Amber Monforte - record setter

Proving that a demanding job doesn’t have to stand in the way of remarkable athletic accomplishment, full-time nurse and Xterra veteran Amber Monforte decided to try her first three-day, 320-mile, swim-bike run Ultraman this August and walked away with the Ultraman Canada women’s course record and the undying admiration of her three-time Xterra World Champion boyfriend.

Growing up, Monforte tried lots of sports, but climbing and kayaking were among many one-season stands before she found triathlon six years ago at the age of 25. “I was instantly passionate about the sport,” she said, and two years later in 2005, she won the Xterra National Amateur Championship and the Ironman Hawaii-Xterra World Championship double.

After a season or two in Xterra, she finished her degree in nursing at University of Nevada-Reno – and pursued racing Xterra around the world while starting a happy, adventure-filled relationship with Stoltz.

In 2008, Monforte placed 5th in the Xterra season points chase. This year, she set an Ironman PR of 10:12 in South Africa, started a full-time nursing job at home in Reno, and signed on for Ultraman Canada.

By the end of her very first Ultraman, race, Monforte was sore, of course. But along the way she finished fourth overall including the men in a time of 25:36:49. She out-paced runner-up Barbi Brochu by 1:39:11 and Monforte’s record time beat Tracy Preston’s Ultraman Canada women’s record of 29:31:44 by nearly 4 hours. Monforte’s also broke by 9 minutes the previous women’s world best at the Ultraman distance set in 1989 by Tina Bischoff at Ultraman Hawaii.

Slowtwitch: Did you really know what you were getting into?

Amber Monforte: Not really. I kind of like it that way. I am looking for a challenge, for a race to surprise me. I did not talk to anybody about it. The only thing that made me nervous was ‘Can I wrap my head around running 54 miles?’ Each morning, my legs felt stiff and tired. After I got on the bike the second day I hobbled down stairs that night and could not walk up stairs in the morning. But amazingly, I felt pretty good once I got going.

ST: How did you prepare for this epic race?

AMBER: I work full time as a nurse, and I only have so many hours to train. I try to do a quick run and swim workout before 6:30 AM and after another at roughly 7:30 at night. I try to get in a long ride once every other week. I’ve had an IT Band injury since May, and it started to come around I guess three weeks before Ultraman Canada. So I started to feel pretty decent and before Canada I did a slow 22-mile trail run, running from the old Xterra course at Montrose Meadows to Lake Spooner.

ST: Did you have company?

Amber: I ran with my German short haired, Kona. She is a great runner and has a good temperament and did the full 22 miles. I let her drink off my CamelBak and she loves it. When I put on run clothes she gets all excited. Kona is around 3 years old now. I got her from the pound in 2006. I was coming back from Kona, got home, sit around, sore, went to the pound, and they said they had one for me.

ST: How did you start triathlon?

Amber: I started triathlon in 2003 on a whim. Actually I was completely un-athletic when I took a trip to Costa Rica. I was a little overweight and the trek was wonderful and inspired me to stay active. After that, I signed up for something called Joints in Motion, a fund raising organization to raise money for the Arthritis Foundation. It worked a bit like the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. If you raised money, they put you in a training program and give you access to a coach. I had Achilles tendinitis and I had never raced a day in my life. I started working with a local triathlon coach, and he has us start swimming. I thought Uh Oh. So we took a course in triathlon training at the University of Nevada at Reno.

ST: Where did you grow up and what sports did you do as a kid/

Amber: I grew up in Truckee and the Reno area. My I was a horseback rider, my mom and dad and brother, he did not do a whole lot. My parents are both pretty active. They love to downhill ski.

ST: When did you start to take triathlon seriously and when were your breakthrough races?

Amber: I started Xterra in 2004. I guess my very first race at Xterra might have been my best. Ogden Utah before race series before big one out there. The mountain bike did not fit me and I did not know what I was doing. The bike was so scary -- and so much fun. The wildflowers were blooming and I had so much more fun than being on the roads the whole day.

ST: How did you meet the Caveman?

Amber: I ran into Conrad at the Alabama Xterra in 2006. He was laughing at my bike, and I ignored it. The next weekend met again at Richmond Xterra and then at Xterra Milwaukee. So he asked “Why are you stalking me?” I found out he was living in Bend, Oregon and I loved it. So I went there, and we pretty much stuck like glue. This he broke his back at Tahoe and I was there to help him through his recovery.

ST: How did your triathlon/Xterra career progress?

Amber: I have been an Xterra pro since 2006. But I still race on the road as amateur.

ST: How did you hear about Ultraman Canada?

Amber: I ran into other people who have done longer events. Mike Rouse has done Ultraman Hawaii and gave me some information about Canada. I thought: OK--some day in the next 10 years. But this past winter I got back to Reno and said to myself ‘If I have a job by the first of the year I can sign up for this.’ They had a draw by February 1 and I called Ultraman Canada and told ‘'em I wanted in.

