7 signs that you are ready to take on an Ultraman

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For many people, the thought of Ultraman sounds a little crazy; 3 days, each of which takes about as long as an Ironman, seems intimidating at first (and indeed it should!). Ultraman originated as a challenge to circumnavigate the Big Island of Hawaii using swim/bike/run. It starts with a 10k point to point swim from the Kona pier, ending at Keauhou bay. You then jump on your bike and continue south before climbing up to Volcano, 90 miles in total. Day 2 is 171 miles from Volcano to Hawi, and day 3 is a 52 mile run from Hawi back to Kona.


 So how do you know if you are ready to take on this challenge? Of course I have done this race many times, and I’ve also coached a lot of people of various abilities to success at this distance. So I have a pretty good handle on what is required to take this challenge on. Note that you do not need to be fast in order to finish Ultraman, but you need a strong mindset and a lot of persistence. Here are some signs that you are ready for Ultraman:

You’ve done 10+ Ironman distance races and you are ready for the next challenge

Youv’e checked the Ironman box, but let’s face it, these days it feels like everyone is doing an Ironman. That feeling of the big challenge that first attracted you to Ironman is no longer there, and it feels like you could do an Ironman pretty comfortably. If you want to get out of your comfort zone, then Ultraman could be for you! For me, just that uncertainty of the 10km swim on day 1 felt really daunting, and honestly in my first Ultraman race I wasn’t sure that I would actually finish. Plus, the requirement to have a crew adds a whole new and interesting dimension to the event. If your teamwork is not up to scratch, you will fail!

You enjoy suffering. Actually more than that – you relish suffering

Suffering is par for the course at Ultraman. I have never done this race without experiencing the highest level of suffering at least once, and usually for extended periods of time. I mean let’s face it, even driving from Hawi back to Kona is a little bit painful. Riding it on a bike is no mean feat either. But running it!? Come on! You must be kidding me. Nope, there is no joke here. It is for real. But once you are in it, it actually doesn’t seem that bad. Until it does. Then it feels worse than you imagined it would. Finally it’s over and waves of relief are washing over you. The next day you wake up and enjoy the first of many days being unable to walk unassisted. Other than that, it’s great!

You are able to deal with adversity and unexpected situations

We’ve already covered suffering, which you may think is similar to adversity. But these are different things altogether. You see, adversity consists of multiple things whose sole purpose in life is to prevent you from finishing, and to inflict even more suffering on you than the regular default level of suffering. Some examples from recent memory include crew members not showing up, jellyfish stings,  life-force-draining currents, gale force winds, extreme rain, extreme heat, suicidal goats, erupting volcanos, malfunctioning equipment, road raging humans, vehicle failures, random spontaneous personality disorders, alligators. That is to name just a few. These things come up, and how you deal with these types of things will determine your readiness to take part.

You want to race in Kona, but on the scenic parts (unlike Ironman which is on the least exciting/scenic part of the Big Island)

For many, racing the Ironman in Kona is the ultimate dream. And then you race it, and realize it’s basically a bike ride on a highway through a lava-laden desert. In stark contrast, the Ultraman in Hawaii circumnavigates the entire island, covering 7 of the 8 distinct climate zones (we skip polar tundra but you are welcome to experience that before or after the race). Anyway, it really is a beautiful experience, and doing it by swim, bike and run is slow enough to really take things in vs doing it in a vehicle. 

You have the financial means to do this race

This is often a surprise to people, but wow the costs add up quickly! 

Entry fee: $1500-$2000 depending on which race.

Travel: flights for you and your crew, $2000-$8000 depending on where you’re traveling from. Obviously doing a local Ultraman is an easy way to eliminate most of this cost.

Accommodation: 3 days of the race plus at least 2 days before and usually 2 days after. That’s 7 days of housing that can easily reach $2000+ really quickly. Usually a lot more.

Food for you and the crew. Over and above your race nutrition, the costs for 3 meals a day (for you, your crew, and your family if they come along) adds up really quickly.

