“The only limits we have are the ones we place on ourselves.”
Prior to beginning the race report, I would be remiss if I did not mention and profusely thank my kick-ass crew from this event: Justin Andrews (Crew Chief), Mike Danenberg, and Jeff Daniels. They took a week of their lives and steadfastly devoted it to me, and my success at this race. Thank you so much for everything you did not only on the three days of racing, but also leading up to and afterwards. It is true what another finisher said about the event, it is 100% crew. We named our motley crew (with the help of my father) Team RedAssdMonkey, and were outfitted head to toe as such. Even our car was hilarious, and had a red blow-up dragon named “Welshie” tied to the top for three days. (See photo to left.)
At the race breakfast the day prior to the start, the announcer did a beautiful job telling the history of Ultraman, and making us feel part of an elite group. I found out that I would be one of 127 women ever to complete an Ultraman since 1983 on Monday (if things went well), and this was great motivation. There are less than 750 finishers male and female—ever. He also said two things that I could hear in my head when things got rough the entire weekend, and especially on the first day: 1) No Whining (he called it “wingeing”), and 2) If you don’t want to deal with the elements and excitement, go run a local 5k.
Also, I must say that participating, competing in and completing this event has changed my racing perspective forever. The sense of family present at Ultraman is contagious, and it was a blast sharing the course with only 29 other racers from 15 countries and their crews. You get to know each and every person, and it is very special. I made friends for life—what a bond!
Ultraman UK is a different animal due to the harsh nature of the last great wilderness in the United Kingdom—which was to be our course and stage for the ensuing three days. Yet, coming to Ultraman UK and complaining about the weather/elements would be akin to doing the Badwater 135-Mile Ultramarathon and expecting it not to be hot.
Day 1: 10k swim, 90-mile (143k) bike
I am not a person with many fears. That is why and how I simply jump right in and do things of this magnitude without really a second thought. Even though I am not the best or fastest swimmer, I was totally undaunted by the 10k distance. I had completed several extremely long training swims in open water and the pool, and I believed in my heart that I was ready. Wrong! What I did not anticipate was the wind and cold—inside and out of the water. I despise cold water. It is one of the things in this world that I dislike more than any other. It is almost, but not quite funny. Well, now it is funny, I suppose.
Arriving six days prior to the race, I thought maybe I would have a chance to get in the water and check it out since I had heard it was “pretty cold.” The first day we were there, Justin and I drove out to Bala Lake to see for ourselves. The wind was howling, it was in the mid-50s outside and the lake temperature was about 52 degrees. I walked to the water’s edge, put my hand in it, turned chalk white and without a word walked back to the car to leave. No freaking way! The water I had been training in for months here in Charlotte was mid-80s! And it is mid-90s outside! Certain that I’d be sick before even towing the line if I swam that day, I made the executive decision to skip it. No, thank you, Bala Lake.
At the race breakfast, there were all sorts of discussions about how the locals do not even swim in that lake because it is so cold—let alone for 10k. Talk of hypothermia and how to stay warm abounded. I left there even more concerned, and more nervous than I had been for anything in my short racing career. Finally, I was about to confront a real fear. At dinner that night, I admitted to my crew that I was very concerned about the water; however, I did not tell them that I was so concerned I worried I would not finish that leg of the race. Thoughts of mentally preparing for this event for nine months, completing four Ironmans back-to-back to ready myself, and swimming more than I ever have in my life all for naught danced in my head. I was going crazy.
Race morning it was absolutely freezing outside with 35mph winds. Perfect! The entire way to the lake—about a 30-minute drive—I did not say a word. We were the first ones there, which meant I had plenty of time to stare at the freezing cold water that today also had white caps. I was so bundled up you could not even see my face. The race director jokingly said, “You sure you can do this?” He didn’t realize that he said exactly what I was thinking! The Canadian and Welsh racers seemed just fine. They were used to the cold. The Welsh used to the wind and rain. It was really annoying at the time. Both thought the water was okay. Grrrrr.
