‘If You Have to Ask, You Will Never Know’
All that misery and more menaced the competitors who had decided, for their own unfathomable reasons, that a single Ironman race was not enough. They had entered an endurance event called the Virginia Quintuple Anvil Triathlon — five Ironman-length races, totaling 703 miles of swimming, biking and running, over five days.
All the legs were done in confined loops (30 laps in a section of the lake, 101 laps of a more-than-five-mile course for the bike and 75 laps of a nearly two-mile course for the run) at Lake Anna State Park, earning the course the moniker “the squirrel cage.”
The competitors — several of whom have formed a tight, familylike circle, having seen one another often at these kinds of races — were a mishmash of the superfit and the merely fit, military veterans (including a couple of former commandos), driven professionals and simple thrill-seekers who found plenty.
Most were middle-aged, most had grown children who would not miss them much in the long hours of training, and most had supportive spouses and family members — in some cases triathletes themselves.
Some of those family members came to watch their loved ones destroy their bodies, if not their minds, for nearly a week because … because … why? “If you have to ask,” more than a few racers replied, “you will never know.”
You may have heard that idea expressed at, say, the regular old Ironman triathlon, which is normally considered the Mount Everest of the sport: a 2.4-mile swim, then a 112-mile bike ride and then a marathon (26.2 miles) in the heat of Hawaii. If you could finish it, you were, well, an Ironman (or woman).
Then people began flocking to the challenge. Ironman grew. Races popped up on every continent except Antarctica. Even half-Ironman versions proliferated.
The first Ironman was in Hawaii in 1978, with 15 competitors. Today, there are 140 races to choose from, drawing 260,000 competitors.
But once you have swum 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles and run 26.2 miles in a day, why stop there?
As early as 1984, a double Ironman race was held in Alabama. And then a triple. And then a quintuple. And then a deca (10 Ironmans in 10 days) and a double deca, and you see where this is going.
Wayne Kurtz, who is considered the godfather of the so-called ultratriathletes, and seven others did 30 Ironman-length races in 30 days in Italy in 2013. He wrote about it in a book called “Stronger Than Iron.”
“With this kind of test,” he wrote, “these athletes were not racing for money or fame but purely to discover what is possible in terms of endurance limits.”
How did it go?
“I was hit by a car three times,” Kurtz said in an interview. “It was a zoo. We’re lucky nobody died.”
That triple deca is considered the outer limit of physical performance. (One athlete recently claimed to have done 50 Ironmans in 50 days, but with some of that mileage done on an elliptical machine, traditionalists have scoffed.)
One of the more popular races is the Quintuple Anvil, which grew to 16 competitors this year from seven in 2013, its inaugural year. Double and triple versions are held at the same time. (By the time you consider a quadruple, you might as well just do a quintuple. That is the mentality here.)
“Anvil” is a tongue-in-cheek spin on “Ironman,” which is run by a large corporation fiercely protective of its trademark and not keen on letting other races use it. (An Ironman lawyer told the Anvil organizers a couple of years ago not to use “Ironman” in their materials.)
Competitors may choose one of two ways to mete out their self-flagellation: do one Ironman-length triathlon a day for five days, abiding by a 17-hour cutoff, or do all of it continuously — a 12-mile swim, followed by a 560-mile bike ride and a 131-mile run — stretched out over five and a half days, broken up however you wish.
The one-by-five variant means you can get a longish night’s sleep, but you have to get up for a 7 a.m. start every day — a fitness nut’s “Groundhog Day.”
The continuous version usually involves a fair amount of sleep deprivation, in particular to get the long bike and run legs done. This is the fitness nut’s “Walking Dead”: By the end, the mind is shot from exhaustion, and the legs and feet have taken so much punishment that hardly anybody is doing much running.
My own triathlon experience has been limited to a few “sprint” races of various short distances, some Olympic-distance races (a swim of just under a mile, a 24-mile ride and a 6.2-mile run) and one half-Ironman (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile ride, 13.1-mile run).
The half-Ironman, done in the tropical heat of Panama, left me staggering at the end and had me pretty sure that I had found my limit — and it wasn’t happy to see me. Just beyond the finish line, there was a nice ice bath, which I felt like moving into permanently.
When I told this to Shanda Hill, who ended up one of the top finishers at the Anvil, she smiled and, with the evangelical fervor common among the racers, started pushing me to at least do an Ironman-length race.
“It’s all mental,” Hill, 34, said, “and I am living proof.”
By that, she meant that she had not devoted long hours to swimming, biking or running. But she did spend a lot of time in the gym and was also fit from a youth of championship BMX racing, a pursuit that ended several years ago when she was hit by a sport utility vehicle while riding a bike home.
She began running after that, moved up to ultramarathons and, before long, was doing her first Ironman, in 2014. Then came a double race, and by her logic, if you are going to move up to a triple, you might as well just do the quintuple.
This was her fifth triathlon over all, and like many of the other athletes, she would insist endurance triathlons had as much, if not more, to do with the limits of the mind as with those of the body.
Lisa Wei-Haas, who did a double, said: “Shorter triathlons are about pain. Endurance triathlons are about suffering. How much suffering can you take?”
Everybody here found the answer. But not everybody finished. Not everybody got to bang that real anvil five times, as competitors do after crossing the finish line and parading, Olympics-style, with the flag of their country and their national anthem blaring from a tinny speaker.
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