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Fitness

Three Times the Discipline

In October, Wisconsin Staff Sergeant Edward Schmitt competes in the Ironman World Championship. How can a devoted husband, father and full-time Civil Support Team member be an elite endurance athlete? By having a mental toughness that’s second to none.
SSG Edward Schmitt, a member of Wisconsin’s 54th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, has kickstarted an intense training routine to prepare for the 2014 Ironman World Championship. Photo by Joey Tichenor
SSG Edward Schmitt, a member of Wisconsin’s 54th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, has kickstarted an intense training routine to prepare for the 2014 Ironman World Championship. Photo by Joey Tichenor

In February 1978, 15 pioneering athletes converged on Waikiki, the famous beach neighborhood in Honolulu, HI, to take part in the first-ever Ironman Triathlon. As promoters of the now world-famous event describe it, the competitors were each given three pages of instruction. On the last sheet, the message was straightforward: “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!”

Staff Sergeant Edward Schmitt, a member of Wisconsin’s 54th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team (CST), is not one for bragging. He downplays the fact that he was named the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s NCO for 2013—an honor he won that April, after which he went on to finish in the top three in the NCO category at the National Guard’s Best Warrior Competition three months later.

But Schmitt has undoubtedly earned the right to be proud of his berth in this year’s Ironman World Championship, the Super Bowl of triathlons. Unlike marathons and other endurance races, competitors can’t simply sign up for the race; they are invited based on their results in other Ironman events around the globe. Schmitt qualified for this year’s World Championship after finishing first (out of 173 challengers) in his age group (25–29) in the Ironman Wisconsin event held in Madison last September. He completed the race in 9 hours, 57 minutes and 8 seconds.

This Oct. 11, after a few days of welcome ceremonies, Schmitt will compete with 2,000 elite athletes in Kailua-Kona, along the Kona Coast on the big island of Hawaii. Following a predawn check-in, they’ll hit the water at 6:30 a.m., launching a full day of grueling, nonstop exertion.

For some athletes, gearing up for that day would consume their lives. But Schmitt somehow balances his training with his real priorities: his wife, his two young boys and his Guard service. That practical, measured approach is reflected in Schmitt’s strategy for the race itself.

The key to Ironman Triathlons, he says, is the bike leg. The best swimmers aren’t typically the strongest athletes on the bike or on foot, he explains, so the swim is “essentially a warm-up.” It’s critical, he says, to keep pace on the bike to set yourself up for the marathon. He’s found that he makes up most of his time during the last leg of the race, when he can pass other competitors who may be tiring.

“Some guys I train with are much faster than me,” says Schmitt. “I’m built for the long course.”

'IN THE BLOOD'

The same could be said about a lot of Schmitt’s commitments. He spent three years as a military funeral honors team leader before joining the CST two years ago. He was recently promoted to survey team chief, where his natural perseverance comes into play: As part of his duties, he’s a mobile laboratory operator, “which consumes much time staying proficient with six different analytic systems and technology,” he says.

Raised in the small Wisconsin city of Lake Mills (after his family moved from Chicago), Schmitt grew up watching regional amateurs compete in the Lake Mills Triathlon, a sprint-distance race (1/4-mile swim, 16-mile bike, 5k run) that kicks off the state’s annual triathlon season. In high school, Schmitt ran some cross-country and played football. His father was a collegiate swimmer, so that portion of the triathlon, Schmitt says, “is kind of in the blood.” But he’s modest about his own talents.

“I wasn’t a stellar athlete or anything,” he says.

Will Smith, Schmitt’s Ironman Triathlon coach, begs to differ.

“He certainly is a very talented athlete,” Smith says. “I realized that as soon as I took him on. He’s got a big engine. His mental strength is unbelievable. Your body is not made to exercise for eight hours nonstop, so it becomes mind over matter.” Schmitt had always been active, but around the time of the birth of his first son, Landen, now age 5, he’d “let himself go a little,” he admits. (He also has a 3-year-old son, Joey.)

If he did, that habit didn’t last long. Before his second deployment to Baghdad with Troop A, 1st Squadron, 105th Cavalry, in 2009, Schmitt began running sprint-distance triathlons “for fun.” By the time of his return from overseas, he’d set his mind to conquering the Ironman. In Iraq, the fitness options were not as extensive, making him hungry for more.

