I worked harder last week than I have since my early twenties working as a production assistant on film and TV sets. In fact, I was thankful I had my bountiful production experience of picking up trash, giving out food, keeping track of time, keeping track of talent, relaying information, taking notes, problem-solving, holding in my bladder, setting up shots, wrangling wardrobe, and documenting continuity going into my first stint as a crew member for an Ultraman triathlon. Just like in my wide-eyed early days working in Hollywood, I was ready to give it everything I had from start to finish in order to make sure we made our day on time, and the entire team, (including our amazing athlete) were ready to go again less than twelve hours later.
First off, does everyone know what an Ultraman is?
I suppose I should explain what it is for those of you who are unfamiliar with the majestic/psychotic race, because it is similar, yet not at all like an Ironman. It is a triathlon, but it is a three day stage race, vs. a one day affair. The stages are as follows:
Day One: Swim 6.2 miles, Ride 90.
Day Two: Ride 170 miles (It turned out to be more like 172 miles).
Day Three: Run 52.4 miles.
Every day has a twelve hour cut-off, so if you an athlete does not make the cut-off, they can continue the race, but are shifted to the "Participant" status vs. "Finisher." The fields are much lower than mainstream triathlons, usually capping the start list to thirty, but this year's Ultraman Canada's race roster had a solid twenty signed up, with eighteen making it to the start.
As most of you know, the last couple of months have not gone according to plan for me, but the one event that I absolutely had to be ready for, was crewing for my friend and teammate, Kat Zeiler at Ultraman Canada. As the weeks ticked by, and my health went haywire, I became increasingly nervous that I would not be able to do exactly what Kat asked/needed me to most, help pace her during Day 3, the 52.4 mile run.
It's amazing what the body can do when the mind takes over.
Kat and I met through our coach, Hillary Biscay, the head coach of TeamHPB. Hillary assigned us to train together for a mini-camp in SoCal when Kat was visiting for work in late February. We rode many miles together up and down PCH that week, and swam together, it was both a fun and challenging week of training. Although, what made that week really special, was that from the moment I met Kat, I felt a connection; she was funny, easy-going, strong, and intense, (my favorite kind of personality), and right away I knew it was the start of an incredible friendship.
Therefore, when Kat texted me last March asking if she could talk to me about something important whenever I had time to chat, I responded that I was available, and she called right away.
"Can you crew for me at Ultraman?"
"Sure!" I replied instantly.
"Thank you! But, check with Hillary first, I really believe in what you are trying to do, so do it only if it will work with your plan."
"I'm sure it will be fine, but yes, I will confirm with her and get right back to you."
I did not know exactly what I was saying "Yes" to, but I had faith that I would do anything and everything Kat needed me to do to help her achieve her final goal after nearly thirty years as a competitive triathlete, become an Ultraman.
Cut to, Hillary giving me the thumb's up on joining Kat's crew for Ultraman, (at the time we were gunning for Ironman Boulder as my "A" race, while Ironman Wisconsin was a contingency), so the timing of Ultraman taking place at the end of July seemed reasonable to slug in between Boulderin June and Wisconsin September. Obviously, we had no idea at the time my season would crumble like it did, but I believe now what transpired actually set me up to appreciate my crew position more than I might have in any other scenario.
Kat's other crew members were her boyfriend Mark, (Team Captain, Kayaker during the swim, driver, and overall steadier of nerves).
Next, was her friend Melanie, (master nutritionist and mathematician, and fellow run pacer.)
Finally, my roles were, (navigator, camera operator/social media director/early morning driver/run pacer).
Naturally, we all blended responsibilities over the three day race, but respected each other's roles, and kept our focus clear, support Kat by any means necessary.
I flew up to Penticton, BC last Tuesday, and flew home yesterday. I was there one week, but that single week flipped how I see the world upside down. I have known about Ultraman for years. I was beside myself cheering Hillary on from afar when she raced at the World Championships on the big island of Hawaii in 2010 and 2013, and again this last November when my teammate Mary Knott raced at World’s, too. Also, I read Rich Roll’s book Finding Ultra twice, (the original and updated edition), and the book The Race Within, which chronicled the background of Ultraman. Therefore, I had plenty of knowledge and respect for the event before I agreed to crew for Kat, but I had no idea what it looked and felt like up close, and I was giddy to snatch up a backstage pass.
What I learned quickly is that Ultraman is an alternate universe, to know it, you have to live it.
