Ultra 520K Texas Race Report
Early on the run course at IM Boulder, my spirit became deflated and I didn’t have any drive left. My finish was far from stellar. I still had physical energy left in the tank, but my mental energy was lacking. Though I crossed the line with an okay time- I felt I had unfinished business. I was thirsty for something more- a challenge that would bring new meaning to putting myself to the test. A race that would help me discover more about who I am and why I train. A competition where I would find out the true meaning of “support crew” and would do with the ones I love by my side the whole way! Ultra 520K Texas was 8 weeks away and I knew my triathlon soul would not be at rest unless I enrolled in the challenge. The day after Boulder I registered for the longest race I would have ever attempted- Ultra 520K Texas; a 3 day triathlon race with a 12 hour limit to complete each day.
Day 1- 10k (6.2 mile) swim and 92 mile bike
Day 2- 172 mile bike
Day 3- 52.4 mile run (double marathon)
After registration, I immediately began rounding up a crew. Athletes are required to gather a crew of 2-4 people to provide race support because there are no aid/water stations on the course. My crew was:
Katie Proko- Crew Manager, Nutrition Specialist, and Run Pacer
Manny Casillas- Navigator and Bike Mechanic
Terry Proko- Driver and Trouble Shooter
Roland Gomez- Day 3 Run Pacer
Their jobs would become more important than I would ever imagine after this challenging weekend.
Swim- Day 1
The swim was in Lake Marble Falls. We were required to have a kayak/canoe escort. My dad brought his canoe and Katie rode with him as my swim escort. Katie carried on board water, hammer gel, and an extra pair of goggles.
As I prepared for the swim I had one of my greatest debates of whether to wear a sleeveless wetsuit or just a swim skin. The lake temperature had been measuring in the mid 80’s that week. With the Ultra there are no temperature requirements for a wetsuit or not. After I received a few last minute tips from Corey, a fellow experienced Ultra athlete, I decided to go with the wetsuit and if I got warm I planned to shed it in the water and give it to Katie in the canoe.
After a short prayer by the race director, Mario, we entered the water and awaited the start. I was confident in my swim preparations, however, it was a little daunting to think that I would be swimming over 2 ½ times farther than I had ever swam before.
The air horn blast signaled the start of the day. I started off as if I was taking it easy on my swim warm-up. I knew this was going to be a long swim. We headed for a guide buoy about 1200 meters out. After a few hundred meters Katie and dad caught up to me. The strategy for the crew was to take the canoe on a direct path and to be 10 feet on one side of the athlete. They paddled along my left side so I did not have to look straight ahead to sight. This was a little tough for me because I was so used to looking up to see how much more laid ahead. Taking nutrition during the swim was also a new experience. Katie stopped approximately every 30 minute to give me some water and Hammer Gel.
After the first turn around, at 1.3 miles, I settled into a groove and trusted the path my crew was taking. I would only look up every once in a while to check out some of the scenery on the lake. I would also take a glance at my watch to see the time and sneak a peek at my distance. On one of my glances I saw 2.4 miles. I had a double take on my time because it was 5 minutes faster than my best Ironman distance swim time. All of the swimming at Fleet this summer paid off.
Around 5 miles in I could feel a little fatigue in my arms but focused on staying steady and keeping good form. By this time, the sun was higher and I could feel the extra heat on the back side of the wetsuit. I still felt ok with the temperature in the wetsuit and continued on. The water was getting a little choppier at this point. After going under the Hwy 281 bridge I could see the swim exit a few hundred meters ahead. I arrived at the exit with Manny helping me out. I stopped the clock around 3:01 and was the first swimmer out of the water.
My legs were a little rubbery after such a long time swimming. There was a small changing tent similar to Ironman races. I took my time changing into cycling gear and then proceeded to the 92 mile bike course.
Day 1 bike
The day before the race I scouted out the first two miles of the course because I knew I would have to navigate on my own until my crew finished putting up the canoe. With Ultra 520K’s you are expected to follow all traffic laws as you are on open roads with no police direction. Most of the turns were marked but are difficult to see in time to make the turn. I navigated my way through the first few miles and onto the road that I would travel for the next 8 miles. I hoped by that time my crew would catch up before the next turn and lead me the rest of the way. After a few miles I glanced down at my average speed just to see where I was after the stop signs and traffic lights. 13 mph! I shrugged it off and focused on relentless forward motion.
