“140.6 isn’t quite the challenge I expected it to be…I wonder if I could do more than that…”
That right there is the prickly question that inspires all of the athletes who make up the super exclusive club of USA Ultra Triathlon’s three major ultra-distance triathlon venues each year. Lucky for these athletes, such races, aptly named Anvil™, were designed very specifically to help them discover exactly that.
140.6 miles is no doubt the zeitgeist gold standard for the world’s most serious triathletes, but it’s nothing compared to the whopping 703 miles achieved by a select few completing Anvil’s most brutal five day continuous course; and before now, these ultra long distance races weren’t something USA Ultra Tri were even advertising. Until this point the whole thing (the double, triple, & quintuple-distance courses) seemed to attract more curious people organically, almost cult-like, open only to those fortunate enough to hear about them through word-of-mouth inside of their tight-knit community.
After all, how many people could there possibly be out there who are interested in pushing themselves even farther than the notoriously challenging one day event of a full-distance ironman?
How many people could possibly see any reason to do such a thing? Well, as it turns out, there are actually quite a lot more than one might think! Which is a revelation that may shock those new to the sport of triathlon, but for those who have been around long enough, the desire is well-known.
Realizing, then, that the market demand for such an extreme experience has been steadily rising, with more and more people feeling restless inside the limitations of the traditional ironman-distance and ultimately left wondering “does something bigger even exist…”, Anvil-distance courses, which are sanctioned by both IUTA and USAT, decided to open themselves up to those hungry athletes searching for exactly what their long-distance, multi-day events have to offer. But they’re not opening their doors too wide, and you’ll see why in a minute.
Benefits Of Doing Things Differently
With venues situated along both coasts of the United States, Anvil courses provide athletes three unique opportunities to fill two distinct voids left by the bigger corporate races like Ironman, Tough Mudder or Spartan. First, the intriguing challenge of longer (often much longer) distance races spread across multiple consecutive days, and the second, though of absolutely equal (and even more for some) importance, is the family-like ecosystem created and maintained inside each of their three venues; something made possible by way of USA Ultra Tri’s extremely rare participation cap of just 50 athletes total. It’s a concrete rule with serious upside, something corporate races would never dream of doing. Which is exactly what makes completing an Anvil so appealing for so many athletes…
“But wait, why limit yourself to such a small roster” you might be asking. “If there is, in fact, a growing demand in athletes interested in these longer distance challenges, why not leave it open and take advantage of the entire expanding market?”
Well the answer to that is actually super simple: it isn’t in the best interest of the athletes. Period.
The Problem With Large Races
For many, the demands placed upon one’s body (not to mention mind and spirit) when competing at such an extreme level are totally different to what one might experience at a more familiar full-distance triathlon. The challenges of a one day race, even one as physically punishing as a full 140.6 mile distance, simply don’t compare the ones faced once that number begins to double and triple in size. Ask anyone who’s gone through it and they’ll all tell you the same thing: at this level it’s not about what your body can do, anymore, it’s about controlling the machine of your own mind. How disciplined are you? How resilient?
Who do you become at the frayed edges of your breaking point when your body is screaming and begging you to stop?
Because at 281, 422, and 703 miles…at some point, it will. For everyone. This kind of challenge requires a much different level of care and attention to make it through.
That’s why people aren’t drawn to races like Anvil’s for fame or glory. They don’t come to be decorated in trophies. It’s far more human than that: they do it to find out who they really are. They do it to compete against their own limitations and reveal the new ones to conquer tomorrow.
It’s USA Ultra Triathlon’s responsibility, then, to make sure this opportunity to best oneself isn’t just available, but possible, and the only way they can do that is by limiting the number of people who participate.
Why? Fewer athletes leaves room for a more personal and impactful experience for everyone involved. It means proper medical care to every athlete, attainable safety precautions (a major problem in this industry), and more personalized support received from the support crews, staff, and volunteers.
Imagine showing up to a race knowing that the entire organization was set up to put you face to face with your own limitations, and it was their mission to make sure you smashed through them. It might sound totally crazy from a business perspective to keep it such a tight circle, if that’s how you chose to look at it, but this exclusivity is their business, and it’s this aspect that keeps so many loyal to the franchise.
Why Triathletes Love USA Ultra Tri
“You go to an Ironman race and you’re one of thousands. And everyone else (who comes to watch) is there to watch just one person. People come here and they’re watching and supporting everybody. I mean it’s amazing how little time it took to learn everyone’s name…a few hours? If that? You’d go and change your helmet, change your shirt, whatever, and everyone still shouted out your name when you rode by because they actually recognized you…that was awesome…” said two-time Anvil competitor Frank Judge after finishing his Triple Anvil in October. And it’s no wonder that was such a big deal on Frank’s mind. Frank, no stranger to triathlons, came to the 2019 Virginia Triple Anvil without so much as a single crew member, a feat nearly incomprehensible for even shorter distance triathlons, but achievable, no less, thanks to the care and attention afforded by such a uniquely close knit group of volunteers and crew members. “I would ride by and notice food on my table. People I didn’t even know before were always asking me what I needed. That just doesn’t happen at other places.”
“Yeah I mean these Ironmans and shorter distance races…you show up, you compete, and you leave. This race…people share their pants with you. Somebody gave me their pants, literally, to continue on…” echoed fellow Triple competitor, Matt McClellan.
When Paula Heron, a longtime USA Ultra Tri-athlete who competed in Anvil’s most demanding course, the grueling 703 mile Continuous Quintuple, was asked if there was a particular story that stood out in her mind about competing in these races, she had this to say:
“The support and camaraderie among the athletes really shines through each time I do a race like this. This year (2019) I was struggling on the run on the final day – my feet were blistered and swollen and I was struggling even to shuffle along. Paul Bedard (another of USA Ultra’s longtime competitors) noticed and he and Rachel (who was competing in the Double Team event) set me down in a chair and fixed all the blisters on my feet so that I could continue. My shoes were so tight that Rachel took off her shoes which were size 10 (two sizes bigger than mine) so that I could run and try to finish. Because of this kindness and generosity I was able to run at a fast pace for quite a bit (Paul even ran with me to set the pace – which I have been told was at times a 9 min mile – bear in mind this was the day after he completed his own quintuple!) before slowing down but I managed to finish. I am so grateful that both Paul and Rachel took the time to help me.”
And when asked about what she misses the most once the races are over, can you guess her response? Simply put: “the people.”
This sentiment isn’t just felt by the athlete’s, either. It’s something experienced by every person who makes up the entire “AnVillage”. It’s a top-down phenomenon shared among the race directors, Steve Kirby and Teri Smith, the extraordinary group of loyal staff and volunteers, and the amazing crew members alike. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear the word “family” thrown around by those lucky enough to have experienced any of these races. The family structure is so ingrained inside USA Ultra Tri culture that many of the athletes, like Paula, even choose to volunteer at venues when they, themselves, are not competing.
So it’s not such a shock, then, that the tight-knit organization take this intimate aspect so seriously, and they intend to keep it that way. That’s why their races are so exclusive.
These Races Change Who You Are
Anvil’s first big draw for so many people, is, of course, the physical and mental challenge of the race itself. Long distances. Multiple days. Major demands, soul-defining, life changing rewards.
To put it simply, Will Turner, another longtime Anvil athlete who, at the time of writing this, has completed over 93 full-distance triathlons and holds the world record for most ironman-distance races competed in a single year, said it like this:
“…First, you have to commit to a training schedule to get to the start line. There is a tremendous amount of discipline, perseverance and dedication that is required; especially when you’re balancing the demands of training with work and life. Second, it’s not a question of will you face obstacles, it’s how you will deal with them when you do. That’s when you learn what you’re made of. And that changes you in a fundamental way. Not only in the sport, but in life. Third, the growth that comes from the journey is profound. You’re willing to take on bigger and bolder challenges, make more of an impact on others…”
So, for the first time, Anvil is opening their doors to a wider network, putting the word out for this growing number looking for the exact challenge the Ultra Tri team offers up its athletes three times a year. But you have to sign up quickly, because with only 50 slots available, once it’s full, it’s full. But hey…there’s always 2021…
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