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  • Jennifer Vollmann

Starvation Extreme Triathlon Xtri Race Report

I think this is the most excited I have ever been to write a race report! I have so many things to share! I will include as much detail of the race as I can for those interested in what an Extreme Triathlon looks like and specifically this race. If you are wondering if this is for you, do it! I will not sugar coat it and in my stories below you will see that this race will test you to your very core. But if you have a quiet tapping that this might be for you… it is. Answer the tapping and see what is waiting for on the course. I left some of my soul on that course somewhere on the last 3 miles, but what I gained was a deep power within that I never knew existed. Change doesn't happen in safety and comfort, it happens in the unknown when you are vulnerable and exposed.

The most beautiful course ever!

The Starvation Extreme Triathlon is the first Xtri race in the US (if you have heard of Norseman, Swissman, Patagoniaman, it is this series of races). It is a 2.4 mile swim in the dark, 100 mile ride with almost 10,000 ft of climbing, and a 26 mile trail run with 6,000ft of climbing all at high altitude (6k - 10kft+). When I first heard of this race I immediately knew it was for me. I love climbing on my bike and I love trails. I did not hesitate to sign up.


When I told people about this race the usual comment was: “Are Ironmans not hard enough?” The truth is no, they are not. At least not for me. It is hard because I choose to go fast. I have enough fitness and endurance that the distance is no longer a challenge. But this race is such a monster of a challenge, it was literally impossible for me to wrap my head around the effort it was going to take to finish it. I was ready for it and I was scared. I was scared of what would be required of me to finish and when it was time to go or give up, would I have the energy to choose to keep going.


One important point I want make is that unlike most race descriptions, including Ironmans, Starvation was VERY accurate. I think I said that like 100 times after the race. “They were right, it was really really REALLY hard! I did not grasp how hard this race was until I was actually in it. I think if I fully understood how hard it would be I might not have signed up. I am so grateful I have enough of an ego to say “how hard can it be?” and throw my hat into the ring. It was unbelievably hard and I did it. And it was so worth it!



KEY TRAINING

To prepare for this race I started off at Ironman Worlds at St. George (race report). A hilly, hot and brutal Ironman course. Although I don't think I can use the word “brutal” anymore, I have a whole new definition for brutal after Starvation. After IMStG I headed to Costa Rica for the Pura Vida Cycling Challenge. We run 3 trips/ year with some crazy epic climbing. Having two Pura Vida trips this year under my belt made a huge difference on the bike (more later). I also spent three weeks before the race Greer, AZ which is 8500ft elevation and trained anywhere from 7k - 10kft elevation. I typically spend my summers in the AZ mountains above 7kft so I have a good understanding of how to train and how my body reacts at altitude.


While in Greer, I did 2 pretty epic rides (one on purpose, the other surprise) 116 and 95 miles both over 8k of climbing and mostly above 8000ft. I also ran the Grand Canyon (south rim to Phantom Ranch and back) about 2 weeks before and followed it up with a 18 mile hilly run a week before race day. I do best with less taper, especially for these longer events, something my coach and I have sorted out through the years.


PRE-RACE

My coach/friend/whole reason I got into triathlons, Marilyn, came with me as my support crew. You are required to have at least one support crew. There are no aid stations; it is all self supported. We arrived at Duchesne where the start of the race is (its point to point) and woke up to no water! There was a water main break in town and most of the area had no running water. Thankfully Marilyn and I have traveled and lived in places with questionable water sources, so we bought a ton of bottled water and found showers at the campgrounds. Not an ideal situation before a race, but racing is all about rolling with what the day brings. It just started a little early this time.


The day before a race is always hectic getting gear together, but this was next level. There were required gear (headlamp, cell phone battery pack, water bladder) and all the things I might possibly need while racing - food, extra shoes and socks, gels, hydration mixes, tubes, bike pump, as well as your typical swim/bike/run gear. It was a lot and we wanted it all organized so Marilyn would know where everything was and what I would likely want and when. This is my first time doing a race with these kinds of logistics and it was a lot!




