Becoming Ultraman

Posted below is my journal from when I had just finished Ultraman Florida. I hope this serves as a motivation for people to do something beyond what they think they’re capable of.

Day 1

Seven years prior, Adam could never have imagined being part of this race. Now here he stood in his wetsuit, feet in the 61°F water, with 36 other athletes, at the start of Ultraman Florida. Even with three, strong Ironman finishes under his belt, Adam worried about his performance. It was going to be a hard 3 days for all of these competitors, each hoping to become an Ultraman. Less than 650 people had ever crossed the finish line of an Ultraman race, since its Hawaiian roots first sprouted in 1983. In fact, triple that number have actually climbed Mount Everest. One of those Everest summiteers was in his wetsuit too, ready to compete here. The camaraderie switched to readiness.”

“It got serious all of a sudden right before the gun went off. I have been in some intense race starts, including the Ironman 70.3 world championships. Nothing compared to this. I just kinda did this goofy dance in the water in front of the crowd and then peed myself to get warm. I couldn’t be too serious.”

Adam had trained well for the swim length, putting in multiple swims over 7000 m (meters). although today’s swim was 10,000 m, he felt comfortable about the distance. However, he was seriously concerned about the temperature of the water. It was over 10° cooler than the pool he had trained in. He didn’t want to wear a full wetsuit because it put additional strain on his battered shoulders, but he didn’t have a choice if he wanted to stay warm. On top of the distance, he hadn’t done an open water swim since last October. Adam was hoping his kayaker would lead him straight so he wouldn’t have to do too much sighting. Sighting was both a neck and time killer, requiring him to look forward every few strokes to make sure he wasn’t zigzagging. If the kayak stayed positioned well, he could use it to stay straight. Adam would find out soon enough.

37 kayaks, two boats, and a jet ski waited for the athletes to join them in the lake. Steve King, the former record holder for the 50 mile run, British Columbia hall of fame runner and now the voice and statistician for Ultraman, prompted the crowd to begin the 10 second countdown.

“10…9…8…”

“It got super real then. I was all game face at that point. I was about to do the longest swim of my life in a lake I had never been in, with a kayaker I had never used before, as a warmup for a 92 mile bike ride.”

“…3…2…1.”

“I don’t even remember what actually started the race, if it was an air horn, a gun or a “go,” but the cheers of the crowd pushed us into the cold water and we began the first 200m of sorting out kayaks and swimmers.”

Adam typically finishes in the first third to half of swimmers and was fully expecting the same performance here. Four hours would be his long target although he was hoping for something closer to 3 ½.

“My strategy was to eat Clif Shot Bloks every 40 minutes, roughly 2000 m, and to drink some fluids as well. Nutrition and hydration was critical to long back-to-back race days like this, especially with the temperature getting into the upper 70s each day. That would be an easy way to end your race if you messed those up.”

Adam and his swim escort had worked out the timing of each. The kayaker would have to provide the nutrition and hydration from the boat while Adam tread water next to it.

“As far as going straight, I felt very good. It was awkward getting used to swimming right next to a kayak and trusting them to take the straight-line, but I had to. I only sighted a couple of times in the first 2 miles.”

But not all things went as planned.

“It felt like I had been swimming for a while so I look down at my watch and it said 45 minutes. Hadn’t eaten yet. I also seemed like the kayaker was racing me and had to keep the boat ahead of me. This was frustrating and required me to tell my neck at an awkward angle. After resetting the food and water expectations and explaining the boat positioning, I started swimming again.”

Unfortunately, the kayaker did not keep his boat in the ideal position nor offer nutrition at the proper time. Under race conditions athletes frequently become more emotional. Adam had to work on controlling his as his crew members would be with him for three days. He had to choose what battles to pick and which ones to leave alone.

“He gave me water when he wanted and I asked for shot bloks when I wanted. That would work. As for positioning, I just gave up. There were a couple of times I just stopped and smack the waters hard as I could. I was so mad. I didn’t understand what was so difficult about being in the right position and giving me food when I planned for it. For the next 2 miles I didn’t rely on the kayak at all. I just ignored it and swam for the shoreline or buoys.”

Adam began to get cold around mile 4 1/2 and was wondering what the last 1.7 miles would do to his body’s core temperature. There was still a lot of swimming left and he really had no way to warm up.

“I learned later that they pulled one swimmer out at the 5k mark. She was delirious from hypothermia and they were pouring chicken broth over her body to warm her up. fortunately, I didn’t stay cold long.”

At mile five of the swim, it wasn’t the cold Adam had to worry about. It was the last stretch.

“You could see all of the kayakers in a line headed for the swim exit. I was maintaining a great pace. Suddenly, I felt like my kayaker had abandoned me. He was so far ahead. I couldn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t know which direction to swim and I didn’t feel like I was going anywhere.”

A mysterious current in the lake had formed. Adam had covered a mere hundred meters in a 10 minute period. When he learned of this, he became disheartened. He was frustrated with the course, with the kayaker, and with his progress.

“I’m not a fast swimmer so I didn’t know if I had what it took to overcome the current. I had never experienced a current in a lake. This was a first. Fortunately, my kayaker suggested a zigzag pattern. I put my arms into overdrive, my shoulders sore from all of the strokes I had taken already in the full-sleeves wetsuit, trying to make my way through the current.”

The strategy paid off and the shoreline began to get closer. Although it had looked like he would initially finish sooner, the current slowed him down. Adam still came out of the water just over his goal with a time of 3 hrs 33 min. Good for 17th place. Total swim strokes: 5,853.

“My crew didn’t expect me to get out that soon and quite frankly neither did I. Now, I just needed to get dry and dressed for the bike. I definitely felt it in my shoulders and was hoping the aero position on the bike wouldn’t be too bad. The crew was awesome. They worked like an orchestra. I didn’t have to worry about anything.”

As a result of the crew, Adam’s transition was fast and soon he was on the bike, wearing his adubclub tri-suit and pedaling his Falco V beam bike.

“The suit bike combo is quite visually stunning. It forces you to look and then stare.”

Today would have to be more than good looks; it was windy and the bike route looked to be facing into the wind almost the entire time. There were a lot of turns too.

“I was so paranoid about missing a turn that I wore two Garmin watches. One was focused on my heart rate and the other one was set to guide me at each turn. It’s so easy just to blank out when you’re writing so far. All you have to do is miss some road paint or a little road sign and you skipped a turn.”

Adam began putting down an excellent pace, clearly establishing himself as one of the faster riders. He was making the proper turns despite one Garmin failing him from the start and his crew being slightly out of sync with stops. He had worked his way up to 12 place but at mile 18 1/2, he had a bad hunch.

“I looked at my mileage and felt I had missed a turn. I didn’t see any other riders or support vehicles except the cyclist who was following me. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I saw a dead end sign at mile 20.5 the assured me I was on the wrong route.”

Dejected, Adam turned around and waved to the other cyclist that had followed him the wrong way. Indeed, he had missed the turn at mile 18. The detour cost him 20 minutes. After correcting the turn, he still wasn’t sure about his position and spent five minutes on the side of the road trying to find his crew or something that would let him know he was on the proper route. Finally another crew car passed and he knew he was good.

“I was so frustrated with myself. I had worked up several places and then just threw them away. I had added over 4 miles to the day and it was just beginning. I couldn’t blame anyone but myself for missing the turn, but I was sure my crew was supposed to meet me at that turn.”

Adam began peddling again, pushing the pace while working to keep his heart rate low. He couldn’t wear himself out because the next day was nearly twice as far to pedal.

“I just wanted to make up the time but I couldn’t push too hard because it was just day one of three. There were a lot of stop signs and traffic lights and because it was an open course, we had to stop at every single one of them. This requires a significant amount of energy to start again as well as time added to your race.”

Adam and his crew eventually reunited about mile 35, the fluid tanks on his bike empty. The plan was to minimize any stopping. He had told everyone that this was a race not a bike tour and didn’t want to stop unless necessary. this required the crew to handoff water bottles and food from the side of the road as Adam rode past.

“I dropped a few water bottles in the exchanges but most of them were clean all weekend. I did have to stop and pee several times so those were easy refills.”

Adam had told his crew to monitor his urine timing and color. If it was yellow and spread out, then he wasn’t drinking enough and would dehydrate. Based on its frequency and color, they were doing their job, Adam was getting enough fluids and dehydration would not play a factor in his performance. Electrolyte level was another thing Adam was concerned about. He had to make sure he was getting enough sodium and potassium. He had pre-made, 4-count packets of DBM endurance racing salts.

“I had to make sure I was eating one of those electrolyte packets every hour. I was drinking 2 to 3 water bottles every hour and eating a pack of shot bloks every hour. My crew did an awesome job making sure I was full on the bike and was consuming everything I needed to. Also, they were hyper paranoid about me missing another turn so they stuck pretty close to me the rest of the day.”

Eventually, he began to pass other riders again, some he had passed once earlier that day. With the detour, stops and wind, it took Adam about five hours to finish the bike, crossing the finish line around 8 hrs 46 min.

“I do a lot of math in my head while I’m riding and I had calculated the detour cost me about 1.7 mph in average speed for the day, a significant amount. Although I finished in 11th place for the day, I was not happy at the finish line. I didn’t really spend any time there looking at the leaderboard. I was disappointed with myself for making a stupid mistake. I just wanted to get back to the hotel.”

Adam was hoping to finish the day in nine hours. It took him 8:45:49, good for 11th overall. The detour emotionally weighed on him so much that he didn’t celebrate beating his goal. He would have to get past it for the next day. He would also need to take care of himself physically before then. The race would start less than 15 hours after leaving the day 1 finish line.

“I think we went back to the hotel and I showered real quick. I threw on some compression pants and then the crew and I went to Olive Garden. I hate eating out but of all of the nights, this one felt like we would have the most time to do it. Besides, the crew had done amazing job that day and I felt like we needed to celebrate a little bit.”

Adam was in bed before 10 PM, trying to get in his necessary 6 1/2 to 7 hours. He wrestled with a head cold that had presumably started from inhaling some of the lake water. His wife gave him some cold medication but he still tossed and turned and had a fever for most of the night.

“I felt like I only got a few hours of sleep that night. I felt horrible in the morning. It felt like the winter flu: sore throat, runny nose, itchy eyes. Good thing I only had 170 miles to bike that day.”

Somebody cleaned the vehicle and filled it with gas to ready it for the morning. Food and drink were prepped as Adam attempted to sleep. The crew was doing an amazing job, without him even knowing it.

Day 2

Team adubclub was at the start line at 6:15 AM. Adam’s wife, Heather, the team captain, had him checked in on time for the second day in a row. The other two crew members were doing everything they could to assist.

“I was a crew member last year so I know we did a ton of things to help the athlete out. However, when you’re the athlete, you don’t really have any idea what they’re doing. there literally busting their butt from oh-dark-30 until way after the sun sets. It’s really easy to take them for granted, especially when they’re doing a phenomenal job and it seems like clockwork.”

Day 2’s starting line, although 40 minutes from the hotel, was just across the highway from the day one finish. It was biking only, so the athletes dressed accordingly. The starting temperature was 55°F so layers were in order. Athletes were lined up in pairs according to their previous day’s bike time.

“Someone had told the race officials about my day 1 detour so they pushed me up to fifth in the bike start. That was nice. Although I knew it was going to be a long day, I knew everybody had to cover the same distance and I would be one of the strongest riders. I was happy with the placement although I wasn’t sure how long I would maintain it.”

Like most of the start locations, the number of bathrooms was extremely limited. Adam found himself doing his pre-race, morning rituals in the privacy of the dark corners of the start areas, constantly scanning for snakes or gators.

“The previous day’s wind had calmed down but fortunately remained in the same direction, giving us a small boost for most of the day. my goal going into the day was to finish in less than 10 hours. this seemed reasonable given the wind. I just had to hold my legs together for the entire distance, including the 80 miles of hills at the end.”

Once again, Steve King had the crowd countdown from 10. The mood was slightly less intense, but the flashing lights on the bikes seem to speak the loudest.

“And they’re off, Ultraman Florida day two,” Steve announces.

Slowly, the riders began to file out. They were allowed a 3 mile grace period for drafting. After that, drafting penalties would be enforced.

“I wasn’t in a rush so I tucked in behind the rider beside me for a sixth place to start. However, it was clear that the pace would be too slow in the pack. I started paddling where I felt comfortable and soon found myself in third place. The front two riders were pulling away even early on.”

It would take a few minutes, but soon all of the support vehicles would pass, heading for the first turn about 10 miles into day 2. Several crews stopped before the turn and clapped for all of the riders as they went by in close proximity. As the riders hit the 1st turn about 20 minutes after the start of the race all of the crews were lined up at the corner.

“That was probably one of my favorite stretches of road during the race. All of the crews were there, outside of their vehicles, cheering on every writer. It was electric! By that time, the athletes had begun to spread out and although I could no longer see the two riders in front of me, there was a pack of riders closely behind chasing me.”

Over the next 30 miles, Adam exchanged places with a couple of riders, usually when he had to stop to use the restroom. fortunately, they did too so he would take them over again.

“The road was relatively flat and the Wind felt helpful. Two hours in I was averaging nearly 22 miles an hour despite the stops. I was careful to keep my heart rate below 130, where I thought I needed it to maintain energy production balance in my body. It felt really good all the way through mile 80, despite the fact that we had to stop at some major intersections and traffic lights.”

Then the hills. Someone had placed a sign announcing their arrival.

“It’s not that they were giant, or steep, or long. it was just one after the other after the other. I’m not a light guy, I raced at about 205 pounds. Hills are my nemesis. I would work hard at keeping my heart rate down on the ascents and then stay is aero as possible on the descents.”

Dewey Robbins Road made sure everybody was paying attention. This 12 mile out and back allowed people to get a good view of the competition since you would see athletes both directions.

“It was on the hills that I slipped into fourth place. I was surprised that the riders that I saw on the exit of those four rollers. however, I was glad the field didn’t go too deep. That let me know I was doing fairly well but that I had to keep it up.”

Enter Sugarloaf. Sugarloaf is a 1.3 mile climb with grades exceeding 20%. Standing alone, the hill is not that intimidating, but approaching it after 140 miles is a different ballgame.

“As a crew member last year I recall the hill and not thinking much of it. As an athlete I had a whole different perspective when it came in to view. It looked giant, I had been cycling for seven hours and I still had 30 miles to go afterwards. This was not going to be pretty. I put my chain in the smaller string and grinded standing up out of my saddle.”

Adam survived Sugarloaf and continued his ride. Third-place pulled away from him in the hills but he continued to separate from most of those behind him. A look at his watch would show that he was still averaging nearly 20 miles an hour, but the hills would not relent.

“I just remember miles 145 to 160, fearful of every peak that I crested, knowing that I would see another one two or three on the horizon. It was just hill after hill after hill. I began using all down hills as a break from pedaling and then allowing my heart rate to creep up on the up hills as the mileage was ending.”

Adam would have to be careful he didn’t push too hard. After all, the very next day he would be faced with completing a double marathon run.

“I was very aware of the fact that the next day would be tough. It was my most worrisome portion of the race and I didn’t feel like I had trained well enough to complete it. I was torn between getting a good cycle time and setting myself up for what I knew would be a brutal run. Looking at my watch though showed that I could finish way better than my expectations.”

“I ran out of electrolytes and my special drink mix in the middle of the day. The crew had to improvise for me. For every water bottle they would add 2 restaurant salt packets to the water or diluted Gatorade or whatever I was requesting. They kept me hydrated. I was peeing clear all day. They made a couple of special stops for me to to get some Reese’s and Snickers to help with the fueling. My crew just absolutely worked their butts off and I’ve benefited as a result.”

Adam cruised through the last 5-10 miles, just ahead of the next competitor, stopping at every single stop sign. When he turned left into the park for the finish line, he knew he had achieved something special.

