Last week SMASH-Dimond superstar Mary Knott ticked off a major triathlon goal in completing her first Ultraman at Ultraman Australia. In the process, she took second overall amongst the women after leading the race for the first two days and breaking the bike course record on day two. Ultraman is a 3-day triathlon stage race broken down as follows: Day One: 6.2-mile swim + 90 mile bike. Day Two: 170-mile bike. Day Three: 52.4-mile run. We wanted to know ALL about her prep and just how hard this race really was so we had our TeamSFQ women come up with these interview questions! Enjoy!
First things first: how are you feeling now--are you in a wheelchair? Do you ever want to see you bike again? Did you win the award for best-looking tri/cycling kits?
I feel pretty good actually! No, no wheelchair. It felt better to be up and moving frequently post race because sitting around I stiffen up and then everything hurts. I was a little slow and gimpy for a day or two, but nothing terrible. That's the purpose of training, right? To make sure you're prepared to handle the race. I DO want to see my bike again! LOL! Actually the roads in Australia were pretty nice. My 140 miler in training was a lot harder for "the girl parts" to recover from. My legs were fine. Expected soreness but nothing that would take me off my bike for any extended period of time. By the time I went for my first spin I was more than ready to get back on the bike. 100% YES! I had so many comments on my kits, especially day 3 wearing Finding Kona, when I was not speeding by people and they could actually talk to me as I ran by. By far my kits were easiest to spot, most colorful and most beautiful on course. Not to mention most comfortable, most functional, and most aerodynamic. :)
When did you decide on this big, I would think, scary goal? Was it after qualifying for Kona, during Kona or after you completed that?
I actually have a running list of goals, things that I want to do one day. Like, thru hike the Appalachian trail. Run the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 miler. And swim the SCAR Challenge. After following Hillary's journey through the UM World Championships in 2013 I knew I wanted to do it "one day". When the opportunity arose to crew for a teammate in 2014 I jumped on it. Having crewed for friends running 100 milers I knew how valuable the crew experience is to understanding exactly what is involved in the event. I wanted to be immersed in the culture of Ultraman and see exactly what it takes to get through it. I put off applying for Ultraman because my goal of qualifying for Kona took every ounce of my focus and energy. Once I qualified at IMAZ 2015, we started to look at options. I applied for Ultraman Oz in July 2016, and was invited in August. So the ball was rolling prior to actually competing in Kona. It was good to have that on the calendar because the Ironman World Championships were so emotionally taxing on me -- in a good way-- it would have been difficult to come down from that with nothing to look forward to. Ultraman was a perfect focus because it was way outside my comfort zone. After 22 Ironman finishes, I needed something that scared me, excited me, and challenged me in a different way.
Roughly how many hours did you train per week in the lead-up to this event, and how did you balance life and training?
After IMAZ 2016 I took an off season and really rested mentally and physically. I went part time at my job on January 1-- this was something I had planned to do when we opened Cadence Running Company, but the timing worked out well in January to afford me a little more time to train and maintain sanity. By the second week of January my training load was around 20 hours per week. At my peak I was maintaining 22-23 hours per week, with my biggest week hitting just under 26 hours. I'll be honest, I probably don't require as much "balance" as the average triathlete. I don't have kids, and my husband trains for Ironman-- so I don't feel guilty being completely selfish in my pursuits. Maybe that sounds terrible, but it's who I am and I don't have any regrets. The hardest part was meal prep and staying on top of everything around the house. We had stacks of mail that would go unopened for weeks on end. Thank God for auto- bill pay.
How much did you have to eat to support all that training?
