The Ultraman Endurance Challenge:
A Perimeter Triathlon (1989)

By Chris "RAAMBEAU" Kostman

Originally published in El Tour De Tucson Magazine, 1990

Ultraman is more than just a tough triathlon, it's a challenge in being human, an athletic odyssey of rediscovery. It's an event with personality, depth, and character like no other around the world.

The Ultraman takes place annually over Thanksgiving weekend on the Big Island of Hawaii. Day one is a 6.5 mile ocean swim and 90 miles of cycling, day two is a 171 miles of cycling, and day three is a double marathon (52.4 miles) run, all of which completely circumnavigates the island in a counter-clockwise direction. It is run in a stage race format with cumulative times of the three days of competition added together to determine overall placings.

Hawaii is quickly becoming known as "the place where the world wants to compete" and this year's Ultraman was no exception. Six nations, namely Japan, Taiwan, West Germany, Brazil, Norway, and the States, were represented by sixty-two hardy individuals. Ultraman is not a typical triathlon and these sixty-two were not typical triahtletes by any measure. From around the globe they had come together for a test of epic proportions and intense personal achievement. The setting could not have been any better, for the Big Island is truly an awesome natural sports arena. And thus the stage was set for the sixth annual Ultraman, a race of individuals, not a race of numbers.

With hardly any light in the sky yet, Day One began in front of the King Kamehameha hotel in Kona. The athletes made their last minute preparations while their required personal support crafts tested the water. During the swim I would be saddled up in a surf-ski to accompany my friend Premananda Childs, who was returning for his fourth Ultraman. My job was to keep him headed in the right direction and provide drinks on a regular schedule, as well as a measure of safety. As the sky began to lighten, we headed out en masse. Our destination was Keauhou Bay, a fuzzy area not yet distinguishable on the horizon.

Things spread out amazingly quickly, with '88 champ Gary Shields and former English Channel record holder Tina Bischoff setting the pace. Premananda's pace kept us in the front third of the group as we made our way south. Pre-race predictions of a new swim record seemed to be coming true until about the four mile mark, at which point a strong current came up. This made things tough for everybody and even the first out of the water, Tina Bischoff, was nearly thirty minutes off the record. Tina hit the beach with an elapsed time of 2:53:15 and Gary Shields was six minutes back. Premanda was 16th out of the water at 3:38:53 and soon began making up for lost time on the bike course.

I remained at the swim finish for the incredible spectacle of watching everyone finally get vertical. As the hours dragged on the athletes looked increasingly exhausted exiting the water, (many promptly fell on their face) but their grins were also increasingly wider. 46th out was "Pea Man" Wally Aniban who was making a comeback after being hit by a car in '86. 47 year old Wally was forced to miss Ultraman that year, and after a three year recovery period was back for his third Ultraman. He dedicated his entry in this year's race to someone who knows even greater suffering, Danielle Kael, a terminally ill patient at the UCLA Medical Center. Wally hooked up with the courageous young girl through "Tri For Kids", but has not yet met her. Throughout the race, he and his support team wore shirts emblazoned with "Team Danielle Kael."

I viewed the bike course action from the copilot's seat of race director Curtis Tyler's van. First the course made its way south along the coast to the southern most point of the island (and of the U.S.). It was here that Hawaii's original ultrapeople, the Polynesian families who travelled thousands of miles across the ocean in open canoes in about 800 AD, first landed on the island. From this point the route began the ascent of the Kilauea volcano through Volcanoes National Park. The lava flows here provided a breathtaking backdrop for the cyclists and their support crews. Curtis pointed many of the flows out, noting when they had occurred and which roads or how many homes they had destroyed. Just another day in Hawaii, it would seem.

Things heated up in other ways, too, as the cyclists put in impressive performances on the lava highways. Gary Shields moved into the lead overall, covering the 90 miles in 4:48:32 while Tina held onto second about 46 minutes back. West German Hannes Blaschke was 14th out of the water, but moved up to third overall and Premananda moved up to sixth. Six athletes were forced to drop out, but many of them continued on unofficially on days two and three. One of these was 68 year old George Schumann, who set Ultraman as his goal after doing the Ironman. Although George couldn't make the time cutoff for day one, he vowed to continue unofficially.