The terrain on the country back roads have short but steep rollers trending upwards the first 20 miles (from 700 ft. to 1400 ft. of elevation). I was surprised how quickly I would slow down on these accents and would have to quickly run through my gears. There was also a 5-10 mph headwind and I was struggling to get comfortable in my aero position after the long swim.
My crew caught up to me about 6 miles in. We got to put our nutrition plan into action. On uphill sections Katie and Manny would hop out of the truck and Katie would hand me either water or Perpetuem. I would then either exchange water bottles or take a few gulps of the Perpetuem and then toss the water or Perpetuem bottle to Manny a little further up.
It took me an hour to go 15 miles. I never felt terrible, but I felt like I just couldn’t get into a groove. Around mile 20 we hit Burnet and had a few more stop signs and a traffic light to wait through. Finally, at mile 30 we turned east, the rollers were steady, I finally was feeling good and settled into a good cycling rhythm. I was able to take hand ups with ease from Katie.
55 miles in I caught up with Cory Foulk who cut the swim a little short due to a recent eye surgery. This man is a legend participating in countless Ironman and Ultra events. He has even raced Kona on a 61 pound beach cruiser as well as a fixed gear bike. Such an amazing athlete! At this point I could really feel fatigue in my left tricept from the swim when I would take my right hand off to grab water.
I was thinking I was going to finish the bike well over 5 hours, but then around mile 80 I began a very much welcomed downward trend. This section was fast with a narrow country road lined with trees. Marble Falls city limits greeted us with stop signs and a traffic light. For good measure the course went on a short dirt road and over railroad tracks before entering Johnson Park and crossing the finish.
Immediately after crossing the finish line for day one, the recovery process began in preparation for day 2. Katie mixed up some Hammer Recoverite while I wiped down my legs to use the Compex recovery program on my quads and glutes. I also had a few chocolate Hammer Bars while greeting the other finishers of the day.
At the Hotel Katie prepared dinner while I was able to relax and ready my cycling equipment for the next day. My bike position is fairly aggressive so I decided to raise the bars up about an inch to be a little more comfortable for the 172 mile bike.
Day 2 172 mile bike
Ultra 520k Texas Day 2- 172 mile bike
Day 2 started off a little calmer than day 1. We only had to worry about one discipline. A perk to Ultra 520k is that you get to start off each day with everyone. Even those that DNF the day before were allowed to start again each stage as a participant. I talked to my crew and told them my plan for the 172 mile long journey. After a quick prayer we were off around 7:10.
Marble Falls is around 700 ft of elevation. Though the course is mostly rolling hills, the trend is upward until you reach a little over 2000 ft around mile 112. Andrew Gale, Joni Moore, and I were staying in close proximity of one another the first 40 miles. I was keeping my effort lower than I ever had because my longest ride was only 112 miles and this would be 60 miles more on much tougher terrain. The first 40 miles had dozens of cattle guard crossings. We would go over 58 of them total, in addition to some water crossings.
Something very unique that I had never experienced before were the deer. Most of the time you see deer running away or crossing the road, but today there were several occasions where the deer would run along the fence line with you for maybe a quarter mile and then just stop and watch you ride.
The first 50 felt great! It was like I had just done an easy 30 minute warm-up. The adjustments to my position felt amazing in the aero position. My crew was nailing everything. My dad and Manny were doing awesome at guiding me through the unseen terrain. I became super comfortable with taking their directions. Katie was staying on top of my hydration and nutrition which was consisting of nice cold Perpetuem and an hourly canister of Hammer products (Race caps, Mito caps, Endorolytes Extreme, Endurance Amino, and Tissue Rejuvenator). I was able to focus solely on my pacing effort and decided to up the power about 10-15 watts. I gradually pulled away from the others and was riding solo. But soon came my biggest mistake of the weekend.
Without consulting my nutrition specialist, Katie, I decided since I felt so good that I would bank a few extra calories early on before things started to feel tough. . The result was some G.I. distress about 100 miles in. At mile 112ish (Roughly the highest point) I stopped for a quick restroom break and informed Katie of my mistake. We decided to make the move to my secondary fuel Raspberry Hammer Gel. Perpetuem has a mix of protein, fat and carbs that are great for providing sustainable energy for long distances, prevents muscle fatigue and increases fat utilization. With GI distress I am able to stomach Hammer gel a little easier because it consists of mostly complex carbohydrates.