#allthefood #fucktonofcalories :) These were two hashtags that were invented during the Ultraman pursuit! LOL. I have been working with my dietician from Own Nutrition (Katie) for about 18 months now. We're pretty dialed in and I let her worry about what I'm eating. I don't count calories, I don't worry about portion sizes. I eat when I'm hungry, and a lot of times when I'm not hungry. By the last few weeks of training I was so tired of eating that nothing sounded good. I asked to have more smoothies on my plan at that time because I could just blend everything up and drink it down. Chewing became so tiresome. One cool thing was, as I remarked to Katie early this spring, I felt like my body had become a fueling/ hydrating machine. Everything was clicking in training- I could eat pretty much anything and feel it working. My energy levels were so stable. She told me that she noticed this often with athletes who had reached the year mark. The gut had time to heal, and develop into this efficient machine, that now whatever we put into it my body was utilizing and energizing me in a way I had never experienced. I can't tell you how many big ass salads I ate to get to this point but it is so worth it!
How did you put in all those hours and miles without getting injured?
Well, that's part luck of the draw and part brilliant coaching on Hillary's behalf. I am pretty sturdy. I have a huge training base from the last 12 years that we could build from. There is something to be said for consistency and I have really seen the benefits of that since joining Team HPB almost 4 years ago. I was never the type of person that would train for an IM for 6 months, and then take the rest of the year off. I was always training, always doing something. Part of my training over the years has been strength training with my physical therapist. I think that this is key to being able to keep doing what I love without interruption. I realize that you can do all the right things and still get injured and this is where genetics come in-- I have a very average frame (I'm not small!) and a strong bone structure. I'm solid. I'm not going to break easily. Hillary creates this amazing schedule whereby we train hard and break me down over days to weeks and then in just a day or two of recovery workouts I am able to absorb and adapt to the training. I have said it a thousand times but she is absolutely brilliant with recovery.
Tell us : was your training all sunshine and butterflies? Did you love every second of it and nail all your sessions? What kept you going? Give it to us real!
LMAO!!! Uhhh, NO. Not all sunshine and butterflies!! There were so many days that I couldn't hit my target watts on the bike, and I was frustrated by my lack of running speed. There was a fair amount of tears and a few pity parties. But I have these days during IM training too. Doesn't everyone?? I don't let these days affect my training because I feel like this is normal and as long as I'm seeing progress over time then the plan is working. I can't be GREAT every day. The fear of surviving Ultraman kept me going. As I said, this was a new goal, and one way outside my comfort zone. I was motivated to give my best every day because ultimately that's what it takes to arrive at the start line completely prepared. I don't skip workouts. Ever. Talking to other people I am starting to realize that that's actually a thing. But for me, my training is what gives me confidence in my ability and if I didn't do it then I would start to doubt my ability to get to the finish line. That's not how I roll. I'm going to do the work, no matter how ugly it is, and I'm going to be 100% confident. One really cool thing about Ultraman training is that at some point, even when I felt tired all the time, I felt SO STRONG. It was the most bizarre, amazing feeling. Like I could just go forever. We called it my happy place. Tired + Strong.
How did the long travel to Australia affect you? I know sleep is a priority for you, so did you feel rested and adjusted to the time change before race day? And how was your sleep affected during the race?
Travel? It didn't!! So f-ing crazy, right?!?! I talked to Coach Alyssa at camp in March and I asked her about this exact topic. I had been doing some reading about how to adapt to time zone differences after long haul flights. How to manage caffeine, and feast/ fast methods, etc. She said to me: If you survive the training, the travel will be no big deal. You'll be ready for it and it won't be an issue. I didn't understand exactly what she meant, but she was 100% accurate. We left our house at 11 am on Tuesday morning, we had a long layover in LAX and got dinner, killed some time. Our flight left LAX at 11 pm. When we boarded our flight, I normally would have already been asleep for 3 hours. Instead, I reset my watch to Australia time and stayed awake for 3 more hours until it was 8 pm there. Then I covered my eyes, and put my headphones on and tried to rest as much as possible. I didn't sleep well because you can't get super comfortable unless you're in 1st Class (we weren't). At 4 am Australia time, I got up, at breakfast and stayed awake the rest of the flight. I felt a little dazed when we landed in Sydney at 7 am on Thursday, and we had a 5 hour drive to Port Macquarie. We got there early afternoon and after a bite to eat I got to work building our bikes. That afternoon I went for a jog, and a swim and then after dinner we went to bed at 7:30- 8 pm. When I woke up the next morning I felt fantastic. I woke up without an alarm at my normal time and was good to go. My sleep did suffer once Ultraman started. I was very nervous on Friday night-- before day 1. So it was usual "night-before-race" anxiety and poor sleep. I thought for sure I'd sleep fine after that because I wasn't nervous the rest of the time, but I think because I was eating so much sugar/ caffeine during the day I was restless all night long. After the run my body was so sore I couldn't get comfortable and I moved to the couch in the middle of the night so I could prop my legs up. But the next night-- I slept like the dead.
