MEL URIE – SIMPLY EPIC
Aussie Mel Urie recently entered the record books as the only female ever, to complete the greatest of triathlon challenges – the EPIC 5 event. A whopping five Ironman events, over five days, on five Hawaiian Islands. The Melbourne age group star has a thing for long, ultra and epic triathlon distances, and is without doubt what epitomises #INSPO!
Who is Mel Urie? Describe you – who you are, your passions, what you do for work, and your life before endurance sport like Ironman, Ultra Ironman and the Epic 5 Challenge.
I am a mental health nurse and work in the Western Suburbs of Melbourne. I am very passionate about my friends, family and triathlon. I try not to allow triathlon to take over my whole life but sometimes it really does! Prior to triathlon, I was swimming and riding a bit, but more for fun and fitness than anything. I got into triathlon to get fit and lose weight after I finished studying and started working full-time.
Growing up, were you always active or sporty? Is your family into sport?
I grew up swimming. My mum was a swim teacher so she made sure my brother and I were in the water a lot as kids. But I wouldn’t call myself sporty as a kid. I played netball and basketball socially during primary and high school. We had a three kilometre cross-country fun run in high school and I did it in year 12, with a friend as a three-legged race. That’s about how serious I took sport and PE [Physical Education]. My brother, dad and I did the Great Victorian Bike Ride together in 1998. I enjoyed riding but again, nothing serious.
What sparked your interest in triathlon?
I saw my friend do a triathlon back in 2005, at the end of the season – I decided I wanted to give it a go!
Describe your first foray into triathlon.Could you have imagined then, that you would go on to do Ironman and Ultraman?
I had never run, so I did a couple of fun runs over the winter and then tried my hand at a couple of mini-distance triathlons (200m swim, 10km bike and 2km run) or something similar in distance. I really enjoyed the races, so I continued and the following season stepped it up to sprint and an Olympic distance race. I remember finding out about Ironman in 2008 and thought, “I want to do that!” I hadn’t heard of Ironman and Ultraman prior to this time.
What was your progression in triathlon like? How did you get into the longer distance?
I raced my first Ironman 70.3 on the Gold Coast, in 2008. I clearly remember when I crossed the finish line, the first words out of my mouth were – “That was so much fun. When can I do it again?”
I rang my coach the next day and asked if I could do Ironman 70.3 Shepparton, which was six weeks later. I had already signed up for Geelong half leading into Ironman Australia in 2009. I found out about Ultraman in 2010 after reading a book by Rich Roll, ‘Finding Ultra’, and set my sights on that for 2014, in Canada. I realised that I didn’t have enough years of training behind me to be able to get through the training for Ultraman without breaking down, hence why I waited for four years before attempting the distance.
Going the Distance
You’ve completed six iron-distance events (Ironman Australia, Ironman New Zealand, Challenge Wanaka, Ironman Melbourne, Challenge Roth and Ironman Cairns). Talk us through your first long course experience. Was it everything you thought it would be? What made you keep coming back for more?
My first Ironman was in Port Macquaire. For those who were there, they will remember the mud, and that transition was ankle deep in water. It was insane! But I loved it. I had a few dark patches as everyone does, but most of the time I had a massive smile on my face and just set about enjoying the day. The finish line was like nothing else. My friend who got me into triathlon was there and I could hear her voice above everyone else’s, cheering me on down the carpet – very cool.
I never thought I would be a one-and-done athlete. I always knew I would keep going at the long course as it suited me more. I really enjoy pushing the limits and seeing how far I can go. I also love travelling, so I figured it was a good way to see parts of the world that I might not necessarily go to and do a race at the same time.
Of the iron distance events you’ve competed in, what is your favourite race and why?
My favourite race was Challenge Wanaka. The course is spectacular. When I did it, the bike course was still one lap. The winds were insane – 50km/hour in the morning and then got worse during the day. But I love windy, hilly courses. Again, it pushes you harder and further than you think you can go, and I find enjoyment in the moment when you have to put your head down and keep pushing. I say that’s where my race starts! The run is equally as beautiful along the lake. I went back the following year to do the half, while my husband did the full distance, which is unusual as I don’t generally repeat races. But I just couldn’t stay away!