“Cardio workouts were few and far between,” Schmitt recalls. “I was mostly on the treadmill. I did weightlifting and P90X, but I got sick of that. I started doing stuff outside when I got home, after the winter thaw.”

SSG Edward Schmitt builds endurance during training by starting with smaller distances and developing consistency. He also makes it a point to incorporate his training into his everyday routine—such as biking 26 miles to work instead of driving. Photo by Joey Tichenor

Though he began training for triathlon, he didn’t sign up for competition until July 2011. “I don’t like to go into anything without being fully prepared,” he says. Gradually, he worked himself into triathlon shape, racing more sprints and then Olympic distances (1,500-meter swim, 40k bike, 10k run).

Following a “pretty good” showing in an all-amateur Ironman 70.3 (half-Ironman)—he finished fourth overall—Schmitt enlisted the help of his triathlon coach for the first time. “I didn’t see myself getting much better on my own,” he says. “It was worth the investment to see what a coach could get me.”

He connected with Smith, a former professional Olympic-distance triathlete now living in Wisconsin after his upbringing in New Zealand. Smith, once the top-ranked junior in the world, won the New Zealand national high school triathlon championship at age 16, after surviving parotid cancer. He also raced the Ironman twice before retiring due to injury. Two-time Olympic medalist Bevan Docherty, a triathlete from New Zealand, is one of his clients. 

“Will gave me the knowledge of how to build up and break down your body through training, let it recover and do it again—how to be in peak form for your race,” Schmitt says. “He gave me something structured to push toward.”

WARRIOR MENTALITY

Schmitt’s triathlon training came in handy during the run-up to last summer’s Best Warrior Competition, where Soldiers competed in tests of weaponry and military bearing, written and oral presentations, and physical challenges. In the events that required competitors to “think and be tired at the same time,” Schmitt recalls, “I was less tired.”

Narrowly missing an opportunity to compete in the all-Army Best Warrior finals, Schmitt was quoted in a Wisconsin National Guard news release that he was disappointed but confident he’d done his best.

“I didn’t leave any time or points out there,” he said. “I won the events that I knew I needed to win to stay competitive but made some mistakes and just gave up too much ground in some of my weaker events.”

Calling himself “an average to above-average shooter,” he acknowledged that at the national level, “above-average doesn’t quite cut it.”

Just as his endurance training helped him perform at such a high level in Best Warrior, that competition taught Schmitt a few things he’s carried over into triathlon.

SSG Edward Schmitt’s first-place finish in his age group at Ironman Wisconsin last fall put him in the sport’s elite and qualified him for this year’s Ironman World Championship. Photo by Valerie Schmitt"There are a lot of times when you have to really just trust yourself, and that builds a lot of confidence," Schmitt said in the release. Next came Schmitt’s biggest test yet—last fall’s Ironman Wisconsin race. True to his humble form, Schmitt says he had no idea how he was faring as the event unfolded.

“The way the race goes, there’s nobody telling you the score. I knew I got off the bike seventh in my age group, but I didn’t know who was in front of me or anything,” he says. “On the first loop, I didn’t think I passed anybody. But on the second loop, I was passing people left and right.” Still, he didn’t know he’d taken the lead in his age group until he finished.

That first-in-class finish—31st overall in the event, which is one of the premier preliminaries to Ironman Hawaii—put Schmitt among the sport’s elite.

GAME ON

To prepare for the World Championship, Schmitt planned to compete in Ironman Coeur d’Alene in Idaho at the end of June. Approximately 20 weeks before the race, he began training in earnest.

“I’m trying to not make the season overly long,” he says, heeding his coach’s advice. “You can’t build, build, build nonstop and never let your body take a break.” He sure doesn’t seem to rest much. Each Saturday during peak training periods before a race, Schmitt rises at 4 a.m. and gets on the bike for a “century ride”—100 miles, which typically takes him until 10 a.m. “I get home before it’s too late to do anything else” with his family, he says.

On Sundays, he runs anywhere from an hour and 40 minutes to two hours and 20 minutes. Rather than running a certain number of miles, Schmitt has found himself better suited for running to allotted times.

“It took a little bit to get used to, but it makes more sense,” he says, especially if he has to reschedule his long-run day: “Life and schedules get in the way.” Often, he’ll bike 26 miles to work to incorporate some training into his daily commute. He gets his gym time on Wednesdays, when his unit does a CrossFit-type workout together.

