Team SFQer Mary Knott spent her Thanksgiving weekend racing around the Big Island of Hawaii at the Ultraman World Championships, where she was the second female finisher. This race is comprised of the following three days: Day One: 6.2-mile swim + 90-mile bike, Day Two: 170-mile bike, Day Three: 52.4-mile Run. As if this wasn’t enough of an undertaking in itself, Mary won her age group at Ironman Mt. Tremblant in August then went on to compete in the Hawaii Ironman in October before tackling Ultraman in November.
We had our TeamSFQ ladies get together to interview Mary about this amazing feat— these are their questions. Enjoy!
The Ultraman World Championships was your second ultraman-distance race. What made you take on this new challenge, and what inspired you to take on the race in Hawaii after your first one in Australia?
I was curious about Ultraman since I first heard about the event- maybe 2010? Adventures like this have always captured my interest but I didn't think much about it seriously until 2013 because at the time I was still working my way up in triathlon, getting stronger, and being able to handle the longer distances successfully. In 2013 I set the goal of qualifying for Kona, and I knew that once that mission was accomplished, Ultraman was next on my list.
When I was ready to start looking at Ultraman, I knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to race in Hawaii, which meant that whatever race I chose needed to be a qualifier for worlds. At the time (2017) my options were Ultraman Australia and Ultraman Florida. Australia seemed perfect for me- it excited and scared me enough to keep me engaged when the training got tough.
In reading your blog leading up to race weekend, you wrote about some struggles with your confidence and training on the island, wondering if you'd even finish. How were you able to put your “bad” training days behind you and go on to have such a fantastic race?
Wow, yeah, "struggles" is an understatement. I was a complete head case. And it wasn't that the training was so hard. The actual training load was much less than what I went into Australia on-- mostly because of the timing of my fracture last spring and the fact that I chose to race Mont Tremblant and the Ironman World Championships. That delayed any really big workouts I would have done.
I think I had expectations in my head that I needed to let go of. Expectations about the weather conditions. I do not handle the combination of heat + humidity well at all. Heat I'm ok with, humidity is my cryptonite. Expectations about the terrain. I had driven the bike courses in October and didn't fully appreciate how difficult that day 2 course was going to be until I actually was on my bike trying to ride it. And I had expectations that I was going to train for about 10 days and then have a nice taper. Only I completely forgot that Ultraman taper is not at all like Ironman taper.
In reality, a vast majority of my struggle was imagined. I adapted to the conditions after about 12-14 days on the island. I literally had nothing else to do but train, so getting out of bed to ride my bike or swim was non-negotiable. But the challenge of the day 2 course was real and I needed to let go of my expectations.
In my head I thought, I did quite well at Ultraman Australia, even winning the day 2 ride which had over 10,000 ft of gain and setting the new bike course records (which has since been broken). I felt like I was a strong enough athlete that barring any catastrophe, I could finish 171 miles in 12 hours. The problem was that every time I rode the course in training, I was not making the cutoffs. I legit rode 90 miles on the day 2 course once at a 10 mph average. It was a huge wake up call. This course was going to require something really special.
After that ride, I spoke with my coach and talked through my fears and doubts. As an athlete, I felt a huge burden to live up to perceived expectations-- from Hillary, from my crew, from my family (who had flown over to watch). I didn't want to let anyone down. After I talked with Hillary I felt so much better about the situation and the goal became to finish the miles no matter what. Even if it took me 15 hours. Do the miles. Letting go of the expectations that I was going to be within the time cutoff freed me up to just execute. And on the day that's exactly what happened. I rode as hard as I could from the beginning. In 10 hours and 45 minutes I had only 5 minutes of stopped time -- for light changes, nature breaks, etc. My crew helped a number of other athletes and I think that their good karma protected me from any flats or mechanical issues. And until I rode into Waimea at mile 145 I did not let myself believe that I would make the time cutoff. And ironically, when I hit Waimea and saw my time the goal became, OK let's see if we can go sub- 11 hours. I had been riding hard all day so why not another 90 minutes?
