Thursday, June 8, 2017

Ultraman Australia Part 1: Race Recap

Ultraman Australia is in the rear view.  It seems so surreal.  The event that I've looked forward to for 4 years or 9 months depending on how you look at it is in the books.  I was holding off on writing about it because I wanted to be able to share pictures taken by the official photographer.  Barry from Eyes Wide Open Images is a gem and his photos are amazing!

Hillary asked the women of Team SFQ to interview me for the Smashfest Diaries.  You can read that interview here.  I think they did a good job of covering the basics.  Training, sleep, travel, nutrition.  

But what really matters at Ultraman is the people.  The stories.  The (mostly cool) shit that happens.  These are the things that I want to remember.

We arrived in Sydney after our long haul flight and immediately hopped into a car and drove, on the wrong side of the road, to Port Macquarie, roughly 5 hours away.  I was travel-drunk and so out of my element on the left side of the road in a big city.  I've driven in a lot of big cities-- I'd compare it to San Francisco-- crowded, lots of traffic in a relatively small area, with a lot of "stuff" going on around such that you have to really pay attention to where you want to exit.  After about an hour in Sydney traffic we hit the highway it was pretty smooth sailing.

We stopped at a gas station because I was in desperate need of coffee and a few calories to get me till lunch.  Guys, gas station coffee in Australia is better than Starbucks.  Not even kidding.  I really wanted to hit up a cafe and maybe grab a muffin.  But after an hour we realized that was not going to be possible and settled for a gas station.  I was completely expecting Circle K coffee.  What I got was an amazing cup of coffee from an espresso machine.  Seriously.  And this was only the beginning of our coffee adventures down under.

Photo credit:  Heidi Videto

Anyhoo-- we stayed in Port Mac for a few days, DB raced IM there.  I mostly rode my bike, drank coffee, and walked to the aquatic center every day for my swim sesh in the 50 meter pool.  On IM day, I ran while he was swimming and found the coolest little park.  One minute I'm in the city, the next I'm lost on a boardwalk (trail run?) in a jungle with bats screeching from the trees above my head.  So completely awesome.

The day after IM, we drove up the coast to Kingscliff.  We stayed in a beautiful little resort hoping for one relaxing day poolside before chaos ensued... and it was pouring rain from the moment we arrived.  We suffered through a freezing dip in the pool and then ordered drinks and soaked instead in our bathtub built for two.  The next morning we packed up again and headed north to Brisbane to pick up my crew team who had flown in on the long haul overnight from LA.

Photo credit:  Heidi Videto

Once in Noosa all of our energy was focused on getting ready for the big weekend ahead.  We got the kayak reserved, did a little practice swim/ paddle, did a few bike rides, hit up the local aquatic center.  Ultraman is all about tradition and Dayle (aka: mother hen), the assistant race director, prepared us well for how the week was going to go and what to expect.  She encouraged us to get to know the other crews prior to race day because once the race starts it's harder to meet people.  I took the time at registration to talk to as many people as I could.  I met the mom of the youngest competitor.  She was crewing for her son (how awesome is that!).  I met Dee, the eventual women's champion.  I met Pip Holland, the winner of the inaugural Ultraman Australia, who was helping on the medical team that week.  Pip and I had exchanged messages prior to my arrival in Australia and she gave me some very helpful pointers.

From here on out, I'm going to just tell you stories.  They may not flow seamlessly like a normal "race report" but these are the things I want to remember, the stories that were important to me.  Later, in another post, I'll share the most common questions I've gotten along with the answers.  So if you have anything you're dying to know please comment below!

Day 1:  10k swim + 90 mile bike

Photo credit:  Chris Blick

As soon as my feet hit the water all my nerves disappeared.  I was ready to get the day started and as I swam out to the start buoy I prepared my mind for the task ahead.

Photo credit:  Eyes Wide Open Images

The water was choppier than I expected.  I didn't anticipate smooth sailing, but I had hoped for the glassy calm of the bay from the pictures of Ultramans past.  I felt good for about 1500 meters, then we rounded the first turn buoy and headed back into choppier waters.  About 2000 in, I swam headfirst into another swimmer.  Our heads didn't collide thankfully, but we sort of intertwined arms and came up above the water in what was almost an embrace.  I think we were both caught a little off guard and it took a second for me to get my rhythm back.  Rather than be upset by it, I took our *hug* as a sign of encouragement and silently wished my fellow athlete well in the rest of his swim as I continued mine.

Photo credit:  Eyes Wide Open Images

Marsha kept the kayak even with my line of sight so that every time I breathed to her side I saw her smiling and nodding at me encouragingly.  On our planned schedule she would wave my water bottle at me and I'd stop to take in my fuel.  Around 5k in we made another turn and I saw her starting to work hard to propel the kayak.  In my head I thought, Wow, I must be swimming really strong!  In reality, she was having to work hard just to move the kayak against the current, but feeling like I was doing really well was a huge mental boost at that point in the race.

Photo credit:  Eyes Wide Open Images

When we neared the shore toward the end of the swim I could see her signaling to the crew on land and she was smiling and cheering me on.  I swam the final couple hundred yards to shore without her by my side as she navigated the kayak over the swells.  When I stood up, Dan was there to usher me under the timing banner.  I turned and saw Marsha on shore and ran over to hug her first.  She had seamlessly, beautifully, successfully led me to my goal swim time which was sub 2:45.

Photo credit:  Laura Wright

I felt less than great during the first day's bike ride.  I was hungry for the first two hours and was eating every 15 minutes to try to catch up from the 10k swim.  In training when I swim 10k, I usually proceed to breakfast immediately and down about 1000 calories.  For some reason I didn't take into consideration that I was going to be feeling this hungry... and still have to keep moving forward on my bike.  Next time around I'll double my swim calories.

Photo credit:  Laura Wright

I also felt a bit of vertigo, like how after you feel getting off a week long cruise?  Your feet are on solid ground but your brain is still rollin' with the ocean?  It was pretty mild but it definitely made me feel less than spectacular.  Day 1 was rolling hills.  Lots of them.  And steep ones.  I didn't spend much time in my aero bars.  Partly because I didn't feel great, and partly because of the climbing.  Either way, I was happy to roll into the finish first female after just over 8 hours of swimming and biking.

Photo credit:  Laura Wright

I got through medical checks, and waited in line for massage.  Heidi hitched a ride back to the apartment with Laura to start prepping dinner.  Heidi was in charge of all my nutrition for the entire week-- both on the race course and post race-- as well as feeding the crew.  She made big family style dinners for them and I had a huge bowl of rice with tamari sauce, avocado and eggs.  I assured my crew I'd feel better on day 2.  I knew the vertigo would resolve itself after a good night's rest.

Photo credit:  Laura Wright

Day 2:  170 mile bike

We rolled out in peloton formation at the start of day 2 with a police escort for the first 8-10k.  I was under the impression that when the lead out vehicle left us, we would immediately resume non-drafting position.   That didn't happen, and instead everyone was sort of jostling for position and still riding in a draft.  I mostly wanted to keep the first 2 girls in sight, and I wanted to move up to keep an eye on them, but I also wanted to ride legal distance.  Eventually, my frustration got the better of me and since I had been pushing less than 100 watts sitting in this pack (which is super easy pace for me) I found myself passing everyone and taking the lead for a short time.  Being out front I was able to get into my aero bars and ride my pace and not worry about what was happening behind me.  After several miles the stronger men began passing me, and by this time everyone was riding legally so I could just keep doing what I was doing and let them go by me.

The first 50k was a no-crew zone.  It was quiet and the sun was just beginning to come up as we rode through some beautiful country side.  Before we made it out of this stretch, there was one more bit of chaos.  An athlete in front of me hit a pot hole in the road and went down hard.  He fractured several ribs and his clavicle.  I didn't witness the crash, but about a dozen of us rode up on the scene fairly quickly.  There were a couple of vehicles behind us and we waved them forward and asked them to call the paramedics.  They assured us they would take care of him and told us to continue riding.  We rolled out and once again had to jockey a bit for position.  Everyone was a little bit shaken up and riding a little more conservatively for a few miles.

Photo credit:  Running Paparazzi 

I was somewhat relieved to be out of the first 50k and back with support teams.  We settled into a routine of leap-frogging, fueling and hydrating.  I felt really good.  Strong.  My watts after the 50k were a bit higher than I was planning but I felt good and decided to just go with it.  There was plenty of climbing on day 2, about 10,000 feet total gain, but I found myself able to ride comfortably in my aero bars for a majority of the day sitting up only to climb the steeper/ longer ascents.

Around 100k in I went through a low patch.  Calories were fine, I just felt a little blah.  At about 150k I suffered a puncture and when I tried to change my tire I realized that it was lacerated and unlikely to hold air for any length of time.  Thankfully, there was another crew across the street.  They ran over to help me and when we figured out I needed a new tire they gave me their spare wheel.  This is what Ultraman is all about, right there.  This is the Kokua... the help.  They didn't even give it a second thought.  I needed a wheel and they provided.  I was so grateful for their help as my crew didn't intend to drive the short out-n-back where my flat occurred.

I lost 7 minutes on the side of the road and got passed by several men and the next woman, Dee.  This snapped me out of my funk as I had to get working again to get back in the race.  I stayed on top of fluids/ calories and kept my head down and my power up.  A while later, maybe 170k, I passed Dee on one of the bigger hills.  She had some mechanical issues with her bike on day 1 and had to do a few last minute fixes and I think she was left with a less than ideal cassette for climbing.  

Photo credit:  Running Paparazzi 

From that point on, I knew we were close together as I saw her crew leap frogging me the rest of the day.  At 200k in I was feeling really good, better than I should have felt at that effort level, and I asked Chris what the women's bike course record was.  He did some research and a few miles later he reported back to me.  I knew that it would be close, but it was totally doable.  Chasing the record fueled my fire, and also gave my crew a huge boost.  9 hours is a really REALLY long day in the car and having something to work for, and look forward to, gave them a much needed spark.

I was back and forth with Dee once more and by the time we rolled into town I had enough of a lead that I thought I could hold the win.  The finish line was actually about a half mile from the staging area -- they didn't want us racing through the busiest section of traffic.  I crossed the line, shouted out my race number and immediately burst into tears.  I was overwhelmed with joy, pride, and exhaustion.  Racing 170 miles over 9 hours with such intense focus and determination took everything I had physically and mentally.

Photo credit:  Laura Wright

Dee crossed the finish line 27 seconds behind me.  When we got off our bikes we hugged and celebrated the fact that we broke the previous course record by 12 minutes.  Technically the day 2 bike course record is mine, but there is no way I could have ridden that hard without Dee pushing me to my very best.  And I am so excited to watch this woman (who was mere seconds off the Ultraman world record after all 3 days) in her future adventures.  She is a beast with the a heart of gold.

Photo credit:  Laura Wright

Dee and I after stage 2.

Day 2 was by far my favorite of the three days.  The thing I loved about this race comes down to 3 things:

1.  I was never alone.  Even though I'm the one pedaling 170 miles, my crew was with me every step of the way.  Seeing them, and interacting with them, even if it was just to exchange bottles and fuel, was such a need boost to my spirit.  Unlike Ironman, where you can be surrounded by 2000 people but feel completely alone because it's every man for himself/ herself.  Ultraman really is a team event.

2.  I had no less than 6 crews, other than my own, cheering for me by name all day long.  It wasn't always the same crews as we separated out on the road and passed or got passed by others.  But the Ultraman Ohana was alive and well on course through the entire event.  In the photo below you can see my crew (in lime green) along with at least 2 other crews cheering for the rider that's passing by.

Photo credit:  Eyes Wide Open Images

3.  It was fun to push myself through a ride of that distance.  For the final 100k I thought at any minute I could blow up and things could go south very quickly.  But I didn't and in the process I shattered any preconceived ideas about what I was capable of.  I am excited to capitalize on this new level of fitness and mental toughness.

Day 3:  52.4 mile run

The run was tough.  I knew it would be, and I thought if there was a day I would be up against the time limit it would be day 3.  Unlike my experience in Canada where we literally never took our eyes off of Barry, in Australia we were running on paved paths that often weaved through parks and we could be several miles without vehicle support.  So I basically had a pacer with me from mile 1 on.

Photo credit:  Eyes Wide Open Images

Marsha, Dan, and Chris each took an hour at a time to get me through the first marathon.  Coming back from the turn around we got a little lost and added on some #bonusmiles.  At that point I got a bit discouraged.  I asked Heidi to jump in and run a little bit with me and she obliged.

When Heidi took over pacing from Dan I was in my lowest point.  I cried a little, feeling like I was letting everyone down because I couldn't hold onto my pace.  She let me have my moment and then made me laugh by swearing at me in her Boston accent.  Those few miles with her were my favorite of the day.  She took my mind off what I was doing and we actually picked up the pace a bit.

Photo credit:  Eyes Wide Open Images

Chris and Marsha rotated in for a couple more rounds of pacing.  I retired from triathlon at least 4 times during the second marathon.  Marsha and I dreamed up our next venture.  We were going to do arts and crafts and sell them.  Cause why wouldn't people want to buy our shit, right?  We were going to have a little shop, and not do anything physical, just do crafts.  I don't even know how to do crafts.  Like, what's even involved in that?  You just make random shit?  I don't know.  But we were convinced this was our next path in life.

Photo credit:  Eyes Wide Open Images

Chris and I talked about the most random topics related to current issues in our society, reality television and all manner of inappropriate topics, none of which will be revealed here because #whathappensatultramanstaysatultraman  :)  It was a lot of fun and got my mind off of the pain for the most part.  Basically we solved all of the worlds problems soooo...  #chrisforpresident

Dan ran with me the final 4 miles or so.  As planned, I swapped out my visor for my FindingAloha hat when the crew departed us to head to the finish line.  I got a little choked up knowing that we were nearly finished.  When we hit the beach for the last half mile, everyone was there.  The entire crew and cheer squad.  We ran across the beach and up the last few meters of sand which was a struggle after 52 miles... but I was still smiling.

Photo credit:  Eyes Wide Open Images

And just like that, our journey was over.  It's really difficult to put into words everything that Ultraman is and how it impacts you.

The experience this time around was definitely different from the crewing experience.  As an athlete it's much more selfish.  Everything revolves around making sure you're fed and hydrated.  Making sure you're resting when you should be resting.  Making sure your bike is washed and the van is cleaned out and packed for the next day.  But there is also something incredibly beautiful and humbling about being so vulnerable.  About having to ask for help and being entirely dependent on others for your needs.  Being at your most physically depleted and having this team of people never shy away from lifting you up.

These last few weeks as I've reflected on Ultraman I've been filled with gratitude so deep I often don't know how to express it.  Thank you is just not enough.  For one week we were more than family.  We laughed until we cried.  We shared highs and lows enough for a lifetime.  We are changed by this experience and even though we parted ways in LAX, we will always be bonded by this adventure.  We will always have Ultraman Australia 2017.

Photo credit:  Eyes Wide Open Images

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