Smoke Stroke COPD – Marathon Ironman

My name is Russell Winwood, I was born in 1966 in Brisbane, Australia. I’ve had a good life thus far but have had a few health issues along the way. I decided to take to blogging to share my experiences with other people in the hope that it can help others with similar health issues.

I was diagnosed with asthma when I was young, but managed to have an active childhood playing sports and doing what most kids do. In my late teens I started smoking socially, I’m not sure why as I knew it was bad for me but continued to smoke until my late 30’s.

Christmas Day 2002 I collapsed, too many years of not looking after myself had caught up with me in the form of a stroke. I realised it was time to change my habits. I eventually gave up the cigarettes, cut down drinking alcohol and started eating better. At the time of my stroke I was 88 kg about 20 kg over weight . My son had just started cycling and talked me into taking it up, best thing I ever did. The weight started coming off and I started feeling like a 36 year old should.

A friend of mine suggested I should do a triathlon, I was hesitent because I wasn’t a great swimmer but eventually I agreed. So for the next eight years I competed in varying distances of triathlons from sprint to Half Ironman as well as a couple of ultra marathons.

In 2011 after noticing my training times were getting slower, exercise was getting harder and I was constantly short of breath, I took myself off to the Doctors. Spirometry and lung function tests confirmed I had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), with a FEV 1 <30% of predicted. That basically means my lungs are operating between 22-30% of there predicted capacity. I was told that I would possibly need a double lung transplant within 5 years. Surprisingly the scan showed that there was no major damage to my lungs from smoking. My airways had become very narrow due to years of chest infections, causing a build up of scar tissue.

Being diagnosed with COPD was hard. I felt cheated because I had worked so hard to rebuild my health after having a stroke. The truth is that smoking and poor management of my asthma had come back to haunt me. The damage had already been done years ago and while I had changed my lifestyle, it didn’t change what I was going through now. So where do I go from here! I have a severe lung disease and doctors are telling me I will need a double lung transplant within 5 years.


One thing I had learnt in life was that exercise is good for everyone. So that’s my starting point. Problem was I had no energy and exercise was too much to contemplate. My wife Leanne did some research and discovered a Chinese doctor that had success in making people with chronic disease feel better.

After receiving an ok from my respiratory doctor, I went off to see how Chinese medicine could work for me. During the initial consultation with the Chinese doctor he advised me that he couldn’t do anything for my lungs but he could give me more energy. Armed with this I started on a course of Chinese medicine and over the next 3 months started to see an improvement in my energy levels.

I gradually started back exercising, short slow walks turned into longer faster walks. The more I was out exercising the fitter I was becoming. The fitter I became the less breathless I felt. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t going to trouble Usain Bolt over a 100m sprint. I went back to swimming and cycling as I become stronger. Before long I started having thoughts of actually training for a triathlon.

I went to my respiratory doctor and told him I wanted to enter an Ironman event. He said, your mad and you won’t finish the race. Eventually he agreed there was no harm in trying as long as I followed his guidelines. He gave me some parameters to train by and off I went to prove to my doctor that I could do this.

I trained hard but smart, I put my health first. If I didn’t feel right I wouldn’t train. I took supplements to boost my immune system so I could try and avoid cold and flu’s. My preparation went well, I avoided infections and was able to complete most training sessions.

Race day came around pretty quickly and I can still remember how nervous I was. I had no idea if I was going to finish or even how far into the race I would get. Ironman has a 17-hr cut off, and that was the only certainty. I made it out of the swim in one piece and not feeling too bad. I jumped on the bike and headed off on the 180k leg of the race.

By the 150k mark of the cycling leg, I was starting to feel fatigued and my pace had slowed considerably. I kept thinking I just have to finish this part of the race and worry about the run when I get to it. I managed to finish the bike section of the race and then spent a few minutes convincing myself that the next leg – a 42k run was going to be easy. It wasn’t!

For over 6 hours I walked fast, run a little but mainly I just walked, thinking to myself I wish this race would end. Eventually the race did end and for me that was 16 hours and 50 minutes after I started. I had beaten the cut off time and completed my first Ironman. I know many people will read this and think, no way!

