Dongguan has long been a sporting city—the home to basketball champs and fanatics, the newest power house in the Badminton Super league and 2014’s World Champion Dragon Boat Team. But location matters little to the athletes of this story; their quest resides in the internal world as much as it does in the physical.
A body will remain at rest or in motion until acted upon by an external force.
–Newton’s first law of motion
With the strength of a tank and the grace of a songbird, the triathlon competitor is moved by his mind and tireless spirit. But what does it take to get to the next level and smash new goals when multiple sports are not enough? Welcome to endurance sport.
Australian Armin Bohnstedt and American Taylor Karchawer are regular guys you see on the street or at a café in Dongcheng. Armin is a family man, a father of two, while Taylor is building a career in furniture design. In fact, before long, you can park your rear-end on his work at the wine bar newly opened on Dongcheng’s Bar Street.
However, in one particular way, they are quite extraordinary. These guys are racers—serious racers. They’ve each worked diligently, sculpting their minds and bodies to achieve goals to which most of us simply respond with a dumfounded, “wow.” Notwithstanding a wont for modesty, it’s easy to feel conflicted with pangs of inadequacy and a glow of admiration as they relate their stories.
It requires months of training, perhaps a year, to adequately prepare for an ultra-distance triathlon, even for the half-distance that often accompanies it.
Since childhood, Taylor has spun on more bikes than Dongguan has factories. Building and fixing them to support himself in college, he encountered tri-athletes impressed with his cycling ability who encouraged him to swim and run. His father an avid marathon runner, Taylor was well versed turning down the proposition. He was satisfied with where he was and what he was doing.
Years later upon moving to China, he ran into Mark, a casual but determined athlete training for an upcoming race. Recognizing Taylor’s brand-name cycling gear, Mark asked for help bolstering this weak point in his training. Graciously, Taylor agreed, and a few days on, graduated from advisor to fully-invested training partner—across all three disciplines.
Two decades earlier, Armin was already competing in triathlons along the Australian coast. Racing and fitness have been such a mainstay of his adult life that he still wears the same size clothing he wore as a young man. One of the first bikes he used to race, void of all the fancy technology and design of recent years, is still in working order and resides at his home like a long time racing companion.
It requires months of training, perhaps a year, to sufficiently prepare for an ultra-distance triathlon, even for the half-distance that often accompanies it. Training is not as simple as or limited to swimming, cycling, and running lots and lots and lots every day. Actually, that’s a good way to wreck your body and ensure you never make it to the starting line.
Instead, it’s a relatively strict regimen of workouts at differing distances, combinations, and intensities, followed by proper rest, a purposeful diet, and sound mental conditioning. However, in the words of a kindergarten teacher, “every person is as special and unique as a snowflake.” That is, Armin and Taylor each have a very different approach to the way they train.
In the race itself, two athletic concepts—endurance and multiple-discipline—were wedded in the late 1970’s, and the match-made-in-heaven bore the stupefying racing phenomenon in which our sportsmen indulge. The triathlon has been around for centuries, and with the invention of the modern bicycle thrown in the mix, the most popular variation today is a consecutive swim, cycle and run combination, without a designated break.
Multiple-discipline sports are challenging in and of themselves because of demands imposed on different muscle groups, skill sets and changing conditions over the length of a course. The concept of endurance, that an athlete can’t truly test his metal until he pushes the limits of the human body, insists this is not enough.
This idea has fathered the common (marathon: 42 kilometer run), the absurd (backward running) and the absolutely insane (skyrunning: running long distance over a 2,000-meter elevation). The two were honeymooned in Kona, Hawaii and what they conceived is one of the toughest one-day sporting events of modern time: the ultra-triathlon.
Early Mornings on a Long Path
While some of us are arguing drunkenly with a taxi driver at 5 a.m. about the quickest route home from bar street, Armin is bounding out of bed to drive those soles or put in a few hours on the bike before taking his son to Dragon’s baseball practice. He trains mostly alone.
“It’s too difficult to find someone else whose schedule will match my own.” Other than that, he claims, “I’m just your average Joe, man.” He manages his diet with care, but not obsession. He eats what you eat, minus the junk food, and avoids fatty meat. Otherwise, you can have dinner with the guy and won’t notice any difference.
Taylor is more circumspect. For many, competing in endurance sports demands a less conventional diet pattern. After experimenting with the keto-diet, a diet entirely of meat, he adopted intermittent fasting. “I still practice it, and I find it very beneficial. I eat once, maybe twice a day. I’m a vegetarian. I went polar opposite after keto,” he explained. The reported benefits of eating only once or twice a day are that your body becomes more sensitive to insulin, which means you absorb a greater amount of energy from the food you eat.
Fasting also increases production of growth hormone, hastening muscle growth and recovery, and encourages the body to drop fat. The rules are pretty simple: choose a narrow window of time during which you consume an entire day’s worth of food, perhaps 12 to 8 p.m. “My big thing now is 8 o’clock, done eating, and I go for a walk,” he said. The remaining time, water or tea with ginger is your best friend.