Most people would think completing an Ironman is hard enough. So, why Ultraman? What do you get from doing ultra iron-distance events?
I feel that Ironman is an amazing race and achievement but I was looking for something else to push me. I felt that Ultraman was a distance that intimidated me. I like to use my gut instincts to live my life and if a race scares me, I get drawn to it and want to do it.
Talk us through your prep for an Ultraman. How does it differ to Ironman prep?
Ultraman prep is different in terms of being able to back up big days, day-after-day. Usual Ironman prep is a long ride one day and a long run the next. Whereas for Ultraman, it’s long ride one day, a long ride and run off the bike the next day, and then another run the third day before going back to work. The total hours aren’t a lot more but I notice the fatigue you feel is more than Ironman training because of backing up day-after-day more than you would with Ironman.
I understand your prep leading into Ultraman Canada wasn’t ideal – you were doored in December 2013 and broke a vertebra in your back. And then in May 2014, four weeks out from Ironman Cairns (which was to be your lead-in race into Ultraman Canada) you fell off you bike and broke your arm. Talk us through that.
When the doctor told me that I had broken my back, my first thought was, “What about Ultraman Canada?” By that time, it was a three-year dream that I was not prepared to give up on. I rang my coach the next day and talked it though with him. He assured me we had enough time to get to the race in good shape, as we still had nine months to get ready – I put my 100% trust in him to get me there. My initial training was more rehab than actual training to get me back to a point where I could swim without back spasms, ride on the road on my bars and actually run.
Some people might look at that and think, “Well that must be a sign, I’m not doing Cairns or Canada.” But not you. What kept you going? Did you have any doubts?
When I broke my arm, my coach banned me from riding outside until Ultraman. He also said to me that if I couldn’t get through Ironman Cairns, I couldn’t do Ultraman. He knew how stubborn I am so I got my plaster off after four weeks and went and raced Ironman.
It never occurred to me that I should not do Ultraman. It was more that I was being thrown curve balls that I needed to figure out how to manage, to keep going. Once I set my mind on a goal, I do whatever I can to achieve that dream.
You went on to complete Ultraman Canada and then two years later completed Ultraman Australia. And now you’ve just completed the Epic 5 Challenge – five Ironman events, in five days, on five Islands of Hawaii. That is amazing! What made you decide to do the Epic 5?
Two years ago, I was talking to a friend about Epic 5. He told me that if I did Epic 5, he would do Ultraman. That planted the seed. I also kept coming back to the fact that the race scared me, so I knew that it was one I had to do. I had already planned Ultraman Australia in 2016, so I set my sights on 2017, for Epic 5.
You were the only female to complete the Epic 5 Challenge and one of only two Aussies. Huge congrats! How did it make you feel knowing you were the only female going in?
Going into the race, I didn’t put much thought into being the only female. I sign up for races for me, not for anyone else and if I’m the only female, that’s fine. It doesn’t worry me. But when I turned up to the swim start on the first day, one of the staff came up to me with moist eyes saying that they had been waiting for women to start turning up to the race and how amazing it is that I was there. It hit me at that moment that I needed to pay more attention to this, and that I had more responsibility than I realised to women out there. The other really amazing experience was when an elderly couple turned up to transition in Maui, specifically to see me. The woman was so excited to see me she was tripping over her own words trying to get them out. That warmed my heart and I knew, at that point that I was in a pretty special position – one that I needed to take seriously.
Ultra endurance events tend to be quite male dominant. Why do you think that is? Have you found any issues training for, and competing in ultras as a female? From a physiological, psychological and social perspective.
I didn’t have any issues training for the race as a female. I don’t know what it’s like for the guys but I don’t feel like it’s an issue to put myself first to get my training done. I don’t have any kids so I feel that this helps me be more flexible with my time as well. My husband is very supportive – he was able to support me and not make me feel guilty for the long training hours I was doing. I heard once that a guy needs to be 20% confident they will get through, to sign up to an event whereas women need to be 80% confident. I have no idea where these numbers came from but I really feel that it is true. I feel that I wouldn’t sign up for a race of this distance without having a significant level of confidence that I would get through it.
