Dede Griesbauer is a force to be reckoned with in the world of endurance sports. The former Team USA swimmer switched to triathlon almost two decades ago and has earned an impressive list of accolades since – from setting an IRONMAN UK course record in 2006 to becoming a 12-hour Time Trial World Champion in 2016, where she rode further than every male athlete. Four years later, at the age of 49, she won Ultraman Florida and set a new world record in the process. And last year, at 52, she won the Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii, again setting a new course record.
If Ultraman hasn’t been on your radar, here’s a recap: the 3-day event starts with a 10K swim and 90-mile bike. On day two, it’s a 171.4-mile bike, and on day three, a 52.4-mile run. