Vlad the Ironman and the Road to Kona

Posted by: Staff Writer on Sept. 12, 2016

What would you do if you knew anything was possible. What dream would you go after? What goals would you conquer? Who would you become?  

In some places across the country the leaves are dropping and starting to change colors, if just barely. Other places are still enduring a heat wave, summer’s last parting gift.  The Big Island of Hawaii, Kona is preparing for a steady stream of competitors, coaches, media, and spectators to watch what is largely considered the toughest race in the world, Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona. This almost inconceivable triathlon involves a 112 mile bike ride, a 2.4 mile roughwater swim, and a 26.2 run where temperatures reach upwards of 95 degrees, down the Kona Coast in 79 degree water, through scorching lava fields, and on blistering hot asphalt where crosswinds can reach 45 miles per hour. It’s as if a sadist decided to create the most punishing races individually, then mashed all three together, and put it in one of the most physically challenging environments in the world.

Vlad Schmidt’s Facebook cover is emboldened with “Conquering Kona, 140.6 Miles to Glory.”  And in a few days he will be packing up his suitcase and equipment, and he will head to Hawaii with friends rooting him on in person and from across the globe- a Deaf Ironman competitor who qualified last year, second in his age group, to secure a prized spot at the Ironman World Championships on his own personal quest for glory.

The First Steps

The road to Kona began twenty years ago, the year 1994 in a different country in a very ordinary way-  Vlad first caught Kona fever watching television in Germany and witnessed a competition of world class athletes pushing themselves to the limits of human endurance. Like many who watch such a thing for the first time, it seemed impossible to Vlad that human bodies could perform to such extremes. “I thought to myself they must be very strong to be able to do that, I could never do that.” We all have our firsts- the first moment we fell in love, the first time we have a conversation that changed our lives, the first time we took a step in a direction, even unknown to us at the time, that changes the course of our lives. And so he watched, completely hooked, totally curious, utterly fascinated, and never once dreamed he’d be among them two decades later. He had begun the walk down the road to Kona.

Vlad The Easy-Going

Vlad in straw hat and American tank top pointing to camera with a big smile on his faceVlad is the kind of guy you can’t help but smile when he smiles, and when he is fired up, you can’t help but feel fired up too. His passion for life is contagious.  He makes you think the impossible is in fact very possible. That it was never impossible to begin with and the only real impossibility is in not trying. But even he admits he never thought he’d be here. He describes himself as a very average guy, the kind of guy who liked to go to parties, smoke cigarettes, have a few beers and generally live life content. His easy going manner meant he was often invited to parties and social gatherings, and enjoyed a wide circle of friends. He was happy, living in the U.S. by 2000 in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with a vibrant Deaf community. But he began to hunger for something more, like there was more out there for him to do. More he was capable of. Still, he wasn’t sure what that was. He gathered with his friends and he continued to watch the Ironman Competition every October.

Vlad the Transformed

As he got older, he knew he needed to make significant lifestyle changes in order to improve his health- chiefly stop smoking, stop drinking, and eat clean. In fact, once he quit nicotine he noticed a marked improvement in his overall well being which resulted in increased energy, that in turn made working out easier. But it was the nutrition and eating habits that truly revolutionized his health and transformed his body from the inside out. He recalls a night he learned about vegan eating and the importance of a healthy diet. From that point on, he eliminated sugar, processed food, and meat and continued to learn about vegan eating. He had to study extensively for himself what being healthy truly meant for him. As his knowledge grew and his food changed, his body changed with it. He began working out more effectively, surprised at how much stronger he felt and how much more his body could handle now that he was putting healthy fuel in his body and avoiding the things that were causing harm. He was becoming an athlete.

He credits three things with his transformation and journey as an athlete and if there is advice or a quick list he would tell people:

           1. Nutrition- the things you put in your body make a difference
           2. Motivation- the drive and discipline to succeed and persist
           3. Natural Gifts/Luck- the things you are born with

Vlad the Driven

Vlad racing very focused with one person training beside himHis smile exudes both natural and well-earned confidence. He has an easy way of communicating and his signs show the fluency of a native signer, although American Sign Language is just one of many languages at his command. Behind that natural confidence and raw talent are things like the determination and discipline to focus day in and day out no matter what the weather is, year-round on a singular goal. This is compounded by his ongoing commitment of time and resources, significant financial resources, and his a willingness to forgo a social life for the sake of training time. Then marry all that with an unshakeable drive and belief in himself, with an unusually high tolerance for pain … that’s when you start to understand just what kind of athlete Vlad is- he is an Ironman.

