The “off season” is certainly a trending topic among pro athletes at this time of year, as most are eager to relax their usual training routines and celebrate the past several months of focused work. But for one–Ironman champion Hillary Biscay–the hardest effort of her season–and perhaps of her entire career–still looms on the horizon. Starting Nov. 29, Biscay will tackle the Ultraman World Championship on the island of Hawaii, her second go at the three-day 6.2-mile swim, 261.4-mile bike and 52.4-mile run ultra distance triathlon. As a rookie at the event in 2010, Biscay earned second place and the honor of posting the fastest women’s Ultraman debut in history (24:40:48) and a new swim course record (2:20:48). That, after finishing eight Ironman races the same year.
I spoke to Biscay on a recent easy training day (“Saturday’s perfect,” she said. “I only have a three-hour swim. Then Sunday and Monday I’ll be riding all day.”) The prior day’s effort earned a bit of recovery, however relative the term may be; on Friday Biscay ran a straight 31-mile stretch of highway to prepare for the Ultraman run course, which takes competitors on a point-to-point double marathon down the Queen K highway, starting in Hawi (the turnaround point for the Ironman World Championship bike course) and finishing in Kona. I had to learn more about this incredible woman and her preparation for what sounds to me like three days of pure athletic insanity.
Triathlete.com: You’ve shared with me some of the details of your training–which sounds a bit nuts! What are the longest training sessions you’ll do in each discipline in preparing for Ultraman?
Biscay: The morning after the Ironman in Kona [Biscay did not race Kona, but rather worked all week at her SMASH apparel booth and supported several athletes that she coaches] I went out and swam the Ultraman course. And I missed the turn into the finish so I swam a little extra! I basically swam 2:45, just over 10-kilometers. And every week right now I’m doing one 10,000 swim–but that’s yards and not kilometers.
On the bike, so far I’ve done 138 miles and I may add to that. It’s a loop I’ve done several times now, and it’s this awesome ride pretty much to the middle of nowhere to get a burrito! There are some days that I finish that ride and I can’t go one pedal stroke further–I just lie on the ground when I get home. But other days when I ride it, like last week, I could easily add 20 miles. You’ve just got to go with it on the days that you feel like that, but I had a conference call right after the ride and I had to stop. But when I do it next week, if I feel like that I will do 160. 138-140 miles is the longest that I’ve ever done in training so far, even though day two of the race is just over 170 miles.
In terms of running, next weekend we’re going to run rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon. That will be somewhere around 48 miles. I feel like I need to do that. But it’s all on trail–bear in mind that the Ultraman double marathon is 52.4 miles on pavement and a lot of it is downhill, which is just pounding! We have a highway here where they run the Tucson marathon and it’s rolling but a lot of slight downhill, so it’s very much like the Queen K, and yesterday I literally just drove my car out of town for 31 miles and ran back. Obviously I don’t want to go for 52 miles because that would be my race right there, but I felt like 31 miles was essential, especially given that next weekend’s run will be all on trail.
Triathlete.com: And on the flip side, if you go for a “short” swim/ride/run, what does that mean to you?
Biscay: Oh gosh. Yesterday after my 31-mile run I got in the pool and swam 2,000 immediately upon finishing to loosen up. So that’s a short swim. My shortest runs have been about 40 minutes–a wake up jog, or a second jog if I’ve run a couple hours in the morning. And I do a ton of one-hour easy spins on the bike path. Especially with my sister–she’s here visiting and I’m teaching her how to ride.
Triathlete.com: In every endurance race, there’s both the competitive aspect–in terms of how you hope to do against your rivals–and also certain personal goals. What are your goals for this race?
Biscay: It is tough to set concrete goals for this one, because just like with Ironman where you can race the same course one year to the next, the conditions can vary so much and affect time. Over Ultraman it’s that times three! Things can blow up so far depending on the conditions over 24 hours of racing. On our day-one bike ride in 2010 we had some pretty tough wind, but in the scheme of things that was the only aspect of the race where I felt that we had significantly unfavorable conditions. And I think it’s the norm on that island to have unfavorable conditions. So the last time I raced it we generally had the conditions on our side. It’s hard because I would love to be faster than I was last time, but I’m also going into this knowing that’s probably not terribly realistic. I’m trying to put that goal aside. But definitely my goal is to win. Having been there and come second there’s only one place to go, to move up a place, and so of course that’s a goal. But I also know that last time I did it my goal was to win, too. In the end, the challenge of just racing those three days–and I’m not talking about completing, because that’s a different thing, but racing hard over those three days–was the ultimate achievement. It came down to a super close race between me and third, and I had to absolutely annihilate myself in the final miles of the double marathon just to get second, so I ended up being elated to finish second because of the way it all went down. So I leave myself open to that as well. I know who my competition is–Amber [Monforte] has won the race four times or something, so I expect that she’s my competition. And I can’t control what she’s got on the day. So yes, I would love to win, but for me it’s more about finding out what I can do out there. In 2010 when I raced there I was really not healthy. I had a lot of health problems that year and in hindsight doing Ultraman at the end of the season was probably not the smartest thing I ever did. I don’t regret it, but it’s the driving force for me to go back. I just want to see what I can do there being at full strength. And I feel like this year I’m having a good season, I feel strong and I’m definitely stronger and fitter than I was then. So to see what can I do–me against the race, me against the course, now being at full strength–that’s what I’m after. That’s the mission.
Triathlete.com: What intimidates you more: the thought of doing Ultraman or of doing a super fast short race like Hy-Vee?
Biscay: Oh, Ultraman! Don’t get me wrong–I understand how severe the pain would be in a race like Hy-Vee, compressed over that distance, and I also understand that I would get my ass kicked from here to China. But that–I don’t know, I don’t want to say it doesn’t scare me, but compared to Ultraman with the three days, the time alone inside your own head, being incapacitated for days afterward–it’s that whole deal that is to me way more frightening. Which I guess is why I’m going back!
Triathlete.com: You seem to be drawn toward particularly long and grueling adventures. Are there any on your bucket list that you have yet to attempt?
Biscay: Yes, for sure. When I am done racing triathlon there are definitely some 100-mile ultra marathons on my list. I would love to do Rocky Raccoon. I would love to do Western States. That’s definitely the next frontier for me.
The Ultraman World Championship at a glance:
- Three-day stage race, Nov. 29 – Dec. 1
- Stage I: 6.2-mile ocean swim, 90-mile bike
- Stage II: 171.4-mile bike
- Stage III: 52.4-mile run
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