Through hard work, careful planning, smart racing, and a bit of luck, I was fortunate enough to claim the win in the 2017 Ultraman World Championship. In this race report I’ll give you an overview of the training that led to this win, as well as a recap of the race itself. First of all thanks to my crew Ian Hersey, Michael Bush and Cary Craig. And of course the extended crew Michelle who has to deal with me the other 362 days of the year! My ninja-mechanic Will Pennino of Roadworx. Ivan O’Gorman my local bike fitter (who continued the great base fit work I did with Jim Manton in LA). Darren de Reuck, Colleen de Reuck and Joanna Zeiger who run with me twice a week and have helped me really develop my run this year. Lisa Lessing and Monica Byrn for killing me in the pool 3 x per week. Matt Bottrill who regularly destroys me on the bike. And thanks to nutrition sponsor Glukos who have really looked after me, and anti-fog sponsor Sven Can See (with a 10k swim you can’t afford foggy goggles)! Also a shout out to Cuan @ Oakley for keeping my eyes sharp with the shades.
I decided to take a different approach this year, and focus on quality before quantity. The main reason behind this, is that I have a lot of years of endurance racing under the belt, and I wanted to “undo” the slow run pace that I had developed as a result of that. Since the run was my downfall in 2016, I also spent a year focusing on run quality. I did very few long, slow runs, and aimed to do two hard group runs a week with Darren de Reuck’s Colorado Racing Club.
Most of these group runs are about 10 miles, so what I would often do is run 8 miles to the group start, run with the group, and then run back home again. That meant my long runs would be 20+ miles, but the middle part is very high quality. I never ran more than 28 miles in training, and in the final Ultraman build my longest run was just over 20 miles.
In the pool, I just swam with the masters group in Boulder several times a week, and supplemented that with some solo sessions. Most of the masters sessions were coached by Lisa Lessing or Monica Byrn, both of whom make me do a lot of work in that 4k of swimming! I also did some individual video analysis coaching with Eney Jones at Swimlabs who really helped me fine tune my open water technique.
On the bike, Matt Bottril gave me some sessions that made me suffer like never before in the quest for glory, and I’m pleased to say that it paid off!
Training volume may surprise you – most weeks were under 20 hours – the two biggest weeks were 23.5 hours. My average for the last 3 months was 18 hours per week, my longest run was 28 and my longest ride was 6 hours.
I also made some changes to my bike setup. I moved from a medium Dimond to a small Dimond to get a lower stack, and I also moved to a 1X setup with a 56t chainring and an XTR (mountain bike) rear derailleur and 11-40 cassette. This has on the most part been a great setup, but on day 2 of Ultraman I dropped the chain 4 times, so I’m second guessing this decision a little. I used new extensions, the Zipp Vuka Stealth 110 which I really love. I experimented with an Enve bar but I ran out of time to get enough rides on it before the race, so I just stayed with the 3T Aduro bar on my primary bike and had the Enve on my spare bike. I really like the adjustability of the Enve bar, so I’ll probably swap them out for 2018. For wheels, I used a Zipp 808 on the rear and a Zipp 454 on the front (borrowed from crew chief Ian Hersey). The 454 is marketed as a wheel that handles very well in the crosswinds, and I can say that the marketing speak is true; it felt extremely stable even in very heavy winds.
My goal for this race was to win. That was absolutely my mindset – that I would race to win. If it came down to a choice between racing hard to win, at the risk of blowing up and coming 10th, I’d rather fall apart in my quest for the win than play it safe and come second. My main competition was Tony O’ Keefe, 56 year old veteran of the race, Jeremy Howard who is a great swim/runner, and Arnuad Selukov who is actually very close to me over all 3 disciplines; he usually swims a bit faster than me, I usually bike a bit faster than him, and we run about the same.
Day 1: 10k swim followed by 90 mile bike
In both other Ultraman races that I’ve done, I was first out of the water, but for this race I was sure that Jeremy Howard would outswim me. I was right! I took off at a comfortable pace, and within the first 2k he was already about 300m ahead of me. There was another swimmer just ahead of me, which I thought was Arnaud Selukov, but later found out that it was actually Mauro Ciarrocchi. Even though Jeremy was a long way ahead, I didn’t panic and just swam at a solid tempo until the end. I exited the water 11 minutes behind him, 4 minutes behind Mauro, but 12 minutes ahead of Tony and Arnaud.
