To speak of an Ironman race as “fun and relaxing,” you need to be either nuts or some species of superhuman. Our Montreal-based ambassadors Kevin and Katherine Calder-Becker are doubling down in the beyond-ordinary stakes. On November 28, they dive into the surf off the coast of Kona to race the 36-hour Ultraman World Championships. And here’s the kicker: they actually seem perfectly sane.
Billed as an “athletic odyssey,” the Ultraman is more than twice the length of an Ironman: a 10k ocean swim, a 420.6k bike ride, and an 84.3k run (that’s two back-to-back marathons) over three grueling days. Entry to the 30-year old event is by invitation only—an elite corps of 40 endurance athletes are selected by resumé each year. The DNF rate is 20 per cent. Seven of the 40 racers won’t even make it out of the water.
“Our friend, astronaut Colonel Alvin Drew told us there have been more people into space than have done the Ultraman. So you are part of a unique crew,” says Kevin.
With a race resumé that squeezed 43 triathlons, several half and full marathons, 17 Ironmans, the JFK 50 Miler ultra-run, a R2R2R Double Crossing of the Grand Canyon and three other Ultraman races (in which they placed as top Canadian Male & Female in 2012), into a mere 12 years, they return, now 50 years old, to the Big Island, to revisit the single toughest race they’ve ever done.
“You start at 6am with a point-to-point open water swim,” says Katherine, who goes most often by Kat. “You each have a kayak guide to help you navigate the water, look out for jellyfish, sharks, sea lice, man o’ wars. Five hours 30 minutes is the cut off.” Then the first bike leg begins—8,000 metres of climbing to the top of an active volcano to finish by 6pm. And that’s just day one.
It begs belief that Kat could say of the pair who were named the 2012 Canadian Ultra Distance Male and Female Triathletes of the Year, “We’re not natural athletes.” Or that 15 years ago, Kevin didn’t know how to swim, was 65 pounds overweight, and had just broken a 20-year smoking habit.
“This was a fearful journey to begin,” says Kat, an art director with the largest manufacturer of guitars in North America, Godin Guitars. “I went to art school. I didn’t know how to run.”
They signed up for a sprint triathlon together, as part of their first ‘get fit’ efforts, with Kat taking the swim leg and Kevin on the bike and run. And they won the team division. “It was thrilling,” remembers Kat. “We were having fun, and the weight was coming off.”
They won nine more events over two years racing as a team. Then, Kevin said, “Let’s do an Ironman.”
“You don’t know how to swim,” Kat told him. “So I took him to a 25-metre pool and said, ‘Okay, get in and swim to the other side.’
‘Without stopping?’ was Kevin’s response.
“But with determination, he was in my Masters swim class within a month. He’d go at lunch and swim 20 minutes at a time, trying to master it. And I started learning to run. I did a 5k walk/run—I’d never known you could walk! Having a goal that was really scary, but objective, was key.”
Today, the self-described soul mates train 26 hours a week, on top of their full-time nine-to-five desk jobs. Explains Kat, “We rarely sit on the couch. We bike and run into work. We use the commute, leave food at work, leave clothes at work.”
“We’re fighting the weather at this point,” says Kat. “We’re layering up at 4:45am in the dark. The Canada geese fly past on their way south and we’re like, what are we doing here?”
But, the Big Island of Hawaii beckons, and as Kevin says, with Ultraman so close, there’s no room for any junk miles. In Ultraman, racing through 12 different climate zones, you really are at the mercy of the elements. “It’s about making everything count. I’d like to be top ten. But, as I was told when this race started, you don’t decide how to do this race. Madame Pele [the capricious Hawaiian goddess of the volcano] decides.”
And when it’s done? “It takes a long time to digest what we’ve done. You want to savour it, but there’s no time to think. It’s just go, go, go, and then they tell you to stop,” says Kevin. “So wintertime is fun. We do a lot of yoga. Eat stews. Drink wine. It’s a nice reward.”
||Ultraman World Championships Fast Facts
Our editor, Kate, sat down with Jane Bockus, Race Director, and Sheryl Cobb, Assistant Race Director
—two of the Ultraman World Championships “ohana” (that’s Hawaiian for “family”)—to get a fastfacts look at what’s been called the “toughest and nicest triathlon.”
• Of the 40 racers, this year only 17 have never done the race before, which explains why those involved call it a “family reunion.”
• The biggest Ultraman World Championship Race had 80 competitors, but the island of Hawaii can’t really sustain more than 40 people.
• Racer’s ages range from their 20s to their 60s.
• On Day 1, the first swimmers exit the water between one-and-a-half to five hours. Dehydration and seasickness are common challenges.
• Racers have 12 hours to finish the Day 1 course; the first finisher takes about nine and a half hours; some racers won’t make the cut-off.
• This year’s race has to have a backup route on Day 2 because of lava flow moving across one of Hawaii’s highways.
• The man who won the first year ever came back last year to race with his son.
• Jane says: “Every year there are stories here that touch your heart. Andre Kajlich was our first amputee to try the course;, and he uses a regular wheelchair with no brakes— not a racing one.”
• Because their crews are right there with them, racers eat real food on the course (and you tend to see lots of turkey because of Thanksgiving).
• You don’t have to win another Ultraman to go to the Ultraman World Championships, but you have to have done an Iron distance in the last 18 months—and to be invited.
• Competitors this year are coming from Germany, Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic, Sloveni, Canada, Brazil, Japan and Switzerland.
• Couples entrants, like Kev and Kat, are a unique thing in the World Ultraman Championships.
• Sheryl says: “The highlight of the weekend for me is the awards banquet, 24 hours after the race ends. By then the athletes have had time to think about it and all the people who helped them. In Ironman it’s just you out there, but for us it’s ‘be nice to your crew or else…’ You really realize what a community this is and that you’re not in it alone.”