The days leading up to the race were packed with meetings. We had a conference call with Hillary, a post-Hillary meeting with the four of us including Kat, an official meeting with the entire Ultraman staff and fellow competitors and their teams, and a couple more with the three crew members only, sans Kat. We drove all around town picking up items on a never-ending “To-Do,” list, and actually managed to have fun doing it.
Also, I needed to squeeze in some training on Wednesday and Thursday, and Kat did too. So Wednesday we swam in Lake Okanagan for thirty minutes, which was beautiful, but what made that swim special was hearing Kat say, “That was the last training swim I’ll ever do.”
That quiet early moment was when the butterflies in my stomach started to stir, because as an athlete I know how important that swim must have been to Kat. She swam hundreds of thousands of yards just in the last few years preparing for Ultraman, plus a million more that she clocked in the decades before, and they all came down to these last strokes in a lake in Penticton, Canada.
Later that afternoon, after getting our bikes inspected at the famous local shop, “The Bike Barn,” I headed out toward Skaha Lake for a two hour spin on Simone. I brought her to train on and serve as back-up bike for Kat. The ride was fun and useful, because where I rode was part of the bike course for Day one and Day two of the race, a fact that would come in handy the while chasing down Kat after the swim. My keen senses as navigator were always up, because even though I was riding solo, my job as a crew member was the top priority.
Thursday was a blur. We were in motion the entire day. Thankfully, Kat and I did fit in a short ride and run that both officially capped off her training for good. The final few steps down the driveway were emotional for both of us, for Kat it was the end of a huge part of her life, and for me, (my foot aching from the short run), I was panicking internally about how I could manage the many hours of running ahead of me on Sunday?
The house buzzed with excitement the last few hours before bedtime. I poured over the maps of the course, Mark prepped Kat’s bike, Kat got all of her gear together, and Melanie organized all of the nutrition we needed for day one of the race, the 6.2 mile swim, and 90 mile bike ride. We needed to be up early to leave the house by 4:45A, I barely slept a wink.
We did make our departure time. I was at the wheel to the swim per Mark’s request, he had a big morning as Kat’s Kayaker, so I was fine with taking on a sliver of the driving duty, (although driving an athlete to a race is very stressful). I don’t think I have ever felt as much weight on my shoulders as when I drove my sister Sarah to her first marathon in 2013. Thankfully, I found my way then, and with the help of both Garmin and Melanie, I found my way on Friday morning. However, there was a slight detour I did not expect. About fifteen into the thirty minutes’ drive to the swim start in Naramata, Kat calmy said from the backseat, “I think I left my swim bag at the house."
My instinct was that she was kidding. Nope. She really left her swim bag sitting on the ground in the foyer.
Thankfully, we had enough time to turn around and to retrieve it, and still make the swim start on time. As a crew we learned a valuable lesson, we couldn’t leave any task up to Kat, even taking care of her own gear.
When we arrived at the lake, most of the teams were there, but it turned out our little snafu with the swim bag was a blip on the day compared to what the first time race director, an adorable local triathlete named Brad Sawa, was dealing with, only half of the kayaks were accounted for. Apparently, one of the two kayak rental companies did not show up. Also, the bathrooms were locked. Plus, another athlete drove all the way to the swim start and then realized he forgot his wetsuit; lucky for us, Kat caught her mistake halfway there.
However, even though the start of the race was delayed an hour, the mood at the shore was serene. This was Ultraman, not Ironman. Everyone went with the flow, and soon enough the second batch of Kayaks arrived, and the race was officially under way.
Oh, there was one more announcement; the looped bike course was changed to an out-and-back due to a nearby forest fire.
Yep, this was Ultraman, a race about adapting and moving forward.
Minutes after Kat and Mark left the shore, Melanie and I drove back to the house to load the van, and head down to the swim finish in time to find a quality parking spot and decorate the van. Kat estimated the swim would take up to four hours, I thought she would do it in about three and half hours, we were both off.
The day before, after the group meeting, we practiced Kat’s T1 strategy. I would catch her coming out of the water, walk her up from the sand to the edge of the public park, strip her wetsuit, (my hidden talent), hand her hydration and food, and walk up the park about fifty yards to where Melanie would be waiting with her bike and gear. However, just before 10A, while holding onto Kat’s bike while Melanie starting gathering the supplies for transition, I looked out to the lake and saw a fantastic, yet surprising sight. “I see an orange kayak! That might be them!” I leaned the bike against the van, and walked down toward the shore, and for the first of many times over the weekend, my heart leapt from my chest, Kat was out of the water and walking toward me; she finished the swim nearly an hour before she predicted, just over three hours, was the third place swimmer, and first female. I quickly took off running in her direction, and helped her walk up through the park to our make-shift T1 area that Melanie magically fixed up in a flash.
