common sense and moderation play a role in his routine.
“Some athletes go out and train, train, train and break their bodies down – but part of training also is resting and recovering.” And proper nutrition is important, too, he added.
It concerns him that he sees “some patients whose goal seems to be to get on disability.”
He cites a study done in Denmark that looked at three groups of people around retirement age. One group was medically retired. One was financially able to retire early. And one kept working well past retirement.
“What they found was that the ones who kept working had the longest life spans. Those who were medically retired had the shortest life spans.”
So he doesn’t plan to retire any time soon. And he plans to stay physically active.
Besides keeping him physically fit, triathlons, which are held all over the world, give him a great excuse to travel.
The Alpe d’Huez “was a beautiful race and a fantastic place to go on vacation. It was possibly my greatest race experience. It was a blast.”