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On May 15, 2016, Danielle Grabol became the first woman to compete in and complete the incredible endurance event, Epic 5—which consists of five iron-distance triathlons (140.6 miles each), on five islands of Hawaii, in just five days. In this EPIC feat, Danielle not only made history—but also dug a little deeper in finding herself.
Triathlete: What are five words to describe your experience at Epic 5?
DG: Humbling, gratifying, beautiful, painful and worth it!
Triathlete: The race is five days, five islands of Hawaii and five full iron-distance triathlons. Anyone could look and say “that’s crazy,” of course. But why was it “beautiful” and “worth it”?
DG: When you think about it as a complete event—12 miles of swimming, 560 miles of biking and 131 miles of running over five days—it does sound absolutely insane. But when I broke it down, and thought of it as five 140.6 races, it did not seem quite as crazy. I think the craziest part was the travel. We ended up taking six flights to get to Kona the last day. The packing and unpacking of my bike and all my gear and rental vans, actually turned out to be the most daunting. It may be hard to believe, but the physical aspect paled in comparison to how difficult [the race] was logistically.
Triathlete: What made you want to compete in Epic 5, and how did you hear about the event?
DG: Like most people who have heard of the event, I read about it in Rich Roll’s book, Finding Ultra. This was several years ago, and I remember distinctly talking with [my partner, Jason] about it. We both decided it sounded like a logistical nightmare, and sort of forgot about it. Fast forward a few years and I was chatting with one of the volunteers who has been involved [with the event] for a while. She told me that the race was now being directed by a woman. I asked her if a female had ever completed the event. She then mentioned that no female had even applied to do the race. Well, at that point, hearing that information was all I needed. A female-directed event must have a woman who has completed it! I figured “it just takes one”—one woman needs to do the race, and show that its possible. Women are extremely underrepresented in the world of ultras. I raced a 24-hour bike race with one other woman in the field. ONE! Ultras aren’t about speed or strength. They require mental toughness and resiliency, which are both qualities that women excel at. Although we aren’t well represented in ultras, we actually perform quite well when paired up with men (I was fifth overall at the 24-hour bike race!) You will never see a woman in the top 5 or 10 of a marathon, but extend it to 100 miles and it equalizes the field. I love that about ultras and love that women are figuring out this is what we are really, really good at!
Triathlete: Speaking of Rich Roll’s book, I recall how the struggle to eat and find food was very real during his experience at Epic 5—did you encounter the same struggle?
DG: The struggle to find food was real, and good food was even harder! Our best day was in Oahu, since we were in Waikiki the food options were plentiful. The rest of the time I felt like we were foragers, always looking for something halfway edible. Also, each day we had to dump out all our water to go through security at the airport—and that didn’t help. My priority once we got through security was always: 1) get water ASAP and 2) feed me! Unfortunately, in Molokai they didn’t have any bathrooms or water fountains once you got through security or food options. A volunteer was kind enough to give me a Musubi (a popular snack in Hawaii made with marinated Spam and sushi rice), and I ate it like it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted (it wasn’t). But what was terrible was just how thirsty I was after I ate the Musubi! Of course, the flight had ridiculously tiny water cups. I filled up my pockets with as many as I could hold. I can honestly say I have never been so hungry and thirsty in my life as I was at some points during this race.
Triathlete: The race couldn’t happen without each athlete’s crew. Who assisted you during your event?
DG: My partner Jason was my Crew Chief, which means that he was in charge of all the decision making around me during the race. Six years ago he ran 100 miles and opened the floodgates for us both around these adventures. He’s like me in that there are no limits in our imagination. An event of this magnitude requires significant support on the home front. Without him buying groceries, caring for our dogs, and keeping the house clean I would have really lost my mind! I got horrible food poisoning in March and missed a big three-day training camp in addition to losing nine pounds. Setbacks like that can take a toll of your psyche, and you have to have people in your corner who are constantly reminding you to keep pushing forward. Jason is that person for me, and I couldn’t imagine doing any of this without him!
Hilary Murdock was the second crew member, and her role was the Director of the Ministry of Fun. I met her bike riding in the Appalachians. She was climbing a mountain in the big chain ring and I knew she was special. She was definitely a wild card pick as she didn’t have any crewing experience. It’s difficult to know what will happen to athletes and crew once sleep deprivation kicks in. These altered states of reality can make you say and do things you don’t really mean to do. If you are overly sensitive and take everything personally then you probably aren’t well suited for the world of ultras. Hilary ended up being more amazing than we could have ever dreamed. She never uttered a single complaint, had a wonderful sense of humor and the most incredible attitude. I will forever be indebted to her and Jason, as this would have been impossible without them, and the local volunteers who came out on each island. Epic 5 staff and volunteers also dedicated their time and energy to keep us safe and motivated for five days. It wasn’t an easy task and they really did a wonderful job.
Triathlete: Leading up to Epic 5, what were some of your endurance accolades?
