Heart of gold

Ironman entrant Tom Aylward has adopted more than 50 dogs

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SHAWN GUST/Press Thomas Aylward, of Spirit Lake, takes a moment to acclimate to the cold waters Tuesday before a training swim in Lake Coeur d'Alene.

COEUR d'ALENE - If Tom Aylward finishes his first Ironman on Sunday, he doesn't know if he'll do another.

But when it comes to adopting dogs, there is no doubt.

"I'll never stop doing that," he said.

The Spirit Lake man has, over the course of his career, adopted 57 dogs. Abused, abandoned, injured, surrendered by loving owners, and many that ended up in a shelter, Aylward took them all in. He gave them shelter, food, companionship, love and a place to sleep, including his own bed.

"It was just something I fell in love with doing," he said.

He laughs when he recounts those "five dog nights" when he and his wife, Donna, slept with a Great Dane, a St. Bernard, an Old English sheepdog, a Chow Chow and a mutt.

Crowded, for sure.

"It was wonderful," Aylward said.

The 63-year-old served as vice president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in California, before retiring from the institutional food business and later heading to North Idaho in 2005.

Today, he lives on 10 acres with three dogs, 13-year-old Max, a chocolate lab, a 10-year-old golden retriever, and a small mix named Angel.

While committed to his canines, he set his sights two years ago on Ironman Coeur d'Alene 2011.

He trained under the eye of Shawn Burke, followed a strict schedule, gave up the junk food, and trimmed 80 pounds off his 6-4 frame.

He survived the 2.4-mile swim and the 112-mile bike ride, but a lingering foot injury derailed his marathon and forced him to stop.

"I knew when I got off the bike I was done," he said.

A few days later, renewed determination set in.

"I said I've got to do it again," he said.

His training, though, hasn't been what he hoped. He did run the Coeur d'Alene Marathon in May, has biked the 20-mile section along U.S. 95 twice, and on Tuesday morning, swam from the North Idaho College beach to the Independence Point steps and back, 1.2 miles in chilly, 54-degree water.

"My hands were frozen," he said.

He's not entirely confident he'll get the job done on Sunday. He says he was in better shape last year, and that ailing foot, while better, isn't 100 percent.

Still, he wants to try, to find out what he's made of. Simply put, he wants to be an Ironman. He wants that title to his credit.

"You love this sport, you love the people you meet, the camaraderie, everybody's got a different story," he said.

Including Aylward.

He and his wife didn't have children, so they took in dogs. Lots of dogs. Older, bigger dogs, ones that likely would have trouble finding homes and have to be put down.

"The older, the better," he said.

Labs, retrievers, collies, Irish setters, an array of mutts, wound up in the Aylward family. Strays, abandons, abused and surrenders shared Tom and Donna's bedroom.

He once spent $8,000 on a dog with cancer. They adopted another whose owners had been shot and killed by their son. At one point, they had 14 dogs roaming their four acres outside Sacramento.

"They all give you love," he said. "We loved them all."

When Donna passed away four years ago from multiple sclerosis, Tom took to eating and drinking to ease the pain. He battled depression, gained weight and fell out of shape.

The goal of completing an Ironman gave him new energy and direction. Exercise rejuvenated him. He found new hope.

"It's a good lifestyle," he said.

Still, he wishes he had trained harder this year. But caring for others, including his mother-in-law, came first.

"If I don't make it, and there's a good chance I won't, I will dedicate myself to next year," Aylward said. "There won't be a question again."

Ironman or not, he'll always have man's best friend waiting at home for him.

It is good, he said, to wake up and look into the big brown eyes of a dog, and then without warning, it licks his face.

And it is wonderful, he says, when he pulls into the garage each day, and he knows a happy reception awaits.

"When I get home, it's special," he said.

SHAWN GUST/Press Thomas Aylward,63, is planning to compete in this weekend's Ironman Coeur d'Alene.

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