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Pushing to the Limit

Paul Rockwood, 26, smiles after winning the 2014 Grantsburg Triathlon. The Superior man will be competing in his third Ironman Wisconsin triathlon Sept. 7 in Madison. (Submitted photo)

When Paul Rockwood first began researching Ironman triathlons, he had the usual reaction.

“I said, ‘That’s impossible. There’s no way a human can do that,’ ” Rockwood said.

Four years later, Rockwood is training to compete in the Ironman Wisconsin triathlon for his third consecutive year.

A 140.6-mile Ironman triathlon is among the most grueling endurance events in the world. Competitors must swim 2.4-miles, bike 112 miles and then finish off with a 26.2-mile run — a full marathon.

The top athletes finish in less than nine hours. Others don’t finish at all.

Rockwood, 26, is in the upper tier of competitors. His most recent time at the Ironman Wisconsin event was 10 hours, 16 minutes and 55 seconds. He finished eighth in his age group but came in about 12 minutes shy of qualifying for the annual Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.

This year’s Ironman Wisconsin triathlon is Sept. 7 in Madison, and Rockwood said he’ll have “something to shoot for.”

“The first year I did it I didn’t really know what to expect and I finished in 10 hours and 42 minutes,” Rockwood said. He dropped 26 minutes from that time last year, and he’s hoping to edge closer to the 10-hour mark this year.

“This kid is someone to watch,” said Dan Conway, a decorated distance runner and former coach of the Superior High School cross country team. “The guy is really amazing.”

Rockwood is still a relative newcomer in the racing world. He ran his first long-distance race in 2011 — the full Grandma’s Marathon — and then competed in his first Ironman event the following year.

He has improved upon his times each year, and this summer he has already won a number of local races and triathlons.

“I would have loved to have him run cross country when I was coaching at Superior, but he was playing football and basketball,” Conway said.

Rockwood, who graduated from Superior High School in 2006, didn’t get his start in endurance sports until after college. He made the shift toward running, cycling and swimming when a degenerative eye condition forced him away from the sports he’d played in high school.

“I’m slowly losing more and more peripheral vision and low-light vision,” Rockwood said. “It’s usually not a problem . . . but if I’m in a movie theater or a dark restaurant I’m more likely to trip over something that everyone else can plainly see.”

Rockwood suffers from a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which causes the gradual loss of vision due to degeneration of the retina. He was diagnosed in first grade but didn’t begin to notice symptoms until middle school.

The condition then began to progress more quickly, and he struggled to keep up with some of his usual activities.

Playing football under the lights was especially difficult.

“I was a receiver, so I would go to turn back and look for the ball, and it would sometimes zip right by my head and I wouldn’t see it,” Rockwood said. “I quit football for that reason after my sophomore year. I ended up playing again my senior year, but I played defense just so I wouldn’t have to worry about spotting the ball.”

In college, Rockwood faced more stress as his eyes worsened. In movie theaters, bars and dimly-lit restaurants, Rockwood said he felt nearly blind.

“I was helpless sometimes,” he said. “I’d have to take one buddy and say, ‘Listen, you know what’s going on with my eyes; you have to help me or look after me.’ It kind of made me feel inadequate.”

When he graduated from college, Rockwood decided to make some changes. His first goal was to return to the more active lifestyle he’d led before.

To get back on track, he signed up for Grandma’s Marathon — a lofty ambition since, in his own words, he “could only run three blocks before (he) had to stop.”

“I was like, ‘Uh oh, what did I do?’ Because I signed up without even going for a run,” Rockwood said. “But then you start seeing progress and just stick with it. You learn and talk to other people about how to do it and kind of research on your own.”

From running, Rockwood moved to cycling. He made fast progress, and a then friend suggested triathlons as the next logical step.

“It just kind of escalated real quick,” Rockwood said.

His goal now is to earn a place in the 2015 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, but even without that, racing has changed his life, Rockwood says.

He met his fiancé, Amanda, at Grandma’s Marathon and proposed at last year’s Ironman Wisconsin triathlon.

“I had carried an engagement ring the whole marathon run, so for three hours and 21 minutes I had that in my hand as I was doing the course,” Rockwood said. “I got down on one knee and luckily was able to get back up after she said yes.”

The couple opened Green Light Fitness in Superior on Dec. 2, and they had a daughter in June.

Business has been booming since the new gym opened, Rockwood said, and he draws inspiration from the people who come to work out.

During races, he keeps his clients in mind to help him persevere mentally.

“You have to keep your body fueled physically with electrolytes, water and enough calories to maintain your energy, but you also have to fuel mentally,” Rockwood said. “I think of people at the gym here who work hard and that pushes me.”

Rockwood also keeps in mind those who have “something go wrong that’s out of their control.”

Looking back at his own experience, Rockwood said he hopes others will see that they shouldn’t limit themselves because of the challenges they may face.

NOTES: Through his triathlons, Rockwood works with Foundation Fighting Blindness to raise money for a cure for blindness. To donate or for more information, visit