Ultraman Florida 2023 Race Report

It’s been a while since my last post. I’ve been pretty busy with my advisory business as well as my book project.  Speaking of which, I’ll provide a quick update on that first before getting into Ultraman.  Nothing goes as quickly as one would like.  I thought the manuscript was done a while ago but I just handed in v2 of it to my editor.  It’s up to 62,124 words, so more must be better. Hopefully this is the final version and we will soon begin the rest of the publishing process which unfortunately when done right will take at least a few more months, maybe more.  I appreciate the constant questions about it and trust me when I tell you I want to get it out as much as you want to read it.  Thank you for your ongoing support! I will continue to provide updates.

Now back to Ultraman. Ever hear of it?  Neither did I until a few years ago. After I started to read the details about this ultra endurance triathlon event I don’t think I got to the end before moving on to something else.  I’m not surprised because it is daunting even for elite triathletes. Ultraman is what I call a 5 day endurance festival. It has all the fanfare of a very special unique competition which is bookended by a catered start and finish ceremony in a fancy dinning hall with individual introductions to start and participant speeches at the end. What occurs in between is nothing short of the ultimate test of human mental and physical endurance.

Day 1 of the race starts with a 10k (6.2 mile) swim followed by a 90 mile hilly bike race.  Day 2 consists of an even hillier 170 mile bike race.  The race is capped off with a double marathon, 52 mile run on day 3.  There is a 12 hour cutoff for each day.  Organizers run the event in Florida, Arizona, Canada and like Ironman have their World Championship in Kona Hawaii.  Unlike Ironman, one can’t just sign up and race. You have to apply and be accepted.  The application process involves providing your endurance racing resume of distances covered and finishing times. I guess mine was good enough as I was accepted to Ultraman Florida this past February.

Before I continue, quick book spoiler alert….  There is one chapter in the book titled DNF (Did Not Finish).  Key takeaways from that chapter are going to be:

  • Avoid falling short of your goals by preparing to reach them. You’ll never get far if you don’t organize, plan, and then practice.
  • Sometimes a DNF can be a blessing. It is not always the worst thing in the world.
  • Failure is a natural part of trying. Failure is part of living. How you bounce back from failure is the most important thing.
  • Not finishing is not failing. It is just not finishing. Nothing more and nothing less. Failure is falling short of your goals and never endeavoring to go after them again.

Race report spoiler alert…. I DNF’ed this bad boy.  I sill want to document it so that others can learn about the race and what I did right and wrong. I want to memorialize this while I remember it as well so that I can read this later this year as I’ve already applied and have been accepted for a repeat performance next year. I’m just a gluten for punishment.

In most triathlons there are cutoff times for the Swim, Bike and Run course.  If you miss the cutoff you are not allowed to continue. In this race the organizers allow you to continue and finish past the cutoff time if you want to.  Proceed at your own risk and you will be considered a “participant” then and not be awarded a finishing time nor medal. More on my personal experience in a bit but first a little bit more about the event itself.

This is a fully self supported race. Meaning, there are zero aid stations on the course. Every competitor needs to have their own support crew and vehicle that follows you along the course. This includes needing a paddler and kayak (supplied) for the swim.  This little detail is not be taken lightly.  The best joke I’ve heard all weekend was that there is no better test for an engaged couple than to crew this race.  If you’re still talking to each other at the end, your marriage is meant to be.  That kind of sums it up.

If you don’t have friends or family that are willing to make this sacrifice for you then the race organizer will provide you with volunteers if you pay for their travel, room and board. Trust me when I tell you this is a ton of work and is very hard. Getting someone experienced that has done this at least once will be a game changer for you.  I first asked my family and they said no, while I was disappointed at first, I later learned how fortunate I was to get a former Ultraman participant and crew member as one of my volunteers.  He was accompanied by a two time Ironman with incredible motivational skills. My DNF would have been much worse if not for these rock stars.

Next thing to know about is the supplies that are needed. You are responsible to stock the kayak and your vehicle with everything that you will need for the distances mentioned above. A lot of thought and preparation needs to go into this as there are very few places for your crew to stop and resupply along the route.  I won’t list everything that I purchased but the pic below will give you a good idea.  If you’ve done an Ironman just think of everything you put on and into your body over that day and multiply that by 3.  Oh, while not mandatory at all, a spare bike may come in handy in case of serious equipment failure beyond just a flat. Fortunately one of my crew was a local and had my exact bike which was taken along but I never needed it.

Training for something like this requires a lot of time and commitment. I was coming off Ironman Kona followed by the New York City Marathon so I had a pretty decent base built up but I still needed to put in some serious hours. As I often feel, I could have trained more and/or harder. I put in about 15 to sometimes 20 hours a week and thought that would be enough to get me to the finish line.

Like in Kona I got to the venue, in Clermont Florida, many days before the race.  I swam in the lake a couple of times and felt really comfortable. I rode the bike course a bit and got mentally prepared for the hills to come. Surprisingly, this course is not flat like most of Florida is. The town hosts the National Triathlon Training Center and they must have picked it for this reason. That should give you an idea of the roads.  I drove some of the bike course with my crew to further familiarize myself with the swim to bike transition and bike start locations. Getting to know what would become my two BFF’s for next few days was a real treat. I  think I’ve made friends for life.

