Wait of the world

OTL - Charlie Wittmack World Triathlon (12:05)

Charlie Wittmack was willing to risk his life and his family to swim, cycle, run and climb his way across 13 countries in an event he dubbed “The World Triathlon.” (12:05)

This story appears in the July 25, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine. See Wayne Drehs' story on ESPN.com here, and listen to Jeremy Schaap interview Wayne Drehs for The Sporting Life here.

THE DOTS ARE ORANGE. A new one appears every 10 minutes. This is the only way Cate Wittmack knows her husband is still alive.

Halfway around the world, Charlie Wittmack is by himself, plodding through knee- and waist-high snowdrifts in an attempt to be one of the first men in 2011 to summit Mount Everest. The 34-year-old attorney from Des Moines, Iowa, has put himself and his family through hell to get here. His climb during the first week of May is the culmination of a longtime dream: an 11-month, 10,000-mile, 13-country swimming/biking/climbing adventure Charlie dubbed the World Triathlon. Each step toward the highest point on Earth is a step closer to the finish line. A few days earlier, Charlie had asked Cate what life will look like when he returns home. She has yet to give him an answer. For now, she nervously follows her husband's progress thanks to a GPS device he carries. As long as the dots keep moving across her screen, Charlie is still moving up the mountain.

In many ways, Cate is the ultimate fan. But this is about more than personal pride or bragging rights. This is bigger than wearing a jersey, buying a season ticket or building a fantasy team. For Cate, a win means her husband comes home. A loss and his final resting place is the side of the most famous mountain in the world.

In a room down the hall, Charlie and Cate's 3-year-old son, James, is fast asleep, completely unaware of the event unfolding oceans away. Cate never wanted any of this. Not the drama, the ragged nerves or the sleepless nights. The first time Charlie mentioned Everest to Cate, while they were dating in the fall of 2002, the couple split. "I didn't want to be with someone who took those sorts of risks with their life," Cate says. But that New Year's Eve, Charlie showed up at Cate's door asking her to reconsider. She told him they would talk later -- she had a date. Soon, though, Cate realized she couldn't say no. "Life was better with him than without him," she says. So four months later, there she was, keeping in touch with her boyfriend via satellite phone as Charlie became the first Iowan to summit Everest. When he returned home, Charlie asked Cate to be his wife. She said yes. "He told me he wasn't going to climb Everest again," she says. "I figured he'd get into something else."

In 2008, Charlie's something else was a swim across the English Channel. With then-6-month-old James in her lap, Cate followed online from Dover, England, as Charlie's attempt ended with a life-threatening case of hypothermia. Hearing how her husband nearly died and seeing the days it took for his body to recover, she was less than thrilled when they returned home and Charlie presented his next idea: the World Triathlon. "She thought it was the most irresponsible thing a father could do," Charlie says.

Until January 2009, that is, when Cate was told she had thyroid cancer. Surgery left Cate cancer-free and with a new perspective: Life is too short to keep the man she loved from his dreams. So now, here she is, after moving back in with her parents in Charlotte at the age of 33, after 11 months as a solo parent, after cursing Charlie's name and regretting her decision to agree to all this, following the orange dots across her laptop screen, cheering for her husband to come home alive.

"If there was a point where I could have stopped this, I would have pushed the button as hard as I possibly could," Cate says. "But it wasn't an option. This is who Charlie is. And I didn't want to change him. I wanted to support him."

IT'S AUG. 8, 2010, Day 38 of the World Triathlon. Cate Wittmack has spent the past 11.5 hours in misery. While Charlie fights off jellyfish, shipping tankers, exhaustion and the 63-degree water of the English Channel, Cate absorbs the stomach-churning, up-and-down ride in Charlie's support boat. No amount of Dramamine, chocolate or staring at the horizon has helped. She's vomited twice and three other times leaned over the boat's metal railing only to have nothing left in her stomach to give. But now, as England is no longer visible and France looks close enough to hit with a football, she finds comfort in the rhythmic splashes of her husband's final strokes.

"It's amazing," she says as the sun sets behind them. "He's been swimming every single second of this entire day."

Starting at the head of River Thames, Charlie has swum 227 miles to get here. His head is buried in the dark Channel water, but he still can't miss Cate's bright red raincoat as he pushes toward France. Between strokes, he blows her a kiss. A tear falls down Cate's cheek.

This is Charlie Wittmack's dream. Only three men had previously completed the Peak and Pond, the name Charlie gave to the feat of climbing Everest and swimming the Channel. And none of them had connected the two with a 9,000-mile bike ride. For the previous three weeks, Cate and James have been in England supporting Charlie. Soon they'll head back to the States, and he'll be on his own.

