Story and Photos by Jim Gourley
The first two days of the 2013 Ultraman World Championships produced some of the most challenging racing in recent memory, with weather conditions harassing the athletes throughout the first 267.6 miles of their effort. All that drama left circumstances wide open for several contenders to make a final heroic performance, and quite a few of them seized on the opportunity in one of the most spectacular finishes in race history. Ultraman’s 30th anniversary became a grand stage equal to the epic stature of the cast that raced on it and its final act delivered a story worthy of the race’s heritage.
The day began too close to call. Tim Sheeper started the day with a 16-minute lead over defending champion Alexandre Ribeiro, 31 minutes on Miro Kregar and 49 minutes on Christian Isakson. Given the punishing conditions in the lava fields and the relative abilities of those men, those time gaps represented marginal differences at best.
As veteran race commentator and ultra-endurance legend Steve King predicted, Kregar and Ribeiro immediately ran away from the group as the race started. The two share an extraordinary bond; though they are archrivals for the top spot, they are also extremely close friends and training partners. Having both declared that they were retiring from Ultraman racing this year, they went out the way they’ve always run—together. Their strategy was to dare the pack to chase and hopefully break them down, leaving the two men to race together.
Sheeper picked up the gauntlet, as did Christian Isakson. But another twist introduced itself in the form of James Player. Starting day 3 in 14th place overall, he gradually settled behind Sheeper and Isakson, biding his time to overtake.
Not content to cruise to a first place finish in the women’s race, Hillary Biscay ran along with the boys. It was anyone’s guess what would happen after that. By the half-marathon point Ribeiro and Kregar had overcome the 16-minute deficit on Sheeper. All indications were that it was Ribeiro’s race to win. Then everything went sideways.
Early in the race Miro Kregar’s support crew was penalized for unsafe driving. Kregar received an extra 12-minutes for his second rule violation, throwing him into dire straits. He reconciled himself to the belief that he would finish his final Ultraman in third place. But as he and Ribeiro ascended Kawaihi Hill the champ pulled up. “I saw he was not with me, so I continued to push.” That push soon put him out of sight of Ribeiro through the rolling hills of the Queen K and on a pace that took everything to the wire. Having appeared as invincible as ever, Ribeiro continued to slide backward. He developed a cramp in one thigh, but said more than anything it was his fitness that began to crumble. “You have to respect this race,” he said. “My legs felt fine, but it was up in my heart and lungs where I suffered. I was just not as trained to perform this year.” As Kregar drifted out of his reach, the other contenders began to reel him in.
Hillary Biscay began the morning with a clear plan and determination to finish the run in 7:30. “I decided last night that it sounded like a nice round number,” she remarked. “I didn’t just want to cruise to the win. I wanted to go out there and get after it. If that took me up into the mix with the boys, I was fine with it.” That’s exactly where it took her, and a little bit beyond. She quickly found herself pacing off Jochan Dembeck, who was running a bit faster than she wanted. Then the other shoe dropped. “We’re turning 7:30 miles, and I’m thinking ‘this is stupid,’ but then he looks at me and says, “You know, when we make the marathon point, this will be the farthest I’ve run all year!” And I said to myself “Oh, God! We are not doing this!”” She let Dembeck go, only to get picked up by Christian Isakson. “He looked at me and said “I’m running 8-minute miles, stay on my back!” And that’s what I did and we had a nice little chat for several miles.” Biscay ran in Isakson’s hip pocket, chasing after Player and Ribeiro. Sadly, the pair broke company at scenic point, where Isakson again suffered misfortune and digestive rebellion. He stepped into the grass to empty his stomach, and she continued on.
In this, the numbers fail to tell what happened on the road this day. Isakson did not have the most glorious result, but his was quite possibly the most valiant battle. After struggling through horrendous weather and sickness on the first day, he declared it the darkest day of his racing career. “It reminded me of a passage in the Bible I read before the race, from Job: “Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me.”” When he was last seen by that overlook, it looked as if his reckoning was at hand.
Further up the road, Miro Kregar’s crew rallied to amend for their costly mistake. The runners in the group began to take turns pacing him, helping him to widen the gap on Ribeiro and Sheeper. For crewmember Erin Stephens, his effort was a sight to behold. “I’ve watched the Ironman on television before and thought, ‘yeah, that’s hard, those people are running really hard,’” the Boston Marathon finisher said. “But this was incredible. This wasn’t a race. It was a quest.” Kregar blew through the 39-mile mark as if destiny was pulling him to the finish line. “I knew then I had won it,” he said. “I almost won this race my first time in 1999, except penalties put me in second. For fourteen years, I’ve been trying to win here. I trained all year for this one. It felt good.” He’s chased that win down the Queen K for 314.4 miles. The last 13.1 felt like he was dancing to it.
It was only a matter of waiting at the finish to find out if he had the win free and clear, but in that time there was another surprise. Ribeiro would not be the second person to cross the line. Hillary Biscay took that honor. The 2010 women’s runner-up beat her own expectations and the demons of her last run here in 7:23:55. She even beat herself, once again finishing with the second-fastest women’s time in Ultraman history. James Player and Milton de Souza followed, further spinning the final standings around. Ribeiro finished in an unprecedented fifth place, shuffling noticeably compared to his typically invincible looking stride. It was confirmed that his cumulative time secured second overall for him after Tim Sheeper crossed the line in 8:29:40. Sheeper was satisfied with the result after an especially rough day on the road. Ribeiro was even more gracious in defeat. “You know, I am sad that I didn’t win, but I am happy for Miro,” he said of the result. “He has tried for this so many times. He trained hard this year and he deserved the win.” Not winning doesn’t diminish Ribeiro’s legacy one bit. Seeing his friend win was perhaps the best parting gift such a prolific athlete could have asked for.
Behind Ribeiro came the answer that had been left in doubt back at scenic overlook. Christian Isakson came down the runway of the old Kona airport with a look on his face that conveyed the suffering of Job. He held on through the chute, where he let his walls down, collapsed into the arms of his family and sobbed. In a repeat of his Ultraman Canada experience, his overall 6th place run was good enough to put him into 4th place in the men’s race.
Getting all the finishers across the line literally came down to the 11th hour and then some. The final athlete was Jason Nixon. With the clock ticking perilously close to the 12-hour cutoff, nearly half the gathered fans rushed into the parking lot to urge him in. Their cheers breathed new life into his legs and he ran the last 100 meters like he was late to dinner with Scarlett Johansen. He became the last official finisher in 11:59:59.
It was the highest note possible to a grand day in a race that was nothing less than epic.
And yet, the story shall continue. “Never say never,” said Kregar of whether this victory would always quell the urge to come out of retirement. Neither could Biscay say anything definitive about her future with the event. If any statements spoke to what the future holds for Ultraman Hawaii, they came from voices both near and far. Through his pain and gritted teeth, Christian Isakson vindicated Alexandre Ribeiro’s claims that he might be a future champion. “I’ve got a lot to learn before I come back here.” He’d better learn quick, because another man watching the race in North America hinted at a 2014 appearance. “I’ve got to do this race!” came the statement—uttered by David Matheson, this year’s Ultraman Canada winner and course record holder.
Ultraman has had a great thirty years. But as the song goes, the next thirty ought to be better.
Full results can be found on the Ultraman World Championships website: www.ultramanlive.com