From Brain Surgery to Self Made Ironman

AgeGrouper Jonathan Schwartz tells us how he has overcome multiple setbacks to realize his dream, even if it meant doing an Ironman by himself.

AgeGrouper Jonathan Schwartz (M45-50, NJ) knows a thing or two about navigating life’s highs and lows. Over the years, he has endured multiple brain surgeries and physical setbacks only to get back to work and finish a self supported Ironman in his hometown of Westwood, NJ surrounded by his closest friends and family. 

His personal journey and sports career provides a masterclass in how to survive setbacks and thrive in the face of adversity. The first thing we noticed about Jonathan is his overwhelming sense of positivity. 

It makes you wonder how someone that has experienced so much still has the strength to carry on and keep pushing the boulder up the hill. He told us it’s with the support of his family, commitment to training and a great deal of patience, that he made his Ironman dreams come true. 

“I’ve always loved knowing how far I can push myself physically and mentally if I’m willing to work hard.”

Following brain surgery, an endurance athlete is born

Upon recovery from his first brain surgery in 2012, Jonathan started running for exercise. He found pleasure in the sport and over time completed a dozen half marathons. In 2016 he ran his first full marathon in New York City, but remembers thinking as they put the medal around his neck, “Now what? I didn’t even have time to soak it in that I had just done this crazy thing. I couldn’t believe I would wake up tomorrow and not have to run. That was the impotence to find something else.”

Looking for a new challenge, he was introduced to the sport of triathlon. He took a liking to the sport and began training for his first race. But before he could compete, severe headaches led to a second brain surgery in 2017 that sidelined him. 

Support systems comes in many shapes and sizes

Even though he was unable to race he found other ways to participate in the sport, such as engaging with the triathlon community and attending club events. “I already had this network, and I hadn’t even stepped foot on a race course to do a triathlon,” says Jonathan. 

When he was finally cleared to race again, Jonathan hired a coach to help him train. The first act of business: get everyone on board for his journey. 

Jonathan sat down with his coach, his wife and son, and discussed what the implications of training would be over the next several months. Their support would ensure his success and they were committed to seeing this through. 

“My wife and son are my biggest ‘Why.’ I wouldn’t do it if they weren’t in my corner. It’s me putting in the work but they are just as much involved in it as I am.”

He went on to cross three finish lines that year. But as he ramped up for the 2019 season with his sights set on a full Ironman he was diagnosed with a cerebral aneurysm. Another setback, but his commitment never waivered. He was on a mission to complete a full distance Ironman and was determined to do it not only for himself, but for his family. 

“Progress isn’t linear and patience is a must” 

The pandemic derailed his plans to compete in Ironman Mont Tremblant due to race cancellations. With his health still in check, he stayed fit throughout the pandemic. Another cancellation in 2021 made Mont Tremblant impossible. 

Jonathan had trained for nearly two years to race an Ironman; his body and mind were ready. 

“I was working toward that day. The location was secondary to me.” So he resigned to do the race locally. There was something to be said about doing it at home. Friends and family could all be there, something that would have proved impossible if he raced in Canada. 

He adjusted, refocused and never waivered.

The Iron Horsemen

With the help of his family and friends, Jonathan organized a self-assisted full Ironman in his hometown. Jonathan and his two best friends/training partners, affectionately known as “The Horsemen,” went on to race the course cheered on by his closest friends and family. 

As with any full Ironman the race was long and challenging. 

“I’ll never forget at the halfway point of the marathon, I was beat up, my stomach was a mess. I knew that I had executed my fueling perfectly on the bike so I just controlled what I could.”

So he forged on with his wife by his side. She must have known he needed a push. Jonathan smiled as he recalled, “My wife said to me, ‘I have a surprise for you, but I can’t give it to you until you finish the race.’ Then my son pulled me aside and said, ‘you’ll be fine, you’re going to do this, I’m proud of you.’” It gave Jonathan the boost he needed to continue. 

“Any time I wanted to stop, just knowing that they were there kept me going.” 

Three miles later, the sun had set and it was pouring. The course had gone quiet with little fanfare. To keep things light, the Iron Horsemen speculated about what the surprise could be. 

As Jonathan approached the finish line with his wife and best friends at his side he was elated. He crossed the line and was medaled by his son. Fans cheered. Then his wife showed him a video — the surprise. On the screen was a personal video of the one and only Mike Reilly, saying the magic words every aspiring Ironman triathlete longs to hear: “Jonathan Schwartz, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” 

“It was always about the distance” 

Jonathan made the decision to train for one more Ironman distance race: Ironman Lake Placid in 2022, which as luck would have it will take place on the five year anniversary of his second brain surgery. This past fall, he was diagnosed with debilitating cluster headaches and started a ketogenic diet to curtail the headaches. So in 2022, Jonathan will be training for a second “first” full Ironman, without the key nutritional ingredient required by virtually every other athlete in the sport: carbohydrates. This is a seemingly daunting task for your average endurance athlete, but Jonathan isn’t average. He has made the necessary dietary adjustments and instead of fueling with carbs, fuels with fats and proteins.

Jonathan’s Tips & Lessons Learned for AgeGroupers

Visualization: Visualize the entire day, workout, race, etc., in your head from waking up to crossing the finish line. 

Set an intention for every workout: A workout without intention is a workout lost. 

Accountability: if possible, train with an individual or a group. It’s much easier to be held accountable for each training session.