ULTRAMAN, A Triathletic Tour of
Hawaii's Big Island (1989)

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in California Bicyclist, December, 1989

Hawaii has always held a special allure for me, being the home of "Magnum P.I.," and so with no hesitation at all I recently traveled to the Islands for the Ultraman Endurance Challenge. Besides, my good RAAM buddies Woody Woodruff and Premananda Childs have been trying to get me to do the race for a couple years, so I figured now was as good a time as any to at least spectate Hawaii's "other" triathlon.

Ultraman was born in 1983 as a triathletic tour of Hawaii's Big Island. It encompasses a 6.5 mile swim, 261 mile bike leg, and a double marathon run, and is organized in a three day, stage race format. Day one is the swim and ninety miles of cycling, day two is 171 miles on the bike, and day three is the run, all of which completely circumnavigates the island. Ultraman is not a double Ironman, nor is it designed just to be long for the sake of being long. According to race organizers, Ultraman is designed as "an athletic odyssey of rediscovery, showcasing one of the most breathtaking places on earth". This is an event that stands on its own without need of comparison.

The 1989 incarnation of the Ultraman had 53 men and 9 women from Japan, Norway, Brazil, West Germany, the Republic of China, and the U.S., twice the number of entrants of any of the five previous races. Notables included '88 champ Gary Shields of Kona, '86 champ Jim Freim of Colorado Springs, two-time women's champ Ardis Bow of Sacramento, former English Channel swim record holder Tina Bischoff of Deerfield Beach, FL, and previous top finishers Peter Bourne, Premananda Childs, Steve Hare, and Joe Donatucci. Noticeably absent was Navy frogman Woody Woodruff, the Mike Secrest of the Ultraman with three second place finishes, who spent much of the year overseas and thus wasn't able to train effectively.

Day One: Before sunrise the sixty-two competitors, along with their required personal support teams and the rest of the race entourage, gathered in front of the King Kamehameha Hotel in Kona for the start of the open ocean swim. Temps were mild and the ocean smooth as the athletes hit the water for the 6.5 mile swim south along the coast to Keauhou Bay. Gary Shields had covered the course in 2:30 in training the week before, and so with both he and Tina Bischoff setting the pace expectations were high that the course record of 2:34:34 set back in '83 by Kurt Madden would be broken.

Each athlete was required to be escorted by some sort of human-powered watercraft, so I volunteered to ride shotgun for Premananda by paddling a surf-ski loaned to us by local resident Roland Kleger. What a sight it was as 62 swimmers and 62 surf-skis, kayaks, and canoes headed south as the sun came up over Mt. Hualalai, the dormant volcano overlooking Kona and its environs! The first couple miles went quickly and I was amazed at how soon the athletes spread out according to their ability. Premananda stopped briefly every 25 minutes for a drink of fresh water, but otherwise swam strong and continuously. Unfortunately, after about four miles strong currents came up and hopes of any new swim records were dashed. First out of the water was Tina Bischoff with a time of 2:53:15, followed by Gary Shields six minutes later. Third was Ron De Pontes at 3:08:46 followed by six-time Ultraman Joe Donatucci at 3:11:54. Premananda was 16th out of the water at 3:38:53.

After completing the swim, the athletes ran (or walked, or stumbled) through the showers, changed into bike clothes, and hit the pavement for the ninety mile bike trek. The route would take them south along the coast over numerous old lava flows and around the southern end of the Island (the southern most point in the U.S.), then finish at the summit of the Kilauea volcano at the Kilauea Military Camp.

Once on the bike, Gary Shields worked his way into the lead and bettered Kurt Madden's record from '85 by two and a half minutes, covering the distance in 4:48:32, giving him an overall time of 7:47:47. Tina Bischoff was 12th on the bike leg, but her swim lead enabled her to maintain second overall. West German Hannes Blaschke was second on the bike at 5:02:20 and moved into third overall. Premananda moved up to sixth overall, while Jim Freim, who was 24th out of the water, moved up to eighth. On day one six athletes dropped out, including Peter Bourne.

Day Two: As dawn broke over the summit of Kilauea, the athletes headed out for the second bike leg of the journey. The 171 mile course would plummet them down towards Hilo (a 4,000 foot drop over 25 miles), then take them on a loop south-east to Cape Kumukahi over the fabled Red Road, so named for its volcanic ash-based and red colored asphalt. This stretch along the coast is narrow and winding and is covered daily with rocks, mangoes, flotsam and jetsam by high tides. After this loop the route heads north through Hilo and up the north-eastern coast of the Island to Waimea. This section crosses through the Parker Ranch, site of the Magnum episode "Paniolo" and also the world's largest private ranch. Here a 3,000 foot and 6 mile climb over the Kohala Mountains is the last hurdle before the day two finish line in Kapa'au on the northern tip of the Island.

Once again 34 year old boat builder Gary Shields was unbeatable on the bike, covering the distance in 8:00:56, for a day two riding average of 21.3 mph and a new course record, bettering Woody Woodruff's '88 time of 8:04:17. Gary's new total time was now 15:48:43. Hannes Blaschke was second on the bike by just two minutes and moved into second overall with a time deficit of 53 minutes. Premananda was third on the bike by eight minutes and moved up to third overall, while Steve Hare moved up from 5th to 4th and Jim Freim moved from 8th to 5th. Tina Bischoff was 12th on the bike at 9:17:37 and dropped to 9th overall, but extended her lead over Ardis Bow to two and a half hours. One additional athlete was forced to drop out, but several of day one's dropouts had continued unofficially, spurred on by the new challenges of each day.

Day Three: The double marathon run would take the athletes south along the lava field coastline from Hawi (pronounced "Havee"), just down the street from Kapa'au, back to the starting line of the entire race in Kona. The 52.4 mile stretch of highway proves every year to be the real testing ground of the athletes as air temps and humidity levels move into the 90's and road surface temps easily reach 140 degrees.

For some twenty miles Gary Shields and Wes Kessenich (8th overall after two days) ran shoulder to shoulder towards Kona. By the marathon, however, Kessenich had moved into the lead with a split time of 3:13:50, while Shields was in second just three minutes back. Kessenich held onto his lead and covered 99% of the distance at a running pace, with a new course record time of 6:41:46 (compared to Kurt Madden's '85 time of 6:42:48), putting him into third overall at 24:29:02. Kosuke Kataoka, one of thirteen entrants from Japan, posted the second fastest run at 6:51:43, good enough for 14th overall and first among the Japanese contingent. West Germans Guenter Escher and Ulrich Strunz were 3rd and 4th, for 4th and 13th overall respectively. Gary Shields was 5th at 7:26:13 and held onto the overall victory with a total time of 23:14:56, beating his own course record from '88 of 24:42:01 and with a margin of one hour over 2nd overall place Hannes Blaschke. Overall, Jim Freim held onto 5th, Steve Hare snagged 6th, and Premananda came in 7th, just 39 seconds ahead of Tina Bischoff, the overall women's winner at 25:45:51, bettering the women's course record on the run by 20 minutes and overall by nearly eight hours. Ardis Bow was the second woman in at 30:21:15, breaking the course record and her own personal record as well.

The Ultraman is truly an amazing event and one of intense personal satisfaction for all those involved. It transcends distinctions of nationality, language, and personality, and provides a rich and intriguing framework for personal achievement through mutual interdependence. Aloha until next year!