What are the most unusual things you ate during the race and what were your favorite fuel sources during the 26 hours of racing?
Hmmmm, unusual... do girl scout cookies count as unusual? :) The goal with day 1 and 2 was to eat as much solid food as possible to set myself up for a good run, and not get burned out on gels/ liquids. So there were a ton of Clif Bars, PB&Js. When I got tired of those I begged for Pringles. And on day two I ate 2 boxes of Savannah Smiles (GS Cookies). I also had chicken noodle soup on the bike which was fantastic. It was one of those dry soup packets you mix with water, and even though it was cold it tasted delicious. I guess slurping noodles through a bike bottle is a little unusual. I also had coke, Red Bull, and espresso poured over ice.
Which crew member (if any) did you come closest to strangling? What's the strangest thing a crew member did to help you though a down time?
No one. I am fully aware that I am nothing without my crew. And every single one of them was vital to my success. I tried to appreciate them all the time. I know I wasn't always easy, but I sincerely hope that they felt my gratitude every second. In the second half of the run I was struggling a lot more and during those hours I asked more specifically for the pacers that could distract me. I know I am my weakest with my husband and I'm not sure why that is. But during one of his pacing stints I was like, I need Heidi. So Heidi jumped in and made me laugh by swearing at me in her Boston accent. It was a perfect distraction and the miles flew by. Later, I asked Chris to take some extra miles with me. We talked about current events and social issues and NOTHING pertaining to triathlon and it was exactly what I needed. I retired from racing like 4 times during the marathon. During one stretch Marsha and I planned our future career in craft-making. You know like, arts and crafts? Yeah, we were going to do that. We were going to sell our stuff in a shop and I was going to be 300 pounds and no one was going to believe that I had ever raced Ultraman. There were some odd conversations out on course! #whathappensatultramanstaysat
How many F bombs did you yell at Dan during the race?
None. And I asked him to confirm this to make sure I didn't forget. When I got angry, I was frustrated with myself, not my team. Yes, I was cranky during those times but it was more just whining, and not yelling. There were a lot of 4 letter words, but not directed at anyone. More just like, I'm so fucking done right now.
Do you stop to pee on the bike in an Ultraman?
No. I don't stop to pee. Ever. If I have to pee, I pee. I try not to pee on anyone else, but I would not recommend handling my bike or run shoes post race. :) I did stop to poop on the run. But it was not diarrhea, so bonus for the gut still working after 3 days!! #likeamachine
What did you learn most about yourself both in training and during the race --besides the fact that you are a BAMF?
I think I'm still processing this one, but I think most importantly I realize that I have not found my limit. I am not happy with day 3 because I am capable of more, but overall I could not be more proud of how well my body handled this experience. There was a point in training about 4 weeks out when I hit a bit of a wall and I was like, how the hell am I going to get to the starting line? And I sucked in every workout for about 10 days and then I was fine again and handled my biggest weeks without drama. So crazy. The training is such that you can actually FEEL the adaptation process occurring. Completely mind blowing. I think during the race I was reminded how much I LOVE to race. I had no expectation of setting a bike course record on day 2, but when I ended up in a back-and-forth battle with eventual overall winner (Deanna Fuller) my competitive drive kicked in and we pushed each other to our very best. She pulled into the finish 20 seconds behind me after 170 miles and the feeling of absolute joy when we got off our bikes and hugged was palpable. She is such a beautiful spirit and racing with her on day 2 was so much fun. Hard, stressful, beautiful, painful, intense, amazing, rewarding. This is racing, right? This is why I un-retired the minute I crossed the finish line. I can't imagine not doing this crazy sport called triathlon.
