PT helps Ironman test his mettle

At age 56, Kevin Rupp aims to compete in triathlons as long as his body will let him.

In April 2017, Kevin Rupp finished his second full Ironman competition in Houston, Texas.

As he crossed the finished line, you couldn’t blame him for thinking he’d just put the worst of the pain behind him.

But as it so happens, the only thing nearly as grueling as a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run is the aftermath.

A few weeks later, that race started to take its toll.

His calf muscle began to hurt.

Rupp, 56, pressed on with his regimen. On June 3 he competed in the Tri-Greenville Triathlon in his hometown of Greenville, Michigan.

“I was pushing really hard on the bike section when my calf muscle spasmed,” Rupp said. He still finished the race, winning his age division in record time.

But Rupp decided it was time to visit his doctor, who recommended physical therapy for his calf.

His treatment got him back to triathlons in no time.

A healing haven

Rupp found healing under the care of physical therapist and certified athletic trainer Drew Havens in the outpatient therapy center at Spectrum Health United Hospital in Greenville.

“I didn’t know much about physical therapy. One other time I had physical therapy for my rotator cuff,” Rupp said. “That’s when I was sold on physical therapy. With Drew, I didn’t know that stretching the foot or ankle really helped the calf. The ankle and the hamstring really affect the mobility of the calf.”

Havens, a runner himself, happily took on Rupp’s case.

“It was pretty unique,” Havens said. “I don’t get an awful lot of competitive triathletes. He was really fun to work with.”

Havens first set out to determine the cause of the calf strain. Could it in fact be a strain, or might something about his running style be hampering his calf?

“It was more of a strain that was being persistently irritated because he never stopped running,” Havens said. “It never had a chance to recover.”

Havens focused on instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization to loosen the muscle, a procedure also referred to as “scraping” the calf. The therapist uses tools to massage the area while it’s in various positions.

Along with the hands-on treatment, Havens suggested Rupp make some tweaks to his running mechanics, and to train with what’s called “eccentric loading,” or strengthening that requires precise, slow control. This could be running down hills or backwards. Havens also taught Rupp how to properly stretch before running.

“I think if he didn’t seek treatment and catch it early on, it would have really impacted his ability to participate,” Havens said. “You’re at a higher risk for injury when something hurts, so it could have crept up as another injury as well.”

Rupp did physical therapy with Havens twice a week for three weeks, while also doing home exercises. In the end, he had more flexibility in his injured leg than he did in the other leg.

“Before this, I was not a believer in stretching,” Rupp said.

Count him a believer now.

“Drew is very knowledgeable and he explained things to me,” Rupp said. “I’ve never had any other trouble with my calf.”

And that’s a good thing, because he’s got a busy triathlon schedule ahead of him.

The road ahead

Based on input from his coach, Tyler Guggemos at Organic Coaching, Rupp skipped the Grand Rapids Triathlon on June 11 so he could prepare for the USA Triathlon Olympic National Championship on Aug. 12 in Omaha, Nebraska.

He had qualified for the event a year prior.

“Omaha was an awesome experience,” he said of the race, which brings regional champions from around the country together. “My body was totally in shape.”

The Olympic-distance event includes a 1,500-meter swim, 40K bike race and 10K run. Rupp set a new personal best time in the 10K at the event.

Rupp only started competitive triathlons three years ago, when his younger sister, Kristin Rupp, challenged him to compete in a half Ironman.

“I thought I was an athlete, and I would just go out and win,” Rupp said. “I finished third from the bottom in my age group.”

So he called a coach and decided to change that. Since then, in local events he has always found himself standing on the podium.

“It’s great to be mobile. I lost 40 pounds over the years since I started,” Rupp said. “Without doing this every day, I wouldn’t be in the best shape I have ever been in.”

He’s also off his medication for high cholesterol, pre-diabetes and high blood pressure. He exercises about three hours a day during the week and on the weekends he does a three- to five-hour bike ride and a 90-minute run.

He and his wife, Patricia, have two daughters, Marina Rupp and Sarah Darrell, and one son, Brian. His children have all competed in triathlons.

Rupp and Marina are planning to compete together April 8, 2018, in the Ironman Florida 70.3 event.

“I’m going to keep going until my body tells me to stop,” Rupp said.

Havens will be cheering him on from afar.

“It’s fun watching someone succeed and get back to what they like doing,” Havens said. “Kevin is a one-in-a-million person. You don’t get to see someone who’s going to compete at a level like that, especially in a rural setting where we are. It’s very rewarding.”

To schedule an appointment, call 616.754.2943 or visit spectrumhealth.org/physicaltherapy.

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