“That was incredible! You smoked that swim!” I said right away.
“That last bit was tough.” Kat replied smiling.
After a few minutes of refueling, a change of her top, rinsing of her feet, and sunscreen application, she was off on her bike, and the chase for us to catch up to her was on.
Kat is a strong cyclist. I learned that very quickly into our first ride together back in February, so even though it only took us a few minutes to get our act together, (Mark changed into dry clothes and we reloaded the van), she was already miles ahead of us when we started to roll out of town. This is when my earlier training ride/recon mission came in handy, because the turns leaving town were confusing, but I knew where she was headed, and with some help from the friend finder app, and a rising speed limit, we were closing in on her. The first time we saw her, my heart skipped a beat. It was a huge relief to know we were all on the right course, and she was riding very well snuggly in second place overall. The only athlete in front of her was the only professional in the field, Jordan Bryden. Yes, you read that right.
Kat was crushing it.
We pulled over for our first stop of about a million over the entire weekend, staggering the three of us so Kat could first grab a bottle of nutrition from me, drop an empty bottle at my feet, then grab food from Melanie, and finally chamois cream, or any other needful item from Mark who stood closest to the car. She told us that first time that she wanted to refuel every hour, so we synced our watches, and leap-frogged her stopping to cheer every few minutes as she passed, but prepping her nutrition for only that hourly stop.
The bike course initially included two climbs, a shorter steeper one first, and then a longer, yet less graded climb second. However, since the course changed to an out and back, the U-turn being before the second climb, she would be doing the first climb from both sides, which meant steep and tough, twice. She started the first climb around 12N, just as the day starting heating up, and the perfect time to break out our secret weapon, Hillary.
During our lunch on Thursday, Melanie and I came up with a genius idea to blow up a photo of Hillary so we could use it to cheer for Kat. I knew Kat would be invigorated seeing Hillary on the course, (even in this hilarious form), because she followed Hillary’s training plan to a tee, and held such value in her as a coach.
“Is that Hillary?!’ Kat yelled out mid pedal up the hill. ‘That is amazing!”
She stopped for a scheduled feed, which was great timing because she was starting to feel woozy, and then powered on up the next few miles of climbs in 90+F temps.
The crew appreciated to hopping back into the air conditioned van.
Up until the out and back, Kat only had two other riders in her zip code, but one of them looked super smooth and was gaining on her. Before the race started, Kat instructed us that she never wanted to know the distances she had left to go, but we thought knowing she only had a few more kilometers left, just after the zen powerhouse Howie Nordstrom passed her during a stop. would motivate her to finish out day one with authority.
She finished the day third overall and first female with a time of 8:28:43 hours.
Even though Kat was done for the day, her crew was not. We spent the next few hours getting Kat fed, and cleaned up, unloaded and organized the nutrition and supplies, and Mark refueled the van and picked up a few other food items around town. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find a couple things at the store he went to, so after he returned home, Melanie and I set out to find them at another store.
When we returned to the house, Kat was minutes away from heading to bed, and looked understandably exhausted. I would be drained too thinking I had to ride 170 miles the next morning after swimming and riding over eight hours. We finished the night with one more team meeting where Mark relayed notes from Kat, and our day two strategy was set.
Miraculously, I slept soundly for a few hours before another 3:40A wakeup call.
The long ride day started at Skaha Lake marina. The bathrooms were closed there, too. I drove us again, and didn’t have to turn around at all, so the day was a success before it began. Almost.
They wanted the crews to leave before the racers, so about two minutes after we turned right onto Lakeside road, I received this text message from Kat, “I thought the map was on my computer but it’s not.” Uh-oh.
Mark freaked out a little, but then remembered she could load the map to her phone, so he told me to respond, “Open Garmin connect, find the route on Garmin, send to your advice.” I followed it with the note Hillary gave her the night before, “Also, follow Howie.”
The first twelve km’s were a no-feed/stopping zone for the crews, but we stopped as soon as we could and quickly watched the overall leader Jordan pedal by, and then we saw a flash of yellow not that far behind. Yep, Kat was back in second place.
The next few hours were along a section of the day one bike course, so we were in familiar territory, and we had our feed and cheers stops dialed in.
Then came The Wall.
We made sure to be in front of Kat so she would make the turn toward the toughest climb of the race, The Wall. Typically sections of bike courses with that moniker are challenging, and this one was tough. We drove up ahead of her because the road was narrow, and was designated as another no feed/stopping zone, but we pulled over once we made it to the top and waiting for Kat to cruise on by with a smile on her face.
