Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Gordo's Guide to the Ultraman Course

Gordo's Guide to the Ultraman Course
By Gordo Byrn

xtri asked me to outline my thoughts on the Ultraman Course to give you a bit of an idea about what we’ll be undertaking over the next few days. Over the three days of Ultraman, we will circumnavigate the Big Island covering 320 miles (about 515 kilometers). The course is far different than the Hawaii that most of us see on the annual Ironman broadcast. We’ll be traveling through nearly all of Hawaii’s climatic zones – desert, lava, rainforest, ranch land, pasture, coffee plantations… (I’ll try to get my crew to take photos).

Last year, we were based completely out of Kona and didn’t circle the Island. At the 2002 Awards Dinner, Jane Bockus (our race director) announced that we would be going around the Island again this year. Having the opportunity to do the original Ultraman course and fully experience the Big Island was very attractive to me. It will be tough for me to do justice to the beauty of the route but I can help you get a feel for the major challenges.

At any time, you can check out course profiles and an overall course map by clicking on the images in the sidebar. OK, here we go…

Day One – Swim 6.2 miles (10K) and Bike 90 miles (145K)
The race kicks off 20 minutes before sunrise at 6:30am at the Pier in Kailua-Kona. It’s the same start line as Ironman Hawaii but, with only 30-35 people in the race, it’s far less stressful! Each swimmer has a paddle escort who brings food and drink along for the ride.

Also different from Ironman is that we are allowed to wear wetsuits. The water is a little cooler this time of year and there’s also the risk of stings from jellyfish. Last year I opted for a full-suit but BAKED for the last hour and a half in the water. When I stood up in Keauhou Bay, it felt like coffee was flowing out of my legs!

I discussed the heat-issue with Molina and he told me that “back-in-my-day” they had these bottom-only suits that they would use for races like St. Croix. So I mentioned this to my pals at Ironman Wetsuits and they got their design team rolling. Presto! Seven days later I had a half-suit, a full-suit and a long john. I TT’d them head to head and found the full-suit and the long john to be very similar in speed (about 4-6s faster per 100 meters, long course, than skin). You know, everyone had told me over the years that a full-suit was slower, but the research that I’ve done (and read) shows that for most athletes there isn’t any change in speed. There is, however, a big change in warmth and I need a full-suit for most my races to avoid getting too cold (maybe I should swim faster!). Anyhow, the halfsuit was 2-3s per 100 meters slower, but even more cool than the longjohn, so I’ve brought both here and will check them out this week.

This is a long way of saying… if you are considering Ultraman then you’ll likely be best served by a long john wetsuit. There is a risk of jellyfish stings so you should also check the moon phase. In West Hawaii, the jellyfish can be bad a little over a week after the full moon. Now that Ironman isn’t linked to the full moon, I expect that we could have the “jellyfish” swarm one year on the swim. Perhaps that was why it ran in a lunar cycle in the old days (although I think it had more to do with casting moonlight on the late finishers out in the lava fields)?
The swim is point-to-point, so the tides, swell and waves have a large impact on the amount of time that we’ll be in the water. There have been years when these factors combined to have swimmers working for 45 minutes, or more, just to stay in the same place until the tide turned – what a start to the day! The locals understand the impact of these conditions so it pays to consult with the experienced paddlers.

When swimming I breathe bilaterally, so I have my paddler sit to my side and a
little bit behind me. That way I can swim off the paddler's direction – and I can see him every six strokes. I only brought 1.5 liters of fluid for the journey last time. Even with a liter drunk right before the start, it was far too little for me!

At 7 or 8K there is usually some wave reflection off the shore. The dual chop combines with a shallowing of the water and, for most, this is the toughest part of the swim. You’ve been going for two hours (or more) and you suddenly start getting buffeted by the waves and notice that the ocean floor isn’t moving as fast any more. Welcome to Ultraman!

Some folks will swim wide of this point, calculating that the extra distance will be worth the reduction in current. Last year, I g-dozed it and ploughed through with thirty minutes of hard swimming. It’s one of those things that we never really know until we get a chance to talk to the other guys at the end of the day.

