Story and Photos by Jim Gourley
The first day of the 2013 Ultraman World Championships proved to be a particularly harsh one, putting a noticeable hitch in the pace of an all-star field of athletes from the beginning and ultimately preventing five athletes from making the finish line before the 12-hour cutoff. Conditions have thrown a significant degree of chaos into the standings, and things remain unpredictable as the athletes go into the second day’s 171.4-mile bike leg from the top of Kilauea to Hawi along the east coast through Hilo.
The day began typically enough from Kailua Bay pier. As many predicted, Hillary Biscay established an early lead on the women’s field and continued to press throughout. What no one predicted, however, was that she would be the first person, man or woman, to come out of the water in Keauhou Bay 2:37:36. Tim Sheeper, who finished third overall in the 2007 race, jumped out ahead of perennial men’s early leader Martin Raymond and came in at 2:47:36. Though Raymond followed close behind, he didn’t have the speed on the bike to chase. Again, the pre-race assumption was that the pursuit would fall to the capable legs of defending champion Alexandre Ribeiro.
Again, pre-race assumptions were cast aside. Emerging from the water ahead of Ribeiro was none other than original1983 Ultraman Champion Kurt Madden, who stepped onto the beach just in front of the three-hour mark and sped away on the bike at a pace nothing less than shocking for a man of 58 years of age. He made good use of his 17-minute lead on Ribeiro, who quickly went to work on the gap. Defending women’s champ Amber Monforte was slightly ahead of Ribeiro onto the road but still 31 minutes behind Biscay. Overall, nearly every athlete had a significantly slower swim than history indicated. Late-race currents near Keauhou Bay and chop due to surface winds distributed cases of sea-sickness and salt-water nausea liberally. This would contribute to another twist of events, in that it was widely believed the uber-biker and Western States finisher would cleave significant time off Hillary’s lead.
A conspiracy of pre-race chiropractic issues and weather would prevent a repeat of that story, though. As the group of pursuers rounded the area between Captain Cook and South Point, heavy winds began playing havoc with their efforts. As waves and currents held up the rest of the field, weather conditions at the base of the volcano worsened. Heavy rains settled in even as the leaders approached the finish line. Without knowing it, athletes further in the back faced an increasingly dire race for survival.
No athlete escaped the cold or wet, but the front-runners had the shortest go of it. Sheeper finished his day in the saddle in five and a half hours, with Biscay clocking 6:02:24 on the 90-mile ride. Alexandre Ribeiro ended his day a full thirty minutes behind Sheeper and with Kurt Madden breathing down his neck. Madden rolled out a solid bike ride, finishing in third place by just seven minutes. Monforte, caught by wind, rain and some uncooperativeness in her own legs, ended the day an hour and five minutes behind Biscay.
Gratitude to be safely through the day and humility before the challenges they’d passed through defined the mood among the leaders. “It’s always a hard ride. At least with the winds and the rain, it wasn’t too hot,” remarked Sheeper. He took it all in stride knowing how punishing the heat was in his last appearance here. Biscay paid due respect to the elements. “Comfortable isn’t a good word to describe an event like this, but I’d say I felt more in control of my body this year. The first 90 minutes on the bike were rough out of the water, but after that I got my legs under me. What I came for was to see if I could do this well and not be in a heap passed out after each stage. But let’s not get excited, this is just the first day.” Ribeiro was equally demure in the face of the weather. “Every year is different, and the swim is especially difficult for me. But the first 20 miles up through the hills and the headwinds were hard. The last climb up the mountain was okay. Balance is the key. You must stay balanced, or pay a big price the next day.”
Opportunities to maintain balance weren’t easy to find among others. Though he finished fourth at Ultraman Canada this year, Christian Isakson had what he called the most difficult day of his endurance racing career. “I started getting drowsy in the water, then about mile four everything came up. Then I spent the rest of the day throwing up. I had some doubts today.” He fought long and hard through those doubts and six spots to reach 8th place overall after coming out of the swim in 14th. Whether he can break through a few more before the end of the weekend will depend on his recovery.
Perhaps the greatest victory of the day belonged to Kathleen Wood, who made the 12-hour cutoff by a single second. The multi-Ironman finisher and 2013 Ultraman Canada finisher squeaked by with a triumphant smile on her face. The collective joy at the finish line was short-lived, though, as the first person to miss the cutoff coasted in shortly behind Wood.
Lucy Ryan has finished Ultraman Canada twice and crewed for an athlete in Hawai’I last year. Despite her experience and training, she simply could not find a solution to the punishing winds and rains. “I am as fit as I’ve ever been,” she said. “This is so disappointing.” But as the cold left her bones, her normal cheerful spirits returned and allowed her to find a silver lining in the storm clouds hanging over the volcano. “I am so proud of my son, Grayson. He did an outstanding job. When things got really bad, he stepped up.” Antonio Nascimento also struggled to reconcile his disappointment in the immediate aftermath of his late finish. “There were just a lot of bad conditions. The water led to dehydration, and prevented me from picking things up on the bike. I was very surprised by the conditions. I never experienced anything like this, not even in last year’s Ultraman United Kingdom.” Though that event no longer exists, it quickly became notorious for its harsh cold and rain. That today surprised him says volumes about the conditions.
Joining Antonio and Lucy are 2013 Ultraman Canada runner-up Stacey Shand and former Hawaii finishers Bill Connor and Duncan Cairns. Though they cannot achieve an official finish, Ultraman still allows for them to continue around the island as participants in the journey, which is one of the fundamental ideas the event was created to promote. Shand was totally at peace an hour after her attempt ended. “I did everything I could today. It was just the conditions and that’s the way it is.” She’s going to evaluate her readiness to continue tomorrow.
Former Ultraman Canada champion Nick Mallett conveyed a message to his fellow athletes that he has also failed to finish on four separate occasions and that “while you have every right to be disappointed I encourage you all to muster that spirit which is uniquely Ultraman and do everything you can to continue on with your Ultraman journey. Not only to pay tribute to those who have helped you get this far, but to inspire those who have yet found the courage to try.”
Ultraman World Championships, Day One Standings
Swim, Bike, Cumulative
Tim Sheeper 2:47:36 (2nd) 5:31:28 (1st) 8:19:04
Alexandre Ribeiro 3:16:15 (10th) 5:33:29 (2nd) 8:49:44
Kurt Madden 2:59:06 (5th) 5:57:36 8:56:42
Sergio Menicone 2:53:01 (3rd) 6:09:35 9:02:36
Miro Kregar 3:14:52 (9th) 5:48:01 9:02:53
Hillary Biscay 2:37:46 6:02:24 8:40:10
Amber Monforte 3:09:07 (7th) 6:36:43 9:45:50
Vanuza Maciel 3:47:34 6:58:56 10:46:30
Beth Brewster 3:52:59 7:30:56 11:23:55