Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Race Within: A conversation with Kate Bevilaqua on Ultra515 Canada

Image via

I was surprised last month to check up on the start list at the rebranded Canadian event and see another professional Ironman athlete taking the challenge. I reached Kate at her home in Australia and we talked about why she signed up.

On her reasons for trying the Ultraman distance 

I've talked about doing it for three, four, five years now. The first time I heard about it was five years ago during a trip to Hawaii. It was always an issue of timing. This sort of thing is a major commitment, especially in terms of recovery and finance. But at the end of last year I started planning my calendar and thought 'why not?' I love the challenge. I like events that push me over the edge. It excites me. 

On whether she has plans to compete in Ultraman at some point 

The goal is definitely to win the Ultraman World Championships. Hawaii is special. I like to be there. But if the World Champs were somewhere else, I would definitely want to race there because it's the world champs. It's a special thing to be world champion. 

On whether she'd compete at the world Rubik's cube championships if she had the ability to win it 


On whether she'd compete in the Ultraman World Championships if she won the Ironman World Championship 


On if she'd compete in the Ultraman World Championships if there was an Ultra515 World Championship and she won it 


On what the heck it means to be a world champion in the context of her answers to the previous two questions 

It's the sport and the people. You can't take the smile off my face when I toe the line for an Ironman. I'm always nervous the night before a race. I have trouble sleeping. I'm always scared and excited. The Rubik's cube thing isn't the challenge I'm looking for. There's a physical and mental aspect. 

On if she knew that Canada had changed brands 

No, I wasn't aware that Canada was no longer an Ultraman event until I saw your earlier blog on it. I looked at the Ultraman website before registering and didn't see that it had changed, and I never heard back from anyone at Ultraman after I emailed them. 

[Note: I reached Sheryl Cobb after this interview. She told me that they never received an email from Kate and that the rules were changed to reflect the new relationship with Canada immediately after Steve Brown's press release. Here is the language under section 34, "Qualification for Entry," of the Ultraman rules and guidelines on the website: At a minimum it is expected that the applicant will be a former finisher of an Ultraman event (Canada—prior to 2015, United Kingdom—prior to 2014, Florida or World Championships) and have completed an event with at least a 2.4 miles swim, 112 miles bike, and 26.2 miles run or equivalent in the previous 18 months to the Ultraman Event for which they are applying. Other ultra distance events are also considered as qualifiers assuming they have distances equal to or greater than iron distances. (Emphasis added)

My read on this is that Ultra515 still qualifies finishers for the Ultraman World Championships. Remarkably, there is no mention of Ultraman Australia in the rule.]

On if and when she'll be able to walk away from triathlon after a world championship or the end of her pro career 

No. My partner and I will go back as age-groupers. I'm never walking away. It's who we are. We have a coaching company and I'm passionate about supporting my athletes when they qualify for Kona.

Where to from here? 

The Ironman World Championship isn't enough. I'd love to compete in Roth. I want to branch out to ultra later in my career. I want to run in Western States and other events. I think Ultraman is the right distance between Ironman and the really crazy triple Iron distances. I think a lot of professional athletes think about doing the ultra distance, but there are of course financial pressures during your career. I think in fact you'll see more pros going to ultra after they retire.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Ultraman Florida: A few thoughts

Billy Edwards finishing the run (image via Michelle Buczkowski)

I wasn't there, but thanks to friends I was more or less able to keep up with the play-by-play. I know Billy Edwards from interviews with him in his capacity as a coach for the U.S. Naval Academy's triathlon team and the Race Across America. He's fast in the Iron distance and obviously knows how to ride a bike. I wasn't sure how he'd swim or handle a 52.4-mile run, though. Usually cyclists fall off the pace a little in the third stage. He obviously trained hard. Congrats to him.

I had pegged Christian Isakson for the win, especially with his experience in Canada and Hawaii in the bag. Word was that he developed stomach issues as in Hawaii again, though, and it slowed him down on the second and third days. He's due a good race, so if you're going to Hawaii this year and you see his name on the start list, you've got to start thinking that his number is coming up.

Regarding good races, I wonder how the cold snap and winds influenced the racing this past weekend. Billy was the fastest this year, but his time would have only put him in third place at the end of last year's event. Nobody touched Chuck Kemeny's 21:38:32. I thought they'd get closer. People have mentioned there are a few stoplights involved in the second day's ride, but all things being equal that doesn't amount to more than 5 minutes' difference. Comparing Edwards and Kemeny, Chuck is a lot faster on the swim and the run. Billy is about as fast on the bike. He finished Day 1 a little quicker and Day 2 nine minutes behind Chuck's 2014 performance. I might not be giving the traffic lights enough credit.

