At this point, I’ve spent months trying to wrap my head around what happened in New Orleans last November. Finally, I am able to sit down and chronicle the events of DecaMan USA through my eyes. I knew that when the time was right, I would be far enough removed to reflect a bit and draw conclusions on the event as a whole, instead of simply vomit race details one after another into a blog. At 2:30am on March 5, here we are.
It’s the right time.
What happens when you send an open invitation to some of the most prolific ultra endurance athletes in the world to come to America for what many consider to be the pinnacle of hamster-wheel style sports? 24 miles of swimming, 1120 miles of cycling, and 262 miles of running… on a loop course! Sleep deprivation, relatively large participation numbers, unpredictable weather, and unfathomable distances combined to make DecaManUSA an event for the ages.
Rather than report every minute detail of my race, I thought it might be fun to tell you about the event as a whole from an athlete’s perspective: what I saw while i was on the bike, witnessing during the run, and all of the high drama that comes when humans become sleep deprived and rationale goes out the window.
There is a small part of me that didn’t want to acknowledge Alyx Ulbrich’s cheating, but in this loop-format sport, the courses are very short. Interactions happen every single hour around the clock for days, and days, and days. I HAD to acknowledge it. Her antics before, during, and after had an effect on every racer, volunteer, and crew person. At first, she was the top story coming out of Louisiana, which was sad because it overshadowed some of the truly superhuman performances that took place. This race was so much more than a struggling fitness model propping herself up for a world of fake followers. The rest of the story needed to be told.
Race Director Wayne Kurtz met me at the baggage claim. It was late- something like 11 o’clock. While he greeted me with his trademark massive smile, his eyes showed hints of fatigue, or stress, or a mixture of both. He and Don had been transporting athletes and crews from the airport to the venue all day long. They were rightfully smoked, but the 40 minute drive in Steve Kirby’s massive new Ford F-1zillion truck over Lake Pontchartrain was a laugh-fest. I’ve known and raced with Wayne, a legend of the sport, for 10 years now. Don “The Destroyer” Devaney was instrumental in my Peak 500 Mile Run finish back in 2014. It was great to catch up, and hear all of the “race gossip” that was already starting. The logistical challenges of putting on the sport’s most participated-in Deca of all time, mixed with the personalities of those showing up to crew and race, was already creating a vibe to be remembered for all time. We arrived at the cabin and crashed hard.
I spent the next few days preparing to race the Continuous Deca, an event I had done over 6 years prior as a 29 year old. There were shopping runs for high calorie junk food, a few rides and runs on the course, and laying around thinking about how things might go once this whole thing kicked off. The race is too long to stress about, but you do tend to dwell on the logistics a bit. A good crew will handle that, leaving the athlete to just GO, but Greg wouldn’t arrive until Day 1, and Kevin wouldn’t arrive until Day 8. It was great mental fodder for me. I was happy and relaxed. It was great to see the athletes I knew like Chuck, Dave Clamp, Greger Sundin, and Georgeta, and meet the ones I didn’t. There was Shanda, the wild Canadian. Alyx, whose reputation as a fitness model and strong cyclist preceded her. Mike from Guernsey, a good-time guy who I knew from social media but hadn’t raced with, and so many more.
We rolled down to the beach to see Mark and Brian in Lake Pontchartrain battling ocean-esque swells in the water. They were extending their race unofficially- Mark doing 10 one-per-day Irons before beginning the continuous Deca for a total of 20, and Brian doing 5 before beginning the 1 per day Deca, for a total of 15. This is the type of person the event attracts: people who do things not for the recognition or certificate or prize money. They do it to find the limits inside themselves. I knew Mark, a Navy SEAL, was a good dude when he came out of the water and mooned us. Everything he wore was stars and stripes. Brian, a tall, powerful athlete was also a fun guy to be around. I looked forward to being around these new personalities for the next few weeks.
The morning that the Continuous Deca was to start, everyone quietly boarded the charter bus to the pool. Bravado was nowhere to be found. Everyone “went in” to themselves, and the bus was silent for the entire 40 minute ride in the dark. There is so much pain, that you have to find a way to accept it. We all seemed to be in the process of that acceptance.
