In November, 2000 Ann Snoeyenbos spent two weeks in Monterrey, Mexico crewing for two athletes who were competing in the DecaTriathlon (ten times the ironman distance, for the total of 24 mile swim, 1,120 mile bike, and 262 mile run). She went to Mexico to help a friend, and discovered an international community in which there are no perceived limits to athletic endurance.
Postscript commentary by Ann Snoeyenbos - in green, by Endurance World Editor - in purple.
Friday, November 3, 2000
As you all know, I'm leaving on Monday to crew for 47-year old Swiss athlete Sylvia Wieneke at the Deca - the 10 x ironman distance - held in Monterrey, Mexico. I'll try to e-mail insider updates every couple of days but you can also check the race webpage for official progress reports. The website is: http://pagina.de/multisport. The race starts at noon on Sunday, November 5, but I won't arrive until Monday afternoon, and my first shift of crewing will begin at same day at midnight.
The weather forecast is highs in the mid 90's and lows in the upper 60's/low 70's. Temperatures are way too hot for a race this long!
If it is urgent you can get a message to me through the race director, Jorge Luis Andonie: email@example.com or tel. (52 8)378-4262.
Wednesday, November 8
(4th day of the race, which started at noon on Sunday, November 5th, 2000)
I got stranded on Staten Island after the marathon start (New York City Marathon) and missed my flight to Monterrey, which I had changed the night before so I could get there one day earlier to calm Sylvia's nerves. All flights were hopelessly backed up at LaGuardia airport and I ended up spending the night on the floor of the Houston airport. When I finally got to Monterrey on Monday, I learned that Sylvia had DNF'd ("Did Not Finish", i.e. withdrew from the race) the night before. When she learned on Friday that the other two crew members were not coming at all she pretty much gave up (ultra events of such distances create incredible demands on the support crews and so, require multiple crew members to work in shifts in order that they can each get some rest. Sylvia had arranged for three person crew, in addition to her husband who, due to a health condition, would be there providing moral support only.). She did start the race though, and without any crew made it through 12 miles in a 25 meter pool.
She is pretty depressed because this race was going to be her last. Plus, with a Swiss woman winning Hawaii Ironman, and a Swiss woman winning at the Olympics (Sydney 2000 Olympic triathlon event) she really wanted to win this one for Switzerland. In her despair she started giving all her stuff away and a young Swiss woman who was near-by is now the proud owner of a beautiful Kestrel. Gotta be in the right place at the right time! (Later I learned that this wasn't a random bicycle gift. Gaby Mueller is a Swiss paddler who won a silver medal at the Olympics in Atlanta. She shows great promise in triathlon, and all the Swiss athletes have agreed to do what they can to help her along in her triathlon career. She was in Mexico crewing for Beat Knechtle. At the Ironman distance race on November 18th she was the first female, second overall, on her new Kestrel.)
Yesterday my crewing services were officially sold to a Swiss man who is here alone crewing for his son - Christoph Eggenberger - who took second place at the Odyssey Double Iron this year) to help him and another Austrian guy who came without the support crew. So I am basically doing exactly what I thought I would be doing, just for different and more people ("selling my services" meaning that Eggenberger and Schytil split the cost of my services. My hotel room have been prepaid by Sylvia. Another example of Endurance World Rent-A-Crew service.).
The weather is miserable. It was about 98 degrees the day of the outdoor pool swim, and then 95 the next couple of days of cycling. Today is Day 4 and it is about 60 degrees and very windy. The athletes sleep about 2 to 3 hours each night and now they are having a really hard time keeping warm because they are so depleted (calorie-wise, because the exercise intensity at these long distances is very low, around 60% of max heart rate, and a high percentage of fat is burned as fuel.). Ducks cross the road during the day, and cats dart across at night (cycling and running segments were held on a small loop course in a park). Both obstacles could be disastrous as the athletes' reaction times are very, very slow right now.