Talk us through your prep for the Epic 5 Challenge? How do you prepare physically and also mentally for an event like that? How do you deal with the fatigue and how do you stay motivated?
Physical prep for Epic 5 was like nothing else I’ve done. It’s more intense and fatiguing than the Ultraman races I’ve trained for. I spent pretty much every weekend doing back-to-back seven to eight hour training days, and added another big day in there too if there was a public holiday. I did three consecutive weekends of racing – two trail marathons and an Ironman 70.3. All of the races were then followed up with a big day of training the next day. The focus was on learning how to back up multiple days of training, as thisis what I would be doing in the race.
I also paid a lot of attention to my mental strategies. I had strategies for dealing with heat, fatigue and when things went wrong; how to stay calm and in control. I had a lot of time training to develop these strategies to make sure I had the best possible chance of getting through the event. I actually didn’t have any issues with motivation. I can honestly say that I was happy and enjoying the race 99% of the time. I had a couple of moments on day three but as you can see from the photos, I had a massive smile on my face and just enjoyed the celebration of all of the work I had done leading up to that point!
Fatigue really caught up with me on the last day in Kona. I had only had an hours sleep between Maui and Kona, plus the fatigue from the previous four days of Ironman events caught up with me. I had made a plan with my crew to have naps if I needed, so I stopped on the bike as I was hallucinating, weaving and seeing spots in my vision. [I stopped for] 15minutes and then was back on the bike feeling great. I then napped before the run, and again on the run! The last day was all about finishing it off and not about time, as we didn’t have to catch transport the next day. I slept whenever I could, on the plane, in the car and in a bed where I could.
I read on your blog that when you first arrived in Kona for the event your bike didn’t make it initially… That would have been stressful.
My bike was a massive stress! I flew out three weeks early to Kona to train and my bike didn’t make it with me. I tried to deal with it best as I could but I had a couple of melt downs when the airline told me that they had found my bike (twice) and then back-tracked on this and denied saying this to me – I did not cope well with that!
Thankfully, I was able to get a rental bike from Bike Works in Kona, so that I could still train. But I was very happy to be reunited with my bike when it turned up a week later.
I understand that the late Craig Percival coached you until he tragically passed away in December 2016. That must have had a big impact on you and must have been a very hard time. How did you maintain focus and continue to train during a time like that? Were there any moments where you thought – “I can’t continue doing this?”
Craig’s death was a sudden shock. All of his athletes that I was in contact with were completely lost and didn’t know what to do. I took a week or so off training to give myself some time to grieve and get my head around what was going on. I didn’t have a moment of thinking that I can’t continue doing this because I know that Craig would have been really angry at me if I gave up. We all knew that we had to keep going. I had to find someone to help with that.
So you were faced with the decision of finding a new coach. What was that process like and how did you find the new coaching relationship?
I knew that I couldn’t take too much time out from training so I sat down and thought if I could have a pick of any coach, who would I want? I believe that there is not too many coaches out there who understand Ultra-distance racing so I was very particular in who I wanted. I contacted Kate [Bevilaqua, Ultraman World Champion], she was my top pick. I was very happy when she agreed to take me on. I knew that she had been very successful at Ultraman distance racing so I thought that she would be perfect to know what Epic 5 is all about and to get me to the start line in one piece!
Kate provided a lot more feedback than I am used to, which took a bit of time to adjust to. I was used to occasional emojis from Craig and about the same from my previous coach, but Kate would write a few lines back to me after most of my training sessions. I felt that it took a little bit of time for Kate to understand my bluntness in my feedback as she kept telling me not to be so hard on myself – I was just being honest about how I was feeling. I feel that we worked really well together. She was very encouraging and supportive, even saying that she was amazed at how I was able to do everything and felt I was the mentally toughest person that she knew. I found that very surprising but I took the compliment.
