“Everyone’s got a story,” our good friend Mike Waldner has always said.
Waldner’s triathlon story began like most other people’s. He was a pretty fit guy, playing raquetball in this case, and asked his trainer buddy Eric Redinger if he could help him with a weight-training and fat-reduction program–because healthy guys like to get healthier. Redinger complied and then did even more by encouraging Waldner to look into triathlon. The perfect combination of competitors and encouragers crossed Waldner’s path in a short time in the form of Redinger and the South Dakota native now Minnesota all-star triathlete Jason Crisp. Crisp and Redinger together encouraged Waldner to try a tri. Waldner trained, competed, and excelled, often cracking the top ten of local sprints and posting respectable times in longer distance races out of state. The rest of his triathlon journey should’ve been history.
Waldner’s journey, however, took a sharp turn in 2015 when he received a diagnosis that explained the paralyzing symptoms he’d been experiencing for the previous couple of years: psoriatic arthritis. What began a year earlier as sore and stiff joints that prevented him from hopping out of bed like normal triathlete turned into a full-blown autoimmune disorder. In a very short time Waldner went from being able to go sub-six hours in a half-ironman distance and regularly visiting the top-ten in local sprints to struggling to turn the key in his ignition or needing to hold a glass of water in a restaurant with both hands. Needless to say, the contrast in lifestyle shook Waldner’s world.
So many things about Waldner’s condition could lead the average person into a spiral of depression: the hidden symptoms, the scrutiny of those who don’t believe him, the idiopathic nature of the disease that shows up randomly for no good reason and then disappears for no good reason. And while Waldner succumbed for a short while to discouraging thoughts, in true triathlete fashion, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps and started looking for a way to do the things that he loves to do. He began to research his condition more, and while he was taking advantage of all the treatments that Western medicine offered he came upon something called AIP protocol, a specialized version of the Paleo diet that’s been proven to help reduce inflammation. Thanks to a supportive wife (who’s a pretty good cook according to Waldner), he found one more way to help manage the PsA.
To get his life back, Waldner had to change his life. So he did. He began to say no to more people, to reduce stress as much as possible, and to eliminate foods that caused inflammation. (This, by the way, sounds much easier than it is. Google “AIP Protocol” and check out the stuff Waldner gave up.) His training looks quite a bit different now, and his challenges still exist, but Waldner has worked his way back into the triathlon world, one decision and one day at a time. And while his condition has not disappeared, he’s learned to work with it.
Psoriatic Arthritis affects different parts of the body, and it nondiscriminatory nature makes it both interesting and frustrating. Each victim has different areas affected. For Waldner right now, his chest tends to flame up and pain can move down his arm, making his watch feel like it weights twenty pounds. His hand joints hurt to the point that shifting gears on the bike causes some significant challenges some days. His left toes now rest constantly in a curled position, which makes bike shoes more uncomfortable, and typically the toes are numb.
But Waldner presses on.
He cares about his health, and he has found himself in a unique place of gratitude, having had one of his favorite activities taken from him and then now seemingly returned, thanks to a combination of modern medicine and some significant lifestyle changes. “For whatever reason, I didn’t ask for this disease,but I got it, and at the same time it’s been a gift to a certain extent,” states Waldner. He remembers when he first started having symptoms, how he had just finished a successful campaign for a Madison city commission spot, had recently traveled to both coasts and several cities for work, and was preparing for his youngest daughter, Sydnie, to graduate. In his words, life was going at 100 miles per hour. And then this happened. “This was in my opinion God tapping me on the shoulder and saying he could take triathlon away like that,” states Waldner. The necessary lifestyle changes, the slowing down, happened because of PsA. “That was just a huge blessing,” he states.
Not many people look at a lifetime illness as a blessing.
Since Waldner has started the AIP protocol and thanks to the blessing of Western medicine, he’s begun to dip his toes in the tri waters. He had to start slow in the most humble of ways, beginning with a couch-to-5K plan for running and a few laps of swimming. His first swim began with just three laps and then a break in which he threw his goggles across the locker room in frustration. Progress was going to be slow. But he has persevered, and in the past couple of years he’s completed a couple of sprints. He even paced his daughter Sydnie in the half at Grandma’s Marathon this past June. And now this weekend, Waldner will face his biggest physical challenge since his diagnosis two years ago: the half-ironman distance race at Toughman Minnesota in Chisago City, Minnesota.
Waldner has been training for this. All-star athlete and trainer Jason Crisp, despite ditching South Dakota for his beautiful wife in Carlton, Minnesota, has continued to train Waldner. So under his careful guidance from afar, Waldner has trained diligently while paying close attention to his stress levels and nutrition. Life after his PsA diagnosis certainly looks different for race nutrition as well. There’s no Gatorade or typical sugary drink in his bike bottle, just some basic bone broth. Waldner is continually looking for the best supplements to manage his PsA while still competing.
Waldner’s attitude and faith are evident to anyone who takes even a few minutes just to say hi. In some ways he’s different than the guy before PsA, and in some ways, he just more of what he was–like how his best memories from triathlon come not from really hard races or fast times but the incidents when his family competed with him. He cites the year that everyone in his house competed in the Southern Hills Tri–his two kids Sydnie and Brendon in the kids’ tri and his wife Lori in the duathlon.
Mike has persevered, and he continues to have the most positive attitude despite his circumstances. He continues to tri because he can. “To a certain extent, I feel like I’d be wasting a God-given talent of which there’s other people in this world that would love to be able to do it and can’t,” states Waldner. He thinks of the family he knows who died young and the people who just physically cannot get out of bed. Waldner’s new mantra since his diagnosis has simply been, “There are bigger problems in the world.”
If you find yourself in the Chisago City area this next Sunday, ring a cowbell for Waldner or stop and say hi to him. He’s one triathlete we think who’s definitely worth knowing. Good luck, Mike!