Marlboros to marathons
Jim Fellows is a man of the road.
Construction work takes up some of his time in the summer, but more regularly, he makes a name for himself as the owner and operator of his own semi-trailer truck.
A behind-the-wheel resum that extends back to 1994, giving him more than two decades of driving experience, proves that.
But Fellows, 49, of Blue Earth, is also a man of the road for another reason one that changed his habits, health and life.
He is an Ironman.
At Lake Placid, in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, Fellows made that official after finishing the World Triathlon Corporation’s esteemed July 24 competition. And his athletic quest, complete with its 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike path and 26.2-mile marathon, offered the starkest contrast of an overcome lifestyle to date.
“About four years ago, I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day,” Fellows says. “I chewed tobacco, too, and I hadn’t done anything as far as working out in a long time.”
All of this, on top of countless hours spent manning the truck, despite dealing with what Fellows calls a “horrendous family history of heart disease.”
The very line of heart problems that he long overlooked suddenly became one of the biggest inspirations for Fellows’ dramatic turnaround, which hit its most recent peak at the 18th annual Ironman Lake Placid but is more a steady representation of a life rerouted for better roads.
“My folks were great, hard-working people,” he says, “but heart disease killed them both. A lot of my motivation came from there.”
Early motivations had Fellows replace trips to the tobacco store with trips to a dietician, and before long, he began experimenting with running. Not many knew of those efforts, though, and at a time when exercising, let alone jogging in public, was a foreign activity to him, he tried not to cause a scene with his healthy habits.
“I would run around town with a hood on, and nobody would see me that I knew,” he recalls. “Man, I didn’t want anyone to see me. I wasn’t a runner.”
Roughly four years later, Fellows the Ironman laughs off that mentality.
“I would’ve never thought in a million years that I would be where I am now,” he says, “but it just goes to show that anybody can do this.”
Other Ironman competitors, including Fellows’ own son, Tyler, might argue the triathlon is easier discussed than completed. But Jim’s rise from overweight smoker to accomplished athlete is a testament to what healthy efforts can lead to, even if those efforts start off on small-town roads and are buried beneath the hood of a sweatshirt and the once-stereotypical figure of a truck driver.
“I’m not your typical guy you see at the truck stop,” he says, “but at one point, I was.”
Three months after Fellows began running, he was competing in his first 10K in Mankato. That fall, he was back in the city for a half marathon. A few more of the same races followed, and now, with running merely a part of his regular repertoire, Fellows is approaching full marathon No. 5.
His 2014 foray into the Ironman field, partially sparked by a friendship with fellow Blue Earth residents and Ironman veterans David and Suzie Olsen, came soon after his marathon track record began to pile up.
“I got curious,” Fellows says. “It was never on my radar, but I had friends that did it, and eventually I signed up for a half Ironman in Wisconsin, even though I hadn’t ever done a triathlon.”
Officially referred to as the Ironman 70.3, the event still boasted plenty of activity, tasking competitors with 1.2 miles of swimming, 56 miles of biking and 13.1 miles of running. And it only fueled Fellows’ growing fire for a life refocused on fitness.
“The next summer, I did five half Ironmans,” he says. “So that was a buildup summer.”
A prelude, perhaps, to the grand moment of Summer 2016, when Fellows and his son competed for the real deal. Preparations began in January, and with Tyler staying fit in his hometown of Ames, Iowa, the two encouraged each other as the big event in Lake Placid drew closer. Between work and the graduation of his daughter, Natali, from Blue Earth Area High School, Fellows logged up to 20 hours of training per week, and the rest is history.
Now, Ironman status secured tightly under his belt, Fellows is grateful to enjoy a life characterized more for its healthy decisions than its unhealthy ones. And he is certainly not finished yet. Not considering the personal revitalization that exercise has granted him thus far.
“My son and I are volunteering at the Ironman in Madison this year,” he says, “and in 2018, we’re going to do another one.”
He also plans to add to a growing list of races with his daughters, Natali and Morgen.
“It’s one thing I can do with my kids that only I and them have in common,” he says, “and we know how it felt to accomplish goals with each other.”
In the meantime, Fellows will have plenty of his own time to stay active, as he plans to engage in some competition swimming as well as a Twin Cities marathon in the fall.
And, of course, he will also keep on driving.
He is a man of the road, after all.