Steve Spitz slammed on the brakes but it was too late. The hours (upon hours upon hours) in the pool, on his bike and on the road in preparation for last fall’s Ford Ironman World Championship were rendered moot when, on a late September day outside Los Angeles, a Range Rover had stopped in the middle of an intersection to defer to pedestrians. Cruising at that point, Spitz couldn’t avoid a collision. He crashed hard into the vehicle and flew over his handlebars. The result—a broken left clavicle that required five screws to hold his shoulder together.
As difficult as he suspected the 2.5-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run would be under the sweltering conditions in Kona, Hawaii, no training could prepare the former Sag Harbor resident for the physical suffering—”The physical therapist would only stop when my eyes looked like they were going to pop out of my skull. It was almost like I had to tap out”—as well as the mental anguish of coming up oh-so-short that Spitz had to endure.
This month, he’ll take another crack at the Hawaii Ironman, a 140-mile journey two years in the making.
“I feel like I lost a year of my life to a certain extent,” said the 41-year-old Spitz. “Now I’m back here doing the same thing and working toward the same goal. It’s all too familiar. I never reached it last year. I feel like I’ve been training for this race for a long time. I hope it comes to fruition as I’ve been mentally playing it out in my head.”
“Two-and-a-half years ago, I was on the path to being a physical wreck,”
Spitz wasn’t always this active although he had been at one time. He played soccer at Pierson and then Brown University. A friend on the Bears’ women’s swim team coaxed him to train for a triathlon. He prepared for three months and went on to complete an Ironman-length race along Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire. That was 19 years ago. Between now and then, his weight fluctuated, at one point reaching 240 pounds in April 2007. That’s when “it just happened.” A moderate walk turned into a brisk one. Short jogs lengthened as the pounds came off. Before long, he was diving into sprint, Olympic and half triathlons.
Then came the accident last September. It required two surgeries, kept him from running for 4½ months and from swimming for seven. He was disappointed, yes, but undeterred—going into surgery, doctors had said he’d fully recover with proper physical therapy. That was all he needed to know. “It’s almost like you have to drink your own Kool-Aid,” Spitz said. “I said ‘I’ve done it before, I can do it again. Nothing’s going to stop me.’ Luckily my body responded as much as my will.”
He explained his case to the Ironman board, which obliged and gave him the thumbs-up for 2009. Back to 100 percent, Spitz has competed in six races, including the Boise 70.3 half triathlon, to gear up for Kona. After months of therapy and training, his body is primed for a duel with Hawaii’s unforgiving sun. If Ironmans were easy to do, everyone would do it. It’s just been doubly difficult for Spitz.
“Two-and-a-half years ago, I was on the path to being a physical wreck,” Spitz said. “I was pre-diabetic probably, pre-hypertensive, all these terrible things. I don’t take this for granted. I’m really enjoying this. I’m 41 years old and to truly be able to say that I’m in the best shape of my entire life is a very empowering feeling.”