My final tip is to swim your own race. Drafting is illegal at Ultraman so there’s no benefit to locking onto another athlete. Last year, the two guys behind me (both solid IMers) dueled in the water and paid a price at the start of the bike. The bike starts uphill so if you are over-extended from the swim then it's next to impossible to recover on the

T1. As Day Two is all bike and Day Three is all run, this is the only transition of the race, so they don’t track transition times (it’s added to the bike). I try to stay relaxed in transition – there will be a lot of blood in our chests, arms and back, so I give myself some time to settle into the ride.

Hopefully, you are feeling good because there’s about 2,000 feet worth of climbing in the first ten miles. Oh yeah, if it’s a clear day then it will be HOT with little wind. Pretty challenging conditions and I was drinking a bottle of Gatorade per mile last year.

There’s some up and down but it’s mainly up until the 48-mile mark when there’s a welcome descent to the town of Honuapo. From there, things get interesting again because the final 30 miles of the day are uphill to the town of Volcano. The road peaks a touch over 4,000 feet. The best part of this climb is that the temperature will cool on the climb up the hill. The potentially challenging part is that if a storm comes over the top of the volcano then we’ll get DRILLED for the last hour and a half of the day. I brought cold weather gear because it does get cold on this part of the Island. Once again, Ultraman rewards proper pacing and mental toughness.

One final note for Day One – work out hand signals with your support team. Number of fingers meaning food, drink, cola, stop… This is a tip that Ultra-Guru, Vito Bialla, gave me last year. Saved me a lot of shouting and came in handy on the run when I was too tired to speak to my crew.
Day Two – Bike 171.4 miles (276K)
I am sure that all the athletes will be thankful that Day Two starts with a 20-mile descent to the town of Keaau. From there, we do a “small” counterclockwise loop (about 55 miles) of the southeast corner of the Island. We’ll likely all be together at this point but things will be about to change! There are two climbs of about 750 feet that should test how much Day One took out of our legs.

Once we return to Keaau, we head north, up the East Coast of the Island and I’d be grateful if you could start next Saturday with a brief prayer for a strong southeasterly flow from Hilo to Waimea!

There are a couple of small climbs (<500 feet) to keep us honest but the real action starts over the last 40 miles of the day. Oh yeah! We’ll have about two Ironmans in our legs and we have a 2,100-foot climb that’s followed by a relaxing 400-foot descent into Waimea. Relaxation will be short lived, however, because we’ll be heading up the spine of the Kohala Mountains. It’s the steepest climb of the day, 1,100 feet with the top well past the 150-mile mark – hoo ha!

Only three paragraphs to explain this day but it will be one that we’ll remember!

Day Three – Run 52.5 miles (84.4K)
OK, it goes something a little like this…

-> Have two of the biggest days of your life;
-> Drive out to the bike turnaround of the IM Hawaii course;
-> Park;
-> Run back to Kona.

Pretty straightforward, eh?

I’ve done some crazy things in my time but signing up to spend another Thanksgiving Sunday running through the lava fields is certainly up there.

Kicking off about an hour before sunrise, it’s a downhill start in the dark. I’m not sure if my quads will appreciate the downhill that early in the morning, but it will be interesting to see. In any event, the downhill only lasts for 6-7 miles then we are into the rollers that lead down to the Port City of Kawaihae.

To get from Kawaihae to the Queen K requires a two-mile climb with about 300 feet of elevation gain. This is one of the warmest parts of the Ironman bike leg but I hope we’ll be early enough for it not to be too balmy!

Once onto the Queen K, there are 30 miles (give or take) of heat, rollers and personal time. This is where we will each be initiated, yet again, into the art of deep suffering. I am actually looking forward to this part. I want to see what I can run on this course. The course record is so fast (5:33) that I’d need to take the subway to pull it off – however – I hope to do better than last year (3.5 hours out, 4.0 hours back). We’ll see if I am able to keep the frontrunners company for at least some of the time.

There is no way for me to describe the feeling that you get when you finally realize that “you are going to make it”! Just like Ironman, it’s one of those things that we each have to experience for ourselves.

Don’t let the numbers scare you – this race has been done by many folks of a wide range of abilities. One needs to train, to respect the Island and then simply keep moving forward!

Maybe I’ll see you out there,