After a night's rest the athletes were at it again before sunrise. Day Two's route would take them down off of Kilauea towards Hilo, then out around the fabled red road. These twenty miles of the course skirt the water's edge on the island's eastern point and are so named for the volcanic cinders which effect the color of the asphalt. During high tide parts of the road are under water, so the race is timed to cover this spectacular stretch between tides. Riders dodge water, sand, mangoes, and flotsam and jetsam as they alternately pass through mango groves and beachfront. It's an exciting area to race in and provides an arena only Hawaii could provide. Next the route heads straight up the east coast and through the Parker Ranch, the largest private cattle ranch in the States. After a six mile climb over the Kohala Mountains the riders plummet into Kapa'au and the finish line.

Once again Gary Shields dominated on the bike, but all the riders put in very impressive performances as well. Gary covered the 171 miles in 8:00:56, while Hannes moved up to second by staying within two minutes of the leader. Premananda was eight minutes back, good enough for third overall. Tina fell back to ninth, but built an even larger lead over the women's field. Native American Clare St. Arnaud, a 51 year old farrier from Tucson, completed the distance, as did Toshiko Yura, a 48 year old Japanese housewife. George Schumann, continuing unofficially, covered all 171 miles of Day Two. Wally Aniban ran into some tough times and once threw his bike across the road, but in the moment of so doing he saw the small photo of Danielle Kael taped to his handlebar stem. Remembering that Ultraman pales miserably compared to Danielle's struggle, Wally remounted his bike and pressed on to the finish. Several competitors finished in the dark, riding under the eerie yellow light of the special street lights designed not to effect work at the nearby observatory.

Day Three and its 52.4 mile run began under beautiful skies with a breathtaking view of Maui. The course covered the distance from Hawi (just down the road from Kapa'au) back to the Day One starting line in Kona. It followed the coastal route through vast lunaresque lava fields, an area known for surface temperatures of over 140 degrees. Air temperature and humidity climbed into the nineties. Without a doubt, Day Three would be the biggest test of the event.

Day Three also dramatically displayed what a team event the Ultraman really is. Constant help from support crews is a must for the runners and the athletes themselves encouraged each other along as well. The competitors were allowed to have one crew member run along as a pacer and so Toshiko Yura's team members took turns running with Toshiko while holding an enormous umbrella over her head. Many of the foreign entrants could not afford to bring along team members, so they were provided with a team of local volunteers for the weekend. Some of these athletes could not speak English, but as their team members ran along providing food, water, and constant encouragement, it was quite clear that no translation was needed. Mutual interdependence is at the core of this event. "I'm an island" types need not enter, for they won't survive it and they would miss the whole point as well.

Gary Shields, Wes Kessenich (8th overall), and Tosuke Kataoka of Japan (26th) ran shoulder to shoulder for some twenty miles, then Wes moved into the lead, followed by Kosuke. Wes covered the first marathon in 3:13, then continued on to finish first in the run at 6:41:46, good enough for third overall. Kosuke was second, ten minutes back, which put him in 14th overall and first among the 13 member Japanese contigent. Gary Shields, the 34 year old boat builder from Kona, took fifth in the run, but hung on for the overall win. His overall time of 23:14:56 broke his own course record from the previous year by some ninety minutes, and in the process he also smashed both bike leg records.

Of the eight West Germans who entered, three made it into the top ten. Hannes Blaschke was second overall, one hour back of Gary, while Guenter Escher was fourth and Mark Wenz was tenth. Jim Freim, 'the 86 champ and former director of Tri-Fed, placed fifth while Premananda placed seventh. Wally Aniban, drawing strength from the very person he was trying to give strength to, made a triumphant and emotional finish. Clare St. Arnaud was right on his heels. Toshiko Yura made it in as well, her support team possibly as tired as she was. George Schumann also completed the run, covering the distance in 16:21:30, with his wife often at his side setting the pace. Although Toshiko did not make the final official finishing cutoff, and although George completed the course unofficially as well, both would receive particiapant plaques identical to all the others. Indeed, everyone who made it to the starting line of Day One would receive a plaque. Another exciting finish was provided by Keiji Ikeda and Miyuki Shishido, both of Sapporo, Japan, who were symbolically married by Curtis Tyler at the finish line. After surviving Ultraman together, the two certainly have a great shot at surviving wedlock together.

Ultraman is a small event, but one with far-reaching implications. As an endurance challenge worthy of any world-class athlete, it provides an incredible and brutal race. As a setting for personal achievement, it is unparalled. As a common ground for people the world over to meet and interact it is singularly invaluable.