A French guy, Pascal Pich is on pace to break the record. On his crew he has a doctor who worked as Tour de France doctor for 11 years, but he worked for the Federation, doing neutral support for the racers (implication that the doctor was not involved with any potential illegal performance enhancing substances). (I learned later that he works specifically with the menus proposed in advance by the restaurants providing food for the riders each day to ensure adequate and appropriate nutrition.)
They all listen to portable Walkmans a lot, and Angelika Castaneda (American multisport athlete, well known for her participation in a variety of endurance sports together with her twin sister.) listens to books on tape. Today she gets "Lolita".
Wednesday, November 8, 2000
(e-mail replies to the specific questions)
Steve called at the last minute with some neck health problem (result of an injury sustained during his military service) and told her he could not go. Since he wasn't going to Mexico, his girlfriend Cindy didn't feel she could do it since she doesn't know the sport, has never been outside the US and didn't want to do it without Steve (Steve and Cindy were scheduled to crew together with Ann for Sylvia Wieneke).* * *
As for Sylvia withdrawing from the race - she had DNF'd also at Odyssey Double Iron this year, so I think she was a little unsure of herself. Helmut (her husband) had a successful colon cancer operation but he's now got spots on his liver so she is worried about that, and I'm not sure she was totally committed to this race. Under the best conditions she might have finished but I am not sure how she would handle adversity (given her substantial stressors outside the race). Right now it is really cold and that might have done her in also. It's hard to say.
* * *
Eggenberger is cool. He has a pretty good arrangement. He and his dad were very successful in getting sponsors this year. Thousands of dollars worth in money and gear. I think the rest are paying their own way with some free clothes/food/wheels deals. Sylvia has four free Kestrels! Martin, the other athlete I'm crewing for, is at the opposite extreme. He has a cobbled together cheap bike, no sponsors, and almost no gear. Sylvia gave him Steve's (crew member) crew kit which was a whole Nike outfit with tights, jacket, socks, cap, and a Castelli Windstopper© vest and Castelli jacket, plus all her engineered food which comes from a Swiss company called Sponser. The new clothes allow me to wash the dirty stuff because otherwise Martin would be boil-butt by now and smelling to high heaven.
* * *
I am making a list of the things people eat. Mostly it's real food at this point, organized into sit-down meals and a little stuff to eat on the bike. There are all kinds of European engineered food that I'm not familiar with. This afternoon they chowed down on huge slabs of black forest cake (a bakery is one of the sponsors of the race). And endless coffee.
* * *
As for the swim, I asked the other crews and they said that everybody started in their long-leg long-sleeve wetsuits but eventually took them off when it got too hot. A couple of people put ice in their wetsuit, and/or flushed water through it, but even that wasn't enough. Some of the swim photos show amazingly high elbow recovery after 20 miles. Jacques Fox of Luxembourg amazed all the crews with his textbook perfect swim technique from start to finish.
* * *
As for bike clothing and setup, it is pretty much ride-to-Nyack stuff (Nyack is a local cycling destination for New York City cyclists. It makes for about a 50 mile round trip ride.). Guy Rossi is the only one with a non-standard setup. He uses a very upright position, a swivel set, and a noseless saddle. Most of the riders use only one pair of shorts, although Angelika wears two sometimes. Everybody started out spinning beautifully, but now there's a lot of mashing and hip rocking. It looks painful. People rode a lot in aero position in the beginning, but now they mostly ride upright. One guy, Beat, on a Cheetah is able to maintain a flat-back aero position day after day. Amazing!
* * *
I think we must go to Lithuania to do the Double World Championship race. Ultra triathletes are stars there and kids run after you in the street asking for your autograph. I've seen the photos and it looks great. There one can be treated like a rock star even doing this marginalized sport.
Thursday, November 9, 2000
(5th day of the race)
The action really picked up today as the end of the bike leg is near. Tomorrow night people will start the run. Pascal Pich is showing signs of wear and tear and Mario Rodrigues (who did the Double Deca two years ago) is making serious progress toward overtaking him.
Pich fell asleep on his bike and fell over in the road mid-day. The crews talked that one over for a couple of hours because we're getting tired of the biking too. The athletes ride by every 5 minutes so you really can't relax, read or have a conversation in between trips. Today the athletes are all pretty much out of their mind/off their head. They look normal but they can't find their helmet when it's on their head, can't see the food in the middle of their plate, lose the Bag Balm (brand of the body lubricant) when it's in their hands.
At long last the beer was delivered and the Swiss athletes cheered. We sent a Mexican guy out for tequila and when that arrived the crews cheered. The event is taking a toll on all of us. Everybody asks for Powerbars but we all have the same foodstuff we've had since Sunday. It's not as if there has been an airlift of engineered food into the park (except for the alcohol)...
The athletes are starting to strategize for the run. It is so exciting to be down to the last 200 miles of cycling! Can you imagine? That is just 199 laps of this crazy boring route. The timing of tonight's sleep and tomorrow's bike progress is pretty important. Food breaks are being shortened and sleep breaks are being lengthened to prepare for the long push through to the end of the run.
It is still really cold so it is hard for the athletes to stay warm. One guy had on 5 jackets and 3 pairs of tights most of the day. They look like homeless people as they stuff hot-dogs through the opening in their balaclava.
One of the guys is part of a nutrition study so one of his crew members spends all her time just weighing and logging his food intake. This guy eats olives, sardines, canned mushrooms, little dry sausages, instant soups, etc. to the tone of 8,000 calories a day. I would guess they are all eating in that range, and loosing weight of course, before our watchful eyes.
Thursday, November 9, 2000
(e-mail replies to the specific questions)
So far no Montezuma's revenge (gastro-intestinal problems) among the athletes or crews. We have 24 hour a day use of a kitchen staffed with cooks who make pretty much whatever we want however we want it. One of the cooks is Sylvia Andonie's (race director's wife) sister and she has been cooking for the races for years so they are very clean and only use purified water. They understand that if the athletes get the shits then the future of these races is over.* * *
I am sick of sitting. I brought a stretch cord so when I'm really restless I do some strength exercises. I've run once but it was too hot then and now it is too cold. I guess I'll run some with Martin. I'm wearing about five layers of clothes on top and bottom. Still freezing. Wasn't I supposed to get a tan down here? Gotta go, the boys are calling...
* * *
I speak French with Martin, and today he can't remember that I don't speak German so he keeps saying things to me in German and then he doesn't understand why I don't do whatever he asked. I speak Spanish with the kitchen people and the race committee, and pidgin English with some of the crew people. I get confused sometimes and chose the wrong language and then people look at me like I'm a Martian. Here's a useful phrase for today: "J'ai mal au cul" or in Spanish: "Me duele el culo". English translation: "My ass hurts."
Friday, November 10, 2000
(6th day of the race)
The route the athletes are on is closed to any and all traffic (except the ducks and suicide cats) so personal radios are allowed. Everybody came well prepared with all kinds of special mixed music tapes, books on tape, and little radios. I've never seen some of these high-tech walkmans before.
The racers are coo-coo and have been for days now. Today the craziness manifested itself in impatience and a weird obsession with going over and over the running arrangements 12 hours before they were to start running: "I want the table over there with so many cups. 1/2 full of water, and a variety of gels, and cookies in little cups! I'll wear the black tights and the white socks..." They are now doing a lot of mental calculations to figure out how many bike loops they have left and how long it will take, but the calculations are too hard for their fatigued brains (I have to do 1,870 loops total and I've done 1,760 loops so I still have to do ???, and at 12 loops per hour it will take ???!!! and then they give up. Too much math.)
Amazingly, most athletes didn't complain of butt pain until about the third day. Since then though they all have been using so much lube that it visibly oozes out the back of their shorts, but I don't see them changing their seated position much - very little wriggling really.
Yesterday Angelica (Castaneda) got some bad news from home and within an hour her crew area was packed up and they were gone. She hated this race from the beginning. She couldn't stand the boredom and the endless tiny loops. She's quite a character, but I must say I agree with her. I would have set fire to my bike by now. (I have since learned that Angelika had done two doubles and a triple on short loop courses so I'm not sure why she disliked this course so much.)
If only we crew people could replace the mind of the athlete completely... Unfortunately they become incredibly stubborn as they go crazier. They are all like 2-year old kids, and I've found that if you treat them as such it goes pretty well. Everything is very simple: "Yes, I can do that for you. I will do it right now. Look, it is already done." Today Martin said he could do this race without crew. Now that's crazy! He has absolutely NO IDEA how much time and effort it takes to just keep the food flowing into his gut. And then the clothes washing, cleaning, food prep, cassette tape organizing...
I've been sleeping from 12 to 5 am, and then for one hour in the afternoon (before the dinner breaks) I go back to my room and take a shower. But tonight I'll stay up until Martin starts running (about 1:30 am) and then go away for my 5 hours. I'm not sure what the next days will be like. He wants to run until he cannot any longer and then sleep in his tent a little then run some more. I may have to go to that rhythm too if he can't keep himself moving at a good pace.
The cycling course has street lights all the way around. The crew areas are also well lit. I brought my headlamp but haven't had to use it at all. Today I took many rolls of film with shots of each crew area, their tables of food, arrangement of stuff, etc. so you can see what it's like. For crew it really is the best set-up imaginable. Toilets and showers handy. The kitchen at our disposal. Endless pots of coffee, microwave, etc.
It has been 17 C at night, 21 C during the day now (mid 50s to low 70s). The wind is quite strong, and again, the athletes are so depleted that they pack on layer after layer of clothes. Today everybody's face looks really really haggard. I'm trying to get pictures of that too. The change is quite amazing.
We feed them solid food in paper cups, and bottles of liquid. We give them new cassette tapes, and stuff like that. Martin and Christoph get off their bikes for a breakfast meal, lunch meal, and dinner meal, plus lots of stand-up coffee breaks, and sit down snack breaks too. The athletes take the pacing thing pretty seriously (that is to say they sit around more than it seems they should). The guy who did the bike part like a race is now pretty wrecked (Pich), but he's still on pace to break the record.
Why do they love Powerbars? A spectator told me that they are "good candybars". Apparently Powerbar products are sold all over Europe and people love them. I think the athletes just want something different to eat. They eat so much that they've already eaten everything imaginable from the kitchen in every possible combination and the race is only half over.
Those who are now on the "run" do a couple of walking loops to start and loosen up, and then amazingly the guys in first and second place (Pich and Rodriguez) are running a fair bit. The rest are mostly walking stiffly.
Saturday, November 11, 2000
(7th day of the race)
All the sitting around has got my sciatica fired up again, but today the rhythm changed completely. Everybody was off the bike by mid-day and many took a nap or started on their own personal Bataan Death March. 227.7 trips around the same circle they just did 940 times on the bike. But they get to go the other direction around. Oh, that is a treat!
For the crews it is easier now because we can run or ride next to our athletes to find out what they want, and then we have at least 10 minutes (sometimes more like 20) to prepare whatever it is. But the athletes are clumped closely enough together that they are starting to play mind games with each other. They are planning their sleeping breaks so they do their "running" at a time that will pack maximum emotional punch (when others sleep). It means nothing to be 26 miles behind when you've got 262 miles total to do.
Everybody looks pretty stiff although there is no whining here and that is surprising to me. You really don't hear complaints from these athletes. I think they all knew exactly what they were getting into. These athletes have so much combined experience it is just awesome. Eggenberger, for example, has done two Doubles and two Triples already this year. I think they all did at least one Triple within the last two months, and Pascal Pisch did an ironman in Tahiti two weeks before he came here. Jacques Fox did the Marathon des Sables a couple of years ago and acts like it was some Sunday morning 5k in the local park. (Later he spoke more about it and admitted it was the kind of race one need only do once in a lifetime.) They talk about the Doubles and Triples they do in a season the way mere mortals talk about the Sprint or Olympic distance triathlons we do.
