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HHS grad about to compete in Ironman Arizona

Matthew Swenson is pictured with his second place award at an Olympic distance triathlon. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
Matthew Swenson, a 2000 HHS graduate, now works as a patrol officer for the city of Phoenix, Arizona. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

On Nov. 20, a Hastings High School graduate will be competing in his first full triathlon, the Ironman Arizona. Matthew Swenson, a 2000 HHS graduate, said the race is not only a personal challenge, but also a way to inspire and motivate others.

Swenson doesn’t have a strong background in athletics.

“I’ve never considered myself to be an athlete or athletic,” he said.

After graduating from high school, he attended a number of schools while exploring his career options. He became a paramedic in Minnesota and had an interest in becoming a physician’s assistant, he said. When his wife graduated with a master’s degree in education, they decided to move to Arizona, where teachers were in high demand and where Swenson could easily attend school. While he did get a business degree in entrepreneurship from Grand Canyon University in Arizona, his career took a turn in a different direction.

While working as a paramedic in Arizona, Swenson said he saw a bumper sticker on the back of a police car encouraging people to become a Phoenix police reserve officer. Swenson took the test and made it through the program, and shortly after, the police department turned to the reservists to fill a patrol officer position. Swenson signed up again and has been a patrol officer for the city of Phoenix for about nine years now.

The idea to run a triathlon came to him several years ago. He said he was inspired by Marcus Luttrell and his experience with operation Redwing and the SEALs.

“Given that Redwing (the town) generates a feeling of homeward nostalgia for me, Luttrell’s message of never quitting or losing hope through adversity really lit a fire for me to work hard for this,” Swenson said. “Although my daily battles on the streets of Phoenix or in this athletic endeavor will likely never come close to what some military personnel go through, I was able to glean the elements of resolved determination and noble pursuit from the way he speaks of his country and battles he has fought.”

The decision to run the triathlon was not only a physical challenge but also a search for spiritual understanding.

“My purpose for participating in this race directly correlates with my search for a method to understand what it means to ‘run with perseverance the race marked out for us,’ as I have read in Hebrews 12,” he said. “As someone who needs practical experience to fully understand what I read, to engage in a tangible race helps me to understand important aspects of a less tangible faith.”

At the same time, Swenson said he’s hoping his efforts will serve as inspiration for others to take on their own challenges.

As a Christian, he said he takes to heart a passage in Proverbs, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). He hopes that, if he can overcome such an incredible challenge, that others will be motivated to overcome their own challenges as well.

The race

The Ironman is definitely a challenge.

“It’s big,” Swenson said. “Not a whole lot of people do these things and I kind of see why. It’s just a huge race and it takes a lot of preparation.”

The race starts with a 2.4 mile swim in Tempe Town Lake. As soon as that’s finished, racers run from the water to a waiting bicycle and start a 112-mile bike race. Finally, after the bicycle portion, racers transition to a running race and run a full marathon (26.2 miles).

Racers are given 17 hours to complete the full course; professional triathlon athletes can finish the triathlon in about eight hours, and those attempting to qualify for the Ironman World Championship typically finish in 10-12 hours, Swenson said. This year, Swenson said he doesn’t think that qualifying is realistic for him.

“I’m relatively new to endurance sports,” he said. “I’ve worked a lot. I’ve found that even with as much work as I’ve put in, I’m finding myself just being able to do this.”

Swenson said he expects to finish somewhere within 12 and a half to 14 hours.

Training

For the past six months, Swenson has had some expert help when it comes to preparing for race day. After finishing a shorter triathlon, he found himself chatting with another racer who, as it turned out, was a former professional. He offered Swenson help if he ever needed it, and ultimately directed Swenson to Jozsef Major, a seven-time Hungarian Ironman champion, champion of Ironman Arizona, and Champion of ElbaMan, Italy. Swenson called Major, talked about his Ironman goals, and Major agreed to work with him.

Training is a daily pursuit. Swenson said his goal is to be out six days a week, doing one or two exercises on a given day. Typically, he said, he starts his day with a morning swim, then goes to work. After his shift ends, he’ll go for a run or bike. He recently completed his longest bike ride yet, at 110 miles.

As of this week, Swenson said he has traveled more than 2,000 miles in training and burned more than 100,500 calories.

Completing a marathon requires more than just physical fitness, however.

“(Other athletes) always kind of joke about the fourth discipline of triathlon is nutrition,” Swenson said. “The body can’t go that far without fueling properly.”

So, along with training his body for endurance sports, he’s also working on learning about how to use nutrition to extend his endurance.

While the Ironman Arizona will be Swenson’s first full triathlon, it’s not his first race. He’s completed a triathlon sprint, a couple Olympic distance triathlons and two half-distance triathlons, one of which he finished in August in Flagstaff, Ariz., at high elevation.

“It was a huge challenge for me,” he admitted.

At that point, he started to think that the Ironman wouldn’t be realistic.

“I’m only now … realizing that this might be a real possibility,” he said.

His training has had another benefit. As a police officer, often required to work overtime, the new training regimen has had a two-fold effect, he said.

“It’s allowed me to work through some of the stress,” Swenson said.

It’s also improved his overall physical fitness, which helps him do his job better and with less risk of injury to himself and others.

Race day

As Swenson approaches race day, he said his primary goal is simply to not get sick.

“I’m feeling prepared,” he said.

He’s not focused so much on his overall results but on each individual event. Because of the nature of the triathlon, Swenson said, he has three opportunities for success, and even if the overall race doesn’t go so well, he can still do well in one particular area.

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