Epic is a word that is very popular and pretty much overused in the endurance world, but some events are truly outstanding in terms of challenge and adventure. Maryland resident Suzy McCulloch Serpico recently completed the EPIC5 event in Hawaii - 5 Iron distance events in 5 days on 5 different islands, and we had a chat with her about it.
Slowtwitch: Thank you so much for your time.
Suzy McCulloch Serpico: My pleasure. Thank you for taking the time and interest in me and Epic 5.
ST: How was your trip coming back from Hawaii?
Suzy: It was a long trip back, three flights and a 6-hour time adjustment. However, it was all worth it.
ST: Most folks are aware of the Hawaiian Ironman, the XTERRA World Championships and the Ultraman event and possibly various other Hawaiian events, but EPIC5 likely does not ring a bell. Can you explain the event?
Suzy: EPIC5 is 5 Ironman events in 5 days on 5 islands of Hawaii. I saw this as part of an article and it is so true. EPIC5 is a personal test, not a competition; there are no winners, only finishers and participants. Longer, more demanding endurance trials exist, but this is the only one that combines back-to-back triathlons with travel.
ST: How did you stumble upon it and what drew you in?
Suzy: I had a few friends who I met through Ultra520K that have completed it, so it was something that interested me and I had on my radar for a few years. When I finished Ultra520K Canada for a second time, I felt that I was ready for something new - something that would scare and excite me at the same time.
ST: Could you also talk about you racing as a professional? When was that and what was the highlight?
Suzy: I raced professional from 2012 to 2015. It truly was something that I never aimed or trained for, but when the opportunity presented itself, I said why not. Honestly nothing really changed, I still had to keep my day job, but I was able to wear the cool P tattoo on my calf and start in the front. The highlight was Ironman Lake Placid 2012, my first professional Ironman race. I was the first out of the water and in the lead until about mile 90 on the bike, I felt pretty badass having the camera crew follow me around. I ended up 4th female pro.
ST: Where is that trophy now?
Suzy: Still on display at the house. However, the Ultra520K awards and now the Epic 5 are taking a front seat on the mantle. [laughs]
ST: What made you decide that racing with a pro license in triathlon is not for you?
Suzy: It was an amazing opportunity to race against the best of the best. I felt like many of times, I was racing to not be the last professional to finish. That caused me to lose some joy in the sport, so I took a step back to try and find my passion again.
ST: And when and how did you get started with triathlon?
Suzy: I got started in triathlons when I was in high school. There was an iconic triathlon in my neighborhood called the Columbia Triathlon. I wanted to sign up but I didn’t have a bike. My parents didn’t want me to go to senior week so they asked me to come up with something that I wanted instead. I said a bike and they rest is history! The first year I did the race, I qualified to be on the Junior World triathlon team and got to spend my summer at the Olympic training center in Colorado. Needless to say I got hooked! Unfortunately, the race is no longer but the memory of where I got started will always be there.
ST: What sports did you do prior?
Suzy: I played basketball and volleyball. I thought that I would play volleyball in college, however my senior year I switched to cross-country so I could train for triathlons. I learned that I enjoy individual sports a little more than team sports.
ST: How much do you swim, run and bike during a good week?
Suzy: When I am not training for ultra distance racing, I would say that I average three swims, three to four bikes sessions and I teach spin class three times a week, and three runs. I never really have an off-season as I see this as a lifestyle.
ST: Talk about your day job.
Suzy: I am an elementary school Physical Education teacher. I teach kids from kindergarten to 5th grade. I was not the most athletic kid growing up, and surprisingly I did not enjoy PE. I was the girl picking weeds during kickball. However, I think because of the experience, it makes me want to try that much harder to be a better teacher and help foster a learning environment where all children feel success in physical activity.
ST: Are the students impressed by your adventures?
Suzy: I was welcomed back to school with the hallways lined with cheers from students and staff. Not only that, but they made a rubric cube art of my face. I think you made it when that happens!
ST: In 2016 you switched from Ironman racing to Ultra events. Talk about that transition.
Suzy: I knew it was time to sign up for the Ultra520K when I would sign up for an Ironman and it would become more about not if I was going to finish, but how well. I felt like I was going through the motions of swim, bike, and run without really getting excited to do a race.
ST: I think the 2018 Canada Ultra 520K is your highlight or is it now the EPIC5?
Suzy: EPIC 5 for sure!
ST: How did you prepare for EPIC5?
Suzy: What felt like endless hours of swimming, biking, and running! I basically spent my free time swimming, biking, and running. One of my biggest weeks was the following:
Monday: 4000m swim and a 3 hour ride
Tuesday: 45 minute spin class and a 6 mile run
Wednesday: 75 minute run and 45 minute spin class
Thursday: 3.5 hour ride
Friday: 4000m swim, 4.5 hour ride, 3 mile walk
Saturday: 4000m swim, 6 hour ride, 1 hour run
Sunday: 4000m swim, 5 hour ride, 1.5 hour run
I don’t have a coach so I made things up as I went. I really tried to listen to my body and let it tell me what it could handle. A hug part of this was getting to the start line uninjured. I also had great advice and support from previous finishers - thank you Dani, Mel, Duncan, and Chad.
ST: Those 4000 meter swim workouts, how do you structure them?
Suzy: I vary them. A go to workout was 1 x 1000, 5 x 200, 1 x 1000, 10 x 100. A little mixture of long and short distances.
ST: Back to your big Hawaiian adventure. What did you do after each day to get mentally ready for the next?
Suzy: Honestly, sleep. As soon as the race was over, my crew was amazing. They would get me into my pajamas and I would head straight to bed. I learned after the first day you really can’t prepare for what the next day is going to bring. I just had to be rested as much as possible and wake up with a positive attitude; or at least fake it!
ST: Talk about the nutrition each day during and post the event.
Suzy: I went in thinking that I would be starving and want to eat everything and anything before, during, and after each day. We did a huge shop on the first island and got items that I used in training including Oreo cookies, Swedish Fish, Potato Chips, and Pop Tarts to name a few. However, the first day I think I overloaded my bottles with calories and unfortunately was throwing up throughout the bike and run. We might have used 5% of the items we bought! After that, I gave up control of my food and calories to my crew. For the rest of the days, I took in a mixture of liquid calories, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Cheez-Its, and pickles. When we found something that worked we kept with it. As for after, I am still trying to get my full appetite back.
ST: Was there a point during these 5 days where you questioned the decision to enter this event?
Suzy: I think I questioned it at some point every day. However, I quickly shifted my mindset to a I get this. Signing up for something like this, I knew that there were would be ups and downs. I was pleasantly surprised by how many more ups there were than downs. Honestly, the only real low moment I had, was the last 6 miles on Day 5. It was a painfully slow walk but I knew that I had plenty of time so I knew I would finish. I did debate going back to the hotel to sleep and then come back in a few hours to finish. I have never hit a wall like that. If it was on any other day I am not sure I would have made the flight.
ST: What else is on your bucket list?
Suzy: That is the million dollar question! I have no idea.
ST: That is maybe better for your bank account.
Suzy: Oh yes! Mt bank account is suffering a little after this trip, but it was so worth it.
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
Suzy: I owe a great deal to my crew, Stephanie Blades, David Blades, and Mark Naphin. They were my lifeline and without them I would not crossed that finish line. We are forever bonded in a way that I will be forever grateful. Throughout this journey I wanted to raise awareness for Parkinson’s, something my dad was diagnosed with 7 years ago. Through BigFoot Endurance, I was able to raise over $10,000 to go to Parkinson research.
ST: Can you share that link?