Talk us through the Epic 5 Challenge and how the event unfolded for you.
Epic 5 is next level. I have said to a few people that it makes Ultraman look easy. And Ultraman certainly isn’t easy! The travel eats into rest/recovery time and combined with fatigue, it really gets to you by days three and four.
Day 1 in Kauai was great. It’s a small island with one main road. The swim was easy – we had paddlers next to us for each swim, to guide us along. I saw a turtle near the start so I knew it was going to be a good day. The bike was a one way course with a small turn around and a little way back to transition for the run near the airport. They have the run off the main road but also near the airport so everyone can get the flight to the next island. This was the only day that there was transport at night instead of in the next morning. It was very well organised, but I’m glad I was racing and not organising it!
I struggled a bit on the run in terms of knowing how to pace it. I was very aware of not pushing too hard but I didn’t know how hard to push as I knew I had to keep going for another four days after it.
Thankfully, I woke up the next morning after about four hours sleep, and my body felt like I had done a big training day the day before. This is a very familiar feeling to me, so it gave me confidence that I was going to be fine. I was going to get through it. I never thought – “Will I make this?” I only thought – “How am I going to do this?” That’s another mental strategy. I don’t ever consider DNF [Did Not Finish]. It doesn’t even come into my mind anymore.
Day 2 was Ohau. I found this island very stressful as we started and finished in Honolulu, which is very busy with cars and people. Getting out of town was hard with lots of turns, and the roads didn’t always have much of a shoulder and the cars weren’t as friendly as in Kauai. My paddler was lovely but I had to point out to her that her job was to sight for me, as well as take me on the right line, after I ran into the third buoy in a row! The run was strange. The roads aren’t closed so you have to obey all of the road rules, including stopping at pedestrian crossings on the run. The roads were too busy to just make a run for it – that did my head in. My right knee started hurting, which was annoying. But I felt like it wasn’t too serious as it was a dull ache not a sharp pain, so I ran through it.
Day 3 in Molokai, the swim was in a pool as there isn’t anywhere safe to swim apparently. Most of us wore wetsuits, which helped with body position and speed, but I overheated in my long-sleeved wetsuit. This day was hard for me. It was a lot hotter than the previous two days and, mentally, I just struggled. My crew went to the shops after the swim and didn’t catch up with me for an hour. By that time, I was out of all drinks and food, and I was getting upset that they had left me for that long. I figured that they had a decent reason for it as they wouldn’t have done that normally, so I didn’t yell at them. I was just felt thankful that they were there to stock me up again. The costal road was beautiful but narrow, so we had to be on guard, especially around corners. But it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as Honolulu, which was a nice change. The run was tough. My hamstrings decided to seize up and not allow me to run. I had my knee checked out by the sports doctor who was on staff and she diagnosed Bursitis. She said that I wouldn’t be doing any damage by running on it and just to manage with anti-inflammatories. I was okay with that and managed it.
Since I didn’t have time for my usual recovery – stretching and rolling out – as this would eat into sleep time, it all caught up with me on day three, and I had to walk most of the marathon. Thankfully, my amazing crew walked alongside me, talking about random stuff to keep me distracted while I got through the distance. I managed to get two hours sleep in a bed in Molokai, which was great!
Day 4 started with a ferry ride to Maui, so I was able to get another hour of sleep and then I did some stretching and rolling out. I was stressed that I wouldn’t be able to run again, so I tried to help my legs as much as I could, to get through the next two days.
I had a couple of friends from Kona meet us in Maui, and I swam with one of them in Maui and in Kona. It was great to have more support and for my crew to have a bit more rest than they had been having. The swim was rough but again, when I saw two turtles, I decided that it was going to be a good day and kept that mental attitude for the rest of the day. The bike was hilly but beautiful. It would be an amazing island to go back to and look around. We had one lap with a few turns, so it was easy for my crew to help navigate me as we went along – the athletes aren’t expected to remember each course on each island. I finished the bike in the dark but I didn’t care. Mentally, I was in a much better place than the previous day and I was able to run – it was very exciting! I was “running” very slowly, but my walking pace was a lot slower so I shuffled along while one of my crew walked. We face-timed a good friend back home for over an hour, which was awesome. My crew were running out of things to say to me by this point, so it was great to have a fresh person to chat to as I went along, and help take my mind of my ever growing blisters and pain that my feet were causing me.
