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Edmiston qualifies for world Ironman race after surgery

Hollidaysburg resident Geordie Edmiston, 58, is set to compete in the Ironman World Championships, set to be held Sept. 17-18 in St. George, Utah. Edmiston will compete in the Ironman 70.3, or the half ironman competition. He surprised his doctors by his quick recovery from back surgery in order to qualify. Courtesy photo

Hollidaysburg resident Geordie Edmiston recently qualified to participate in the Ironman 70.3 World Championship — a feat made even more spectacular as it came eight weeks after undergoing back surgery.

After exhausting less invasive measures (rest, physical therapy, injections and nerve ablation) during the past three years, Edmiston chose a minimally invasive surgery to restore his quality of life. The surgery removed pressure on a nerve caused by a misaligned disc.

His orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Charles “Chuck” Harvey of UPMC Altoona Elite Orthopedics, said when he heard Edmiston was in Hawaii in late June, he worried about the toll the long hours in the plane would have on his patient.

Then when he found out Edmiston was competing in the Ironman, Harvey said “I was floored. It was beyond belief that anyone could recover that fast.”

To come back that quickly from surgery is unprecedented, Harvey said.

“It’s a testament to his fortitude and dedication. But if anyone could do it, it would be him. He’s a very elite athlete.”

Edmiston, 58, is ranked 25th in the United States in Ironman Triathlon racing (the rankings take into account both the 70.3-mile and 140.6-mile distances) and is considered a Gold All World Athlete by the Ironman organization, which ranks him in the top 1% of all athletes in his age group.

He’s competed in many triathlons from the Olympic distance up through the 140.6 Ironman distance and this will be his third World Championship event. The half ironman competition tests physical and mental toughness as an athlete swims 1.2 miles, bikes 56 miles and runs 13.1 miles in a single day.

On June 5 — eight weeks after his surgery – Edmiston finished in 5 hours, 24 minutes and 23 seconds and placed seventh in the 55-59 age group.

Ever humble, Edmiston said his recovery is due to those who supported him through the years — and not just his family.

“So, what I’m trying to get at is even though I’ve been able to successfully return to racing and am enjoying a pain-free life, it really isn’t about me as much as it is about the excellent health care providers and business owners in our community that really do care about your well-being and want to help you to succeed,” he said.

“My back issues were a persistent problem and increased in severity over time,” Edmiston said. “I pretty much exhausted all of my options … with results providing little relief for a short period of time to no relief at all.”

A competitive athlete since his 20s, Edmiston said he became interested in triathlons after watching Ironman competitions on TV and became hooked until his back problem.

Edmiston said his degenerative condition — called spondylolisthesis – caused severe pain and prevented him from weightlifting, running and swimming — key tools in preparing for triathlons.

“I came to the conclusion that my racing days were over,” he said.

Instead, Edmiston was looking for relief from the pain and to regain a good quality of life, with or without competing in triathlons.

“To be able to play with and pick up my grandson was incentive enough to have the surgery,” he said.

Harvey and his team plotted a course for recovery, including a return to exercising “which I followed to the day,” Edmiston said. “If he said I could start riding two weeks post-op, I did. Swimming three weeks post-op, I was in the pool. Five weeks post-op, I could run. I was running,” he said.

The team also created a strengthening program designed to strengthen his back and its support system.

Edmiston returned to the Barbell Club at the Gorilla House Gym.

Co-owner Angela Ross contacted him the day after his surgery and asked how they could help in his recovery, Edmiston said. “She developed a program and modified exercises as needed to strengthen and rebuild.”

Ross compared Edmiston to ultra-athlete David Goggins, a triathlete, ultramarathon runner and ultra-distance cyclist.

“Geordie’s mindset is just insane,” Ross said. “You can have an elite athlete with all kinds of capability, but if there is no mindset to push through when it gets tough or who isn’t ready mentally, you’ll crumble,” she said, adding she could tell Edmiston routinely pushed through his pain. 

Edmiston also credits the expertise of his personal coach, Ellen Wexler with Hardcoeur Coaching.

“My coaching philosophy is health first,” she said in a phone interview from her Washington, D.C.-area home.

“To be strong and fast, you need to be healthy. We had to ensure his recovery plan fit and was flexible to give him the ability to listen to his body and still build fitness,” Wexler said. “The level of training he has achieved has completely blown me away. It’s a testimony to his commitment to recovering properly and his mental strength.”

It’s that mental strength that prompts Edmiston out of bed at 4:30 a.m. and helps his push through long runs, strength training sessions, cycling and indoor and open-water swims.

For the open-water swims, he and his wife drive to Lake Raystown where he completes 4,000-yard swims. His wife, Kelly, accompanies him in a kayak. 

Endurance sports like triathlons become a lifestyle as participants watch their nutrition and sleep habits as well as exercise routines.

Kelly doesn’t compete, but “she is the best ‘Sherpa’ and cheerleader there is.”

She’s in charge of his equipment bag and makes sure he has what he needs on race days. “She is so supportive, encouraging and just understands me,” Edmiston said.

Edmiston hasn’t just been in training since his June 5 race.

On July 11, he competed in the Ironman 70.3 Musselman in Geneva, New York, finishing fourth in his age group with a time of 4:51:47. Only a minute separated second through fifth place, which made for a “close and fun” race, Edmiston said.

He is hoping to find one more competition that fits with his training schedule before competing in the Ironman World Championships to be held Sept. 17-18 in St. George, Utah.

The Utah race is billed as the “place where top professional and age-group triathletes from around the world test their mettle in the shadows of the stunning red rock canyons,” according to the race’s website.

Thanks to a successful surgery, his competitive nature, sheer force of will and a host of support from family and friends, Edmiston is ready to rise to the challenge.

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