The IRONMAN World Championship might just be the toughest race on earth. Taking place annually in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, the 226km long triathlon includes a 4km swim, 180km bike route and 42km run. It winds through miles of black and barren lava rock and tests competitors’ mental and physical fortitude as they battle crosswinds of up to 72 km/h and temperatures upwards of 35C.
For a lot of people, that kind of gruelling physical exercise might not sound like all that much fun. But for Red Deer’s Craig Schmitt, it sounds like a dream Hawaiian vacation.
“I’m so excited for it. I’ve done it a couple of times before, but I’ve been wanting to get back for a couple of years now but it gets harder and harder as my kids get older,” said Schmitt, who is in Kona this week as one of the 2,000 athletes who will compete in the qualification-only event.
This will be the 38-year-old endurance athlete’s third time competing at the international triathlon, but it will be his first time back since 2014.
For Schmitt, qualifying for the World Championships at IRONMAN Canada after barely missing qualifying the past two years was a sweet feeling.
“It felt amazing. Just with the business and our family, I’m going to have to take a year off of it next year, so this was it for me. This is going to be my last chance for awhile, so it was pretty satisfying,” said Schmitt, who is married with four kids and has recently started his own Endurance Sport Consulting business.
Originally from Carbon, Alberta, Schmitt, a long-time cyclist, originally started doing IRONMAN competitions after having a bad bike crash seven years ago.
“I broke my kneecap and I road rashed and it wasn’t good. I kind of lost that desire to race in a big group. Then a good friend of mine, I convinced him to start running and in return he convinced me to start swimming. So we started running, swimming and biking and I thought if I’m going to do this I might as well compete and see how far I can take this.”
Now, seven years later, Schmitt is one of the top endurance athletes in the country. Still, he knows he has his work cut out for him when he takes the plunge into that ocean water on the beaches of Kona this Saturday.
“It’s very different than Alberta. It’s very, very windy; very, very hot and very, very humid. It’s a cool event because it’s very international,” he said, adding with the world’s best triathletes at the event, he’s keeping his expectations fairly realistic.
“Going into most races, honestly most of the time I want to be on the podium. But this is a race where we’re talking about 2,000 of the best triathletes in the world and my goals have to be realistic. Honestly, I want to be in that top quarter in my age division.”
In order to do that, Schmitt has been training hard, both mentally and physically to prepare himself for a race that could potentially take him up to 10 hours to complete.
“Everyone always focuses on the distances, but really it comes down to a war of the mind versus the body. Can the mind convince the body to keep going for 10 hours, or for some people it takes 17 hours,” he said.
He added he also spends a lot of time thinking about how he’s going to deal with what he calls ‘dark holes’ — which, he explained, are the points in any long event where the athletes just hate it and want to quit.
“They hate it, they wonder why they do it. What am I going to think about to get myself out of that hole?”
Despite all of the training and mental preparation, Schmitt doesn’t let himself get too carried away. He said to him, his family always comes first and that their support through all of his training has meant the world to him.
“I couldn’t do it without my wife, of course. She’s in it up to her neck. She wants it more than I do I think,” he said, adding his oldest boy, Luke, has also been a huge motivating factor because he’s checking on his dad’s progress and pushing him to do better.
“I joke that I’m actually looking for his approval. He loves this stuff. He’s excited to watch me, he’s excited to see my times and everybody else’s times.”
Craig’s strong family ties are one of the reasons he’s excited for this particular trip to the world championship because, for the first time ever the entire family will be making the trip down to Hawaii with him.
“This time we’re taking all four kids with us so they can see their dad do it once.”
The IRONMAN World Championship takes place this Saturday in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.