My friend Steve recently asked me if Ultraman was hard.
I think my raised eyebrows and open mouth answered the question. But just in case, I replied, “Yeah… its really f*cking hard.”
Usually when I have this conversation with other triathletes and I explain the format of Ultraman – 320 total miles broken up into 3 stages – I get an “Oh… oooh!?” Almost as if the fact that it is broken up into 3 days makes it easier. In my opinion I think it makes it more difficult. You get 3 sleepless nights (instead of just one) where your body starts to go into recovery mode, only to be to put back out there for 8-12 more hours… twice in a row.
This year, like the past two years, training into the fall was difficult. But luckily we had some warm stretches into October and I didn’t have to suffer too much on the bike trainer. Going into the race, I felt great physically, but mentally I wasn’t ready for it. It seemed to creep up on me out of nowhere. I spent the week before the race playing tourist and that helped a bit. But once the race director puts the race bracelet on, that signals that vacation is over and it is time to do work.
Swim 6.2 miles and Bike 90 miles
If you know me, you know that I absolutely hate swimming. I spend a good month before the race examining tide charts, current charts, and jellyfish charts. Basically, I worry about everything that is out of my control.
In 2010 I think we had the ideal swimming conditions. With a favorable current I was able to pop off a 3:20 10k swim. In 2011 the current was a bit more stagnant and it was probably a “truer” 10k swim time for me – 3:40. This year, it wasn’t looking so good.
This year I had a new kayaker for me – a husband and wife team of Alisa and Phil – who are competitive canoe paddlers and Alisa has swam this distance and this route before. So I was confident that they would pick a good line.
The first half of the swim went according to plan – I stopped every 30-35 mins for water and nutrition. And according to my kayaker’s GPS I was swimming about 2 miles an hour – which would keep me on that 3:20 swim pace. The water was calm and I was happy.
But somewhere around the midway point, I felt the water change. I felt as if I was fighting more than usual. I stopped at the 3.5 mile mark because I was really being tossed around and I told my kayakers “Hey, this doesn’t feel good any more.” To which they responded, “Yeah, the wind is getting bad and there are whitecaps. The water is pretty shitty and we can’t get you out of it.”
There were some points where I could barely get my arms out of the water, and I was swallowing lots of the Pacific Ocean. I stopped again after another 35 mins to find that I had only gone .7 miles. I was beginning to mentally prepare myself for a 4+ hour swim. My kayakers informed me of two things: 1) I was actually passing other swimmers, so as much as I was struggling, others were feeling it too, and 2) about 400 yards ahead of me there was a whale breaching. I tried to lift up to catch a glimpse of the whale but the swells were bigger than I expected and I couldn’t see more than 10ft in front of me. I asked, “What happens if it doesn’t move?” They replied, “We might go over it.” Not sure if I should have been scared but I envisioned this cartoon-like situation where I was swallowed up whole by the whale and would then keep swimming around inside it’s mouth.
The rest of the swim, in two words, was f*cking bullshit. My kayakers did a great job keeping up morale. They smiled the entire time and kept encouraging me. But I was in the water for 3 hours 45 mins now and I still had about a mile to go. And that last mile by the way is the hardest. The current coming out of Keahou bay was crushing my shoulders. I actually screamed under water a few times. I had had enough. I finally reached the only bouy on the swim course which meant there was about 400 yards to go.
I got out around 4:20, and I asked my land crew “Was I the only slow one or did everyone else suck too?” I heard the race announcer say I was in 18th place, which was right in the middle of the field. To give some perspective, Marty, the fastest swimmer in the field, usually swims this in 2:20. This year he came in at just under 3 hours and was the only one to break 3.
I took my time in transition with a quick shower and got on some sunscreen. In his Australian accent, Phil said, “We were a bit worried about you out there mate. I wouldn’t have wanted to be out there.”
Having been here a few years in a row, I knew what to expect on the bike. The first 7 miles are hot with lots of climbing. The next 50+ miles are flat to rolling. And then the last 30 miles are all uphill – climbing to Volcanoes National Park. If it’s windy, it could be a killer. But today the conditions are almost perfect – no rain and little wind – even though I was chasing a small storm ahead of me.
My land crew of Beckie, Julie, and Gina did a great job as they got into a rhythm stopping every 5-7 miles for me to hand off water/nutrition/whatever I needed. I think I’m a pretty low maintenance athlete so I could usually just shout out what I need and then slow down and grab it, or tell them what I would like next time.
“GATORADE! GELS! SHOT BLOCKS!”
Crewing is a tough job. As ultra runner Marshall Ulrich said:
Crewing: the squeamish, faint of heart, self-centered, and glamour-seeking need not apply. It’s a grind, plain and simple. Repetitive, demanding, detail-obsessed, often boring, sometimes distasteful. It takes a certain kind of person, someone who’s really invested either in the runner or in the athletic accomplishment, to be an effective member of the crew.”
And I had a great one this year. It was almost as if they could read my mind and knew when to make shorter stops or give me things I didn’t even know I needed.
There would be no stopping on the bike today. Day 1 is the hardest day and I just want to get to the finish line as quick as possible. With the awful swim conditions I managed to cross the line in 10 hours 29 mins – which is the longest it has ever taken me on day 1.
Bike 171.4 miles
There was really nothing to complain about on day 2 – oh except that its 171.4 miles! The weather cooperated – no rain, no wind, and it really didn’t get super hot until about the half-way (Hilo) point.
