By Henry Howard
About nine years ago, John Young was not sleeping well so his wife encouraged him to undergo a sleep study. At the doctor’s office, he stepped on the scale and was shocked to see that he weighed 195 pounds.
That weight is incredibly unhealthy for someone who stands 4-foot-4-inches tall.
4-foot-4 and full of heart
Doctors had always told Young that people with his type of dwarfism (achondroplasia, the most common form of disproportionate short-stature) that running is not beneficial.
Young has a curved lower spine and doctors felt that the constant pounding would not be good.
A record-setting endurance athlete
But that hasn’t stopped Young from becoming the first person with dwarfism to complete a half Ironman (six times) and first to run the New York City Marathon (twice).
“Funny thing is I actually have more pain and discomfort when sitting or standing still than I do when running,” says Young, who says he has always been a swimmer and cycled some as a youngster but didn’t get into running until more recently
He admits that he had been in denial about his weight gain. “I had the sleep study done and was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea. I started using a CPAP machine and lost 10 pounds, without doing anything, except sleeping properly.”
Once he started trimming weight, Young started riding his wife’s bike and then got his own. And then he got inspired.
“One day in 2008 someone sent me a video clip of Dick and Rick Hoyt finishing the Hawaii Ironman. I immediately thought to myself, ‘I might be able to complete a sprint distance race.’ “
And, in 2009, he completed his first triathlon at a race in Lowell, Mass. “During the remainder of the summer I completed three more and I was hooked,” he recalls. “I started doing Olympic distance races in 2010. My first half marathon came in 2011 and in all, I have completed more than 35 triathlons, including six half Ironman distance races, five marathons, and more than a dozen half marathons.”
‘The world is not made for me’
Endurance athletes have to overcome all sorts of obstacles to train and compete. Family obligations. Job requirements. And the threat of injury is always lurking. Young faces all those challenges in addition to his dwarfism.
“The world is not made for me and I have learned to adapt to try and make things easier,” he says. “My mother refused to allow me to feel sorry for myself. My bike is a child’s bike. I have had a lot of adaptations made to it and it works well, but the weight and the small tires is one of the limiting factors to me one day completing a full Ironman.”
Young — who races for Achilles International, a team of physically challenged athletes — has a marathon PR of 5:57 and his half Ironman PR is 7:58:58, which he set recently in Maine. He will continue to keep pushing and has lofty goals.
“I want to be the first person with dwarfism to complete a 140.6 mile Ironman triathlon. I am hoping to do so next year, when I’ll be 50 years old.”
Young has already shown that his positive attitude helps him achieve his goals.
He was among the runners in the 2013 Boston Marathon who were stopped from finishing due to the bombs. He was only three-quarters of a mile away. In 2014, he had to stop at mile 10 due to illness.
“When I met up with my son, he said, ‘Sometimes you’re the hammer and sometimes you’re the nail. Today, you were the nail.’ From that day forward my hashtag became #BeTheHammer.”
And, this year, he pounded his way to a major achievement. “I qualified to run again in 2015, and finished Boston as the third time was the charm.”
Inspiration is give and take
Other participants in endurance events serve as inspiration to Young — and vice versa.
“We’ve kind of embraced each other,” says Young, who counts Terry Fox, Dick and Rick Hoyt, his mother and his son as people who inspire him. “I find runners and triathletes to be an amazing group of people. Though many are interested in finishing first in their age group, any of them can be found cheering on or encouraging other athletes. We love to share tips and ideas in the hopes of helping each other achieve our individual goals.”
As for others who are physically different, Young offers these words of encouragement: “Go for it. Start with small local races, even if you have to walk. You never know if you don’t try. I actually did three triathlons before I did my first 5K and prior to that I had never ran more than twice around a track (back in high school).”
But whether or not wanna-be-endurance athletes have physical challenges, Young is encouraging.
“When I meet someone who says, ‘I can never run a marathon,’ I always tell them, ‘That’s only because you don’t want to. With desire, a plan and training, anyone can complete anything.’ “
Name: John Young
Number of years running: 7 years (started in 2009)
How many miles a week do you typically run: 10-12 hours per week of swimming, biking, and running
Point of pride: First person with dwarfism to complete a 1/2 Ironman (6 completed) and first to run the NYC marathon (twice)
Favorite race distance: Olympic distance tri and 1/2 marathon
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Applesauce/V-8 Fusion
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Hall of Fame – The Script and will.i.am
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Your WILL has to be stronger than your WON’T.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you: Twitter and instagram @dwarfparatri