Triathlon as medicine

Helgi Olafson, who suffers with autoimmune disease ankylosing spondylitis (a chronic and progressive form of arthritis that attacks the spine), will compete in Sunday's Apple Triathlon in Kelowna to raise awareness and money.

Helgi Olafson, 30, doesn't look or act like he's sick.

In fact, although he suffers from chronic and progressive autoimmune disease ankylosing spondylitis (AS,) he competes in triathlons and has the buff and tanned body to go along with it.

"Obviously most people with AS aren't doing what I do," said Olafson after cycling 20 kilometres to our interview at The Sails sculpture on the downtown lakeshore in Kelowna.

"But I do want to promote triathlon as medicine, exercise as medicine. AS is a form of arthritis and anyone with AS or arthritis benefits by keeping moving, even if it's only walking."

After being diagnosed with AS 11 years ago at the age of 19, Olafson has become a full-time health activist.

That work brought him to Kelowna this week to get ready to race in the Apple Triathlon on Sunday.

"I grew up in Hawaii, but my dad's side of the family is all in Kelowna and I spent all my summers here," said Olafson as he shimmied into his wetsuit so we could get some pictures of him in Okanagan Lake.

"My aunt is Brenda Fischer (an Edward Jones investment adviser) and my half-sister is Tasia Olafson, who you might have heard on all those Boyd Auto Body commercials on the radio."

Olafson will cover the 1.5 kilometre swim, 40 kilometre bike and 10 kilometre run Apple Triathlon with more than 800 other athletes on Sunday.

If he hits his goal of finishing with a time of two hours and 15 minutes, he'll be among the top finishers.

The race is also a warm up for next weekend's Whistler Ironman, which is much longer with a 3.8 kilometre swim, 180 kilometre bike and marathon run.

If Olafson finishes top five in his age group in Whistler (likely in a time of around 10-and-a-half hours) he will qualify for the Ironman world championships in his hometown of Kona, Hawaii on the Big Island.

Being at the world championships would also give him the opportunity to reach more people with his messages for AS awareness and fundraising.

Also on this Western Canada jaunt, Olafson has visited Winnipeg and Calgary competing in events and holding public information sessions.

The Exercise as Medicine session in Kelowna is 5:30-7 p.m. Monday at the Arthritis Society offices at 150B - 1855 Kirschner Rd.

It's free to attend, but you can pre-register by calling 250-868-8643.

After Whistler, Olafson is planning another trip to race in triathlons in Miami and Sarasota, Fla.

Olafson was diagnosed with AS after his hips became sore.

Being young and active, he continued to exercise because movement is often the best medicine for arthritis diseases since it keeps bones and joints from swelling and fusing.

"It's about creating a program and battling this throughout your entire life," he said.

"It's a total life-changing disease. There's no miracle pill, although I do take some medication. But the key is gradually increasing exercise and endurance so you can always keep moving and watching your diet (he stays away from gluten and takes a number of supplements)."

However, some days are tough.

"Sure, some days I'm stiff and sore, but those are the days when it's most important to keep moving so the bones and joints don't inflame more and fuse," he said.

"AS is an autoimmune disease, so you have to be generally healthy otherwise a cold can kill you. I'm also more prone to fatigue."

To donate to the Helgi Olafson Foundation, go to HelgiOlafson.org.

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