To make the World Triathlon a reality, Charlie and Cate sold their house and car. They spent all $60,000 of their life savings. They took out a $100,000 loan. A Toyota dealer and a hospital in Des Moines kicked in several thousand dollars, but major sponsors never developed. The trip cost close to $500,000, and Charlie had to take a leave of absence as a trial lawyer to make it happen. Just in case the unthinkable should occur, Charlie purchased a $2.5 million life insurance policy that is 17 times his annual income, the maximum he could obtain. Everything is on the line.

But nobody thinks about that as Charlie inches closer and closer to France. Nobody wonders what effect this adventure will have on James, who looks at his father in a wet suit and sees Superman. And nobody talks about the last time Charlie swam these waters, when, 15 miles into the 21-mile crossing, severe hypothermia set in and his father-in-law and a close friend pulled him to safety.

It's hardly the life Cate imagined for herself growing up. The oldest daughter of a doctor and a nurse, she wanted to write and travel and come home to the conventional suburban life. House, yard, kids, dog. And a husband to share it with every night. But in 2001, on Cate's first day of orientation as a paralegal at a DC law firm, Charlie chose the open chair next to her, and life was never the same. She couldn't have known that his muscular shoulders, sunburned face and callous-covered hands were the result of a summer spent climbing in California. She saw his shiny, well-pressed Brooks Brothers suit and figured the 5'7", 145-pound funny redhead was pretty much just like every other man in the room. "A nerdy and overachieving young kid who had always dreamed about going to law school and couldn't wait for the big case," she says.

Charlie saw something different in Cate, beyond her "Southern spark," warm smile and inviting blue eyes. "I called my parents that night and told them I'd found the woman I was going to marry," he says.

A little more than a year later, Charlie asked Cate to watch an IMAX film about Everest, completely forgetting the film focused on the 1996 disaster in which eight climbers died in one day. Cate cried throughout the 44-minute movie. "It was awful," she says. And this was the way Charlie told Cate he was heading to Everest the next spring. No wonder they broke up.

But now, at the end of this rocky day in a boat, they couldn't be closer. She smiles, cheers and pumps her fists high above her head as Charlie makes it to France. Soon after, he is back in the boat, wrapped in towels and Cate's arms, his body filled with endorphins, his mind cluttered with dreams. He complains that the swim was excruciatingly difficult, that he never wants to do it again. But the next night at dinner, when he thinks about the wet suit he wore to help keep his body warm, he changes his mind.

"I was looking at the water today and thinking, I could do this again," he tells Cate.

"What?" she says. "Are you psycho?"

"No," Charlie says. "When I'm older and I can put on some fat. Without the wet suit."

Cate offers no opinion other than to state her days of riding in a support boat are finished. Charlie understands and insists that he couldn't have made it to France without her. That's when Cate laughs. "That's very nice of you to say, Charles. But I think you would have been fine."

CATE AND JAMES have just come home from an early November barbecue in Charlotte when the phone rings. It's Charlie. Something's wrong.

After crossing the Channel and cycling more than 6,000 miles from France to Western Tibet, his body and mind are crumbling. He's the lone guest at a remote lodge where, outside his door, a pack of wild dogs is howling. He knows what they're waiting for. They want him to die.

A month earlier, a car traveling an estimated 50 mph hit Charlie's bike on the M-32 highway in Kazakhstan. Somehow, he walked away with nothing more than a few bruises and scrapes. Then, while attempting to cycle across an 18,300-foot snow-covered peak, Charlie suffered a pulmonary and cerebral edemas. For any high-altitude climber, edemas are both familiar and scary -- the body's way of warning you that it can't go further. Charlie's brain and lungs were filling with fluid. He'd lost his balance and all vision in his right eye. He was constantly coughing up phlegm. And he was hallucinating. Doctors were nowhere to be found, and even if they were, Charlie didn't trust medicine in this part of the world. So he had treated his edemas with the only remedy he knew would work -- he descended.

Now, outside his shelter, the dogs wait him out. But Charlie tells Cate none of this on the phone. Instead, he listens to her describe minutiae from the barbecue. Who was there? What did they talk about? What did they eat? How was James? "It was this tangible reminder of what I was going to lose," Charlie says. "It's the simplest thing. A backyard barbecue. You're there and you don't care. But all of a sudden you're half a world away and feel like you may never get back there again."

