Ultra Dede

Dede Griesbauer was an NCAA Division 1 swimmer at Stanford. After graduating the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, she got a well-paying job on Wall Street but followed her heart and gave it up for triathlon. In her 15-year professional triathlon career, Griesbauer won three Ironman titles, several Ironman 70.3s, and earned three top 10 finishes at Kona. Last weekend, at age 49, she placed second overall at Ultraman Florida in a time of 22:48:31, breaking the women’s Ultraman world-best by over an hour.
Slowtwitch: Where does this rank in your career?

Dede Griesbauer: Right at the top. No question.

ST: Why?

Dede: In Ultraman, the experience is shared because you have a crew out there with you every step of the way. In Clermont, 38 athletes started. Every crew supported every athlete on the course. I was offered support from at least 3 other crews. It was an extremely cool vibe.

ST: What led you to Ultraman?

Dede: When I heard Hillary Biscay won the 2010 Ultraman World Championship, I was intrigued. Then again by Chris McDonald, the 2019 Ultraman Florida Champion, and by Jordan Bryden, the 2019 Ultraman World Champion, who served as part of my superb crew. I was drawn to it because it gave me the same tingle in my belly that I had when I signed up for my first Ironman.

ST: You moved to Boulder in 2012 and had a big improvement training with coach Siri Lindley. When did you start working with Julie Dibens?

Dede: In 2015. Julie and I have a similar temperament, attitude and sense of humor. I liked her blended coaching style of quantitative metrics (use of power, heart rate, training data) as well as qualitative metrics (like, “Wow, you look like crap today. Go home and rest and try again tomorrow.”) Julie’s squad at the time was full of tremendous athletes; I bonded strongly with Tim Don and Rachel Joyce.

ST: How did Julie improve your already outstanding bike?

Dede: Julie still can ride the snot out of a bike. She is almost always out with the JDCrew for bike sessions. Even the big boys like Matt Hanson, Tim O’Donnell and Justin Metzler can struggle to drop her. I, for one, have never have been able to drop her. It’s on my bucket list because a girl has to have dreams.

ST: What did you work on with Julie?

Dede: A lot on technique. I have a great position with the help of Ivan O’Gorman and Matt Bottrill. Julie drills position queues often. I’m more of an aerobic engine, so we work the top end more than I’d like, but at nearly 50, I’m riding stronger than ever.

ST: How was training in the Boulder winter?

Dede: Training partners for Ultraman were hard to come by. Not many people are going long that early. Julie came for a lot of my sessions and I would at least start rides with a lot of the JDCrew. And all my millions of friends on Zwift.

ST: How did you prepare for the distances?

Dede: I did some longer swims; five or six at 8km, a 9km and a 10km. Plus our normal JDCrew squad sessions at RallySport in Boulder. And I did some work in the wetsuit to prime the shoulders.

On the bike, we replicated the day 1/ day 2 pattern - a shorter 3-4 hour ride with intensity on Friday followed by a long 5-7 hour ride on Saturday. Winter was mild so I was able to get outside a lot, but at 35-45 degrees it was hard to push the anticipated race volume of fluids and calories.

I struggled with an Achilles injury in August, so my run mileage was lower than I’d like. We leaned hard on the AlterG to supplement; it worked for Tim O’Donnell for Kona, so it was good enough for me! We did a lot of hiking combined with running.

I also modified my strength program with my new strength coach, Kevin Purvis. He took me through longer circuit training to replicate the demands of the race; some longer heavy sets, followed by endurance work challenging stabilizers to introduce them to what it might feel on Day 3 with 12 miles to go, running on loose sand and clay.

ST: Introduce your support crew.

Dede: My crew was top shelf! I had my husband, DaveyG as my crew chief. Julie was head coach, in charge of me and my head. Fellow JDCrew Pro Katie Kyme was a brilliant cook, my chief food officer, in charge of meals for the crew and she tracked my calories each day of racing. Jordan Bryden, who is coached by Julie and who won 2019 Ultraman Canada and the Ultraman World Championship, was mission critical. When things started going sideways, Jordan was Captain Triage. He also did a lot of the pacing on day 3. Jordan has a super chill personality and had a calming influence all around. Kevin Purvis, my strength coach, was another key pacer on the Day 3 run. Kevin is eternally positive and I drew a lot from his energy. Kris McFarland gave massage and helped keep the body happy all three days. Every piece of the puzzle was important.

ST: What were your expectations?

Dede: It was refreshing to go into this race with no expectations. I’ve never swum 10km open water. I’d ridden the 12 hour Time World Championships in 2016, so I had some power data to go off of from that. I’d never run one step further than a marathon before in my life.

It wasn’t until the end of day two that there was any talk of records. Julie only told me about it because she thought it would be good motivation on day three to know it was possible to do something no woman had ever done before.

ST: What did your sponsors think of this quest?

Dede: Michael Folan at INFINT nutrition was quite pleased, being the Founder and CEO of the only custom blended sports nutrition and recovery company that I am aware of. Certified Piedmontese will come into play as I focus on recovery, And I just started working with Love the Pain.

ST: Was your 2:28 one of the all-time best Ultraman women’s swim splits?

Dede: Hillary Biscay swam 2:20:48 at Ultraman Hawaii in 2010, so 2:28 is not even close.

ST: Conditions on the swim were challenging?