The climbs leading up to mile 115 had some steep grades- close to 10-11%. But soon after started a downward trend. On some of the descents I would have to sit up in order to cautiously approach the fast approaching blind turns. There were less places for my crew to give me water because the speed was too fast to take hand offs. This was still a fun section as I finally got to see my average speed move up a little.
Roughly 132 miles into the course was a dreadful 3 mile gravel road followed by a 3 mile rough dirt road with many washboard sections. Before I got there, my crew prepped for a bike switch. I decided to ride my road bike with Gatorskin tires through this section to give me a little bit more maneuverability. However, had I known better, I would have exchanged for my mountain bike.
We made the switch quickly and it felt a little weird. My P3 has 155mm cranks and after riding for nearly 7.5 hours my road bike is 172.5mm crank felt massive. It was nice to have a little position change though.
On the gravel road I could feel the gravel shooting out from the tires, but I felt I was not losing a ton of speed. I was thinking to myself that “this isn’t too bad.” Then came the dirt road. Again my first impression was this is not too bad. I will be through this in no time. Those thoughts quickly vanished when I rolled over the first washboard spot. OUCH! That was the roughest thing I had ever rode over. I built my speed up again to around 18 mph then hit another patch and nearly came to a stand still. Even with gloves on this was painful on my hands. I moved to different sides of the road to try and avoid these sections but they were everywhere. About half way through a large pick-up truck sped by and intentionally spun its tires out on a turn throwing dirt into the air with a nice cloud of dust to go though for the next few minutes. I had thoughts of having Katie give me my running shoes and I would just walk/jog the rest with the bike.
Finally, I see the road. Although 90% of the route is chip and seal, it was a welcoming sight after that 3 miles of pain. After that rough ride I will never complain about road conditions in a triathlon again.
I switched back to my P3. There were only about 30 miles left. 15 up, 5 steady, then 10 down. My crew could sense that I was feeling the fatigue and started increasing the frequency of leap-frogging me. This helped keep them in my sight and keep me motivated. Katie and Manny would sometimes hop out and dance and my dad found some of my top motivational songs and would play them in the truck as I passed by. I knew I just had to make it to around 160 miles and then we would cruise mostly downhill and the rest would be easy.
It’s amazing how difficult going at an easy pace can be 9 hours into the day. Finally we cross HWY 281 and begin our downward trend. I informed my crew I was good on nutrition and to just take me home. Coming in I focused on staying aero on the down hills and maintaining speed on the flats or up hills without spiking my power.
I finished the stage in 9:40. I was really happy with my efforts for the day. My stomach was still a little gurgley but I was able to eat. As a precautionary measure, I had my crew get a little Coke for the next day because defizzed Coke has worked well at some Ironman events when I have had stomach issues.
The rest of the evening was much like the previous one. Just 52.4 miles of running left.
The run course was an out and back that covered a lot of the 1st day bike course. There were several steep rollers trending up from 700 ft up to 1200 ft the first 17 miles, then rolling hills until the turn around and mostly trending down the last 17 miles.
Everyone started the run together, including Mario, the race director, who planned to get in a few miles with us. At the start I held back the temptation to run a little faster with the others. I knew this would be tough, for several reasons. 1) My running mileage leading up to the race was very low (less than 30 miles per week) because my left achilles was having issues. I would rather make it to the start healthy than not get to race. 2) This would be two times farther than I had ever run in my entire life and, to top it off, this was a very difficult course.
Day 3- 52.4 mile run
I was surprised how good my legs felt the day after my longest bike. Not that they were perfect, but close to how I would normally feel after a 60-80 mile ride.
At the start we had received the news that Joni would not be with us because she was taken to the hospital after finishing yesterday’s bike. She was at the run start and I could tell she wanted to run with us. The first 2 days were tough and only 3 of the original 7 were left to be finishers.
Day 3 was even more relaxed than day 2. It was simple. All you needed to do was run. I planned to run easy, walk for 30 seconds each mile, walk the steep up hills and even the really steep down-hills so it would not trash my legs early on.
I told my team (Katie, Manny, Roland, and my dad) that I would like water and nutrition stops about every mile so it would line up with my walk breaks. My team would be like a traveling aid/water station. We were also allowed to have pacers. Katie and Roland were up for the long run. I decided in the first miles I would not need one since there would be other athletes I could pace with and see.
