New Jersey physical therapist completes the Ironman Triathlon — and recruits other PTs to work this ultimate test of endurance.
By Jonathan Bassett
High-level fitness is written into Mike Eisenhart’s DNA. His father was a marathoner, he played contact sports growing up, and now he and his two siblings operate Pro-Activity Associates, a thriving 20-person physical therapy, sports conditioning and workplace rehabilitation operation in Lebanon, NJ.
Still, Mike was never fond of long-distance endurance events until 2008, when his father expressed the desire to complete one final marathon before finally retiring from these grueling tests of physical and emotional staying power.
“I was the anti-runner in the family. To me, running was torture,” said Eisenhart, PT, who has concentrated on workplace rehabilitation during the last few years of his PT career and now works with a large contingent of area employers. “But after the pressure from my father and my brother, I decided to give it a try.”
Before long, Eisenhart found himself entering marathons, triathlons, and most recently, the 2011 U.S. Ironman in Utah and the 2012 U.S. Ironman in New York City.
This year’s New York City event was held August 11, a 140.6-mile race that included a 2.4-mile swim in the Hudson River, a 112-mile bike race along the cliffs of the Palisades Parkway, and a marathon that spanned a 26.2-mile course, crossing the George Washington Bridge and finishing in the heart of Manhattan, at 81st Street in Riverside Park. Participants in Ironman events have a maximum of 17 hours to finish the course.
The U.S. Championship Race is a qualifying event in the Ironman Series, a set of 28 such events held around the globe that qualify top finishers to compete in the Ironman World Championship, held each October on the Big Island of Hawaii.
“When you’re training for something like this, you basically choose one of three goals — to compete, to complete, or to win,” said Eisenhart, whose practice also helped train two other competitors for the U.S. Ironman. While he’s always in a training program of some kind, Eisenhart started training in earnest for the Ironman about eight months prior. Competitors must objectively calculate and track their miles and times for each of the three events, periodizing their training programs, scheduling proper rest breaks and learning their body-specific responses to what Eisenhart calls the “fourth discipline” of a triathlon: nutrition.
“This event is a pinnacle of achievement for triathletes,” Eisenhart said. “It caps months of preparation and the most important thing for participants is to cross the finish line.”
Recruiting other PTs
During his intense conditioning period, Eisenhart was struck by an idea. Since physical therapists are uniquely qualified to treat event-day aches, pains and injuries, why not station one PT alongside a physician and nurse in each medical tent along the route?
“It seemed like the perfect fit,” said Eisenhart, who also serves as membership director for the American Physical Therapy Association of New Jersey. After working with race organizers, he was able to secure 50 physical therapists to staff each medical station along the 140-mile race course.
Going even further, Eisenhart sought approval from the New Jersey state board to educate these PTs in this special practice setting. An educational webinar was followed by hands-on instruction in the finer points of treating endurance athletes, and a state-approved CE course was born.
“It’s a different kind of therapy,” said Eisenhart of the PTs’ medical tent responsibilities. “You have to shift your mindset of ‘we’re going to have this long-term rehab plan to get you back to full function,’ to doing whatever it takes to get the athlete to the finish line.” Most of the work involved hydration, dealing with the intense August heat, and minor injury triage. About 22 percent of competitors dropped out before the race began; another 6 percent had to drop out during the triathlon.
So how did Eisenhart fare during his most recent Ironman challenge? While he was happy he finished, he was less than satisfied with the result. When you spend up to 17 hours swimming, biking and running, it’s often the freak accidents and equipment failures that can derail even the most conditioned and prepared ultra-athlete.
Eisenhart hit a pothole just a few miles into the bike portion of the event, which broke the support that anchored his water bottle to the bike. Because the bottle held about 80 percent of the calories he needed to complete the rest of the course, it was a disastrous development.
“They talk about runners hitting ‘the wall’ toward the end of a marathon,” said Eisenhart. “I hit the wall in mile 2.”
But Eisenhart pushed through the pain and exhaustion to finish in 11 hours and 20 minutes — not bad for someone who’s only been in the long-distance game for 4 years.
“In hindsight, I should have stopped right there,” he said of the water bottle incident. “I should have sacrificed the 10 minutes or so to get it fixed. These are the things that you learn as you go — there’s no real way to prepare for something like that.”
While the New York Ironman was a resounding success, the logistics of hosting an event of that magnitude in the congested New York area proved too challenging and expensive for the event to return to the area next year. Still, Eisenhart has his eye on other top-level races in the area that he hopes to continue recruiting physical therapists to staff and to receive CE credit for.
“It’s a concept that I hope to expand on a larger level,” said Eisenhart. “I feel it’s a win-win for the participants and the PT profession. We are doing this out of our love for the sport and our passion for physical therapy. We hope that our efforts help communicate our expertise as motion specialists to athletes and to other physical therapists.”
Jonathan Bassett is on staff at ADVANCE, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org