Day 5 was party day. All 10 of us had made it to Kona, which was incredible and we were all excited to get it done. I swam with my friend again, so I just had to sight off him instead of looking forward, which was very helpful as the water was rough again, like in Maui.
The swim and bike were over the same course as the Ironman World Champ’s course. When I got onto the bike, my little toes were causing me agony. Every pedal stroke was painful, so I stopped and asked my crew to try and get more out of my blisters but they couldn’t. I took some pain killers and hoped that my feet would go numb so I didn’t have to put up with the pain. The bike was windy – as every other island but this course did not disappoint with the wind! Since we had a late start in Kona (11am), I finished the bike in the dark again. I had a friend ride from the turn back onto the Queen K with me (this is allowed due to safety for athletes with fatigue), which was great. I had napped during the bike leg and I wanted another sleep but she kept me going, and distracted from wanting to fall asleep.
My husband cut holes in the sides of my running shoes to relieve my little toes. It was amazing! I just wish we had done that earlier. I ran/walked a fair bit of the first lap of the run, then walked a lot of the second lap as far as I can remember.
By the end we had a little group of six walking along, chatting. I told one of the staff that I would be like Forrest Gump by the end of the run. The finish was amazing. I highly doubt there were any dry eyes around.
I was very emotional at finishing, feeling Craig’s presence along with me during the day and the overall achievement of completing Epic 5 – something that I would have never thought I would have been able to do seven years ago, when I first heard about it. But now I’d made it a reality – incredible!
That is so awesome! Did you have any expectations going in? Did you have any time goals?
I had read and heard a decent amount about the race beforehand, so it didn’t surprise me on how hard it was. It certainly exceeded my expectations on how much fun it was though!
My own time goal was sub 15 hours on the first day to make the flight. In the back of my mind I thought if I could go under 17 hours, that would be cool but I honestly didn’t care. I made sure I tucked my ego away before the race and made completion my only goal. I didn’t care if I was last, I just wanted to finish the event.
What kept you going over the five days? How did you stay motivated doing an Ironman day after day?
As I said before, I don’t allow myself to think about quitting. I set my focus on day five. Everything was about day five. I ate and drank fluids for day five. I conserved earlier on, all for day five. I knew that Kate had got me to a point, physically, where I would be able to get through the event – it was now up to me to put all of that hard work to practice. I broke the event down into small chunks, there was no way that I would have been able to take it all on, in one go. It’s too overwhelming to see it as five Ironman events. Instead I had to swim, bike and run each day, and I broke it down within that each day as well.
Who made up your support crew? How important is it to have a good support crew going into, and during an event like the Epic 5?
Your crew make or break your race. They can be the difference between finishing the race and a DNF. Without them, I would not have been able to do this event as they made sure I had nutrition the whole way through, broke down and re-built my bike each day, as well as packed up everything to transport it to each island each day. It’s a massive job that I wouldn’t have been able to do myself. My crew was made up of my husband Michael, and my friends Ben and Catherine.
What’s your advice to other athletes who have epic goals they want to achieve?
I would say, try and make your environment as easy as possible to achieve your goals. I would not allow myself to lie in bed when my alarm went off in the morning. It didn’t matter what time it was. I would say to myself, “Don’t think, just do.” I would have my clothes laid out for me so I could get dressed and head out the door straight away. I can’t recall the amount of times I was a few kilometres down the road, waking up and realising that I was out running! Also, as Craig would say to us: “Find your why.” Why are you doing this? Use that as motivation when you want to stop or not train.
What’s next for you? Any plans on the Ultraman calendar yet?
What’s next? Sleep! I don’t know how long it’s going to take, for my body to recover from this event, so I haven’t planned anything until I feel physically ready to start training again. Then, I feel I’ll be able to start planning my next adventure!