Taking it to the LimitAugust 3, 2018
Story by Jonathan Saxon
Photos by Brittney Lohmiller
Deep in the Indiana forests, a troop of young men are gearing up for a rather intense field exercise.
First, they will pair off and take to the water as they navigate a canoe through a designated route across a small part of Lake Monroe. Then once they make it back to shore, they will make their way through the woods to a station where bikes are laid aside for an intensive ride around an open field nestled among the trees. Once they ride around the field about 10 or so times, there will be one last trot up an incline lovingly named Heart Attack Hill, before they reach the finish line.
And what will be their reward for undertaking this laborious stress test? The cold and sweet comfort of ice cream.
Boy Scout Troop 185 would have more than earned their chocolate drumsticks by the time all the boating, biking and running is over.
Present among the boys is an obvious ringer. He stands about 6 feet and one inch tall and works as a financial manager at National Office Furniture by day. But in his off time, he trains for triathlon events like the one the boys took part in at the Ransburg Scout Reservation. He is using the Boy Scout event (he’s an assistant scoutmaster for Troop 185) as a kind of soft preparation for the Ironman competition he’ll undertake in about five weeks time.
His name is Joe Schitter and the 50-year-old loves the thrill of pushing his body to its absolute physical limits.
“It’s hard to explain. I just enjoy that challenge to push myself,” says the longtime Jasper resident. “I started with marathons, then I got into long biking events. Then it kind of morphed into this. I just tried it once, then I got hooked on it. You do one and you get hooked on it.”
Joe started out as a runner. He ran cross country for Jasper High School during his freshman year, and even though he didn’t continue competing in an organized fashion, he kept the habit of running as a way to stay in shape. After graduating from Indiana State University and moving to Cincinnati to work for the Internal Revenue Service, he kept his running spirit alive by participating in 5K races before eventually moving up to half and full marathons.
“That was the furthest I had ever ran in my life when I did that,” he says about completing his first full marathon in 1998.
But he soon had to take a break from his running shoes. A knee injury kept him from running for a brief period of time, but he did not let that keep him on the shelf. Instead, he picked up cycling in the interim as his knee healed. Once the knee was back at full strength, Joe traded off his time between biking and running, which gave birth to a crazy idea.
“One day I just had a weird dream to do this,” he says, referring to his drive to compete in a triathlon.
So Joe went in search of his next challenge and found it via Lincoln State Park. His first attempt at a triathlon was a relatively tame affair: a 500-yard swim, a 15-mile bike ride and a run around the lake that covered the distance of a 5K.
But even that wasn’t enough to satisfy the competitive (or masochistic) urge to push his body even further.
Joe then discovered Ironman triathlons. An Ironman event can be seen as the ultimate endurance test. It consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and concludes with a full, 26.2-mile marathon run.
According to the Ironman website, the event is the brainchild of John Collins, a Naval officer who was stationed in Hawaii during the 1970s. The legend goes that it started as a debate amongst a group of guys about which endurance athletes were the toughest: runners, swimmers or cyclists. Triathlons were a new form of athletic competition that was sweeping across the nation and in 1978 the first group of athletes, including Collins, took to the shores of Waikiki for the first Ironman triatholn.
On July 22 of this year, Ironman celebrated its 40-year anniversary with a triathlon at Lake Placid, New York. It was Joe’s fourth Ironman (he finished his first in 2014), so he shortened his training schedule to about eight months to prepare his mind and body for the grueling ordeal that he willingly participates in.
Training consists of daily activity, alternating between running, swimming and biking, with a gradual buildup in each activity to help Joe’s body reach its peak endurance point.
His wife, Angie, and their children — Ben, 13, Becca, 16, and Mitch, 21, — cannot understand why he does it to himself.
“Because he’s crazy,” Angie says. His father shares the same sentiments.
“My dad told me the other day, ‘I can understand you doing the first one, the second one is just stupid,’” Joe says.
But none of that bothers him, when people question why he would choose to do something like an Ironman once, let alone four times. He acknowledges it’s something most people won’t understand, but enough people get it. After all, there would be no more triathlon events if there were no one to participate in them.
“It’s funny, you talk to normal people and they go, ‘Why would you ever want to do that?’” Joe says. “Then you go down to these events and there’s 2,000 like-minded people like, ‘Why doesn’t everybody do this?’”
But as he said before, the opportunity to test his limits physically and mentally sparks something in him, and he believes there’s no better rush than finding out that you can actually complete an event like an Ironman and walk away mostly intact.
“You can’t replicate how you feel for the first one, because you’re so excited and nervous all at the same time,” he says. “Then you finish it and it’s pretty exciting and emotional. (Angie) and I were crying.”
