Air Force scientist qualifies for Ironman World Championship

  • Published
  • By Susan A. Romano
  • AFTAC Public Affairs
By day, he’s a nuclear engineer conducting forensics on radioactive sources. But when the duty day is complete, he trades in his proverbial white lab coat for a pair of running shoes, climbs aboard his Scott Plasma 10 bicycle, and prepares for the race of a lifetime.

First Lt. Carl Eichert, a special nuclear events analyst for the Air Force Technical Applications Center here, was selected to participate in the 2018 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. The competition consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a full marathon of 26.2 miles.

Qualifying is no easy feat. For military applicants, it’s even tougher.

“In addition to having to balance a work schedule with the demands of being a servicemember and maintaining a rigorous physical fitness routine, military athletes also need to carve out time to qualify at a recognized event,” Eichert said. “Couple those factors with the fact that you’re competing against the Armed Forces’ top athletes in the inventory, and it makes the challenge even more daunting. I mean, who do you think is going to show up for the race? The best of the best, that’s who. And let me tell you – they’re insanely fast.”

All competitors must earn a slot at a worldwide qualifying event to be considered for the world championship. There are three ways to gain entry: earning a worldwide slot through other qualifying events, being part of the Ironman Legacy program, or winning eligibility through a charitable auction.

Eichert qualified through the 70.3 Superfrog, a half ironman event.

“It’s called a 70.3 because that’s the total distance in miles the race covers,” Eichert explained. “It’s made up of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1 run. I’m fortunate that I was able to qualify based on my Superfrog event because I think racing more than one ironman competition in a single lifetime would probably be the end of my racing days!”

The Clemson University graduate has been involved in sports competitions since he was in high school, and maybe even a bit before that.

“My big sister Laura was always the person I wanted to emulate,” he explained. “I remember watching her compete in her first triathlon when I was in the 9th grade, and I knew I wanted to follow in her very athletic footsteps. She motivates me like no one else! As a family, to include my little sister Gina, we played soccer, basketball and ran track in high school. I noticed early on that I had a big engine from being a lifelong swimmer, and that passion followed well into my years at Clemson.”

The adrenaline rush of endurance competitions seems to be the fuel that keeps his “big engine” powered.

“Events like the Ironman appeal to me because they are ridiculously tough and not many people can complete them,” Eichert said. “I’m always yearning for an exciting challenge.”

In addition to his sister, two of his co-workers motivate him when he needs an extra push. “Dr. (Rich) Reich and 1st Lt. (James) Stofel really keep me accountable to my running routine,” he said. “We met when we worked together in AFTAC’s Ciambrone Radiochemistry Lab and we’d get in our weekly track workouts every Tuesday morning. We still do. It’s great to be out there with people who share a love of long-distance running.”

While the Kona race is still 10 months away, Eichert’s training routine is well underway.

“Right now I’m focused on gaining a good bit of muscle during the base season,” he explained. “I’m not doing much endurance training because I need both a physical and mental break, and I don’t want to risk an injury. Come the spring, I’ll start pounding the run and bike for miles and miles to build up to a six-hour cycle ride and 2.5-hour run. It’s all about tempo.”

According to the Scaggsville, Md., native, cycling is the most difficult event for him.

“The bike ride is the most challenging part of a triathlon for me,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s because I have so much more experience with the other two events or not.” He joked, “Maybe it’s because I’ve never mastered the concept of having to spin my legs in a circle!”

He’s certainly mastered the art of competitive competition. Since 2009, Eichert has competed in nearly 40 triathlons, qualified for every USA Triathlon National Championship since 2011, and every World Championship since 2014 in which he’s competed.

“My ‘bread-and-butter’ race is the Olympic Distance Triathlon, which generally takes me about two hours to complete. On average, I usually swim 1:14 per 100 yards for 1,500 meters, bike 25 mph for 40 kilometers, and run 5:45 per mile for 10 kilometers. Injuries caught up to me a bit this year, and this oppressive Florida heat definitely took its toll on my current numbers, but I’ve got my eye on Kona in October, which is great incentive to be even better than before.”

He’s also maxed every Air Force Physical Fitness Test since his days in Reserve Officer Training Corps.

“I attribute scoring a 100 on every AFPFT I’ve ever taken to my swimming and running regimen,” he said. “I have to focus quite a bit to max the push-up portion since I tend to lose some muscle mass during triathlon training. It’s a delicate balance.”

Eichert incorporates healthy eating into his daily routine, but still finds temptation at every turn.

“I am a chocoholic! I allow myself to enjoy some goodies every now and then (although my co-workers probably see me gobbling candy every day!) and I really love pizza. The trick is to eat a little at a time and get protein in at every meal. That really helps my metabolism burn and keeps me energetic all day. Nutrition is so dependent on the individual, and each athlete has to strike a balance for what’s good for them.”

Eichert will be allowed to travel on permissive temporary duty orders to compete in one of the world’s most coveted races in Hawaii, a U.S. state he’s never visited before.

“Not only am I excited about the competition, I’m also excited to visit America’s 50th state,” he exclaimed. “I plan to spend a week there to enjoy the island before the race. I say ‘before’ because I’m not quite sure if I’ll be able to walk after the competition – someone might have to push me around in a wheelchair!”

When asked how he prepares mentally for such an undertaking, Eichert took a deep breath, paused for a moment and said, “I love competition, and if you know me well, I’m one of the most competitive, tenacious people you’ll ever meet. During training season, I work out, go to work, work out, eat, sleep and repeat – for months. My social life takes a huge beating and the mental drain is exhausting, but the reward is so fulfilling and makes it all worthwhile. Throw in some serious meditation, and it truly gives me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. The more I spend meditating on my workouts and races, the more resilient I become in every aspect of my life.”

The Ironman World Championship began in 1978 after a U.S. Navy couple decided to combine three of the toughest endurances races into a single competition. According to the Ironman web site, naval officer John Collins and his fellow Waikiki Swim Club members began debating which athletes were the fittest: swimmers, bikers or runners. John and his wife Judy decided to combine the three events into a single race, and thus the first-ever Ironman Challenge was created on the shorts of Waikiki.