Vlad the Ironman

Lets talk about the very first Ironman, the first time Vlad stopped asking “how do they do it?” and started saying, “I’m going to do this.”  After years of sitting in front of a television every October and watching the World Championships he signed up for his first Ironman competition in 2013 with a fit, athletic body. He trained with a coach, read lots of online blogs in Russian, German and English and trained hard. His first finish time didn’t qualify him for the World Championship but he showed promise and it was an experience that left him forever changed. “It was like every first, your first love, your first kiss, your first born- you never ever forget it. It was special.” And he realized as special as it was, it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to cross it off his bucket list and say he had finished. He knew he could do better, he wanted to place. And that he wanted more. He wanted to rank among the best athletes in the world.

Vlad getting out of wetsuit during race with a smile on his faceSo he signed up again in 2014 for Ironman Mont-Tremblant, in Canada, and with lots of guidance from other Ironman blogs and athletes, he finished in 11th place in his age group, which is a remarkable improvement in a short time. “That’s when my confidence began to come in.” By now, perhaps you’ve started to get a sense of who Vlad is as a person and a competitor, the 11th place wasn’t going to be good enough. Kona was the end game, and he knew he could make it happen.

So, back to Mont-Tremblant, in Canada he goes and due to intense stomach cramps, was not able to finish the race. Knowing it was an isolated incident and still on fire to win, he immeidately signed up for a fourth time in Ironman-Muskota, in Canada where he qualified second in his age group out of 400 people, securing his spot in the World Championship. The road to Kona, twenty years ago seemed impossible. Now, it was happening. It was time to get serious.

One Year to Kona

His spot assured, he had one year to stay injury-free and healthy, and improve his times. Preparing to qualify meant hiring a coach; he found a coach from Toronto, Canada who was fluent in Russian. He is in constant communication with his coach thanks to technology, communicating daily, year-round. “It’s his job to help me be successful, he helps motivate me and validate me.” His coach creates Vlad’s structure, a training schedule, a nutrition plan to help increase Vlad’s endurance, intensity, and distance. He also provides Vlad with the much needed moral support and morale boosting on the harder days. Much of his training is just as mental as it is physical. But the physical training is brutal and rotates in a four week schedule which looks like training for 15 - 18 hours on week one, followed by a week of 18 - 20 hours, followed by a third week of 20 - 25 hours, and finally a recovery week of 12 - 15 hours to allow his muscles time to heal and repair, critical for improved results and avoiding catastrophic over-training. “During low points and gray days (in the Pacific Northwest) Coach uplifts me and brings me through those low periods.” He also has to be fastidious about his nutrition and anyone who knows Vlad knows he eats bananas in obscene quantities especially in the winter months, sometimes up to 30 bananas per day. His diet must be high calorie and nutrient dense, and the banana is a perfect candidate. His friends have grown accustomed to the once social Vlad saying “maybe I can make it, depends on how I’m feeling,” and “Not this time, I’ve got to train.” But they understand, they know the goal is big and they’re his biggest supporters.  "One year goes by fast.”

The Final Stretch

He’s in the down stretch- getting down to racing weight which is a good 10-15 pounds lighter, to help him perform at his highest. He has never been more fit or more ready. “I don’t want to just finish. I’m going to challenge myself and to take it seriously. I want to finish in the top twenty in my age group.” With every challenge he has set for himself, he has achieved so far. “I’m lucky. I’m lucky to qualify for Kona in three years. It’s a good story, a Deaf guy who makes it to Kona in three years- who can show the world that Deaf can be just as competitive as hearing athletes.” The rest of us are going to be in our living rooms around the world, watching Vlad a world-class, super-athlete Ironman on television, and somewhere, someone is going to take their own first step down the road to Kona.

Vlad running hard during an Ironman race


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