Why? That’s the first question people always ask. Why would you want to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112, and then run a marathon? Why would you do it five days in a row? Why would you plan the whole thing yourself? In the five boroughs? In the middle of June?
“Why does anyone do anything?” answered Chris Solarz, a guy who read stoic philosophy in the sauna while training for such a feat. “Why do we try to run arbitrary distances in arbitrary times? I don’t know. There’s no easy answer.”
Last summer, Solarz and fellow New Yorker Chris Calimano completed the arbitrary task of one full Ironman-distance triathlon each day for five days straight, totaling 703 miles. The event started as most harebrained ideas do: over beers.
The two met at the 2016 Ultraman Florida, where they each swam 6.2 miles, biked 263 more, and capped things off with a leisurely 52.4 mile run. Back in New York, they got together for a beer and a run, where they hatched the plan for Epic 5 New York City. Epic 5, as its corny name suggests, is five Ironman-distance triathlons over the course of five days.
Its relationship to the Ironman racing scene ends at the format. These days, a typical Ironman race sees 2,000-plus athletes and their families descend upon a town for a long weekend of running, biking, and swimming. They come equipped with wildly expensive carbon-fiber bikes, shaved legs, and garish spandex. Ironman is a well-calibrated spectacle that swallows a town whole: roads are closed, hotels are booked to capacity, pasta aisles at grocery stores are ransacked. It’s a scene entirely befitting the corporate-driven behemoth that Ironman has become. Epic 5, on the other hand, is just a race put on by some particularly crazy athletes who enjoy prolonged physical pain.
The race started in Hawaii in 2010, where competitors hopped from island to island. Twenty-five people have completed it since then, including Solarz, who did it in 2014. He and Calimano thought the race format could be replicated in New York, modeled after the New York City Marathon: Start in Staten Island, roll through Brooklyn, make their way through Queens, the Bronx, and then finish in Manhattan.
But there would be no corporate sponsors or finish line or medals. It was just a couple of guys swimming, biking, and running through New York. They even called up the NYPD and Coast Guard to pull the permits themselves.
“We said, ‘We want to swim in the Hudson can you help us?’” Solarz recalls, laughing. “‘They’re like, ‘When are you going to swim?’ We said, ‘We wanted to ask you.’ They were like, ‘Oh, well then you can’t because we don’t want to screw it up.’”
The ragtag nature of the race shouldn’t give anyone the impression that Solarz and Calimano were acting on a lark. Their résumés are long, if slightly insane.
The 39-year-old Solarz has finished over 280 marathons and ultra marathons, set nine Guinness World Records (including the fastest navigation of the New York City subway system), finished a marathon in all 50 states and on all seven continents (seriously), run a 4:29 mile, and cruised to a marathon personal record of 2:39.
Calimano, a former wrestler, only ran his first marathon in 2010. The 36-year-old Staten Island native came into endurance sports in his late 20s and immediately flourished—he’s done 14 Ironmans, over 100 marathons (one in each state, naturally), Leadville Leadman twice, and finished 10th overall in the 2016 Leadville Pack Burro Race, in which he lead a burro named Smokey 21 miles in four hours and 30 minutes.
The authorities eventually relented, and on June 26, 2017 Calimano and Solarz started their trek with a 2.4 mile swim at Midland Beach on Staten Island.
To understand the charm of Epic 5 you need to first understand what triathlon, and Ironman in particular, has become. Talk to any salty, seasoned triathlete and they will tell you the Ironman circuit is too damn corporate. Cynical triathletes talk about Ironman the way record store clerks talked about major record labels in the early 90s. They are not to be trusted. Ironman, run by the World Triathlon Corporation, is an omnipresent and all-powerful presence in the triathlon scene, and they are very protective of the booming Ironman brand.
And indeed triathlon has experienced a ton of growth. USA Triathlon has seen membership steadily increase since 2000, from 127,824 members to over 477,000 in 2015. A 2014 study estimated that the U.S. triathlon market alone is worth an estimated $2.8 billion. Between the bikes, race fees (a full Ironman runs from $650 and up), pricey wetsuits, travel, accommodations, and all the absurdly specific equipment on the market, there is a lot of money to be made out there. And if there’s one thing triathletes like to do, it’s spend money. As a result, a good majority of triathletes these days are aggro, on-your-left types who ride $10,000 bikes and don’t know how to change a flat tire.
