Reading Katherine Williams' interim Ultraman report on Triathlon Digest today brought back a lot of memories. It's a unique event for a few hardy and intrepid souls who like a good challenge.
Like other ultras of various sorts and sports there's a "fringe" label put on these folks by the mainstream. When I did it there was hardly a mention in the mainstream press even though one could make a good argument that I was perhaps the best triathlete in the world at the time. People didn't want to know about this odd and ludicrous race more than twice as long as an Ironman. It was almost as if giving the race a bit of credibility damaged the image of triathlon. It was thought of as too ridiculous to be a competitive race. My thinking at the time was that perhaps it was ahead of its time. Just like so many other ultras, like the Western States 100, it never really seemed to be thought of as competition between elite athletes.
I still regard it as one of the most rewarding triathlons I've ever done. At the time I didn't care if it killed me. I just wanted to race around the island. It seemed like a natural challenge to put out there for the general triathlon public, many of whom had done several Ironmans already. And I had too - in training.
Jeff Jones and I had ridden around the island in two days one year while training for Kona. I think it was in October of 1982. It was a very impulsive decision but as we really didn't have any training plan as such anyway, it didn't seem that illogical. At the time we thought we might never get back to the big island ever again so what the hell! We planned on riding out through the volcano route and spending the night in Hilo. We strapped a pair of shorts, running shoes and a t-shirt in a big plastic bag and bungeed them under our seats so we would have some dry clothes when we went to dinner. In our jersey pockets we had some food, a wallet and a rain jacket. So equipped, we went. It poured and then poured some more on the way into Hilo. It was an epic trip. I'll never forget flying down through the Kohalas towards Hawi the next day stuffed to the limit on Chinese food thinking that the route for Ironman should go up through Waimea and down through there. Tailwind through the lush high country instead of a mother of a headwind from Kawaihea to Hawi.
Three years later when I finally made it back to race Ultraman I had some solid years of training under my belt. On top of that I decided to do the San Joaquin Trail 50-mile race as a last minute tune-up. I slogged up and down those mountains, through the mud with Hans Albrecht to finish in 9:05, and felt ready to conquer anything. Two days later I got on the plane to Kona.
One of my training buddies came along as my support crew. You were required to have your own paddler and supporter along and Chris Miller volunteered. Chris never passed up a chance to go to Hawaii, and now splits his time between San Diego and the North Shore. At the time he was a Solana Beach lifeguard (he's a commercial pilot now) and neophyte triathlete.
When I was reading the report of the currents in the swim in this year's Ultraman I was reminded of my own 2 hours and 50 minutes to complete the swim. Chris was next to me on the Malibu board helping me to navigate and carrying the food and water. He neglected to bring any for himself, though, and he was literally toast when we reached the swim finish at the Kona Surf. The sun baked him to a fine crust and it was a few hours before he recovered and caught up to me on the route to the volcano. I finished the swim 30 minutes in front of the next finisher and was as happy as "Larry" (a crazed lunatic, famous in New Zealand) to get the hell out of the water. I'd planned on it taking just a shade over 2 hours and 20 minutes like it did in the pool in training 2-weeks before.
During the race that day there was also a bit of a typhoon to get through and a few of the tail-enders went well into the night, getting precious little rest before the next day's 6am start. They didn't have a cut-off that year. The next day's ride of 170-miles is a very special bike ride that takes in some of the remotest territory in the islands. It also cut through the "red" lava road that chewed up one of my light tubulars like a cheese grater. The trip through the Kohalas was once again quite spectacular and I had a bit of company in a fella named Chip Salaun.
Chip was one of the more unique characters our sport has ever seen. He was one of the few people in the world who I felt knew me, because we were so alike. He loved the big challenge. We got to talk a bit throughout the week of Ultraman. Getting to know him, and through him getting to know a bit more about myself, remains a treasured memory. He later died during another challenging adventure doing what he loved.
The run on the third and last day starts in Hawi and finishes at the pier, 52.4-miles. That year they staggered the start so the leader (me) started first and every one else according to their rank up to that point. I took off at 5am with two full water bottles on my belt and a flashlight. Needless to say it was pretty quiet. I told my crewman Chris to meet me in a couple of hours at Kawaihae and off I went. It was magic. The stars were out. No wind. No noise. Could have been the end of the planet.
But then it began to get hard. The sun came up and there are a few hills -- and wind -- to contend with and its a pretty friggin' long way to run. I cruised through the first marathon in about 3:35 before the slow deterioration began. I was going through a quart of Gatorade about every 20 minutes and Chris had to go and mooch some more water to mix up the Gatorade. Then he found some Coke and I was off again feeling good for another hour until the 40-mile mark, just outside the airport. From then on it was a battle between the euphoria of the accomplishment and the depression that comes with fatigue. I walked a lot and finished the run in about 7:35 as far as I can remember. That bit's still a little foggy. It was only 12:30 in the afternoon and a few dozen people had gathered down at the pier to great me and the others. Pretty low key by today's Ironman standards!
I was in my hotel and asleep from 2-5pm, had another bath and another beer or two and wandered down to dinner. Watched a movie on the tube that night. The next day was bliss. No autographs. No photo shoots. No press conference. We had a wonderful brunch buffet like you can only get in Hawaii, shared with all the competitors. How I wish more races I did were as homey and comfortable.
There was no prize money either, but the following weekend there was, so I hopped a plane to Kauai the next day to get ready for the Kauai Loves You triathlon. I had a great week there and winning the race made a great end to my year. I flew back to San Diego considerably lighter, and enjoyed putting a few pounds back on through the next 3-weeks. Then the "Hang-over 100" (an organized 100-mile bike ride through San Diego County) on January 1 crept up and it was time to get going again.
The memories from Ultraman carried me through the next few months and then through some pretty hard races later on, when I wasn't feeling quite so invincible.
May I offer a special congratulations to all of those special people who've made it to the finish line of Ultraman.