Jeff Schmidt’s Mission to Conquer the Kona Ironman
September 2016 Issue
The first time Jeff Schmidt participated in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, in October 2012, he completed the race 25 minutes too late to be considered a finisher. It was, however, one of the best moments of his life, he says.
"There were only four miles left and I knew I wasn't going to finish [by the cut-off time]. They told me I had to get off the course, but I told them no. I had come this far and I was going to finish the race," remembers Schmidt, 36, who was chosen to compete through a lottery for athletes with physical challenges.
It didn't matter that he was last to cross the finish line. "I was just overjoyed to have finished without assistance," he says.
The victory was all the more rewarding for Schmidt because he did not train with a coach, "had little money or fancy gear," and did not have a decent prosthesis to help him with cycling and running during training. "I had a running leg made for me about three weeks before the race," says Schmidt, who lives with his wife of 13 years, Jenny, and their one-year-old son, Jonah, in Northern California.
He also had to overcome several health issues as he prepared for Kona. For instance, part of Schmidt's training was running the Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Marathon that June, during which he battled a reoccurring staph infection in his residual limb that forced him to walk the last ten miles of the race.
Life-changing Soccer Game
Schmidt knows something about adversity. He was a star soccer player at his Missouri high school. His dreams of playing soccer in college came to an end his senior year when his right leg was badly broken after an opponent kicked him. The physician set the cast too tight, cutting off the circulation to his foot and leg, Schmidt says. "The doctors really screwed up."
Ten years of chronic foot and leg pain and surgery after surgery followed. It was with encouragement and support from his wife that Schmidt finally decided to undergo a transtibial amputation in 2007. "In order to get my life back, I needed to have my leg amputated," he says. "The doctor thought I was crazy. But one of the best things that could have happened is that we were able to determine how long the residual limb should be [to achieve the best prosthetic fit]."
In 2009, his wife encouraged him to join her triathlon group in training for an Ironman. He was out of shape, but training for the event proved to be the best thing for him, he says. While he didn't finish the Ironman in 2010, he had found a new passion. Not only did he spend the next six years competing in triathlons, marathons, and half marathons, he has become a national spokesperson for athletes with physical challenges.
Returning to Kona
Schmidt's accomplishments in Kona in 2012 did not go unnoticed. He caught the attention of employees of GU Energy Labs, Berkeley, California, and was invited to their headquarters to discuss returning to Kona in 2013. Schmidt and GU Energy Labs also decided to raise money for the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) as part of this endeavor. "I had received a running foot from CAF in 2011. And GU is passionate about helping kids," he says.
After speaking with CAF, the Challenge for Kids fundraiser began, and Schmidt was awarded a special slot in the 2013 Ironman World Championship in Kona in recognition of that fundraising work.
If there was ever the right person to help Schmidt on his quest to finish a Kona Ironman, it would be Peter Harsch, CP, owner of Peter Harsch Prosthetics, San Diego. Harsch not only helped Schmidt train for the event, but he also has been Schmidt's prosthetist since they met at a CAF paratriathlon camp in August 2013. "Jeff was having real struggles with his prosthesis, so I offered to help him out coaching and as a prosthetist to make a well-fitting and suspended prosthesis for his cycling and running the Ironman. I also got him fitted with an everyday walking prosthesis," Harsch says.
Schmidt is currently using an Össur Vari-Flex Modular foot system and a cushion liner for walking, and for cycling he uses a locking setup with an Össur Vari-Flex foot and Össur locking liner. "We did a custom carbon fairing for aerodynamics and lightweight design," he says.
When it comes to running, Schmidt is in a similar socket fit but with an Össur Flex-Run foot system. "We worked on his running technique and biomechanics and have an optimal alignment and fit so he [could] maximize his efficiency for the long-course Ironman distance," Harsch says. "We were able to get him well fitted and aligned to take on the heat and humidity along with the winds in Kona."
In addition, Harsch says they were able to study video for all three disciplines to show Schmidt what he needed to improve upon to reduce any deviations or poor techniques. "With the combination of being a certified triathlon coach, Ironman athlete, and prosthetist, we were able to make sure he was properly fit on this triathlon bike for the long course, which is why we did a custom cycling leg around an aerodynamic fit on his time-trial bike," Harsch says. "When it came to running, we spent a great deal of time on the treadmill and at the track working on his overall form and technique, also focusing on stride length and stride rate and making sure his running prosthesis was optimal."
Qualifying for an Ironman is a feat, says Harsch, who has finished 14 long-course Ironman events, including four in Kona. "The hardest part about the race in Kona is getting qualified," he says, adding that it requires having discipline, being consistent, having an understanding of nutrition, getting appropriate sleep, doing the proper type and frequency of training, and not missing any workouts. And, "it takes mental and physical toughness to be able to finish."
An Ironman race consists of a 2.4-mile open water swim, a 112-mile bike ride, followed by a 26.2-mile run. During the swim, the athletes often face three- to five-foot high ocean waves, and when it comes to the biking leg in Kona, cyclists deal with high heat, humidity, hill climbs, and sometimes up to 60-mile-per-hour wind gusts coming across the lava fields, Harsch says. The race begins at 7 a.m. and athletes have 17 hours to finish, otherwise it's considered DNF-did not finish. "Each leg of the race has a time completion requirement," Harsch says.
Despite all the professional training, support, and intense effort that Schmidt put in for the 2013 Kona Ironman, he was unable to finish. A few days before the race, he experienced cramping in his residual limb, which turned out to be a partially torn calf muscle. Thirty miles into the cycling leg, Schmidt again experienced severe cramping. He managed to finish the bike ride, but when he put on his running leg, he couldn't take a step without serious pain, he says. He tried to use his walking leg to finish, but after ten miles, he had to stop. "It was devastating," he says.
Nonetheless, Schmidt doesn't look at those efforts as a disappointment. "The Challenge for Kids fundraiser had a goal of $50,000. We surpassed that goal and raised more than $80,000 to benefit physically challenged young athletes around the world," he says.
An Eventual Return to Kona
When Schmidt's son was born in September 2015, his priorities changed. Although he has done little racing and training for the past year, Schmidt says he has now set a goal to be ready to compete in an Ironman 70.3 (which stands for the number of miles in a half triathlon) in April 2017.
He also has an appointment with Harsch this month to be fit with a new walking prosthesis. "The plan now is to use and fit him with the new Össur Pro- Flex foot system and set him up with the new [Össur] Synergy cushion liner setup," Harsch says. "This will be a primary walking leg with a state-of-theart foot system that will allow him to walk comfortably day in and day out. Our plan will be to get him walking first and then make sure everything is well fit and then look at the next step of the cycling and running legs."
Schmidt says he has the desire and drive to eventually return to Kona and try to complete the Ironman. "Someday I will cross that finish line," he says.
Harsch believes Schmidt has the inner discipline to eventually complete the race. "He has a big heart and drive to take on the greatest endurance sport that any amateur athlete can take on."
Betta Ferrendelli is a freelance writer based in Denver.