There would be no stopping today as well. In the past years I would stop every 40-60 miles to stretch things out and take a break. The only time I stopped was after half-way when I hit a bump and my bike computer spun into the spokes on my front wheel. Not having a computer was frustrating, but I used the road mile markers to keep track of my distance. Doing math distracted me.
It’s another long day. I wish I could say that I thought about my dreams, goals, thought about a business I wanted to start, or where I wanted to travel next. But the truth is I just couldn’t wait until this day was over. It’s a challenging course – about 8000 feet of climbing, mostly rolling hills except for the 150 mile mark – the Kohala mountains – which is a monster climb.
My crew did an awesome job again. They would write messages for me on a white board, which made me laugh. And Gina would break out some costumes now and then. I was definitely pushing it a bit more than I had in past years. I crossed the finish line in 9 hours 11 minutes. I guess I had gone through a traffic light at some point because I received a 6 minute penalty for that. I was mentally and physically burned at the end of this ride – more than any ride I had ever done before.
I remember getting off the bike and immediately laying down in the grass. The race director came over to hug me but apparently my crew told her I needed some “alone time” because I felt like shit. My legs were fried and everything below the waist was numb. Would I ever be able to have kids after this? Not likely!
Run 52.4 miles
Days 1 and 2 took a lot out of me. I was not feeling fresh by any means. In past years I’ve been able to run 10-15 miles before feeling any discomfort. This year I was hurting after 2 miles. I was really looking forward to Day 3 because it’s the one day when you really get to socialize with the other athletes on the course, and you get to see your crew a lot (I have them stop every 1 mile for me). But after a few miles I’m once again wishing this day would be over.
I was hoping to cut 30 minutes off last year’s time and finish this double marathon in around 8 hours. This is ambitious for me and I’m questioning if I’ll be able to do it in the condition I’m in. I think the key is to start off SLOW and be able to hold back on the pace from the start. I am always amazed how fast everyone takes off from the start line.
In the first 17 miles I run with a few people – Suzy (who has done this 14 times) and Allen from the UK (who has Chrohn’s disease) and Marty (the fast swimmer who asks me what my run strategy is). I go through the first 13 miles in just under 2 hours so I’m on pace.
My strategy is to let the course dictate the run – I’m walking all hills and inclines, but running when it’s flat and downhill. Because I’m trying to hit that 8 hour mark I probably run some of the uphills more than I should.
At the 25 mile mark I feel my left IT band tighten up. It hurts so badly that I stop to walk. What the f*ck? The pain is so sharp that I can’t catch my breath. I’m gasping for air. I know when something is wrong and I know when something is really wrong. Something is REALLY wrong.
I can barely walk, I’m just limping along while the cars pass, cursing, rubbing it. I look at my GPS, “Son of a bitch… not even halfway and it looks like I’m walking the rest of this.” At this point I start questioning – why did this happen? I made it through all of my long training runs with no problems. I prepare for a really long day. I walked about .25 miles while doing math – If I can walk 3-4 miles per hour I’ll get there in… 11-12 hours. F*ck.
I decide to try and run again just so I can get to where my crew is. As I try and run again, I am in excrutiating pain, but after a minute it subsides. I tell my crew that I’m screwed and they too should get ready for a long day. I think I even apologized. It hurts to walk so I take some Tylenol and I’m off limping again.
I try to run one more time. And as it turned out, if I kept running, the IT band would stay loose and hurt less than walking. At the next mile I tell my crew that I am not stopping to walk under any circumstances because it hurts too much. This is something I would have never considered doing coming into the race.
I crossed the half-way point in 4:09 to which I yell “F*ck you marathon!” I know that there is no way I can negative split this run by 19 minutes so I’m just going to try and maintain the current pace without causing any permanent damage.
At about mile 27 I was joined by a local woman, Monica, who I just met before the race who agreed to pace me for the second half. I brief her on the situation and tell her that the 4 hour pace is off and we are just running to get to the finish line. To be in company is good, I needed something to take my mind off the hurt. We tried to play games and she would ask me questions like “What’s your favorite color?” and “So… who’s your favorite Sesame Street character?”
My response to both was “Monica… are you f*cking kidding me??” That poor, poor woman. She heard some awful things come out of my mouth.
It got hot. Very hot. The temps were only around 85… but you have to add in about 85% humidity. And running on pavement through lava fields the entire time, it feels like 100+. My crew was definitely on point now. Along with supporting me with hand-offs for ice, ice water, gels, and salt tablets, they were also taking care of my pacer. A few times two of them ran with me carrying “the stick” and other stuff I would randomly ask for.
There was one new technique that we tried this year. Before I even landed on the island, Julie had bought a pesticide sprayer. One that sprays a very fine mist. This proved to be excellent as they kept it filled with ice water and would spray me down when I came by. This was way better than dumping ice water over me. Last year that technique got my shoes soaked and led to me losing 5, yes 5, toenails.
With about a mile to go I dropped my water bottles with my crew. I told them to grab me immediately upon crossing the finish line. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to walk. I picked up the pace. I joked and told Monica that if something happened to her now or she couldn’t keep up, I was going on without her (maybe I wasn’t joking!).
My crew was waiting for me at the start of the finishing chute. We crossed the line together in 8:20. My second marathon time was 4:11, almost an even split. I’ll take it!
TOTAL TIME: 28 hours 07 minutes