UI chemistry professor competes in ultratriathlon world championship

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Photo courtesy of Lloyd Munjanja

Chemistry proessor Dr. Martin Gruebele about 500 miles into the 1120 mile bike ride for the Deca Ultratriathlon World Championship in August.

By Azucena Gama, Staff Writer

For some, the last difficult workout they completed might consist of lifting weights at the ARC or running during a P.E. class.

For Dr. Martin Gruebele, a chemistry professor at the University, his last difficult workout was a nine-day-long ultratriathlon.

In August 2022, Gruebele completed the Deca Ultratriathlon World Championship in Buchs, Switzerland. The grueling race was ten Ironmans done continuously, making it 23.6 miles of swimming, 1118.5 miles of biking and ten marathons: 262.2 miles of running.

This year, 33 participants from around the world competed, but only 25 finished the race. This race is done over the course of 14 days, but 58-year-old Gruebele did it in nine days and 22 hours. This consisted of about 25 hours of swimming, 109 hours of biking and 103 hours of running.

The clock starts the moment you hit the water for the swimming portion, and it does not end until you cross the finish line at the end of the running portion.

If it sounds brutal, it’s because it is.

“The race started at 6 p.m. on a Sunday evening, so they expect you to swim through the night, and into the next day, without sleep,” Gruebele said. “You’re demoralized.”

This race cannot be done alone. There were people on his team working meticulously around the clock to ensure Gruebele was as comfortable and as prepared as possible to continue racing.

For his crew, Gruebele recruited colleague Dr. Lloyd Munjanja, a member of the Department of Chemistry and the assistant dean of Inclusive Excellence in LAS, and Jay Yost, an ultra-cyclist located in Champaign.

“I knew both of them very well,” Gruebele said. “I knew they could handle logistics. They both had crewing experience and have done ultra races. One of them is used to doing long runs, and the other one is used to doing long cycling events.”

Yost and Gruebele have been friends for many years; they participated in a two-man Race Across America team in 2013. Munjanja has also crewed for Race Across America and is a frequent marathon runner.

Another crucial part of the race is to be extremely timely.

“I think Martin felt that it was a good idea that I come for this adventure because I’m a planner, I’m organized and very data-driven,” Munjanja said.

Besides the physical training Gruebele had to do beforehand, which wasn’t that out of the ordinary for him considering he’s already done 22 Ironmans, he had to plan out every move. He had to make sure that he was getting four hours of sleep each day, eating real meals and could race uninterrupted.

“I don’t play by ear; I had a quite precise schedule, understanding, of course, that things are going to change — you’re never going to go exactly by the schedule,” Gruebele said. “My schedule had me finishing in nine days and 17 hours, but it took me nine days and 22 hours.”

The schedule also had to include time for the crew to eat and sleep, which they did while the Gruebele was racing. Still, they were always on alert and on hand.

“(The crew’s job is) making sure that your racer is well taken care of,” Munjanja said. “If they want pasta, you go find them pasta. If they want a beer, you go find them a beer.”

Gruebele and his team took the extra five hours due to a previous shoulder injury that recurred during the swimming portion. This setback forced Gruebele to swim with only one arm for eight hours.

Another issue they faced was during the biking portion of the race when Gruebele’s neck began to be unable to support his head. Yost and Munjanja had to go to the store and buy packages of menstrual pads to create makeshift head support for Gruebele’s bike to keep his head up.

One issue the crew faced was the language barrier. Munjanja had trouble doing even simple things like laundry for the first time due to the machines being in German. But he said that overall, the challenge was exciting.

“The language barrier was a thrill,” Munjanja said. “Even sometimes when you’re trying to pay for parking, and you go into the parking meter, and you have no idea what it means … It was a challenge that provided opportunities.”

Besides the physical strength the DECA requires, it also requires remarkable mental strength to keep going. Many participants get despaired and drop out mid-race due to the mental toll it takes.

“I don’t look at the race when I’m at the start as like, ‘Oh god, this 10-day thing.’ I look at it like I’m gonna swim, and after half an hour I’ll have my first food intake,” Gruebele said. “Then I’ll swim some more, and after 16 hours I will have my three-hour sleep break.”

This sort of divide-and-conquer mental space is what helped him complete the race. He said you cannot start with dread.

“That’s what the people do to finish this race,” Gruebele said. “It’s mental. It really is mostly mental.”

His growth mindset has also impacted Munjanja.

“It’s always good to have an older person who really beats you at everything, and Martin truly does beat me,” Munjanja said. “I just hope when I’m 58, I can do half of the things that he can do. It’s very inspirational. He doesn’t quit.”

Gruebele said his final three days of racing were the light at the end of the tunnel, but he did not get desperate to finish. He just kept running.

“(At three days to the end) I’m 70% done, I’m hurting everywhere,” Gruebele said. “I can barely hobble anymore, but I only have to do it for three more days.”

He said that when he crossed the finish line, he felt pure relief.

Now, Gruebele and co. are back in Champaign working on a book, “MASTERing the DECA,” to inspire and educate those who are interested in taking on the DECA or any other ultra races.

“If you want to do something that sounds crazy like this, think about it seriously,” Gruebele said. “Because yes, you could do it if you train for it.”

 

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