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March 29, 2011, 10:52AM PT in Triathlon Training Blog  |  2 Comments

How One Man's Lifestyle Change Inspired a Now Entire Family of Triathletes

It’s been four years since Cameron Zolghadri has frequented Burger King and he has no plans to visit this particular restaurant or any other fast food venue ever again.

While the lifelong denial of a juicy burger with fries seems—well, un-American—Zolghadri’s backstory couldn’t be more American.

Zolghadri left his homeland Iran in 1975 at age 15 to seek a better future in America. He married his American college-sweetheart Susie, raised three children and built a successful insurance business catering to car dealers in San Diego by working 10-12-hour days, seven days a week.

By age 40, Zolghadri embodied the hard-working and flourishing American immigrant. He perfectly adapted in other ways as well: Living on a fast-food diet and being sedentary, his weight spiraled out of control.

Living Large in America

At the time, Zolghadri, who is 5’11” tall, weighed 240 pounds.  He didn’t think much about his excess body fat, but his wife Susie was concerned about his health and asked him to get a physical. A simple blood check confirmed her worry: Her husband’s cholesterol levels and blood pressure were dangerously high.

The doctor told Zolghadri that he was pre-diabetic and explained the serious complications of Type 2 diabetes, including risk of blindness, heart disease, kidney and nerve damage.

“I remember saying to the doctor, ‘I don’t want this,’” Zolghadri said. When the doctor explained that a normal body weight could normalize his health, Zolghadri remained skeptical, but took action nevertheless.

“That same afternoon, I left the doctor’s office and thought I don’t want my wife and kids to take care of me when I’m getting sick,” Zolghadri remembered. “So instead of driving home, I stopped at the fitness center at the Scripps Ranch Swim & Racquet Club near my house and asked the receptionist, if they had a personal trainer.”

A New Beginning

Zolghadri and his personal trainer worked out every other day starting with walking on a treadmill and light strength-training, because that’s all he could do at this stage.

At home, Zolghadri started watching FitTV (now Discovery Fit & Health) and other health shows. He still remembers listening to a program where Pro cyclist George Hincapie talked about his diet, which consisted of eating lots of veggies, fish and chicken.

Zolghadri figured that’s good enough for him and switched to salads for lunch—mostly ice berg salad, cucumbers, tomatoes and chicken; started eating fish and veggies for dinner; and traded sugary breakfast cereals for oatmeal and fruit for breakfast.

He also learned from television how to read food labels. So for the first time in his life, he started paying attention to sugar and fat contents in all store-bought foods.

His First 10K Race

After six months of consistent personal training sessions, Zolghadri’s trainer suggested that he should enter his first 10K (6-mile) running race.

By then, Zolghadri had dropped significant weight and seemed to enjoy jogging on the treadmill, so he agreed. Being swallowed among a sea of runners, people of all shapes and sizes, Zolghadri was immediately seduced by their common spirit and energy. Hooked on running, Zolghadri entered every 10K race he could find in San Diego.

Triathlon By Serendipity

Then one day, at the gym, he flipped through Competitor magazine, a local magazine for runners and endurance athletes. He still remembers how he got into triathlons.

When the wind blew the magazine open and stopped at the page with a big advertisement for the Mission Bay Sprint triathlon (a 1/4-mile swim; 9-mile bike; 3-mile run), Zolghadri figured this was serendipity and entered the race.

With no idea how to train for a tri or what to expect, Zolghadri bought a road bike and started biking, took up swimming at his health club and kept running. About his first triathlon, he said, “I remember people telling me to get a wetsuit, because it stops you from drowning.”   

Those people weren’t lying, he learned.

Always looking for the next challenge, Zolghadri joined UCSD’s master’s triathlon program, succeeded at the Olympic distance (1,500 meter swim; 40-k bike; 10-k run) and even signed up for a 70.3 race that same year back in 2008.

He remembers his first half Ironman: “Wildflower (famous for its hilly terrain and “unique” atmosphere) just about killed me,” Zolghadri recalled. “The swim was Ok, the bike was hard and by the time I got to the run, I was cooked.” 

This is the reason he plans to return this April.

“I have unfinished business to do,” he said about Wildflower.

What A Difference 3 Years Make

Back in 2008, it took him seven hours to complete the half IM distance. A lot has changed since then. He’s dropped 70 pounds, can run a 6:20-minute mile on the track, made significant improvements in biking, taking swim lessons and braved the ocean dozens of times.

Family Role Model

Most importantly, he adopted a new active, healthy lifestyle and inadvertently changed the dynamics of his family life as well.

His wife Susie started working with a personal trainer since Zolghadri was first diagnosed as a pre-diabetic in 2006. She still meets with the same trainer twice a week.

His wife also takes boot camp classes at Fitness Quest 10 every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and competes in sprint triathlon races. Their son, Tony, ran his first half marathon race at age 11 and is now an avid runner.

His wife Susie told me that she never realized how perilous the excess body fat was to her husband’s health, tenderly calling it loving her husband “inside and out.”

 Zolghadri remains an inspiration to the entire family.

That includes his brother-in-law, who inspired by Zolghadri, started training for triathlons as well and consequently dropped 40 pounds of extra body fat as well. The combined six children in the two families are now more active and make healthier choices, enjoying the occasional soda, pizza and pancake breakfast.

 Cameron’s tactics for keeping his slim waistline, mental sanity and his family happy:

  • I eat lots of veggies, especially asparagus, iceberg lettuce, cucumbers and spinach
  • No sugary foods and sodas
  • I eat only low-sugar fruits, such as apples, pears and berries (I don’t eat oranges and watermelon)
  • I don’t eat red meat
  • Baklava (a rich, sweet pastry) used to be my favorite treat, but I won’t touch it now
  • No alcohol
  • Instead of stopping at fast food places on the road, I take a pre-made lunch salad, cut up two apples for my snack, and drink lots of water

 I learned to delegate:

  • I’m still busy at work, but instead of trying to do everything on my own, I delegate to my employees. It gives me more time to get fit and to be with my family.

I make my daily workouts a part of life:

  • I bike to UCSD every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, then swim from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., and then bike back home
  • On Tuesdays, I run track; on Thursdays, I bike
  • On Saturday, I bike long followed by a short run and on Sundays I run 1.5-2 hours

“I think for the most part, my family was happy that I made a decision to be more fit, so that I could be with them for a longer time as opposed to becoming a diabetic,” Zolghadri said.

If you have successfully overcome an overweight/obesity problem via eating right and getting into triathlons, I want to hear your story. Please email me at marion.webb@acefitness.org.

By Marion Webb
Marion Webb

Marion Webb is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. Webb has worked as a longtime award-winning business journalist, covering fitness, small business, health care and biotech issues. A competitive age-group triathlete and two-time ITU Long Distance World Championship qualifier, Webb competes mostly in the Half Ironman (70.3 miles) and (140.6 miles) Ironman distances.

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