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Army veteran from Potsdam completes Triple Anvil Triathlon in Virginia

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POTSDAM — Ten years after military doctors told him a sprint triathlon would be impossible, James J. Wilkes, Potsdam, completed the Triple Anvil Triathlon at Lake Anna State Park in Virginia, swimming 7.2 miles, biking 336 miles and running 78.6 miles, all within 60 hours.

“It hurt,” he said. “It rained all three days.”

The 38-year-old former Army first lieutenant retired from the military in 2004 following injuries that left him in the dark about his future.

When Mr. Wilkes was deployed to Iraq in 2003, he took a grenade to the neck, causing a traumatic brain injury. He now suffers from a constant migraine, and sporadically loses his sight and function in his left arm.

While the grenade took a physical toll on him, Mr. Wilkes also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the most difficult memories for him is knowing that he lost a soldier during that mission.

“I led a very dangerous mission, pushed for it and fought for it,” he said. “To that credit I had the loss of the first National Guard soldier in 50 years over in Iraq. Not just the loss, but we took a lot of casualties, myself included, and it weighs in my head every day.”

The weight of his injuries led to a severe depression that included several suicide attempts in 2006, one of which was almost successful.

“I was so far down the hole that nobody had faith in me,” he said.

Mr. Wilkes said he had two options: to live or to die.

He chose life, and despite doctors telling him he would never be able to, he started training for triathlons.

“Impossible is the one word in the world that I hate,” Mr. Wilkes said.

The first triathlon he did was Norwood’s annual Beach Triathlon in 2010, and he’s been doing them ever since.

Although the symptoms of his injuries often kick in while he’s en route, he doesn’t let them come between him and his goals.

If he is swimming when his arm gives out, he tucks it into a belt that he wears and swims with one arm.

Occasionally, he also has had to stop bicycling and wait for his eyesight to return before continuing a race.

In 2011, Mr. Wilkes joined Team Red, White and Blue, a nonprofit organization that uses physical and social activities to connect veterans to their communities.

The organization was founded in 2010 and has since grown excessively, with more than 22,000 members, 14,000 to 15,000 of them being veterans.

“A lot of veterans find comfort in staying physically active,” said Blayne P. Smith, executive director of Team RWB.

“It’s important that nonveterans are members too, so veterans can connect better with the community,” he said.

Mr. Wilkes said he now races for other people who are going through what he went through, feeling shelved and written off upon his return from Iraq.

He said he kept a note on his bike during the Virginia race that read: “This isn’t for you. This is for people who can’t or won’t.”

Mr. Wilkes said he’s already training for his next undertaking: a decatriathlon in Mexico in November 2014, which will mark 10 years since his military retirement.

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