“Training cuts into family time,” Schmitt says. “When I get home, I don’t work out.”

“He certainly has his priorities right,” says Smith. “Triathlon is one of his passions, but it’s certainly not his life. How hard he trains, given what he does for a living—I find that unbelievable.

“The mental aspect, his natural drive, are like something I’ve never actually seen before,” Smith says. “It’s quite amazing.”

Schmitt credits his wife, Valerie, for her boundless encouragement. After his first deployment, he told her—they weren’t yet married—not to let him re-enlist. Yet when he did re-enlist and was deployed again, she stood by his side. “It’s all part of the plan,” he says. “My wife has been nothing but supportive of both my military career and my hobby on the side.”

That “hobby” will be taking Schmitt to Hawaii in October, where he plans to earn his bragging rights. Not that he’ll be bragging.


 

THE IRONMAN WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP BREAKDOWN

2.4 miles of swimming in open water 

112 miles of cycling 

26.2 miles of running

140.6 total miles

There are no breaks between events, and athletes must complete each segment within a specified cutoff time or they’re disqualified.


 

THE TRAINING 

Under the guidance of coach Will Smith, Staff Sergeant Edward Schmitt enters peak training about 20 weeks before an Ironman competition.

Each Saturday, he goes on a “century ride,” covering 100 miles on his bike. On Sunday, he runs to a predetermined time, anywhere from 1:40:00 to 2:20:00. Through the week, he’ll fit in shorter rides and runs as his schedule permits, often beginning before dawn before his family wakes up.

For the swim portion of triathlon, Schmitt adopts scheduled “swimfocus” periods, during which he’ll get in the pool to swim laps roughly equal to triathlon distance (2.4 miles) about five times a week. Most weeks, he swims three times, to “keep my feel for the water,” he says.

“Swimming for me is the most time-consuming [exercise],” Schmitt says. An hourlong swim costs him 90 minutes of commitment, given the commute and the locker room time. He goes to great lengths to incorporate his workouts into his everyday routine, often accomplishing shorter bike rides by riding rather than driving to work (26 miles), for instance.

During peak training, he gets his gym time from the CrossFit workout his unit conducts each Wednesday. Off-peak, he’ll add a second workout to his week, typically a core training set or leg lifts “to power up on the bike a bit.”


 

HOW HE EATS

Schmitt says he’s not the most diet-focused athlete. “I am not the model person for any sort of diet,” he says.

“My general plan for nutrition is to be sensible and healthy most of the time so I can indulge without feeling guilty some of the time.”

But he still adheres to a few rules, and now that he has a coach to answer to, he has become a bit more conscious of his eating habits. “I used to make myself a big plate, and then I’d eat all my kids’ leftovers, too. Now I make myself a light plate. That’s me being mindful.”

Breakfast. Schmitt starts almost every day with a bowl of bran flakes mixed with Special K Red Berries cereal. If it’s a training day of four hours or more, he’ll add a Jimmy Dean Breakfast Bowl to boost his caloric intake.

Lunch. It’s “probably my least consistent meal of the day,” he says, ranging from the previous night’s leftovers to a sandwich and yogurt, or a restaurant visit with co-workers. He tries to steer clear of fried foods, and the family stocks only milk and water to drink: no soda (“I prefer to eat my calories”). “Juice is a treat for our kids,” he says. He does, however, snack “pretty much all day long”—granola bars, Wheat Thins, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt.

Dinner. Because of his family’s on-the-go lifestyle, he and his wife often resort to freezer meals that can be made in a slow cooker—chicken, pork or beef, with sides of vegetables and starchy carbs.

Race day. This, says Schmitt, is “its own beast.” Upon waking up, he’ll have coffee, water and two McDoubles. Then he’ll have a glazed doughnut or two as he’s approaching race time. “I started eating this pre-race breakfast after it was suggested by a friend and fellow Ironman athlete,” he says. “It’s actually very good fuel for the extreme calorie deficit I will be putting myself in.” During the race, he’ll rely on sport gels and an occasional Clif Bar, as well as water and sports drinks. Schmitt tries to consume at least 2,500 calories during the bike portion of a full Ironman to prepare for the final stage.