I passed Maruo in T1 so I actually started the bike in second place. I was feeling really good on the bike, and had to dial things back a bit to stay within my power targets. About 10 miles in, I’d gained 4 minutes back on Jeremy so I knew I was going to catch him at some point. I passed him at 26 miles, and he didn’t look like he was having a good day on the bike. I just held a steady effort until the final 20 miles and then rode a solid tempo to the end. I did a short interview with Bob Babbitt and then waited for the other guys to come in. 17 minutes later, Jeremy rolled through. Arnaud arrived 38 minutes after me and Tony was 1:10 back. I felt comfortable with that amount of lead over Tony and Arnaud, but I knew I would need more than 17 minutes on Jeremy. Nutrition-wise, I used my regular strategy of gummy worms, but for most of the day 1 bike I was using a new iced tea product called Sportea that I discovered by accident in my local grocery store. It’s a really fresh-tasting, energizing, but decaf-equivalent tea that is available in both hot and cold versions. Since then I’ve reached out to them and they’ve offered a discount code for first time buyers to try it out. You can find out more on my gear page.
Day 2: 170 mile bike
As usual it was wet and rainy at the start of day 2. It’s about 25 miles of downhill from Volcano to Hilo, so there is good opportunity to get some speed. My plan was to take it easy to begin with and try not to let a big gap open to whoever would go off the front. As we got rolling, Arnaud asked me if it was a controlled start, and I said “no mate, you can just go for it”, which he proceeded to do! Tony and I pushed a steady tempo and caught Arnaud after a few minutes. We stayed together until about half way down, when my chain dropped. Since we were going about 45 mph, I decided not to stop and just freewheel until my speed dropped off. That was 12 minutes of zero pedaling! I was still going reasonably fast (41 mph) but Tony and Arnaud were probably closer to 50 mph and they soon opened a fairly large gap of 1-2 minutes (they were out of sight so I’m not sure of the exact gap). At this point I wasn’t feeling that great, like I was still very much in need of a warm up, but I kept things steady and didn’t want to waste energy chasing them down so early in the day. I caught up to Tony at around mile 50 on the Red Road, and we rode together all the way to Hilo. At that point the gap to Arnaud was 5-6 minutes. As we approached Hilo, we got a time split of 4 minutes to Arnaud, which surprised me since I wasn’t riding very hard. We both just kept a steady effort and then got caught at a red light in Hilo that took 1.5 minutes to change (it felt more like 5!). Once we got through Hilo, Tony dropped off the pace a bit and I started to focus my efforts on catching Arnaud. Since we had been closing on him before, I thought that if I rode just a little harder then I would catch him for sure. However, Arnaud had other plans! The next time split I got was 6 minutes, then 8 minutes, then 9 minutes. He was on fire! I started to push hard, but the legs just felt dead. At this point it was still raining, but as we got through Waimea and entered the Kohala mountains, the sun came through but of course accompanied by massive wind!
I’ve ridden the Kohala Mountain road several times, but I’ve never experienced it as windy as this. At 77kg I’m relatively heavy, and the 40mph gusts were pushing me all over the place. One of my athletes Amy Craft was also racing. She’s very light and all I could think about was how it was going to blow her all over the road. I’m pleased to say that she battled through it and emerged in one piece. Near the top of the climb, I got a split on Arnaud of 8 minutes. So I had clawed only a minute back on the climb. The final 14 miles is a long, fast, and technical descent on sketchy road surface down into Hawi. It feels a little bit dangerous at the best of time, and now it hard started drizzling again and the wind was and I knew he was going to descend faster than me (because he had to, and also he’s a great descender). I played it super safe on the 14 mile descent into Hawi, with my primary goal now being to get to day 3 alive. I rode the brakes all the way down, and by the end they weren’t really working at all. The lack of braking also affects the speed at which you can descend, since you’re unable to brake in time for tight corners. So I just kept it safe, with a max speed of just 35mph (for comparison, Arnaud hit 55 mph down there). I’ve never been a fan of disc brakes for triathlon, but for this race I think there is a good case to have them.
I ended 14 minutes behind Arnaud, but 24 minutes ahead of Jeremy. So overall I had 24 minutes on Arnaud and 40 minutes on Jeremy. Since I knew Arnaud and myself run about the same, I was mostly concerned about Jeremy. My estimation was that he would run about 6:45 on the day 3 double marathon, and I thought that my realistic time would be something like 7:15. That didn’t leave much room at all for anything to go wrong.
