Legendary Ironman doctor Bob Laird marks 20th year aiding athletes

<strong><em>Photo: Mike Powell/Allsport</em></strong>

[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on Active on February 21, 2001.]

High winds. Heat. Dehydration. Depletion. For Dr. Bob Laird, they're all in a day's and night's workout.

Forget the Ironman triathletes who swim 2.6 miles, bike 112 miles and run an additional 26.2 in the annual October endurance extravaganza. They'll cross the Kona, Hawaii, finish line in anywhere from eight to 17 hours. Some running, some crawling, some staggering, most smiling.

Meanwhile, Laird, the medical director, won't be finished packing away his medical tents, stethoscope and IV devices for some 23 hours. His work shift: 5 a.m. to 3 a.m.

In 1988, he decided to take a break from overseeing 1,500 or so men and women tax their bodies and minds amid the parched lava beds of an unyielding environment. His idea of a break was a 12-hour day. Twelve hours, 41 minutes, to be exact the time it took him to complete the 140.8-mile triathlon.

"It was fun," he said. "If just I would have eaten a little less chocolate and run a little more during training."

Having purged the competitive urge, Laird expects to be in Kona this October in his usual medical role to mark his 20th Hawaii Ironman, directing a staff of nearly 300 volunteer physicians and nurses. Some 20 percent to 30 percent of participants need medical attention during the event, testimony to the tenacity or is it masochism? of the human psyche and spirit.

The prevailing philosophy: That which doesn't kill you will make you stronger.

"In a day that takes from eight to 17 hours in high wind and heat conditions, more than 90 percent of the entrants finish the Ironman," said Bob Babbitt, publisher of Competitor magazine. "To me, that is a testament to Bob's team and the sophistication in training that has resulted from their hard work."

Laird, 57, was the ninth person inducted into the Ironman Hall of Fame last year. He also was among the honorees at Competitor magazine's Endurance Sports Awards banquet.

For Laird and others who specialize in sports medicine, the Ironman is an outdoor exercise physiology lab. Among the findings: Men and women from 40 to 76 who competed in the 1999 Ironman in Hawaii showed equal amounts of bone density in their lower spines and upper thigh bones, sites often related to osteoporosis.

The findings disproved the notion than women over 40 have less bone density than their male counterparts and suggested triathlon training can strengthen the skeleton.

The most common health problems Laird and his staff encounter at Ironman are dehydration, heat illness and hyponatremia (low sodium in the blood). Most problems become apparent during the run, or just after crossing the finish line.

"We're in position now to gather information on the long-term effects of the sport," Laird said. "We want to find out what happens after the race."

One phenomenon Laird has found is exercise-induced intestinal ischemia, in which blood supply to the intestines is cut off.

"Some triathletes push through, with bloating, severe cramps, vomiting and diarrhea," Laird said. "Some end up having surgery to remove portions of the intestine.

"It's rare but it happens."

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