RACE MORNING

2am wake up call. That was a first! We headed to the lake to check in and get our gear all set. The water was absolutely perfect, 68ish I would say. The swim started in the dark which was a new experience. I feared it would be disorienting but it was actually pretty cool and we got to watch the sunrise during the 3 loops which was absolutely amazing. We lined up in the water, all 35 of us crazy athletes that were willing to take on a huge challenge. I was ready.


And we were off. I assumed the description of “light up buoys” meant the whole buoy would be lit up, instead it was a tiny light on top. It was pretty hard to see once you were in the water, especially with other lights around the lake that were in the same sightline.


I have been asked many times if I ever thought of quitting the race. And the answer is yes. In the first 500 yards of the swim I thought of quitting about 20 times. Just like Ironman St George, I had trouble breathing in the water. I just cannot get air into my lungs which makes swimming feel like I am drowning. I completely stopped swimming after the first buoy and tried to breathe as deeply and forcefully as I could. I had many thoughts of quitting “this is scary,” “you do not belong here, you cannot even swim the full course”, “this absurd, just stop.” I shook my head trying to shake out the thoughts. Then I saw the sunrise. I could see the colors change if I breathed to the left. So I decided to go a little further, not kicking, and just focus on the sunrise. My breathing slowly returned to normal and after I stood up to go into the second loop, I coughed out a bunch of mucus and then I really started flying. The most annoying part of the swim was how great I felt and how fast I swam on the second two loops. When I got out of the water I was 5 mins and 8 mins down from 1st and 2nd women. I quickly got on my bike and did what I love to do… ride fast!


Swim + T1 Time: 1:20, my guess is this was a 1:13 swim or so. Considering I stopped for probably 4 minutes in the water this was a pretty good swim for me when I was actually swimming.


Photo by Kris Braun

BIKE

Marilyn and I decided to ride the bike pretty aggressively. The thinking was that the run was so hard and so steep, if I overcooked my legs too much it is the difference between hiking and hiking vs in an Ironman it is the difference between running 8:00min/mile and walking. It ended up being the right call and I was able to get a solid hour+ lead on the rest of the women and ride into 7th overall.


85 miles of the course were amazing TT riding. Rolling, some wind, steady climbing and sweeping descents into SHEEP! A herd of sheep were on the road and one nearly took me out. Marilyn and the other crew leapfrogged the athletes throughout the course. Marilyn had the most amazing ability to hand me exactly what I didn't know I wanted - banana, rice krispies. The last time I saw her was mile 80 before the final climb. I felt fresh, fueled and hydrated. I was ready for the final 15 miles over Guardsmans Pass.


There had been so much “fuss” made about this climb. I am not easily intimidated by climbs. I am very familiar with 20%+ grades in Costa Rica. When I looked at my Garmin I started to get a little worried. 4500ft of climbing into a race that has 9,000ft+. I had 11 miles left and the last 2 were downhill. Uh oh. I remembered that moment before the race when James Lawerence THE IronCowboy himself (completed 101 Ironman distance tris in 101 days) looked at my 28 and said “that's a pretty small cassette.” I assured him I knew what I was doing. And I did, but when I looked at the first climb I realized how much this was going to hurt. I threw out my race plan and rode the climb like I do in Costa Rica, taking as much time as I can on the flats and powering up the steep grades, serpentining when it was safe and necessary. The guy in front of me eventually just got off his bike and walked. I knew there was a 17% grade on the climb. What I did not truly understand were the twenty 15% grades in addition to the 17% on a TT bike with only a 28. I got through it, but damn. I was so thankful for all my Pura Vida riding.


Time: 7hrs and change

Calories: About 400cal/hr (typical for me in a hot race)

Nutrition:

Roughly (gets a little fuzzy)

3 x bottles of Skratch Superfuel

3 x The Right Stuff Packets (best sodium solution ever!)

7 x SIS gels

2 x Skratch chews packets

3 x Clif Blocks

1 x Banana

3 x Rice Crispy Treats


Obviously a hot pink cheetah... Photo by Kris Braun

RUN

I got into T2 with a solid lead of over an hour and 7th overall. When I signed up, I never considered I could actually win this crazy race. I did think however, I had a shot at the Xtri World Championship at Norseman spots. Top two women were guaranteed a spot + wildcard spots. When I first watched a documentary on the Norseman Triathlon on a trainer ride a few years ago, I thought the race was insane, but I also dreamed about what it would be like to have the fitness and skills to experience it. It was a bizarre experience to have my Xtri Worlds spot almost assured and a solid lead. But 26miles and 6,000ft of climbing is a monster run. I tried to stay focused on what I had to do at that moment.