In fact, this issue arose for both Taylor and Mark in the hours before the race. They hadn’t eaten before noon for nearly a year, but they also had not completed a full racing distance in training. Endurance athletes typically resolve to calibrate their bodies to the circumstances of the race, staying the course with a training routine in competition.
They couldn’t be sure how their bodies would respond to receiving nourishment so early, but for lack of experience, could not anticipate their performance without it.
The canon fired at 7 a.m. and the first wave of racers flew into the estuary hugging the Taiwanese coastline. Taylor’s stomach was empty. Armin was somewhere far behind. He opted for the later-starting, half-distance triathlon this time around, having completed a full distance ultra just a month earlier (average Joe, right?). They were both in a surreal state of mind, knowing that between here and midnight was the goal they’d been pursuing through so much painstaking, however addictive, training.
To illustrate the voyage they were launching, consider the Olympic triathlon: a 1.5-kilometer swim, 40-kilometer cycle, and a 10-kilometer run. A pretty tall order, worthy of one of the largest sports organizations in the world.
But 50,000 racers per year agree with Taylor when he proclaims, “Why would I go out and do three disciplines for one hour? I’m going to go out and do three disciplines for an hour and call it a day?”
Who’s got time to prepare their body for all this abuse? Ultra-athletes use a method called brick training.
So the triathlon was stretched into a behemoth, combining three of the longest individual events in each of the three sports: a 3.86-kilometer coastal swim, a monstrous 180-kilometer cycle, and a 42-kilometer run to add insult to injury, topped off with a 16-hour, 59-minute time limit (a half-ultra is half of each distance). A watershed accomplishment in an ultra is considered to be a less than 12-hour finishing time. It appears one man’s hell is truly another man’s paradise.
Who’s got time to prepare their body for all this abuse? Ultra-athletes use a method called brick training. This simply means to practice two sports at a time, one on top of the other, such as a 2-kilometer run, then 5-kilometer bike, rinse, repeat, three to four times a week. It is thought the term was inspired by the sensation of muscles as hard, heavy bricks caused by the change of mechanics. The goal is to get used to one of the toughest challenges of the race, transitioning from one discipline to the other.
After the first stage of the race, for example, swimmers charge out of the water appearing drunk, unable to hold themselves upright, because the top half of their body is engorged with blood. It behooves the ultra-triathlete to carefully train merely to learn the skills needed to stumble. If a racer isn’t prepared for this, it could easily derail him.
Just as easily, partying and drinking can flush all that training straight down the squatty potty. The human body needs rest and recovery time, and this means turning down a lot of invitations to go out. Armin’s wife was startled when he explained he needed to meet me at Dynacity to interview. The simple truth is this type of racing requires a different lifestyle. So if you see yourself in too many MEGA.PIXEL photos month after month, get refocused on sport!
The First Race is Longer than Others
China has great parks and gardens. A common feature is the schools of oversized goldfish that pile up at the surface of the water as visitors throw in fish pellets. Water froths; fish jump over each other, fighting for space. This is the beginning of the ultra.
“I got whacked so badly, my heart rate went from normal to some phenomenal heart rate. People diving over you, trampled in the water,” pulsed Armin. “Bang! Over the top! Bang! Over the top! Another gulp of seawater. Bang! Over the top!” This is the most animated Armin becomes all evening, waving his hands to emphasize the chaos.
Our sportsmen’s descriptions were remarkably similar. Both felt in this struggle for space, for position, their bodies and minds wouldn’t be able to cope with it. After all these months of training, this is it? Taylor floated on his back for six or seven minutes, cursing himself, completely disbelieving that it could already be over.
I got whacked so badly, my heart rate went from normalto some phenomenal heart rate. People diving over you, trampled in the water.” plused Armin.
At one point he realized he could still reach out and touch the wall he’d leapt from. He was literally one arm’s length into the race and struggling not to give up. Armin recounted he’d spent an entire kilometer–1,000 meters—to get his rhythm back. Ultimately, they both picked themselves up. They pushed through a mental wall that got thrown up in their face by the onslaught of a vanguard of racers at the moment they could least have expected.
The numerous year-round indoor pools spattered across Dongguan are sufficient venues for training for the swim. Unfortunately, they don’t open until late morning, but its best to arrive as the doors unlock. Many in the pool are not accustomed to accommodating lane swimming. An occasional trip to Hong Kong or Shenzhen can support acclimatizing to coastal swimming.
Dongguan’s expansive parks also facilitate cycling and running regimens. Tongsha’s lengthy perimeter road and hills at the south end of the park are great for most rides, and just a bit further away is Dalingshan Mountain Park and Songshan Lake, replete with trails. On a lark, Taylor rides down the 107 expressway to Bao’an Airport and back. He tells me a story of airport security protesting his bringing his bike into the airport, to which he insisted “I just got off the plane! I’m just taking a few photos. Cool?”
Our sportsmen realize the air is not the healthiest to breathe when doing such serious training, but it comes with the territory. The heat can be oppressive as well, but both stick primarily to morning and evening sessions.
