Thirteen years ago, Scott Gaiser couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to run without a ball in their hands.
That was before the former college basketball player became an Ironman.
Now the 50-year-old regularly competes in marathons and triathlons, and is preparing for a trip to Hawaii for the ultimate endurance competition, the Ironman World Championship in Kona on Oct. 13.
While most visitors to the Aloha State relax under the warm, tropical sun, Gaiser will attempt to complete a grueling triathlon consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.
“At the very end you’re surviving, you’re not racing,” Gaiser said. “You might just need to be numb in the head to do this.”
Gaiser has finished eight Ironman competitions, five in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and three in Hawaii, since he dipped his toe into endurance sports at the age of 37. Then the assistant principal at Columbia Falls High School, Gaiser got turned onto running by the school district’s superintendent. He said he was overweight, had high blood pressure and needed something more intense than men’s league basketball to stay in shape.
The more he ran, the more he enjoyed it, and before long Gaiser had completed his first marathon, the 2000 Governor’s Cup in Helena. He finished his first triathlon a year later at Whitefish Lake, despite not having much experience as a swimmer.
“I put my wet suit on backwards and just didn’t have a clue,” he said.
In 2003, Gaiser learned Coeur d’Alene was hosting an Ironman competition and decided to give it a shot. Eight Ironmans later, he says he has no plans to quit anytime soon.
“I think it’s an addiction,” Gaiser said. “It’s interesting pushing the body and seeing how much you can push yourself.”
While finishing so many Ironmans may seem nuts, Gaiser’s youngest son, Jeremiah, 19, doesn’t see it that way.
“I totally understand that kind of commitment and I respect that immensely,” Jeremiah said. “He’s always been very committed and he clearly derives a lot of joy from physical rigor.”
Putting mind over matter is critical in Ironman competitions, which push the body far beyond its comfort zone, so Gaiser said he cycles four mantras through his head when he begins to wear down: Be patient, focused, light on your feet and in the now.
Patience is a big part of Gaiser’s approach to Ironman triathlons, as he tries to take it easy on the first two legs so he has enough stamina to finish strong on the run.
“If you can run, and run at a good pace, you really do yourself well, so if I have to sacrifice a slower bike time to do that, so be it,” he said.
That strategy paid off at this year’s world championship qualifier in Coeur d’Alene, where Gaiser finished second in the 50-54-year-old age group, his best age-group finish.
“Time-wise it wasn’t great, but I had a good steady run,” he said. “Coming through town on the first loop, my son said I was in fourth place. I thought that’s good, I probably won’t qualify for Hawaii but I’m feeling good about where I’m at. Then I got a resurgence and I was able to pick off a few guys.”
Gaiser said focus is important because he can’t let his mind wander and forget to re-fuel. “Every 30 minutes I need to take an endurolyte, so I’m thinking of those things,” he said.
Staying light on his feet helps him maintain his technique and minimize overuse injuries. “Don’t run too hard and keep a smooth pedal,” he said.
His final mantra, in the now, is his favorite.
“Don’t be thinking about the end of the race, don’t be hacked off if something bad happened,” Gaiser said. “What’s going on right now? What are you doing right now? I try to keep recycling those thoughts in my mind as I go along.”
That may sound complicated, but it’s actually relaxing for Gaiser, who compares Ironman competitions to fly fishing, because he forgets problems he’s dealing with at home or at work and focuses on the moment.
“That’s why fly fishing used to be really fun to me,” he said. “I think part of it is you get total focus watching your fly and what you’re doing. You weren’t worried about the budget or that thing at school or whatever, you just lose yourself, and there’s not many times in life you get to do that.”
For his fourth Hawaii Ironman, Gaiser said his goal is to finish under 10-1/2 hours, something he’s only done once before. He’s beaten that mark multiple times in Coeur d’Alene, but Hawaii’s heat and humidity pose a tougher challenge.
“If I was sub-10:30 I would be thrilled,” Gaiser said. “I think that’s realistic. Ultimately, not to be corny, but I want to feel good that I gave it my best shot. Both mentally I was wise in how I approached it and physically I gutted it up and got things done.”
To prepare for the heat, Gaiser occasionally trains while wearing his son’s wrestling sweat suit or a lighter weight long-sleeve shirt.
His training regimen lasts throughout the year, but after weeks of building up endurance, Gaiser is now tapering his workouts in preparation for the competition.
“My training is probably going to be one workout a day, and then gradually a little bit less and less,” he said. “I’ll try to keep intensity, but not length of time.”
Prior to cutting down, Gaiser was working out twice a day during the week, usually a 75-90 minute swim in the morning followed by a 90-minute run or bike ride in the afternoon. The weekends were when he put in the miles necessary to build up endurance, often completing a seven-hour bike ride followed by an hour run on Saturday, then a 2 to 2-1/2 hour run on Sunday.
“He works out multiple times a day,” Jeremiah said. “It’s pretty remarkable. He gets up really early to do it. He trains before work and after work just about year-round.”
Between Ironman training and Gaiser’s new job as principal at Columbia Falls High School, a promotion he received prior to this school year, Gaiser doesn’t have much time to sleep. He’s also suffered several hamstring pulls and overuse injuries to his shoulders and legs, but nothing has sidelined him for an extended period of time because he’s so committed to his training.
“It does become obsessive,” Gaiser said. “Just the whole training thing, because you feel good about yourself, you feel good about feeling good. There is something satisfying about doing a six-hour ride and then running for an hour. Even though you kind of dread it, then you get done and you’re sitting down in front of the TV eating a smoothie and it’s like, wow, that’s over and it feels really good.”
Gaiser has passed that dedication on to his children, who have also gotten involved in endurance sports. His oldest son, Colin, has finished the Missoula marathon and the half-marathon at the Governor’s Cup, while Jeremiah has competed alongside him in triathlons.
Gaiser is also using his example to inspire Columbia Falls elementary students to get excited about fitness with the “Ironcats” program, which awards students points when they exercise. The goal is to reach 140.6 points, the total distance of the Ironman.
“I challenge the little guys to become Ironcats,” Gaiser said. “They basically go home and exercise, and mom and dad can mark it off, and they’ll keep track of it. Hopefully by the end of the trimester they become Ironcats and we get them in the habit of exercising.”
In addition to his eight Ironman competitions, Gaiser has also run two ultramarathons, the 50-mile Le Grizz at Hungry Horse Reservoir and the 100-mile Swan Crest 100. He finished second at the Swan Crest 100 in 2010, beating out competitors from as far away as Georgia and Virginia with a time of 26 hours and 21 minutes.
Scott Gaiser out with his dogs on Monday, October 1, near his home in Creston.