These developments have taken the sport far from its origins, which were cavalier and concerned with little more than the spirit of competition. Ironman was started by a small group of dopamine-obsessed outcasts who just liked to swim, bike, run, and suffer. A 1979 Sports Illustrated feature put Ironman, until then little known to anyone outside of the very few who competed, on the map. That story focused on the second installment of the race. Fifteen competitors took part. Barry McDermott’s SI story is a wonderful time capsule of the halcyon days of the sport:
It would seem not much of an award for so great an effort, but the significance of the event is that there is no apparent significance. No prize money is involved, and little fame; last year’s winner, bearded Gordon Haller, a 28-year-old retired taxi driver, was delighted to read a short race report in a Honolulu newspaper. Better yet, friends started sending him mail addressed “Iron Man.” The 1978 event began as an experiment and included a mixed bunch of casual entrants. One fellow could barely tread water. Another bought a bicycle and learned to ride it the day before the race. In the run, a contestant stopped at McDonald’s for a soft drink. The man who won the swim had a bad knee from an old karate injury and needed eight hours to complete the marathon.
German Patrick Lange won $120,000 when he won the Ironman World Championship title in Kona this October. And, in a rare and refreshing moment of equal pay in sports, female champ Daniela Ryf took home $120,000 for her third straight world championship.
I mention all of this because I dabbled in triathlon for the first time last year, where I encountered some of the aforementioned lycra-clad zealots in the flesh. The experience was marked by an unpleasant mix of testosterone, race-day jitters, and braying egos. So when I showed up in Prospect Park to tag along for part of the day with Solarz and Calimano, I expected a couple of ice-cold dudes in mirrored Oakleys, taking themselves way too seriously.
But this was not the fanfare and capitalist impulse of the big-city marathon or modern-day triathlon. It was an IT manager and a pension fund consultant slathered in sunscreen so thick it looked like they’d covered themselves in mayonnaise. Their friends, loved ones, and bike mechanics sat in lawn chairs alongside the park’s loop guarding a trove of snacks and a cooler full of drinks. There wasn’t a formal start or finish line—just a blanket.
Each morning started with a 2.4 mile swim at 5:30 a.m. (except for a later start on Friday, to take advantage of favorable currents in the Hudson River). In Brooklyn, they swam in Coney Island and then rode their bikes north to Prospect Park, where they rode an obscene number of laps around the 3.35 mile loop. Around and around they went, like hamsters, until they hit 112 miles on their GPS watches.
They did this for five days: wake up, swim, bike, run, switch boroughs, repeat. The routes themselves were unsexy and repetitive—112 miles of cycling mindless laps on a 2.2-mile loop in Staten Island, enough laps around Central Park to hit 26.2 miles, running through the Bronx in one-piece spandex. The course was secondary to the 140.3 miles they had to complete each day.
When I joined Solarz around mile 70 of the bike in Prospect Park, he was talkative and sanguine, doling out training advice that wouldn’t be out of place in Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
“Your perception of the difficulty is simply the difference between your expectations going in and your reality,” he said. “If you think it’s going to really suck and it sucks a lot less than that residual is ease and easiness. For months I was prepared to suffer for this week. There’s no other choice.”
Endurance athletes can slip in and out of dark places as they manage their pain. An overly dramatic (yet lovely) New York Times story about the Anvil Quintuple Triathlon last year—essentially the Epic 5 under a different name and slightly different format—led me to believe Solarz and Calimano would be shells of themselves when I found them in Prospect Park. But, as boring as it sounds, they were too prepared for that.
“On these big, big races you’re so well-prepared and then you give such an easy effort that you almost have something more to go in your legs,” Solarz told me the week after the race, over beers in lower Manhattan. “I’ve been feeling really good, like I want to do a workout, which is kind of odd.” Calimano ran a 31-minute five miler three days after the Epic Five.