ST: Why did you want to do this new challenge?

Amber: I already knew I can do an Ironman, although it would not be pretty and I would not be quick. I really liked the feeling of entering the unknown I had when I was doing my first triathlon. So I was excited about it. It was a new adventure. And, I’d never been to Canada before.

ST: What was your longest 2 wheel preparation?

Amber: I rode the Markleeville Death Ride, a 129-mile bike ride from Death Valley to Markleeville, which has 15,000 feet of climbing. It was early July, when -- heh heh -- it was really hot. It was fun. But the scariest part of it was riding with 3,000 other riders on the road. That was really sketchy. But I love riding long distances and will take any excuse to go out for an 8 hour bike ride,

ST: Did you scout out the Ultraman Canada course at all?

Amber: I knew we went on part of the Ironman Canada course. I did see Okanagan falls before the race and I took a few turns there for a 15 minute spin to loosen my legs. But I basically did my homework studying the course map and race directions. Unlike an Ironman, nothing was marked. My crew was supposed to get there before me and tell me where to turn. But I kind of memorized it so if my crew got stuck in traffic, I wouldn’t miss any turns.

ST: We know about Conrad. Tell us about your other support crew member.

Amber: My support crew was the best. My friend Graham and I started triathlon at the same time together. We did our very first half marathon together. Graham, Conrad and I are from Reno. Graham just quit his job and took a sabbatical to travel the world. That was good timing. We met at UN Reno where we took a triathlon class together -- Triathlon Training 101.

Conrad Stoltz: She had a great first day. Her crew was amazing and fun, the crews went back and forth, every time ride by they would super soak us. It was a fun atmosphere to race not all serious really enjoyed it enjoyed the team.

ST: You have ultracycling and running experience. But a 10k swim is tough without experience.

Amber: Swimming I knew I’d get through it never swam that far before especially in a wetsuit. It was a little nerve wracking especially when you cannot see the other side of the lake. Conrad was my paddler we did it twice before, every 25 minutes I’d stop and get fluid and nutrition again. It was a good system -- my goal was to swim under 3.5 hours. But the lake was flat and it was perfect conditions. Not too cold, not too warm, good temperature.

ST: Ultraman Hawaii has famous heart and 15,000 feet of climbing on the bikes. What was Canada like?

Amber: Hills were a big part of Ultraman Canada. We rode on almost all parts of the Ironman Canada course. We stared at Okanagan and rode past Skaha Lake and Richter Pass and Yellow Lake, and did a fair amount of climbing. I think the temperature was 101 degrees Fahrenheit on the first day and the sky was smoky because of nearby forest fires.

ST: What was the first day bike like?

Amber: I did pretty good until the climb to Yellow Lake. I had just passed Barbi [Brochu] on a bathroom break, then she passed me right back. Then I I overheated and had a mini bonk and Barbi [Brochu] passed me and yelled, “C’mon, we’re almost there, one last climb! “So I put my head down at the top of Yellow Lake and rode the 10 miles to Okanagan Lake. Besides one mini implosion it was a good day. At the end of the day, Barbi was about 2-3 minutes ahead.

ST: How hungry were you after Day One?

Amber: On the first day none of the other athletes seemed to want to eat regular food. I felt pretty hungry and I thought, ‘OK, I want it.’ So we went to a drive-in [restaurant] on the way back to the hotel and I had burgers and onion rings and a milk shake.

ST: That was brave. Cast iron stomach. But how sore were you?

Amber: No real damage. I had a little rub cut on my neck from the wetsuit. My neck was a little bit sore that night.

ST: How much climbing on the 171.4-mile bike on Day 2?

Amber: We climbed up Richter Pass again. I love the hills, the more the better. After about 40 miles, we went into a huge headwind. I was going 12 mph on my aero bars, but I don't think I was losing time. So you can guess where you stand by the traffic on the road. When you see other team cars you can tell people are catching you. When you can’t see the cars, you’ve dropped ‘em. Despite the wind, and the fact we were going real slow, I was doing well because everybody else was going slow, too.

ST: How good a support crew was Conrad?

Amber: He knows I like the long distances and he knows I thrive the longer it goes. Funny story: On day 2, I ran out of water and food. So the boys said they were going to get some ice and food and disappeared for 45 minutes. I thought ‘I bet you anything Conrad and Graham were fishing.’ They came back on a long climb. At the end of the day I saw I saw all Conrad’s photos of Graham and Conrad fishing in the river on his Flickr page. But they always make up for it later. The boys bought ladies lingerie to wear on the side of the road the next day. They made me laugh and it reminded me this was supposed to be fun and lighthearted.

ST: Lonely by the end of bike?

Amber: I was 4th overall with a relay team ahead of me when I came off the bike at the end of the second day bike. The biggest thing my crew did for me was to get me back to the room to recover as much as possible. They immediately got me juice and were force-feeding me a big dinner. The boys knew I would not want to eat anything, but they brought me back good so I could run well the next day.

ST: How sore were you after the second day?

Amber: I had a hard time getting down the stairs that morning. I was really worried that morning before the run. I was thinking maybe I had overcooked it yesterday on the bike.

ST: Did it loosen up on the run?

Amber: My stomach was not good in the morning. I did not want to eat anything. After the first few minutes of the run, I was on Barbi’s heels and barely hung on with maximum effort. But once I got to the top of hill, after 10 minutes in all, I felt good. My legs were light. They felt springy. OK! I had a good run – [8:31:13 to Brochu’s 9:38:08]

ST: What were conditions for the run?

Amber: There were a lot of hills. The profile of the course showed uphill to mile 30 and then downhill all the way to the finish. But that was not really true. There were rolling hills the entire course. The temperature on Sunday was better, in the 90s. I am very good in the heat. I tend to do better when the weather is warmer than when it’s colder. The guys had ice, but I did not take it until later on the run. A lot of the run was on dirt roads. That was nice. It stayed cooler than the first two days.

ST: This was your first double marathon, so what did the last few miles feel like?

Amber: I started to get shin splints 20 miles into the run but I felt pretty good until about 20 miles from the finish. The pain was manageable until the last 10 miles when it really started to hurt. Those last 10 miles were brutal. I tried to get my mind off it, thinking back really to something Jamie Whitmore said which really inspired me: “”If you guys ever get in a tough place, think of me, I’d give everything to be there.” Thinking about Jamie [the Xterra champion who was struck by cancer in 2008 and was forced to retire from the sport] really spurred me to push through.

ST: After breaking the Ultraman Canada race record in your first try – and going faster than Tina Bischoff’s 1989 Ultraman Hawaii women’s race record – will you go to Hawaii?

Amber: The reason I did one Ultraman race this year is finances. This was my one big race of the year. I will probably do Hawaii the following year.

ST: Any other races on your schedule?

Amber: I am also looking at the BC bike race – a 7 day mountain bike stage race from Vancouver to Whistler. I think it is at the end of July to the beginning of August. It is mostly single track. Racing is supposed to be fun. I try to go as fast as I can but I still want it to be fun. I really enjoy riding my bike and swimming and being able to do it. Being a nurse, I see people who are really sick and cannot do these things and experience all of these wonderful races and places. I am very lucky.

ST: Conrad, what was it like watching Amber doing Ultraman?

Conrad Stoltz: It was a really amazing experience watching her train for this event. It seemed quite crazy to tackle a thing as significant as this. But when it came to race day, things came together. I knew she good at long distances and far from being fazed by this, she was quite good at it. We thought the swim was a weak point, but she did really well and it came together nicely. Once she got on the bike, she rode incredibly well. It was really fun to watch her find a thing she is really good at and she enjoys. I loved the way she tackled this course, the weather and beat many of the men. It took the top men 110k to catch Amber and Barbi Brochu on the first day. The Spanish man, Josef Ajram, was 20-30 minutes back on Day 1. He said he was riding and riding and riding for many hours at 230 to 270 watts average and when his crew told him two women were up the road, he said ‘No it's not possible.’ Then on a short out and back, he saw them riding and thought they were training for Ironman Canada coming up. But once he started climbing at the 110k mark to catch the leading ladies, that was a really neat moment. The same thing happened on Day 3 [a double marathon]. Early on the run, Amber was 3rd or 4th to the half marathon point, and Josef Ajram finally caught her about 75k.

ST: What satisfaction did you take from being a part of her crew?

Conrad: That was special. To be a part of her crew and team is very rewarding. Amber gives up so much and sacrifices so much for my racing and training, it is really great to give back to support her race and training and watch her have fun.

ST: Amber is pretty modest recalling her Xterra performances. How good is she?

Conrad: In 2008, she placed 5th in the USA Xterra series. Amber has had very consistent results and raced in Europe and got many 4ths and 5ths in the European series. As an amateur, she won the US series and the World Champs in her age group and in 2005 won the Hawaii double with combined times in the Ironman and Xterra World Championships. At Ironman Hawaii that year, she finished in 10:41:07.

ST: You are a two-time Olympian and an Xterra World Champion. But didn’t she show you a thing or two in Canada?

Conrad: Yes. She trains a lot more than I do. I could not do that much training even if I have to. It is humbling. One of my pals, James Walsh, an amateur from California, said to me ‘Dude, you’ve been chicked!’ And it’s true. I could not do it. I do not have the character for it. You need much more patience to do it, and I am not sure I have what you need to do well at that race. I know what she has done. It is a great thing. She is always about having fun. It’s true of both of us and hopefully for every athlete. If you are not having fun you should be doing something else. That is the reason she is happy about it. She overdosed a bit at Xterra last year. So this year she keeps looking around for new races and challenges and places to go – and saves some money not going to every Xterra.

Photographs courtesy of Rick Kent