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Iowa Man Attempts 11-Month, 10,000-Mile Triathlon

Jul 14, 2010 – 7:02 AM
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David Moye

David Moye Contributor

Correction, Aug. 9: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect number for the distance of the triathlon.

(July 14) -- If they ever held a contest for the world's toughest triathlete, Charlie Wittmack would run away with first prize.

He'd also swim away with it and at least get a good head start on his bike as well.

That's because Wittmack, 36, is starting out on a worldwide triathlon that, if completed, will stand as the most extreme physical achievement ever attempted by a human.

Charlie Wittmack swims in an undated handout photo.
Courtesy Andy Stoll
Charlie Wittmack says the swimming is the hardest part of his global triathlon, and he's already lost a toenail.

The 11-month, 10,000-mile journey, which began July 1 in London, started with a 275-mile swim down the River Thames and the English Channel. That will be followed by a 9,000-mile bike ride from France to Calcutta, India (including a jaunt over the Himalayas), and a 950-mile run starting from sea level at the Bay of Bengal to the summit of Mount Everest.

Whew!

If all goes according to plan, Wittmack will be at the Everest base summit by May 25, 2011, which is the best day for people attempting to climb up the world's largest mountain.

Wittmack should know. He once made the ascent during some of the worst weather in the recorded history of the mountain and only after making two back-to-back summit attempts and spending three days without food or water.

Despite suffering through experiences like that, Wittmack looks forward to this current triathlon. And well he should: He's wanted to do it for more than 20 years.

"I first got the idea about doing this when I was 14," Wittmack told AOL News. "At the time, I was a swimmer, and also ran cross-country and worked at a bike shop and was reading about Sir Edmund Hillary's conquest of Everest."

Unlike most people who let their teenage dreams die with the first beer bong in college, Wittmack kept his alive. He graduated from high school early and spent his senior year of high school in Kenya at the National Outdoor Leadership School, where he learned to lead expeditions.

In between, Wittmack found time to get a law degree and become a practicing attorney as well as an adjunct college professor, before reaching the top of Everest in 2003. But the dream of pushing himself further than anyone in recorded history kept nagging at him. Surprisingly, his wife, Cate, didn't nag him to stop thinking about it.

"She knows me so well," he said. "She sees how I am when I have a project and when I don't, so she supports me."

Wittmack decided to start his swim down the Thames for two reasons: It leads to the English Channel, which has long been a challenge for swimmers, and it was once the most polluted river in the world.

"Back in the 1950s, it was considered a 'dead river,' which means it was so polluted, it was unable to support life," Wittmack explained. "But a few environmentalists got together, and today it is the considered the cleanest river that goes through a major city in the world."

Wittmack hopes his willingness to swim through it helps folks who are depressed about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill realize that people can come together to make a difference.

Luckily for him, the swim is the most difficult part, physically and mentally. Oh, and also technically. Just a couple weeks in, he has already broken an iPhone and lost a waterproof iPod (a necessity when you're swimming 10 hours a day).
No wonder Wittmack looks forward to the climb at the end of the journey, in part, he said, because his 5-foot-8-inch, 145-pound frame predisposes him to handling high elevations well.

On the other hand, he has a serious time crunch ahead of him. Wittmack has to get to the English Channel by Aug. 2 in order to continue his journey.

"It's very difficult to get the rights to swim the channel," he said. "My launch date is Aug. 2, and I need to get there in order to keep to my schedule."

The 9,000-mile bike ride might seem relatively easy compared with the swim and the climb up Everest, but even there Wittmack has his work cut out for him.

"I have to get to the border of China and Kyrgystan by the end of October in order to get over the Tibetan plateau to India," Wittmack said. "I'll be riding over harsh deserts through areas with political instability."

Along with the elements and the potential problems related to politics, Wittmack will also have to deal with missing his wife and 2-year-old child.

"They are coming on part of the trip, but not in the areas with the political troubles," he said.

Besides attempting what may be the most difficult human endurance event ever devised, Wittmack sees his endeavor as a humanitarian mission. He is working to create "global connections" with the people he meets on the journey and will bring back the information to kids for use in educational programs.

In addition, he wants to raise awareness about maternal mortality, an important cause to him and his wife. "Mothers are 100 times more likely to die giving birth in Nepal than in the United States," he said.

So when the World Tri reaches Kathmandu, Des Moines University, where Wittmack is an adjunct professor, will provide the local community a team of physicians and students to offer education on safe childbearing, safe sex, prenatal care, maternal health matters and safe delivery practices.

If he can pull it off, Wittmack will have achieved something no one in recorded history has done. But there is a price for his passion and, right now, his feet are paying it.

"I am averaging about 10 miles a day swimming," Wittmack said. "Sometimes, I'm not swimming, I'm walking because the water is so shallow. My feet are banged up on the rocks. I lost a toenail. I threw up after one swim and woke up with night sweats."

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