Ed. note—Amy VanTassel competed in—and won—Ultra520k Canada, a three-day triathlon that challenges its participants to 10k of swimming, 425.6k of cycling, and 84.4k of running (that's 6.2, 264.5, and 52.4 miles, respectively, but I'm writing this north of the border, so we're sticking with metric). If you missed Amy's posts leading up to the race, you can read them here and here.
One of the beautiful aspects of sport is that any foregone conclusion is, in fact, rarely that. Ask the 2004 Yankees or the 2016 Golden State Warriors, the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats or the 2016 Cleveland Indians. One of the difficulties of being a favorite is living up to that status, of shouldering the pressure that comes of expectation. Going into day three of Ultra520k Canada, Amy VT was feeling those expectations, carrying a big lead into her favorite discipline, an ultramarathon.
But let's back up. The race began Saturday morning with a 10k swim in Skaha Lake followed by a 90-mile (ahem, 150k) ride tracing the route of Challenge Penticton. VT followed the day's plan to perfection, improving on her 2014 swim time of 3:22:30 in posting a 3:10:36, missing the women's swim prime by a scant 14 seconds to Janis Neufeld. VT quickly made up the time—and then some—on the bike, eventually coming home in 5:10:35, winning the day by 25 minutes over Neufeld.
Like any stage race, though, the early races are only prologues, and the relative comfort of day one gives over to a monster 276k (170-mile) ride through the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys, finishing in Princeton, B.C. VT, determined to hold her lead over Neufeld, stormed out to an early 10-minute lead, only to see her closest competitor chip away at the advantage over the long day. Neufeld made the pass about forty miles from the finish, but only managed to put six minutes into VT, leaving the Portland, Oregon native feeling wary but confident heading into the final day of racing. After Neufeld, who confessed to being "a so-so runner—I'm only aiming to make the cut-off," the next woman was quiet Konoka Azumi, almost an hour-and-a-half in arrears.
Ultraman Day Three comes fast, with all the competitors stumbling into a Princeton, B.C. diner for a final meal ahead of 52 miles of running. The Ultra520k Run Course is no joke, considering that those 52 miles also feature close to 25 miles of gravel and 3000 feet of climbing. After breakfast, everyone piles into support vehicles and drives a few miles to a deserted road on the outskirts of town, where the organizers erect a hasty, short-lived start line (it's folded up within minutes of the gun firing). After two days of summer heat, the early morning in the B.C. mountains is usually crisp and cool. Arm coolers have been ditched for jackets and tights. A camera drone whirs nervously in the sky. The run start is an anticlimactic affair, as the tired competitors lurch out on their first steps towards a town over fifty miles away. VT and Jordan Bryden, the men's leader, ran together as Azumi tore off down the road. No woman had ever run faster 7:37 on this course, and VT had 1:28 to play with. The last time she'd done Ultra520k, she posted a 7:58. Azumi would have to post one of the world's best times to beat VanTassel, and everyone knows that starting fast in any kind of running race is foolhardy, right?
Unfortunately, today was the day and Azumi was that woman. She rattled off a 1:40 half marathon, and then repeated the trick to go through the 26.2 mark in 3:20. Behind, VT was already feeling the effects of two days of racing, confessing to a crew member "I feel like it's already the end of the race." Azumi continued her assault as VT struggled behind, knowing she'd surrendered close to half her lead halfway through the run. The day got hot and stale, forest fires burning nearby in the Kootenays. As VT ran down out of the mountains, news came from the finish line: Azumi had run 6:58, erasing Kate Bevilaqua's two-year-old run record. VT would have to get to the finish line quickly if her lead was to hold up. For a while, it didn't look good. Forced to walk most of the climbs, she ran gamely downhill (one of the cruel features of the run course is that participants have to run the final eight miles downhill on completely thrashed legs), before hearing that she had 25 minutes to cover the remaining two-and-a-half miles. No small feat after close to eight hours of running, she managed the trick, though, crossing the line in 8:21:25, bringing her three-day total to 26:16:54; Azumi ended up only 5:50 behind, after over 323 miles (520k) of racing.
"I never thought it would end up this way," a relieved and elated VanTassel said after the race. "My run is usually my strength, but it deserted me today. I count myself lucky that I got to race against an athlete like Konoka. You will hear about her for years to come." Indeed, Azumi had set the second-fastest Ultraman run of all time, the first fastest coming on the much flatter Ultraman Hawaii course. "She pushed me to the absolute limit out there today," VT added. The race goes down in history as the closest in Ultraman history (the second-closest being VanTassel's second-place finish in 2014, a margin of only seven minutes), but the victory goes to one corner only: VT's.