How Surgeon and Triathlete Dr. Jeffrey R. Sawyer Keeps on Course
At 56, Dr. Jeffrey R. Sawyer, MD, a triathlete and pediatric spine surgeon at Campbell Clinic, says he’s faster today than a decade ago. The four-time full Ironman finisher grew up playing and loving sports but didn’t have a physically active father.
When Dr. Sawyer started a family of his own, he set out to change that. “I have three boys. They’re 14, 13, and 8, and they’re very active,” he says. “I wanted them to grow up with exercise as part of their lives.”
Jeff’s dedication to the well-being of all children is what led him to specialize in pediatric orthopedics. “I get the best of both worlds because I get to take care of kids, which I think is probably my greatest joy in medicine, but I also get to be a surgeon, too,” he says.
In 2005, Jeff returned to the Campbell Clinic, where he completed his fellowship with the goal of centralizing care. Thanks to a research and treatment plan collaboration, through the clinic’s involvement with the Pediatric Spine Foundation, young patients no longer need to travel to various cities to receive their surgeries.
When combined with its emphasis on in-house research, instruction, and patient education, the clinic’s collaboration helps lead the way in implementing new treatment options, such as growth modulation using vertebral body tethering (VBT) of the spine for scoliosis. “Instead of straightening out the spine with rods, we’re trying to surgically go in and control the growth of the spine to make it grow straighter,” Jeff explains.
ONE STEP AT A TIME
Morning workouts suit the surgeon best. Jeff says, “That’s my quiet time. That’s my thinking time, but also, if I can get one percent better that morning on a run, that drives me during the day to get one percent better at work or one percent better as a dad.” Given that Jeff’s day begins at 7:30 a.m., his training often happens between 5 and 7 a.m. but can start as early as 4:30 a.m. He says, “This also allows me to drive my kids to school, which I’ve always done, and it sets the tone for the day for all of us.”
You won’t catch him sleeping in on Sundays, either. Instead, he’s often participating in a tradition that began 17 years ago when he moved from Chicago to Memphis. “I started running with a friend of mine, Todd, on Sunday mornings, and he and I are still running together,” Jeff says. Additionally, Jeff and his wife, Julie, often finish the mornings with another tradition, a run with their two dogs at Shelby Farms Park.
In 2008, Jeff ventured to Florida to participate in his first full Ironman. The second one he completed took place in Tempe, Arizona, and coincidentally landed on his 50th birthday. He has since returned twice to The Sunshine State for Ironman Florida, including in 2021, when Jeff says he shaved 47 minutes off his finishing time – completing the event in 12 hours and 13 minutes, a personal record.
A WINNING FORMULA FOR TRAINING AND NUTRITION
In and out of race season, Dr. Sawyer works with his triathlon coach, Jeff Fejfar, and logs his runs in the TrainingPeaks app. The surgeon says, “That tracks all my metrics, you know, speed, pace, everything, and then my coach looks at it on Sunday and pings back my workout for the next week. Knowing that he can see my real-time workout efforts also helps with accountability.” In addition, Alisha Parker, MS, RDN, LDN, of Accel Performance and Wellness and Memphis Nutrition Group, has helped Jeff nail his race-day hydration and nutrition.
Currently, Dr. Jeff is preparing for his 15th half Ironman, the St. Jude Ironman 70.3 Memphis, on October 1. In addition, he hopes to one day qualify for an Ironman World Championship and complete the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon.
Because of the demands training puts on his time, which he prefers to devote to family and work, Jeff puts a few years between his long-distance full Ironman triathlons.
WHAT REALLY COUNTS
For Jeff, the fun isn’t on race day. He says, “I love the process… there’re tons of little wins along the way, like here in Memphis when it’s 100 degrees out and humid, and you don’t feel like going for that bike ride, and yet you do – that I think is more important probably than the big race.”
When race day does arrive, Jeff enjoys embracing the challenges that can arise, like hitting “the wall.” He says Navy SEAL and author David Goggins’ notion that we all have an internal governor, the system in a car that holds it back from its maximum ability, is accurate.
“My favorite time in a triathlon is when you’ve reached the governor, and you can go another mile, and nine times out of 10, it’s just your brain telling your body to quit,” Dr. Jeff says. “Spine surgery is very much the same way. Sometimes our operations go six or eight hours. So, there’s time in a spine operation where things are going well, and there are times when they aren’t going well, but that concept of facing the governor and always trying to do a little better is relevant.”
Visit Campbellclinic.com for more information.
By Alexandra McCray
Photo by Sam Sikes