“I was a bit frustrated with all of the stop signs on the down hills in the last few miles but when I entered the park saw the clock as I cross the finish line, I was ecstatic. it said 8:58 and change. I had finished under nine hours!”

The next competitor crossed the line at 8:59:59. In the past two years, only seven Ultraman athletes have finished day two under nine hours. Adam finished fourth for the day and joined that group of elite cyclists, moving up from 12th place overall to 5th place overall.

“I knew it wasn’t going to stick tomorrow, being that high on the leaderboard, but I did enjoy my bike performance. I actually stuck around and got a massage and joked around with other athletes as they came in.”

With his toughest day looming just 14 hours after crossing the finish line, Adam knew he needed to focus on recovery.

“We ordered pizza on the way back and took it into the room. I ate as much as I could while sitting on the couch with my feet up.”

His head cold was now in full affect. He was taking cold medicine as often as he could. He desperately needed to get some sleep tonight.

“It was so nice having my wife there. We would just sit in our bed and relax for a few minutes before going to sleep. Or have fried chicken.”

Adam was feverish that night, soaking his bed in sweat.

“I kept the bedroom window open in tonight to lower the room temperature but I don’t know why I was so hot. It just felt like a prenatal cocoon. I slept well it was just an early morning.”

Day 3

Adam really didn’t want his total race time to be over 30 hours. with the first two days adding up to less than 18 hours, as long as He finished the run in required 12 hours, He would hit that goal. His plan through training was to alternate running and walking. He intended to run four miles and then walk one.

“I was hoping to get somewhere around 11 hours though, maybe even less if things went well.”

In order to ensure that the last runner would be able to cross the finish line in daylight, the run day started at 6 AM. It was a 30 minute drive to the run start. Check in was 30 minutes before the start of the race. This was the earliest day for Adam, himself not a morning person and not thinking of himself as a runner at this point. To support him, his crew would have to run beside him the entire route, providing whatever he needed.

“We all started off with glow sticks around our necks her headlights tucked under our hats. It was kind of a cool start. Just a small group of people taking off to do a really long run, after two really long days.”

Fortunately, running does not engage all of the same leg muscles as cycling, unless you encounter hills.

“Being in Florida, you think that it would be flat. I think we had the first hill less than a quarter-mile off of the start. I decided early on that I would walk in the hills to save my legs and then run down the backside. My legs felt the impact of the 265 miles of bike riding Way more than I thought they would. I just took it easy, settling into my planned slow pace.”

Adam crossed the 10K mark in 64 minutes and the half marathon mark in 2:20. He was feeling good and the alternate run-walk method was working well.

“My pacers were doing an excellent job. They were talking when I needed them to, being quiet when I needed them too and handing me whatever I requested. On top of trading off and shuttling back-and-forth between the support vehicle, they were making sure that I drank enough.”

At one point, before the marathon mark, one of the pacers was struggling to keep up with Adam. He could barely take care of himself, let alone Adam. When his run shift was over, Adam made the tough call of assigning him to permanent driver duty for the rest of the day.

“I didn’t have any energy and I didn’t need to be taking care of someone else. He ended up doing an amazing job driving, alternating hats providing ice and keeping my neck covered with a fresh, cold handkerchief. Sometimes you have to make adjustments on the fly. It was clear that the other crew members would have to shoulder the pacing effort.”

Just before the halfway mark, Adam’s achilles started bugging him and his cold caught up with him. He could do nothing but walk. Every mile was slow and painful. Other runners began to pass him.

“I thought for sure I would finish the first marathon well under five hours. Feeling bad I ended up going over five hours, but worse, I was wondering if I would even be able to finish the race.”

With 26.2 miles still to go and less than seven hours on the clock, Adam had to maintain a 15:50 min/mi pace to finish in time. That would be OK for someone with a healthy leg, but for Adam, the task seemed nearly impossible.

“I didn’t want to give up, but I had no idea how I was going to finish. I felt horrible, my leg was sore, it was getting hot outside, and the hills kept getting worse and worse.”

It was a turning point in the race. The once energetic and enthusiastic Adam was struggling just to put one foot in front of the other. there was no joking and no smile on his face.