The next hour or so the course twisted throughout gorgeous wine country. Kat looked good, her fueling was working, and the temps remained cool. Then we turned onto HWY 3A, and the real work began. The winds picked up, and never settled down.
Next, came near tragedy. After a scheduled feed stop, Kat took off and we meandered too long before driving away, we were too far behind her, and the turn we needed to stake out was too close to make it in time to catch her, she kept going straight, and missed the turn.
“She missed the turn!!” Mark yelled out while speeding up to catch her before she lost too much time. We got beside her quickly, and starting honking the horn, a big “no, no”, but we were desperate. I rolled down the window and yelled out, “You missed a turn!”
Then Kat looked up and calmly replied, “Did I miss a turn?”
next, Mark made a safe U-Turn, with Kat following close behind. We were back at the turn toward Keremeos in a seconds, but we saw a scary sight just before turning left, Howie. Due to our error, (all of us blamed her missing the turn on our misjudgment of the distance, and not reaching the corner in time for her to spot the turn), Kat lost her second place position.
However, the next endless amount of hours did the real damage.
The wind was relentless.
Kat handled the tough conditions like a pro, but just after hitting the 220 kilometers out of the 276, she started to crack. She pulled over for a feed stop, got off her bike, and stretched saying, “That wind!! That wind was so hard!”
Her taste for fuel changed throughout the day, yet somehow Melanie was always one step ahead of her. She knew she needed ice about ten minutes before Kat asked for it, she surprised her with Junior Mints, thatshe gobbled up gleefully in minutes, and broke out the banana bread to save Kat from her biggest hurdle of the day.
The next stop was in the town of Princeton, home of the eventual day two finish line after a grueling 60km out and back. At the base of the climb, Melanie made another genius move by swapping out her drink nutrition with a new formula that brought Kat back to life. It was a high-fiving moment for all three of us.
Then I got yelled at.
About one third of the way up the climb to the turn-a-round, Kat stopped for a feed and asked how far she was from the top. Remember when I said she didn’t want to know any distances? Well, I was prepared to tell her when we were at the base of the climb, but I was unclear exactly where we were when we stopped, we hadn’t reset our odometer, and there were no distance markers on the course, but I guessed we were about 10-12km’s from the top? I will leave Kat’s exact wording between us, but she wasn’t satisfied with my response. Honestly, I understood her frustration, and let it roll off my back. I could only imagine the physical and mental exhaustion she was feeling, and the only thing to do was just keep moving forward.
Then she picked up speed, and before we knew we were at the top of the climb, she made her final U-turn of the day, and headed downhill to the finish.
Kat screamed down the hill, and nearly caught the third place rider before finishing strong for fourth place on the day in 10:44:06, and holding steady in third place overall, and still first female.
Another special part of the Ultraman experience is how small and tightknit the community is, it truly does feel like family, which is why their pillars of Ohana, (family), Aloha, (love), and Kokua, (help), are felt at every stage of the race.
I felt extra taken care of because my friend and fellow Smashfest Queen teammate, Jess Deree, lead the medical team. Jess is a fantastic Dr., and an outstanding Ultra distance athlete. She is also a fellow Alaskaman finisher, as we both raced in the inaugural event in 2017. Having Jess nearby all weekend added a bonus of fun and comfort; it was good to know Kat was in such good hands.
The ride ended in the town of Princeton, and that is where the run would start on Sunday morning, so most of the competitors were staying there overnight, however, we opted to drive the ninety minutes back to Penticton in order for Kat to have a quality night sleep in a familiar bed. That decision made it a longer day for us, and earlier morning on Sunday, but well worth the effort to keep Kat’s spirits riding high after smashing a stellar bike ride and preparing for a daunting run; the day three double marathon was the only unchecked box left in her triathlon career.
After we arrived home, Melanie cleaned out the van, while I put Kat in her NormaTech boots to nap, and then ordered a pizza, and Mark headed back out to refuel for our final long day. The fatigue from all of us could be sliced with a knife, but the promise of only one more crazy early morning wake-up call, followed by hours of running, painted a smile on my face that I couldn’t wipe off if I tried.
We saw at least two deer on our long Sunday morning drive back to Princeton, miraculously Melanie has Superman-esque vision, and could spot them miles away, (at least it felt like it), and warned me with plenty of time to spare making our drive safe and smooth. I was more nervous than usual because of the length of the drive, and that the starting line was described to me from the day two finish line set up at the hockey arena parking lot, “Take a right at Old Hedley rd., turn left at the first street, and drive about twelve kilometers, or until you see a caravan of cars.”