At the pool, we donned wetsuits and prepared for our lives to change dramatically for the next week and a half. People laughed and made jokes, and set up their food at the end of their respective lanes. Alyx recorded video for her followers. Shanda made inappropriate but hilarious comments and gestures. I liked how she gave no fucks, just owning who she was- everything in good fun. Christine Couldrey of New Zealand laid down by the pool and perhaps slept. I climbed into the bleachers and took it all in. One last minute of silence before sticking my face in the water for the better part of the next day.
I knew I was toast within 4 hours of the start.
That old familiar nausea from my first Classic Deca 6 years prior had already started rearing its ugly head. More calories were going out than in, however it seemed to be much worse, and more violent. Other people were having problems, too. We theorized that the pool people, who planned to open an hour after the 23 hour swim cutoff, had been “keeping up” with the chemicals, and those were wreaking havoc on our stomachs. As a result of caloric loss, I was weak. My technique became worse by the lap. I had to believe I could keep going, come out of it, and swim to some sort of resurrection. It couldn’t be over this soon. Greg hadn’t even flown in yet!
By 10 or 11 pm, I was crunching numbers and completely miserable.
“No way I could finish in 23 hours”, I told Greg, who had only been there a few hours.
I wasn’t going to get faster after midnight, that’s for sure. I started panicking a bit, asking other people to crunch the numbers. I had Don meet me behind the bleachers.
Perhaps I was just looking for validation to quit.
I told him the numbers, which in my heart knew were correct. Always the motivator, he looked me square in the eye and said, “You know what I think? I think you’re looking at that fucking watch too much. Give me that thing, and get back in the god damned pool”.
I swam about another half an hour, and Italian Vincenzo Catalano, who I shared a lane with, was also having a rough day. He said, “I think I will quit. The times are not possible for me. I will see if Wayne will let me do the 1×10.”
My heart jumped.
I hadn’t thought of that option. I had swum the last couple of hours thinking about how to tell the world I couldn’t hack it. How would I get an early plane ticket home without losing my shirt around Thanksgiving time? Now, I could have the opportunity to put the most recent Deca-Debate to the test: “Which is harder, 1×10 or Classic?”. The stats said 1×10.
While I waited to see if Wayne would let us switch, I swam. I’m not sure why.
Around midnight and 16 miles of swimming, Don said,”Get out of the pool. You start the 1×10 on Thursday.” I was free from swim purgatory, and not disappointed. I wanted to get my stomach right. Greg and I spent the next day sleeping and chilling. My shoulders were cranky, but I wasn’t super concerned about having to swim an hour and a half a day for the next 10 days. I figured I could deal with an hour and a half a day of anything, but as a New Englander, I had irrational fears about open water swimming in Louisiana. What about snakes and gators and brain-eating amoebas? Little did I know, those would be the least of our swim worries by Day 3.
THE START- Day 1
The national anthem was sung by a local group of school kids, and we waded into the water. My shoulders hurt like hell as we began. The swims were going to be a grind, thanks to the 16 mile “warmup” from a few days ago. There were some pretty shallow sections on the out and back Lake Pontchartrain course, so I used those as much as possible to dolphin-dive and give the joints a rest. Either way, the swim felt good muscularly.
I felt that I was too casual in my first Deca- lots of stops that added up to probably a day and a half of time. This was one reason I had come back to the distance. I wanted to do it, and apply the lessons I learned 6 years prior, on top of all of the other race experience. I wanted to treat it like a race- not just a journey. That being said, when I came out of the water (I believe in last place), I quickly changed into my bike stuff to “catch up” to everyone.
Wheeling onto the 8ish mile bike course was interesting: a 4 mile out/back on The Tamany Trace, which is a very long, straight, and FLAT bike path with snakes, wild boars, deer, and turtles. You could see pretty much all the way to the other end of the course. It was just wide enough for 2 bikes. We were all curious about how this might play out when fatigue began setting in for the Classic Deca folks in the dark, and also how it might be mixing those wobbly Classic folks in with the faster-moving 1/day riders. We all pretty much assumed there would be accidents, as there were always some in these races- usually nothing serious.
