For many, running a marathon is the ultimate fitness goal.
Some are motivated to go further and compete at an ironman distance: a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run.
Then there’s Chad Esker, who completed FIVE iron-mans in FIVE consecutive days. As if that could be any more impressive, just eight years ago, Chad could barely run a mile. When he received news that his lifestyle was causing some health complications, he made a commitment that turned into something so much bigger than shedding a few pounds.
He began by running a mile a day, and when the weather got too cold, he decided to join the YMCA to avoid the biting Wisconsin winter mornings (and afternoons…and nights…). While doing his typical morning workout routine, Chad would often interact with a group of swimmers who did regular 6am swims together. After they invited him into their group, Chad was motivated to reach a whole new fitness level. He went from running 5k distances to completing marathons and Iron Man competitions with the help of his friends on the team.
“You’ll find a lot that athletes have addictive personalities. They’ll get on to something and it’s just full force. I kind of picked up on that…sometimes it comes and goes with people, but for me it has stayed ever since I started it.”
His incremental fitness success reached a new high this month with the Epic 5 challenge, hosted in Hawaii, where 10 participants from around the world participated in the 703 mile journey. Epic 5 is not a competition – the only way participants “win” is by completing the course for five consecutive days within the allotted time (15 hours/day). Like many “ultra” events, the Epic 5 is less of an individual feat than it is an effort requiring teams of people, and camaraderie between the participants themselves. This was the first year since the event was founded in 2010 where all participants finished the course, and much of it was due to the sense of unity the ten athletes had in overcoming this obstacle together. Chad commented that he heard event administrators say this unprecedented feat would most likely never be accomplished again. The group of athletes traveled from homes in Argentina, Australia, The Czech Republic, California, and more, to traverse the Hawaiian islands and test the limitations of their physical, mental and emotional capabilities.
Although it is difficult to completely prepare an individual to endure the Hawaiian heat and terrain for 703 mile journey, Chad and his crew put in the hours to get him in the best physical spot possible to complete the challenge. He explains the rigorous preparation and training he underwent for the six months preceding Epic 5.
“I was waking up some mornings at 2am to be to the YMCA at 3. We would do a two hour run, just for sleep deprivation and getting used to running while we were super tired, then we’d go swim, I would come home and work a full day, and we’d do a five hour bike ride in the evening on bike trainers in the house.”
I asked Chad about how he felt on his flight over to Hawaii. Understandably there was a mixture of pride and excitement, but also a healthy dose of humility. Chad had received a lot of recognition from the community for his outstanding feat, and he describes how this press has been both motivational and overwhelming.
“I just remember how many times I thought that I do not deserve this recognition or attention. I’m just a common guy here from Central Wisconsin. I was so thankful that everyone was believing in me and thought this was a really neat journey that we were on.”
The support from the community was one of the factors that kept Chad going when things got tough. In our conversation, he often emphasized how this was a team effort, and he felt he had to perform because so many people were behind him and supporting him.
One particularly touching example was when a group of local elementary school kids wrote Chad notes of encouragement, which his team handed to him on flights between islands while he competed. He got choked up reading the notes, describing how he was mentally and emotionally replenished by the outpouring of support from his fans (of all ages).
Chad’s mental and physical tenacity was put to the test with the grueling course, which climaxed on day four, when he fell severely seasick while traveling by boat to the next island. While attempting the 2.4 mile swim on that day, Chad was so violently ill that his body was left devoid of nutrition, with a 112 mile bile and 26.2 mile run still lying ahead. In these moments, which he describes as the worst of his life, Chad discovered a sense of resilience he had never had to access before.
Forging on, he completed the challenge. You can watch news coverage of Chad’s journey, and his emotional finish of the event here. After months of preparation, and a week of traveling, running, biking, and swimming in the depleting Hawaiian heat, Chad joined the ranks of the 20 athletes who have overcome the challenge in the last seven years.
When I asked Chad why he does this and what keeps him motivated, he said it is somewhat about the physical feat and sense of accomplishment, but perhaps more about the team effort. He explains that when running a marathon, he rarely came away knowing the stories of those who ran alongside him. However, when completing an ultra-event, or Epic 5, he came away with dozens of new friends. Participants are bonded by the sharing of their own stories, as well as the emotional experiences they have performing unthinkable physical feats.
He also states how enduring pain for five days was nothing when he reminded himself of his friends and peers who have physical disabilities, and have to stand pain on a daily basis.
“A lot of my friends who have disabilities or health problems, I think of what they deal with every day, and I’m in pain here for five days. It’s going to be tough times here, but I think, these people deal with it every day. What do I have to complain about?”
After conversing with him, Chad’s selflessness and humility are just as astonishing as the fact that he finished one of the, if not the, most grueling physical feats organized for athletes today. And although I still struggle to run a 5k, his insight about the importance of support and a community in accomplishing one’s goals has greatly inspired me. His experience reminds me of the limitations that one can impose and refuse to challenge in her life. These are not confined to the realm of fitness, but can extend to aspirations in one’s career, relationships, or intellectual development. Chad’s commitment reminds me that few things are out of reach if one puts in the hours and work to achieve it. This is certainly not an earth-shattering assertion, yet Chad’s journey puts it in perspective in a new and quite impactful way. He makes me wonder how much I could accomplish in eight years if I vigorously worked towards something I’m passionate about with a group of people supporting me. I think, in a way, that is why so many people were behind him in this experience. We love to see when someone works tirelessly to achieve his or her goals. It reminds us of the inherent resilience that we all can harness if we work up the courage to do something, well, epic.
Watch my full conversation with Chad to hear more content not included in the above video clips:
Take a listen to my podcast with Chad, which includes more background information on his journey and clips not included in the video chat:
Thanks for reading & listening!
Speak to you soon,