Less than two months into 2014, the long-course triathlon season starts with a bang. The really long-course season, that is. 34 athletes are set to take the start at the inaugural Ultraman Florida this Friday. The new event is the most recent in a spate of milestones for Ultraman. The men’s race in Canada last year produced a new course record and a bumper crop of future contenders for the world championship race in Hawaii. That race concluded in dramatic fashion, with Miro Kregar winning his first title against six-time champion Alexandre Ribeiro. Both men announced their retirement from ultra racing afterward, leaving the future wide open. The same goes for the women’s category, with both 3-time champion and course record holder Amber Monforte, and 2014 champion and pro Ironman Hillary Biscay opting not to compete this year.

The Florida contest could not have come at a better time and, judging by the registration process, not a moment too soon. Race Director Consuela Lively says that it only took three weeks to fill the 40 slots for the race (six athletes dropped due to various issues). Although not the kind of overnight sellout you hear about for Escape from Alcatraz, it is a marked swell of interest compared to previous years. It is a further indication that there is growing curiosity in ultra-distance triathlon. It’s been a long time coming.

The Ultraman has carried on in relative obscurity for the last 30 years. Inspired by the spirit of Valerie Silk and the foundling Ironman event she brought to Kona in 1981, Ultraman was established by members of the core group of athlete volunteers who had made the Ironman logistically possible. Ironman began growing exponentially in the late 1980’s and continues to do so today. Before this weekend, Ultraman has only attempted two expansions since it 1983. Besides Florida, there is Ultraman Canada, which was founded in 1993. Ultraman isn’t about expansion or popularity. Its business model, if you can call it that, it not built for profit. In many ways, it’s not even a race. There’s a lot more than just its distance that makes Ultraman unconventional, and more than craziness that draws people to it. Consuela Lively and Ultraman owner Jane Bockus hint at the underlying essence of what makes this so special in their remarks about how this race came to be.

“Anyone who thinks Florida is going to be an ‘easy’ Ultraman is in for a big surprise,” says Bockus, referring to the challenging climbs in both Hawaii and Canada. “Ultraman is never easy.” Having watched athletes do this for more than 25 years, she ought to know. At 320 miles over the course of three days, athletes encounter all kinds of physical problems. The 6.2-mile swim can empty your stomach with nausea. You can suffer a variety of nutritional problems on the bike. Toenails fall off. Muscles quit. The biggest tests are spiritual, though. People who participate in these races don’t worry as much about who finishes first. What matters most is sharing the experience of a lifetime. No one shouts “You’re an Ultraman!” when you cross the finish line. You get a hug. You become part of the family– the Ohana. That sense of belonging is the very thing that led to the creation of this race.

Consuela Lively, known to her friends as Sway, has had an extraordinary career in triathlon since beginning with the sport in 2004. A 12-time Iron-distance race finisher, she and her husband Trung took part in their first Ultraman in 2010. Consuela finished third in the Canadian event. After finishing in Hawaii in 2011, she returned to win Canada in 2012. She started her own coaching business, Tri With Sway, in 2007. She’s also helped to organize local running events and served as a consultant to the organizers of the Rocket Man triathlon. She has literally done everything in the sport, and it’s all been an outgrowth of her passion for it. Organizing an Ultraman event was the next logical step, and maybe inevitable.

“It’s easier to be an athlete than an organizer, but it’s also very rewarding to do this,” she says of putting on the Race Director’s hat. “You get to bring people together from around the world, and help them to create all these moments and memories. I love the whole sport, and this is just another way of enjoying it.” The aura of passion she broadcasts is evident in the presence of friends supporting her in making this a first-class event. She coaches about 100 athletes, two of which are competing in this weekend’s race. More than 60 of them will be working as volunteers with the course or as support crews for athletes.

Consuela says that she knew she wanted to organize an Ultraman after she finished her first one. She approached Ultraman Canada organizer Steve Brown with the idea. Brown has run Ultraman Canada since it began, and is also the race director of Challenge Penticton, where he is also the owner of Peach City Runners and Adventure Sports, a retail outlet that caters to triathletes. Jane Bockus is an equally kindred spirit. She’s worked as a volunteer at Ironman Hawaii since its very first year in Kona, serving as Tracking Director in the “war room” for the ABC Wide World of Sports telecasts and later as Aid Station Director. They are an extremely dedicated group of people. It’s that dedication that makes the event so special.

As interest continues to grow in Ultraman, Jane Bockus emphasizes these elements to potential applicants. Ultraman remains an invitational event. Florida and Canada are not considered “qualifiers” for the World Championships in Hawaii in the traditional sense. “We give preference to those who have finished Hawaii in the past, then to those who have completed other Ultraman events. You have to show you’re sincere to get into Hawaii.” At present, the Florida and Canada events only offer one slot each to the World Championships. It is given on a first-application-received basis. Finishing times are not a discriminating factor. A great deal of the selection committee’s decision is based on an applicant’s character. It’s about dedication and sincerity.

Those interested in more information about Ultraman Florida can visit the official site, http://ultramanflorida.com/. Slots for this year’s Ultraman Canada are still available. More information can be found at http://ultramancanada.com/.

Jim Gourley is the author of Faster: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed. His next book, about the Ultraman, will be released next February.