For the past seven hours, five men have been cycling around Līhu‘e, Kaua‘i in a flash flood. Soaked with rain and sweat, they pedal past Menehune Fishpond down to Nāwiliwili Harbor, then up a steep hill before reversing direction. The grueling circuit is ten-miles-plus—and they’ve done it nine times, all on the heels of their dawn swim: eighty-four laps at the YMCA pool.
As they transition to today’s final task, the marathon, the pelting rain lets up a little. The waterlogged triathletes peel off cycling bibs and cleats and change into running shoes. Renato Valler’s socks—patterned after the flag of his native Brazil —have disintegrated. Chad Bentley’s wet and shriveled feet are raw with blisters, but he’s still smiling and stoked to be here.
These five athletes have traveled from around the world to embark on a punishing odyssey known as EPIC5 Challenge Hawaii: five Ironman-length triathlons in five days on five Hawaiian Islands. The Ironman is widely considered the toughest single-day sporting event on the planet—and these masochists plan to multiply that by five. Each day they’ll swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles—then hop a plane or boat and do it again the next day, for five consecutive days. Providing they finish, by next Sunday they will have traversed the entire Hawaiian archipelago from north to south, 703 miles of it by their own propulsion. But first they have to wade through today’s biblical flood.
“It doesn’t normally start out like this,” says EPIC5 director Rebecca Morgan. “Chaos happens at some point during the week but usually not at the start.” In fact, the chaos began several days earlier when Hurricane Lane—a category five storm—was spotted cartwheeling toward the Hawaiian Islands. Rebecca didn’t blink. “We’re monitoring the weather,” she assured the athletes, who were worried that months of training might go to waste. Ultimately Hurricane Lane dissolved before pummeling the Islands, but not before sending Kaua‘i a prolonged, wet farewell.
The race was scheduled to start at Hanalei bay; Rebecca rerouted the swim to the Y and the bike course to Līhu‘e at the last possible moment. Asked why she didn’t cancel or postpone, she frowns. “That would set the example for the whole event,” she says. Volunteer Kerri Tobin nods.“The same blood runs through this whole thing,” he adds. In other words, no one in the rarified world of ultra-endurance sports, not even the support staff, can surrender an inch. Forward is the only direction.
Near midnight, marathon completed, the EPIC5 entourage rolls into Līhu‘e Airport. The athletes, their teams and the volunteer staff drag luggage through the terminal, praying they didn’t forget phone chargers or other critical equipment. The TSA agents go granular on the group, scrutinizing each bike and confiscating irreplaceable nutrient powders and gels. If any of the athletes feel impatient, they don’t show it.
“You can’t afford to get angry,” says Dolph Hoch, an ultra-endurance veteran here to crew for one of the athletes. “At this level of performance, everything is about energy conservation.” Once safe at the gate, Edwin Vargas from Colombia props his legs up on the wall to drain the lactic acid pooling in his quadriceps. Swaddled in inflatable compression pants, Renato and Chad resemble a pair of Stay Puft marshmallow men. Edwin sighs, “That was a lot of hill for the first day.”
The rising sun bathes Waikīkī in brilliant pink. Pairs of white terns soar above Ala Moana Beach Park where, after a few hours’ sleep, everyone assembles for day two. They circle up for a brief history lesson: This hallowed sand is where the very first IRONMAN race launched in 1978. Like so many displays of valor, it was born of a dispute: Is it runners or swimmers or cyclists who are the strongest of them all? Fifteen competitors sought the answer by merging Hawai‘i’s toughest races into one formidable trial that included all three sports and crowning its victor “the Ironman.” Today forty-two IRONMAN triathlons take place on six continents, including the World Championship held each fall in Kailua-Kona.
EPIC5 began in 2010, when Jason Lester dared fellow sports extremist Rich Roll to attempt what seemed impossible: a quintuple IRONMAN, hopping from island to island between each stage. Rebecca helped with logistics, renting hotel rooms and vehicles and standing alongside the road to pass her gonzo friends food and water. The prodigious effort took six days instead of five, but no matter: They’d managed to create exactly the kind of maniac challenge that’s catnip to endurance fanatics.
EPIC5 is a personal test, not a competition; there are no winners, only finishers and participants. Longer, more demanding endurance trials exist, but this is the only one that combines back-to-back triathlons with travel. “Others are done on very short courses, often in pools and on tracks,” Rebecca says. “I call them hamster wheels.”
The travel component transforms EPIC5 from simple sporting quest to survivalist adventure. On average, an IRONMAN-length triathlon takes twelve to thirteen hours to complete. That leaves just enough time to navigate airports and rental car agencies, not to mention find sustenance and snatch some shuteye. Any hiccups—wrong turns or missing bike bolts—absorb precious minutes that could have been spent resting and recovering. More damningly, if you don’t finish in time to catch your flight, you’ve likely forfeited the entire endeavor.
The extreme physical exertion, combined with sleep deprivation, tests the outer limits of human resolve. Who are you after four triathlons and no sleep? Do you have the grit to carry on? That’s what five men hope to discover this week. The Brazilian Renato, at age 38, is the youngest of the bunch and the burliest. He’s a jackhammer with seemingly infinite enthusiasm. His wife Patricia is the chief of his three-person crew. “He’s a beast,” his driver Todd Weinmann says appreciatively. “He doesn’t need to be dragged across the finish line. He will drag you!”
Chad hails from Vancouver, Canada. He’s so smiley and relaxed you’d think he were here for the umbrella drinks. His crew wears t-shirts that read: “Be Like Chad: Epic.” His wife made them and helped Chad organize a fundraising drive. He’s dedicating each day of EPIC5 to a different charity benefiting children who struggle with poverty and illness.
Edwin is a coach back home in Colombia and his crew clearly reveres him. He has a professional triathlete’s sinewy musculature and wears a rosary, even while swimming. The massive tattoo on his calf features the Virgin Mary, flanked by the logos for IRONMAN KONA and ULTRA-MAN WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS. “His three religions,” says Angelly Sepulveda, his crew chief and girlfriend.
At age 53, Joe Jaffe is the oldest athlete here. An anesthesiologist from New York, he suffered from severe asthma as a child. In college he saw someone with an inhaler and asked what it was. He’s since completed twenty-two IRONMANS and two ULTRA-MANS (a supersized version of the IRONMAN that covers 320 miles in three days). Success at EPIC5 isn’t a given for Joe, however. Last year he got both a cardiac stent and a diabetes diagnosis. The men in his family tend to suffer heart attacks around age 50. “I’m trying to escape my destiny,” he says. He’s recruited some of the nation’s top endurance athletes—including Dolph—to pace him through each day.
Chris Brennan is both a participant and the co-director of EPIC5. A gregarious attorney from New Jersey, he completed the event once before, in 2014. This year he’s added an extra challenge: He brought his 16-year-old twin sons, Sean and Ryan. Ryan has autism and Chris plans to tow him during the swims and push him in a cart during the runs. Sean will crew for both his father and brother. “EPIC5 is one of the few times you get to clear everything out of your mind and just live,” Chris said during a pre-event briefing. “It isn’t about outside glory because there is none. No one at work even knows what I’m doing. They just think I’m vacationing in Hawai‘i.”
So far, it’s been a wild vacation. “Yesterday was the hardest day, weather-wise, in the history of EPIC5,” Rebecca admits. “But that’s what this event is: enduring, adjusting, finding a way.” Now, on O‘ahu, yesterday’s deluge is already a distant memory. Kerri blows the conch and the athletes charge into the clear turquoise sea. Sean helps settle his brother into the inflatable raft that Chris pulls behind him. On the beach, bike mechanic Mike Flartey tunes up the athletes’ tricked-out cycles. After an hour, the first swimmers emerge from the ocean and transition to their bikes. The EPIC5 caravan picks up and moves out onto the road.
Spirits are high inside the Team Edwin van, which is crammed floor to ceiling with gear, snacks and fluids. Last night the crew stocked up on hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches and a new favorite: poke and rice. Triathletes can lose three percent of their body weight just in sweat; more would be risky. Pros like Edwin rely on salt tablets and special formulas to fend off dehydration. The food equation isn’t quite so scientific. Most ultra-athletes say: Eat, eat, eat—whatever and whenever you can.
