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What it takes to compete in the world's toughest triathlon

Two Indian ultrarunners recently completed the Ultraman course in Australia, a three-day test of fitness and will

Athlete Ingit Anand at the Ultraman Australia.
Athlete Ingit Anand at the Ultraman Australia. (Courtesy Ultraman Australia)

Building endurance to run on a treadmill for 20 minutes is tough enough. Now imagine swimming 10km, then cycling over 420 km, and running more than 84 km over a period of 36 hours, spread out over three days ,over the rolling terrains and unpredictable weather of Australia. That would require a different kind of obsession, right? It is this obsession which is the foundation for finishing the Ultraman course Down Under. It is, after all, the world’s toughest triathlon race.

Ingit Anand, 39, and Sidharth Yadav, 47, were two of the 45 participants at Ultraman Australia this year. Both the Indians finished the race, which is spread out over three days and has a cutoff of 12 hours to finish the day’s task. Day one is a 10km swim followed by 145km of cycling, with an elevation gain of 1,470m. Day two was 276km of cycling with an elevation gain of 2,250 metres. The toughest, day three, featured a double marathon run: 84.3km in 12 hours with an elevation gain of 780 metres.

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“It’s the elevation and terrain in this country that makes Ultraman Australia the most difficult Ultraman race in the world,” says Anand, who has also finished five Ironman races. “Ironman races are a one day event. They are also fully supported unlike the Ultraman races where you need your own crew,” he adds.

Yadav elaborates on the challenges which include following all the traffic rules while running and biking and making sure those are all accounted as part of your time. “It was unknown territory. Tire punctures, lots of rain, rolling hills and an ocean which is good to surf, in which we had to swim,” says the Gurgaon-based self-proclaimed ‘corporate guy’ who has been running since 2011.

Athlete Sidharth Yadav at the finishing line of Ultraman Australia.
Athlete Sidharth Yadav at the finishing line of Ultraman Australia. (Courtesy Ultraman Australia)

Preparing for the Ultraman is not a one-man job. Anand had a former Ultraman racer, a friend based in Melbourne, and his wife, who is also a nutritionist and triathlete, as his crew. Anand is also the only Indian athlete with a plant-based diet to complete the Ultraman.

What is fascinating about the Ultraman is how athletes prepare differently, based on factors like previous experience, dietary restrictions, age, injuries, and the ability to gather a trustable crew. “I wanted to complete this event with a low heart-rate and injury-free so I was aiming to complete my day in 11 hours. I don’t calculate in calories, so my formula was to consume 80-100 grams of carbs an hour,” says Yadav.

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Anand’s calculations were different: “This is the only time I calculated calories because I usually don’t like doing that. We found out the sweet spot for me was eating as many calories as I was burning per hour. That means 500 calories per hour using plant-based food like sandwiches, avocados and other dense fruit, potatoes, berries, energy gels and balls packed with nutrition and replenishers.”

Anand finished 21st out of the 45 participants. The oldest competitor this year was 64 and finished the race as well. Which can surely make one think that anyone can finish a race which sounds so daunting. For Yadav, who travels a lot for his job, it was about maintaining 8-10 hours of training per week.

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The first step, a decade ago, was running the Prague marathon as a relay with friends. He then attempted Ironman in Goa when it came to India for the first time, and since then triathlons are his passion. “I was always sporty, but never an ultra runner. It took me four years of triathlon events to get ready for the Ultraman but if you are an active person, you can start now and aim to finish the world’s toughest endurance race five years later.”

Five years is a great ballpark of consistency. But for Anand, it comes down to basing his life around endurance races. “Me and triathlons are inseparable. This is my life, it is my identity.” he says. “Preparing for the Ultraman has to be a long consistent effort. You can prepare for a marathon in three months – you will start and finish. So you can probably do day one at Ultraman, but then can you do day two? And run a double marathon on day three? Some of those in their 50s finished ahead of me so there is always room to get better,” he adds.

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It is also a mental battle. Yadav was keeping a journal through the race, and this is his entry on day two: “I had 45 minutes to complete the last 10 kms. I was charging and excited to reach the finish line. The climb I was negotiating didn’t hinder my spirit one bit , but the late gear change broke the chain of the bike…”

The Ultraman is also an invitation-only event. One has to write to them a cover letter and provide evidence of past record of fitness and endurance to earn a call-up. Thousands apply and 50 get picked on the basis of multiple factors which include objective and subjective calls. There is nothing which suggests that former winners keep getting picked. The organisers like an eclectic mix of people from various corners of the world, at different stages of their endurance journey.

At the end of the high of finishing the Ultraman, Yadav sums it up in three words: “Overwhelming, but fulfilling.”

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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