Chad Esker can testify to the health benefits of exercise

Foot and Ankle, Knee Pain, Self Care, Exercise

Two simple choices changed the course of Chad Esker's life.

Eight years ago, Esker decided to make some lifestyle changes when his doctor suggested he should take medication to control his high blood pressure. At the time, Esker, a 37-year-old account support manager at Wausau Financial Systems, worked at a desk and didn’t have a regular exercise routine. He made two choices that would transform his life. 

He stopped drinking soda pop and started jogging.

“The first day was tough,” remembers Esker. “I weighed more than 200 pounds and struggled to jog one mile.”

But, he persevered.

Three months later, his health had improved considerably. Esker lost more than 30 pounds, his blood pressure returned to normal limits, and his late-night anxiety attacks stopped.

When Wisconsin’s winter temperatures impacted Esker’s daily run, he joined the YMCA in Weston. He took advantage of the YMCA’s services and added swimming to his weekly workout routine. His first day at the pool a group of swimmers asked if he would like to join them. Little did he know that joining the swim group would spur him on to greater accomplishments in the world of fitness. 

Chad Esker SwimmingSwimming puts Esker on track for competition.

The members of the swim group encouraged each other to reach the maximum level of physical fitness possible. This philosophy motivated Esker. During one early morning swim, he heard the word “triathlon” for the first time.

“I really didn’t want to compete at first,” said Esker. “But my friends kept pushing me to sign up, for the Woodson YMCA Triathlon, so I did. I placed third in my first event.”

After the Wausau Triathlon, Esker was hooked. The following spring, he competed in his first full 26.2-mile marathon. He continued his training to complete a second Wausau Triathlon and then competed in his first Ironman event, which included a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run distance run. Esker would compete in other races, but didn’t finish on the leader board. 

An injury kept Esker from peak performance.

After the spring 2014 marathon in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Esker experienced severe pain and swelling on the outside of his left knee. He suffered an Iliotibial (IT) band injury, a common running injury.

The IT band is a thick connective tissue that runs from the hip to the knee. It stabilizes the knee as the leg bends and extends. Classified as an overuse injury, the IT band becomes inflamed and causes pain on the outside of the knee. The risk of Iliotibial Band Syndrome is greater if a runner turns the leg inward as he or she runs. But the syndrome can occur if runners:

  • Workout on uneven or banked tracks or surfaces
  • Wear shoes that have worn treads
  • Run too many miles
  • Have a pre-existing injury

Foot IllustrationEsker’s injury had an underlying cause. After an exam, X-rays and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, Esker’s medical team at Bone & Joint diagnosed the real problem. He had a severe tear in the peroneal tendon in his left ankle.

The peroneal tendon runs along the outside of the ankle and fibula (the long thin bone in the lower leg). The tendon connects the leg muscles to the bones that support the motion of the leg and the foot. The torn tendon caused Esker to run off balance, straining his IT band and causing pain. 

During the preliminary diagnosis, Esker's medical team prepared him for the worst possible outcome. There was a concern that he would not be able to run. 

Esker needed surgery to repair his tendon injury.

“I didn’t need a second opinion. Both, my family doctor and my radiologist recommended Dr. Staysniak. I trusted them and was onboard with their advice.

“During my surgical consultation, Dr. Staysniak used my X-rays and MRI images to explain the problem with my tendon. He took the time to describe the surgical procedure and the correction he would make. At the end of the appointment, Dr. Staysniak reassured me that I would run again.

“The morning I walked into Bone & Joint for surgery, I was totally at ease. The atmosphere was professional and personal. After surgery, I remember waking up in recovery and seeing my ankle wrapped in a ball of gauze. At that point, I trusted Dr. Staysniak knew what he was doing and I would get back on my feet.”

Recovery created a different type of challenge.

When an active person has surgery or suffers an injury requiring recuperation, the most frustrating aspect of recovery is resting and giving the body time to heal.

“The pain from surgery caused some discomfort, but it was tolerable. Sitting around was more of a challenge. A week after surgery, I was going stir crazy. I had never been off work for two weeks in a row with nothing to do. I couldn’t just stay at home. I would jump on my ATV with my foot on the front rack and just drive around.”

Esker couldn’t seem to stay away from the YMCA and his swim group either.

“I took off the first week. But by the second week, I had to be there. My workout group is so inspiring. I just couldn’t stay away. It’s like an addiction. I would watch and videotape the swim group so they could review their techniques. I did some abdominal and upper body workouts that did not require me to stand.

Six and a half weeks after surgery, Dr. Staysniak cleared Esker for swimming without the boot. 

For the most part, Esker followed his aftercare instructions. He stayed completely off his foot for the first two weeks and allowed his body to heal. He knew pushing his injury too hard or too fast during recovery would have ended his running career. Except for a few unauthorized laps in the pool, Esker faithfully followed doctor’s orders, went to physical therapy three times a week and achieved great results.

Just 10 weeks after surgery, Esker ran his first 10-mile race. 

Esker started running to win.

Surgery not only corrected Esker's peroneal tendon, it also solved his IT band pain. For the first time in his competitive career, Esker ran without pain or stiffness.

“The care I received from Dr. Staysniak and the Bone & Joint team was absolutely amazing. After surgery, I switched gears. I started running and finishing in first, second or third place.

“That was a change. I believe my original ankle injury, which may have happened when I was a child, was the root cause of my knee pain. The condition made me run a little sideways. After Dr. Staysniak repaired my tendon, my performance improved. I pushed to higher levels of competition.

Ultraman Florida Banner Graphic

In February 2016, Esker competed in Florida’s Ultraman, a timed, three-day event that requires athletes to swim, bike and run distances equivalent to three Ironman courses.

“It’s not a cakewalk by any means. But as tough as the course was, it was nothing compared to the mental challenge of the orientation. Before the race began, 40 competitors and their crew members gathered in a large conference room. The race director and the public relations professional introduced each athlete using the biography and race history provided by the racer’s team.

“As the officials introduced the participants, I realized the first 12 people recognized were world-record holders. One racer had won a marathon on every continent. Another competitor was known for winning an Ultramarathon after jumping out of an airplane. I couldn’t believe I was running against athletes who performed at this level. It was the most intimidating thing I have ever experienced.

“When they read my bio, they said, ‘This is Chad Esker. He’s completed three individual Ironman competitions. His friend found this race and said he should apply for it.’ Everyone slowly clapped and looked at me, like ‘what the heck is this guy doing here?’

Ultraman Medal“I wanted to get in the car and drive home. I didn’t think we’d have a chance. It shook me up quite a bit. But, Nick Bradfish, my crew chief and coach, encouraged me to stay.”

Chad Esker and his team finished eighth at the 2016 Florida Ultraman. During the three-day race, Esker and the other athletes completed the following schedule:

  • Day One – 6.2-mile open-water swim followed by a 92-mile bike ride
  • Day Two – 171-mile bike ride
  • Day Three – 52.4-mile run

“We came in eighth place, not bad for a team new to Ultraman competitions. I completed the 321.6-mile course in 27 hours and 20 minutes. My time qualified me for world-class competitions. The race was challenging, but I had phenomenal support. Finishing the Ultraman and placing among world-class competitors ranks as one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

At the Ultraman celebration breakfast the next day, the course officials promoted the EPIC5 Challenge in Hawaii. Esker’s team had never heard of this race. The EPIC5 Challenge pushes extreme-performance-athletes to complete five Ironman courses on each of the five Hawaiian Islands in five consecutive days. Esker was intrigued.  

Esker qualified for world-class competition but chose to tackle a personal challenge.

Two weeks after he had completed the Florida Ultraman, the race director called Esker to see if he was interested in competing at world competitions.

“I told her I would love to do it, but my real desire would be to complete the EPIC5 Challenge. The race director told me if I were serious I needed to sign up immediately. Registration was closing. The board was deciding that week who would compete in the 2017 EPIC5 Challenge. I sent my application and resume in later that day.

“The next day the EPIC5 committee called and requested an interview. Two days after my interview, I was having dinner at Nick’s house when one of the EPIC5 course marshals Facetimed me. She asked what I was doing in May of 2017. I said, ‘I have no idea. Why?’ She said, ‘I’m picking you up from the airport. You are doing EPIC5 Challenge.’

“I couldn’t believe I had been accepted. Nick and I called our Ultraman crew and invited them to Nick’s house. When the crew arrived, we told them together. Everyone was ecstatic.”

Esker was eligible for the EPIC5 Challenge because of his performance at the Florida Ultraman. To be considered for one of the 13 spots, the athletes were required to:

  • Qualify for a world-class competition
  • Participate in an ultra-event
  • Have a plan to cross the finish line

Chad Esker Epic5 Crew

Success depends on an amazing crew.

Esker’s crew consists of four dedicated men who train with him and accompany him to events. He knows the support he receives from his close-knit team is one reason he can compete at the level he does.

“If I didn’t have one of the best crews out there, I wouldn’t even attempt to do this," said Esker. "My crew keeps me positive. They keep me laughing when things get tough.”

Nick Bradfish, an Ironman competitor himself, is dedicated to Esker’s nutrition and training schedule.

Scott Schmoldt and his wife Jennifer oversee fundraising. The couple has set up GoFundMe They also are reaching out to area businesses for sponsorships.

Jason Lowman is right beside Esker as he trains, as is Nick and his father, Arlin Bradfish, the senior member of the group. Lowman, the owner of Becca’s Café, also provides nutritional support for Esker.

“After the Ultraman, the other athletes wanted to recognize my crew as one of the best they’d seen,” said Esker. “We didn’t create a team plan; it just happened – maybe being from Wisconsin is part of it.”

Esker running to winEsker’s team prepares for the EPIC5 Challenge.

The goal of the EPIC5 Challenge is to complete the course. Athletes win when they cross the finish line. Since the inception of the five-day event in 2010, only 11 people in the world have accomplished that feat.

Bradfish designed Esker’s training program based on the experience the team gained during the Ultraman event. He created a schedule that builds Esker’s endurance rather than his speed.

"Knowing the EPIC was coming in the spring of 2017, Nick encouraged me to take it easy last summer. I enjoyed myself. I competed in a few races and ate whatever I wanted.

“During training, I try to eat healthy foods. But, if there's a piece of pizza or peanut butter sandwich in front of me, I’ll eat that, too. Before I swim in the morning, I make a protein shake with three bananas, eight to ten strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and two scoops of Mullins’ Whey Powder along with two pieces of peanut butter toast. One of my favorite lunch and dinner restaurants is Becca’s Café. I eat there four or five times a week.

“Occasionally, I drink Gatorade, but 90 percent of the time, water is my beverage of choice. I’ve kept my commitment to avoid soda. Sometimes during a race, the volunteers will hand Coke® to the runners. Even then, I only take a few sips to settle my stomach. I haven’t drunk a whole can of soda in eight years.”

Esker began training for the EPIC5 Challenge in late October 2016.

To prepare for the grueling five-day challenge, Esker works out three times a day, every single day of the week. Every fifth week of training, a lighter workout is scheduled to allow Esker’s body to recover.

“Nick has a training schedule for every single week between now and the race,” said Esker. “He’s a wise coach. He only shows me one week of training at a time, so I don’t freak out. He has a plan and its working.”

In February, Esker trained approximately 24 hours a week. Seven or eight hours were key training hours with specialized and targeted drills to build strength and endurance.

“For example, the week of February 6, my goal was to run slower and longer. Monday, I started off at 6 am with a 1,200- to 1,500-yard swim. After work, I ran two miles at a slower rate. Nick has targets for each workout. This week, the goal was to have a heart rate of 126 to 136 beats per minute while I ran, which for me, averages to around an eight-and-half-minute mile. Tuesday's schedule was a little more intense. We did 2.5-mile swim at 5 am, a one-hour run at lunch, and two-hour bike ride at night.”