There will be an Ironman distance race here on Saturday and everybody keeps telling me I should borrow some equipment and do it since I'm here and Martin will have finished by then. I tell them I'm still tired from doing a Double and then an Ironman five weeks later and they just can't understand that. It's as if I told them my body couldn't withstand two swim workouts in a week. I feel like a total weenie.
I finally got a chance to look at the bikes people were riding. Martin, the guy I'm crewing for, has a real piece of shit bike. No-name frame, standard fork, mediocre parts, pedals on spindles that don't turn when you try to give them a spin. A derailleur that only works if you apply serious pressure, brakes that rub a lot of the time. I'm amazed he could ride 1,120 miles on that thing. (I talked with him about his "shit-bike," he says it was a gift and that it's just fine. I still think he could expend less cycling energy if he upgraded and tweeked his bike a bit.) Then there is the totally tricked out Cheetah triathlon bike, and the rest are pretty standard road bikes with clip-on aerobars.
In general these athletes are a whole lot less prissy than people who do the shorter distances (IM and less). They will eat anything, drink anything, they will wear almost anything (although I saw some beautiful hi-tech winter cycling gear, mostly European brands), and they are in amazingly good humor considering how little sleep they've gotten since this started.
The first two guys will finish tomorrow, but the rest have a couple more days to go. Luckily the weather has changed again and there is less wind and we were able to take off a couple of layers of fleece at mid-day.
Tuesday, November 14, 2000
(9th day of the race)
Yesterday Pascal Pich finished about two hours behind the world record he was trying to break. After he was done he slept for 16 hours straight and appears to have lost about 10 pounds in the last two days.
For the last couple of days, since the 2nd day of running, the competitors look like zombies from the "Night of the Living Dead". The road camber, although less than in Central Park (moderate but noticeable camber on the New York City's Central Park loop road), has taken quite a toll on the athletes and they all have tendonitis of the right ankle/tibialis anterior because they run clockwise only. And so to the list of accumulated aches and pains we add soaking their feet in ice water every couple of hours. This is really adding insult to injury because now it is about 45 degrees F and extremely windy, so ice water is not too appealing.
We basically live outside in the pit area, with crew only spending a few hours (if any) inside sleeping and showering on any given day. Now that they're running the athletes usually sleep in the tent they put up in their pit area.
Yesterday afternoon we started relying heavily on the services of the ambulance crew, which has been here since the beginning. They treat the tendonitis with a liquid Novocain massage followed by some type of analgesic cream and then a light elastic wrap. With this the athletes are able to hobble around the loop a little faster (30 min miles). They are all looking pretty gaunt and their faces are craggy with week-long beards and too much sun and wind. It is not a pretty sight.
The guy I'm handling, Martin, is still running quite a bit (I forced him into the icing routine a day before the others). He didn't ask me to pace him at all until last night, and we will probably run through the night tonight to keep Guy Rossi at bay. Number two man (Mario Rodriguez) will finish tonight instead of yesterday afternoon - he was run into the ground by Pascal Pich. (Meaning that Mario tried to keep up with Pascal's fast pace and just couldn't. He had terrible leg cramps and walked much more than he had planned to.) Three more of the men will finish tomorrow just under the 10 day mark.
Martin gave this as his reason for doing the Deca: To lose weight and get in shape for next season...
Thursday, November 16, 2000
Yesterday Beat Knechtle finished despite giant blisters on the ends of his toes, backs of his heels, and ball-of-the-foot blisters that burst out between his toes. Martin Shytil (Germany) made a mad dash starting at 5 am to try to make up 13 miles to pass Beat and finish ahead of him. Imagine if you will, that with nine marathons under your belt you decide it is now time to really fire up. "Der Sprinter" gave up on that plan after three hours and took a one hour nap, but he had managed to make up a lot of distance on the limping Swiss Knechtle and finished just four hours later. ?Quien es mas macho? Four hours might sound like a lot, but the difference between 240:55:33 and 244:51:20 is really minimal. Guy Rossi (France) was about one marathon behind Martin and finished around 8 pm. Jacques Fox (Luxembourg) finished at 4 am. Still out on the course is Christoph Eggenberger and Sylvia Andonie. Both will finish today around 7 pm.