What song(s) would you use to describe each day of the event?
Ahhh, ok, this probably changed throughout each day so there's not one song for each day. However there are two songs that stick out in my head.
1. Anna Nalick's "Breathe". For some reason this is my go to song when I'm in a rough patch. Probably because it's reminding me to breathe. I sang this song, out loud, to myself on both day 2 and 3.
2. "We Walk the Same Line" by Everything But the Girl. If you don't know this song, google it. It has a heartbreaking melody that makes me cry almost every time I hear it, but I love the message and I think it's perfect for Ultraman. You're never alone. There is always someone who can carry you when times are tough, and that's exactly what my crew did. They were my brain for the weekend so I didn't have to think. I just did what they told me to do. I handled the physical execution, and they took the emotional burden from me so I didn't have to bear it. They encouraged me, they reminded me to breathe, they told me when to eat and drink. They were my light.
What was the most challenging part of this race and how did you overcome it? Was there ever a point that you didn't think you'd make it?
In the lead up, the most challenging part was day 2. I did not think that I would make the cutoff. During the actual race, the most challenging part physically was day 1. The last 2 miles of the swim were so tough and the hills on the day 1 bike course felt relentless, unlike in training. I was never afraid of not making the cutoff on day 1 because the swim is my strength so I had a huge time buffer, but man, I thought it was never going to end. Day 2 I didn't expect to make the cutoff, but because I overcame that expectation prior to the race, I never thought about it on the day. It was one of those rare and beautiful days where there were no thoughts in my head. I was just racing. Very similar to Mont Tremblant. I wish every race was like that, and I'm working on getting to the point where every race IS like that. No thoughts. Just work.
What is your Mantra to get you through the tough mental moments?
For Ultraman World Championships specifically, my mantra was "just take the next breath you're given." I skyped with Jess (my meditation teacher) twice while in Hawaii. And I explained to her what I was experiencing and all the negative thoughts and doubts. She said (and I'm paraphrasing), when gratitude is so far out of the experience you're having and you can see nothing good at all-- just take the next breath you're given. Because that's all you can do.
When you take the next breath- you are living in the moment, because breathing only occurs right now. Each breath is brand new. It's not in the past, it's not in the future. And when you are in the moment, that's when gratitude has the opportunity to show back up.
Prior to the race I sat down with Heidi and Josie and went over some of the mantras I've used and key phrases they could shout at me. And they told me over and over and over during the 3 days: Just take the next breath. Just take the next breath. And it would bring me back to the moment and allow me to be free of pain, fear, expectation for however many breaths the focus lasted. And then they'd remind me again.
How has mediation changed your approach to training and racing?
I feel like it's made a huge impact. For one, I've really been able to experience what Hillary (and all the coaches) on team HPB preach: chisel, chisel, chisel. Or as Jess likes to say, do the work for the sake of the work. If you show up every single day and give your best, results will happen. We all have physical limitations-- I'm never going to run a 4 minute mile no matter how hard I train. BUT if I show up every day, give my best, without expectation of results, I will achieve MY best. You have to let go in order to shine-- and that is SO HARD to do, but it is real and it works.
Meditation is helping me to give up judgement of myself. Have the experience without commentary. For example, when I'm struggling on day 1-- stay present in the moment (by focusing on breathing) and don't judge how I'm feeling. Don't judge the pain in my body or the negative thoughts in my head. Recognize that they are there, but they are not going to impact the outcome. "I see you doubt (pain/ fear/ etc), but I'm not getting off my bike, so you can come along for the ride if you want, but I'm steering."
What was one thing that happened during the event that you didn't expect?
