'Zinc Out Loud!' with Ultraman World Champion Rob Gray
Marathon, nah. Ironman, nah. 3 days and 320 miles of ultra endurance racing, yes!
We welcome the Ultraman World Champion, Rob Gray to Team Zealios!
Rob shares what it takes to line up for your first Ultraman to becoming a champion in the sport (spoiler alert... he won the championship in just his 2nd season on the ultra scene!) And he's ready to defend his world title in just a few weeks back on the island of Hawaii.
Now, do we have what it takes to be Ultraman spectators? We've been training hard and think we got this! Go Rob!
Zealios: We’re pumped to feature Rob Gray, the World Ultraman Champion and newest Team Zealios athlete!
Hey Rob, thanks for sitting down to chat with us.
Rob Gray: Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be part of Team Zealios.
Z: So I guess we can start with the question that comes up most often for you I’m sure. What is an Ultraman?
RG: Ultraman is a 3 day triathlon stage race totaling 320 miles. Day 1 is a 10k swim with a 90 mile bike ride. Day 2 is a 171 bike ride and Day 3 is a double marathon, 52 miles.
There are no aid stations. You must have a crew to handle your race logistics, aid and nutrition. You even need a paddler on day 1 of the 10k swim to provide you aid and nutrition.
Z: And for those that thought an Ironman was crazy and intense!
What draws you to such a challenging race?
RG: Number one reason is the logistics. An Ultraman is totally different than a typical Ironman race where you simply show up and Ironman takes care of everything. In an Ultraman, you have to think about so much more including recovery for each day, setting up a crew and how you interact with that crew.
I think the logistics side presents things that can become potential competitive differentiators.
Secondly, the physiological demands. The longer the race, the better I tend to do. I can find a pace and stick to it for a long time. There isn’t much difference between my timed pace in a 70.3 versus an Ultraman distance. So the long distance suits me well.
Z: How long have you been racing Ultraman?
RG: First one in 2016. However, the seed was planted before that. You really have to think about which Ultraman you want to do, enter the race and train. So I started thinking Ultraman back in 2014.
In 2015 I entered the 2016 Florida Ultraman in February. Trained for a year for that, most of which was through the winter with lots of indoor training, outside as much as I could, and I won the race. It reinforced my thinking that I’d be good at these longer distances.
Then competed at the Ultraman World Championships in 2016 and took 2nd. That was a really great experience and I learned a lot for the next year’s World Championships in 2017 that I could execute well on.
Rob Gray wins the 2017 Ultraman World Championship in Hawaii.
Z: It seems as though more people have heard of Ultraman, especially in the triathlon community. Have you seen the sport grow or change?
RG: It’s definitely growing. Looking at just the participation numbers doesn’t really reflect the true state of the sport because they limit the field. Some are limited to only 40, 50 or 60 racers. Because of the nature of the race and the crewing situation, you’d have to have special permits to allow 100+ cars on specific roadways so it limits the number of participants.
And they sell out really early. You need to sign up a year out. There are many more people that apply that are turned down. 20 years ago they didn’t have that problem. Some races only had 15-20 racers.
With the growth of sport, in races like Ironman and people that are completing multiple Ironmans, I think Ultraman is something that some athletes see as the next challenge ahead for them. Athletes will try an Ironman just to see if they can complete the distance and when they do, they go after trying to complete it faster. At some point they are looking for something different that represents more of a challenge. You’re hearing about more of the double or triple Ironmans, where they are being completed back-to-back, or even deca Ironmans where they do 10.
I think the Ultraman really represents the spirit of what Ironman used to be when a few guys were racing around the island of Oahu.
Ultraman started right after that in the early 80s with guys thinking similarly, ‘let’s put together a race that circumnavigates around the big island of Hawaii’. And that’s where the race course comes from. Swim point to point is 10k. Ride to the top of the volcano is 90 miles. Ride all the way to the top of the island which is 170 miles and run back down to the Kona 52 miles.