I just wanted to get Kat to the start on time.
The official starting line was in the middle of the road. The banner went up, the runners ran underneath it, and then the banner came down. Ahh, the simplicity of Ultraman.
The first eighteen miles or so Kat was clipping along on her own at a 9:30min. mile pace. We experimented with the best way to distribute fuel to her, as she kept her Camelback on for a while, but ditched in lieu of a bottle. She never ran more than a few steps holding bottle all day; that was a task for the pacer.
I took the first fifty-ish minute pull running with Kat, holding a bottle of carefully mixed fuel containing the perfect combination of salt and calories that Kat needed to keep her steady all day in one hand, (the math Melanie had to keep straight in order to hit those numbers still makes my head hurt), and a tube of BASE salt and ziplock bag full of the exact amount of calories Kat needed to eat in an hour in the other. I don't think she will ever look at ziplock bags the same.
She ate every ten minutes, which meant I kept my eyes closely on my watch for time only, not pace. Mark and Melanie leap-frogged us handing out sunscreen, cooling towels, ice, etc. insuring whatever Kat needed was always only a few feet away.
Except when I dropped things.
That happened a couple of times, but I was all too eager to run back to pick them up, and run quickly to catch back up with Kat. I felt so good. I was so happy to be running. I hadn’t run more than a few miles over the preceding weeks, but my legs felt springy, my foot ached here and there, but wearing my toe-straightener contraption, plus my cycling shoes’ insoles helped my comfort and confidence that my foot could handle this long run just fine.
Melanie and I swapped our pacing duties throughout the day, but I took the longer pulls because I was visibly giddy to run, (please see previous paragraph), and Melanie needed to prep all of the nutrition.
Kat ran the whole thing.
She stopped two times to stretch, but picked right back up to running again.
She never walked.
The course was very tough. The first marathon was rolling; the second marathon was stacked with climb, after never-ending climb on a dirt road, followed by meager, teaser-like descents. The promise of nearby pavement, which signaled civilization, was all Kat could focus on; around mile forty, she started to unravel.
“Where is the pavement? They told us there’d be pavement?”
“It’s up ahead; we just have to keep going.” I said, or something similar.
Finally, after hours and hours of dusty hills, we hit pavement.
The next thirteen kilometers were extremely tough for Kat; she was cooked and just wanted it to be over. Yet even in those dark moments she keep running at a consistent pace, and even though her attitude got a little punchy, and I had to break out my alter-ego, Terry, to keep her in check, she still kept moving forward. Even though she didn’t believe it, the finish line was getting closer with every single step.
And then we heard the crystal, cool voice of Ultraman, Steve King, call out her name while running together as an entire team down the grassy finish shoot and over the line, the last finish line of Kat’s triathlon career.
The next few minutes and hours were a frenzy of hugs, high fives, reminiscing, and sitting. It was glorious.
Kat ran 52.4 miles in 9:43:23, finishing in fourth place on the day, and a cumulative time of28:56:12 for the entire race, placing fourth overall and first female.
The rest of the night was filled with joy and laughter because we didn’t have to pack the car again the next morning, Kat was upright and smiling after dominating the race, and put a huge exclamation point on an already outstanding triathlon resume.
She went out on top as an Ultraman champion.
The next day, we lounged all morning swapping stories, swam in the lake, ate another amazing meal at Sharky’s, and endured the final leg of Ultraman, the awards ceremony. Much like this post, it was very long.
Awesome, but long.
Next, we headed back to the house to toast our champ, along with her amazing coach, one more time.
I flew out early the following morning, and during the short drive to the airport I kept thinking how poetic life is, and that everything truly does happen how it should, even if it does not appear that way at the time. I know that the most important goal on my schedule this year was not any race that I signed up for, it was the one Kat asked me to help her achieve.
I cannot imagine my life without Kat’s friendship, and will be forever grateful that she gave me a front row seat of how to develop grit, and then let it go with grace.
Thank you for inviting me on this life-changing adventure Kat, and for introducing me to two people I thoroughly enjoyed spending three days trapped in a van with, and know I will be friends with for life. Mark and Melanie, remember the Super-Soakers.:)
Finally, an interesting thing happened after running twenty or so miles on Sunday, my foot didn’t hurt on Monday.
The song choice this week goes out to Mark, celebrating our mutual appreciation for mid-90’s grunge music with an emphasis on our top task for the weekend, keeping Kat from going hungry. Here is the classic tune from Temple of the Dog, Hunger Strike.