Finally, it was time to swim. To my credit, I had not actually been complaining out loud at all during this time. All of this had been going on in my head, and I am certain it was written all over my face. Yet, when the time came, I put my wetsuit on, lubed up my face with Vaseline so it didn’t go into shock in the water, donned booties for my feet and went for it. My amazing crew had hot water ready to pour down my wetsuit right before the gun went off, and I think this helped immensely. If you are ever going to do a cold water swim, keep peeing in your wetsuit and be certain to pour warm water down it before the start. Plus, make sure your booties fit! Mine were too big and really slowed me down; however, there was NO WAY I was going to take them off.
Once I got in the water, I resigned to shut up or get out. So I just started swimming. The swim was set up to be one mile out, one mile back—times three.
It was really, really choppy because of the wind on the way out to the turn buoy, but then we had a tail wind on the return trip to shore. In theory, this sounds great. But, a couple of the buoys had gotten loose due to the crazy winds. Some people benefited greatly from this, and others of us got the rough end of the stick. The faster swimmers made it to the far buoy two different times while it was still loose and closer to shore—which means they swam a shorter distance AND had ridiculously fast times. Like, world record—not possible for 10k—times. Once the race organizers realized that they had gotten out of the water too fast, the lovely people MOVED THE BUOYS on those of us still in the water. Not cool. In fact, I had two different buoys moved on me WHILE I WAS SWIMMING TO THEM. Talk about your head being messed with when you are already not well! That was a first. At one point, I was almost to a buoy and they picked it up and moved a LONG ways further.
I looked at a kayaker and said, “Where the hell did the buoy just go? It was just here!” She pointed WAY out in the lake. “I’m not swimming out there. No one else had to. Why are they moving buoys in the middle of the swim?” The answer did not make me happy.
My other personal favorite that I find funny now but almost made my head snap off at the time was, “Just swim straight,” following them moving a renegade buoy in the middle of the lake that I, of course, had followed out there. They took that buoy away and said I was too far out—that I shouldn’t have followed that buoy. Oh, that’s just great. If I could swim straight then I wouldn’t be the only ya-yo in the middle of lake now, would I?
The worst part of all of this is that more than half the field had ridiculously fast swim times thereby setting up their overall times to be shorter. So, for three days, I was working from a pretty serious deficit after the cluster in the swim. However, I am happy that I swam the distance of an Ultraman. I do not think they should have moved the buoys on the rest of us. They should have just put an asterisk on the results and said there were extenuating circumstances with the wind. I fought the rest of the weekend to make up some of this time. But not all of us did the same distance, and it was very frustrating—especially since the water was so cold. Some of us were in that cold water a long time. My swim time was 3:25 for 10k.
My transition was a disaster, and counted into the bike time for the day. The people who got out of the water in two hours were, well, only in the water for two hours! No one has ever done an Ultraman swim in two hours, by the way. Anyway, I digress again. Justin was trying to rush me out of transition, but I was frozen. I had to tell him to stop because I couldn’t move either shoulder—they were congealed—plus my feet and hands weren’t working. They poured hot water on my hands and set my feet in a bucket of warm water. Finally, after more than fifteen minutes, I was out of there and onto the bike. I didn’t realize that my brain wasn’t quite working yet at the time; but I took two wrong turns in the first seven miles. You do the math!
Eventually, I settled into the bike about the time that it started pouring down rain. Oh, well. I really did not even care at this point. The wind was still howling with gusts up to 35mph, and I just put my head down and rode. I don’t really remember much of the rest of the day other than I was descending some pretty treacherous roads in wet conditions really fast on my tri bike. I started having fun, and couldn’t believe how hilly and narrow the route was. It was relentless. The crew did a great job trying to keep me going since I was having trouble getting to my nutrition in the wind. The traffic was REALLY close to us, and it was raining so hard that I couldn’t see where I was going. I would ride with my glasses down my nose until I had to descend, and then I would raise them so the rain didn’t cut my eyes. Crazy. Making some passes on this day following the disastrous swim helped my morale. At one point, we passed two people at the same time: one guy was actually IN his van because it was raining so hard, and the other I went flying by going UPhill. When it is rough outside, those kinds of things at least keep you entertained.