Joe remembers his first Ironman in Louisville in 2014. It was one of the hottest competitions an Ironman had ever recorded with a heat index listed at 105 degrees. He said the swim in the Ohio River helped offset some of the heat, but his body cramped up during the bike ride. Then once the cycling portion was over, he hit a high point once again during the marathon. However, about five miles in he started hitting what athletes across the world know as “the wall.”
“My body just about shutdown,” he says. “Luckily, I made it to the next aid station. I got as much fluid as I could and got through it.”
But once he persevered and saw the crowd of supporters and fans cheering him and the other athletes on as they crossed the finish line to earn the Ironman title, he knew he was hooked.
“In Louisville, you finished at Fourth Street. It’s under a roof with hundreds of people cheering for everyone coming in,” Joe says. “It’s pretty cool to come in to that when you finish.”
The crowd wasn’t quite as large at Ransburg, but the excitement from the Boy Scouts and leaders participating in their triathlon was still high. Of course there was friendly trash talking and goading from the boys to the men about who was going to beat who, but Joe let them have their fun for the time being.
When the lifeguard gave the signal, Joe and another scoutmaster took off from the shore to get their canoe going for the boating portion of the triathlon. Joe’s schooner started swimmingly as the canoe remained steady on course and hit its buoys as it made its way back to shore.
The other boats in the Troop 185 navy were hit or miss. Some stayed their course, but simply could not compete with a canoe powered by Old Man Strength. Others, at times, seemed to have charted a course other than the route laid out by the lifeguards. However, there were no capsizing incidents and eventually everyone made it back to dry land to start the second portion of the amazing race.
A short trek through the woods brings our contestants to a soccer field for their bike ride. It seemed the scouts would have the advantage and possibly make up ground lost in the first arm of the race, but Joe is just biding his time. He’s taking it easy and letting his muscles recharge a bit while the scouts are burning through their energy; youth truly is wasted on the young.
And sure enough, after close to 10 laps around the field, Joe begins to kick it into gear and pull away from the crowd. There is a group of scouts ahead of him (the participants were released in waves), but Joe is the leader of his pack. Soon enough the bike ride is over and it’s just one more trek on foot through the woods and up Heart Attack Hill.
At this point the kids seem to be fading, but Joe is still going strong. It would seem the Ironman experience has prepared him to prove his dominance of endurance over the scouts. He keeps a dry smile on his face the whole way up the hill, crossing the finish line with little, if any, signs of struggle.
But he is also there to cheer on the rest of the kids as they make their way up the hill. And it is there he will wait until the last boy has huffed and puffed his way to the finish. They all celebrate their finish, not so much concerned about their times as they are at what they’ve achieved. And it is in that moment that one can see why Joe and others like him, chose to put their bodies through the wringer at Lake Placid just a few weeks later.
On Friday, July 20, two days before the Lake Placid Ironman, Joe is doing the last bit of light running, biking and swimming to get himself loose and ready for Sunday’s slog. And the biggest question on his mind is whether he’ll have to contend with the rain come race time. He is shooting to beat his personal best of 13 hours for the Ironman, and really hopes he can come in at around 12 hours and 25 minutes. Even though he’s completed an Ironman three times before, a part of him still questions his sanity.
“I’ll have that thought many times during the bike ride I’m sure,” he says. “The swim is quick enough, but then during the bike ride and the run you think, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ You gotta be nuts to do this.”
And with that, he was off to run his race. Participants did have to contend with heavy winds during the bike-riding portion of the triathlon that Sunday; Joe estimates the elements slowed everyone down by about 20 to 30 minutes.
Joe finished with a time of 13:09:48. While he did not reach his goal, he still finished more than 30 minutes faster than he did in his last Ironman, which is a victory he gladly takes.
“I was happy with it, (especially) with that wind that we had,” he says.
Other highlights for Joe include finishing the swim with his fastest time ever at one hour and 12 minutes, which is funny, he said, considering this was the most crowded and violent swim he can remember taking part in. Apparently the limbs fly as freely in the water as they do in a football pileup.
Joe said he made up a lot of his time during the marathon, though this run was a lot hillier than his previous Ironmans. Physically, he said, it’s the best he’s ever felt doing an Ironman. He had no cramping or stomach issues and the decision to hydrate throughout the event worked perfectly.
While Joe was running the race, he heard an exchange that solidified all the thoughts, feelings and emotions that go into an Ironman. He said a woman was running the race and as her husband and kids cheered her from the sidelines, she yelled back at them, “Everything hurts, but this is so cool.”
There’s probably no better way to sum up his fourth Ironman than those seven words, Joe said.
Now that he has completed his fourth race, he plans to take a break from the beast for a while to focus on family.
“My summers with my youngest are going to get busier,” he says. “It’s going to be harder to put that kind of training in.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s retired and off to the couch-potato life.
“The next thing I want to do is focusing on running marathons and qualify for the Boston Marathon,” Joe says.
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