“Edwin’s really from the heart, always thinking about others before himself,” Angelly says as the van leapfrogs past him on the road. “He’s the first Colombian to do ULTRAMAN. Now he’s the only Colombian to do EPIC5. It’s an opportunity to show his countrymen that it’s possible to dream.” Her crewmates nod in agreement. “He likes to open doors for us.”
Day two’s cycling route hugs Diamond Head, travels sixty miles up the scenic Windward coast to Mālaekahana beach near the island’s northern tip and then loops back to Honolulu. It’s a long, beautiful ride—or would be without the suffocating traffic, road construction and confusing twists and turns. To make matters worse for Chad, his team gives him the wrong directions at the outset and then loses him. Forty-five frustrating minutes later he’s back on track, but farther down the road, in the tangle of Kailua traffic, his team loses him again. Next his phone dies, leaving him utterly stranded. An hour passes; he starts to panic. He carries his bike into a Starbucks to borrow a stranger’s phone. He calls his wife—the only number he can remember—who manages to reconnect him with his team. Relief.
Chad charges up the coast and back down again. He’s cruising toward the bike finish when he gets lost a third time. Plus, he’s in pain. Yesterday’s soggy shoes turned his feet into a mess of blisters. Every twitch of his toes sends an electric shock up his legs. Midway through his second triathlon in as many days, Chad contemplates tossing his bike into the bushes.
Rebecca calls in support: Rozie Breslin, an O‘ahu local who completed the EPIC5 Ultra Run last year—five double marathons in five days. She’s a prime example of what Rebecca calls her “EPIC5 angels.” Every year, on each island, people appear to cheer the athletes, run alongside them, deliver coffee to addled crew or solve unexpected problems. While most of the population remains oblivious to this annual crusade, a few Island residents respond as if they’ve seen the bat signal in the sky. Some, like Rozie, are athletes themselves. Others are simply inspired spectators.
Rozie volunteers to pace Chad through the marathon. They walk together for the first few miles. Chad breathes into his tortured feet, his tolerance for pain expanding with each step. He realizes that, despite his misadventures, he’s not too far behind schedule. In fact, he’s ahead of two other athletes. He starts to run. No cheers from the crowd accompany this feat. One of the surreal aspects of this challenge is its invisibility. Days are spent dodging traffic under the sun’s glare while nights are lonely slogs down empty highways.
Day three on Moloka‘i feels like a balm after the busyness of O‘ahu. Historically, the rural Friendly Isle is everyone’s favorite, with wide empty roads and not a single traffic light. The EPIC5 entourage can’t expect to go unnoticed on an island with seven thousand-odd residents. So Rebecca took an ad out in the Molokai Times to give the protective community notice.
Jonnette Kauwenaole-Spencer responds in typical local style, showing up at the start of the swim with a cooler full of drinks and fruit from her backyard. “It’s an honor to share aloha with them,” she says of the stroking through their third day’s swim. “I admire individuals who challenge their state of mind, body and soul.” She rattles off the names of friends she plans to recruit to volunteer for next year’s EPIC5.
Today’s bike route travels east along the coastal Kamehameha V Highway, boomerangs west towards Maunaloa and back again. It’s a flat but sweltering ride for five men who’ve been whipping their muscles now for sixty consecutive hours. Chasing the sunburnt cyclists in the crew car, Mike the bike mechanic jokingly complains that they don’t have to climb the hill above Hālawa valley, as he did in 2011.
Mike tackled the EPIC5 in 2011 and 2012 and has been a volunteer wrench ever since. “You learn what’s worthy of a complaint or not,” he says. “That carries into your regular life and makes you a better person.” As Rebecca says, “We start as strangers and finish as family.” That’s especially true of the tight-knit volunteer staff, who travel the same path as the athletes.“If Rebecca did this twice a year, I’d come twice,” Mike says. “I get to meet the most interesting people. It’s fun to watch them transform over the week.”
