‘Lazy Alex’ Inspires This Triathlete to Keep Moving Forward
AgeGrouper Alex Mathew turned his life around on a bet with a coworker which lead him to a life of endurance sports and triathlon.
No, it’s not a very nice nickname, but the fear of once again becoming “Lazy Alex” is what now keeps Alex Mathew, 53, from reaching for the cigarettes, processed foods, and from vegging out on the couch for hours at a time.
That was how Mathew, who works in construction management in New York City, lived for most of his life. He was diabetic, smoked two packs a day and avoided any type of exercise.
“The words diet and exercise didn’t even exist in my head,” he told AgeGrouper.
In 2018 a registered nurse with some questionable tactics, visited Mathew’s workplace and offered her “nutrition” services. Mathew, despite his health issues, was not interested until his coworker bet him he’d lose more weight than Mathew would.
“I was dying at 50. Stupidly, that didn’t play into [my decision]. Losing a competition did,” Mathew said.
This nurse prescribed about 800 calories a day, with zero carbohydrates. So yes, Mathew lost weight and reversed his diabetes within a matter of months. But he knew this wasn’t a healthy approach to weight loss and maintenance, and he said he developed disordered eating.
“You know you have disordered eating when you start weighing your celery [to measure calories],” he said.
(While Mathew said he didn’t seek professional treatment for this behavior, he knows he is not alone in the exercise community. Eating disorders and disordered eating are, unfortunately, common among amateurs and professional athletes. Resources are available.)
Mathew turned to the gym, started lifting weights, and added more food to his diet, following nutrition plans of body builders.
But after he blew out a shoulder lifting, he hired a coach—Danielle Sullivan of IronFit Endurance—and embraced the treadmill.
Running, a Heart Attack, and a Busted Knee
When Mathew started running in 2018 he didn’t know races, let alone the sport of triathlon, existed. By the end of the year he ran his first half marathon.
“I finished that and signed up for a marathon,” he said. (A wrong turn actually made that marathon finish in May 2019 an ultramarathon.)
And then in July 2019, while on a run, Mathew suffered a heart attack.
“It was out of the blue,” he said. “I was out running and something didn’t feel right in my chest. I stopped and did what any ‘responsible’ adult would do: I took to the Internet.”
Mathew opted for Dr. Google’s diagnosis of costochondritis—inflammation of the cartilage that connects a rib to the sternum and often mimics heart attack symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic—over a heart attack, but the next day, the pain came back “hot and heavy.”
A trip to the emergency department revealed that Mathew was, in fact, having a heart attack. Thanks to genetics and a lifetime of poor diet and little to no exercise, two-thirds of his coronary arteries were 100 percent blocked and the other 1/3 was 75 percent blocked.
“The doctor told me, ‘You have a genetic proclivity to blockups. And a proclivity to not die. That should have killed you,’” Mathew recalled.
When discussing his recovery plan with his doctor, Mathew asked if it involved running a marathon; Mathew was signed up for the 2019 New York City Marathon. His doctor said no, it didn’t.
“Then you don’t have a plan for me,” Mathew said. He deferred his entry, and one quarter-mile at a time, he worked back up to running.
In October 2020, he ran a 52-mile trail ultramarathon and blew out his knee.
“I couldn’t run at all. I was miserable,” he said. So, he got on the bike.
Journey to the Triathlon
Mathew looked to his coach for bike workouts during his rehabilitation. The triathlon, he said, was not far behind. Unbeknownst to Mathew, he was not the only new triathlete to be terrified of the swim.
“I thought I was just a big baby,” he said.
And while the swim is still the most challenging part of the sport for Mathew, it also gave him the most memorable triathlon experience.
In 2021, two weeks before Mathew’s first Olympic triathlon, he swam the full distance of 1.5 kilometers. On race day he had the best swim he’s ever had—even after struggling to get his goggles back on after they’d been knocked off.
“I was loving every moment,” he said.
To say Mathew is hooked to triathlons would be an understatement. To date, he’s finished an Olympic triathlon, a sprint triathlon, and a duathlon. And up ahead is the Eagleman Half Ironman in Maryland in June.
While Mathew relies heavily on the physical aspect of the triathlon to stay in shape and keep “Lazy Alex,” as he refers to his former self, at bay, it’s the camaraderie that’s most rewarding.
“The learning, competing, friendships, growth,” he said.
Looking Ahead but Not Forgetting the Past
Mathew credits his meticulous planning, endless support from his wife, and his desire to keep “Lazy Alex” in the past to helping him move forward.
“I look back to the man I was and do not indulge in his lazy, quitting ways,” Mathew said.
Because there is no cure for type 2 diabetes, Mathew is constantly keeping tabs on his numbers and trying to balance his carb intake. He knows there’s a fine line between healthy maintenance and disordered eating and behavior.
“I’ve been to the other side and it’s not pretty,” he said, referring to his days eating just 800 calories. “A huge reason I hired a coach was to make sure I got balance on the rest side, too. Otherwise I wouldn’t rest.”
He also has to take care in managing his heart. The heart attack, Mathew said, was payback. Karma.
“It was telling me, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re healthy now. Twenty to 30 years of being overweight and diabetic, it’s time to pay the piper.’ Karma is having a good laugh,” he said.
Mathew works closely with his cardiologist to manage his medications and monitor his heart during physical activity to ensure he steers clear of subsequent heart attacks.
“My why is gratitude,” he said. “Gratitude in having the ability, will, and strength to push myself in an endeavor that will never yield a podium finish but will always yield the best version of me.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder visit National Eating Disorders Association.