Rob Grey: The Ultra Quest

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Awesome story. I finished an IM 70.3 and I feel like a great accomplishment :) What do you say to someone who is just starting into an endurance sport with family and middle age? I look forward to learning more about your experience keep publishing them.

Diego 26 septiembre, 2022

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A team manager at Google, husband, father, multiple Kona qualifier, and, oh yeah, Ultraman World Champion in 2018 with podium finishes in 2019, 2017, and 2016, Rob Gray isn’t just an athlete, he’s an ultra athlete. He’s the rare breed of human whose curiosity about what is possible extends beyond the realm of normality: 320 miles (515km) beyond to be exact.

"You have bad patches in life and if you can just get through that without thinking long term, you push through and the bad eventually goes away and the good times come back.” 

An Ultraman is a three day triathlon that covers 320 miles (515 km). Athletes complete a 6.2 mile (10 km) open water swim and a 90 mile (145km) bike on day one; 171 mile (276km) bike on day two; and, a 54.4 (84 km) run on the third day. The race requires so much logistical planning, whether transportation or nutritional aid on-course, that each athlete requires a crew of people to assist them throughout the event.  

Gray was initially a cyclist, racing mountain bikes and always finishing in the top 10 but never winning. It was only when he did a 12 hour cycling race that Gray tapped into what he had been searching for.  At the midway point, most of the competitors started to drop out. “At hour 7 I felt like I was going to die,” Gray says. “I just had to keep going because it was 12 hours. I kept going minute by minute and suddenly I just came out of it.” Gray finished second and, he says, “That’s when the penny dropped. The longer, the better.” When triathlon entered the picture, Gray says his friend persuaded him to do an Ironman. “It was daunting, it seemed insane to me. But he literally sat me down and made me enter Ironman Switzerland and that’s where it all started. I was hooked. I entered every single Ironman I could after that. I did my first three Ironmans within nine weeks of each other.”  

Gray did subsequently better in each race. “I just loved it. I was obsessed.” But he wanted even more. “I did a bunch of Ironmans but at the back of mind I was thinking: what’s next? I heard about this race called Ultraman, which is basically a circumnavigation of the Big Island of Hawaii. It scared me a little bit, just like the idea of that first Ironman that seemed impossible. [Ultraman] really did seem impossible, just the idea of swimming 10km was pretty out there for me.” 

Ultraman Hawaii is the World Championship so to get an invitation, Gray would have to complete and qualify in another Ultraman event. Gray entered Ultraman Florida but he was living in Colorado so he was forced to do all his training inside. “I didn’t really put two-and-two together that I would have to train through the winter—but I did,” he says. His longest bike ride on the indoor trainer was six hours. “That’s a lot of Netflix. I probably watched all of Netflix even before covid,” he laughs.  

Gray not only completed his first Ultraman but he also won and earned his invitation to the World Championship. “The bug bit me. As soon as I finished, I entered Ultraman Hawaii. I’ve done it every year since then except for when it was canceled because of covid.” Gray has finished on the podium every year he has raced, even taking the title in 2018. “I’ve found an event that I’m good at and I really want to reach my full potential. This event is a way of testing that potential—it was like it was designed for me.” 

Unlike his experience competing in Ironman or cycling races, Ultraman didn’t leave Gray searching for something else. Instead, it has left him searching for something within. 

“Usually at the point you feel terrible, you just stop because you’re listening to your body or your mind but if you just go a little bit further you come through that valley and everything is okay again. When I’m in an Ultraman, every race there is a patch where I’m exhausted; I just take it thirty-seconds by thirty-seconds and eventually you’ll get out of it. That’s all I’m thinking. I’m not thinking big picture; I’m not thinking that I want to win or about the competition or this being a realization of my potential, it’s just survive the next 30 seconds. It’s a good life lesson because life’s like that as well. You have bad patches in life and if you can just get through that without thinking long term, you push through and the bad eventually goes away and the good times come back.” 

Even though he has been World Champion, Gray says he is still motivated to keep competing exactly because of the bad patches, the mistakes, and the challenges. “What keeps me going is that I’ve never had the perfect race. There is always something I feel like I can improve,” he says. Gray is meticulous about his planning and training (which is up to thirty hours a week) but his discipline doesn’t come from the need to control or perfection, it springs from his curiosity. “I don’t feel the need to control. I feel the need to really understand; I want to understand how things work.” Learning and progressing is the motivating part of the process for Gray.  

He explains losing his title in 2019 was one of his biggest mistakes but also one of his biggest lessons. As the defending champion, Gray had assessed his main rivals and decided he had an advantage on the run. When the eventual winner enticed him to change his race strategy, Gray paid for it and finished second. “I underestimated him,” Gray says, adding that he should have stuck to his race plan. That lesson might have been the biggest but his hardest was an avoidable nutrition miscalculation.  

Mistaking milligrams for grams on a nutrition label, Gray ingested too much sodium. “I miscalculated very badly. I was in the shape of my life too.” Gray had so much salt in his body that gained 15lbs of water and lost part of his vision. He eventually recovered but it left a mental scar. “It was easily avoidable. I was annoyed with myself for months. I literally lost sleep about it,” Gray says. “I’m not over it,” he admits, “But I’ve moved on.” 

He might be the only person losing sleep over salt, but Gray adds that although he is chasing the perfect race, he doesn’t believe it exists. “Even if everything went smoothly, probably part of me would be disappointed; I would think I didn’t challenge myself enough. So something always has to go wrong,” he smiles. The pursuit of perfection might be a fool’s errand but it’s far from fruitless for Gray. “It’s like this ultimate quest to be the best I can be and this race is the way I measure that, it’s a way of measuring potential.” 

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Awesome story. I finished an IM 70.3 and I feel like a great accomplishment :) What do you say to someone who is just starting into an endurance sport with family and middle age? I look forward to learning more about your experience keep publishing them.

Diego

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