That first day, I became caught up in the race, and rode harder than I should have. Kevin Willis of Canada was FLYING, and everyone else was hammering along. I was merely trying to keep up with traffic- I hadn’t spent any real time on the bike after I broke my neck in April, except for one big one-day ride to Lake Placid, NY from my house in NH.
Classic Deca athletes were still looking pretty good, despite having been on the bike for the better part of two days. Prior to our 1/day start, the Classic folks had been complaining about flat tires. Apparently the trees were shedding thorns and very sharp bark. This became a massive problem for some- permanently changing the outcome of their races. At one point on day one I looked up the Trace, and there were people off to the side changing flats every couple hundred yards. I wasn’t surprised when I felt my first rear tube go. I removed all debris, and made it to about a mile and a half from “home base”… when both my front AND rear went. Out of spare tubes, I decided I wasn’t going to be one of the athletes who were forced to walk miles back. I rode slowly and carefully, trying to keep both tires on the rim. Luckily, those would be my last flats of the race.
I’ve done Ironman races and other events where riders basically pass others on the side of the road without a second glance or a “hey, are you ok?”. We all look out for each other in this sport. At first, we would stop and see if the rider with the flats had tubes or methods of inflation, or whatever… but after a while you really just couldn’t. It would have been possible to spend hours a day just helping people change flats!
Biking on a course that flat and boring for 112 miles takes a lot of mental patience, so I was glad when it was over. Greg rigged up a “changing room” in my stall with a tarp, so I quickly changed into my run gear, and trotted onto the course, which was a pretty flat trail- about a half mile out and then back for 1 mile total. Usually, these courses are all pavement, so it was nice to run on something soft.
Kevin continued to lead. He was running HARD, breathing and sweating… racing in a manner I would describe as frantic- the same pace you might do for a single Iron. The fun thing about this hamster-wheel style racing is that you are constantly going back and forth with the other competitors, and on a half mile course, you see each other every few minutes. It gives you the opportunity to see their condition as the race unfolds. I figured he’d be at a sub 11 hour Iron on day 1, but I think he ended up around the mid-11s. How many days was that sustainable for? I guess we’d learn.
I had no real expectations for myself on the run, except that since my first Deca in 2012, I had done a lot of “real” shit…including a 500 mile run, a 185 mile run, a Double Iron, a bunch of other ultras, and many, many long days in the White Mountains of NH. I figured I would just plug away and see how I felt. I didn’t want to walk as much as I did in my first Deca, which I staggered 90% of.
The day 1 run was easy, and I ran through the field. Greg fed me every few laps, and I finished the day around 9pm very excited that I still had 10 hours until the day 2 start. There was time to eat, shower, relax… and still get 8 hours of sleep. I couldn’t imagine how the 1×10 would be harder than the Classic on this premise alone! It took me something like 3 days to get that amount of sleep cumulatively in the Classic!
Group Camp 3, as our venue was known, had 2 bunk houses and a main lodge with a kitchen. There were a couple of bunks behind the kitchen. Classic Deca folks were in one bunk house, 1×10 in the other. The separation was for the simple fact that Classic athletes come in and out at all hours, as they are doing whatever they can until they NEED to sleep. 1/day athletes are generally all going to bed at similar times, as we have a set distance per day. I had planned to sleep in a tent as a classic deca guy because I didn’t plan on sleeping much at all. Whereas my plans had changed, and the kitchen bunks were open, I opted for indoor arrangements instead. These were noisy because of round-the-clock kitchen traffic, but it wasn’t too bad. I figured it might get worse when the Quintuple people started- just more humans around… but I could deal with that later.
Weather was coming in. Non-Louisiana weather. Mid-forties and rain.
Day Two is always brutal, as the body responds to the trauma of day 1. Now it would be worse.
We all came through the swim unscathed, but the rain and cold was real once we starting riding. Athletes bundled up and used the power of CALORIES and hard riding to stay warm. The rain was also exacerbating the flat tire problems. Classic Deca people, who had now been dealing with this for 3 days were absolutely losing their mind. Some even quit. Some people were getting 20 flats a day, despite replacing their tires with harder tires, thicker tubes, and sealant.
The organization that maintains the Tamany Trace began using jet dryers mounted on the back of compact cars to blow off the course, and that seemed to help a little, but we moved faster than them. They had yellow strobes on the roofs, and when they saw us coming in the rear view, they simply pulled over.
People were moving a little slower today, thanks to the weather and the usual Day 2 blues. Sometime mid-morning I had made the turn around and was a couple miles from Group Camp, when athletes coming toward me began yelling to me with concerned looks on their faces.
“Don’t look when you get up there!”
What were they talking about?! I heard fragments of sentences from everyone during the split second we passed each other.
Then: “There is an accident”.
Now I saw the yellow strobe of the car a mile away, with red and blue strobes as well. The Trace was opened to the public, even during our race. I kept yelling to the athletes “Who?” “One of ours?”
As I rolled up to the accident, I HAD to look. I didn’t know what I would do when I saw it, but I needed to know who it was. I saw a white bike in pieces off to the side and immediately thought it was my Swedish buddy and Classic Deca guy Gregor, who gets very groggy because he rides himself into a pulp.
When I came around the car, there was a man laying half against the back of the car, half in the basket normally used for the jet dryers. Blood was splattered all over the back of the car, with a pool of blood under the basket. His right hand was twitching. It was Kevin, but I didn’t recognize him. He had ridden at a high rate of speed directly into the back of the car and shattered his face.
I didn’t learn that it was him until I made it back to Group Camp. Chris Solarz, who I believe had witnessed it, was visibly upset as he hugged his Grandma inside his stall. The race continued, but the vibe was kind of down all day as we pieced together snippets of facts from a variety of sources about the accident, and extent of Kevin’s injuries.
The rain had been so persistent that our running trail was now a quagmire. The run would be moved to the road. People were freezing, but 40 degrees felt absolutely amazing to a guy like me from NH. Perfect running weather. I began what would become my nightly process of finishing the bike toward the back of the field and running up into 3rd place.
On the course, most people were walking quite a bit, but 3 of us did not walk at all. Henning (IUTA World Cup Winner) of Norway ran hard, and Jozef (Won the world’s only TRIPLE Deca) of Hungary was never far behind. As I finished this second marathon in as many days having not walked, I made it a personal goal to not walk a step of this Deca.
The temperatures PLUMMETED into the 30s as we slept. Ice formed on the porch. It snowed in Shreveport, not far away, for the fifth time in history. Lake Pontchartrain is massive- 24 miles south to north, and 40 miles long east to west….but it is not deeper than 15 feet at any point. The water temperature dropped from 60s to mid fifties. As our already-depleted bodies shivered on the beach at the start of Day 3, the air temperature was 45. I simply cannot put into words how palpable the dread was as we walked into the water. It took your breath away, even with a wetsuit. Cold, tight muscles. We all tried “sprinting” to stay warm. I wished that I could pee more in my wetsuit. Claire from the UK was visibly on the ropes.
As we exited the water, appendages did not work. Uncontrollably chattering teeth and shaking hands. We were all at the very least mildly hypothermic. Shivering uncontrollably, I tried hurrying to get bike stuff on, just so I could start generating heat. Eventually socks were pulled over wet feet, ALL the layers I had were pulled on, and I made my way to the bike course.
This was when I started getting grumpy, a trend that would last for… awhile. By this time, I realized that I was not going to be fast on the bike at any point for the rest of the race. Normally my strength, the lack of training was really showing. I relegated myself to just chugging along at 15 mph and forcing myself to not stop. It wasn’t great for my morale, but I owned my lack of cycling fitness. I would die a thousand deaths a day sitting on that bike seat pushing low-wattage power, and be resurrected nightly when the feet hit the pavement.
By this time, all of the athletes had gotten to know each other a little bit. Riding side by side was permitted in small doses, so people would roll up and start conversations. I really just didn’t want to talk. In some sick way, I kind of enjoyed just sitting in my own personal darkness for 7 hours. It made the light of the run that much more enjoyable. Most of the folks figured it out after a few one-word answers, but one didn’t. I began getting very agitated with Alyx. Perhaps we started off on the wrong foot, but she had a way about her that made her very hard to like. In the pool when I was puking, she’d pull up in the lane next to me, sing-songing “Don’t be a fucking pussy”. It’s not that it hurt my feelings, but it was annoying as hell. Imagine throwing up in a bucket after 12 hours and someone’s talking shit.