By far, these were the worst conditions I have ever raced in for an entire day. It was brutal. The wind, the cars, the cold water, the horizontal rain, and the terrain: all of it was crazy. I learned a lot about how to control my bike in these conditions—that’s for sure. And I conquered a huge fear of freezing cold water. Nothing will seem cold to me anymore! I finished the 90 miles in 5:40 but they add the transition to it (unfortunately), so it looks like 5:55. I will remember this for my next Ultraman.
Day 2: 171.4-mile bike (276k)
The crew did an incredible job getting me home, fed and relaxed following a long and brutal Day 1 of racing. They were extremely organized, and whisked me right out of the finish area with a mylar blanket—reminding me not to be Chatty Kathy and to go home to get warm and dry. The race director and my crew were kind of cracking up at me because I opted to just ride my bike home. I was so soaking wet that it seemed to make more sense at the time. Now I realize that it is kind of funny. Anyway, as a result, I woke up on Day 2 feeling very fresh and ready to ride. Knowing full well that this day was going to be hard and long, I was excited to spend it doing what I love the most: riding my bike.
Although this course is extremely difficult and the grades are ridiculous, the sheer beauty of it is simply magnificent. I’ve raced in many gorgeous places, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Several hours into the bike on Day 2, I waved the crew car alongside me as I rode along the Irish Sea and said, “I have to admit, this doesn’t suck!” At this moment, I remembered something my ultra friend Charlie Engle always says to me, “No matter how good you are feeling, it will subside. No matter how bad you are feeling, it will go away, too.” I was feeling really good right then, but things were just about to get hard.
The most important thing on Day 2 was to remain focused and not waste any time on frivolous stops. Unfortunately, I had to go to the bathroom from the time we started, and this caused me to lose the people I wanted to keep in sight. It was way too early to pee of the bike! Each of my stops was quick and to the point, and there were three of them for bathroom breaks. I had one mechanical problem that caused me to lose some time when my derailleur kept skipping and finally went bonkers on one of our steepest climbs of the day at Mile 95. Do NOT unclip and try to fix something on a 16% grade! My crew was nowhere in sight, and I couldn’t get my foot back into the clips. Another crew found me hanging on the guardrail of the climb trying to re-clip. One of their members held me in position while I clipped back in and then ran me up the climb a bit to get momentum started again; but the damage was done. I had lost at least ten minutes messing with this, and I felt like a total spaz.
I was not happy with myself for the snap decision I made on that climb to attempt the derailleur fix alone, and I had to remember that I had been riding well up until that point. I had started to get negative, and I needed to change the mindset. I reminded myself that I had been descending better than I ever had in my life, and to keep moving forward. Remember the good moments of the day, and don’t start acting crazy even if you feel crazy. Bonkers takes too much energy. One of the highlights was that I had a 1:01 mile split descending a steep. 1:01! That is like 55mph and a new record for me. It was so fun.
Justin (who rides with me all of the time) said he has never seen me do anything so focused as the way I rode this day. I had only done one ride this long EVER, and I knew that wasted time was the killer. The Race Director (Simon) is a very sadistic man who decided to put some of the hardest climbs into the route right about the time you start to lose your marbles on a day this long—between miles 140-152. It seemed like we were climbing forever. I was waiting for a descent, and it never came—the route kept ascending. I was cursing Simon, but I kept moving. I knew this was the point that would make or break my day, and maybe my race. I made two passes during this time, and again—this gave me some momentum to shut it down for home. Other people were having a harder time than me.
Once I got through this labyrinth, which is what it seemed like to me, hell hath no fury like the way I rode for home. I was talking to myself, talking to the cars, whooping it up to the crew who were flawless yet again on a LONG day, and felt like I had nitro on my bike. Even though it rolled up and down back towards town, I stayed in my big ring and pushed the hills. I was NOT going over 11 hours, and I had lost some time in the past couple. I was like a pony that could smell the barn. Part of this was due to my new nutrition source, Generation UCAN (www.generationucan.com), which I do affectionately call “NITRO” now. So far, so good; I had not throw up or even felt sick once. Amazing! I think poor Jeff is going to turn into a UCAN after making so much of it last weekend.
