FSU researchers first to study effects of Ultraman competitions

Chris Clark, Tallahassee physical therapist and triathlon coach Marci Gray and Mike Ormsbee. Gray and Ormsbee both served as members of Clark's support team.

Extreme endurance athletes train long and hard to compete in some of the world’s most grueling competitions.

But what is all of that work really doing to your body?

A team of Florida State researchers is trying to find out.

“These people are at the peak of fitness, but what they are doing is incredibly hard on the body,” said Michael Ormsbee, assistant professor of exercise science and director of the Institute for Sports Sciences and Medicine.

Ormsbee is leading the first group of scientists to look at how the human body responds to the endurance competition known as the Ultraman.

The Ultraman is a three-day competition designed to test an athlete’s physical and mental endurance. The first day is a 6.2-mile open swim, followed by a 90-mile bike ride. The second day is a 172-mile bike ride. And the third day is a double marathon — a 52.4-mile run.

And for 20 competitors at February’s Ultraman Florida event— 15 men and 5 women — they also spent mornings stepping on a scale, giving urine samples and pricking their fingers so that Ormsbee, accompanied by graduate students Chris Bach and Dan Baur and undergraduate student Will Hyder, could analyze body composition, glucose levels and other physiological changes. Their sample included Florida State alumnus Chris Clark, the first type 1 diabetic to ever finish the race.

The FSU Ultraman research team. Standing from left are Mike Ormsbee and undergraduate student Will Hyder. Seated from left are graduate students Dan Baur and Chris Bach.
The FSU Ultraman research team. Standing from left are Mike Ormsbee and undergraduate student Will Hyder. Seated from left are graduate students Dan Baur and Chris Bach.

“We’d analyze the person on the spot,” Ormsbee said. “We looked at everything we could — weight, body composition, glucose and hormone levels.”

The immediate effect of the competition on the body was somewhat startling, the researchers said.

Even with contestants trying to eat and drink for optimal sports nutrition, multiple contestants saw double-digit weight loss from the second to third day of competition and significant spikes in glucose levels.

Clark, who wore a glucose monitor that allowed researchers and his team to check on his concentrations at any time, saw wild fluctuations in his glucose levels.

Ormsbee initially connected with the group when Tallahassee resident and endurance competition coach Chuck Kemeny, who holds the world record for the Ultraman, contacted him for some nutrition assistance. Kemeny was coaching Clark for the competition and wanted some extra advice on sports nutrition given that Clark is a diabetic athlete.

Kemeny’s initial concern was Clark’s performance, but he soon realized there was an opportunity for Ormsbee to be an even bigger part of the competition by attending as a scientist.

Kemeny was eager to understand how athletes in general were performing at these competitions and how they could better prepare themselves for competition.

“Being part of the endurance sports world, it’s been very obvious that a number of athletes don’t have an appreciation for nutrition,” Kemeny said. “They’re going out there and winging it. I also watched people dropping like flies and they didn’t know why. To have data on these athletes analyzed is really beneficial to future competitors.”

Though, researchers noted, even with proper nutrition, it is still an incredibly difficult race.

“When it’s that extreme of an event, you could be perfect with nutrition and fitness and still not make it through the entire race,” Baur said.

Ultraman organizers were also interested in both how the extreme endurance competition was affecting the human body and also how athletes could take better care of themselves before and after a race. After talking with Ormsbee, they gave him permission to attend the event with his team and to take samples from the competitors.

With Kemeny’s connections, Ormsbee’s team may collect data on other Ultra endurance events in other states.

Clark, who swam for Florida State in the late 1990s and now lives in South Carolina, said Ormsbee’s study will allow athletes to take better care of themselves in the long run.

“I think the benefits of the research will be paramount in providing value to the endurance athletic world,” Clark said.“It has the potential to further the sport by giving us the answers we need to keep the body going. By knowing how, when and why the body breaks down, we can learn how to better maintain it.I hope it also provides us with more questions that can then be addressed, answered, and continue the evolution of ultra endurance athletics.”

Having this data also allows scientists to take a better look at athletes in the heat of competition. Often, exercise research is conducted in a lab where researchers have strict control over variables such as how long a person performs a given exercise and under what conditions.

“When people actually compete in these races, you can’t control everything,” Bach said. “So, it’s neat to get out in the field and see what really happens to these athletes.”

Ormsbee, Bach and Baur are still analyzing their results for publication. They will write a separate case study on Clark since there is no data on other type 1 diabetic Ultraman competitors.

To learn more about Clark’s road to competition and how FSU researchers helped his team, visit our Tumblr page.