Z: It’s really neat to think of the history and pioneers thinking of these crazy endurance activities turned mainstream races.
RG: And they just announced in 2020 a new Ultraman race in Arizona. They haven’t even opened the registration yet and there are 50-60 people interested.
Z: A lot of people scoff at the amount of training that is needed to participate in an Ironman, which they see as another full time job, let alone what you’d need to do to train for an Ultraman. What does your training look like?
RG: This is a question I get a lot of the time.
My training has evolved over the years as I learn more principles and techniques. The training I do now with the goal of winning Ultraman is very similar to someone looking to win an Ironman. 22-25 hours per week regular training weeks. 30-33 hours during peak weeks.
Some top Ironman racers train 35-40 hours a week and some people can handle that. For me it’s not about a time constraint, it’s about keeping my body healthy and productive.
I used to do back-to-back long runs on consecutive days. I would do a 20 mile run with a 30 mile run the next day. I had that approach the past 2 years and it worked. I won the World Championship last year with that training.
This year I’m focused on rest and recovery after big training sessions. My longest run are probably 22-23 miles, that’s it. I’m focused on recovering well. It seems to be paying off based on what I’m seeing in training. But I guess we’ll see on race day if that’s a smart approach. Ha!
And that’s what’s fun about this type of racing. I don’t think anyone has truly figured out Ultraman training. All of us at the top of the sport try different training technique and try to learn more each other.
Z: Is the top Ultraman group a pretty close-knit group? Where everyone shares information and stays connected?
RG: If I look at the top contenders this year, which is about 5 guys that could probably win the race, there are at least 3 of them that I have a good idea of what they’re doing in training.
My arch rival, Richard Thompson who won Ultraman Australia last year, but didn’t compete in the World Championships was someone I was talking to weekly on Facebook and sharing how our training was going. He’d give me some tips on what was working for him and I’d try some out.
Richard is competing in the World Championships this year and I’m not sure we’d do that now within months from a race we’re both competing to win. Ha! But it does seem to be an open community on the whole.
Z: Maybe tell your competitors you’ve been using a new recovery drink with great results... prune juice, they should give it a try =)
RG: Haha! I do have to admit I have thrown out some misinformation on social media. I don’t want to give them all of the secrets!
Z: You had a great performance last year, coming away as the World Champion and bested your 2016 time by just under an hour. Do you think you have a shot at cracking the record and reducing that time by 39 minutes?
RG: If I take the run on it’s own that’s a pretty big margin to shave off. I think the type of margin I could shave off would be about 20 minutes. A lot of depends on the conditions. We run the second half of the bike course of the Ironman. It is very difficult to forecast the conditions, if you think you’re going to get a tailwind, you’ll get a headwind. Last year 80% of the run had a tailwind. If the conditions are the same this year, I would say 20-30 minutes could be knocked off.
One big difference this year because of the big volcanic eruption, they had to change the whole bike course. Day 1 will be quicker now. Day 2 has 14k of elevation climbing so that could slow things down from last year. If Day 1 is a good deal faster and Day 2 is slightly slower, then shaving off 39 minutes becomes a real possibility.
My crew will have the numbers and after day 2 we’ll know whether it’s possible to go for the record or not. I’ll start the run for the win and if it turns out I’m in a position to go for any records, then of course I’ll shoot for that. There’s also a possibility that I break the record and not win the race. There’s good competition this year.
The thing with the big island is a perfect conditions day is typically followed by a terrible day. So in a 3 day race you never know.
Z: With the race being 3 days I’m sure a big part of the race is geared around recovery. What does your recovery look like over the two nights?
RG: Eating is the most important and you often don't feel like eating after a day like that. You’re burning 5,000-8,000 calories just during the day. And I’m only intaking 350-400 calories an hour while biking so I’m already deficient. You have to replenish that.
The target for me is about 1,000 grams of carbs after each day. You have to be somewhat glycogen replenished the next day.