I met my pacer Kraig here for the first time. One of the most amazing parts of this whole experience has been the community. The race organizers - Casey and James were so helpful and encouraging. Bart did the race last year and was helping with course markings. He was unbelievably helpful leading up to the race answering so many of my questions like “what is a gaiter.” He also found Kraig to pace me for the full 26 miles.


Kraig is my long lost trail soulmate. He and I ran with joy, taking in the beauty and stopping to say thank you to the nature around us! It was so crazy beautiful, I was grateful to be with someone that would appreciate it with me. And later on, when I could barely speak, he reminded me of the beauty.

Long lost trail soulmate

We started quickly and I felt great. Around mile 10 or so I started to have trouble elevating my heart rate. 145 bpm was fine but to bump it up to 150 was a herculean effort. We went from running the flats and downhills to just the downhills. I power hiked like a champ, but I started to bleed time. Around mile 14 my stomach revolted and it was clear no more gels were going to happen. Luckily we saw Marilyn for a refuel stop at mile 16. No biggie. We got to a fork in the trail and I started down the lovely, gradual downhill trail until Kraig pointed out the trail was actually the one that went straight up. I was pissed. Like really pissed. “What asshole made this course” I think was a direct quote. I guess the asshole that does 101 Ironman distance tris in 101 days. Whenever I got pissed, or deflated or tired or basically in the “this is fucking crazy” headspace ,I kept going to back to the thought “Jennifer you wanted extreme, you wanted a challenge, you wanted to be pushed, this is WHAT YOU WANTED and they are DELIVERING!” It made me smile every time. I was getting exactly what I wanted, so I might as well embrace it!


Mile 16 we refueled with real food and I learned about the carnage of the day. Most of the athletes had dropped out and I had a sizable lead on the woman behind me (or so we thought). I was having a great time until Marilyn came over and said “you have 3 minutes then you have to go.” Dammit. Kraig and I stuffed tortillas, bananas, applesauce packets and water in our packs and we headed out to the hardest part of the whole run, the last 10 miles.

This is what 6,000ft of climbing in 26miles look like!

With fuel in my system I felt awesome and bounced up the first climb to the peak at 10,400ft. I chatted and joked. We did get lost a few times, the course was hard to find at some points. My watch was totally busted but Kraig had the GPS on his Garmin and it did a good job of warning us when we were off track. And then the mosquitoes…


Not just mosquitoes but Hunger Game style, deep rainforest, swarms of mosquitoes. I have never experienced anything like it. Hiking with poles with 20 landing on my arms and buzzing in my ears. I was beyond annoyed. At first we rubbed yarrow (a wild plant) on our arms and legs and eventually I got so fed up I put mud on my arms and ears to provide a barrier (a trick I learned in the rainforest). This is really where my mind started to go. I was hungry, tired, I felt like throwing up and we still had a big climb and 5ish miles left and the god damn mosquitoes were horrible. Our pace slowed and I was not in a good spot. I wasn't even running the downhills at this point. Kraig tried to motivate me but I was having none of it, I just wanted the race to be over.


As we made our way around the lake Kraig got a text from Marilyn, Veronika the second place woman, was coming hot. Shit. Kraig immediately took over the pace and said “we have to go now.” I picked it up a little but I was still pretty reluctant. When did Marilyn text? How far could she really be? And then I looked across the lake and saw Veronika running with her pacer and she was indeed coming hot! FUCK! Kraig switched in the drill sergeant mode. He said “no way is she going to pass us.” I said nothing. I think from here on out I mostly grunted, I was going to need every ounce of energy I had left to make it to the finish line first. I had been racing for over 16 hours, it was getting dark, I had not eaten anything for the last 90 mins and now I would need to pull out a max effort of 3 miles with a 1 mile steep climb to win.


But I didn't panic. I took a moment and released the win.

She can have it. If she is able to come from behind and take the win then she is the better athlete today. So be it. Releasing the win does not mean giving up. Quite the opposite in fact. In releasing the win, I released the fear and all the energy of panic that surrounds the fear of loss. I was calm, grounded and I could go inside, deep within. Deeper than I have ever gone before. It wasn't so much that I leveled up, in fact it was more like I traveled level upon level down to access primal power I didn't realize I had until that exact moment. It no longer had anything to do with her, this was about me and seeing what I could do when I access this power. I was willing to face all the pain, all the discomfort, all the fear and move forward until my legs gave out. If she wins, it will be because I found my limit and I will not stop until then.



THE LAST 3 MILES

We started to climb and climb and climb. Kraig passed me my poles and stayed on me the whole way “faster, deeper, no stopping, harder, a little further.” We got to the top and could not find the course. Kraig started to run up and down looking for the trail makers. We were burning time. But I did not panic. This wasn't about her, this was about me, using my power. I pulled out All Trails app to see a clear map of the course. It showed us where we went off and we could see a tiny trail headed down. On the ground was the trail marker that had been knocked down. This was the way. I looked back on the climb and we would see the headlights of Veronika and her pacer. They were so close. I breathed again, released the panic. I could not control her, I can only control me. I thought of the David Goggins quote: “When you think that you are done, you're only 40% in to what your body's capable of doing. That's just the limits that we put on ourselves.” I felt like I was near the limit of my body, but that is just a thought, it doesn't mean it is true. At that moment I chose to think “I can run fast for 2 miles, my legs know how to run fast down trails.”


I gave Kraig my phone in case we needed it again and he put on my headlight. I have never run with a headlight before or trails in the dark. As we started to run it was clear these were technical trails made harder with the loose dust. Kraig was amazing and called out the trail as we bombed down “rock, stump, now open, pick up your feet, 10 ft then open up again.” I was running hard and fast and I was shocked that I was able to do it. “I can run fast for 2 miles, my legs know how to run fast down trails.” Then bam, Kraig fell and he did not get up. He shouted “I am ok, keep going!” And so I did. I ran fast, keeping Kraig’s advice in my head “pick up my feet, pick up my feet. There was a tight right turn onto a new trail. I quickly looked up and did not see any lights. A good sign, but hard to trust in the thick forest and switchbacks. Shit, I realized my watch was dead, Kraig had my phone, and the course had been so hard to see and now I am alone. A shudder of fear went through me. I let it pass and I refocused. “I can run fast for 1 mile, my legs know how to run fast down trails, I am good at this, I love this, I was born for this.” I picked up the pace and I flew. “I was fucking born for this.” Even now, I am amazed I was able to run so fast down those trails.


When I turned the corner and saw the lights of the finish line I looked back, expecting to see head lights, but it was dark. I ran slowly to the finish line, taking it in. I did it. I finished. 17:14, 6th overall and I won my first big race ever. I qualified for an Xtri Worlds sport at Norseman. Of 35 that started, only 10 finished, only 2 were women. I did something a few years ago I never thought would be possible. I found this amazing deep and powerful part of me. If I could run the last 3 miles like that, what else is possible? If I can do that, I can do anything!


Time: 8:45

Nutrition:

8 gels?

1 Cliff Block

2 bottles of Skratch Hydration mix

2 packets of the Right Stuff

3 bananas

2 applesauce

Pickles

Pretzels

1 tortilla


The very best finish line feels ever!

Tapping… ever have a tapping that tells you you are more than you think? More than you know? That there is something for you in this lifetime that you have yet to discover? I had that tapping when I was younger that I was an athlete. I had it again to do my first Ironman. I had it when I signed up for Starvation Extreme Triathlon. I am not a pro athlete. 6 years ago I started from scratch learning how to swim, bike and run. I am a mom that finally could not ignore the tapping and dove into triathlons to see if there was something more for me there. When I started that journey, never in a million years did I think it would lead me here. And yet here I am. We never know what we are truly capable of, who we truly are until we answer the tapping and surrender to the outcome. My advice, answer the tapping. Your life will likely take new and unexpected turns. Do it anyway. You will face fear, discomfort, pain. Do it anyway. You might have a few dark nights of the soul. Keep answering that tapping. AND if you have a tapping to see what you are made of on the Starvation Extreme Triathlon. Sign up, release the outcome and do it!