The Ultraman Endurance Challenge:
RAAM's Triathlon Cousin (1989)

By Chris "RAAMBEAU" Kostman

Originally published in the the UMCA Newsletter July 1990

Just as there are a select number of cyclists who put themselves to the ultimate test of their cycling abilities by competing in the Race Across America, so too there are an equivalent group of triathletes with a similar mission. The goal of a prospective Ultraman triathlete: to swim, cycle, and run around the Big Island of Hawaii as quickly as possible.

Ultraman is run as a stage race, with the three days' combined times determining the overall winner and placings. Day One is a 6.5 mile ocean swim south along the western coast from Kona to Keahou Bay, followed by a 90 mile bike trip to the southernmost tip of the island and back north-east to the summit of the active volcano Kilauea. Day Two is a 170 mile bike trip around the eastern tip of the island and then north along the east coast and up and over the Kohala Mountains to the finish line in Kapa'au, next door to Hawi. Day Three is a double marathon run (52.8 miles) south down the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway from Hawi to the finish line in Kona where the race began.

I first came to know of Ultraman from two RAAM buddies of mine, Woody Woodruff and Premamanda Childs. Woody placed 11th in RAAM 87 and is the Mike Secrest of the Ultraman with three second place finishes. Premananda competed in RAAM 88 and will return to the transcontinental event this summer; he has raced Ultraman four times. Both have suggested that I give Ultraman a try, so I traveled to the Islands last Fall to check it out once before announcing any intentions of competing. Unfortunately Woody wouldn't be competing as his duties as a Navy SEAL kept him overseas and away from an effective training program.

Ultraman is held annually on Thanksgiving weekend and has been held each year since 83 except for 87. The 89 event was the largest ever, with 62 competitors, double the field of any of the previous five races. I must say that this is one of the finest groups of people assembled anywhere and this event has incredible depth and character. The esprit de corps and comaraderie exhibited by the athletes, their crews, and the race staff was truly phenomenal. In this way, Ultraman is incredibly similar to RAAM. I couldn't have enjoyed a finer three days anywhere.

I was also priveleged to get a bird's eye view of the event. I viewed Day One's swim action from a kayak loaned to Premananda for use as his support vehicle. That's right: all competitors must have one support member on a human-powered water craft for the duration of the swim. I carried Prem's water and nutrition needs and also kept him headed in the proper direction. No easy feat as the finish for the swim was over the horizon for half the distance! Prem swam strong and was 16th out of the water with a time of 3:38:53. Strong currents in the final half of the swim kept the difficulty factor up and precluded any chances for new swim records. First out of the water was Tina Bischoff at 2:53:15, followed by defending 88 champ Gary Shields at 2:59:15.

During the remainder of the event I was saddled up in race director Curtis Tyler's van (RAAM crew members Len Bertain and massage therapist Kathie Swanson of Bay Area Rent-A-Crew were Prem's crew). We stayed at the swim finish and watched the remainder of the athletes come in before hitting the highway and driving along the bike course. Curtis reminds me greatly of our idol John Marino: a man driven by his belief in his event and dedicated to providing a fantastic opportunity for personal achievement to any and all willing to take the challenge. Curtis gave me great insight into his event, the island, and the athletes. Throughout the weekend we also bounced ideas off one another about race organization. RAAM and Ultraman have much in common and suffer from many of the same problems and pitfalls and we can undoubtedly learn much from one another. To put it in print, I'd like to suggest that we set up some sort of Sister Event relationship between our two races. I've already made Curtis a UMCA member to get things rolling.

Back to the race: The Day One bike leg was breathtaking and challenging, with stunning views of the ocean, coastline, old lava flows, and Kilauea, along with a demanding climb to the summit. Prem moved up to sixth place, covering the distance in 5:16:03. Gary Shields moved into the lead, covering the 90 miles in 4:48:32. Tina dropped to 2nd overall and built a strong lead over the women's field, riding the distance in 5:45:22.

Day Two: The 170 mile bike trip began with a 25 mile downhill off of Kilauea and ended with a tough climb over the Kohala Mountains. Part of the course included the Red Road, so named for the volcanic cinders which are included in the asphalt and give the surface its unique hue, which skirts the south-eastern coastline of the island and is under water during high tide. In spite of some traffic lights in Hilo and Wimea and lots of hills, Gary covered the distance in 8:00:56, for a truly incredible 21.3 AVG MPH! Prem was 3rd at 8:8:59, good enough for 3rd overall as well. Tina was 12th at 9:17:37,for 9th overall, and extended her lead over the nearest woman, Ardis Bow, to two and a half hours.

Day Three: The 52.8 mile run back to Kona is the real proving ground of the race and appears for most to be the toughest stretch of the event. I was totally amazed at the intensity, determination, and fitness of all the athletes on this day, from run stage winner Wes Kessenich, who ran it in 6:41:46, to 48 year old Japanese housewife Toshiko Yura, who completed the distance in 14:45:37 and whose support team members took turns running with her holding a large umbrella over her head. Gary placed 5th this day, at 7:26:13, still fast enough for the overall victory with a total time of 23:14:56 and a margin of victory of one full hour over West German Hannes Blaschke, and a new course record to boot. Prem was 14th on the run, at 8:40:17, which put him in 7th overall with a total time of 25:44:12. Tina covered the distance in 7:49:37, for an overall time of 25:45:51, and a new course record by nearly eight hours. Her total margin of victory was 4:36 over 2nd placer Ardis Bow, whose run was 9:57:02 and total time was 30:21:15 and who also broke the course record, by more than three hours. The two women placed 8th and 21st overall, respectively.

53 men and nine women started the event, of which 45 men and all the women finished. Of the 62 starters, 38 were from the States, 13 from Japan, 8 from West Germany, 1 from Taiwan, 1 from Norway, and 1 from Brazil. Everyone who showed up at the starting line was presented with a plaque.

Ultraman is an inspiring and intriguing event, with truly no parallel in the athletic world save RAAM. I'm grateful to have been a part of it and extend my thanks to Premananda Childs and Curtis Tyler for making it possible for me to be there. And yes, now that I've seen it in person, I plan to compete and have made it my number one goal for the 1990 season. I can't wait!