Above photo: Chris Garlington
The inaugural Ultraman Florida hosts and eclectic cast of athletes this weekend. While more than two-thirds of the participants have never competed in an Ultraman before, there’s an extraordinary level of talent across the board. Mexican Inaki De La Parra won Ultraman United Kingdom in 2012. Provided they score official finishes this weekend, Canada’s Darwin Holt, Italy’s Giorgio Alessi and Juan Craveri of Argentina will remain the only two athletes in the world to complete every Ultraman (an unbeatable feat, as the UK event was cancelled last year). ESPY winner Amy Palmeiro-Winters is a renowned ultra-runner and adventure racer. And USAT Florida Region Director Susan Haag has more than 70 Ironman finishes to her credit. Don’t let the numbers and titles dazzle you, though. It’s the human element that makes Ultraman what it really is.
Chris Garlington hasn’t been in the sport for decades or scored any record-setting finishes. This is his first Ultraman, but he looks like an old hand at the Wednesday morning group swim session. He’s already seen Ultraman from the support crew perspective. He worked on Andrew Gale’s support crew last year during Ultraman Canada. Now Gale is here to return the favor. How and why their relationship developed says much about the Ultraman spirit.
“We met in 2008 at the Lonestar triathlon [now IM 70.3 Texas],” says Gale. “We were close to each other in transition because we’re in the same age group and our last names are so close. I saw Chris putting down this huge map to mark his bike position, and we started joking that I’d be able to find mine much easier.” The conversation led to the Austin residents competing in Ironman Arizona and Texas together. “It was true transition love,” Gale says of their tri-bromance. Garlington had already heard about Ultraman and was planning on making a run at Canada, but when he heard that Gale was interested he decided to take advantage of the experience he could gain by crewing. “Andrew is an incredible athlete and did really well on the whole course. I still learned some things, though. I typed out a two-page list of ‘lessons learned’ on my phone on the flight home from Canada. Nutrition is a big thing. You have to watch out for flavor fatigue. You also learn how to organize your equipment and the value of getting to the race site early.” Still, he says there are “huge unknowns” awaiting him this weekend. He’s not scared, but the anxiety is palpable. That’s what he loves about this. “I think right now the total number of people who have finished an Ultraman is like 458. There’s a mystique about doing something so rare.”
Darwin Holt is therefore understandably proud for having done them all. But he’s just as quick to say that his involvement in the sport goes much deeper. He’s worked as support crew on five different occasions. He’s also been exchanging e-mails and tips with newcomer athletes preparing for the race for the last three months. If Ultraman has an elder statesman, it’s Holt. Add that to his list of accolades. But it’s more a matter of obligation than pride for him. Because it’s impossible to quantify what Ultraman has given him, there can be no such thing as “giving back.” In his view, there is only giving. Like renowned endurance sports commentator Steve King, who is here to continue working as the official race announcer as he has for several years. King himself has an astounding athletic record, which includes second place at the 1994 Ultraman Canada and finishes at the Badwater and Western States ultra marathons. Though he’s not competing the way he once did, he can’t tear himself away from these events and the athletes they bring. It’s that dedicated presence of such volunteers that makes Ultraman feel like home to Darwin no matter where in the world it beckons him.
The volunteers and veterans don’t have a monopoly on dedication, though, as demonstrated by participants like Haag. First-timer Nick Logan, of Connecticut, brings it in spades. “I’ve always wanted to do this race,” he says, and he would have done it long before now if only he could have gotten in. He applied twice for Ultraman Canada, but failed to make the roster of 30 athletes for that event. He applied for Ultraman Florida at the last minute after finding out about it, and luckily grabbed the last slot. “I was in the middle of training for Ironman Cabo and was having trouble feeling excited about it, and suddenly this popped up. I was super excited to make it in.” He needed that excitement to train through this year’s dreaded polar vortex. One training ride kept him outside for four hours in sub-30-degree temperatures. Then again, it’s not like ice could stick him any more firmly to his saddle. The new husband of two months forewent a bachelor’s party in lieu of a 110-mile bike ride on the morning of his wedding day. Maybe the only person more dedicated to his effort is his wife. Two months after meeting him, she agreed to go on a “date” as his support crew for a 100-mile running race. She’ll crew for him once again in Orlando this weekend.
With that kind of determination driving the effort, the only thing left in question is just how fast this course can be completed. With it being so flat, some people are wondering if a new world record is waiting in the wings. Holt is dubious. “The course is interesting. There are a lot of turns in the first fifteen miles getting out of town, so that could hold up the fast guys at the red lights. Then again, there’s no downhill like the one coming off the volcano on day two in Hawaii, where you sort of get 25 miles for “free” there. You’ve got to sit and pedal all day long. I think this could be a fast course, but they’ll have to work for it.” Logan has trained to gut it out, but De La Parra’s mettle was similarly validated in last year’s epic battle to the finish at Ultraman Canada. A lot can happen in 320 miles between 34 people. Don’t count anyone out.
Young and old, new and experienced, the only thing that matters about the individual is what it contributes to the group experience. This isn’t Holt’s first Ultraman, and it’s doubtful that it will be his last. Chris Garlington is likewise smitten. “I’m hardly one and done. I’d love to go do Hawaii someday, but I have to pay my dues and go to Canada first. I owe that to myself.” When he goes, it’s possible Andrew Gale will go to crew with him. Or maybe Darwin Holt will offer him a hand. Whatever the case, he’ll be taken care of. When you’re at Ultraman, you’re family.
Jim Gourley is the author of Faster: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed. His next book, about the Ultraman, will be released next February.