Port end

Completing this race was a significant point in my journey with COPD as it taught me a lot about myself and just what is possible when you put your mind to it. It was also the reason I started this blog. It’s my hope that sharing my experiences will help others with respiratory disease become more active.

It’s not about competing in races, it’s about becoming active so you can achieve a better quality of life!

10 responses to “Smoke Stroke COPD – Marathon Ironman

  1. Hi. I think your story is amazing and inspiring. I am 63 years of age and have had copd for 3.5 years. I was diagnosed with early stage emphysema back then but have felt a slight decline in my health over the time. Last October my Fev1 was 84.9 %. I attend a local gym in Tamworth and do the exercises that have been set for me. Today I walked on the treadmill for 6 mins to warm up, my oxy sats stayed at 98% and my heart rate was 116. Very happy with this. I exercised for an hour and felt really good afterwards. Following your story makes me more determined to succeed in keeping this disease under control, I will not let it control my life.
    Breathe easy sir, you are my driving force.

  2. Agreed. My sympathy to you when folks either don’t believe we can move like we do- entering actual events- stair climbs etc. You keep it up because it CAN be done, you have many many years left, and in my case it did delay the progress for 10 years until I had a fall which set me back from exercise. Since then 2014 (age 76) I have slowed rather dramatically – hate it- but still trying yet now my statistics, at 79 (kicking & screaming) I have finally accepted the fact I must go back to square one and do shorter and slower exercise times – I recently found an hour or more of walking makes me absolutely without energy. Do keep telling your story and events it WILL help some to try to do more rather than less taking the easier route…which is a downhill spiral. The big note for others is that they add times & speed VERY slowly until up to an hour walking then very slowly add to it. I have learned the hard way too often going too hard, which gives setbacks. So, I’m alive to see the sun eclipse beginning in Colorado. Your blog came timely to boot me out of a bit of a pity party :>)

  3. Good to read there is hope. I was diagnosed with emphysema in 2003. I played golf & was active socially &with family. In2007 I had a hip replacement wich set me back 3 months. Eventually it got harder to do much, gave up on golf but took up croquet. 2012 I had a fall fracturing my thigh bone. Another 3 months with no weight bearing allowed made me totally useless. I am now 75 have trouble doing any kind of exercise continually short of breath, the worst thing is not being motivated to do so, I think I’ve given in/up! You are a inspiration!

    1. Hi Ingrid,

      you have certainly been through a rough time. Please don’t give up hope. Talk to your doctor about pool based exercises where the load is removed. I know many patinets get great benefit from aqua aerobics. The right nutrition can be very helpful in improving your symptoms, take a look at my articles on nutrition. A nutritionist can help with a diet plan to suit you. Stay in touch and good luck.

  4. Hi Russ,
    I have been cycling for the last 4 years and running again for the last two, have done sprint Triathlons, I had to learn front crawl (freestyle) so do a bit of breaststroke/crawl mixed, I have been training in the pool and got up to 250m without stopping, at start of this year I had cold symptoms for over 14 weeks during that time my swimming got worse and I gave up for a month or two, and in the end I was back down too 2/3 lengths and stopping breathless, I have entered a half iron man in June next year so have been trying hard in the pool can get too 100m and stop for 30secs etc but as this year has gone on I started to cough a lot on the bike and running to one point on the bike on hills I found it hard to get air in my lungs, back to the doctors and he sent me for a x-ray which has shown up Emphysema! I had to do some breathing tests which puzzled the doctor when the results were 84% so she has sent me to see a Pulmonary specialist,there is a waiting list for this so could take weeks or months to get seen! So want I want to ask you I have always been told bilateral breathing is what I should do in the swimming,but I have watched some endurance swimmers breathing every two which I think could be better for me as I do better when breaststroke I breath every stroke, how do you breathe when you do the swim?

  5. I am 56 year old now everyday l find it hard to believe that I have COPD FIBROMYALGIA it’s hard to do every day things.l am a none smoker haven’t smoked in 6years but I get colds so easy l just got over the B virus and I finding it hard to breathe all the time l would like some information about excise to help me with this please.thank you.

    1. Hi Niki, this article from my coach may help

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