Yesterday was actually pretty gruesome. "Night of the Living Dead" turned into "Return of the Mummies". Liquid Novocain© plus analgesic cream massages and ankle wraps were now combined with needles in the butt. Pascal Pich's personal doctor administered shots of anti-inflamatory and blood thinner to get these guys to a point where they could continue to hobble around the course. But amazingly, spirits remain high. They all knew they'd walk a lot and they seem to be able to tolerate incredible amounts of pain as long as they know they are not doing permanent or long-term damage. They eat and drink and take breaks on schedule even though they are tired of eating and tired of the flavor of the drinks.
Doctor Doping was on hand to take blood and urine samples from #1 and #2, and he will test one of the other competitors at random. (Pascal Pich, Mario Rodriguez, and Sylvia Andonie were the athletes tested, as far as I know). Everybody is very careful to use only approved medicines, so the only drugs I'd expect to be found in any of these guys is alcohol and caffeine. The Europeans love their beer at night, and take a lot of coffee breaks during the day.
December 15, 2000
Rain made it difficult to use the PCs for e-mail later in the week so I will attempt to sum up my last couple of days at the Deca.
The Mexican Ironman Championship was held in Parque de Los Ninos Heroes on Saturday, November 18th. The race was won by a man named Luis Alvarez, with Beat Knechtle's crew member, Gaby Mueller, placing second overall (on the Kestrel bike given to her by Sylvia Wieneke the week before) and first female. There were twelve participants, of them four were women. Some of the Deca athletes and crew stuck around to watch the race and cheer for the athletes; others stayed out of the rain and cold nursing their injuries.
Upon completing the Deca many of the athletes moved from the villas in the park to a Hampton Inn in town where they could rest more comfortably and watch television. The athletes would sleep 12-15 hours straight, eat a meal, nap for a couple of hours, eat again and then maybe another nap before dinner. They continued to lose weight, but after the first day of rest and shaving off their whiskers they looked really good (healthy) and seemed to be in high spirits. Injuries were healing at a rapid rate and by the Sunday's award ceremony (three to seven days after finishing the race) everybody was moving around with ease. The crew people had pretty much caught up on sleep by then too so were back to normal.
Within seven days of finishing the race Martin Schytil reported having done a two hour run on the beach in Mazatlan and I expect the others were back in the pool or on their bikes soon after returning to Europe. This just demonstrates that this group of athletes has discovered the method for doing minimal dammage to their bodies while covering maximum distance. When I'd ask any of them what the secret was they'd all give the same answer - low intensity. Martin said he was going at about 60% of max effort all the time. I'd guess they were all going at about that effort level, except for Pascal and Mario who must have been pushing closer to 70% on average. But you also can't forget that these are all athletes of tremendous ability. When they go fast they can go pretty darn fast. Martin predicted that he'd be able to run a 3:15 marathon if he were to enter the ironman distance on the Saturday after the Deca. 3:30 at the outside. And I can't forget the night that something set off Christoph Eggenberger and he slammed out some very fast bike loops looking like a performance machine. His combination of total focus and fast pace was elegant and almost frightening in its power - which pretty much sums up my experience at the DecaTriathlon.
Ann Snoeyenbos (Snow-en-boss) is a 36 year old reference librarian living and working full-time in New York City. She trains before and after work, avoiding periods of high automobile traffic and pollution. Extensive physiological testing has demonstrated that Ann is physically unremarkable. Nonetheless, Ann has completed four ironman distance races, two double ironman distance races, and numerous single-sport ultra-endurance events.