Day 3 – double marathon 52 miles
In 2016, I suffered from severe quad failure at mile 38, and pretty much had to walk it in. This year I really wanted to avoid that. Besides doing a lot more downhill running in training, I also decided to revert to the run/walk plan that took me to the win in Florida. I spent a fair amount of time debating the right strategy with Ultraman Australia winner Richard Thompson. He would make suggestions, I would try it in training, and then make some tweaks to the plan. I eventually ended up doing exactly what he suggested in the first place! I did my first walk break just 2 miles into the race – and I have to say that people thought I was completely smoked. Other crews looked at me in pity as they saw me “struggling” so early on in the race. But my crew kept me in check and made sure I stuck to the plan. At the 10k mark, Arnaud was already 7 minutes ahead of me. Instead of panic, this actually filled me with hope. I’ve been there, done that, and it did not end up well.
By the half marathon mark, Jeremy was 14 minutes ahead and Arnaud was just over 12 minutes ahead. At that stage I just kept to the plan of sticking to 8 minute miles.
Slowly but surely I started moving up the field, passing one runner at a time, catching up to Tony just before the marathon mark. At this stage, we were just under 10 minutes behind Arnaud, but over 22 minutes behind Jeremy. If both Jeremy and I continued at the same equivalent paces, he would win by 4 minutes, so I would have to step it up a bit in the second marathon if I wanted to close that down.
I felt like I still had another gear, but still I held back and just kept to the plan. I know how hard it gets after Scenic Point, so I wanted to keep some in reserve in case I needed it.
Talking about Scenic Point, that’s where I made the pass on Arnaud, exactly at the point where Inaki passed me in 2016. He looked like he was struggling but at least he was still moving forward. I really love his gutsy performance – he was willing to risk it all for the win which I really respect. By mile 39.3, I’d moved into 3rd place on the run. Jeremy was 25 minutes ahead, so I’d managed to hold the gap relatively constant over that third half marathon.
With 10 miles to go, I stopped the walk breaks. I could tell that they were no longer helping, and when I was forced to stop (at a red light) it was very hard to get going again. So I just kept things ticking over and focused on running with good form. Ian Hersey was still pacing me, and was repeating the mantra “fast, light, smooth” and something else that I can’t remember now. That really helped me to stay in the moment and just focus on moving forward in an efficient way. It’s also helped running with Colleen de Reuck twice a week, since her gazelle-like run form is ingrained in my mind. When I started losing form, I would just imagine running like her, and immediately things would pick up again.
I got word that Jeremy had finished in 6:24 – holy crap that is fast! So I now had a target time of 7:04 or faster to secure the win. Doing the math, I basically had to hold 8 min miles for the last 5 miles in order to get it done. I was still feeling good so I picked up the pace a bit. It felt like I was running about 7:30/mile, but my garmin was saying that my pace was 10:15/mile. After a mile or so I called out to Ian to give me his Garmin pace. He assured me that we were running faster than 8:00 pace, so from then on I ignored the Garmin pace, went old school and just hit the lap button every time I saw a mile marker.
At mile marker 96 (about 4 miles to go), Ian started cramping so he gave me my water and he stopped on the side of the road. Unbeknown to me, the crew was actually running low on water, so he had stopped drinking in order to make sure that I was well taken care of. It must have killed his soul seeing me extravagantly pouring precious water all over my head while he was dying of thirst. I am totally in his debt for the sacrifice that he made for me to take the win. With about 2 miles to go, it felt like I was going to start cramping so I proactively took one of those HotShot drinks that we get for free at Ironman races. I have no idea if it works or not, but I got to the end without suffering any cramps.
Mile marker 99 is located just before the Makala Rd turn, which I think is about a mile from the finish. I still had about 11 or 12 minutes in hand, so at that point I knew that I could take the win as long as nothing went wrong. I focused on not running too fast, since it did feel like I was on the verge of a cramp. As I made the turn into the Old Airport, my watch read 6:57 – I said to my crew that if we hit the gas I’d make it under 7 hours. So with about 500m to go, we hit a high tempo all the way to the finish line. I dipped under 7 hours with a finish time of 6:59:33 – even better is that I managed to negative split the double marathon (3:30 for the first one, and 3:29 for the second one.
A finish line interview with the 2017 Ultraman World Championships overall winner, Rob Gray
Posted by Bob Babbitt on Sunday, November 26, 2017
2018 is going to be an interesting race… Inaki will be back to race me head-to-head, and rumor has it that uber biker David Hainish who won Florida this year will be making an appearance.
Great job Rob! I was wondering why there hadn’t been a post since your IM-TX report, but the wait was well worth it! Congratulations on a great win!
Haha thanks Tony – too busy training to write!