I thought, “Mer, please get back safely in this last twenty miles so you can start tomorrow on your feet! Yeah! Tomorrow you get to run—you are on your legs for the first time.”
Now that the race is over, I see how incredible that is. I was already on to the next day. I wasn’t worried about running; I was EXCITED to run. My mindset was not negative about the third day—it was pure acceptance. I suppose that all the mental preparation paid off. It felt just like the end of an Ironman bike where I start to get my head together for the next leg. Every time I hit mile 90 of an Ironman bike, I start to think about the joy and safety of being on my feet. This was no different—other than the bike leg had been 16 hours and 25 minutes in two days.
With three stops for nature breaks, and two for mechanical issues, my bike time for Day 2 was 10:45 and moved me up the ladder a bit more. I was happy with this, and had a blast. The legs were feeling good. The crew took great care of me once again and were organized beyond belief. Thanks so much to Mike Danenberg of Performance Therapy (www.performance-therapy.com) who came along and each night cured what ailed me using A.R.T. and massage so that I felt good as new in the morning.
Day 3: 52.4-mile run (84.3k)
Another one of the things I was most afraid of with Ultraman was waking up three days in a row for such an early start after so much activity the day prior. Suffice it to say that I am not a “morning person.” I’ve done American Triple T, which is sort of like Ultraman on a much smaller scale—several early mornings and a crazy amount of activity. I remember being exhausted by the third day simply trying to wake up! The evening of Day 1, I made too many phone calls and texts, etc., and ended up not getting into bed until 10:30pm. Big mistake considering our starts were at 6am. So, the evening of Day 2, I was ready for bed and in my room by 8:45pm. This paid dividends as Simon had moved the final start to 7am. I got 8.5 hours of sleep. For me, this is almost two nights worth at home!
I woke up before my alarm and did what most of us have done when and if we have to test our legs following a hard workout: got out of bed and lifted one leg at a time to see where they stood. Hmmm…so far, so good. I thought things were firing on all cylinders. So I hobbled downstairs for my pre-race breakfast of two UCAN shakes and checked the weather. Uh-oh. Crap! More rain and lots of wind. I had to get my head wrapped around running in that for however long this was going to take, I’m not going to lie to you. Three days of this starts to wear on you. Ugh.
Justin and I had a pacing talk before we left that was sort of hilarious because he was trying to psych me up to go under ten hours. He didn’t know that I had a goal of under nine hours. With something like this, you almost don’t want to vocalize a crazy goal like that for the third day, but I said something like, “I have no interest in running a 9:52, Justin.” I would have to run two sub 4:30 marathons back-to-back in order to achieve MY goal—over four mountain ranges—in unspeakable weather conditions. Not to mention, I don’t have much experience running hills. On this course, that could be a real problem! The entire first 18 or so miles is pretty much uphill. Then the some downhill, some flats, some rollers and BLAM! Oh, my. What the heck are we going up now?
I knew from the start that I felt pretty good. It was pouring down rain, and I had the right gear on. My CEP Compression run shorts and socks were the perfect choice in this type of weather, and they were helping my legs feel solid. The shorts did a good job of whisking water away, and I wasn’t chafing. I had on my Newton trail shoes, also, which are weather resistant. From around the third mile, I started running with a guy named Enrique (Ki-ke) from Mallorca, and we stuck together the entire time. In ultra running, it is amazing how much this can help. Our crews became buddies, and we all started working together. Ki-ke and I shared the wind up some terrible terrain between miles 8-19 because it was howling up to 50mph with the rain pouring down sideways. Never, ever have I run in anything like those conditions—not to mention UP something like that in those conditions! It helped to commiserate with someone. At the halfway point, I changed my clothes and Newtons in order to stay warm. I’ve been in this situation before, and once I get cold, I am screwed. Even though it took me a little time, it was an important step for me. This was my only stop. The boys put my shoes on the defroster to dry them, and I changed those one more time but this only took a second. It is amazing how much this helps. Remember to do this if you run an ultra in bad conditions and start to get cold.
From miles 40-43, we ascended something unlike anything I have ever gone up on foot. I refused to stop running or to walk simply because I was so curious to see if I could do it, and I didn’t want to lose Ki-ke! I pretended like there was a tether between his back and my front, and I wouldn’t let him get more than 15-feet in front of me. The grade continued from 15-18% that entire time. I definitely could not talk to the crew. At one point, Jeff tried to give me a UCAN and thought something was seriously wrong with me because I was muttering under my breath over and over.
Justin said, “Oh, no, dude. She’s counting.”
Jeff said, “What? Why? I don’t understand.” Mike was equally confused.
“She counts in order to keep her cadence up and get her mind off of the pain. She can’t even see you right now—totally out of it.”
Once we got to the top of the big climb (see photo to the left), it was the most amazing fairy tale view I have ever seen. Ki-ke and I knew we were almost home. We started speeding up, and kept that cadence until the end. We made one final turn onto the main highway that would eventually lead us into town, and ran the last 10k pretty fast. During this time, we decided that we wanted to finish together with our crews on either side, and this was very special. This is what Ultraman is about, and made the race for me. He had his flag, I had my flag, our crews were with us and we were all holding hands. What an incredible day.
Little did we know, but we had pushed so hard in the final 10k that we had made another pass and were gaining fast on three other people. They finished between eight and five minutes in front of us—they were right there! But, there was nothing we could do in the end, and it was a perfect end to the most fun I’ve ever had racing. My run time was 8:57—almost an hour faster than Justin told me to run.
I feel compelled to make a short section on nutrition since I am known for throwing up in races. Already, I have had multiple people ask me if I puked my way through Ultraman. I am happy to say the answer is NO! In fact, I did not throw up even once—nor did I feel nauseous at all. Finally, I have found an answer to my nutritional needs in Generation UCAN. I fueled solely with UCAN and water (even for breakfast), plus a couple peanut butter crackers and Honey Stinger chews mid-way through the bike on Day 2. On Day 3, Jeff put a half scoop of First Endurance Pre-Race into my UCAN post Mile 40. That is it. And I never bonked. I finished each day with energy left in the tank. It really is quite remarkable.
I would like to thank Generation UCAN and Coach Bob Seebohar of Fuel4Mance for working with me to prepare me for this event. He totally changed my nutrition outside of race day in order to make me more metabolically efficient, and I needed less than 80 calories per hour for this race. Considering I was in excess of 250 before working with him, and throwing up an average of six times a race, this is purely a miracle. He only had two months to do this. I am nothing short of amazed because I did not think it could be done; but I was willing to try absolutely anything.
All in all, my total time was 29:04.49 with a 3:25 10k (6.2-mile) swim, 15-minute transition, 16:25 on the bike for 261.4-miles, and 8:57 for 52.4-miles on the run. There were 29 starters, 22 finishers (25% DNF rate among ultra and Ironman veterans—trust me, it was hard). I was the 2nd female, and 14th overall—plus the 2nd American out of five. Congratulations to everyone who took part—crew and athletes! Prior to the event, I had a sub-30 hour time goal after looking at the times of the other two Ultraman events in the world, and factoring in that this would be my first and unchartered territory. I didn’t think this would be a problem, and I thought I could go faster than that. However, I don’t think anyone expected this one to be quite as hard as it actually was. It took the cake, as they say, and will set the bar for Ultraman events to come. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to drop those extra five minutes and achieve a 28 handle. I was so close!
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this novel that is my Ultraman UK race report. I hope you enjoyed it, and I’m sorry that it is so long. It was an interminable three days that seemed to fly. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email me. If you read this and I raced with you in the UK, it was a pleasure and I hope to see you all again.