Dede: On race morning, the lake was smooth as glass. Not a hint of wind. Julie was my kayak escort and we put a blinking headlamp on her so I could spot her if conditions warranted. At 4km, it started to rain. Then pour. A massive front blew through, temps dropped and the wind kicked up. Julie played it cool, but it was treacherous. The last 3km was brutal. I couldn’t see anything; no buoys, no shore and at times, not even Julie. Yet every single swimmer but one made it. Leaving transition I remember Julie was shivering uncontrollably.

ST: Are there laughs in Ultraman?

Dede: My crew joked with crews of some of the boys at the front on days 1 and 2, reminding them I was old enough to be their mother. I took a water bottle to the head on Day 2. Scared the crap out of me because it flew at me from nowhere and knocked the visor off my helmet. Luckily, we were going over Sugarloaf Mountain (elevation 312 feet) and the “bad arm” crew retrieved my visor. No harm done. The Brazilian athlete rode up alongside moments later and apologized: “I am so sorry! You have a lot of friends in Brazil. It’s an honor to be racing with you!” I laughed and said, “You sure have a funny way of showing it,”

Late on Day 3, I struggled to keep a positive attitude. No one wants to deal with a brat or hear a bunch of whining about how hard it is or how much it hurts. But with 10km to go, I hit an emotional and physical low - a double-whammy. Someone on my squad said, “You are so close. Only 10km to go!” Immediately I snapped, “Do you have any idea how (expletive) far that is?”

ST: How did you prepare to avoid meltdowns?

Dede: I went to the CU Sports Performance Center last year for metabolic testing to get guidelines on caloric intake at a given effort as well as sweat rate and sodium loss. I had a really good nutrition plan centered around my custom INFINIT blend as well as some hypotheticals based on what might go wrong.

Bottom line, I showed up every day and put my faith in Julie as we set pacing guidelines. I watched my power on the bike and did as I was told. On the run, I had great pacers in Jordan and Kevin. Toward the end, Julie jumped in when my mind started to cloud with dark thoughts.

ST: Any songs get in your head?

Dede: During the swim, when conditions deteriorated, I unfortunately got the theme song to Gilligan’s Island stuck in my head. Day 1 on the bike it was The Eagles, “Take it Easy.” And one of the crews passed by early into the run with some old school Brittany Spears, “Baby One More Time.”

ST: Is this your best distance?

Dede: I had that revelation during the 12 hour Time Trial back in 2016. I just passed hour 8 and was cranking along, happy as a clam. Power was good. Body felt good. Spirits were good. And then it dawned on me, “S***! I might be good at this….and I’m not sure I want to be!”

ST: Were you surprised by the thousands of well wishes and congratulations?

Dede: Completely. Days 1 and 2 were great. Family, friends and JDCrew members all checked in frequently. I put out a request to friends to chime in on day 3 with jokes and the one who made me laugh hardest would win a prize. Karen Smyers (Griesbauer’s triathlon coach in Massachusetts) won by a mile.

When I finally caught up with my phone after the finish, it just exploded.

ST: How hungry were you after?

Dede: Zero percent hungry. First, 2 scoops of my custom recovery mix from INFINIT. Then mac and cheese settled best at the BBQ celebration. About 3 hours later, we made our way back to our AirBnB and ordered pizza. It hit the spot, though I didn’t seriously chow. I did enjoy a sneaky glass of wine.

ST: Could you have dreamed this 20 years ago?

Dede: Imagine having a proper, well-paying job on Wall Street after working to get your undergraduate degree at Stanford University and then going on to get your MBA at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Now imagine chucking all that to follow a different passion. “Just for a year or two,” I thought. “It will be an adventure.”

Open your eyes years now and see all that came of it. To some, it might mean nothing. But to me, if you imagine something and keep imagining it can become your reality. When my good friend Hillary Biscay did her first Ultraman, I dreamt of following in her footsteps. Some dreams live. Others die. This one lived and it was magnificent.

ST: You suffered injuries in Germany in 2011 - broke an elbow, 2 ribs, pelvis in 2 places and hip – and you were told you’d never run again. In 2015 at Coeur d’Alene you were hit by a truck. How did you keep coming back?

Dede: Simple. I love it too much. I knew the outcome was uncertain, but isn’t it always? Just because they say you can’t doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Only guarantee of failure is not to try.

ST: Did those experiences help in Ultraman?

Just speed bumps on my journey. Something else happened when I was a kid was more important.

When I was 9, I went to summer camp. Don’t know why, but I liked archery. I spent countless hours at that dang range firing arrows at a sorry little bale of hay with a target tacked to it. Arrows would fling right and left and sometimes they’d fall out of the bow and land at my feet. I might have killed a squirrel one afternoon but I never hit that target.

I lacked the points to get my archery badge. But the camp counselor cut out the letters P and D out of orange construction paper and made me an end of camp presentation. “Not quite up to snuff for a proper archery award, but an award for Persistence and Determination.” I felt like a loser, but looking back, I think my little PD award foretold my ability to survive Ultraman, as well as the strength to bounce back from potential career ending injuries.

ST: Is age just a number?

Dede: Biggest pet peeve ever when people say that. Age is real! I have to work harder, work smarter, sleep more, eat better and do it consistently. I have to work four times as hard to gain 10% of what I used to. Do I think people can succeed in spite of age? Absolutely, 100%. But it’s way harder because age is not just a number – it’s a reality.