DG: I have completed two Ironmans, a double iron distance (Double Anvile, 281.2), a 24-hour bike race, and have ridden my bike non-stop across Florida. In 2013 I participated in Race Across America, a 3000-mile bike race from Oceanside, Calif. to Annapolis, Md. I raced as a two-person female team with Kacie Darden. In RAAM all teams have the same cutoffs. So eight-person male teams are allotted the same amount of time as a two-person female team. Kacie and I had tremendous pressure. Our goal was to become the youngest twp-person female team and set the “Under 50” record. In addition to the pressure to race well, we had a crew of 11 people that we didn’t want to let down. While Epic 5 was more challenging physically, RAAM taught me certain psychological strength that you will carry for the rest of your life. I am incredibly grateful for the experience as its taught me some valuable life lessons.
Triathlete : What part of Epic 5 was the hardest for you—physically, mentally and emotionally?
DG: The third day in Molokai was the hardest for me physically. I just fell apart on the last 10 miles of the run. I couldn’t stay awake. Nothing was working. I was wearing just a stopwatch so I didn’t know how far I had left, so when I asked and the crew told me 1.7 miles, I just totally lost it crying. I realized I wasn’t going to have enough time to even look at my hotel room, much less shower or sleep. The following day in Maui we had some really rough winds. I was suffering pretty bad at this point trying to keep my bike from swerving all over the road. I pulled over at mile 28 and starting crying hysterically (any tears from me are a big deal, I generally don’t cry). I had only averaged 13 mph up to this point. The thought of having to go another 84 miles at that pace was putting me over the edge. I told Jason I couldn’t do it anymore. He gave me an energy shot, swapped out the race wheels, and told me “let’s re-evaluate at mile 50.” The reality is that I was leading that day, so it wasn’t like I was hours behind the other two guys. I spent the next 10 miles trying to figure out why I wanted to quit. At mile 38 I got really mad at myself, because the truth is that I was fine physically. I was just tired. But so was everyone else! My ride really turned around and I ended up having my best day, leading until the end, and surprising myself quite a bit!
Triathlete: At any point during the race did you just burst out laughing? And if yes, why?
DG: We were not prepared for the flats and wheel issues I encountered. I was racing with clinchers, which rarely flat, but unfortunately mine did. I was derailed with a flat in Oahu and needed something that we didn’t have and the bike mechanic volunteering didn’t either. The solution? He called a friend of his and asked him to put the tubes in his mailbox so he could swing by and pick them up. It wasn’t funny at all, but we kind of had to laugh. It’s hard to stay optimistic in situations like that, but I worked really hard to race with an “attitude of gratitude.” It’s a gift to be able to do this stuff.
Triathlete: Talk about your feet. Blisters? How do you care for your feet during a race like this?
DG: I just tried not to look at them as much as possible! I wore Ininji socks and used tons of body glide. That was working fairly well, until it started raining on us during the bike. I would have wet, swampy feet by the time I got to the run portion. It rained in Molokai, Maui and Kona. In Kona it rained on the run and once my feet were wet it was kind of all over on the blister front. I’ve currently got 7 toenails left and a couple are barely hanging on. In addition to the blisters my feet, I experienced a lot of general bone pain by the last 15 miles in Kona. I really thought I might have stress fractures, but now that I am home and recovered, I am pain free.
Triathlete: Logistically, as you mentioned, this race is a nightmare—finishing 140.6 miles and then rushing to the airport, and more. When do you sleep? Shower? Did you almost miss any flights?
DG: On day one we started in Kauai. This was the only island were we had to fly in the evening, after the race. Our flight was booked for 9:50 pm, essentially allowing us fifteen hours to complete the race. Unfortunately, I cracked a rim, and flatted, resulting in spending an hour off the bike. I ended up finishing in 15:03. We literally had to RUN to catch our flight to Oahu as they were boarding! I was able to sleep only three hours the first night. The second night (again, had more misfortunes with flat tires and bike mechanicals) I had about two hours of sleep before we had to catch the flight from Oahu to Molokai. We were unable to land that morning, and ended up being sent back to Oahu airport for a couple of hours. Because we were so delayed the race director asked if we would run from the airport to the pool to save time while our crews got rental vans (this was the only pool swim due to rough water/sharks). We landed in Molokai, had to dig through luggage for run gear, run 8.4 miles, hop in the pool, then continue with the race. This is just one example of how the logistics changed, a lot. Because of the late start that day I ended up only having 30-minutes post-race. Jason asked if I wanted to sleep, eat or shower. I chose option number one, sleeping in the van for 30 minutes then heading to the airport. We caught catnaps on the flights, and showering happened on every island BUT Molokai. We were always rushing, very little downtime. We calculated that I got 6.5 hours of sleep by the time we hit Kona (island number five). The sheer exhaustion is what was overwhelming, knowing I wouldn’t have time to sleep or shower and had to repeat it all over again the next day. The crew didn’t get any more sleep than I did, as they were the ones packing up the rental van, or packing up my luggage after the race was over. Their jobs never seemed to end.
Triathlete: Why do you do “things” like Epic 5? What continues to drive you to push yourself to the limits in these events?
DG: A lot of people ask me “why” I do things like Epic 5. I wish I had some deep answer, but I really don’t. I am really curious about what the bottom looks like. In Maui when I was crying on the side of the road, I had absolutely hit rock bottom in my life of racing. Never before have I ever considering quitting anything. I am not sure what would have happened if Jason told me that I could have stopped. The idea of digging yourself out of that psychological hole and being able to finish, despite the many setbacks is why I do this stuff. It’s an incredible feeling to know that you can dig that deep and a find a way.