There are few times I look forward to more than the pre-race week. I’ve especially come to love pre-race weeks with long haul travel…..a guaranteed 10-15 hour time period where I HAVE to sit still, sleep, and watch movies?? Um, sign me up!
And to this point, those times were the best. Generally smooth sailing. 25 Ironmans in (plus Hillary’s 66!), we had to have seen it all right?
I’ll get right to it. I was leaving on a day when the east coast was getting pummeled by rain. I had actually opted for a slightly more expensive flight over to minimize layovers (from Virginia it’s quite easy to get suckered into a 3-stop 31 hour journey to Asia for quite cheap!) with the rationale that then my bike would surely make it – after all, I was to arrive in Taiwan on Wednesday so I didn’t have much of a cushion. I find that arriving 72-hours before the race really suits me when I need to make a massive time change though (Taiwan is exactly 12 hours ahead of Virginia which can be tough to adjust to!)
With the weather, before I even got to the airport I realized I was going to miss my connection at JFK to my long haul flight. After 2 hours on the phone with the airline, I was sorted onto another option, and I thought the worst was over. No bags had even been checked at that point, things were still seemingly smooth sailing. Flights from there were easy, I knocked out about 8 hours of sleep, the movies South Paw and Why Him? on the flights, started reading Joanna Zeiger’s book, The Champion Mindset, and then settled in for my arrival in Taipei.
Once I arrived, after about 20 hours of flying, my bike bags apparently hadn’t made the trip. I filed the necessary info with the airlines, and headed out in a daze as I still had to get to the other airport in Taipei to catch a domestic flight (about 30 miles away). I was too tired to really think about any option other than the bags eventually making it, but I did email the race folks to give them a heads up that we might want to start working on a plan B…..
Wednesday afternoon (The race is Saturday)
I arrived in Taitung around 2:30 and Dougal and I had a seamless transition over to our BnB. Imagine it like Real World Taitung : “This is the true story, of ten professional triathletes, picked to live in a house, race together, and have their lives taped. Find out what happens, when people stop being polite, and start getting real…” . Just kidding, kind of. It is super fun when you have 10+ people coming together though from all parts of the world and sharing the experience of a race in a city where no one speaks the language. There is certainly an element of team work as we all figure out how to do the various pre-race activities. I went for a jog in my trail shoes (what I had traveled in), had some pizza at Uncle Pete’s, and thought for sure, my bike would arrive tomorrow and all would be right. But even still, just a few hours after I had been in touch with her, Belinda Granger sent word that a brand new CEEPO was being build up in Taipei and would be mine for the race if I needed it.
I woke up Thursday feeling like the race was now much closer and I didn’t really have a cushion anymore to procrastinate waiting and hoping on my bags. The online tracker still gave no indication that my bags had even been located, and the race folks who were on the case also didn’t have good news yet. I went to go check out the swim location, with some borrowed goggles (Thanks Dougal!) and cap, and got in my pre-race swim. Then came check-in, and expo time. Normally I wouldn’t really participate in the expo much, but this was going to be different. It was go time, and I had to start to get some shit together! I made a list of what it was going to take for me to get through this race, and we just started checking things off:
Running shoes proved to be a special treat. At the first store I kept asking for a US 9.5 of various models and they kept bringing me a 9. I’d try it on and show it was too small, ask for a 9.5 and they’d go in the back and come back with another 9. Okay, let me try the next store. Same thing! Finally one of the women, through various forms of charades, explained to me that women’s shoe sizes stop at 9. If I wanted bigger, I needed to shop on the men’s models. Awesome, right?! If I’m wearing brand new shoes, why not make them built for men too! I settled on a pair of Mizunos, also picked up some stretchy laces and a race belt, and felt good about checking things off the list.
The CEEPO tent was busy building up the bike for me. Yep, building up a *brand new* bike. I am totally and completely spoiled by my friends in this sport. We kept perusing the expo for the other items to buy: 30 gels, bike shoes, cleats, spare tubes and valve extenders. In addition to CEEPO, the folks at Vision also were integral to helping me get this show on the road. They gave me an ISM demo saddle so I could at least sit on a saddle I’m used to, and set me up with a set of race wheels (clinchers) to race on. The Giant tent also helped out by lending me their trainer for the night as by the time the bike was built, it was raining and dark outside so I needed a way to try to fit myself indoors.
A plate of fried rice and dumplings later, the bike fit began. After about 90 min -2 hours of me spinning, explaining to Sam Clark what “felt weird,” and him tweaking it, we were both pretty much over it. Tweaking a fit on the bike you know and ride is one thing, but having to learn all the intricacies of how a new bike is built and gets adjusted – with an important race looming overhead — not super fun. We called it a day, and then of course, about 30 minutes later one of the race folks showed up with some good news: my bike had been located and was in Taipei! It should make it to Taitung tomorrow. Cue the relief of it being found, and also the frustration of the last 24 hours doing all the – now unnecessary – things. But, if that hadn’t been done, the bike wouldn’t have been found, right?
I woke up Friday feeling so much better about things. There was still plenty of stress as basically I had to just sit and wait for the bike, wondering when it would arrive and then worrying about fitting in everything that would then happen around the activities set up for the pros, as well as check in. It was still a bit rainy in Taitung, so I shot an email off to the race folks asking if there was any indication when it would arrive as I was hoping not to get the CEEPO all gritty and gross riding in the wet rain for my pre-race spin if I could avoid it. They said they didn’t have that information, so just go ahead and ride the CEEPO. I did just that, but all the while thinking “thank god I have my bike coming.” This was nothing about the bike itself – the bike rides great. But it wasn’t the fit I’ve been riding for hours and hours, it wasn’t the wheels, it wasn’t my bottle setup….it simply wasn’t mine.
Mike, from Challenge Taiwan, was waiting at the BnB when I arrived back. Hoping for good news I said hello…..and then he had to relay the bad news. My bike was still located…..only now somehow it was in LA. It wasn’t going to make it here for the race.
The good part was then at least all my questions were answered: I would be racing on the new bike and new gear, that was just going to be it. The last major question was the water temperature as it had been sitting right on the line between wetsuit legal and not. Finally the announcement was made around 1pm: wetsuits would be allowed. Back to the expo to buy literally the only women’s medium wetsuit 2XU had brought with them. With borrowing Sam’s helmet and Dougal’s goggles, I now had everything I needed. I was ready to go!
So, let’s get real for a second. I should make it clear that during the entire process here I was considerably stressed and quite honestly just plain sad and disappointed. I had added this race to my calendar because I knew I was fit to perform quite well in this field. While it’s not impossible to pull off a great finish with borrowed gear, I knew that kind of Cinderella story would be a bit far fetched, all things considered. But, crying, yelling, and being frustrated and sad wasn’t going to get anything done or get me any closer to the finish line and a paycheck. Instead of focusing on those things, I had to replace all of those thoughts with the ones about all the people who were coming to my aid to help me pull this off through various means of lending me things and even more importantly morale support: Sam, Dougal, Kate, Belinda, Megan & the crew from CEEPO, Julie, Kent, Mark and the Vision folks, the Giant guys, and Charlie and Mike from Challenge. I simply couldn’t have a breakdown when there were that many people going out of their way to help me. I just had to adjust expectations and remind myself that all you can do is all you can do.
A wrapup now: I’d be swimming in a wetsuit I had literally never worn in the water. I’d be biking on a bike, shoes, and helmet I had work for 75 minutes. I’d be using a nutrition plan I never had used before. I’d be running in shoes I ran in for 30 minutes. And I’d be doing this in Taiwan which is known to be a wild ride even when all your stuff is there!
Adventure awaits, right?