I slept! One of my biggest anxieties going into the race was knowing that in Australia I did not sleep for 5 days. Not a single minute. I rested, with my eyes closed, but my body was twitchy and my brain raced all night long. In Hawaii I was able to sleep for good chunks of time every night. Not 8 hours, but maybe 2-3 at a time which was huge!
How did you train for the run knowing that you would run 52 miles after all those miles from the swim and the bike? How did the 52 miles feel? Were you trained for what you felt? What shoes did you wear?
One of the challenging parts of Ultraman is the fact that it's a 3 day race, and you really have to approach every day individually and not worry about how it's going to impact the next day. In training I had done 2 Ironman marathons (August and October) and a 50k on the course at the beginning of November. Other than that I had a lot of double and triple run days, getting used to running on tired legs. And some long/ hard runs after hard bike rides.
On day 3 I felt pretty terrible from the beginning because of how hard I went on day 2. I knew it was going to be a tough day, but that said, it seemed to fly by compared to Australia. I didn't even start to think about how far I had left to go until I was 3/4 of the way through the run. My crew really did a great job of feeding me and keeping me distracted.
I was trained to run better than I did, BUT it was also way hotter on day 3 than what I hoped for. We were doing everything we could to keep me cool, but I was getting really dehydrated because there's only so much fluids I can absorb and we had to bounce back from that after the marathon point. It's a miracle we did as well as we did, and that's just a testament to how hard my crew worked.
I wore my Hoka Claytons, which they don't make anymore. During my 50k training run I wore my New Balance Zante's which I've worn for every Ironman race and long run in the last year or so. But on that course I really needed more cushioning and the Hoka's delivered. My feet were in perfect condition when I finished.
What was your approach with nutrition to fuel for the race?
This is one of the hardest things to prepare for because you really have to have every possible option available. You never know what's going to sound good and pull you out of a slump.
I nailed swim nutrition. In Australia, I only took in 4 gels on the swim with a total of 2 bottles of water (1 gel and 1/2 bottle at each of 4 feed stops). I felt so terrible and starving for the first 2 hours on the bike, it was really rough. So I learned from that and in Hawaii I used Maurten. 320 calories per bottle-- 1 bottle at each of 4 stops. So I had 3x the calories and 2x the fluids and I felt as good as I could have coming out of the water. Clear headed, no headache, not hungry.
I really wanted to eat solid food as much as possible on the bike. But on day 1, I was working so much harder in those hills than I expected and I was having a hard time breathing, so I stuck with Tailwind. I think I had a little bit of coke and maybe coffee? I can't remember what all my crew handed to me, but I only remember eating solid food in the way of a Clif Bar and a Picky Bar twice.
On day 2, the plan was to hit solid food in the first 90 minutes before I started climbing. Once I started climbing I had Tailwind for the next 3 hours, and on the descent into Hilo went back to solid food. I was feeling hungry when I got to Hilo and I remembered that Dan had mentioned fried egg rolls that he picked up in Waikoloa. So I chowed down on egg rolls and coke for a couple of miles which were amazing. Little bit of grease to settle the stomach and good calories. I went back to Tailwind and bars. And I had some noodle soup, coke and pringles in the back half of day 2. I had saved 4 boxes of Girl Scout cookies in my freezer for 6 months because these were my saving grace in Australia... and I didn't eat a single one. I was craving salt and savory and the sugar just turned me off.
On day 3, the plan was Tailwind or Maurten-- which is basically what we did all day. I started with Tailwind but it wasn't sitting super well, maybe not absorbing as much as I hoped. So we switched to Maurten and stayed with that. We added in shots of Via (instant coffee), coke, Maurten gels and pringles later in the day. And water of course.
What food did you think about while racing? Did your crew have to provide any special deliveries .... you know like a Taco Bell Run? :)
I didn't think about food really. When you are constantly taking in calories for 3 days it becomes a total turnoff. At some point you get tired of chewing. The egg rolls were quite amazing. That was the only unplanned thing that I had that really boosted my spirits.
Tell us a bit about how your crew kept your spirits up: what was the funniest thing that Heidi and/or Josie said?
My crew was amazing. Really, just having them there and seeing their smiling faces every 10 minutes or so was a huge lift. The funniest thing that happened was on day 3. I picked up a pacer around mile 18 or so when I hit Kawaihae. From there they switched off about every 30 minutes. The second time Josie hopped in to pace she just started talking to me in this British accent. And so I was responding to her in kind. It wasn't planned, no one said "oh let's talk in accent". She just did it. And for 30 minutes it went on and we never said a word about it before or after. I wish I could repeat what the conversation was about, but our language was highly inappropriate for PG-13 audiences. So I'll leave out the details. :)
How was your sleep and recovery between stages?
I had my standard recovery smoothie waiting for me at the end of each stage-- frozen fruit blended with protein powder, almond milk, almonds, and hemp seeds. That got calories in immediately and jump started the recovery while I waited in line for massage. They also had food at the finish line so on day 1 I ate some roasted chicken and noodles. On day 2 I think they had sandwiches which didn't sound good so I had my shake and we got back to the hotel and ate dinner pretty quickly. And I had a malasada that my crew picked up on course for dessert. I had massage after each stage, and got into bed as early as possible. I didn't sleep a ton, but enough that I felt rested.
Can you tell us a little bit about your training routine? Did this require significantly more training than ironman?
The training is not significantly more than Ironman training-- until you get to the final few weeks. Then your long ride is 170 miles as opposed to 120. And your long run is 31 miles as opposed to 20. And you're doing 10k swims regularly. So the time commitment changes a little bit. And there are more double workout days-- getting used to doing everything just a little bit tired which is how it feels on day 2 and 3 of Ultraman. I actually like the training, and never felt super taxed by what we were doing. I like the challenges that are presented in training.
Since you are now a 2x Ultraman finisher, what is the one piece of advice you consider vital to share with anyone thinking about taking on this event?
Choose your crew wisely. This is the number one thing that will make or break your event. You need to be surrounded by people who know how to motivate and support you, but can also watch you suffer. That's the biggest thing-- being able to watch someone suffer and not feel like you have to stop it. If I am suffering and my crew is wincing and uncomfortable by it then instead of executing, I'm thinking about how I can stop their pain. They need to be able to take your pain, and not reflect it back to you. Know and understand that it's part of the process. And it will end. The race is only 3 days. At some point the suffering will end.
How do you balance training and with other aspects of of your life?
It's a dance that requires time management and commitment. And I don't believe in balance. When I am in the biggest blocks of training, I have less time and energy for my family, my friends, housework, etc. But by sticking to a schedule, I can pencil in time to meet my friends once a month for happy hour to catch up, find time to do laundry, and eat a nutritious meal while catching up the latest episode of my favorite show (while simultaneously having my legs up in my Recovery Pump boots). There is not equal time for all things that are important. But at some point the pendulum swings, and I won't be training as much and can devote more time to uncluttering my office, and working on relationships. Something always has to give and it's a question of what's important to you and how your establish your support system in training.
What are your go-to recovery strategies to stay healthy and injury-free, jumping from one big race to another and performing on such a high level?
That's a good question and I think it boils down to a few things. First, I'm built for endurance. I'm incredibly sturdy and blessed with a body that can handle the training load and not break down. I've (knock on wood) sustained only a few minor injuries over the years and nothing that has taken me out of the game for any length of time. Even after my bike crash in April when I fractured my sacrum, I could still swim and walk every day. My body heals amazingly quickly.
I think focusing on sleep and diet are priority for recovery. I sleep minimum of 8 hours per night. I go to bed at 8 pm and get up at 4 am almost every single day. If I'm particularly tired, I will sometimes go to bed early. I'm not afraid of hitting the racks at 6 pm if I need to. I don't nap very often but every now and then I'll squeeze in an hour if I feel like it.