These guys are, in a word, nuts. But they’re not annoying in the way a bucket-list marathoner who spends more time writing Instagram captions than training can be. And they’re not in-your-face cornballs like CrossFit zealots. They’re normal-ass dudes who like the dopamine rush of endurance sports and a cold beer afterwards. They’re monastic in their training (Solarz runs at 5:30 every morning, Calimano spins at lunch every day) and lighthearted and introspective about their passions. They are well aware of how ridiculous it is to spend so much time planning this race and then using up a huge chunk of their vacation days to run over 100 miles five days in a row. “It’s a selfish thing to do,” Solarz admitted.
I ran 20 miles of the marathon with them in Prospect Park—an endless number of laps through the park’s wooded trails—and we were joined by an eclectic group of endurance junkies. A dude just out to run a marathon on a Tuesday after work. Some guy training for a 120-mile race. A girl from the Brooklyn Triathlon Club training for Ironman Louisville. And an affable guy named Rusty who has never actually run a marathon for his own time, but once led a blind runner to a 2:43 finish at Boston.
The running portion of each day started around 4:00 or 5:00 p.m., which was conveniently timed for those who wanted to join in after work. They dropped by with the combined excitement and dread that’s familiar to anyone whose spent time around high school track stars before a hard workout. I guess I have to do this. They all did it, though, at which point standard running conversations ensued (runners only really talk about running while they’re running).
The vibe was remarkably relaxed, almost like being at a Phish concert, but everyone was swapping stories about 50-milers and blisters instead of dancing to “Wading In the Velvet Sea” and eating goo balls. (Though there is some crossover here, as there was a lengthy discussion about hallucinating in the middle of the night during 100-mile races.) There was casual burping and farting and mid-run bathroom breaks. Coca-Cola classic and Oreos. But more than anything else, these dudes were snacking. Not slurping on Gatorade and nibbling at Clif Bars. Straight up eating meals.
A typical four-hour marathoner might ingest, say, three or four gels during a race—on the go. Somewhere between 250 and 400 calories, depending on their metabolism. Just enough caffeine to keep the brain sharp and carbohydrates to keep the engine going. But when you’re exercising 13-16 hours a day for five days straight, you have to eat. You have to fuel for the task at hand and for tomorrow. So Calimano and Solarz would stop—mid-ride or mid-run—take a seat in a folding chair and smash on whatever their heart desired. And there was no shortage of options.
There were potato chips and pretzels and those soft chocolate chip cookies you can get from wholesale grocery stores. Cheetos and Nutella and gummi bears! Mid-run burritos and Egg McMuffins and a comically large fruit salad from a food cart Solarz frequents near his Midtown office. As soon as Calimano crossed the finish line on day four in the Bronx he inhaled a Burger King milkshake, a triple Whopper, two fries, and two sodas. (When he finished the race on Friday, he treated himself to chocolate milk and prosciutto while he sat in an epsom salt bath.)
While training, Solarz would eat dinner and then go for a run in Central Park. Calimano ran 5 to 10 miles once or twice a week with a 30-pound rucksack on his back. “That’s a little crazy,” Solarz said. But the secret weapon was not a carbon fiber bike or a $750 wetsuit or some sports drink cooked up in a lab. It was an ADHD teenage boy’s dream: Mountain Dew. When Solarz hit a low point, he knew it was the only way out.
“Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. First time I had one Mountain Dew, and then two and, then three,” he said. “Pretty simple solution. It was just like a one or two-hour period where I didn’t want to talk. You try to just keep your mind blank. That’s what I tried to do. Just keep it pure and not think, and just get into the meditative state. I was just trying to find that steady state. Whether it’s just my mental trick that my Mountain Dew is my go-to, or whether that actually works or it’s a placebo, I don’t truly know.”
Calimano’s silver bullet to get through the low points was a little less sugary. “It was just I think the factor of not wanting to one, look like a chump,” he said, laughing. “And two, let anybody down.”
And though it might sound like a sappy black-and-white Olympics ad campaign, quitting really was not an option. Not when you burn up a week of vacation, monopolize your family’s weekends during training, and invite a reporter along, you better finish.
“People throw around the term finding your limit,” Solarz says. “You only find your limit when you’re curled up on the side of the road crying and taken away in an ambulance. That’s your real limit. You haven’t found it yet if you finish the race. Which is the tricky one because it certainly was hard but it wasn’t too hard because we finished.”
When I pressed Solarz further about why he does this, he turned the voice recorder on me. “Do you think you could do it? Because I think you can,” he said. “Once you’re committed there’s no other choice. Which is why it’s very flattering and a little bit silly. It’s very flattering that you’re asking us these questions, but I think anyone could do it.”
