Inside the heart of Ultraman

Now that triathlon has become global, its shorter distance graces the Olympics and the Ironman brand has spread to six continents and the monetary value of its corporate entity is measured in nine figures, it is natural that many aficionados who treasure its original anarchic, individual spirit wonder where it can be found. The answer posited by The Race Within: Passion, Courage and Sacrifice at the Ultraman Triathlon by Jim Gourley is of a triathlon that's been around for 32 years, is limited to 40 entries, has no prize money, no TV and none of the trappings of 21st Century material fame and profit. The Ultraman World Championship is a 3-day stage race held on the weekend after Thanksgiving. It features a 10 kilometer swim and 90-mile bike on Friday, a 171-mile bike leg on Saturday and a 52-mile double marathon on Sunday which completes a triathletic circumnavigation of the Big Island of Hawaii. In its material austerity and its rich personal nature, the Ultraman is a virtual time machine to triathlon’s innocent roots. And the souls attracted to this test of pure pain and astringent rigor are often fascinating.

The book begins with a relatively brief account of the 2012 edition of the Ultraman World Championship that introduces many of the main players. The middle part traces the origins of the race founded by Curtis Tyler and Gordon Will, its intertwined links to the early days of Ironman and its emotional ties to Valerie Silk, Ironman’s soulful 1980’s race director. It also delves too deeply for this reader into the inevitably complex and internecine conflicts involved in attempts to expand into Canada, Wales, Australia, Brazil, Florida – and beyond.

It wraps up with a dramatic recounting of the 2013 World Championship event won by Hillary Biscay of the U.S. and Miro Kregar of Slovenia. While the top contenders are given plenty of attention to make the reader care about and understand their dreams and strategies, the book has a much wider focus. It devotes much space to the race’s minor players, their backgrounds and their personal goals. Such a wide focus that includes most of the contestants is possible because the race is by invitation only and the field is limited to 40. More important, its core values are quite the opposite of hey-look-at-me narcissistic ego satisfaction that fuels many modern bucket list hopefuls. Ultraman is unashamedly all about love, kindness and a family spirit inspired by co-founder Curtis Tyler and carefully nurtured and preserved since 1991 by race director Jane Bockus and her right hand cohort Sheryl Cobb. As a result, great athletes are welcome but entries are chosen not by the shininess of their competitive résumés, but by the content of their heart.

Gourley’s portrait of co-founder Curtis Tyler reveals the ethos that makes Ultraman unique. Tyler was a U.S. soldier hit by an enemy rocket in Vietnam in 1969. He was blinded in one eye, suffered fractured pelvis, wrists and spine, and a shattered shoulder joint. As a result, he has been in chronic pain for the rest of his life. Recovering in Hawaii, he descended into a dark place where he felt he was a broken man condemned to hopeless suffering. One night he was cursing the wind and the rain when he remembered an old Hawaii proverb: “No rain, no life. When the heavens weep, the earth flourishes.” And so he thought, “All this came to me and made me realize I had to develop a new perspective on wind and rain.” Along his reborn way, he met Conrad Will who shared his idealism about the nature of the sport of long distance triathlon. Disappointed at the growing corporate influence on the fast growing Ironman, they decided that the Big Island had room for a bigger challenge on a smaller scale, an event whose core would be based on the Hawaiian principles of ohana (family), aloha (love) and kokua (hospitality).

Tyler and Will mapped out the classic Ultraman course in 1983 as an alluring test on the Big Island which would attract the sort of adventurous souls who founded Ironman. Tyler had an explicit ethos in mind, a profound philosophical approach. As Gourley writes, Tyler “analogizes principles of his Christian faith to the beliefs of his Hawaii heritage as smoothly as he translates between Hawaiian and English. He is simultaneously founder, historian, theologian.” Gourley gives Tyler room to articulate the core philosophy of Ultraman at length: “The Hawaiian culture holds a strong belief in mana, an innate sense of the blessing of your own creation.” Tyler adds, “I found in my own life and difficulties, from which I was not to recover, that once I triumphed over self-pity, once I triumphed over blaming other people, once I triumphed over feeling sorry for myself, then I could triumph over my own ego and find the power of my mana.”

In addition to the main players, Gourley brings many other members of the Ultraman family to life, especially the mobile support crews - a throwback to the early years of Ironman - who serve as tacticians, massage artists, fast-food and water dispensers, pace runners, psychologists and triage medics. He devotes in depth portraits of Ultraman staff including Sheryl Cobb and her husband Dave and also Canadian race director [and now rival ultra promoter] Steve Brown. He offers vivid looks at Ironman professional Hillary Biscay, three-time Ultraman winner and full time nurse Amber Monforte, Brazilian six-time champion Alexandre Ribeiro, long-time Ultraman characters Cory Foulk and Cowman, as well as remarkable 58-year-old Kurt Madden, who was right in the mix in the 2013 race, 30 years after winning the very first Ultraman. Best of all, Gourley gives equal play to the modestly gifted athletes and their dramatic physical and emotional struggles to fulfill their Ultraman dreams. After all, Curtis Tyler's hard earned vision was not about conquering the Ultraman, but about sharing the simpler graces.

When the 2013 race is over, Gourley offers this valedictory: “The lava fields peel back the layers of the event just as they peel the athletes. And when it’s finally stripped bare, you see it for what it really is: the journey of love that Curtis Tyler meant it to be.”

The Race Within: Passion, Courage and Sacrifice at the Ultraman Triathlon
By Jim Gourley with an introduction by Hillary Biscay
306 pages
Copyright 2015 by Jim Gourley
Triumph Books
USA $16.95 / $18.95 Canada