MOULTONBOROUGH — Six years ago, Kale Poland was 29, the youngest in the field of elite endurance athletes that entered a deca triathlon in Mexico. The “deca,” known in its short form, is for people for whom a triathlon is just a warm-up. These athletes sign up for a race that is the equivalent of a full triathlon – 2.4 miles of swimming, 116 miles of bicycling, followed by a marathon run – times 10. A deca is designed to not just test an athlete’s physical limitations, but to obliterate them, and see what happens next.
Poland had no idea what the experience would be like, but he managed to finish. In the years since, he has organized several of his own endurance events, such as a wintertime bike race on Gunstock Nordic trails, competed in ultramarathons, and moved to Moultonborough, where he is part-owner of a yoga and fitness studio.
He also broke his neck while bicycling this spring, an event which forced him to cease his full-throttle pattern and, for the first time in years, the native of Turner, Maine, who developed his own backwoods-contrarian brand of fitness, was forced to slow down.
“I did my first ultra-triathlon in ‘09, and then I never took a rest,” Poland said. He was lucky – very lucky. He was on a group ride on the WOW Trail going through Laconia at the end of April when the accident happened. He was at the back of the pack as it passed Lake Winnisquam, and decided to sprint to the front of the pack, along a stretch of trail that he had ridden many times before. He looked away for an instant, and when he looked in front of him again, it was too late to even hit his brakes. He rode full-speed into an imposing granite cube, put in place to prevent cars from driving onto the trail. It stopped his bike instantly but Poland kept going, landing directly on his head. His C-7 vertebrae fractured, but he avoided any damage to his spinal cord.
The doctor’s order to rest felt like a prison sentence.
“I spent a lot of May butthurt,” he said. So, when a race director asked him to come to his cabin in Pennsylvania – where he was hosting a retreat for people interested in the first deca to be held on American soil – Poland accepted. He spent a few days talking about his experience, and the thought of doing something so active, after weeks of inactivity, got to him.
“After going down there and rehashing old memories, I left there and said, ‘I’ve got to do this.’”
Poland, who turned 36 on Monday, is still a baby in the sport. Most of the athletes are 40 to 60; it takes that long to develop the ability to endure so many miles, and so much pain.
A deca triathlon involves staggering figures. The swim is 24 miles, followed by a 1,120-mile bike ride, and 262 miles of running. And they have just under two weeks to finish.
Decas have more of a following outside of the U.S., and as such they are usually held elsewhere. But this week, at Fontainebleu State Park in New Orleans, the first DECA MAN USA is being held. There are two formats, the “Classic” challenges its athletes to tackle each of the three legs in succession. First a full day of swimming, then days of cycling and lastly, the running. That’s the format Poland signed up for, as he figured it would bring the maximum amount of pain and suffering.
It started on Tuesday, and within several hours of starting he was starting to suffer. The swim was held in a pool, and entrants had to complete 386 laps. Of the 16 who entered the pool, only 11 were able to finish. Poland was one of those who didn’t. After 16 hours, and with 137 laps to go, he climbed out of the pool.
The problem was the nausea, he later posted on Facebook.
“I spent from 11a to 5p puking every couple hours and got really behind. Because I was depleted my technique fell apart, giving me some shoulder pain and at 11p it was obvious I wasn't going to make the 23 hr cutoff with 9 miles left,” he wrote.
Go home? No. Instead, Poland converted his entry into the second Deca Man option – completing ten triathlons in a row, known as the “1X10.” He spent Wednesday resting, and that race starts today. He has ten days to finish.
At the end of last week, Poland said that there wasn’t really a way to train for these types of distances, except for stringing together several days with significant training on each days. “You just get yourself ready to suffer all hours of the clock. I feel for the first time in a few years I’m ready to do it again.”
With these types of events, those who finish near the top aren’t necessarily the fastest – they’re the ones who spend the most time on the course. That was a mistake Poland made during his first deca. He stopped racing to eat, to brush his teeth, and he took a shower each night. This time, he’ll eat and even brush his teeth while cycling or running, and he won’t shower.
Last time, he also was also overcome by moments of euphoria, mania that surface during periods of exhaustion. He tried to take advantage of those bursts of energy – to his great detriment, he said.
“You try not to give in to those, because there’s always an opposite and much worse reaction coming. There is always a soul-crushing low coming,” he said.
During his first deca, he was solely focused on survival. This time he has a better strategy for managing his exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Since then, he has competed in a 500-mile ultramarathon, which expanded the range of suffering he has experienced. And he has gone through the training to become a yoga instructor, which gives him tools for stretching and meditation that he didn’t have before.
If he is able to travel the 1,400-plus miles, he will do it mostly on his own. With the exception of a friend who’s coming down to help during a few days, Poland is acting as his own crew.
Why do this? Because, he said, he can.
“I can do it, why not do it?” he said. “I do enjoy it. I like getting totally blown up in the head, and then resurrecting yourself and going to the next level of performance.”