Bryan Williams – Having completed his first marathon 7 years ago, At 42 years old, Bryan Williams set out to complete the 490 mile Colorado Trail Run. Bryan took inspiration from Scott Jaime and worked with coach Cindy Stonesmith to prepare for this epic adventure that would take him over 13,000 foot passes and often getting only a couple hours of sleep each night. Bryan has the Fastest Known Time (FKT) of 8 days and 30 minutes.
This March, I was peer-pressured into signing up for the race of my life by some of my very best friends: Shanda Hill and Joey Lichter. They promised that if I didn’t, I’d be sitting at home the entire month of August, wishing I were with them. They were right…
Still, it took their convincing, along with my world turning upside down, for me to finally commit to doing the Swiss Deca.
For those unfamiliar with ultra triathlons, a Deca is a 10x ironman-distance race. There are two formats: the “one-per-day” and the “continuous.” In the former, an athlete races one ironman-distance triathlon per day for ten days. The later consists of a 24-mile swim, 1,120-mile bike ride, and 262-mile run with a 14 day cutoff. We all chose the later.
Both versions of the Deca have an abysmal finishing rate of under 80%, although it is higher for the continuous. However, before August of 2017, only four women had ever completed a Continuous Deca. Four more toed the starting line in Switzerland, and Alexandra Meixner was slated to break the women’s world record. Already it was a historical year for women’s participation in the sport, and this made for an exciting atmosphere at the beginning of the race.
While most onlookers would call it crazy, the thought of doing this race (and training for it) became my sanity. I’d spent several years working through abuse that had happened to me as a child and teenager, when I was raped by a close friend in the fall of 2016. When I began to come out about what had happened, many people openly opposed me speaking out. The experience landed me in a hospital bed in late January, as I worked through the aftermath.
It was events like this which led me to ultra racing in the first place, and I think it took the mother of all races to pull me out of the dark hole I fell into after last fall and winter. Training forced me to wake up and cycle (or run, or swim…), even when it seemed like a monumental feat just to get out of bed in the morning. I am grateful and glad, on so many levels, that I had the opportunity to be there in the first place.
Still, standing at the starting line of a 24-mile swim was daunting, to say the least. The farthest swim I’d done in training was only 5 miles. I turned to Shanda for comfort, partly because I knew without a doubt that she would finish, but mostly because I knew she never swam.
She also got me into this mess, so she owed me.
“Shanda, how far was your longest training swim? I’m really nervous I’m not gonna finish this thing.”
“Laura,” she replied, face creased with a michievous smile, “I haven’t swum since the double in March. You’ll be fine.”
Nineteen hours of swimming later, I finally got out of the pool. She’d been right, we were fine.
We all were fine on the bike, too, which I’m told was unusual. There were 16 competitors in the deca continuous this year, a very large field considering the size of the sport. Normally, I was told, at least one person drops out before the end of the swim.
Ultra triathlon courses typically consist of multiple loops of 5-6 mile course for the bike and a 1-2 mile course for the run. This ensures safety for participants as well as easy access to food, water, medical aid, and our crews.
The bike course for this race included 200 laps of a 9 kilometer (~5.6 mile) loop, which was situated on the Rhine River along the border of Lichtenstein. I joked with a supporter that the course was so beautiful, if I were a tourist, I’d happily do 100 loops just for fun. However, since I was racing, 200 was just fine.
Those who know me, know that the bike portion of triathlons is always my favorite. I was even more excited for this race, since Fuji and Performance Bicycle (where I work) had teamed up to give me a Norcom Straight for the race. As soon as I saw it, I fell in love with the thing. It was my first tri bike, and my first bike made of carbon fiber. The ride was sooooo smooth, and I was beyond excited to race on it.
Special thanks to Travis Metz, Jeff Morrison, and Milay Galvez for making it possible! Just look at that beauty!
Nevertheless, cycling 1,120 miles is never, ever easy. We were hit by several sizeable storms, one of which knocked down small trees and drove branches across the course towards us as we cycled. Another night, a damp cold descended on the race course. Shanda and I put on our wetsuits as we biked into the icy blackness, our headlights barely cutting through the fog.
“Putting on a wetsuit was a good idea.” I yelled over the wind.
