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The Making of an Ultraman: Wolfgang Schmidt

Wolfgang Schmidt claims membership in a very small group of endurance athletes.

Wolfgang Schmidt claims membership in a very small group of endurance athletes. Only 37 people in the world have competed in both the Canadian and the World Ultraman Championships, and Schmidt is one of only 11 Canadians in that group. “I always thought that the effort to prepare for a short distance race is too large, [so] I might as well race a long distance event,” says Schmidt. At twice the length of an Ironman, athletes can find plenty of distance in an Ultraman competition.

In November 2010, Schmidt was the first Canadian to finish in the Hawaii World Ultraman Championship with a time of 27 hours, 19 minutes and 27 seconds. Covering 515 kilometres over three days, both the Canadian and world events consist of a 10 km swim on day one, a 420.6 km bike on day two and a run of 84.3 km on day three. The entry requirements are significant and there are only 40 spots available – by invitation only.

Schmidt first heard of the Ultraman in 2004 while in Penticton, British Columbia for his first Subaru Ironman Canada competition. A local store owner described the event and Schmidt was hooked, declaring on the spot that he wanted to do the race one day. Life was busy with other competitions, but he persevered and the dream became a reality in August 2009, when he travelled back to Penticton for Ultraman Canada.

It was about ten years ago that Schmidt, then 39, decided to be more serious about his fitness. “I was not the most athletic student however, during my training with the German army I noticed that I did have good endurance capabilities,” says Schmidt. “Later on in life I started to use my mountain bike for long distance rides, which sometimes included 200 to 300 km in one day.” This was before he had “proper” knowledge of gear, nutrition and training.

Living in New Dundee Ontario, he was encouraged by a trainer to sign up for his first triathlon in nearby Guelph. Schmidt did not begin with a Try-a-Tri, but instead entered the Olympic distance event and placed well. “To finish any race – no matter where one places – is such a great feeling and I think you can get addicted to it,” says Schmidt. In his first long distance event, a Half Ironman in Peterborough, Ontario, he finished well enough to earn a spot for Ironman Canada in 2004, which is when he first heard about the Ultraman from that store owner.

Between 2004 and 2009, Schmidt had four Ironman finishes in Arizona and one each in Frankfurt and Lake Placid. He ran the Boston Marathon numerous times and finished Ironman Canada twice. In 2006 and 2008, he finished the Ford Ironman World Championship, but plans for the 2007 race went off track. Training in Hawaii three days before the event, he experienced a devastating cycling accident that took him out of the competition.

Although Schmidt has no memory of the accident, or approximately 20 minutes before the crash, friends have described his launch straight over the handlebars and into the pavement of the Queen Ka’ahumanu highway. His injuries included five fractures to his orbital bone, a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder and numerous scrapes and bruises. Doctors ruled him unable to participate, but event organizers gave him VIP access to all venues. Six months later he raced Ironman Arizona.

When asked to compare an Ultraman to an Ironman, Schmidt says the only common aspects are the three disciplines themselves. “The biggest difference,” he says, “is the aspect of racing long distances by yourself, with nobody in sight.” He adds that although the body has to be physically ready for both types of events, “if your mental preparedness is not 100 percent, you will have a problem finishing these events.”

Schmidt’s Ultraman training depends on consistent power output in long sessions at 85 percent effort, with consecutive hard training days to build endurance. By contrast, his Ironman training concentrates on shorter distances with activities of different intensities. The commitment is very time consuming, leaving little time for friends and other activities.

Schmidt feels all of his training would not have paid off without the support of his wife Lynda. Also known as Ultraman Water Gurl, she delivers nutrition supplies during long distance workouts and heads up the support team required by Ultraman organizers. His son, Jonathon, has also been a team member to supply ice, nutrition and drink supplies while also preparing each day’s stages, keeping track of course information and helping with hardware issues like flats and broken chains.

The logistics planning for each athlete is extensive but race organizers do assist, for example, with hotel accommodations and finding additional team members. As Schmidt says, “The Ultraman family is very tightly knit and help is provided from athletes, crew members and organizers you have never met before – it is such a great experience.” He adds, “The Ultraman event is very spiritual and the “ohana” between the teams and athletes is the greatest aspect of the competition.”

The Ultraman World Championships website also speaks of ohana: “The event attracts individuals who not only thrive on personal challenge and enjoy the thrill of victory, but who come to understand, as did the ancient Hawaiians, the importance of aloha (love), ohana (family), and kokua (help). Individual resources, mental, physical, and spiritual, are shared in an atmosphere where everyone who completes the course is a winner, and the pursuit of human excellence is the fundamental rule of the road.”

It is clear that Wolfgang Schmidt has completely embraced this philosophy. As a unique Canadian competitor, he has exceptional athletic endurance perfectly suited for membership in the limited club of Ultraman competitors.

Helen Powers is a freelance journalist from Hamilton, Ontario. She’s managed to avoid the lure of the Ultraman … so far.