Ultraman World Championships Hawaii 2009 Race Report

As I sit at a Starbucks Coffee Shop in Honolulu Airport waiting to fly back home, it is with a sense of relief that the race is over, but also with a sense of sadness that the week and experiences I have had has now come to an end.

This year marked the 25th Anniversary of the Ultraman Hawaii World Championships on the Big Island of Hawaii. It was only 8 weeks ago that I received an email from Race Director Jane Bockus, confirming that I had moved from the waitlist onto the official list of competitors.

Earlier this year (before I left Australia to race in the Comrades Marathon in South Africa - May 2009), I registered my interest with Ultraman as I felt that I needed something to fill the gap post Comrades. It was a long shot, as the race is by invitation only and is open to only 35 athletes. Nevertheless, I paid a deposit and continued to train for the Glasshouse 100 miler.

When I received Jane's email, I was in total disbelief. 8 weeks out from a 3-day ultra-endurance triathlon, totalling a cumulative distance over three days of 515km.......How do you train for something like that in 8 weeks?low0008

Sticking to my philosophy of "all or nothing", I trained the house down. I focussed mainly on quality mileage, over consecutive days, with plenty of recovery between. I didn't have the luxury of building it up slowly and therefore increased my mileage significantly week upon week, until the final week in which I dropped off volume and intensity exponentially.

Due to the logistical constraints of conducting a race over three days from point to point, finishing and starting at different venues each day, it is a mandatory requirement that each athlete has a support crew. low0006The crew are the athlete's mobile aid station. The crew shadows the athlete and provides nutrition / technical support / gear support / and most importantly, morale.

Kirsten (my awesomely supportive wife) was always going to be part of the crew, however, we needed a team captain to coordinate things / drive the vehicle / take charge of water, ice, race rules, road rules, crew rules, know everything there is to know about the course. The other requirement is for the athlete to have a support kayaker during the 10km swim leg.

Ultraman assigned local legend and Ironman World Championship swim director for the last 22years, Jan War, to be part of our crew. Jan also paddled for me. low0003So our crew consisted of Kirsten and Jan and a huge panel van as our support vehicle. The crew was nimble and efficient, and we had all the space in the world in the back of the truck.

Most crews consist of water and land based volunteers. This makes it easy for the paddler as once they have assisted the swimmer over 10km; they get out and are done for the day, or possibly tack onto the vehicle to help out. In our situation, Jan had to paddle, get out, store his kayak, shower, and change and then get into the van and chase me on the road to start the low0009bike support. They got to me after I'd been on the bike for 45 minutes which wasn't a drama.

My biggest fear was the swim. You start at the Kona pier and head South for 10km where eventually you pull into Keauhou Bay and get onto the bike. It is the first 2km of the Ironman swim course. To maximise the best conditions, it is generally better to go deep and stay away from the shoreline due to wave action and currents. Over a 3hr period you are generally affected by the tide, current, swells etc. My main concern was what was lurking out in the deep water. Jan's advice was to treat it as a big aquarium...........I've seen some aquariums, and then some aquariums, most have creatures I'm not keen to get into the water with! Jan also advised that he would be trailing a fluorescent tape with a sinker attached to the end. That would give me the opportunity to essentially swim above a weighted object without having to swim polo for 10km trying to navigate. Of course, I thought it looked more like a lure - my plan was to stay ahead of the lure.

The eight weeks quickly flew past and Kirst and I were in Kona again for the second time since the Ironman in 2006.Before I knew it I was standing in the water with 38 other athletes at 6:30am alongside Kona pier, trying to establish where Jan was sitting in his kayak amongst 38 other paddlers, just off-shore. The conch shell sounded and we were off. I managed to hook up with Jan quickly and drew alongside the kayak..........ahead of the lure. We managed to get through the first few kilometres ok. I knew from the Sea Village Apartments that we doing ok for time and I was feeling good. At that point I was in tie 3rd position and building into a good stroke rhythm.

After 40mins we stopped for the first drink stop. low0004Jan was carrying two bidons (water in one and PowerBar mix in the other) and a gel flask. We then stopped every 15-20minutes alternating between gels and drink. As expected I was stung on a number of occasions by sea lice on my face and arms. Fortunately the sting doesn't last long and is a lot better than being stung by something bigger.

After around 90minutes of grinding it out, I was in my own world of hurt. We were in deep blue water (around 300m off-shore and about 80m deep). Without warning a huge bottlenose dolphin appeared just below me and swam a while, then turned over and eyed me upside down, went ahead, turned and came back to be, this time a bit closer. Despite being very friendly it is still disconcerting to have something so big and in control swim so close to you. A truly amazing experience!

Shortly before rounding the final Coast Guard buoy and heading towards the Keauhou Canoe Club, I began to throw up. A culmination of breakfast, salt water, swells, bloated stomach and 2 ½ hours of swimming contributed to this. I was overtaken by another swimmer here.