“Yeah! It’s so nice to feel warm again.” Shanda hollered back. “The only downside is when I have to pee…it takes hours to get this thing off!”
Holding eye contact with me, she stared in silence for a minute or two, and stopped pedaling.
She giggled as she started pedaling again. “I can feel it squishing in my socks!”
The woman had been right, some experiences are worth putting your life on hold (if you can). I would’ve been kicking myself if I hadn’t been here.
Unfortunately, I started getting sick after that night; the cold and damp was doing a number on me. It started getting harder for me to stay awake as I biked late at night.
At this point in the race, I changed my strategy from sleeping in the coldest points of the night (3-7am) to waking up early and putting some miles down before sunrise. Mentally, it helped to have the halfway point of the day be 1pm versus 4pm. I also kept hallucinating during the last 2 hours of the day; nothing slows you down like seeing people on the side of the road that….aren’t actually there. Going to bed earlier helped with that!
During one of those early mornings, I saw the most spectacular sunrise. I’d been biking for hours when the faint glow of the sun began to tint the sky. Slowly, it grew brighter and brighter, until the sun peaked over the edge of the mountain. In that instant, everything was bathed in a warm, golden light. It was the first (but certainly not the last) time I cried in the deca.
I decided, even if I didn’t finish, and even if the entire race was a disaster from that point onward, it was all worth it just for that moment.
The run course was 340 laps of a 1.25km (~.78 mile) loop; the majority of it was on asphalt. I’d never run even close to that far before, and I assessed the situation before I took my first step. Calculator in hand, I realized that I only had to travel about 33 miles per day to finish the run on time.
This meant, to me, that if I did not finish the deca, it would be due to an injury. If I got an injury, it would probably be because I ran too much and too hard.
And so I walked. Mile after mile. Lap after lap. Patiently, painstakingly.
Day 3. I thought. Day 3 you can run a little bit.
Yet, when day 2 of the run rolled around, my legs were seizing up with cramps. If my legs are this bad on day 2, what will they be like on day 4 or day 5? I thought. It was the first time in the race where I seriously wondered if I could finish.
After 1am had come and gone, I decided on a less-than-excellent coping strategy. Stumbling around the woods on the run course, I stifled sobs into my hands. The thought that (if I didn’t finish the race), I’d have to do everything all over again someday was too much. Rather, it was just enough to get my chaffed butt and blistered feet moving again.
There were a lot of nights like that in the deca: cold…damp…dark. In the middle of an achy, sleep-deprived night, sometimes it’s easy to forget how beautiful the course is, or forget to be grateful for all the friends around you. Sometimes, it’s even easier to just give up.
Perhaps that’s why I love ultras so much- they parallel life in such a beautiful way. When it’s stormy, and painful, and sad, it’s easy to forget about all the thing we have to be grateful for, and all the things that make life worth living. It’s even easier to forget in the midst of those times that the sun will always rise, if we can just hold out for the dawn.
I finished the Deca in 315 hours and 17 minutes- just over 13 days. Each of those days brought it’s own set of difficulties and challenges, but together they also formed one of the most incredible, joyful, and soul-searching events of my life.
Despite these wonderful moments, in many ways, it’s still night outside for me. This last year has been a particularly dark season in my life, and there are a lot of things I am still working through. Sometimes, it takes doing something seemingly impossible (like a deca) for me to realize that nothing truly is, even the *real* hard things in life.
Special thanks to all who supported and sponsored me in this endeavor, including, but not limited to: Ruth Sleeter, Joey Lichter, Carrie O’Bryan, Steve Hughes, Diane Calloway, Shanda Hill, Jeff Morrison, Milay Galvez, Travis Metz and the crew at Performance Bicycle, Fuji Bikes, Skratch Labs, and Swiftwick Socks.
The 2017 Swiss Deca was a historic race on many accounts, but especially for women’s participation in the sport. Previous to this race, only 4 women had ever finished a Deca continuous; 4 participated in and finished this race, doubling the overall number of female finishers. Alexandra Meixner completed the bike portion of the Deca hours ahead of the first place male and went on to break the women’s world record. Additionally, each woman who competed in the race broke her country’s national record for the distance. Lastly, at 22 years old, I became the youngest person ever to finish a Deca.
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