Calimano, who struggled through most of the fourth day in the Bronx, was a little more matter of fact: “Magic and misery,” he said. “But if you ask that question 10 times I’ll give you 11 different answers.”
“Nobody in Honolulu knew about this,” Barry McDermott said when asked about how low-key the 1979 Ironman was. “Nobody knew about this. This was 15 guys saying let’s do something crazy and figure out who the best athlete is and we’ll have this contest. The runners will be there and the swimmers will be there and the bicyclists will be there and then we’ll decide who’s really the tough guy of this group.”
After McDermott wrote his Sports Illustrated feature about the first Ironman, he got a call from Paramount movie studio. They were interested in optioning the story, so he flew out to Los Angeles for a meeting. McDermott left SI in 1987 to work in real estate, and these days he’s semi-retired living in Florida. He doesn’t remember the Paramount producer’s name, but he does remember what he said.
“In retrospect, looking back, he set the stage,” McDermott told me, before relaying what the Paramount exec told him: That he envisioned a future in which Ironman would be taken over by corporate interests, and that eventually the purity of the experience, the one that drove people to run the race simply for the sake of competition, would die.
McDermott left the meeting confused about what he’d just heard. This insane race, with 15 people in Hawaii, is going to set the world on fire? “It was kind of interesting that this guy from Paramount had it pegged right perfectly,” he recalled with a big-hearted laugh.
Tom Warren, the unsuspecting San Diego bar owner who wrecked everyone at the second annual Ironman in 1979 and was the star of McDermott’s piece, never thought Ironman would ever become as popular as it is today.
“Not even a hint,” he said when I tracked him down earlier this year. He’s still living in San Diego and had just swam a mile in the ocean when he returned my call. “Spent half my life in pool so I don’t like it anymore,” he said, before asking how I’d found his phone number.
Warren, who doesn’t have a computer or email address, was happy to discuss the current state of capitalist triathlon. He believes the scene has changed. “Well, maybe I could just go back to our triathlons in San Diego. The little ones before the Ironman. You just showed up and raced, and then it got so,” he paused for a second. “So corporate.”
Warren, who did 20 Ironmans before he hung up the boots, is the perfect foil for the current triathlon movement. He’s not crotchety or sanctimonious like former ballplayers who love to grouse about how soft kids are these days. He’s an incredible athlete who enjoyed the purity of triathlon before it got so big. And the way he tells stories, he’d fit right in with the Epic 5 crowd.
“When I first did it, I never even trained,” he said. “I just went out and did it. I’d already done a 70-mile run and a 15-mile swim. I’d ridden down from Vancouver to San Diego on a Peugeot in a dress shirt and tennis shoes. I got sunburned so bad. I got some work gloves and cut the fingers out of them and I just took off.”
He regaled me with stories of his exploits for nearly an hour, but his constant refrain was frustration. Frustration with how money had ruined the sport. Frustration with triathlete’s obsession with gear. Frustration with drugs, even in the amateur ranks. And frustration with how he feels the current climate has changed the reasons people run. “You do it to see how well you can do,” he said. “And you do it for yourself. You don’t do it so you get a trophy or money or whatever. And it changed.”
I guess there really is no answer to why other than why not? Endurance sports, like everything else in our culture, have been improved and simultaneously ruined by money. Ironman started out as a race against oneself and has reached its capitalist endpoint: a bunch of people with too much money staring at screens telling them how hard they’re pushing themselves.
So it was refreshing to see two athletes testing the limits of the human body in the middle of the work week just for the hell of it—an ode to the early days of the sport. They called up the NYPD, organized this shit on their own. And even swam through a literal sea of jellyfish in Jamaica Bay, Queens, which Solarz later said was like swimming in bubble tea.
They seemed satisfied and proud of the effort. But it was ultimately just something to do. They kept talking to me about the event in hilariously nonchalant fashion, like they were just having a barbecue. Or going to a baseball game. Who knows what will become of the Epic 5 in the future, but Solarz doesn’t seem too worried about it. “If it ever ceases being fun,” he said. “I’ll just stop.”
Bill Bradley is a writer and reporter living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @billbradley3.