For those unfamiliar with Ultraman, it is a three day triathlon in which participants undertake a gruelling 10km ocean swim, 421.1km cycle and 84.3km double marathon. Commencing in Hawaii in 1983, over the years it has slowly branched out to several locations, including Noosa Australia in 2015. The Ultraman ethos of "aloha" (love), "ohana" (family) and "kokua" (help) have been the guiding principles of the organising committee at each of these races.
Ultraman alumni number just over 1000, generated from the 30 plus years of race history. From the first year where three novices started this ultimate endurance race, the participation has grown slowly to peak at its current level of around 200 athletes per year who attempt the race. As one organiser stated “Annually only 200 people out of a population of 7 billion attempt this race, which places you in the company of a special type of elite athlete in the world.” To this my wife noted “The majority of the world’s population are not crazy enough to want to do it.” So with these wise words ringing in your ears, what makes a person choose to toe the line for a race such as this?
The reasons that possess someone to undertake an event like this are as diverse as the athletes themselves. Everyone has a unique narrative for what brings them to the start line, but for me it was finding a seemingly impossible task, that would push the limits of my body and mind to their absolute breaking point. Like many endurance athletes, I feast on pain and suffering. It has always been my desire to push myself in racing to the point where I am emptied into the darkest recesses of my soul and discover a new version of myself. I am fortunate enough to say that Ultraman enabled me to do this in 2016, and again in 2017. Both events enabled me to discover a new part of myself that has directly enhanced my outlook on life. It is amazing how, when you push yourself through pain and misery and manage to come out the other side, you become less concerned with the minuscule details that used to get you down. My ability to endure and essentially float over the inconsequential has been the most notable flow on effect of completing this memorable event over the last two years.
Ultraman pushes to a new level of hardness and in doing so forges a completely new dimension in endurance triathlon. Granted, all races have a certain degree of difficulty to them. A 5km ParkRun that is run at maximum effort has a burning pain, as you push your heart and lungs to their limits. Conversely, an Ironman aches as you feather the accelerator of your aerobic capacity, carefully burning those infamous matches as you manage the efforts that dip into your reserves of anaerobic intensity. In Ironman everything hurts, but the interval of each of the disciplines is achievable and you are able to break down the efforts into bite sized chunks and get through. In Ultraman the pain is a completely different beast. It doesn’t burn like a 5km effort and while it has some of the elements of the aching pain of Ironman, Ultraman confidently slides all the chips across the table and raises relentlessness as the key trump card to be the ultimate in hard.
The Ultraman Australia race arguably takes pride of place as the most picturesque, postcard perfect location in the world. Stunning beaches, relaxed lifestyle, laid back people and access to a hinterland which holds some of the most breathtaking (figuratively and literally) rolling hills. Many international triathletes call Noosa home for part of the year, as it is the perfect combination of lifestyle and training playground.
I have been fortunate enough to call Noosa my back yard for many years. Having served my time as a surf lifesaver at the world famous Noosa Surf Club, I am proud to say that I have swum the bay at Noosa so many times I could be on first name basis with many of the sea life. I have worn down the soles of my shoes traversing the trails of Noosa National Park and cycled countless kilometres of the scenic (and at times brutal) roads of the hinterland. None of my 20 years of local knowledge made either Ultraman event any easier. In fact it made it harder - I knew what was coming. Having bonked more than once on those lonely stretches of pavement, I had already established a deep dislike and psychological scarring of many of the hills and never ending roads of the area. In some ways, the scarring may have allowed me to cope with the relentlessness that is Ultraman.
Ultraman is the soul of triathlon. When Ironman lost its way and embraced its corporate image to make athlete suffering profitable, Ultraman maintained the course, embraced the family ethos and capped numbers to limit profit and maximise experience. In return we as athletes and crew are all embraced into the family, regardless of our finish time or if we finish at all for that matter. The trade-off for this approach is a little less professional polish than you would expect if you are a die-hard Ironman competitor. For example, the race briefing is a 6 hour session of contradicting statements which we all forget anyway, athlete check-in on race morning is a clipboard and pen, timing is a hand held stopwatch and possibly the same clipboard from sign in, and results are displayed on a whiteboard and a PDF placed on a Facebook feed. This is the polish that Ironman does well, but which is tangential to the success of an event.
Some of the greatest events in the world are all about the athlete, not the profit. Some of these endurance events, for example the Barkley Marathons where the start of the race is signalled by the race director lighting his cigarette, are all about placing the needless polish of the event in the background and putting the battle between course and athlete as the centre spectacle. In my experience, Ultraman does this better than any other race I have been involved in.
As the race is long, so is my race report - too long for this, or any single blog post. Over the coming weeks I will publish Parts 2 through 4 of Ultraman: The Soul of Endurance to unveil the relentless pain and epic relief of participating in and finishing this race. Twice.