What do you do if you want to challenge yourself beyond an Ironman Triathlon, arguably the pinnacle of athletic competition? This is a question that marathoner and triathlete Rob Hillery asked himself last year.
The answer is, you would of course compete in Ultraman events. No, this is not a reference to the Japanese superhero “Ultraman,” created by Eiji Tsuburaya from Tsuburaya Productions, a pioneer in special effects who was responsible for bringing Godzilla to life in 1954. But it might as well be based on this character, since you have to be a true-life superhero, with Godzilla-like strength and the endurance of a rare and elite ultra marathon runner, just to compete, let alone finish one of these grueling races.
And one of the most prestigious of these events is the international invitation-only Ultraman Canada Championship, a three-day, 318.6-mile individual ultra-endurance slugfest that involves a swim of 6.2 miles, a bike race of a total of 260 miles and a run of 52.4 miles. Take an Ironman event and double it! Actually, more than double it in the swim portion of the race, then add an additional 230-mile bike race (split between two days) and splurge on a double marathon run distance, all done over the course of three consecutive days, and voilà, you have Ultraman.
What makes Rob’s story unique is that he was not one of those preteen superstars who won all the local 5K and 10K races or excelled at cross country and track and field distance events. Rob was a wrestler in high school and participated in additional power-lifting activities to help with his wrestling, but was definitely not an avid runner. His introduction to running came after high school by way of the US Marine Corps, which included a three-mile running fitness test that he had to pass at all costs. And pass he did, which ultimately motivated him to move up to the longer distances.
Rob went on to run his first marathon in 2003, followed by more marathons in 2005 and 2006. But it was not until 2007 that Rob caught the triathlon bug, when he started training in earnest. And in 2008, having lost about 15 pounds, Rob was competing in his first sprint-distance triathlon and loving it. This event was followed by an Olympic-distance triathlon, several marathons and half-marathons, and finally on to his first full Ironman distance event in 2009, Ironman Arizona. This is a premier event that fills up fast and sells out within hours of the start of registration, so Rob had to act fast to get in.
And just to push the envelope further, in February of 2009, Rob put his name in for a lottery draw in the Ironman Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Although Kona is an event for which you have to qualify based on performance in Ironmans throughout the year, this event allows 150 athletes to be invited through a lottery drawing with the minimum qualifying criteria being a respectable half Ironman finish. And lo and behold, Rob won the draw! His first Ironman would be in Kona at the Championships, followed by the Arizona Ironman six weeks later!
These were just the events Rob needed to put under his belt to increase his confidence and tip him over the edge of decision as he submitted his application for Ultraman Canada in October of 2009, a full year before the event. As it turned out, the invitation roster was full and the best he could do was add his name to a waiting list, with the hope of replacing a racer who perchance backed out for one reason or another.
After three months of jittery, tense anticipation, the news arrived in January 2010. Rob was in. He was invited to the Ultraman Canada Championships.
Rob had to train for this event at a higher level of intensity, biking, swimming, running and racing for five to six days a week on average. The sacrifice was enormous. Rob typically started his day at 5:30 in the morning and didn’t finish until 9:30 at night. An average day included a swim in the morning, followed by weight training, running at lunch and two hours on a stationary bike in the evenings, with triathlons and ultra 50K running races on weekends.
Rob said, “I worked on building strength by racing a few shorter triathlons and then trained on longer distances at a slower pace to build endurance and confidence, avoiding overtraining by monitoring my heart rate and recovery before hitting it hard again.”
“I couldn’t keep this up without the nutritional support that I got from Natural Vitality’s sports products,” Rob explained. “Leading up to the Ultraman, I did two triathlons back to back, one Saturday followed by an even tougher course on Sunday. With Energy 28®, I definitely felt more overall energy, which surprised me. I finished strong in this second event when I didn’t think I had it in me. “
Rob added, “Natural Calm® Plus Calcium, with the magnesium that it contains, has helped me prevent cramping, which is just a killer to morale, let alone race times. Because you are always thinking, ‘How fast could I have gone if I hadn’t cramped up? —I have the strength and the speed, but my muscles just seized and I couldn’t stop it from happening.’ Well, Natural Calm Plus Calcium gives you a way to prevent this from happening to you.”
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Ultraman Canada covers part of the Okanagan/Similkameen regions of British Columbia, Canada. The event started in Canada in 1993, following the format of the original Ultraman established in Kona, Hawaii, in 1983.
Stage 1 kicks the race off with a 6.2-mile point-to-point swim, starting in Penticton and finishing in Okanagan Falls, followed by 90 miles of cycling with 4,068 feet of elevation gain, beginning in Okanagan Falls, passing over the Richter Pass and returning to Okanagan Falls. The time limits are merciless. The swim stage must be completed in six hours, and the swim and bike portions of this stage must be finished in 12 hours total.
Stage 2 starts with a 170-mile cycling distance and 5,774 feet of elevation gain, beginning in Penticton and ending in Princeton. The time cutoff is 12 hours.
And Stage 3 crowns the race with a 52.4-mile double-marathon run from Princeton to Summerland, which varies in elevation from 2,700 feet to 3,800 feet above sea level and has some very steep climbs and descents, with one-third of the course run on a gravel road and a time limit of 12 hours.
Rob explained, “The challenge is guessing how many swim, bike and run miles my body can handle at a given intensity, and which foods and nutritional supplements work best for me. I had to experiment with food, nutrition and drinks in training. As liquid supplements, Natural Vitality’s Organic Life Vitamins® and Energy 28 were perfect for my water bottles and my digestion and worked well during the race.”
Under slightly overcast skies, Rob began his Ultraman journey and came out of the water after 6.2 miles in the middle of the pack, not bad for a field that set course records in the swim that day.
Conditions for the bike portion were beautiful, with the cloud coverage keeping temperatures cooler than normal and holding the traditionally strong winds to a mild roar. Rob kept his pace consistent and finished Stage 1 in 16th place overall.
Stage 2 saw Rob move up in the ranks as the 170-mile cycling event ran with relatively mild weather conditions for the beginning sections and headwinds greeting the athletes on the way to Keremeos and picking up later in the afternoon. Rob finished Stage 2 in 7th place overall.
Stage 3’s double marathon began at 6 a.m. just outside of Princeton on the Princeton-Summerland Highway and concluded at Memorial Park in Summerland. With seven athletes dropping out and unable to complete due to various medical and nutritional issues and time cutoffs, Rob Hillery pushed on and completed the race with an overall 10th-place finish and a total time of 28:29.44. His finishing time qualified him for the Kona World Championship Ultraman held during the Thanksgiving weekend, in November 2010.
Exhausted and at the same time elated, Rob said, “It is all worth it, the sacrifice, the struggle, the training, everything comes together when you cross that finish line and you know you have personally and spiritually achieved something you didn’t think was possible.”
We expect great things from Rob at the Kona Ultraman World Championships and can see him now as he crosses the finish line.