Welcome to the Triple DECA Iron, 30 Ironmans in 30 days where you can eat all you want, see a very specific few sights of Northern Italy a brain-grinding number of times over and over and set a Guinness World Record while you’re at it.
September 7, 2013, hour one of day one of the 30-day Triple DECA Iron in lovely Lake Garda, Italy. Triple DECA Iron is a play on the 10 x 1 Iron DECA races, where you start and finish an Ironman each day for 10 straight days, only this is 30 Ironmans in 30 days. Consecutive. Each Ironman starts at 7:30 sharp in the morning. Twenty-one ultra triathletes from around the planet are now swimming the opening laps of the first Ironman leg in a 25-meter pool of 60-degree water. Two-point-four miles equals 3862.43 meters equals 154 and a half lengths of the pool. The race director has filed all the papers so those who finish will be listed in an entry in future edition of the Guinness Book of World Records.
One of the swimmers is 46-year-old Wayne Kurtz, a McCandless, Penn., business consultant who has finished three DECA Ironmans and enough double and quintuple Ironmans that he’s closing in on 100 total, a total including “regular” Ironmans, if there is such a thing, and more than his share of running marathons and running ultramarathons. His motto is Go Long and Be Strong. That’s being pressed right now in the water as he rotates his head for a gulp of air and spies a sponsor banner featuring a glossy photo of a frosty cold one. How many times am I going to have to look at that beer? he wondered pensively.
Many, many times, he realized, a potentially devastating thought that if he failed to expunge from his mind could send him the paralysis of a DNF. Which he was determined not to do.
Kurtz says it was a relief to have the blasted thing going. “We were all nervous at the start,” he recalls. “It was the first time I was really scared at the beginning of a race.”
A COUPLE OF DRINKS TO DREAM IT UP
In sync with the greater lore of triathlon, the idea for the 30 Ironmans in 30 Days adventure was sparked over maybe one too many glasses of good wine. The idea caught fire and became a plan. The ultra triathlon community is as tight knit as it is spread around the planet, and word of the Triple DECA transmitted across language barriers. Italy, France, the UK, the USA, Canada, the Czech Republic, Mexico, Spain, Denmark, Sweden—all represented at the Triple DECA Iron.
Pre-event troubles almost shut down the race when organizers lost access to the bike course. Quintuple and Deca Ironmans typically use a short closed-loop course for myriad and probably obvious reasons. The Triple DECA had to go with using open roads, and had to constantly change the bike course throughout the event. Not only would the racers have a rough time of it, but the race organizers took on the enormous job of shuttling triathletes around as well as a transition area. It was going to be a long 30 days.
Kurtz loves the otherworld of ultras. He has penned two books about his passion for the endless road: Beyond the Iron and Never Say, “I Wish I Had.” I once watched Kurtz race one of his DECA Iron events in Monterrey, Mexico, and recall both his indestructible positive attitude and command of nutritional supplements during the race.
Nutrition management was essential in Italy, he told me, especially given the European-style breakfasts available. “Baskets of sweet rolls and things,” he said. “I opted for a Hammer Nutrition protein drink.” But the key to his mental game, Kurt told me, was locking in the moment.
“I stayed in the present during this race better than I ever had. I just focused on one thing at a time. Getting through the swim, then getting through the bike, then getting through the run.”
He also employed a strategy offered by a friend, and had 30 t-shirts printed up, one for each day of the race. Each were numbered, but for the most part they looked the same. Kurtz set the stack of neatly folded shirts on dresser in his hotel room and as he clicked off Ironmans, one day at a time, he tossed one sweat-soaked shirt into a hamper, and plucked off the next one when it was time to suit up for a fresh Ironman.
As the drumbeat of race days played on, his fellow racers didn’t pick up on the race numbers. “Are you ever going to change that shirt?” they asked.
“It was a great psychological tool,” Kurtz says.
It must have been. From the 21 who started the Triple DECA, 13 had dropped out by day 5. The weather was hot in opening days but the biking was dangerous, claiming one of the race favorites, Denmark’s Kim Greisen.
“Kim is hardcore,” says Kurtz. If anyone had any doubt about the pain tolerance capacity of Kim Greisen, then consider what happened on day one of the Triple DECA. He crashed on his bike so hard that his opening steps of the marathon were not really steps but slogs. “He was first off the bike but then it took him 25 minutes to go a few hundred feet,” Kurtz says. Greisen was dragging his leg and had a pain face that disturbed observers. Still, he didn’t stop, Zombie-dragging his way to the finish of the Day 1 Ironman. He finally succumbed to going to the hospital after finishing the Day 2 swim. Crew members had to lower him into the water. X-rays at the hospital were not pretty. “He broke his hip in three places,” Kurtz says.
Peeling off the Ironmans with speed provided for a reward, Kurtz told me. “After you finish the day’s racing you have to get back to the hotel, you have to get your gear ready and on rainy days clean and repair your bike. Or if you crash, there’s the time you need to duct-tape your bike back together.”
And you have to eat a virtual storm of food, he adds.
“So the faster you finish racing the sooner you can get to bed.” For the most part, Kurtz was able to stay in the 13- to 14-hour range for each Ironman. His worst was 17 hours, forestalling his bed time to 1:30 in the morning and allowing just four hours of sleep. “It was really only like two hours of good sleep. You’re in so much pain that you tend to wake up when you roll on your side or something.” Whether it’s a good night of sleep or barely any sleep at all, the gun goes off for another Ironman at 7:30 a.m.
However rough his 1:30 a.m. night was, Kurtz says some of the slower guys weren’t getting to sleep until 3 or 4 in the morning.
But amazingly, no one dropped out after day 5. Kurtz says they were buoyed by a surprising development. Although they crammed down stunning amounts of food (“On the run I’d eat a half-gallon of ice cream. I fell asleep at night on the bed while eating two pizzas.”) they lost extreme amounts of weight while becoming faster.
“It was crazy,” he says. “Everyone’s fitness just went through the roof. Between day 12 and day 20, people were taking hours off of their Ironman race times.” Weight sizzled away, athletes losing 25 to 30 pounds. “Bike shorts were falling off. and your wetsuit would just hang off you.”
The last 10 days, Kurtz reports, times stopped dropping. Survival became the plan.
“It was a death march. The weather turned cold and rainy. There were 40-mile-per-hour winds.” But mentally, being able to count down from a 10-Ironmans-To-Go situation was a stimulant. The end was near.
Kurtz crossed the finish line in a time of 453 hours and 7 minutes. His best Ironman of the 30 was 13 hours and 18 minutes, and he managed to average a remarkable 15 hours and 6 minutes per Ironman every day for a month.
He finished sixth with an average time per triathlon of 15 hours and 6 minutes. His best time was 13 hours and 18 minutes.
Hungary’s Jozsef Rokob finished first, in a surreal 356 hours and 33 minutes, which translates to an average of sub-12-hour for each Ironman.
“I couldn’t believe it was over,” Kurtz says, recalling the heavy emotions. “It was the worst post-race crash I had ever had.” He described the strangeness of how the body knew how long it had to hold it together, but once the finish line passed, it just shut down.
Whatever’s next, don’t expect Kurtz or any of the others to try and go out and beat their times.
“We’ll never do that again,” he says.