Miraculously reaching shore after a nearly catastrophic start, our sportsmen stumble skillfully to their bikes. Later on, it became clear to Taylor that studying the course profile is essential. It may not have informed him of the nearly 40 degree Celsius heat, but “the hills were just so steep. I never expected it. Some were as much as 22 percent grade.” He was one of only a small handful to take these hills on, passing a long line of competitors walking their bikes to the top. Gravity can be a killer in endurance races.
Armin plods along on the bike. Not his strongest suit, he’s not fast, but he trains himself to be consistent. Nevertheless, Taylor reminds me, “talk to him, he’s the real Ironman.” Ironman is a brand of ultra. Not all ultras are Ironman, but the term has become the Xerox of ultra-triathlons. The distances are standard.
In-race nutrition is another important element of racing, but sometimes it falls outside an athlete’s control. Day to day, we drink water, our bodies use it, then get rid of it. However, the most normal bodily functions can get messy under the physical stress of ultra-distance racing.
Taylor drank too much water and was repeatedly on and off the bike with an irritated bladder. “I was pissing everywhere. Then four hours later in the middle of the marathon, a guy came up on me, we started talking. ‘How are ya? This is your first, man? You’re fucking killing it!’ I said ‘I can’t stop peeing.’ And he’s like ‘No one warned you? That’s part of it, man!’”
If you play sports as a kid, you probably heard a coach say at one time or another that the game is 90 percent mental. It’s not only human dexterity that enables us to play sport, but the mental control we have over our bodies. “The things you can’t see are the most important in triathlon. The mental ability to push yourself and keep going,” said Armin.
It’s impossible to leave your mind idle in such a race, but to let it wander is suicide. In a sport where completion supersedes competition, a racer is fighting himself more than anyone around, fighting doubts about his ability, fighting the physical fatigue. In fact, this isn’t a young man’s sport. The 35 to 45 age group is the largest, and our sportsmen believe this is because younger people do not have the mental fortitude to complete.
At one point he realized he could still reach out and touch the wall he’d leapt from. He was literally one arm’s length into the race and struggling not to give up.
One method is to cycle through a mental checklist to objectively monitor performance as if floating above and looking down on your body. Is my posture correct? Is my chest open? Is my breathing rate appropriate? Is my cadence (rate of pedaling a bike) optimal? Am I moving my momentum forward? Once you complete the cycle, you start again at the beginning. You are the machine, the driver, and the quality assurance auditor in one.
Self-talk is also crucial. There will be a devil on your shoulder telling you to take it easy. Armin tells his devil, “You’re wrong, I’m great. I’m not a hero, but I can do this. I made sacrifices; I trained hard; I invested time and money, and even my family adjusted their lifestyles so I could do this. So I’m going to do it.” Taylor’s self-talk is likewise effectual, and remarkable for its creative use of four-and-five letter words.
Not surprisingly, mental conditioning is almost nowhere more pivotal than in the final stage of an ultra-triathlon. Forty-two kilometers away is the finish line, glory, rest and beer. However, your body is already very depleted, as are the buoyancy of water and the wind of the wheels. The last 42 kilometers is a pounding, unrelenting footrace.
“I really am about to run a marathon?” Taylor asked himself as he transitioned to the final stage of the race. “I’d never run a marathon. It was hot. I had consumed too much liquid. I was kind of uncomfortable. I was starting to have a headache. I was getting in transition, and I looked over at the guy next to me and said ‘I really don’t wanna run a marathon right now.’ And he said ‘I don’t wanna run 5K.’”
Somewhere in their respective races, Armin and Taylor each battled, scrolling through their mental checklists. In a private space they carried with them, they spoke to themselves, not convinced they had yet transformed into the superhuman they considered their peers to be, yet having become it the moment they aspired to complete.
It’s easy to find a race if you’re ready to get started. There are numerous ultra-triathlons in nearby countries including Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Japan, and across the way in Taiwan. A handful of foreigners in Dongguan are training at this moment for upcoming races. Online resources with training and diet regimens for beginners and up include richroll.com and bengreenfield.com, both exceptional athletes and nutritionists whose life goal it is to make the world’s people healthier.
Armin and Taylor’s stories cross paths once more in the aftermath of the race. Closing in on the finish line, they trek a 500-meter carpeted path leading them to personal victory and all the fanfare you could hope for. For each, it was a humbling undertaking, decoupled from arrogance, reflecting the nature of the industry itself. “If you have trouble with your bike, others will stop to help you. This would never happen in other bike races,” Taylor said. Nevertheless, each of them recoiled with a promise to never do it again.
Taylor describes his reaction, “I said, ‘I will never do one of these again.’ And I think it was four hours later, I was drinking a Heineken, and I said, ‘Let’s start training. I want to get two hours faster!’”
Elsewhere, at the same moment, Armin is having a post-race meal with his wife, staring into space, contemplating. His wife knows. “You want to do it again,” she said. Armin turns to look at her and nods with a subtle eagerness.