Mike’s cell phone buzzes: Edwin is stuck with a busted derailleur. While teams are responsible for handling minor issues like flat tires, Mike and fellow gearhead Collin Cross are on call for bigger mechanical failures. A broken derailleur ranks among the biggest; it prevents the rider from shifting gears—rendering a $10,000 bike as rideable as a tricycle. Edwin plowed forward for several miles in first gear before stopping at a tiny Catholic church. Sopping with sweat, he kneels to pray. Outside, Mike devises a Hail Mary fix. He cuts up an Altoids tin and fabricates a replacement part. Grateful, Edwin climbs back on his bike.
The night sky is awash with stars. A white owl swoops ahead of Chad as he runs. His pacer, a friend who lives on Moloka‘i, points out the deer in the kiawe trees. The smell of their musk fills the air. Chris runs steadily, pushing Ryan as he goes; Sean has run alongside them for eighteen miles. Each time the runners pass a house, dogs growl and roosters let out a few cackles. Renato, whose pace hasn’t slowed much since Līhu‘e, finishes just after midnight. He opts to ride back to the condo on his bike: What’s two more miles after you’ve already knocked out 336?
Rebecca lays down a sheet and pillows on the grass fronting Hotel Moloka‘i to wait for the others. In the early morning hours, Jonnette’s husband delivers a loaf of Moloka‘i’s famous hot bread, fresh from the oven. Joe, the last runner, jogs in at 4:12 a.m. He sleeps for fifteen minutes before his crew rouses him. It’s time to leave for Maui.
Five bone-tired teams straggle to the harbor and pass bikes, gear and coolers onto the boat Rebecca has chartered. The channel between Moloka‘i and Maui is choppy, but everyone welcomes the two-hour opportunity to zone out. Historically, day four is the biggest battle, both physically and emotionally. The cumulative sleeplessness and exertion of the previous days finally catch up with people. The end might be in sight, but it’s still 281 miles away.
The athletes arrive for their swim at Kama‘ole I Beach Park an hour behind schedule; the boat passage took longer than expected. Edwin’s crew dashes from the dock to a local bike shop to pick up a rental; the Altoids tin only carried their hero so far. The sun is high and the sea—which had been bathtub-calm an hour ago—is now a washing machine. It’s a brutal start to the day.
Out in the water, Chris wrestles with the wind. He can’t make any headway towing the raft and has to send Ryan back to shore. Nausea wracks his sea-tossed body. He vomits repeatedly underwater. After an hour and forty minutes of torment, he completes the swim and collapses onto a park bench, savagely dehydrated. He takes a long break, then follows some of his own advice. “If you feel like quitting, don’t do it sitting down,” he’d said during the briefing. “Make the decision while you’re moving forward.”
He climbs onto his bike and rides south. Twenty miles in, his derailleur fails. Worse, he’s so physically depleted he keeps drifting into traffic. He looks at his boys in the van and asks himself: “Is this the experience I want to share with them?” He calls Rebecca and resigns from the race.
Joe is in a dark place. He’s several miles out from Honokohou, the midway point of the bike course, and can’t force himself to pedal any faster. He figures he has maybe a twenty percent chance of finishing. A passing cyclist calls out to him, “Hey, are you with EPIC5?” It’s Charles Vierra, a Lahainaluna High School grad and aspiring triathlete. He’s been following the race online and asks if he can tag along with Joe until it gets dark. They ride together to the turnaround, where Joe’s team feeds them burgers and fries. Joe fetches a bike light and reflective vest from the van and invites Charles to ride with him all the way back to Kīhei. “You’re a lifesaver,” Joe says.
Running while half-asleep, Edwin asks Angelly where he is. “You’re on Maui,” she tells him. “Finishing your fourth triathlon.” He nods and puts one foot in front of the next.
The Kona-bound plane is ready for take off. A flight attendant calls for Edwin Vargas. No answer. He and his crew got hung up in the Maui terminal. They miss the flight.
Kailua-Kona is packed with canoe paddlers migrating toward the pier. The final day of EPIC5 coincides with the Queen Lili‘uokalani Canoe Race, the largest outrigger canoe competition in the world. Kerri is a devout paddler; though he’s deeply exhausted from five days of volunteering for the EPIC5, he enters two early morning races and medals in both. Everyone is euphoric to finally be in Kona, home of the IRONMAN WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP.