I began to realize how special this event was going to be after arriving at the opening banquette. Round table-clothed tables with catering stations was more than I expected.  While we enjoyed the tasty brunch the introductions began. Every competitor was announced with their name and brief race history. Each would stand and wave to the rest of the room which consisted of 37 competitors from around the world and their crew.  Over 100 people in total.

Yes only 37 competitors. I thought I had an impressive background but was very humbled when I heard the accomplishments of my peers.  Wow was I in some incredible company.  Most notable was a blind athlete that was going to be toeing the staring line with the rest of us tethered to his coach (who I coincidently knew).  I thought I was going to have a rough weekend but a huge shout out to Francisco for just showing up to race 321.6 miles. Very inspirational!

My family arrived the night before race day and we all went to the swim start early on Friday. It was all system’s go and I was in great spirits and not the least bit nervous about the challenge ahead.  My longest swim in the pool was only half the distance of this upcoming swim but I had plenty left in the tank when I finished it so confidence was high. Conditions were perfect and the water was calm and just the right 65ish degrees.  The kayakers were told to go a couple hundred yards out and wait for us. Then the gun went off for the race to begin.

After several minutes I found Rick and continued to swim with him paddling by my side.  That is when the begging of the end started.  I’m not a fast swimmer but have plenty of endurance to finish.  Though I’ve had panic attacks in the water I have never not finished an Ironman 2.4 mile swim.  With a 2 hour and 20 minute cut off the closest I have ever come to the cutoff was 30 minutes.  Sometimes when I realize that I’m at the back of the pack, I try to go faster than I should and over exert myself requiring me to stop by a buoy to catch my breath and then resume. I had this same feeling here but on steroids. Noticing that I was near last in the pack and knowing how long this swim was going to be I felt the need to speed up. Instead of just trusting my training I let my emotion rule and soon started hyperventilating.

Holding on to the kayak to rest and drink or feed is allowed and I had to do that many times just to catch my breath. Another rookie mistake I made was putting too much carb mix into my water bottles.  It made the drink incredibly viscous and hard to swallow which did not help my cause at all.  After an hour and only 1 mile covered, a rescue boat stopped by to see if I was OK. I was coughing up a lung at this point which concerned the race official onboard.  Then he said “As long as you don’t have water in your lungs I’ll let you continue”. I’ve witnessed climbers on mountains get Pulmonary Edema and it’s a scary site.  The fear of this now dominated my thoughts as I continued to try and make forward progress.

I couldn’t believe that I was only 2 hours into a 36 hour event and it was almost over for me.  I knew about them allowing folks to continue after missing the cutoff but I was sure that I would not be allowed to continue if I was pulled from the water so I continued to try and get my breathing under control.  Unfortunately to no avail.  I waived over to Rick to come closer to me and asked him to flag the rescue boat to come back and pick me up.

The ensuing ride back to shore was horrible.  Months of training and anticipation down the tubes.  I started to regret all the hype that I created around this event. I started questioning why I even do these things anymore. I was not in a good head space at all.  When I got off the boat, Jen, the race director walked over to me and just hugged me.  Then the most incredible words came out of her mouth…. “Do you want to continue?”.  Bewildered, I asked if she meant it, thinking this was some cruel joke. She said all I had to do was wait for the 1st swimmer to finish and I could get on the bike behind them.

This took about an hour allowing me to fully resume normal breathing, warm up, get color back in my face and regain my composure.  When Jeremy, the winner each day, hit the bike course I was right behind him.  Wow, I was actually in 2nd place for a while.  Not really, but it still felt good.  Prior to the start of the race the course was made available for all to download onto their bike computers for navigation.  Some people, myself included, had problems with the file so I purchased an iPhone holder for the bike to use instead of the Garmin bike computer. That worked great for the first few miles until my phone popped out of the cheap holder.  It took about 10 yards for me to slow down and turn around and get to it.  By then a truck had run over it. Today was just not going to be my day.

With that behind me I somehow managed to get into a biking rhythm and complete the 90 mile course without too much extra drama.  It was a hard course and it was really hot and humid on that day. My crew expertly executed pitstops and handed me all my desired nutrition to keep me fueled and hydrated.

I was definitely still hurting inside from the 2 hours of exhaustion in the water but somehow found a way to dig deep and get across the day 1 finish line with a smile.

The smile didn’t last long.  At dinner with my crew and family, I got into that nasty head space again.  While I seriously considered it, I just didn’t have the heart to tell anyone that I was calling it quits for the remainder of the event. I’ve never felt weaker but I decided that I was going to sleep on it.  Boy was I glad that I did because I woke up feeling like a new man.