Equipment: at least one bike, but you are allowed a spare bike too. One TT bike is already expensive, so laying out another $4k-$8k on a second bike hurts the wallet. You can of course rent a second bike, which will only set you back a few hundred dollars. Or you can wing it and just go with one bike. Most people get away with this, but due to the adversity faced (see above) the chances are quite good that something happens with your primary bike. In 6 Ultraman races, I’ve rendered my primary bike useless on 2 occasions. One was a random tri bar pad failure and I had to switch to the second bike. The other was a crash rendering my bike unrideable, however I did not switch to the second bike due to my body being rendered as equally useless as the mangled bike. 

Coaching is also important, especially for first time Ultraman athletes. You could probably go it alone but you are bound to make mistakes that render all the above costs useless, and all that could be avoided by working with an experienced coach. This could be an investment of $300-$500 per month for at least 6 months.

So in summary, you’re probably in for at least $6K, more likely $10K+ which is obviously a significant amount of money.

You are physically capable

This sounds obvious, but you would be surprised at the number of ill-prepared people I see attempting Ultraman. So what kind of shape do you need to be in?

Swimming: Ultraman has a 10k swim. A 10K swim is hard. For Ultraman races with a lake swim, your swim performance can be quite predictable.  For Hawaii, you are faced with currents and rough waters, which means that being a stronger swimmer is important. If you cannot consistently swim long intervals faster than 1:50/100m, then you should focus on improving your technique. In our experience with coached athletes, by focusing on swim technique they can get to consistent paces of 1:40/100m and faster without any improvements in fitness. That is the ballpark you need to get to in order to comfortably swim the 10K without risking the day 1 cutoff time. 

Biking: It’s hard to measure biking ability in a way that is helpful in a general sense.  Watts/kg is a relatively good way of estimating what it takes, though. A rough benchmark if you want to finish the race is around 2 watts/kg. Of course, conditions could impact that, but for normal conditions that is the general benchmark. For a 75kg athlete this would be around 150 watts that you would need to average on day 2. For day 1, you first have to swim and therefore that will have the most impact on your ability to make the cutoff. 

Running: You don’t need to be fast to complete a double marathon in the cutoff time of 12 hours (a 12 hour double marathon is 13:44/mile or 8:32/km which is basically a fast walk). But you do need the stamina and endurance to make it. Just being on your feet for 12 hours is hard, and ideally you’d want to have a buffer in case things go wrong. You should aim to be able to hit around 11:30 per mile which gives you a 2 hour buffer for the inevitable disasters.

You have the time to do the training

You will need to have at least 15 hours per week available for training, especially in the last 4-5 months before your race. In addition, you will need to schedule at least a few weeks of 25-30 hours of training (not consecutively, but spaced out within the last 3 months). We have had athletes complete Ultraman on 10-12 hours per week, but they were really in danger of the time cut off every day, and that is not a fun way to experience Ultraman.

If you’re ready to start your Ultraman journey, sign up today!

If Lionel Sanders did Ultraman, by how much would he win?

In a recent video on his YouTube channel, Lionel hinted that he would like to do Ultraman… I thought it would be interesting to dive into that idea in more detail.

I have no doubt that he could win, as he clearly has superior talent on both the bike and run. The big questions in my mind would be:

  1. His 70.3 performances are quite consistent, but as the distance increases, the consistency seems to go down. Would that mean more potential for mistakes in Ultraman?
  2. Nutrition seems to be a challenge yet to be fully solved for him. I think this is less of an issue on day 1, but more important on days 2 and 3.
  3. Given that his livelihood depends on triathlon, and there is no prize money in Ultraman, essentially the long recovery time after Ultraman would mean he can do less racing afterwards, and therefore limit his earning potential. UM Hawaii is well placed in the season (November) to be the last race, but he would have to qualify. In his video he says that Bob Babbitt could probably get him in, but there is no precedent for that. All other high profile athletes have had to qualify (Dede Griesbauer, Chris “Big Sexy” McDonald), and from even higher profile mainstream sports, ex pro baseball player Eric Byrnes, could not get invited to the World Championships on fame alone. They all had to qualify if they wanted to race.
  4. With that in mind, he should definitely wait for me to retire from Ultraman, and when he is nearing retirement from Ironman racing, he can race Ultraman without having to care about its impact other races.