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I beat him swimming a backstroke during the swim since I couldn't breathe in the water. That was five years ago. —Paul Shoemaker

ST. GEORGE — Paul Shoemaker loves punishing his body as an Ironman. He is hooked.

He'll do it once more Saturday in St. George.

It's been 17 years since he played quarterback briefly at BYU as a freshman after an undefeated high school career in Longmont, Colo. Today, he lives in South Jordan with his wife, Katie, and their five children, the oldest 14 and youngest 4. He has worked as a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch in downtown Salt Lake City for the past 14 years.

One day a co-worker bet Shoemaker he couldn't beat him in a sprint triathlon. He'd never been clipped to a bike before, didn't know how to swim and had never run any sort of distance since his football days, but the instinctive thing that once brought cavemen out of their caves with spears to compete for food clicked on for Shoemaker.

He accepted the challenge and won.

"I beat him swimming a backstroke during the swim since I couldn't breathe in the water. That was five years ago. I set a goal to do an Ironman and when St. George got one (in 2010) I signed up. I was scared to death."

Shoemaker finished in the top 20 percent at the event, but the process — and the energy he gained from the effort — literally changed his life.

On Saturday, Shoemaker and friends from South Jordan will compete in the last full Ironman in St. George. Beginning in 2013, the event will become a half triathlon of 70 miles due to tough conditions and declining participation.

"I'm never going to win, but setting a goal and achieving it is awesome," said Shoemaker.

"Many of my former teammates have bad knees or lack the desire to stay in shape. Training for the Ironman has given me a purpose to work out and encourage others to set goals no matter if they are small or large."

The regime Shoemaker has chosen in preparing for the grueling event (swimming, biking, running) is aggressive.

This is his third St. George Ironman. Since January of this year, Shoemaker estimates he has spent 142 total hours training. If you break it down, it includes 37 hours of swimming 67 miles; 62 hours biking 1,240 miles, and 43 hours running 301 miles. He does all this work daily in a window between 5 to 7 a.m. on shorter days, but spends as much as seven hours on the longer workouts.

In St. George's first Ironman in 2010, Shoemaker and friend Cody Haycock took the dive, so to speak. They found it exhilarating, and when they crossed the finish line, they both felt a rush of adrenalin they had to share. So they convinced six other friends to take part and created Team SoJo (South Jordan) for the 2011 event. All eight finished.

For Saturday's Ironman, Team SoJo now has 16 team members and includes two guys from California and eight who have never done an Ironman competition before.

The team includes Shoemaker's brother-in-law, a cancer survivor, and another man who is a ski instructor and had previously broken his back skiing. The ages range from 29 to 47 and all are fathers. The cancer survivor, Dr. Larry Adams, weighed in last week at 197 pounds after beginning training Dec. 1 at 230 pounds.

"He could barely jog around a high school track without stopping when I was with him in Sonoma, Calif., but in February, for our half Ironman training in St. George he biked 56 miles and completed the 13.1 mile run course we mapped out on the official course."

Another friend, 39-year-old Bryan Pettit, began training at 236 pounds and weighed in Thursday at 179. It was the first time he'd been under 180 since high school.

"The new guys are scared to death to do this Ironman, but they see the ones who did it last year and realize that their dream of crossing the finish line is almost here."

Shoemaker is inspired by all those around him and the experience he's had in taking on a challenge — setting and achieving a very hard physical goal.

"This adventure has changed my life and now 15 other guys have accepted the challenge over the last two years."

More than 150 family members and friends will be in St. George cheering on Team SoJo on Saturday. The team will be identifiable with Team SoJo shirts.

"I know there are plenty of people out there who just need a little motivation to get off the sofa and get in better shape. Their goal could be eating better, running a 5K, or being more active with their children," said Shoemaker. "Or it could be something crazy like an Ironman."

About 25,000 spectators will be watching Ironman participants on Saturday as they attempt to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles.

It's quite an invitation to leave the cave, if you're up to it.

"Simply making a goal and setting a program to achieve it is what life is all about," said Shoemaker.

"My brother in law is a cancer survivor and will be racing this Saturday and no one in my family thinks he can finish it. I know he can finish and surprise everyone. He has lost 35 pounds and has a renewed feeling about himself and his abilities to achieve the title of Ironman."

Saturday is the end of the St. George full Ironman that will be trimmed in half in the future.

Shoemaker has to be there.

It's an itch that must be scratched.

email: dharmon@desnews.com twitter: Harmonwrites