Photo credit: Mike Noonan
The inaugural Ultraman Florida exceeded expectations, with a spectacular, challenging event and smiles throughout the entire field of participants despite some unfavorable weather. Chuck Kemeny and Julie Shelley, both of the United States, won the race in true Ultraman style, mixing phenomenal athletic performance with genuinely humble acceptance of the win. Like every other athlete that competed, the journey that brought them each to Florida is every bit as extraordinary as how their individual races unfolded.
Both winners applied late to the race; Kemeny submitted his paperwork in November and Shelley’s acceptance turned into an early present arriving on Christmas Eve. “I applied hoping Consuela [Lively, Ultraman Florida Race Director] would say ‘no,'” laughs Shelley. She wasn’t sure if she could get ready in time, but she received the enthusiastic support of her coach, Ultraman World Champion Hillary Biscay. “I think two months of work-up to Ultraman turned out to be just right,” she says. “I took a lot of time off work, but everyone at the office was supportive.” Still, her preparation for the event was ridden with worry. “I felt overwhelmed by the logistics. You always think about what you’ll need and how to organize it in the van, and then you’re trying to make sure your support crew is taken care of as well as yourself. It’s a lot to plan.” Shelley’s crew came from her hometown of Chicago, but she had to first travel there from Australia, where she currently works. But travelling to races is a practiced affair for Shelley, who has been competing in Ironman events around the world for the last ten years. She quickly found that was probably the extent of how far her experience would take her, though. “My only basis of comparison for Ultraman is Ironman,” she says of the event. “And there is no comparison.” Early fog and continuous rain throughout the second day’s bike leg made things “scary” for her at times and 45 of the day’s 170 miles reminded her of the rolling hills on the Ironman Wisconsin course. Still, the memories that stick out most to her are fond ones. “The swim started literally from the backyard of one of the race volunteers, who lives on the lake,” Shelley remembers. “So we all hung out on their back deck for a while before the start. It was very calm and friendly. Usually before a swim start I’m nervous because of the insanity that happens with so many people, but it was very different there.” Of course, her 25:33:05 will also remain a fond memory. She led the race out of the swim and widened the gap throughout the weekend. She finished the run by taking fifth place overall in addition to the women’s victory.
Kemeny ran an equally spectacular race, proving that it’s not just whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. The Florida resident competed in the Ironman World Championship in 2009 and traveled there last year with a group of athletes he coaches, but he only races once every year or so. “People ask why I don’t race very often. I need a race that fits my personality,” he says. “I don’t like events where people are always looking for sponsorships or taking the competition to a cut throat level. I need a different atmosphere.” He demonstrated that in sublime fashion on the second day. When his closest pursuer, former Ultraman United Kingdom champ Inaki De La Parra, went down on the bike, Kemeny went ahead to let his support crew know, then rode back and stayed with De La Parra until help arrived. “It cost me between five to eight minutes, but that’s not what matters. There’s more to it than that.”
He doesn’t deny that a certain personal challenge emanated from the race clock, though. When he found out on the third day that a 7:07 double marathon would garner him the fastest ever finish at an Ultraman, he went for it. A project manager for the IT department at Florida State as well as a coach, his entire approach to his race preparation and crew selection was as methodically precise as a lunar landing. For his crew he selected his best friend, a nurse and a physical therapist, the latter two also being athletes he coaches. It gave him peace of mind to know that the people taking care of him had both professional expertise and personal knowledge. “They always had me taken care of. I don’t think I ever had to ask for a thing. This was different from anything else I’ve ever done. Ultraman is a team sport, and I’m really proud of my crew.” Equally clinical was his training schedule, which almost ran him into difficulties. “I think I rode outside once in the last year. It’s all about efficiency. I want to spend as much time as I can with my family, and four or five hours on the trainer equals six or seven outside. It made things a little scary in the winds, though, and I wasn’t used to getting out of the saddle to pedal up some of the hills. I was definitely not as confident descending, either. Some guys hit 40-50mph going downhill, and I was keeping it between 15 and 20.” Yet through the rain, hills, Kona-level winds and even the demands of his own conscience, he still prevailed. With a time of 21:38:32, Kemeny now the fastest Ultraman in history. Does that bode for an attempt to become the fastest man at the Ultraman World Championships this year? He’s not sure. Neither is Shelley.
“That was a freak race where everything goes right,” says Kemeny. “It’s hard to think about going back out there without taking time to let it sink in.” Shelley feels the same way. “Anyone who knows me knows that once is enough.” But for a woman who’s completed 25 Ironman races, the door is never closed. She’s already qualified for the Ironman World Championships this year, and has two other races on her calendar. She’s also trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon, so her dance card may already be full. She does, however, intend to run the North Face 100k with her husband in May. “I’m still improving in Ironman, and I want to see how much faster I can get, but the ultra distance does appeal to me,” she says.
Chuck is on the fence, but if he passes on the opportunity there are certainly more than a few anxious to take his spot in Kona for the Ultraman World Championships this November. The next Ultraman event is in Penticton, Canada this September. Those interested in registering can find out more at http://ultramancanada.com/.
Jim Gourley is the author of Faster: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed. His next book, The Race Within, Passion, Courage and Sacrifice at the Ultraman Triathlon, will be released next February.