“I just started praying, asking God to give me strength. I know people use that line a lot, but my faith is very serious for me. I knew there were a lot of people tracking me online, following my progress on Facebook and waiting to hear how it went. I knew my parents and Inlaws would be praying for me too.”

Sometimes prayer ends in a miracle, sometimes it ends with an idea, wisdom. Sometimes a combination of things that all just “fall in place.”

“I can’t explain it. Sure, I took some medication. I drank a can of Coke. Covered my legs in biofreeze. I walked a few miles. Nothing seem to be happening. People could easily attribute what happened next it to those things but I know better. I’ve experienced divine help too many times.”

Adam remembers entering a large intersection not feeling well and by the time he had crossed it, something had changed.

“If you would’ve told me that I would was going to start running again that day I would’ve told you you were crazy. I knew if I waited long enough I could get some energy back but the injury, I’ve never seen better. I just started running, almost pain free.”

There was an immediate difference to Adam as a runner. Over the next few miles, he picked up two spots he had dropped and pressed on.

“I was in no position to go fast, but I was moving and I was happy. I felt so much better. I still have a lot of miles left but I had hope again.”

It turns out that’s exactly what Adam needed. He and his pacers pushed through the clay hills, seeing other athlete’s crew members unable to continue. He picked up two more positions.

“Look, I’m not saying it was necessarily a miracle, I’m just saying prayer works. And it worked for me. In a real way. I had no idea what I was going to do and I’m a problem solver. Now here I was racing again.”

As the hills continued mile after mile, Adam’s legs became sore and more worn out. The longest training run he had done was 23 miles and it did not end well.

“I hadn’t done one training run over 20 miles that went well. My legs locked up on every single one of them, I think due to dehydration but I wasn’t sure. I was getting plenty to drink today thanks to my crew and the heat wasn’t really a factor due to the amount of ice they were giving me for my hat.”

Adam had to change the ratio between his running and walking to keep his legs working. He added tortilla chips, hoping to get enough salt.

“When we were 10 miles out, I knew we were good on time, even at a walking pace, but I wanted to do better. I knew I had already lost a significant amount of time of the competitors but I didn’t want to freefall down the leaderboard to the bottom. I could easily finish under 11 hours but wanted to do better.”

Adam’s wife played a critical role in keeping him going.

“She just knew what to say and what to do all weekend. I guess that’s what you get after 23 years of marriage; she could just read my face and know what I needed, whether it was encouragement or a push or whatever.”

The length of the day was taking its toll on Adam. The last miles felt interminable and his legs weren’t cooperating.

“I just wanted to go faster but I couldn’t. I had decided I wanted to run the last 5 miles. My pace was so slow. I could start to feel my Achilles slightly hurt again.”

Both pacers joined Adam with 2 miles left. The driver went to park the car at the finish line and meet them a mile from the finish.

“I just kept hoping that the double marathon was actually shorter. I hoped I would see the finish line earlier, but it was definitely the full double marathon.”

All three days have been a team effort and Adam wanted it to end that way. One had kayaked 6.2 miles, all of them followed him around on a bike for 265 miles and two runners had covered a marathon themselves in support of his run. He positioned them from left to right based on how he wanted the finish photo.

“I finally spotted the finish chute. I was elated. There was nobody to chase down, no significant time barrier to break, but I sped up anyway. It felt like sprinting but clearly wasn’t. I pointed to heaven to give God the glory and then attempted to jump into my trademark air guitar finish.”

Adam crossed the finish line in 22nd place that day with a time of 10:32:44 His total time of 28:16:50 was still good enough for an overall 12th place finish.

“The only thing a finisher board really does is make yourself think how much you could come back and beat it by. I was completely happy having that finisher medal hang around my neck and being welcomed by the race director into the Ultraman family.”

Adam’s entire right lower leg was swollen and he could barely walk. but he was smiling. Three years after deciding he wanted to compete here, Adam Ward officially became an Ultraman.

“This is my first race where I would say that not everybody could finish it. It takes a tremendous amount of preparation and mental fortitude. I thank God for giving me the ability and the strength to finish.”

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