I was able to run with Mario the first 5 miles. He is such an amazing race director. I might have to come to Mable Falls to give his Olympic distance a try. Five miles out we took a right turn to ascend a massive hill (close to 10-12% grade). This thing was wicked steep. No way was I going to waste energy running up or even down. At this point Katie joined me. It really helped the time and mileage go by.
As Katie and I were running I heard the University of Houston fight song being played up ahead on the trumpet by Roland. That was motivating and totally unexpected. A few miles later Roland would run with me. This again helped the time go by. I was really looking forward to when the run leveled off a little more at mile 17. You could also feel the temperature beginning to rise.
Around 20 miles in I had my crew add a little ice to my cap to help keep me cool. Everything at this point was going great. I was getting plenty of water and my nutrition, Raspberry Hammer Gel, was setting well with my stomach. I also kept the same hourly canister of Hammer supplements.
Even though we had stopped gaining overall elevation the course was still very hilly. About a mile from the turnaround I saw Andrew Gale. He was looking great. We gave one another a high five and a few words of encouragement. We finally arrive at the turn around a little over half way in.
32 miles in my legs had enough and I decided to start walking. I told my crew I would need to walk for the next 10 miles. The feeling in my legs was unique. Every inch of my quad was fatigued. From the knee up to my hip and it felt like the fatigue went to the bone. It wasn’t really painful- but uncomfortable. My legs just didn’t want to work.
I focused on good walking form and still taking in calories and water so if my legs recovered I would have energy. I was able to settle into a strong walking pace after a mile or 2 and was making good forward progress. Around mile 40 I decided to jog a little on the down hills. This was pretty difficult and I could feel some large blisters forming on both feet just behind my toes.
9 miles out I received word that Andrew had finished. I did some quick math to figure the lead I had from the previous days and how fast I would need to run. It was a tall order but decided to go for it. I picked up the pace to around an 8 minute mile. While this is a normal zone 2 run pace for me, the effort felt more like a 5 or 10K race pace.
After a little over a mile I knew it would not be possible to continue at that effort until the end. I decided it would be best to just walk the remaining miles in. The run effort took a lot out of me and my walk was a little slower now. With 5 miles left, my walking muscles were fatigued. I usually can walk a 15 min mile but now I was closer to a 20 minute mile.
The cattle guards were difficult to cross now as well. I was 3 miles out and had about 90 minutes until the cut off time. I knew I should be fine as long as nothing crazy happened. I should finish in 11:30. I was starting to wonder about Ingrid, the only female competitor remaining, because I had not seen her since the turn around. I was really hoping she would finish as well. I kept moving forward and with about a half a mile left I look back and see Ingrid. I was so happy to see that she would finish. She passed by and was on her way to being the only female finisher of the Ultra 520K Texas.
I cannot thank my crew enough. They were absolutely amazing in allowing me to just focus on the race.
Katie did awesome tracking my race day nutrition, post race nutrition and everyday nutrition leading up to the Ultra. She motivated me when I needed it in training but also made me play it smart and listen to my body during the race.
My dad has been to more of my races than anyone. He knows my reactions on the bike and I know his tendencies while driving. This allowed for a lot of comfort while riding since they made around 100 passes during the bike.
Manny had such a wealth of knowledge on open road racing. He was prepared for anything. It was also reassuring to have a bike mechanic incase the need arose.
Roland is an incredible motivator. His outlook is always positive. Having someone positive is essential in the late stages of a race like this. I know he now has a little itch to give the Ultra a shot.
Tru Tri Sports- Jordan seems to always have what I need in stock. It is so nice to be able to get everything you need at one place. Frank- does such excellent bike mechanical work. The bikes performed flawlessly as they always do. Thanks guys.
Hammer Nutrition- Products that do what they say they will do. Hammer has been my go-to nutrition for years. Race day nutrition was Perpetuem (latte), Hammer Gel (Raspberry) and Hammer bars. Post race would be Recovorite, hammer bars and recovery bars. Racing supplements included- Race caps Supreme, Mito Caps, Endurance Amio, Tissue Rejuvinator, and Endourolytes Extreme.
Third Coast Training- Thank you Johhny for performing the metabolic test to help dial in my caloric expenditures.