Cate recalls: "He didn't need to tell me. I could sense it. He was in a bad, bad place."
After recuperating at lower altitudes, Charlie flies home for Christmas and a series of medical tests. In Des Moines, doctors confirm that the edemas have passed and clear him to return to the World Tri. A month and a half after he left, Charlie is back on his bike heading for India. But every time he pulls into a small village, he's mobbed by suspicious locals, some who throw glass bottles at him. Then he gets a phone call that James has been rushed to the ER with croup. Though the boy is fine, Charlie is not. Standing on the border between Nepal and India, he quits. He catches a ride to Kathmandu, buys a plane ticket home and crafts an e-mail to his family titled, "There Were Two Paths in the Forest … Charlie Gets Lost and Then Finds Himself."

Writes Charlie: "When you live to push the boundaries of possibility, eventually you'll go too far and suffer the ultimate consequence … as I stood in the field looking at India, I realized that I don't believe it anymore. That path leads to one place, and I'm not prepared to embark for that destination just yet."

Soon after he hits send, his phone rings. It's Cate, laughing. "Are you having a mental breakdown?" she asks.

"No," Charlie says. "I'm finally finding my path."

It is the moment Cate has been waiting for. Friends and strangers have long wondered why she lets her husband do this and how she manages life without him. It isn't easy. Her days are spent chasing around a 3-year-old. And the intimacy in her marriage has vanished. Catching up with her best friend means a scratchy three-minute conversation on a satellite phone. And that is a good day.

"There were so many moments when I was totally pissed at him," she says now. "I felt he was being selfish. His priorities were out of line. He didn't think things through as he should have."

Now she has an out. All she has to do is say okay and the nightmare is over. But Cate can't do it. Not now. Not after everything they've been through. If Charlie doesn't want to bike to Kolkata and then run to Kathmandu, fine. But go climb Everest, she says. Have fun. Do what you do.

"You don't make that decision over the course of a few days to completely change every decision you've made for the past two years," she says. "I thought it would be something he would regret for the rest of his life."

Charlie tells Cate he'll think about it. A few days later, he cancels his flight home, straps his belongings to his back and begins the 200-mile trek from Kathmandu to Everest base camp.

THE ORANGE DOTS HAVE STOPPED. Cate thinks Charlie is on the summit of Mount Everest, but she isn't sure. While she waits for the next orange dot to appear down the mountain, she eases her building nerves by watching the HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords. Five minutes pass. Then 10, 15, 20. Suddenly, an orange dot appears below the summit. Charlie is heading down. He must be safe. Cate closes her laptop, turns out the light and heads to bed. It's early in the morning in Charlotte on Friday, May 6. Upon his return to base camp, Charlie calls Cate to say thank you. For everything. The woman who cried in horror when she saw the Everest IMAX film had just pushed her husband to the highest point on Earth. "Even though I knew he felt that way, it still felt good to hear it from him," she says. "Multiple times."

Three days after Charlie summits, Cate e-mails her husband to answer his question about what she dreams about for the rest of their lives. She wants to continue to live in Charlotte and pursue her writing career. She wants to have another baby. And she wants Charlie to find a lifestyle in which he can be happy and present with his family while happy and inspired by his career.

"I think that's everybody's challenge in life," she says. "Doing what you love, chasing your passions and yet being there for your family at the same time. I want him to find this balance."

Two weeks later, just outside of baggage claim at the Charlotte airport, Charlie shakes with emotion as he embraces Cate and gives James a toy car he bought during a layover in Qatar. Sure, he completed just 7,186 miles of the 10,000 he set out to conquer, but he insists he found something more important along the way.

"She understood what she was marrying," Charlie says. "I don't think I understood who I was as well as she did. She's my guide in a lot of ways. She's always a couple steps ahead of me."

Later that night, the two are walking side by side. As Charlie grabs Cate's hand, she tells him that it feels strange to be holding hands again.

"Why?" Charlie asks. "Because the only hand you've been holding for the past year is half the size of yours?"

That first night he is home, Charlie and Cate agree they will not make any major decisions for six months. Charlie is going ahead with his plans to write a book about his adventures and work with Save the Children, a global nonprofit, to raise money and help reduce maternal and child mortality rates in Nepal. Cate is going to write as well. And they both will spend as much time as possible together.

"I have a marriage I need to rebuild," Charlie says. "And a boy who barely knows his father."

But soon Charlie's addiction resurfaces. He's been dreaming about swimming the Mississippi and connecting the Manhattan Island Swim and California's Badwater ultramarathon with a cross-country bike ride. This is Cate's life. She accepts it. Until a few weeks later, when the talk of what's next takes on an entirely new tone, one that puts Charlie in the role of supporter.

"I'm pregnant," Cate says. "And I couldn't be any more excited."

Neither could Charlie. The baby is due in February. That will give Charlie three months before the next Everest season.