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Swim, bike, inspire: Folsom Ironman athlete’s brush with death doesn’t keep him from crossing finish lines

By Michelle Bandur

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    FOLSOM, California (KCRA) — The Ironman California triathlon is this weekend, and one of the 3,500 athletes who signed up is a Folsom father of three who has overcome incredible odds.

Bob Gitsham, 50, said he loves this sport so much, it motivated him to get out of a hospital bed when he almost lost his life more than once.

Gitsham also loves challenges.

“I have completed 12 full Ironmans,” he said in his room, which is filled with Ironman posters, pictures and medals.

Twelve times, he has spent one single day swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles.

Bob was hooked after his first triathlon in 2016. It was half the distance of an Ironman – a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run.

“I just had a ‘hold my beer moment’ and put my beer down and said, ‘I’m going to do this,'” Gitsham said.

As a former college football player at Portland State University and standing 6 feet, 6 inches, weighing 265 pounds, Gitsham doesn’t have the speed of slimmer triathletes.

“I really got intrigued, and not being good at something was an attraction as well, so I wanted to get better,” he said.

He aimed for the highest high, the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Athletes compete in Kona by either winning their age group at an Ironman race or they complete 12 Ironman races to be eligible as a legacy athlete to take part in the top triathlon in the world.

“It’s the mecca of our sport,” he said.

He told his wife about his big goal and that he would complete a dozen Ironmans in five years.

“I had a five-year window and that was this year,” he said.

The road to Kona was an especially long one for him after a life-changing event would limit him physically when he had less than half of the Ironmans required to compete. He was driving home to Folsom from Santa Cruz on Feb. 24, 2019, with his teenage daughter and her best friend when another driver slammed head-on into Gitsham’s truck.

“We were just cruising along, having a good ole time and I just glance to my left really quick and all I see are two headlights,” Gitsham said.

He doesn’t remember anything about the crash. He woke up in the hospital with severe injuries.

“The accident detached my intestines, broke three vertebrae,” he said. “I broke a rib and broke my heel.”

Over the next year, he was put in a medically-induced coma and was in and out of the hospital for multiple injuries. Doctors told him with the heel injury, he would never run again.

But Gitsham had other plans.

He doesn’t know who, but someone placed the Ironman logo, called an M-Dot, at the foot of his bed. When he first woke up in the hospital, that’s what he saw.

“It just resonated with me,” he said.

With five Ironmans already under his belt, Gitsham was determined to reach his goal.

“I’m stubborn. I don’t want that accident, not that it would define me, I don’t want it to cripple me. They told me I would never run again,” he said.

Gitsham had other plans and went on to race six more Ironmans, four just this year before heading to Kona. He can only run about seven miles before his foot painfully swells.

Gitsham crossed that magical finish line in early October, even though he had only completed 11 races and was one short of being eligible.

The organizers of the Ironman in Kona invited Gitsham to participate in the world championships after learning about his journey to get to the Big Island, making the top triathlon event his 12th Ironman.

He achieved his five-year goal despite the setback from the car crash, canceled races during COVID-19 and a broken hip during a bike accident in 202o.

Still, he said he wants to compete in Ironman California in his hometown. This will be his 13th Ironman.

“If I didn’t do it, my kids are going to say, ‘You signed up for it, why didn’t you do it?’ And they’re absolutely right. So why not? What else would I do?” he asked.

Gitsham has become an inspiration to many, but mainly his daughter, who was 15 and in the back seat of their truck.

“He just inspires me, how hard he pushes himself and tries to be better than he was before,” said Mia Gitsham.

Bob Gitsham said he tries to make the best out of every situation.

“Whatever is given to you, you have to make the best of it because the only thing you can control as they say in Ironman, ‘The only thing you can control is your attitude,'” said Gitsham.

He’s not done with Ironmans. After California, he plans to participate in Ironman Cozumel next month.

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