This Woman Just Set an American Record for Finishing a 10-Ironman Triathlon
That's 1,404 miles total. And you thought ONE Ironman was hard? Here's how she did it.
Laura Knoblach, a 22-year-old student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, just set the American female record for finishing a Deca Continuous Ironman Triathlon. Here, she shares why regular endurance races are too damn short, how she made it through each grueling hour of the race, and why these races have become one of the most important things in her life.
24 miles of swimming. 1,120 miles of biking. 262 miles of running. All in 14.4 days.
That's the reality of a Deca Ironman Triathlon-an ultra triathlon 10 times the distance of your usual Ironman race. On August 16, 2017, in Buchs, Switzerland, it was my turn to try it.
Though I'd already tackled two double Ironmans and one triple Ironman, this was uncharted territory-and not just for me. So few people do the race and it's such a niche event that when I asked other triathlon pros for training tips, they basically shrugged, and said, "Just do it." Just try googling "deca Ironman training plan." You won't find much.
I know what you're thinking: "?!?!?!" But I feel like ultra triathlons were made for me. I've run marathons and done Ironmans, but I've never finished any of them thinking, "I need to do this again." But when I finished my first ultra-tri, I knew I had to sign up for another. That's how I found myself-peer-pressured by a fellow ultra-triathlete and friend-signing up for the deca. Her persuasion and a combination of things perfectly falling into place (someone offering to pay for my race fee or my flight, Fuji sending me a bike, etc.) made it feel like this was meant to be.
I trained, honestly, by undertraining-probably the same hours per week that I trained for a regular Ironman. But this time, I included some solo trips where I'd load up my bike with camping supplies, ride into the mountains in Colorado, and go trail run and bike from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to sleep. That's really the only way to prepare-to be out there, on your own, in the elements, working hard every single second of the day.
I remember a friend asking me "Are you ready?" shortly before the race. But I don't think you can ever really be ready. If you really, truly physically trained for mileage of that magnitude, you'd almost certainly get injured.
Forget "race day." This race takes weeks.
At 6 p.m. on August 16, we started the first event: swimming. We had 25 hours to swim about 750 laps of a 50m pool; if you didn't finish in the time allotted, you couldn't even progress to the rest of the race. I cruised through 17 hours of swimming, and was feeling so good, I decided to bang out those last few miles without taking extra time to stop and hydrate or eat. I finished in 19 hours and was so happy-until I almost passed out in the shower. Dehydrated and thoroughly calorie-depleted, I sat there in the shower thinking, "I don't know if I can get dressed. I just swam 24 miles and I don't know if I can put on my pants."
Though I didn't plan on napping, at that point, my body desperately needed it. I crashed for a few hours until it was time to wake up and start the bike: about 200 out-and-back loops of a 9-km (5.5-mile) course along the Rhine River. For six days straight, I woke up, biked about 170 miles, and would finally force myself to go to bed once I started hallucinating. (You know that feeling when you're exhausted, driving late at night, and you have to jolt yourself awake? A tree by the side of the road suddenly looks like a person?) My body was so used to the continuous motion that, for a while, I couldn't eat off of my bike, because I would get nauseated-so I'd have to eat while riding.
Even though I consider the bike my best event, I was the last one on the course. Finally, I advanced to the run, with about a week left in the race. I did the math: If I covered 33 miles a day, I'd finish with plenty of time before the cutoff. I know that too much running can injure me, so I straight-up walked my first two days on the course. I played it safe and cranked away at mile after mile, listening to audiobooks, calling friends and family on the phone, and thinking. So. much. thinking.
On day two of the run section, my legs started cramping up like crazy-and I hadn't even started running yet! How were my legs going to hold up if they were already doing this on day two?! All I kept thinking was, "I really, really want to finish a deca someday. And if I give up right now, I'm going to have to do all of this all. over. again."
One piece of advice that got me through was from Dr. Allen Lim, founder of Skratch Labs. He told me that if I wanted to keep doing ultras, if I wanted to finish this deca without absolutely hating it (and maybe even consider doing another), that I had to pace myself for life, not just for this one race. That really got me through the darkest times, even when I wasn't moving as fast as I wanted to. (And, as for the leg cramps, luckily, my friend had some lifesaving electrolyte pills.)
On day three of the run, I started actually running. But, no, those days weren't any easier. Every day, I'd go to bed knowing that even though I'd spent more than 30 miles on my feet, I'd have to wake up and do it all over again the next day. It was like building a sandcastle-everything gets washed away and it feels like you're starting from scratch every morning.
That's the hardest thing about ultras; it's not physically getting through it, but staying mentally committed. You need to think, "I'm going to do this." And you can't stop thinking it, even for a second.
Here's why it's more than just a race.
You might think this sounds insane-it is an ultra-endurance event, after all-but ultra triathlons serve a bigger purpose in life for me than just a workout. It's not about the calories or the miles or the medals.
I suffered through some abuse when I was young, and not too long ago, a close friend-who knew I was working through trauma from my past-sexually assaulted me.
There was a breaking point, last winter, when I sat in the hospital and a doctor said to me: "There's so much pain in your life right now. But what are you going to do with it?" At that exact moment, I didn't know... but now I understand.
Ultras have become a tool to help me work through that abuse. They've helped me finally learn to love myself. For a long time, I truly hated myself. I didn't feel comfortable being the person I was, or being in the skin that I was in. I struggled on and off with eating disorders.
It wasn't until I did my first double Ironman that I finally realized, "This is so stupid!" I was doing something that no 21-year-old had ever done. How many people would kill to do that?! I have a body that lets me bike all day long and go running and climb mountains, so why was I so frustrated that I had some extra pounds around my waist? My body enables me to do this amazing thing that I love-to do things I previously thought were impossible-and I finally learned to be grateful for it.
And I've realized, now, that I don't think I would have been able to finish the deca if I didn't have those painful experiences to work through. They fueled me. They made me a stronger, better, more empathetic person. And that's something I think only racing could have taught me.