On the bike, she’d pull up and just talk about how great she was, or complain about the race, or the directors. What started really getting to me was how she bragged about all the sleep she was getting. As a Classic Deca athlete, you NEVER sleep. You perpetually move until you’re done. When she was on course, she was always flying…. but she never seemed to be on course. Every day she would pull up and say “I feel great! Got 8 hours of sleep last night!”.
It was weird to me. As a 1×10 athlete, I was on course all day long. How could it be that she wasn’t constantly on course all day, but then also sleeping all night? How was she still on pace to finish? These questions rattled around in my head as she yammered on. She never rode alone, always talking while the others listened. That situation would become a lot more interesting later on.
Greg, my crew, had gone home at this point, so I was kind of fending for myself in the food department here and there. Lots of people were helping when they could. During marathon number 3, this was starting to feel like routine. I started believing I wasn’t going to feel worse. The question of whether I would walk during the Deca was: how will the feet hold up?
During the run, rumors began circulating that tomorrow was going to be a weird day. The lake temperatures were still too cold. We were going to have to find a pool to do our swim. The pool we swam in for the Classic was OUT. This put massive pressure on Wayne, who had to sell the idea: “Hey, can we bring 15 people over and take up your whole pool, and pee in it too?” What’s worse, the Quintuple would be starting in the next couple of days, adding more athletes and time slots needed. How was he going to make this all happen?
Race staff tensions began to heighten. Some wanted to turn our race into a duathlon. Wayne, an athlete first, would have none of it. These people flew from around the world to do a Deca TRIATHLON. He was going to make this work, but not without some miracles.
Athlete tensions were also rising- particularly in the Classic, as these guys were deep into the race and very sleep deprived. As I ate dinner in the main lodge after the race, Mike and a few other Classic racers burst in the door.
“Wayne, there’s about to be a fight in the bunkhouse.”
Ferenc of Hungary (who has only lost 1 Deca and competed in many) had brought his girlfriend as crew. His only business at the Deca is WINNING. He is the hardest person I know. An average swimmer and pretty good cyclist, he is an assassin on the run… but the sports are just a part of the race! Mike and the others said that he and his girlfriend would come into the bunkhouses, turn lights on, talk loudly, and basically be as disturbing as possible, as a tactic to not let others get sleep. Wayne had to be the police for the rest of the race, as the tactics would only get wilder.
It was a loud night for me in the kitchen bunks as well. I barely slept. A couple of the classic deca athletes that had quit were playing slap and tickle in the bunk next to me. Normally I’d probably let that go and laugh about it later, but the consequences of sleeplessness were high this early in the race. Before day 4 began, I moved my stuff onto a bed in the 1×10 bunkhouse. Some of the athletes had quit, therefore opening up space for me.
We began day 4 on the bike, not in the water. We would have to get a ride an hour each way later in the day to a pool that I think Wayne was still searching for, even as we started. I was pissy. I couldn’t stay awake, so I was riding really slow. Word began to spread that we were to stop riding before 2pm so that we could head to the pool. I started doing the math as noon approached. I wasn’t going to get time to finish the bike before we had to head to the pool. With the drive each way, I was going to have to finish the ride in the dark. With fatigue factored in on top of the usual slower pace of night riding, I knew I was in for a long night. The routine was altered. This was the worst day.
The pool was at a fitness club. It was very hot, and something like only 20 yards long. The lap count was stupid-high. That day, I was not last in the swim. Michael Ortiz was having big problems with fatigue, as he had barely finished day 3 before day 4 started. Cumulative fatigue was becoming an issue for some. Wayne had told me “You don’t have time to have a bad day in the 1×10”. Michael had had one day 3. I had a feeling I was heading for mine on this day. My weigh in had not gone well. I was down 10 pounds from the start of day 1, probably because Greg was gone and I wasn’t doing a good job keeping track of my nutrition. That, mixed with the sleeplessness was a real issue. I sat and ate all I could while I waited for Mike, who was sharing a ride with me.
Our commute times were to be taken off of our total time for the day, but that didn’t change the fact that we were losing hours a day, which would normally be used to sleep. I had gotten off the bike around 1:40pm, and did not start the bike until almost 5:30pm. I had lost almost 2 and a half hours to commute and slop-time.
The only thing that kept me running the marathon on day 4 was the fact that I had a quiet bunk waiting for me. Up until this point, I had showered every night, but it was so late that I went directly to my bunk. Something was wrong.
In the dark I saw a figure laying on my mattress. My shit was on the floor a few feet away. I felt my blood pressure go nuclear after a long and trying day. Imagine someone having the audacity to blatantly move my stuff when it was obviously placed there with purpose. “Don’t lose it. Don’t lose it. Don’t lose it.”
I lost it.
I went to the bed and grabbed a sound asleep Eldar Spahic by his legs at 1am. Tersely: “HEY!”
He bolted up. “WHAT THE FUCK?”
“You’re in my spot. Get out.”
His wife chimed in at the same time when he told me that no, I was wrong… and pointed to his name on the bed, which had been reserved for him. I tucked my tail between my legs and moved to another unoccupied bunk, feeling like a dick. I don’t know how many times I apologized to him throughout the rest of the event. He ended up crushing the Quintuple, despite his bad night of sleep prior!
The thing about the Deca is that the fatigue stacks up.
There is no catching up on lost sleep or time. The clock is brutal. The sleepless night of day 3, coupled with the short night of day 4 made Day 5 maybe hardest one yet, and I was not the only one affected by this.
I could run, which saved me HOURS. Some of the athletes were forced to walk the marathon on day 4, and had barely finished in time to hop in the cars to go to the pool on day 5. Georgeta, always the positive and happy racer was mentally thrown for a loop. Michael Ortiz still hung on, despite sleeping in the middle of the bike course at one point, almost getting run over by some of the Continuous riders. The Deca was getting real… and these were the people who could have really used that commute time to and from the pool to finish and sleep, if only for an hour.
We began to wake up thinking about sleep. It wasn’t about the distance anymore- it was about the efficiency. Everything was about how to do something smoother, easier, quicker, just so we could get to bed a few minutes earlier. The finish seemed secondary. All I really remember about Day 5 was that at this point we were seeing most of the continuous athletes get off their bikes and spend the rest of their event on the run. They were fucked. Most walked for the entire first day, and all looked very, very tired.
In these races, Greger’s wife Lina calls him Gollum. He pushes himself so hard that his outward appearance changes from a bright-eyed jovial Scandinavian, to a gaunt and dreary animal. He had indeed ridden himself into hamburger meat to take the lead, and he was looking every bit the part. Not very Precious. We all wondered how the next few days would play out on the run. Would Ferenc catch him and repeat? Would Dave Clamp overcome his bazillion flats?
The quintuple 1×5 had begun. I recall the access road to Group Camp 3 just being a fucking melee. Almost all of the continuous athletes were now on the run course, as well as the continuous quintuple folks. Whereas the run course was the same road as the bike course, there were tired humans everywhere. The turnaround area was the same for runners and bikers alike, so we one/day people were forced to navigate staggering shuffling people on our bikes while fiddling with the food and drink and any other supplies we may have picked up at the turnaround.
There seemed to be more crews, family, and friends showing up by the hour, and Group Camp 3 Turnaround was getting livelier by the the night as everyone got more comfortable around each other. I’ve seen crews have a couple drinks here and there at these races, but nothing like at this race. Crews were getting LOADED. Whiskey. Beer. People singing at the top of their lungs. Chris’ grandmother was even getting in the mix, dancing on the cooler.
It was very cold. The HIGH was 45, so nights were dipping into the 30s and below. By the time we hit the run, there must have been 30 or more people on course between all 4 races. Kevin had arrived to crew. There is no way to explain the level of crewing he brought. An ultra-tri guy himself with this unbelievable heart, he just KNEW what to do, when to do it, and how and why. For the rest of this race, I would have the royal treatment. Just having a steady crew person after almost 4 days without one lifted my spirits, which were kind of just in the “blahs”. Kevin’s personality and abilities brought me to the other side very quickly.