I eat very simple foods. Rice, rice pudding and white bread. No fiber! You can’t eat that many carbs with fiber.
I also eat high calorie foods like burger and fries. Then you must get a lot of good sleep, which can be difficult. Many people after an Ultraman don’t sleep well. You have to try and settle it down.
Recovery tools like Normatec boots are great. I throw them on as soon as I’ve had a massage and wear them while eating my rice pudding and planning for the next day with my crew.
Z: What goes through your mind during the race for 3 days straight? Do you have any mantras or songs stuck in your head?
RG: The swim is very tranquil. You’re swimming for 2.5 hours and you enter this state where you’re not really thinking about anything. It sounds like a horrible strenuous thing, a 10k swim, but it’s therapeutic and pretty relaxing.
The Kona swim, you begin above some coral and marine life, which is great to look at. Then you hit a big deep blue stretch and your mind just switches off. As you round the corner to get to the finish line you start to see coral again and that kind of awakens you back into making the final push.
On the bike, I do a lot of biking indoors, even when I’m outdoors I don’t listen to music or typically ride with others when training so I’m used to being in my own head when I’m riding. On Day 1 I’m really focused on my efforts and how I’m feeling. I’m excited to race so have to be sure to hold myself back. On Day 2 we start together, so for the first 4-5 hours I’m trying to stay near the front, looking at what others are doing and responding to anything that happens. For the second 4 hours you are usually in bad weather, on the other side of the Island. It’s usually wet and rainy and some of the road get a little bit sketchy. So then I’m just thinking about staying alive as you have these big trucks that come past you. I am very much aware of my own mortality for a number of hours.
On the run is where the mantras come into it. The first marathon it feels like a bit of a cruise. You shouldn’t be digging deep on the first 26 miles. When I hit 30 miles my crew chief reminds me it’s about being ‘quick, light, cool and relaxed.’ And I repeat that in my head because it is easy for your run form to break down.
Mile 30 is not a good place. Thinking of running another 22 miles is not appealing. Once you get to mile 40 then you only have 12 miles left but those 10 miles, from 30-40 are tough. You definitely have to rely on those mantras to get through it, one mile at a time.
Z: This year’s championship is coming up quick on November 24th. How is your body and mind feeling? Any added pressure from being the crowned champ?
RG: Fitness level is at an all-time high. Swim and bike are better than ever and my run is better than it’s ever been. So I’m feeling really confident because of the numbers I’m seeing in training.
I’ve done as much as I possibly can to get into the shape I’m in now. It feels I’ve left no stone unturned and it’s a great feeling to go into the final few weeks in that position. It gives me the confidence to race within myself and do what I can.
Z: The field is pretty competitive this year. Who are keeping an eye on?
RG: Richard Thompson, mentioned earlier who broke the world record in Ultraman Australia. He’s solid across all three disciplines.
Petr Vabrousek, who has raced something like 190 Ironmans as a professional. He won the Antarctica marathon, which just doesn’t sound fun. He’s got the mindset to win an Ultraman and he’s raced Kona Ironman 12 times, he knows the island.
David Hainish, a cyclist who broke the 1 hour track cycling Canadian record.
There are a few other guys that are potential competitors who’ve made some tough podiums.
Z: It’s going to be a great race. We’re really excited to cheer you on those 3 days.
Lastly, we gotta ask what is your favorite Zealios product and why?
RG: I was introduced initially to the Sun Barrier, after doing research and buying it on Amazon, and it has been essential to my success in Ultraman especially on the run where it’s brutally hot and there’s absolutely no shade.
The Betwixt, has recently became a favorite as well. It’s made my rides much more comfortable. And it’s essential for day 2 of the race for those 170 miles.
It’s like trying to pick your favorite child… I wouldn’t be able to race without either of them.
Sun Barrier keeps Rob performing at the top of his game and lookin’ good!
Z: Rob, best of luck at the World Championships! We’re stoked to cheer you on and will be glued to the live tracking on Ultramanworlds.com
Connect with Rob: