Ironman heroes

(First published in the September 13, 2018 issue of City Pages)

Other competitors helped make sure local athlete Chad Esker finished with My Team Triumph’s Autumn Moen



Esker and Moen crossing the Ironman finish line Sept. 9

So far in his athletic career, Chad Esker of Mosinee has done 17 iron distance races (swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles for a total of 140.6 miles) and two ultra distance triathlons. Last year Esker completed the Epic5 Challenge in Hawaii— five iron distance events in five days.

This year Esker, 46, embarked on the Northern Soles 1000, which he and his friends created. The challenge started Sept. 3 and he, with his support crew, set out to complete one iron distance a day for seven consecutive days in various locations in Wisconsin, finishing with Ironman Wisconsin in Madison Sept. 9.

The last day was the most important for Esker. For Ironman Wisconsin, he planned to pull and push My Team Triumph athlete Autumn Moen, who has cerebral palsy, over the 140.6-mile course. My Team Triumph pairs people with disabilities with endurance athletes who use special equipment to complete races as a team. He was most excited to give Moen, 23 of Mosinee, her Ironman experience. But as endurance athletes will tell you, things happen.

Esker and Moen started just after sunrise, beginning with the 2.4-mile swim in Lake Monona. That’s when Esker began having severe respiratory problems due to being stung earlier by bees.

Within the first several hundreds yards in the water Esker worried he wouldn’t be able to complete it pulling Moen. His breathing was labored and he had to continually stop, grab the raft Moen was in, and catch his breath. “I was struggling for air the whole time,” he says.

In an Ironman race, if you’re pulled out of the water or need assistance your entire race is done. “I have never wanted to quit so badly in my life, but our day would have been over,” he says. “Every time I looked at her face and she smiled at me I knew I had to do whatever it took to make it happen.”

Esker and Moen made it to shore and Esker explained to his team what he was experiencing. After some debate, he decided to head out on the bike to keep moving Moen forward, despite his swollen face and throat. “But my speed and power weren’t there to get her across the finish,” says Esker.

If an athlete doesn’t complete certain time cut-offs in the Ironman they aren’t allowed to finish. A late bike finish would have meant Moen wouldn’t go on to the marathon run portion.

But Ironman competitors and others came to the rescue. Esker rolled up at mile ten where Northern Soles crew chief and coach Nick Bradfish changed into Eskers clothes, shoes, pedals and helmet, jumped on Esker’s bike and began biking with Moen in tow.

A My Team Triumph team member from Green Bay took over for 18 miles while Bradfish recovered. “I didn’t expect to ride, so I hadn’t eaten breakfast and was out of hydration and nutrition,” says Bradfish. “But whatever it took to get Autumn to the finish is all that mattered.”

In the meantime, Esker was taken to urgent care for medical treatment.

Meanwhile, Esker’s friend Christopher Pollack was doing the race individually. He had planned to meet Esker and Moen for the marathon. 

Then he got wind of what happened and how the team was working to get Moen through the race. Pollack decided to pull Moen for the last 24 miles of pedaling. “This was the first time I had ever pulled anybody,” he says. With several brutal hills and a head wind to contend with, Pollack got Moen in on time so she could head into the run course. “Its not about the medals, I’ve done this race before… it’s about fulfilling someone’s goal. It’s teamwork and that’s what a team does,” he says. “There will always be another race for me. For Autumn it was a one time shot.”

By the time Pollock rolled to the run portion, Esker had recovered enough to complete the marathon with Moen.

“The biggest thing, our number one goal, was to get her across the finish line no matter what,” Esker says. He and Autumn Moen crossed the finish line around 10:30 pm, hand-in-hand to a cheering crowd.