Honestly after Friday afternoon, I was looking forward to the race so much because that meant there was no more questions or figuring things out, it was finally time to just execute and see what would happen. I set things up race morning, got into my brand new wetsuit, and before I knew it we were off at 6am. The male and female pros all started together, and with a relatively small group in wetsuits that first 250 meters or so was fast and HARD. A few of us held on, until we couldn’t, and then I settled in with 2 others. This felt like one of those times the swim just unfolds as I like it – I was able to stay in contact with them at an effort level I felt comfortable with, and while the second loop got a bit crowded with some of the slower age group swimmers, I was able to escape the swim without any major breaststroke kicks to the chest! I saw the clock read 58 on my exit, and was with Verena, so I knew I was in contact with at least one other woman racing. Well…….here goes nothing. I hopped onto the bike and started to chase. Immediately my legs and glutes were BURNING. As much as I had tweaked the position and rode a few intervals the day before, there’s a difference in a pre-race ride and riding as hard as you ride in the race, and right from the start I knew that more than anything else, this was just a different feeling than when I ride my own bike hard. That said though, eventually the burning turns to numbness and you simply just push through! I lost contact with Verena, but after 36 miles I had pulled Lucie into view. That was a positive thing and between that and my garmin avg speed reading, I knew I was riding just fine.
A note about this bike course: it is one of the most beautiful I have ever ridden, but it is WILD. The course is open during the race, which means double decker tour buses, banana trucks, cars, older people on scooters, dogs, construction crews, and basically any one else could be out there – and doesn’t really care there’s a race going on! This might mean you actually do stop at an intersection, or have to stop to avoid hitting a dog or a car that just abruptly pulled in front. In a nutshell, you have to be super heads up and aware the ENTIRE ride…I think all of the pros said they had to stop and unclip at least once to remain safe. The good side of that is that it was a major distraction from me from the fact that I was riding a new whip. I didn’t have time to think about the aero pads chafing my forearms when I was avoiding obstacles every mile!
We had a pretty decent headwind on the way out of the loop, which meant tailwinds all the way home and I was very pleased with the 5:12ish I saw as I came off the bike. What I was not pleased with how those first few steps felt. As I ran into T2, I felt more new muscles in my legs and back than I even knew I had. There was no time to waste though – I was about 3 minutes down on 3rd place, and 5th place was about 3 minutes back. I had to get moving. Shoes on and out I went. We got lucky that the weather never got super hot like it’s well known to be in Taiwan. The humidity was certainly there, but cloud cover was definitely our friend. I forced out the first 5k and slowly the reality of the situation was setting in: this was not going to be a Cinderella story! As much as things hurt, I just kept going. Around halfway when Lucie caught me, we hit a section of the course where you can see for quite a ways ahead as you circle the long lake. I was able to catch sight of the next 2 girls and see that yes, things were changing up ahead. Unlike any other race, except maybe Kona, the run here really changes things up. People *will* implode. Just keep going. The support of the community and the other athletes was so, so great. And when things got lonely on that second loop it was super helpful to have Sam leapfrogging along as I knew that meant Hillary would get word if I didn’t keep running. And then she’d surely make me pay later!
I finished up the race in 4th place, narrowly under 10 hours. This is my fourth 4th place! Surely now I can move on from this, right!?? A payday, an adventure, and a good old fashioned reminder that triathlon really isn’t about the gear. It’s easy to forget that sometimes.
I am forever grateful to those companies and people I have mentioned throughout who helped me put this day together. And also to my sponsors who supported and understood that their gear wouldn’t get showcased. It means so much to have good friends and companies who ride out the highs, and the lows, with me. Xie xie!
Alyssa is a Smashfest Queen-sponsored professional triathlete and coach with TeamHPB. Read more about her and follow her blog on her website here.
When you’re a parent as well as a triathlete, you quickly learn that life isn’t always like that Under Armour Commercial: Sometimes it’s not just “what you do in the dark.” Sometimes it’s what you do in the dark and the light and whenever you can find an extra 30 minutes in your day.
However, I am a special breed of parent; I am a step-parent. Usually step-parents accept the role with their eyes wide open to the reality of receiving daily ridicule and discerning side-eye from their step-children