As a University of Wisconsin Oshkosh math professor, Steve Szydlik is no stranger to addition, subtraction and multiplication, but it was an Ironman triathlon that taught him to divide and conquer.
For nearly 11 hours, Szydlik pushed his body to the brink of exhaustion, covering more than 140 combined miles of Hawaiian terrain during the 2007 World Ironman Triathlon in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
As he took his final steps across the finish line, the announcer spoke the words he had come so far to hear: “You’re an Ironman.”
Changing the equation
Though Szydlik has been a distance runner since high school, he took his first steps to become a triathlete just four years ago.
“I’m getting older and I’m paying the price for a lot of years and a lot of miles,” Szydlik said. “The cross training that triathlons offer makes it a little easier on my body.”
But this triathlete by no means is taking it easy. In September 2005, Szydlik participated in Ironman Wisconsin, his first Ironman distance triathlon. He placed 11th in his age division with a finish-time of 10 hours and 54 minutes.
A day later, Szydlik was informed that his dedicated training had paid off — he had qualified for the Ironman Hawaii World Championship.
“I found out on my birthday, Szydlik said. “It was a great present to find out that I’d qualified for Hawaii.”
Though scheduling difficulties prevented him from participating in the 2006 Ironman race, Szydlik began rigorous training for the 2007 championship.
The average Ironman competitor each week runs 48 miles, bike 232 miles and swim seven miles. Szydlik trained a similar distance — dedicating more than 20 hours a week to his athletic pursuit.
“I like the training. It fits my personality well,” Szydlik said. “You get to see tangible improvement, and I liked that from the beginning.”
Though he enjoys the benefits of prepping for competitions, Szydlik said balancing training with commitments to his family and job can be tricky. As a result, he adds an additional element to his training regimen: multitasking.
“One thing I can do is think and make lesson plans while I’m training,” Szydlik said. “It helps me to be organized. I’m much more efficient.”
After more than a year of intense conditioning, he left the chill of the Midwest for the tropic air at the 2007 Ironman Hawaii World Championship.
Ready, set … ganbatte
Shortly after 4 a.m. on Oct. 13, while most others on the Big Island slept, Szydlik awoke to prepare for the competition. In fewer than 14 hours, Szydlik would cross the finish line, but about 140 miles of Hawaiian terrain still stood between him and his triumph.
At 6:30 a.m., officials ushered about 1,700 participants into the pristine waters of Kailua-Kona Bay for the first leg of the race — a 2.4 mile ocean swim.
“The Pacific water out there is crystal clear,” Szydlik said. “Just swimming out, you can see the fish and the coral beneath you.”
Thirty minutes later, the thunder of a cannon signaled to participants from 49 countries around the world that the race had begun.
The diversity of the participants caused Szydlik some confusion during the 26-mile run.
“One of the hard parts of the triathlon is that the run is the only chance you get to talk to people. I try to be pretty encouraging, and from some of them, I didn’t get any response at all. I found out they didn’t speak my language,” he said.
Luckily, Szydlik had taken a Japanese language course, which helped him communicate with some of the other participants.
“I told them ‘ganbatte,’ which means ‘to do your best,’” he said.
Though strict rules prevented Szydlik from communicating during the 112-mile bike race, the crowd standing along the route showered him with encouragement, including his family, who made signs to show their support
Crossing the finish line
During the final miles of the race, Szydlik started to struggle. Power gels and energy bars were no match for the high temperatures and rough terrain. His pace slowed to what he described as “the survival shuffle.”
“At around 19 miles, I thought I could walk it in, but I managed to keep my feet going, and after that it got easier,” he said.
A supportive crowd lined the street during the final mile of the race, urging Szydlik to continue. When he finally turned the corner and saw the clock, he was surprised to see he would finish in fewer than 11 hours.
At 10 hours, 55 minutes and 15 seconds, Steve Szydlik crossed the finish line and claimed the title as Ironman.
After the excitement of the triathlon eased, Szydlik returned to UW Oshkosh and to those who had lent encouragement over hundreds of miles of training and racing.
“I had a lot of support from my colleagues in the math department,” Szydlik said. “It was a great experience, and I felt really fortunate to have been able to do that.”
Two other UW Oshkosh faculty members can relate to Szydlik’s struggles and triumphs. Paul Trilling, kinesiology, and Tom Fischer, special education, also participated in Wisconsin Ironman triathlons.
Fischer said he enjoys triathlon training for reasons similar to Szydlik’s.
“I like to have races because when I’m training, it gives me a goal,” Fischer said. “In general, it gives me more energy than I would otherwise, and it’s a great stress reliever.”
Though conflicting schedules make it difficult for the Ironmen to train together, each offers inspiration with every step they take toward the next finish line.