I try to eat as healthy as possible. Whole foods. Not processed. I eat a lot of salads and smoothies. Packing in as much produce as possible. I don't worry about calories. As long as my clothes fit, I am eating well. I eat a lot of fat in my diet- avocados, olive oil, nuts. Going part time at work has helped because I don't keep junk food at home. There are always donuts and candy at work, which I do partake in. But once or twice a week is way better than every single day!
And who or what inspired you to become the athlete that you are today?
I think I'm the athlete that I wanted to become. If that makes any sense. There was never any one athlete that I looked up to or aspired to be like, though I had a good example of an active lifestyle growing up. I didn't grow up playing team sports but my family would ride bikes together or go for walks around the neighborhood. I had a park behind my house where we played every day after school and a swimming pool in walking distance where we spent all summer. I was lucky to grow up in a time and place where it was normal to be a free range kid. My mom would call us in when it got dark. When I went to college my dad would bring his rollerblades when he came to visit and we would cruise around campus, usually me trying desperately to keep up with him. When I started running it was for me. After college, my first job was so stressful. I needed an outlet and I joined a gym and started walking, lifting weights and doing yoga. Running was a natural progression from there. And when I started trying to improve as an athlete it was always for myself and to challenge my own perceived limitations and thoughts about what I believed to be possible. I'm a highly competitive person, and running and triathlon has given me a platform to test myself and grow as an athlete and a person.
What are your strategies for coping with the inevitable "post-race slump"?
Let me start by saying that there is no slump right now. I am fully embracing my off season!! I am sleeping in, drinking coffee, catching up on life. And loving every minute of it. I feel content, unlike after Australia when I felt really restless and was searching for another connection. I think part of the reason I feel so content is because my season went exactly as I dreamed and I finished the year feeling like I had nothing left to prove, nothing else I could have given, nothing I would do differently.
I knew after May of 2017 that I wanted to race Ironman and Ultraman World Championships in 2018. At the end of 2017, I put a plan in place that would allow me the opportunity to race both. When I broke my sacrum I already had the invitation from Ultraman to race worlds, and I knew that I had one opportunity to qualify for Ironman-- Mont Tremblant. From the moment I registered in April, I knew I was going to win my age group. That was the only option and I was all in. I handled my recovery process like it was my full time job, and when I was released to train in June I gave it everything I had.
Ironman Worlds didn't go as I had hoped, or trained for, but I felt content knowing that I had accomplished the goal I had set for myself, and for me qualifying was the important part. Being able to finish Ultraman Worlds as well as I did each day was so much more than I envisioned possible. I am content knowing that I met the challenge and did not shy away from the risk of failure. That I gave all that I had to the race each and every day. Had I not accomplished my goals, I might feel very differently right now.
That said, I know what the post race slump feels like as I've been there many times in the past. Especially after a big race that maybe doesn't go as planned. I remember Boston 2013 being especially difficult because even though I finished the race before the bombs went off, there was no celebration. Instead there were a lot of tears, and anxiety and fear, not knowing what was happening. Obviously that's a pretty extreme example, but I think that I learned a lot from that experience and my perspective has changed. Each day is a gift, and instead of focusing on ONE BIG DAY (or event), we have to really live every single day. And today is not any more or less important than Ironman day, or the day I qualified for Kona, or any other big life event. Today I have the opportunity to live an authentic life. And by doing that one day at a time, we find meaning in the small things. The sunrise. The weight of my cat on my lap and how soft his fur feels when we watch television at night. That first bite of an amazing dinner when the flavors burst. When we string together moments in time, that's what makes a beautiful and fulfilling life. And these moments are there, waiting to be recognized every day. Not just on race day.
When she’s not training, the amazing Mary Knott is a vet, co-owner of Cadence Running Company, and coach for TeamHPB. http://findingkona.blogspot.com
(Photo credits: Matthew & Chance- Official Ultraman World Championship Photography)