Finally we made it to the beach in a time of 2hours 43 minutes. I was 4th out of the water and now had a solid 145km on the bike ahead of me. The final 30km of the ride increases in elevation from sea level to around 1800m to the Volcano National Park. The wind was horrendous going up. It was gusting and coming from all directions. I managed to work my way into 2nd position on the bike, and was chasing Rich Roll who had a mammoth lead out of the water (2hrs 21minutes). But as I reached the base of the final climb to Volcano, Alexandre Ribeiro (defending Champion and five time Ultraman finisher) had closed his gap behind me from the swim and rode past with the usual obligatory dialogue that one does when passing someone who seemingly has blown. This race is a bit different anyway in that everyone is more about the spirit of the race, rather than cutthroat competitiveness (or at least on the outside). Before long I caught Ribeiro again and passed him out of the saddle on a short warm up climb before the long ascent. From there I spent most of the ride out of the saddle trying to open the gap. After 5hrs and 23minutes of riding I rolled across the finish line for day 1 - one and a half minutes ahead of Ribeiro and 9 and a half minutes behind Rich Roll.
My cumulative overall time for Day 1 was 8hrs 2minutes and I was only just in 2nd place.

The mandate for my Ultraman before leaving home was to complete the race. Take it slowly and be conservative. My first day was the total opposite of this strategy. Although I felt good all day and even after 8hrs+ of racing I didn't feel too bad either. However, Day 2 consisted of a 276km bike ride from Volcano to Hawi via Hilo, the Honakua Coast, Waimea, and the Kohalas. On its own, 276km in the saddle is hard enough; let alone the added pressure of actually racing it.

The start of day 2 was cold, drizzling and miserable. At 4500ft next to an old volcano, the weather pattern is totally different to the mild conditions at 6:30am along the coast. We started with a massive descent in the rain. Due to the speed and conditions, the bike marshals allowed a pack to form for the first few km's before breaking everyone apart into the non-draft legal format. It is interesting to note that despite being a triathlon, there was no drafting allowed in the swim leg either.

After an hour or so the front group of guys broke away from the main field. I was fortunate enough to be in the top 10 that made a break. We were all within sight of other maintaining a steady pace. I stopped briefly to take off my entire winter wardrobe - gear which I hadn't used since Melbourne....I lost momentum and had to work hard to get within contention of the front group. I slowly managed to catch up and pass the majority of the front pack, and after roughly the halfway point at Hilo (around 90miles / 150km), I was in 2nd position overall on the day. Although there was no chance of catching Ribeiro, my biggest challenge was to try and create a big enough gap between the others to give me a chance in the run.
At approximately 230km's I was reeled in by a former winner of the race (Peter Kotland), and former finisher (Jochen Dembeck). I had gone too hard from Hilo and was battling to hang on. Literally 100m from the finish line I was overtaken by Miro Kregar - another multiple finisher of this race. low0001This put me in 5th place for the day, still maintaining 2nd overall to Ribeiro and ahead of 3rd (Kotland) by 15minutes. I was extremely happy with my ride, finishing the 276km course in 7hrs 55minutes.

That night at dinner I was just happy to have been able to race that far and maintain a good position against such a quality field of ultra-endurance athletes. However, in the morning we had the final stage that was the double marathon (84km / 52miles) from Hawi along the Queen K highway back into Kona. This is where the race starts. Kotland in 3rd place, has already run a 5hour 33minute for the stage in a previous attempt when he won the race outright in '99. Kregar (4 time finisher and currently in 4th, smoked a 6hour 14minute run in last year's race). As for Ribeiro, not only can he ride like a machine, but he has also run a sub-6hr 30minute for this stage.

I found out later through my crew captain Jan, that there was some concern about my running ability amongst the top guys. They had never seen or heard of me before, and yet I was now in 2nd place overall and a good lead on 3rd and 4th. Not only did they have themselves to contend with (all known quantities), but now they had an outsider to deal with.

In my mind all I wanted to do was finish the run within the 12-hour cut-off. Having run the Comrades Marathon earlier in the year and suffered a tough run over much the same distance (89km), I knew that after two days of swimming and mega-biking, that the run would follow much the same format - immense discomfort.

As expected at least 10 or so athletes went out fast. I held back and ran easy until we hit the highway at Kawaihae. The sun was up by then and at least 4 of the ten had dropped back and lost some of their initial pace. I ran through the half way mark at 42km in 3hours 30minutes. At that point I moved into 5th position for the run. There was no way in which I could catch Ribeiro, Kregar and Kotland, and at that point I was battling to maintain contact with Ann Heaslett, 2nd time Ultraman finisher and on track to blast the women's course run record. However, as we drew through the 63km marker I started to feel stronger. At 12kms to go I surged and passed Ann. It was a gamble because I wasn't sure if I had gone too early, and based on the fact that I had only consumed 2 x PowerBar gels throughout the entire run, there was a concern that at the new pace I was setting, I could potentially be walking the last 6km.low0005
Nevertheless, my motto of "go out hard and hang on" was at the back of mind. Going out hard is the easy part; hanging on is not so easy. Anyway, I managed to hang tough for the final few kilometres. I crossed the finish line in 7hours 4 minutes, a close 2 minutes behind 3rd placed Peter Kotland. Because of the top 3's awesome run times, I was relegated to 4th overall for the entire race.

In going to Hawaii with the intention of just finishing, to racing each day with 100% effort, I'm elated with my result. It far surpassed any expectation I had before the race, and I am just honoured to have been able to race and contend with the top finishers. The overall experience is one I will hold close for many years ahead.

See more race photos courtesy of Rick Kent.

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