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Becoming Ironmen

Laboring across the finish line, muscles screaming and bodies exhausted from the nearly 140 grueling miles of swimming, biking and running, those who complete the Ford Ironman Wisconsin are considered winners for simply surviving. Childhood friends, 22-year-old Mike Esser Jr., Jacob Schmidt and Mark Semrad did exactly that.

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Believe it or not, their motivation came from Esser Jr.’s father, Mike Esser Sr. Four years ago, at age 47, Esser Sr. suffered from high blood pressure and cholesterol so he began training with his son to get back into shape. Eventually, the two had racked up numerous triathlons and marathons. Now, they faced the granddaddy of them all.

“Mr. Esser was without a doubt the only reason that I got started in triathlons and truly the driving force behind all of us signing up,” Schmidt says. “When Mr. Esser finished his half-Ironman and planned on signing up for the full, I knew it was a challenge I wanted to be a part of.”

Just as Schmidt and Semrad were inspired, Mike Sr. was driven to compete because of the inspiration provided to him by his own father, who lost a battle to cancer.

Ironman athletes have 17 hours to complete the event, beginning at 7 a.m. and finishing at midnight. Competitors complete a 2.4-mile swim and a 112-mile bike ride before hopping off and running 26.2 miles. That’s 140.6 miles if you’re still counting.

“I was scared crapless,” Esser Jr. admitted. “I thought you guys were more calm than I was …”

When it comes to training, Esser Sr. says he started the first day he started exercising. “I’d say I’ve been training for three or four years now  – which is good because it allows you to keep working out and stay in shape,” he says.

Semrad on the last leg of the race.

Semrad on the last leg of the race.

Schmidt, Semrad and Esser Jr. trained for almost a year and a half – running, biking and swimming at least two times per day.

“Starting last year, we tried to work out twice a day,” Semrad says, “Ideally we’d spend an hour-and-a-half on the bike and an hour or 45 minutes running. But we always tried to do different things each time whether it was a bike and a swim, or a run and a bike.”

For all three, timing was an issue during the school year. All are University of Wisconsin seniors, but once summer came around they developed a more routine schedule.

“Everyday I would get up at 5:30-6 a.m. and go for a 20 to 40 mile bike ride,” Semrad says. “I’d get back, go to work for 8 hours, come home and either run for 1-2 hours or swim or do both.”

Two weeks before the race, the group laid off the greasy food, drank enormous amounts of water and Gatorade and even forfeited drinking beer, as best they could anyway.

“We slipped up once,” Esser Jr. confesses. “It was the first Wisconsin game day, we had to celebrate.”

Besides one day of indulgence, everyone stuck to the schedule until the big day.

The alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. on race day. The group woke up, had a light breakfast and headed to Lake Monona for the start of the race. Filling water bottles and preparing transition bags went quickly. Before they knew it, they were in the water.

“I was really scared for the swim,” Schmidt admits. “And now that there was a time limit, I couldn’t float on my back the whole way, I actually had to hustle.”

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