Hayden man completes first Ironman, raises money for veterans support network
In March of 2020, Hayden resident Andrew Stenehjem underwent surgery to repair a torn achilles and was advised to swim and bike to rebuild his strength. Rather than take that as an invitation to casually explore different recreation opportunities, Stenehjem decided to pursue a triathlon.
He started rehabbing the injury and training throughout that summer. Last month, he finished his first Ironman in Cozumel, Mexico, with a time of 14 hours, 38 minutes, 7 seconds.
Stenehjem, 40, competed alongside his aunt, for whom he waited at the finish for two hours so he could embrace her when she crossed the line.
Stenehjem told everyone during a Christmas Zoom call in 2020 that he would be signing up for an Ironman. His aunt, Peggy Stenehjem-Titus, 65, wanted to join.
“She goes, ‘Oh I always wanted to do one of those,’” he recalled. “And that was it.”
The 18 months of training wasn’t just a personal challenge for Stenehjem. He used the Ironman not only as a chance to push himself but to raise money for a local nonprofit that is close to his heart. Stenehjem asked for donations while training, raising $3,275 for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS. TAPS works with veterans and supports those who have lost someone.
Stenehjem is a former member of the North Dakota National Guard, and he served two tours in Afghanistan. He is donating the funds in his friend’s name, Rob, who died by suicide in 2018.
Ahead of his training, Stenehjem had never competed in a triathlon of any distance, let alone an Ironman, which is widely considered one of the most difficult sporting events in the world.
He briefly swam in high school, but it had been a while since he got in a pool. He had competed in long distance running before, previously completing a 200-mile relay race, the Providence Hood to Coast, with family and friends.
For Stenehjem, biking was the most foreign of the three sports. He bought a bike and was gifted some other equipment from a friend of a friend, Lisa Schlichtman, who was editor of the Steamboat Pilot & Today from July 2013 to December 2021. Schlichtman gave Stenehjem bike shorts and a jersey that her late husband, Mike Schlichtman, wore in his various races.
“I had never met Mike,” Stenehjem said. “But I was thinking that he would be a cool guy to have known.”
Raising money was a motivator for Stenehjem. He never considered quitting, but he definitely had days he didn’t want to get up at 6 o’clock and drive to Old Town Hot Springs to get in a pool in the middle of winter. The Old Town Hot Springs master swim and triclub and Hayden bike club were motivating communities that helped him get through those days.
On Nov. 22, he put all the hard work to the test. The swim was quick, and the biking was the toughest part, according to Stenehjem. All the hunching over made his neck and shoulder sore. He tried to stay mindful and focus on what he was doing rather than the discomfort he was feeling.
Along a gorgeous stretch of beach, he stared out to the sea and later, the sunset.
“On the backside of the island, it opened into the ocean, and there were nice waves and sandy beaches,” he said. “Every time I went by that, I made myself look up and look at something pretty. During the run, there was a really nice sunset. I made myself take a mental picture, just to remember things.”
He tried to stay positive, even as water puddled in the streets, soaking his shoes with every stroke of the pedals.
“Just doing it is the fun part,” Stenehjem said. “It’s type two fun. It’s fun when it’s over.”
Stenehjem, his aunt and some other family members have already signed up for a half Ironman in July in Geneva, New York. Once again, he’ll be raising money for TAPS and hopes to match or beat what he’s already raised.
People can donate to the cause by going to TAPS.org, and in the notes section of the donation page, they can enter “Ironman Andrew.”
To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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