On Saturday at 7 AM it was back on the bike for day 2 and 170 miles and over 6,000 ft of elevation gain. With less heat in the forecast I thought I was going to have a reasonably good day and for the most part I did.  My breathing was much better and I was averaging enough speed to make it through the long day.  Then at about mile 50 I got a flat tire.  Fortunately my crew was really close behind me at the time and noticed me pulled over.  Like NASCAR pros they went right to work but the flat proved to be a nasty one with the culprit being the tiniest piece of metal wire still stuck in the tire which would have punctured any replacement tube. They finally removed it but I lost about 10 minutes in the process. Not horrible at all.

By about the 120 mile mark I started losing a bit of steam but thought I still had a chance to make the day’s cutoff.  That was until I hit the hilliest part of the course at around mile 140.  It consisted of many long and steep climbs. One of them really did me in.  It was the first time I have ever gotten off my bike to walk up a hill.  I had very little left in my legs at this point but hopped back on and continued.

Sunset was early, around 6 PM and it started raining. The next hour got really sketchy as the bike course is on public roads with traffic and now in the dark with minimal lights and getting more and more slippery.  There was no shoulder so I stayed as right as possible with my crew vehicle right behind protecting me from traffic.  When the shoulder widened I pulled right into it to allow the traffic that was building up to pass.  Well, as they say, no good dead goes unpunished.  The shoulder was filled with road shmutz and I immediately got a second flat.

It was now 10 minutes to the cutoff and I still had 12 miles to cover. With another flat repair being a bit dangerous in the spot we were in we all decided to call it for the day. We loaded my bike onto the rack and I hopped into the car for a ride to the finish to my awaiting family. They were super supportive with hugs and kisses. I felt that I gave it my all, came super close, rode longer than I’ve ever rode in the past – 158 miles in 12 hours so I wasn’t too hard on myself for not making  the cutoff.

I felt much better at diner and there was no doubt in my mind that I would be starting the double marathon at 6 AM tomorrow morning. I tried to get some sleep but all the adrenaline and caffeine in my body from guzzling RedBull for the last 5 hours made it tough so I was pretty groggy in the morning.

The 52 mile, double marathon run course had over 2,000 ft of elevation gain and it was really windy for the 1st half. I finished the New York City Marathon in 4:45 just 3 months prior but I was starting day three on pretty tired legs so I thought that if I gave myself 6 hours for each marathon I would have an OK chance of making it.  That plan was working. At least at first. I was solely concentrating on the first marathon, 26 miles, and gave it my all.

After hitting that milestone the wheels came off and I told my crew that I was unable to continue.  Being that I had so much time left they somehow motivated me to keep going so I did. My body was not happy with me but I cranked out another 13 mile half marathon in the next three hours. By then the heat and exhaustion had taken their toll on me and I threw in the towel.  Knowing I would still get an official overall DNF I did not want to subject myself to any more pain.

My crew was not happy with my decision but they begrudgingly accepted it and drove me to the finish line. I hobbled around with blisters and cramps and enjoyed cheering in the final finishers including Francisco, the blind athlete, who brought tears to everyone’s eyes by his amazing accomplishment. He finished all three days in under 12 hours. I see him running often in Central Park and he remembers my name just from my voice. He’s just an incredibly inspirational human and great athlete.

I had to take a pic by the finish line so I can envision being there in earnest next year.

On Monday it was back to the banquet hall for the closing ceremony. After brunch they had all of us line up outside in country order and handed out flags for a parade of nations. It was quite the international crowd. We entered the hall to cheering family and crew feeling like Olympians. It was pretty special. What followed was speeches from each athlete. We were called up in reverse overall finishing time order so the 3 DNF’ers went first.

Click here to view my speech.

I can’t say enough for the organizers and staff that put on this event.  They all did an incredible job. Thank you Jen & crew.

I can’t thank my new friends, Rick & Chris, enough for their 36 hours of crewing for me. Not to mention all the prep in the days leading up to this.  I hope you guys are still talking to each other 🙂

Congratulations to all the incredible athletes that competed in this grueling event. You are living breathing testaments to what the body and mind can accomplish. I am humbled to be in your company and to be part of this super special small community of like minded crazies. I will claim a finisher spot next year.

No race is complete without thanking my family and friends for their unwavering support. I’m sorry for all the stress I put you through when I undertake these crazy adventures. Love you all!

What I will do different next year:

Train more consistently and harder. I had a great coach for Ironman Kona and this race but I didn’t follow his plan as much as I could have. For next year I’m using Francisco’s because he knows the course, has lived this race, and he’s local and we could train in person some times.

Plan my nutrition better. I need to get a bit more programmatic and mathematical on the number of calories I’m taking in vs. just eating what ever I packed into the crew vehicle when ever I want it.

Don’t invite family to the race. I love them dearly and always want to spend time with them but I shouldn’t take any time away from getting to bed each day.  An extra two hours of sleep per night will make a big difference.

I brought my road bike because I thought it would be better in these conditions. That was a mistake. I’ll bring a tri-bike next year so that I could be more aero.

My final thoughts are that the longer the endurance event the more you will need to rely on your mind to carry the day. In addition to the stress of the event, I had way too much going on at home and was unable to disconnect. That did not help the cause. Until next year….

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