Billy has already said that he wants to go to Hawaii, but I'm not sure if it will be this year. I think Kemeny is planning to be there, as is Dave Matheson from Canada. It's hard to compare Florida and Canada much beyond the swim (they're both in lakes), and I wouldn't want to diss anyone, but that Day 2 course in Canada is no joke, and Dave posted a much faster time than either Kemeny or Edwards in Florida, and he ran as well as Kemeny on Day 3. I'd say you've got a battle between the record holders brewing, with a potential side drama of an Edwards/Isakson rematch.

There are a couple of x-factors left to consider. Miro Kregar doesn't always race the Ultraman World Championships, but when he does he he turns in a 6:30 double marathon like it's no big deal. Again, course comparisons are a bit apples-and-oranges, but I give the winning difficulty factor to the Hawaiian heat over the Floridian hills. And as fast as Miro swims, he could start Day 3 with a time gap over Dave and Chuck. That's a really great place to be for a guy who's used to crushing the run. I can't say how the bike legs will go, however, because the courses are radically different. Hawaii takes you up the volcano on Day 1 and down it on Day 2, which really skews the perception of effort and speed.

And then there's still any number of surprises that could pop up on the start list.

I don't have anything to say about the women's race yet. I've heard nothing about who has what plans for Hawaii. I am hoping it will be an exciting contest, though. There's plenty of talent in the women's field to race against. Someone just needs to pick up the glove.

Update: As of this morning, both Chuck and Dave have confirmed to me that they've cancelled plans to compete in Hawaii this year. I guess we'll just have to wait until the official start list is published.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ultraman Florida is this weekend

It's the second year for the event, and it's a full dance card of 40 athletes: 35 men and 5 women. I've heard a few names dropped as strong contenders for the men's race. I'll be impressed to see if they can keep up with Christian Isakson. If they can, it will be even more exciting to see if they can break Chuck Kemeny's finish time of 21:38:32 from last year-- the fastest ever finish on any Ultraman course. Chuck is a Florida native but is skipping a title defense this year. According to the grapevine, he'll be racing the World Championships in Hawaii this November. That ought to make for an interesting competition, because I hear someone else who raced against Christian in Canada is also planning a run at the title. I'll have a lot more to say about that when I know for sure.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Race Within: Will Ultra515 be worth it? I don't know.

 By the time I went to Hawaii to cover the 2013 Ultraman World Championships, things between Steve Brown and the rest of the board had become very tense. I had two at-length conversations with Steve during my time there. One occurred during the Keauhou Canoe Club's Thanksgiving potluck dinner. The other was during the awards banquet after Ultraman. Both took place in the presence of alcohol and in neither case did I explicitly say we were on the record, so I didn't print anything he said. However, in both cases he avoided answering certain questions I asked, so it was pretty obvious he was still aware that I was a journalist and he was a subject of interest. With that said, I was surprised at the tone of the sentiments he did express, and just how much they foreshadowed what came afterward.

The dialogue had shifted radically by November. From Steve's point of view, the emphasis was no longer on progress, expansion or even Australia. It was about how the board operated. He was very dissatisfied with the fact that Sheryl and Dave were essentially a voting bloc, and that they would almost always side with Jane. But he was further frustrated with the fact that Jane has 100-percent control of Ohana Loa, which renders the point of a board moot in the first place. These are valid points, and I empathized with Steve. At the same time, majority rule is also a valid point, and Steve didn't have a really good answer when I asked him if it told him something that he was on the losing side of the argument so often.

I think that was the real hitch. UMUK was definitely the catalyst that pushed Steve over the edge, but if it hadn't been UMUK maybe it would have been something else. At any rate, he was done arguing over the issues by that point. He was arguing over how they were arguing. His ideas mostly revolved around restructuring the board to give him more control. I still like to believe that he wanted that control to do the right thing. But he was trying to do the right thing in the wrong way. Why he pushed to get Ultraman Europe going in 2015 when he knew that wasn't what Jane wanted, I have no idea. He never responded when I asked him. But it was a pretty clear bright line, and he crossed it.

I struggled with the final pages I wrote in the book for a long time. They were not easy to type. I struggled with them again when the book came out and I had to face certain people very close to Steve who had placed a lot of trust in me. I frequently tell people that I felt like writing this book was like watching "Field of Dreams" from the middle of the diamond out in that corn field. Steve took on the role of Shoeless Joe from my perspective. Maybe Pete Rose is the better analogy. I wanted better for him, but I wanted better from him, too.

Steve Brown forgot what Ultraman was supposed to be. Or maybe he knew and just ignored it. But the real mystery to me is, in leaving Ultraman's principles behind, what was he moving toward? What is it he wants to do with Ultra515? Where does it go from here, and how will it be different from Ultraman? He obviously wanted things to be different from Ultraman. I wonder just how different Ultra515 will be, and whether those differences will be significant enough to say they're worth everything that was sacrificed to achieve them.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Race Within: My favorite photos from two years at Ultraman (1 of 2)

I am not a photographer by any means. But I did try to snap enough images to offer a fair visual representation of Ultraman to go along with my words. Here are some that I took that didn't get into the final product. Each one represents a moment where I learned something about the race. 

This is Consuela Lively at the swim transition during the 2012 race. She's just found out that her husband Trung is having trouble in the water. In most cases, Consuela would have been on his crew, but that year she was shadowing Jane as part of the requirements to prepare for Ultraman Florida. Steve King offers encouragement as he gets updates from the support crew boat. It was one of the first photos I took, and I was so unprepared for the moment that I had to snap it with my phone camera. It was obviously a tough moment for her, and I didn't feel comfortable photographing it. It was the first time on the project that I felt like an intruder into something deeply personal for these people. It was hardly the last. But over time I came to understand that they knew what I was doing and were more than happy to let me. Sharing their triumphs and tragedies so equally with me gave me a lot of respect for all of them. 

Ingrid Hillhouse at the swim transition in 2012. As she departed on her bike, she turned back to Steve King and shouted "There can be no toxicity with gratitude!" She hadn't had the easiest day in the water, and it was as much a personal affirmation for the ride ahead as it was recognition of Steve's help. That's when I knew that phrase would be a prominent note in the book.

Steve King at the race volunteers' house in 2013. This is the Wednesday before the race. All the paperwork on the table might make you wonder if he's doing taxes for a company or studying for a corporate litigation case. He's just that dedicate to the athletes. 

Lucy Ryan and Ingrid Hillhouse at Lava Java in 2013. Ingrid came to crew for Lucy this time. They'd crewed and raced together in several ultra events before. The Ultraman family members bump into each other all the time at events around the world. 

Gary Wang, who holds the record for most Ultraman finishes now, and Jane Bockus. This is Jane's usual attire for race week. If anyone who doesn't know her comes asking, just tell them to find the lady with the visor and the clipboard. 

Tony Horton and Sheryl Cobb in Hawaii, 2013. Despite their professional differences, they did find a way to get along on a personal level. 

Amber Monforte at registration in 2013. I just thought this was a great shot of her. Despite all the troubles of the previous year, she was happy to be in Hawaii. It was a completely different mood with her, and even though she wasn't as "in it to win it" as in the past, you could tell even before she started that it was going to be another unique and special race.

Miro Kregar and Alexandre Ribeiro in Hawaii, 2013. This is at race registration. This and the following photograph really illustrate the relationship they have. I'd never seen two rivals get along so well. It doesn't show at all here, but Miro really wanted the win this year. Not because he wanted to beat Alex so much, rather just for the win itself. 

Lucy Ryan at the end of day 1 in 2013. It was the first time in her life she didn't make a cutoff in an ultra race, and she was beyond upset about this one. More than the photo of Consuela, I was uncomfortable taking this one. But after she had shared so much with me in Canada, I felt like she'd be okay with this one, and she was. 

Ryan Weibel showing just what it takes to be a crew member in an ultra race. Sometimes you just have to be a little crazy. He was a lot of fun with a super sense of humor. He kept Amber's spirits up throughout the whole race for two years-- and sometimes that's more important than food and water. 

Alexander limping a bit with his pulled muscle in 2013. Miro is already way out in the lead. It was a haunting sensation to see Alex like this, struggling on alone with nothing but endless road in sight. It's the same for many of the athletes during the day 3 run, but given Alex's history of performances on the course, he really epitomized the trial of solitude that the race becomes on this day. 

Here is maybe my favorite photo from 2013. I was just in the right place at the right time with camera ready to catch it. Christian Isakson really hit the wall hard and started vomiting fluids all over the place. He'd been doing it all weekend, but on this one there was a sense that he was really coming apart. He was beginning to slip away a bit. He began retreating into his lower brain a bit,  and wasn't as responsive to his crew. It's very difficult to support a guy like that, because he's just not as communicative. I think Christian's case is unique in that, however, because the less he talked to his crew, the more he engaged in an inner dialogue with God. Usually the athlete depends on the crew for spiritual support. But Christian is possessed of such strong faith and sense of spirituality that really all the crew could do was offer him some encouragement and nutrition. For a person like him, the only mechanism for reaching the finish line was his belief in a higher power. So the more he hurt, the more it became a test of that faith, and the more he was compelled to keep going to be worthy of his God. The only other athlete I've known who has that kind of "make it hurt more" relationship with pain is David Goggins, and faith wasn't part of the equation for him. It was part of what made both men so compelling.