By Liz Cantrell
For the Essex Reporter
It’s a long road from the small town of Colchester to international competitions, but Vermont native Todd LaValley has experience with distance journeys. A seasoned marathoner, LaValley is one of 27 contestants from 11 countries competing in the Ultra 520K Canada race in Penticton, British Columbia this August.
The Ultra will test participants’ endurance abilities in three areas. Contestants must swim 10 km (6.2 miles), bike 425.5 km (264.4 miles,) and run a double marathon of 84.4 km (52.4 miles) over the course of three days, for a total distance of about 520 km (323 mi.)
Considering those staggering numbers, it’s hard to believe that LaValley’s ascent to mega-athleticism is relatively recent. After graduating from Colchester High School, LaValley entered the United States Marine Corps, serving for six years from 1982-1988. After leaving the service, he became a professional photographer for 20 years — and ultimately a stay-at-home father — settling in Spokane, Washington.
About six years ago, the former Marine was dissatisfied with his physical abilities. “I realized my health was deteriorating. I was overweight and very unhappy. I saw some medical concerns, and I realized I needed to make a change,” he recalls.
The flash of insight struck while watching the Ironman World Championships on television. “When I saw that I said right away, ‘I want to do an Ironman race,’” LaValley says. An Ironman is essentially a “half-Ultra,” consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, followed by 112 miles of biking, followed by a marathon of 26.2 miles. The course must be completed in one day.
LaValley’s first step was going to his local YMCA to try swimming. “I got in the pool and couldn’t even swim half a lap. I was devastated,” he remembers. “I saw this gentleman doing laps next to me non-stop. I was so intrigued watching this guy. I told him I wanted to do an Ironman, and he kind of laughed.”
That man was Scott Roy, coincidentally the head coach of the Team Blaze Triathlon Club, a triathlon and multisport endurance community in eastern Washington. After meeting Coach Roy, LaValley began training with the club, losing 60 pounds in one year.
LaValley worked his way through endurance events, completing his first half-marathon, then a full marathon, and ultimately an Ironman after another year. Tragically, Coach Roy died of a heart attack in April of 2012, shortly after LaValley’s first full marathon.
“That was even more of a motivational factor,” LaValley says. “Here is someone less than my age, and he just passed away. That inspiration from him made me say ‘I can go further.’’
It took LaValley over three years to gain the necessary experience for the upcoming Ultra. Rules stipulate that a contestant must complete an Ironman in less than 12 hours at least six months prior to the Ultra. Additionally, the Ultra 520K Canada is by invitation only.
The first day of Ultra consists of the full 6.2-mile swim, followed by 90 miles of biking. The second day clocks 174 miles on the bike, and the final day is the double marathon. Contestants are allowed 12 hours to finish each daily segment, otherwise they are disqualified. Each contestant is accompanied by a two-person crew, which supplies nutrition, hydration, and equipment throughout the event.
Although one person will finish with a better time than the other contestants, Ultra officials do not announce an overall winner. “No one feels like a loser. It’s supposed to be about finishing it,” LaValley says.
Throughout the event, LaValley will be wearing logos supporting Team Red White and Blue, which is a veteran group, as well as the USMC League. He will also wear Team Blaze gear in honor of Scott Roy.
“In each segment I will try to wear a shirt that represents each of those groups, and I will also dedicate each of those segments to that group. I consider the swim a dedication to my late coach,” he says.
Asked what advice he has for those interested in endurance events, or simply getting in shape, LaValley says, “I think the most important thing is that age is just a number. It’s never too late to start doing some form of exercise to make yourself feel better and happy.”
The Ultra520K Canada event takes place from Aug.1-3 in Penticton, British Columbia. Information is available at http://ultra520kcanada.com/