Doug Ballard can’t get Denali out of his mind. Denali, also known as Mt. McKinley, is located in Alaska and is the highest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet, according to the National Park Service website.
The 49-year-old co-owner of the Iron Pit Gym understands the gravity of the task he’s set for himself.
“People die on Denali all the time,” Ballard said. He doesn’t intend to be one of them, though. “I don’t have a death wish, but I desperately love being challenged physically and mentally.”
And Ballard knows a thing or two about challenging himself.
LOOKING FOR CHALLENGES
“He is always wanting to find something to challenge himself,” said Janet Ballard, Doug’s wife. “I don’t know why. He’s always done it.”
Doug started powerlifting at 14. He played football in high school and in college.
As he got older, his desire to compete and challenge himself did not fade away. He knew it would be with him for the rest of his life and whoever he spent his life with would have to accept it.
“He did tell me when we were dating and getting serious, there would be times when his lifting and sports came before me,” Janet said.
Fortunately for their relationship, Doug’s commitment to his wife is just as strong as his commitment to his sports.
“I was kind of in awe of him and how he treated me,” she said of when they first started dating. “He still opens doors for me and helps me put on my coat.”
His dedication to a goal was on full display leading up to the national championships for USA Powerlifting. He competed in the 275-pound weight class and to maintain that weight he had to eat every two hours.
“I would go to the grocery store and walk down the aisles and pick the foods with the highest fat content and highest amount of calories on the shelves,” Doug said. “Health-wise it was terrible, but I had a goal.”
He won nationals and went on to compete in the International Powerlifting Federation’s world championship in Canada where he won silver medals in the bench, squat and deadlift before retiring from the sport.
IN THE GAMES
Powerlifting isn’t the only sport in which Doug has tested his mettle. He has competed in the Highland Games for years. The games consist of nine barbaric events, like the heavy weight throw for distance.
At the age of 40, Doug competed in the world championships in Oregon.
“I came in dead last, but I had a blast,” he said. “Because of that my motivation level was extremely high.”
As a drug-free lifter, he realized there was no way he could be competitive above 200 pounds, so he dropped down to the under-200 weight class. He went back to worlds at age 41 and got fourth. The year after, at age 42, he won.
He even had a short sumo wrestling career. After watching matches on ESPN, he found a competition in Long Beach, Calif. He flew out there and, to his surprise, qualified for nationals.
At nationals he broke his foot and got a concussion while wrestling a Marine. In the next round, he wrestled a Bulgarian man who used his thumbs to dig into pressure points, bruising his biceps. When he came back hobbling off the plane, Janet had seen enough.
“It was like, no, we’re done,” she said. “You experienced it. We’re done.”
That was the end of his career as a sumo wrestler.
TAKING ON THE MOUNTAIN
Realizing how something as innocent as watching ESPN could spark his desire, he warned Janet before reading a book about mountaineering.
“I told my wife I was afraid of how it would influence me,” Doug said.
He’s been preparing for Denali ever since. Janet has her fears, but she knows the kind of person she married.
“I am worried, but I also know his abilities,” she said. “He wouldn’t try something he wasn’t confident in.”
Doug’s confidence is growing as his training progresses. He was worried about how his body would react on the mountain because he had suffered from altitude sickness before, so he went to Arizona and climbed Mt. Humphreys, which is more than 12,000 feet at its peak.
“No problems,” Doug said. “The goal is still on.”
The next phase in his training is dealing with snow and ice. He plans to climb Mount St. Helens in March.
If things go according to plan, Doug will be 52 years old when he climbs Denali. That might be the end of his climbing career, but Janet is certain it won’t be his last challenge.
“I think regardless of his age, he will always find something to compete in,” she said.
Doug wouldn’t have it any other way.
“That’s what life’s all about,” he said. “Living and pursuing it.”