Two dreams, 3 sports, no time

Ironman: Josh Riff studies medicine and trains for triathlons, but his toughest task may be balancing the two.


October 16, 2004|By Ryan Young | Ryan Young,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For Josh Riff, life abides by a schedule. Each day, hour and, for the most part, minute is budgeted, and the Baltimore resident rarely deviates from the plan.

He balances his time between completing the third year of his residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital, working in emergency medicine, and competing as a triathlete, spending the past several months training for the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

"I wouldn't do [one] if I couldn't do the other," he said.

The price for this routine is a daily itinerary so densely packed he won't spend more than three minutes in the shower, for any more would be mismanaged time, and he sees his wife only in the crevices of free time sparsely scattered throughout his day.

But the reward is forthcoming. Today, Riff, 5 feet 6, 142 pounds, will compete in the Ironman - a grueling competition consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. In June, he'll complete his residency and then embark on a career in medicine. And life will return to some state of normalcy.

"It's amazing how he keeps it all together and stays married at the same time," said Dr. Peter Hill, one of Riff's supervisors at Johns Hopkins.

Because in the meantime, the average day strays far from average.

His black hair sticking up every which way, Riff, 29, opens the door to his Hampden home to a visitor a little before dawn on a mid-August day. Outside, only the hum of the newspaper delivery van disturbs the morning serenity.

And the routine begins. There's enough time to make a bowl of oatmeal, check e-mail and discuss Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911. But only if the three are done simultaneously.

While monitoring the microwave, he says of the early mornings: "It catches up with you."

Riff is in training. On this warm August morning, two months separate him from the Ironman. Each day, he trains in two of the three disciplines. Today, it's swimming and biking.

He's on the road by 5:45 a.m., discussing theories on sleep deprivation as his sport utility vehicle passes an elderly man riding a bike.

"I see this guy every morning. That's dedication," says Riff.

He acknowledges some days he'd rather still be in bed when the sun rises, but he says his father always told him: "If you're going to do something in the end, do it in the beginning."

First on the schedule today is a swim at Meadowbrook Pool, home of Olympian Michael Phelps.

"It's so humbling to work out here," Riff says.

A crescent moon in a pinkish sky looms over the swimming complex as he enters the water a little after 6 a.m. Riff is joined by a handful of early risers at Meadowbrook, but only a few of the lap lanes are in use - one by a frog who likely ventured from a wooded area nearby.

Riff will spend the next couple of hours in the water because the swimming portion of the competition concerns him most.

The roots of his Ironman interest date back to the seventh grade, when he remembers watching the competition on television and being so inspired that competing in the event became his goal. He started training immediately, but his discipline wasn't as strong then.

"I just started running through the snow banks with my dog like Rocky," he says, recalling his childhood in Canada. "And that would last maybe one day, then life would go back to normal."

Years later, when he was in college, he decided to get serious about the Ironman and went into training. After a few more years, he failed in a couple of attempts to qualify before breaking through in a small triathlon in Cambridge in June.

Since receiving his pass to Hawaii, the ferocity of his training has increased. But he cuts the swim short by a half-hour today so he'll have a little extra time to spend with his wife of two years, Jen.

"That's more important," he says, driving back to the house.

Thursday nights belong to her. Date nights, they call it. On most other weeknights, she sees him when he's eating or sleeping.

The Riffs have lived in their quaint, two-story home for two years. They met in Boston five years ago while he was a medical student at Tufts University.

"I don't think I could do [this] if she weren't supportive," he said.

As her husband is in the kitchen, Jen Riff points out the dining room window to a small, fence-enclosed back yard. To the left is a hammock.

"That's where Josh is trying to relax," she says, sounding more hopeful than certain. Recalling when they first met in Boston, she says: "He was pretty busy then, too. I don't think I've ever known him any differently."

The morning meeting is brief - time enough for more oatmeal and a quick chat.

"All right, next phase," says Riff, now in his biking attire, ready for the three-hour bike ride set to take place at 8:30 a.m.

He will meet a friend up the road at Joe's Bike Shop. Normally, he trains alone, but today he rides with a former pro cyclist to give him an extra push.

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