By some miracle, Edwin and his crew manage to get on a flight thirty minutes after the one they missed. Colombia is still in the race. Chris, officially a DNF (did not finish), will continue to keep his comrades company on their final swim. All five athletes circle up beneath the seawall.
Rebecca and fellow staffer Victoria Morales watch them disappear into the blue. A woman with a clipboard approaches; she’s taking surveys for the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority. Motioning toward the canoes, she asks, “Can you believe they paddle all the way to Kealakekua?” Rebecca and Victoria nod, too frazzled to explain that, as impressive as the eighteen-mile contest is, it doesn’t compare to the 703-mile expedition their athletes are so close to finishing.
Chad returns from his swim all smiles: A spinner dolphin barreled past him in the water. “I thought I was hallucinating,” he says, “but a boat captain saw some dolphins, too.” He wraps his feet in mummy-like bandages, clips into his bike and zips off.
The sun drops into the Pacific and the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway slowly goes dark. The riders grind away at their last 112 miles in the saddle.
Edwin is the first cyclist in, followed by Chad. They head out on foot. Two hours later, Renato rolls in. By now, the staff is nine-tenths delirious, having slept less than ten hours in the past five days. Also delirious, Renato decides to call it a night. He’s finally hit a wall after charging each day like a bull. He’ll go back to the hotel, get some sleep and finish the marathon in the morning, before the noon cut-off. This is either a smart or disastrous choice.
As the Kailua-Kona bars begin to close, the pier becomes a stage for drunken mayhem. In its midst Joe arrives from his ride. The prospect of starting a marathon at this hour is daunting but Joe rallies. He doesn’t have any more planes to chase: just sweet, sweet victory.
Desperate for sleep, Rebecca, Victoria, Collin and Mike wedge themselves into the van and drift into oblivion. Victoria’s cell buzzes: Edwin is on his way. The sleepers leap into action, tumbling from the van in time to unroll the finish line, ring the cowbell and snap some celebratory photos. Edwin finishes the EPIC5.
The morning sun beams down on Ali‘i Drive, where Chad’s wife and young daughters join him for the final lap. For his last charity, he has chosen the Terry Fox Foundation, named for a young Canadian who in the 1970s lost his leg to cancer and inspired the world by running a marathon a day as an amputee. If Terry could do that, Chad thinks, surely I can run these last few miles. He hobbles forward to finish the 703-mile race at 7:03 a.m.
After 122 hours of near-continuous exertion, Joe crosses the finish line. “This was the most incredible race I’ve ever done,” he says.
Refreshed from his nap, Renato runs a five-hour marathon to reach the pier just shy of twelve o’clock. This concludes the 2018 EPIC5.
Later that day, everyone gathers for an awards ceremony. Over dinner, people reflect on the week’s pitfalls and epiphanies. No one complains about the Kaua‘i rainstorm. In fact, all of the athletes preferred it to the relentless heat of the following days, even Chad, who sacrificed his feet on the island’s rainy altar. “That just added to the accomplishment,” he says. “I wasn’t going to quit because of blisters!” Good thing, because he raised over $30,000 for Canadian charities and inspired multitudes of strangers he’ll probably never meet.
Chris feels grateful that he allowed himself to quit. “There was a time in my life when I would’ve been pretty upset about not crossing the finish line,” he says.“This experience was everything I had hoped for and more. Ryan smiled so much and Sean was such a strong crew member. I would be greedy to ask for more.” Edwin and Renato are proud to be the first from their countries to conquer the EPIC5. Joe can’t stop grinning. Once again, he’d transcended the limits of his world.
Still giddy with adrenaline, everyone discusses what’s next. Renato is headed to ULTRAMAN AUSTRALIA. Rebecca plans to celebrate EPIC5’s ten-year anniversary in 2020 with the first ever EPIC Deca: ten iron-distance triathlons in ten days. She’ll add the island of Lāna‘i to the roster and new routes on the other islands. Chad raises his eyebrows, interested. Joe’s already signed up. HH