Chad Esker's Living room is filled with spin cyclesEsker is dedicated. He replaced his living room furniture with spin bikes so he and his crew can train at home. The bikes are outfitted with power meters to record how much power the riders transfer to the back wheels. Esker’s training schedule dictates how long he rides and how many watts he generates. During his spin cycle workouts, Esker also incorporates many drills and high cadence spinouts to push his body to a higher level of endurance.

“I can’t wait for the EPIC5 Challenge. It has consumed our lives. Every moment that I’m not working is something about EPIC5. Sometimes I feel that I’m taking too much of my crew’s time. Not only are they training with me, but they're also planning the details of the entire trip: booking airlines, hotels and car rentals. They're locating restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations and bike shops on each island so we have food, fuel and bike parts in case we need to make repairs.” 

Esker's crew will support him for each step of the EPIC5 Challenge.

Nutrition for Chad Esker during a raceNutrition is a huge key to success when a person competes in an endurance course. Normally, a person's stomach can handle 250 calories an hour. During an Ironman contest, athletes can burn 10,000 to 14,000 calories a day. One of the crew's most important jobs is to make sure Esker maintains an adequate energy level.

The bulk of this responsibility will fall to Nick Bradfish. He will monitor Esker's heart rate, speed, performance and nutrition during each discipline of the event. He will record every morsel of food and every bit of fluid Esker consumes during the race. He will calculate the number of calories Esker burns and will be in constant communication with the land crew to ensure those calories are replaced at each pit stop.

In addition to overseeing Esker's nutrition, Bradfish will coach Esker from a kayak during each day’s 2.4-mile, open-water swim. He will also keep Esker on time during the competition, telling him to increase his pace if necessary to complete the day's course on time. 

Jason Lowman will prepare food to replenish Esker’s energy during the competition. His experience as a restaurant owner is invaluable. Lowman will adjust the calorie content of Esker’s meals based on the information that Bradfish gives him during the race.

Lowman will also run pace with Esker during the marathon portion of the EPIC5 Challenge. Lowman will be a key resource in the running legs of the competition.

The elder Bradfish will be responsible for Esker’s bike and equipment. The senior Bradfish will take the bike apart every night, make sure the mechanics work perfectly and pack it in the case before boarding the plane to fly to the next island. Each day, he’ll reassemble the bike, conduct a pre-race check and have Esker’s bike ready for the day's 112-mile bike ride. Bradfish will also help with documentation and drive the crew’s vehicle.

Scott Schmoldt will assume the role of navigator while the team is in Hawaii. A frequent visitor to the islands, Schmoldt knows where to find local resources. He also has a network of friends that can help the crew find the other necessities they may need. Schmoldt also will post social media updates throughout the race.

“There are no set jobs for the crew. They’re not just there to help me; they’ll be available to lend a hand to anyone on the course.

“My crew plays a huge role in my success. They’ve given up so much of their life to do this with me. Even though we all met by chance, we have the same passion. We help each other grow. Everyone on the team is moving forward with their fitness level and athletic performance. My relationship with these people has completely changed my life. It’s amazing to see the results that we have achieved in just eight years.

"It’s never too late to get out and do something like this. There are no limits, no boundaries. Eight years ago, I never thought I would ever run a 5K race in my life. I never played high school sports. I wasn’t athletic. I never did any of this until my late 30s. After finding out I was at risk for high blood pressure and would need medication, I knew I had to change my life.

"I attribute part of my success to meeting a group of people, who encouraged me to run longer, swim stronger and bike faster. They were out there for me. I know there are people out there for you, too. You can do whatever you want to do. You can accomplish your goals." 

You can follow Chad Esker as he prepares and competes in the EPIC5 Challenge

Chad Esker will be one of 12 International athletes competing in the May 2017 EPIC5 Challenge. Esker will begin the race on May 5. He plans to finish on May 9. During those five days, Esker will:

  • Swim 12 miles
  • Bike 561 miles
  • Run 131 miles

You can follow Chad Esker and his team on Facebook at chadesker.us.  

 


 

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