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Turning miles into motivation

Posted 9:35 a.m. Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Brian Cleven has finished 12 full distance (140.6 mile) IRONMAN Triathlons and qualified for the IRONMAN World Championship through the IRONMAN Legacy Program.

Alum says this daily habit over 14 years has positively changed his life

When Brian Cleven was in grade school, running was considered pure punishment. It was the mandatory part of football practice that felt pointless and made his sides and feet ache.

But today, Cleven competes in marathons, has finished 12 IRONMAN triathlons, and secretly dreams of the day he can find the extra funds to participate in The Great World Race -- seven marathons in seven days on all seven continents. He has even made running a daily habit, stacking up 5,055 consecutive days of running one mile  -- that’s almost 14 years -- as part of the United States Running Streak Association.

Cleven calls his first 5K the summer before he started college in 2003 “an explosive shift in my life.”  The motivation that first 5K provided to train for future running events was invigorating, along with the excitement and comradery that he found from a running and walking community.

Not only does Cleven regularly participate in running events of all lengths, now he also helps organize and execute them. With his dedicated team at Bellin Health, they launched the Bellin Health Marinette 5K Heart Run/Walk in 2022. In partnership with Marinette County Public Health, the local YMCA, Bellin Health, the Marinette Community REC Center, and two local foundations, they launched the Tri City Event Series in 2023, where community members come together for a fitness event once a month.

His “dedication and exceptional contributions to enhance the health and wellness of his community” led Cleven to be named the 2024 Certified Professional of the Year by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) at the IDEA-ACSM Health and Fitness Summit in Chicago in February 2024. His story was recently published in ACSM’s Health and Fitness Journal in the May/June 2024 print edition.

Brian Cleven is a clinical exercise physiologist at the Bellin Health Marinette Clinic in Marinette

Cleven, a clinical exercise physiologist at the Bellin Health Marinette Clinic in Marinette, Wisconsin, says motivation for his healthy and community-oriented lifestyle came from UW-La Crosse faculty members who trained him over a decade ago. He recalls mentorship from Clinical Exercise Physiology faculty members John Porcari, Carl Foster, and the late Kristi Cadwell, as well as Athletic Training faculty members such as Scott Doberstein, Cordial Gillette, and Mark Gibson. They were all hard working and highly involved in their communities, sharing a mantra, “If you can help out and be involved, why not do it.”

“These people and UW-La Crosse helped me skyrocket. They planted a seed that really grew,” says Cleven. “When you have those great examples, it makes you want to keep doing more and to be more involved.”

Cleven has followed in the footsteps of his UWL mentors with his strong dedication to community outreach and willing involvement. In fact, Cleven isn’t the only one earning an award from ACSM this year. Foster will receive The Honor Award of the ACSM this year, granted to an individual with a distinguished career of outstanding scientific and scholarly contributions to sports medicine and/or the exercise sciences.

“One of the markers of health in community is determined by the levels of physical activity in that community, so having opportunities to get active makes a huge difference,” says Cleven. “I saw the potential for a big standout ‘Bellin Run’ type event in my local community before me and my team launched the 5K in Marinette, and the beauty is that we now engage participants from ages 1-95.”  

Brian pictured with his family. His wife, Amy, is a 2008 UWL graduate in nuclear medicine technology. Cleven was a 2007 graduate of the Athletic Training program and 2008 graduate of the Clinical Exercise Physiology graduate program. His two daughters are Natasha and Kenzie.

It wasn’t much later that Cleven and his Marinette County Nutrition and Physical Activity Workgroup team earned a $10,000 community foundation grant to launch the Tri City Event Series. This monthly physical activity series provides one fitness event such as a run, walk, bike, or monthly minute challenge every month of the year for community members. With one designated website for all events and registration information, it helps take the mystery and massive effort out of fitness event planning. While organizers were creating amazing events throughout the year, now their efforts are better supported, and the community is better able to access and enjoy them all throughout the year, says Cleven. The series is looking to grow and add new offerings like a triathlon and open water swim with a strong focus on inclusion for youth to help them develop a positive lifelong association with exercise.

Cleven says his fitness hobbies have also helped him professionally as he is able to connect on a deeper level with patients trying to lose weight — a very common issue among Americans. Nearly half of Americans are trying to lose weight over the course of a year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. As a teen, Cleven weighed around 235 pounds mainly because of not being mindful with his eating habits. He openly shares his personal story of transformation with both diet and exercise to help patients see that “If Brian can do it, it’s possible for me to do it too!,” he says.

Cleven says he wouldn’t have been able to continue to pursue his fitness journey at the level he has without incredible support from family including his wife, Amy, a 2008 UWL graduate in nuclear medicine technology, and his parents, Russ and Kathy, who instilled in him and modeled the values of kindness, hard work and consistency.

Brian’s books

A page from "Kenzie Runs the World."

In addition to participating in and organizing running events and triathlons, Cleven is also spreading the word about the joys of physical fitness to younger generations through the publication of two children’s books. His first book, “It’s Triathlon Time” which features a foreword from the legendary “Voice of IRONMAN” Mike Reilly is available on Amazon.

Cleven is currently working on his second book, "Kenzie Runs the World" where the main character Kenzie meets and runs with a new friend in iconic locations throughout the world like Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Sydney, sharing a message of fitness, travel, and diversity. Cleven hopes to partner with a literary agent and Big 6 publisher like Scholastic as he nears the finish line of “Kenzie Runs the World.”


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