Like many, alumnus Ed Rusk ’88 lived an active lifestyle during his adolescence and college years. As he got older though, his health declined due to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Then, his older brother, Marton, died suddenly in 2005.
Rusk recognized he was headed in the same direction. This realization was a wake up call to focus on improving his health through diet and exercise. “I thought I was average health,” he said. “I didn’t realize the average for most Americans is extremely unhealthy.” A friend suggested Rusk sign up for a triathlon in the spring to help him stay active during the winter. Training was challenging at first. He didn’t like to swim. “I couldn’t go one length of the pool without hyperventilating,” he said. “My technique was horrible, so I was exhausted.”
He took lessons and persevered, determined to conquer his fears and not fail. Five months later and an internet training plan completed, he crossed the finish line. He was the last person out of the water and was passed by a 73-year-old woman on the run. But, he was hooked. “It was humbling — feeling like I was going to die, but also feeling so alive because I set a goal and reached it,” he said. He’s come a long way since that first race.
Surrendering success to God
Over the past 16 years, Rusk’s completed 106 races of different lengths, including multiple Ironman Triathlons. The Ironman race features a 2.4 mile swim, 112 miles of biking, and a full 26.2 mile marathon — all completed in under 17 hours.
During one race in Penticton, Canada, now detailed in a 10-minute documentary short film “I Will Not Fear,” Rusk realized the parallel between his own Christian walk and the intense commitment athletes endure to cross that finish line. He prepared for six months, envisioned a personal record. Then, halfway through swimming he started throwing up. In mile twenty of the bike ride he wanted to give up.
God had other plans and kept him going. “God chose to take time and teach me a lesson,” he said. “He reached out to me in a dark moment when I was doing something selfish—Ironmans are a selfish sport.”
His experience changed his view on racing and his spiritual walk. “If athletes don’t train and focus on completing the workouts, we won’t finish our race. Similarly, if we as Christians don’t study, devote time to prayer and ultimately build a relationship with Christ then our spiritual life suffers and alongside it our secure hope for salvation,” he said. “Previously it was me against the world and now I’m much more relaxed.” After sharing this testimony at his church, a professor encouraged his students to transform Rusk’s story into a film. He was hesitant at first but now Rusk enjoys using every opportunity to show the film and share this experience of setting goals, overcoming fear and obstacles—at youth groups and even when traveling. “I wanted this to be about God and His ability to reach us, not about me,” he said. “I’m an average Joe. I’ve simply done a lot with my wellness and athletic journey. I now realize this film is its own ministry.” The film received four different awards, including the Inspire Award at the Christian Film Festival in 2016.
Commitment and adaptability
Competing in races like the Ironman Triathlon takes dedication, and upwards of 16 to 20 hours of training a week. “It takes a juggling act sometimes, but if I take care of my family and work first, then my workouts are simply fitting them in where I can,” he said. “I can’t let this overtake my life. Ironmans are something I do, not who I am.”
Efficiency is key. He uses this method when training other athletes as a certified Ironman coach. “I’m a coach now to help people who were in my position in the beginning—new to the sport and unfamiliar with prioritizing efficiency in training,” he said.
To stay focused, Rusk credits advice given during his time at Union from retired Chaplain Rich Carlson. “I’ll never forget what he told me before I went as a student missionary to Africa,” he said. “‘To be successful, in the mission field and in life, there’s three things you have to learn: adaptability, adaptability, adaptability.’ I’ve used that in business, and now in my life as an athlete.” While Rusk and his wife Britta chose to not have kids, he said if they had they knew they’d go to Union. “I grew more at Union then I think I would have anywhere else. That’s exactly where God needed me to be,” he said.
Rusk was moved by an anonymous donor who personally helped him when he was faced with a startling financial situation a couple weeks from graduation. A few years after graduating with his business degree, Rusk paid it forward and set up scholarships with Britta to help students in similar situations. “Union is dear to my heart because of that experience,” he said. During his time as a student Rusk was active by playing basketball, volleyball and even running the Lincoln Half Marathon. He utilized the Larson Lifestyle Center like many students, but noted it wasn’t as worn down as it is now.
Union’s commitment to health and wellness is why the Fit for the Future fundraising campaign was started to renovate and add to the wellness facility, the Larson Lifestyle Center. The goal is to provide adequate space and equipment for students and employees to focus on fitness and continue to help the surrounding community stay active. “I agree that as an Adventist institution Union does need to focus on more than just spiritual development. If we disregard the physical aspect of taking care of ourselves, we’re only giving part of our unique message,” he said.
The new facility, named the AdventHealth Complex, is part of Union’s expanding wellness program to provide students the opportunity to focus on health all year long.
A ripple effect
Rusk’s lifestyle transformation didn’t just affect his life, either. Four years into his change, he began noticing the employees at his company, Chattem Chemicals in Chattanooga, Tennessee, were also having health problems. He implemented a company-wide “Biggest Loser” challenge. As the chief financial officer, Rusk personally hosted lunch and learn sessions to help others learn about small lifestyle changes for big results—portion control, balanced plates, and exercise. “I tried to give them tools to focus on each week and build on that,” he said.
After eight weeks, 32 people lost a combined total of 350 lbs. “I think our health as a company has definitely improved over the years because we’re conscious of it,” he said. For anyone looking to improve their health, lifestyle changes can be overwhelming at first. “As I tell my employees when we’re making a major change, we have to eat the elephant one bite at a time,” he said. “We didn’t get in this spot overnight and we’re not going to get out of it overnight.” He recommended setting a major goal, and then breaking it down into smaller goals with timelines as a key way to measure progress.
Currently, Rusk exercises for fitness more than racing, and coaches other athletes to reach their triathlon and Ironman goals. He recognized that accountability was a key factor for success when making lifestyle changes, and wanted to help others stay on track to reach their goals. “Sometimes it’s tough to stay motivated, but knowing someone is looking over your shoulder at your workouts and progress often helps with the motivation,” he said.
Since changing his habits Rusk lost 50 lbs, decreased his stress, lowered his cholesterol, avoided blood pressure medication and reversed various inflammations. “I can get up early, work all day, and still have energy. I no longer get home and collapse on the couch because I’m tired,” he said. Now, at 57, Rusk said he has more energy than he did 20 years ago. “The body has an amazing ability to heal itself if we take care of it,” he said.
To watch “I Will Not Fear”, visit iwillnotfearfilm.com
by Emily Lynn Roque-Cisneros ’17