A new meaning for grueling: UI alum tackles World Tri

BY JON FRANK | JANUARY 20, 2011 7:10 AM

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Charlie Wittmack stands before a crowded room in the YMCA Healthy Living Center in Clive, Iowa, his hands stuffed into his pockets. He frowns a bit as he recalls the trying months he has endured.

The 33-year-old has put together clips, images, and passages from his journal that detail the past six months of a voyage that started in July 2010. After a 275-mile swim down the River Thames in southern England and across the English Channel, the University of Iowa alumnus landed in France.

From there, he biked from Western Europe deep into Asia, including a trek through the Taklimakan Desert in China and Torugart Pass in Kyrgyzstan.

To fund the adventure, he raised money and received equipment from several sponsors, including Toyota.

During a presentation on Jan. 12, the Ames native focused intently on the projections before him.

His bloodshot eyes seem to recall the vast destinations. Desolate highways. Desert plains. Frost-covered fields. Mesmerizing landscapes.

Testaments of the adventurer’s journey

Wittmack has racked up an extensive number of miles, and his end is far from sight.

“It makes me feel very tired,” he said. “Ordinarily, if you’re on an expedition you would look back on hardship with some pride and think, ‘Look at all the things I’ve overcome,’ and that would be a source of strength … It’s not a source of strength for me, because there are so many hardships yet to come.”

His return to the United States is a planned rest. One thousand miles on bike, 975 miles running, and a 29,000 foot climb to the summit of Mount Everest still await in Asia.

Staring at the landscapes Wittmack has conquered, the audience caught a glimpse of an entirely different world from the Midwest. But it’s simply unfinished business to the wiry explorer.

“My body is here, but my mind is still there,” he said. “This period was always a scheduled rest period.”

Contending with physical limitations and adverse climate, the veteran climber is attempting to complete the World Triathlon — a 10,000-mile trek across Europe and Asia, which the Iowan conceived. In doing so, Wittmack, with the World Health Organization and Des Moines University, hopes to promote safe childbearing practices in Nepal, which has a high mortality rate for women giving birth, according to UNICEF.

His road to Mount Everest was interrupted during the closing stages of the bike ride. Because of the high altitudes and prolonged exposure to subzero temperatures, the cyclist was forced to seek aid after simultaneously suffering cerebral and pulmonary edema at Torugart Pass — both life-threatening conditions if left untreated. The affliction created swelling when fluid collected in his lungs. Wittmack said it began with a cough and eventually caused hallucinations.

“On that day, I had ridden about 120 miles on a bicycle,” he said. “It was an 11,000-foot climb. And I finished at an elevation of 18,300 feet. So I was up at the pass, and I was just out of my mind.”

Shortly after recovering, he returned to the United States in late November. He had time to visit his family, close friends, and, most importantly, his physician to ensure his physical well-being.

“Having him back is wonderful,” said mother Dee Wittmack. “I was afraid that he wouldn’t be back.”

Highways and mishaps

Charlie Wittmack anticipated hardships long before his departure to England. But years of meticulous map exploration and physical conditioning were no match for his travels.

“Watching Charlie do what he does was one of the most amazing physical feats I’ve ever witnessed,” said Andy Stoll, who traveled with Wittmack for the first stage of the trip while swimming the Thames and the Channel. “He didn’t touch a boat for 12 hours [at one point].”

But not without trouble. He suffered amoebic dysentery and extreme skin irritation and lost four toenails during the swim. At times, the currents swept him off course, resulting in hours of lost time.

After weeks of daily swimming as long as 12 hours, Wittmack burned an excessive number of calories.

“He was really thin when he started the bike ride,” said Cate Wittmack, who is married to Charlie Wittmack. Cate Wittmack, who spent the opening months of the World Triathlon alongside her husband, said he was not able to keep up with his body’s caloric demands because of excessive physical exertion.

Nonetheless, Charlies Wittmack dropped the wetsuit for bicycle.

En route to Prague, he discovered that nearly two-thirds of the anticipated $1.2 million budget would not be available because of unforeseen sponsorship problems. After consulting his family, he decided to press on without his original support team.

“It was a terrible day, quite honestly,” said Cate Wittmack, 32.

Wittmack’s family and teammates — which included UI graduates Stoll and Brian Tripplett (who once worked for The Daily Iowan) — were sent home, and Wittmack was left to press on alone.

“To travel with Charlie is to witness a man trying to keep 100 plates spinning while keeping his family happy while having a massive risk on his shoulders while taking on a ridiculously grueling physical challenge,” Triplett wrote in an e-mail. “I knew he could have taken on my task list all at the same time. I think he just wanted the company.”

Charlie Wittmack pressed on through the Czech Republic, Poland, and Ukraine without assistance before meeting a support team sponsored by Toyota in Russia.

“Did you have lots of tools?” a child asked him after his presentation at the Clive YMCA.
“Did I have a lot of tools?” Wittmack said. “That’s a very good question.”

He described the hardships he incurred after his team split. Extra tires. Backup tubes. Food rations. Clothing. Maps. Two extra bikes. Items the explorer hadn’t planned on lugging around. That’s what his team was for.

“All of a sudden, I had a trailer with my equipment in it, and I had five or six bags on the bike,” he said.

To make matters worse, the routes he had chosen didn’t always meet expectations.

“There are two lines,” he said pointing to photographs he took of an empty desert. “I thought that it was a road, or a highway, or something. And what it is — it’s the railroad that goes across Kazakhstan. And then near that, there’s a pipeline. So near the railroad and the pipeline, cars drive, but there isn’t a road. It’s just cars driving across the desert.”

He spent 23 days traveling through the deserts of Kazakhstan. While there, he was traveling east on the M32 highway — a two-lane paved road — when he was struck from behind by a car on the left side of the road.

“The first thing I heard was [the car] hitting my back bike rack,” he said. “It knocked my wheels out from under me. I was knocked off the bike, and I slid down the highway without the bike.”

Concerned onlookers witnessed the frantic cyclist scamper to safety. The collision cracked his helmet and left him a swollen right side. He was back on the bike three days later.

Things didn’t get easier after he left the highway.

Traveling through Tibet, he contended with ravenous dogs. Starving in snow-caked wilderness, the beasts seized his attention as he cycled through towns that had been abandoned for the season in favor of more hospitable climates.

“There’s no food source up there,” he said. “[The dogs] are used to eating basically human corpses. There was some scary situations with these literally man-eating dogs.”

Return to Asia

Charlie Wittmack was cleared to return to Asia after he “blew the barn doors off” the physical administered by Des Moines physicians.

On Jan. 24, Wittmack will leave the United States for Asia to see his seemingly impossible dream realized.

Despite the colorful stories he tells about his trek, more danger awaits. Wittmack — who will ride 1,000 more miles, run an additional 975 from the Bay of Bengal to Nepal, and attempt to climb Mount Everest for the second time — can only speculate what’s to come in the following months.

“When I started the trip, I was very naïve,” he said carefully. He paused, deliberating his next words. “I knew there would be challenges. That it would be a difficult expedition physically and mentally. But I really underestimated them.”

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