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UC Davis School of Medicine Alumni Association

UC Davis School of Medicine Alumni Association

Father and son are supportive rivals for Ironman World Championships

Mark, left, and Kyle Song. The father and son
help each other – then try to outdo the other.

(Sacramento Bee) — Dehydrated and half- delirious, packed in ice and hooked to an IV bag, Mark Song lay in the medical tent at the Buffalo Springs Half Ironman Triathlon and tried to remember what led him to utter exhaustion.

He dimly recalled that he was competing for a coveted age-group qualifying spot in the World Ironman Championships in Kona, Hawaii, and needed to be the top 60-to-64-year-old finisher on that brutally hot June race day on the high plains of Lubbock, Texas.

He thought he recognized the woman in the tent, looking worried, as his wife, Wendy, who had implored him to walk the final 200 yards rather than keep staggering like a drunkard.

Then it started to dawn on him: He had a pretty good lead over his nearest age-group rival in the half-marathon – the final segment of the swim-bike-run triad – and was trying desperately to hang on so he could join his son, Kyle, in Kona for the "Super Bowl of triathlons" on Saturday.

"I still don't remember a whole lot about it," Mark Song said. "I think I was hyperthermic. I wouldn't have wanted to see my electrolyte panels at that point."

But once the IV fluids kicked in and rehydrated him, once the ice lowered his temperature, Song perked up. Yes, that was his wife across the way telling someone on a cell phone that Song had, by dint of sheer grit, achieved his goal.

"I was on the phone with my mom," Kyle Song said, "and I could hear my dad in the background screaming, 'I'm going to Kona! I'm going to Kona!' "

On Saturday, Mark, 60, and Kyle, 30, will line up together for the swim start at the Ironman World Championships. It will mark yet another chapter in a close father-son bond that has seen Song and his eldest son study at the same medical school (the University of California, Davis), take up the same sports (triathlon and surfing) and share enough competitive zeal to put their bodies on the line for a 12-hour endurance test.

It also will be the culmination of a quest that Kyle, a UC Davis Medical Center chief resident physician in plastic surgery, and Mark, an emergency room doctor in Orange County, had planned since April. That's when Kyle received one of the rare lottery-based entries that race organizers award each spring, and he cajoled his dad to come out of "triathlon retirement" to share in the journey.

But Kyle Song's Kona plans really date back to 1991, when as a 12-year-old, he followed his dad's 11 hour, 58-minute progress in the first of Mark's two Kona Ironman races.

"I thought, 'I'm going to do that someday,' " said Kyle, who lives in Sacramento. "I remember seeing the thousands of people around cheering for him as he passed the finishing chute. I definitely didn't understand the amount of sacrifice and pain. I think I just saw the glory, and I wanted to be a part of that."

So when Kyle checked his e-mail on April 19, the day the lottery results were announced, he was stunned to see his name. He called his father. Mark, alas, did not win a lottery spot. Kyle then challenged his dad, telling him he had to qualify. But Mark had retired from triathlons two years earlier and wasn't in full Ironman shape.

"I said, 'Well, I'll try,' " Mark recalled.

But just trying is not Mark's way. He threw himself into training, his wife said, scoping out which half-Ironmans in late spring and early summer would give him the best chance to win his age group and secure a Kona spot.

He settled on the June 3 Hawaii 70.3 Ironman in Kona. But on the flight from Orange County, he made a crucial error: He ate the airline food.

"It was a bacterial infection, culture-proven," he said. "I lost 10 pounds in a few days."

Not that it stopped him from competing. Mark still finished fifth in his age group and immediately sought another race.

Hello, Lubbock, June 27.

"That was a pretty miserable race," Mark said.

It started out well enough. A lifelong swimmer, he completed the 1.2-mile swim in 29 minutes, 50 seconds. On the bike, his weakest event, he handled the hilly, 56-mile course in 2 hours, 56 minutes and took the lead from his nearest 60-to-64-year-old rival in the 13.1-mile run at about the halfway mark.

Those last six miles? Mark barely remembers running them. Wendy, waiting at the finish line, was aghast at what she saw about 200 yards away.

"I realize he's not running normal," she recalled. "He's staggering and kind of bent over. You'd probably think he was drunk if you saw him anywhere else. I ran out on the street, and he didn't even know who I was. I said, 'Stop running and walk.' I could see he was going to fall over. He kind of looked at me like maybe I was familiar. I kept yelling, 'Walk, walk, walk.' But I couldn't stay with him because he'd get disqualified.

Mark began to lurch and weave across the course, running into fans. He did walk the last 75 yards, if you could call it walking. Wendy had no idea how far back her husband's nearest rival was. All she knew was that her stubborn husband had that wild look in his eyes and wouldn't stop.

"I honestly thought he was going to collapse in front of the finish line," she said.

No, the collapse came after he crossed the line.

"The med guy scooped him up and took him to the tent," Wendy said. "It took an hour and a half to get him better. When he came to, the first thing he asks is if he won."

As an emergency room physician, Mark Song doesn't recommend that others run themselves to hyperthermia. But he had decades of experience in endurance sports and thought he knew what his body could take.

"Over the years, I've found your mind can make your body do things a normal person might not want it to do," he said. "I have a very high pain tolerance. … In triathlon, the longer the race, the better I do. If you just don't stop, you're good."

It doesn't surprise Wendy that her eldest son, Kyle, would attempt the Ironman distance himself. Father and son are both "driven and goal-oriented," she said. Mark and Kyle both graduated from UC Davis School of Medicine. They have surfed together at many choice locales worldwide, and according to Wendy, they share an adrenaline- fueled competitiveness.

Mark has been unofficially coaching Kyle in the months leading up to Kona. Training has been hard for Kyle, who puts in 80-hour weeks at UC Davis Medical Center. He said his wife, Sara, has patiently allowed him to spend his rare off-hours running and cycling on the American River bike trail.

"I do kind of feel some chronic exhaustion in these eight months I've been training hard," Kyle said. "It's at least taught me to be organized and efficient with my time."

Speaking of time, neither Song ventured a prediction for Saturday.

"My goal is to kick his butt," Kyle said, jokingly.

Mark, perhaps still shaken by his Lubbock experience, took a broader view. "My plan is just race safely and finish," he said. "Kyle is 30 and strong. He probably feels he's stronger than what I tell him. I tell him to be really careful. Any day in Kona can be different. You race with the conditions thrown at you."

Wendy's prediction?

"They laugh and say they'd like to come across the finish line together. But my thinking is they'd both be figuring out how to trip the other one."