Before Rob Ladewig dove into the Sand Hollow Reservoir near St. George, Utah, on a warm and clear morning, he anticipated a glorious day.
He wore a smile as he wished his fellow St. George Ironman triathlon competitors well and prepared for the battle that lay ahead, just as he had before all of his previous 20 Ironman competitions. He thought through each of the upcoming events: the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and 26.2-mile marathon. He reminded himself of his strategy, contemplated his food and water intake and envisioned himself as a champion.
Fifteen minutes later, all those thoughts vanished as he found himself swimming through a nightmare.
An unexpected storm had descended upon Sand Hollow, just as most of the field of 1,800 triathletes had reached the 500-yard mark. Stiff winds produced 5-foot, white-capped waves, and Ladewig could already see people taking refuge on nearby outcroppings.
“Ultimately, I had to resort to a breast stroke, just so I could breathe,” the 64-year old Missile Defense Agency analyst recalled. “I could see the waves break, but it was a painfully slow technique. It was more like treading water than actually swimming, but when I looked at my watch, about an hour in, I thought I could make the 2-hour, 20-minute time cutoff.”“I knew there would come a day when I wouldn’t complete an Ironman, I just expected it to come years from now.” — Rob Ladewig
As it turned out, he pulled himself out of the water in 2 hours, 23 minutes, and he was crushed when an official informed him he was officially out of the race.
“Six months of training, hundreds of miles of running and swimming and cycling (seemed) wasted,” he said.
But Ladewig gained something from that encounter with the race official. He learned he could keep going in a situation where many Ironman triathletes simply quit. He kept going even after his potential reward had been snatched away.
“The official told me that the race director would allow competitors to complete the course as unofficial participants,” Ladewig said. “That was all I needed. Yes, I was disappointed, and I felt the failure, but finishing the race simply became my next goal.”
He continued for five more hours, stopping only once to fix a flat tire, cycling 65 miles up and over hills and through the town of St. George, when he reached another time cutoff. That cycling cutoff came at 2:05. Ladewig reached it at 2:10. Unfortunately, the five minutes he spent fixing his tire proved pivotal to his outcome.
“I knew there would come a day when I wouldn’t complete an Ironman, I just expected it to come years from now,” said the retired Air Force colonel. “That now gives me 21 starts and 20 finishes.”
Ladewig knows how to race triathlons, and he knows how to prepare to race triathlons. Seth Cannello, the sports and fitness director at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo., sought his assistance after deciding to enter the 2010 Arizona Ironman.
“I don’t know what’s more impressive, the fact that he often enters more than one Ironman a year or that he competes at such a high level,” Cannello said. “Racing and training for triathlons takes a tremendous toll on your body.”
Ladewig ran his first Ironman in 2001. Since then, he’s logged several second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes in his age group — accomplishments that helped him qualify for the Kona Ironman World Championships in 2001, 2004, 2005, 2009 and 2010.
He manages his training schedule to be in the best possible shape come race day. That means he’ll start slow and ramp up his training during a six-month time frame, then taper off just prior to a race. During one of his maximum-distance training weeks, he swims 9 miles, cycles 180 and runs 45.
Last year, he finished three Ironman competitions in a span of 52 days.
He said those experiences are only faint memories now and admits he still struggles to deal with the disappointment of St. George.
“I set a goal for myself to honor my older brother Melvin, an F-4 Phantom pilot, who was declared missing in action in Vietnam,” Ladewig said. “To honor his memory, I want to complete an Ironman every year I’m physically able. I still have another Ironman this year.”
He said he’s already gearing up for Ironman Canada on Aug. 26, and the St. George experience represents nothing but motivation now.
“There’s a tremendous amount of fear and trepidation involved because I know failure is possible,” he said. “But when I cross that finish line, it will be like crossing it for the first time all over again.”
A finish would also be a fitting end to a current era. He’ll jump up to the 65-69 age group next year.