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Ultra Unforgettable

Ultraman is a three-day stage triathlon, a 512.6km endurance event comprised of 10km of swimming, 418.3km of biking and a double marathon (84.3 km).

Wasn’t that a party?!  I’ve just returned from a whale of a time in Wales, UK.  The reason for my unforgettable, whirlwind trip was a once in a lifetime chance to support my friend, Tracey McQuair, a competitor in the inaugural Ultraman United Kingdom (UMUK) race that took place in the Conwy County area of northern Wales from Sept 3-5.  Ultraman is a three day stage triathlon, a 512.6 km endurance event comprised of 10km of swimming, 418.3 km of biking and a double marathon (84.3 km).  Twenty-nine athletes from 14 countries took on the UMUK challenge (25 finished), each with the aid of a crew.  An ultraman crew’s responsibility is to keep their athlete on the route through navigation, the provision of nutrition and fluids and to just basically meet any needs that may arise.  They carry spare bikes, parts, clothing, medical equipment, etc. in their vehicle which leap-frogs its way with the athlete from the start to finish line each day.  Crew vehicles may not offer blocking or drafting for the athlete and have to pull off the road to spew its occupants who then run up or down hill, or back to trickyroundabouts, to offer goodies or direction.  Individual crew members can have the privilege of running with their athlete on day three, which was the highlight of my crewing experience!

The countryside of northern Wales is stunning.  I will never forget the million shades of green, the gazillion sheep as far as the eye can see, old stone buildings, miles of slate fences, and strange signage written in a language that seems to be mightily short on vowels.  And I will never forget the harsh conditions of that race course.  Some were by design (incredible climbs, dodgy descents, windy narrow roads, tricky corners) and some were offered by Mother Nature herself, despite race dates that were chosen based on the highest likelihood of good weather.  I guess Mother Nature missed that particular statistical trend.  She dished out drizzle, showers, gentle rain, pouring rain, pelting rain, sideways rain, torrential downpours, sleet, strong breezes, wind, gusts, gale force winds and some rare, but blessed, dashes of sun.  (It turns out that that part of the UK experienced Hurricane Katia shortly after the race.)The route covered mountainous terrain, as well as a swing by the Irish Sea coast.  And to say that the course and conditions were “epic” is no exaggeration.

As memorable as the setting of UMUK was, there is no question that what is imprinted most deeply in me is the spirit of those who competed, and the spirit of the event in general.  I have returned home with a greater appreciation for the beauty, strength and generosity of the human spirit, for our often untapped physical capabilities and for my own potential.  The competitors toeing the line on Day one’s swim start were members of an elite group of athletes, yet they were also a collection of very humble, swaggerless humans.  Before the start of this particular race, fewer than 770 others had ever completed an ultraman (the eventstarted in Hawaii in 1983), far fewer than the thousands of those who have now summited Mt. Everest.  (Speaking of Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary did much of his Everest training on Mt. Snowdon, the centerpiece of both the bike and run courses.)

A pre-race breakfast gave us a chance to meet each athlete and receive race information and inspiration before the next day’s start.  Announcer Steve King reminded the group that each person was accountable for his or her own presence at the race.  They were encouraged to adopt an attitude of gratitude for just being able to have the ability to be there and do this. Hillary’s words that “it is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves” were imparted.  Racers and crews were reminded that the original Hawaii Ultraman was founded on the principals of Aloha: love, Kokua: help/assistance, and Ohana: family, and that this spirit of generosity was to underpin the race days ahead.  The multi-national athletes and crews embraced these tenets.

What I marvel at most, is how in the face of extremely tough conditions, great fatigue and trying times, athletes and crews were upbeat and gracious in the sharing of resources, encouragement and equipment.  The overall winner’s crew, for example, gave the second place guy a wheel to use when his had been damaged in a crash.  Had their athlete needed the wheel, he would have been out of luck.  Racers were also known to stop and wait for fellow athletes who had been hurt.  Several athletes crossed the finish line hand in hand with their competitors.  And even though a winner was declared, rankings were less a focus than eachathletes’ accomplishment of completing each day.

At the awards banquet, where racers had a chance to take the microphone, we heard over and over again how much the athletes appreciated and needed the support of those around them.  It was also evident that many racers were surprised by how tough the course was andthat they were able to complete it.  Finishers, like McQuair, celebrated their victory not over each other, but over their perceived limitations.  They humbly showed respect for each other and for the course. McQuair says that what she learned is that she doesn’t have to be afraid of distance events and that she now knows that her body can take on such extreme endurance demands.  She looks forward now to pushing the limits further and seeing what else she can accomplish.

I had the honour and fun of running a few hours with Tracey, spelling off two others in the job of bottle-carrier and pacer as she covered her grueling double marathon.  It was a thrill to be running in the elements, fighting up hills, and working to keep going with what would become a winning pace.  Tracey didn’t stop or walk even once during the run and, although it was very tough, she kept on trucking up hills graded between 15 and 20 percent.  Even when taxed, she kept up with the “pleases” and “thank yous” when taking in gels or sips of various nutrition, caffeine and electrolyte drinks.  As a pacer and crew member, my job was to keep the options coming, force consumption when necessary and, most of all, to help her move those feet toward the finish line.  The most impressive moment of the day came when, just as we crested the top of a miles-long climb up Llanberis Pass on Mt. Snowdon, a British Air force jet did a fly by.  It seemed like it was just for us and the adrenaline buzz was incredible.  We celebrated the apex and accomplishment, consciously reeled back our emotions, and knew that it was a mere 13 miles, mostly downhill, to the finish.

McQuair won the women’s division overall and also posted the top female swim time, fastest bike splits (both day one and two) as well as the fastest run. Furthermore, she placed 10th among a very strong field of men.  I am so very grateful to have had the experience of being part of her race.  I have seen that I, too, can tackle conditions that are tougher than any I have seen before.  I can run up long climbs and tear down steep descents in driving wind and pelting rain.  My idea of what is personally difficult, yet achievable, has been expanded, for sure.  My definition of “possible” has been broadened, and I have learned that I am more capable than I had thought.  I look forward to my own bigger and bigger challenges, and… who knows… one day I could well take Tracey up on her offer to crew for me at an ultraman event.

Jenny Ayers is an Ironman Canada finsisher from Pentiction, B.C.