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2,530 Miles and Counting for Science Professor

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Vaughn Cooper finishes the 2.4 mile swim in the Ford Iroman Lake Placid race. Photos courtesy Jim Cooper.

Cooper during the 112-mile biking leg of the Ironman competition in Lake Placid.

Cooper high-fives his son who was waiting along the 26.2 mile route during the final leg of an Ironman race.

In the song “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway hit “Rent” life is measured in minutes--525,600 of them. For Ironman triathlon competitor Vaughn Cooper, it’s measured in miles. Since his very first race back in 1996, Cooper has logged more than 2,530. That breaks down to 43.2 in the water, 2,016 on a bike and 471.6 on foot.

Some years he has competed in two Ironman races. Most years, just one. Cooper, an associate professor of molecular, cellular and biomedical science, has finished 18 during the last 15 years. In July, he placed first in his age group (35-39) and 12th overall in the Ford Ironman Lake Placid competition. Of the 11 entrants who ranked ahead of him, 10 were pros. That’s out of a field of 3,000 athletes.

Which tells you something right off the bat: Cooper is good.

A competitive swimmer who played water polo in college, Cooper started entering triathlons in 1990 when he was an undergraduate at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass. Triathlon distances can vary while those of an Ironman competition are set: a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a marathon run, 26.2 miles.

The Lake Placid race is the second oldest Ironman in the country. Top times qualify athletes for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. Cooper has been there before. He’ll go back again in October.

“Every race has a different story to it—a different complexion,” Cooper says. “You learn a lot from each one.”

Enough that you would want to keep putting yourself through that grueling pace, never mind the training it takes to complete such an undertaking?

“I admit it’s more than a little nuts,” Cooper says. “When I started, I had no idea what I was doing. I was a long distance swimmer and figured I could put the rest of it together.”

Even today, after 18 Ironman completions and countless triathlons, he says he still wouldn’t call himself a runner. Let’s hear that again: the man has run a minimum of 18 marathons and he doesn’t think of himself as a runner.

“I never really learned to run. Just like it takes years to become a swimmer, it takes years to become a runner,” Cooper says.

He completed his first Ironman competition in 11 hours, 27 minutes. The next time it took him 10 hours, 10 minutes, and the time after that, 9 hours, 40 minutes. He topped his flight at Lake Placid by completing the course in 9 hours, 37 minutes.

“My best achievement is that I’m ridiculously consistent,” he says. “My goal now is to get faster.”

And, to get on that podium in Hawaii, which would mean being among the top five athletes in the world in his age group.

“Maybe I’ll be able to do it if I live long enough,” Cooper says of reaching the podium. “Or maybe I’ll be able to do it now while I’m young and fast. Before Lake Placid, I was still thinking I hadn’t gotten the best race out of me. Now we’ll see if I still have it in me in Hawaii.”

At 39, age is beginning to force his hand. Life, he says, is forcing his hand. His young sons are 4 ½ and 16 months old.

“I really love it. I know I’m good at it. I get inspired. But I also know I’m preparing to set some of this aside for the kids, and that’s fine,” Cooper says. “It’s definitely different for me now. I can’t count the sacrifices my wife has made for me. And it’s expensive—it’s at least $5,000 a race. It’s a major investment—a luxury—and, at its core, an indulgence.”

It’s an indulgence that has been supported by his wife, Erika, who is his coach. Erika Cooper, who works at Campus Recreation, played water polo at Michigan State. Cooper describes her as a “world-class swimmer.”

“I’m not even the best athlete in the family,” he says.

For now, though, he’s the one competing. He doesn’t have the time to train that he once did. He knows he went into the Lake Placid race “lean on the mileage.” And he says he gets by with less swim practice because “I have a big background.” But overall, weighing his training and his life, he says he feels pretty good about the balance.

And looking forward to October, he knows he’ll be ready.

 “I never really appreciated the mental piece of competing before. This race (Lake Placid), I did,” Cooper says. “It’s a lot about tenacity. Nobody counts the number of strikes you take, they count the hits. You just have to keep getting up to bat. It might get hard because you get so tired but if you just keep going, the miles disappear.”