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Recalled: Ultraman’s (Very, Very) Long and Storied History

One race is more “more” than the rest: Ultraman has existed in the farthest realm of multisport for almost 40 years. 

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Since it began in 1983, the Ultraman triathlon has maintained an extremely niche and obscure rep in the sports world—and, perhaps, intentionally so. As if completing more than double the distance of an Ironman triathlon over the course of three days isn’t enough for most people to wrap their heads around, the competition has purposefully eschewed prize money. Meaning there’s no big draw from pro triathletes, no major media coverage, and a typically tiny field, compared to shorter races. Case in point? The Ultraman World Championship—a three-day, 320-mile race, featuring a 6.2-mile swim and 90-mile bike on day one, a 171-mile bike ride on day two, and a 52.4-mile run on day three—limits its field to just 40 competitors.

But that hasn’t stopped the Ultraman from remaining one of the most consistent and ever-present events in multisport. Nearly four decades after this “odyssey of personal rediscovery” kicked off from the shores of Hawaii’s Big Island, the Ultraman World Championship will once again take place in late November after a forced hiatus in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. The original impetus? To create a competition that focused on the guiding principles of Hawaiian culture: Aloha (love), Ohana (family), and Kokua (hospitality)—an opposing approach to that of Ironman’s, which the Ultraman’s founders felt was becoming sullied by corporate and commercial influence.

Despite its daunting distance and low-profile role, Ultraman has grown and evolved over time, spinning off races in the U.K., Australia, and Florida, as well as Canada, which just hosted the event in Penticton, British Columbia, in late July (both Florida and Canada serve as World Championship qualifiers). While Ultraman champs may not get the buzz and headlines that, say, those who top Ironman podiums, that’s not to say their accomplishments aren’t just as epic. Here’s a look at some standout Ultraman stats.

Women rule Ultraman…

The dominance of women in Ultraman is a familiar narrative, as the distance seems to narrow the gender gap among competitors, much like it does in ultrarunning. Case in point: In Ultraman Canada in late July, two women took the top overall sports. The second-place finisher was none other than 2012 Ironman Triathlon and Ironman 70.3 World Champion, Leanda Cave. Now 44, Cave qualified for the World Championships race, getting her one step closer to her ultimate goal of winning a world title in every distance in triathlon. The overall winner, 43-year-old Amy Robitaille, finished 51 minutes ahead of Cave, with a total time of 24:17:16.

…and so do older athletes

At Ironman Canada last month, the average age among the top ten finishers (male and female) was 45. While some 30-somethings do fare quite well in the event, masters athletes seem to have a knack for the distance. In 2020, 49-year-old pro triathlete Dede Griesbauer won the women’s title at Ultraman Florida with a new race record of 22:48:31, the fastest-ever turned in by a female at an Ultraman event. Among the oldest-ever to finish an Ultraman? Ellis Andrews of Penticton, who competed in the World Championships late into his 60s. And in 2021,  “Ultra Nana” Rosie Spicer was the fourth-place female finisher in Ultraman Australia at the age of 62, crossing the line in a world record for her age group by two-and-a-half hours.

It favors repeat winners, too

Just as the Jans, the Daves, the Nataschas, Paulas, and Danielas of Ironman have dominated repeatedly at the World Champs, Ultraman has had its share of Kings and Queens of Kona. The arguable G.O.A.T.s  being Brazil’s Alexandre Riberio (who won six titles, including his 2012 victory at the age of 47, when he crossed the line more than three hours ahead of the runner-up) and American Shanna Armstrong, who also earned six titles between 2003 and 2009. Other repeat winners include Tracy Preston and Amber Monforte, who ruled the Ultraman scene in the mid 1990s and 2010s, respectively.

Hear more about Leanda Cave’s recent experience at Ultraman Canada on the latest episode of the Triathlete Hour podcast, here