The 1×5 and 1×10 athletes met outside the lodge on Day 7 to pile into cars to head to the pool. As Wayne called out names, the amount of people- specifically in the 1×5 that chose to stay in bed and quit was shocking. The cold was taking the will to do this race out of everyone. The 1×10 was not immune to droppers, but not for lack of trying. By day 7, Georgeta, and Mike, and some of the others had fought until they just couldn’t anymore, and ran out of time. It was sad to see, and I felt their pain, having gone through that in the swim a week ago.
With Kevin around, everything seemed to come back to a routine that made the days really just blend together. Pile in the cars, swim, come back to the venue, try to finish riding before you have to put lights on.
Race gossip began to flutter throughout the run course on night 7. “They just caught Alyx cheating.”
There had been murmurs and suspicions for a few days. Mark had noticed that she was passing him on the leaderboard despite not being on course. She was spending a lot of time drinking beers with the party crew and hanging out with Neil, who was also somehow winning the quintuple. Dave and Wayne had watched her go to the bathroom and scan her chip, then go to the bunkhouse and scan her chip, then to the kitchen and scan. She’d been caught red-handed.
As I made the turnaround, she was pleading her case to Wayne, who despite his strong hatred for cheaters, was remaining quite calm. “You’re out. You’re done.”
“I did it by accident!”
“No- multiple people have caught you multiple times.”
In bizarre fashion, she stayed on course, clicking laps away, and posting on her social media account about how horribly-run the race was. She tried latching onto other racers, and complaining to them about the situation- mostly falling on deaf ears. At this point we all knew, and her race was dead to us… but she just kept walking. We treated her a bit like a stray dog. She was totally alienated.
I had heard about Deca Shin before from other athletes, but in all of my racing I’d never experienced it. We don’t know exactly what it is about the Deca that creates this shinsplint-like pain, but it’s theorized that the flexors just become overused because of pushing off the wall of the pool, the ankle motion on the bike, and the obvious stress of running on pavement. I figured if I didn’t have it by day 8, I was going to be good to go. As I came into the last few miles of the run, my left shin started to hurt like hell, but I dealt with it until the end, hoping things might settle down overnight while I slept.
On the morning of Day 9, Kevin said,”Yeah, fuck sleeping in those bunkhouses. We’re getting a hotel tonight.” I hadn’t had a comfortable bed and shower in about 2 weeks. At first, it sounded like heaven, but almost felt like premature celebration. I had envisioned part of the joy of the finish being a nice place to sleep after, but Kevin knew exactly what was needed. The excitement of crashing on clean blankets and my own bathroom propelled me to finish the day as quickly as possible… which wasn’t that quickly.
Day 9 is weird, because you’re so close to the end, but you still have 2 iron-distance races to go…. you’re still very far away from the end. My swimming was absolutely fucked and slow as hell. By the end of day 9, I’d swum like 38 miles since I’d been in Louisiana. I was last every time. I hated that people were waiting for me to get done so they could get on with their race. I also kept thinking my biking legs would all of a sudden appear, but it was more of the same. It was beginning to feel like the physical equivalent of nails down a chalkboard: knowing I need to go faster… literally struggling to go 15 mph on a flat.
After running 1 mile, my shins were RAGING. Up until this point, I had run 8 marathons with no walking. The goal was in danger. I went into the main lodge and asked Jade, the doctor on staff, if she could do something. Kinesio-tape was supposed to help, but everything was already so inflamed. I gingerly ran the marathon…kind of like running on eggshells. It was slower than the rest, but it got done.
Day 10. Quintuple and Deca 1/day athletes piled into the cars and headed to the outdoor pool. The locker room had a celebratory feel as we pulled cold, damp wetsuits over tight, tired muscles for the last time. Jozsef and I had talked for the last 5 days about how we were going to drink pails of beer on this, the final night. The joke continued as we both looked at each other without saying a word, and tipped an imaginary beer up as though chugging. It was 6:30am. Steam rose from water. The air was still cold as hell, but no one cared. We wouldn’t be doing this again.
Before the last day begins, it is easy to have illusions of going lightning fast all day, because you’re on the home stretch. No matter how many times I’ve done insanely long races, this feeling pervades before you begin the last hard push. But I didn’t swim some crazy-fast time. It was more of the same routine- last out of the water, spending the day butthurt on the bike, longing for legs that just aren’t there. I think the only real change was that I did make a very strong effort to not stop at all during the ride, just so i could finish sooner.
I began the run relatively scared of my Deca Shin condition. Would I need to walk on the last day? I guess I was less concerned about that, and more about finishing at some ungodly time like 3am. I really just wanted to get done as quickly as possible, and go to bed with no alarm clock waiting.
A marathon is a long way when you are waiting to feel the full extent of an injury. There is a certain amount of self-preservation that happens when participating in a race this long…. but when the light is at the end of the tunnel, sometimes you are ready to say, “Fuck it, I’m going for it.”
After running 10 miles on eggshells, I decided it was time to say just that.
Henning finished strong. Joszef hammered it home. I began running hard. My shins hurt, and my soul ached from fatigue. I mitigated that by keeping my blood sugar and caffeine levels high. Coke, coffee, sweets, repeat. Finally the whole gang was standing there at the beginning of the last lap. In one mile I would finish my second Deca, but first I had to carry the flag for the whole length of the course.
We’d been cheering Continuous Deca and Quintuple athletes through their final laps for a few days now. The last lap is ceremonious. Hugs, crying, pats on the back, and loud cheering and whistling as the person approaches, until they are out of sight.
The finish line is deeply personal and intimate, as everyone present- crews (yours and others), race staff, family- has watched you struggle for a week and a half. Each person has helped you in some way or another get to this point.
It’s loud and crazy for just a moment, and then it gets quiet as the pictures are taken. You think about the sacrifices you made to get there. How others have sacrificed for you. The happenings of the event flash before your eyes… when you could have quit but didn’t. You think about the people that you want to be there in that moment that aren’t. All of a sudden, you don’t need to move anymore.
The soul feels full.
“The Deca finish line is unlike any other,” Wayne has always said. He’s not wrong, however I usually finish something like this, and say I’m retired…. but the truth is, Decaman in all of its quirks and hardships was such an enjoyable experience that I DO intend to continue with multi-day racing.
I looked around. Joszef, who had finished an hour or so ago, was nowhere to be found.
I had no interest in drinking beer, either. Kevin and I cleaned some of the stuff up, and headed to the hotel to sleep, with no alarm waiting.
THANKS (in no order)
-Greg Trombi came to Louisiana and watched me flounder around for a full day in the pool. A hell of a great guy to hang with on the off day, too.
-Kevin- You should be crewing professionally. I can’t believe we weren’t best friends before this. I am so glad we got to know each other on this wild ride. My only regret is that we can’t hang out regularly!
-Don the Destroyer- 2 weeks being in your presence was exactly the experience I had missed since 2014. From everything I know before and after, this event could NOT have happened without your logistical, strategic, common-sense. Always a laugh. DON, 10 CYLINDERS, GO.
-Wayne and Jan Kurtz- You treat everyone like family. This event was brutal to direct. Jan didn’t sleep for weeks cooking for the athletes. Wayne was a marketing genius getting us into different pools every day. While I know you were both smoked, you never let the smiles and high level of hospitality slide. Amazing.
-Greger- my first international racing buddy since Mexico 2010. You are one of the reasons I keep coming back to these things. Bad luck with your crazy blisters. Someday you are going to put one of these things together and win outright!
-Dave Clamp and Michael Stevens Ward- Hanging with you guys in the days after the race was a total blast. Dave, it was nice being able to cheer you on as you ran strong through the whole continuous. Pity about the flats. Mike, we seem to have similar personalities. I can’t wait to race with you guys again!
-All my fellow American athletes- When you have your face in the water, and your head down on the bike, and everyone runs at a different pace, it’s hard to socialize a lot. To me, some of the most memorable interactions were those car rides to and from the pools, when we had time to socialize.
Until the next time!!!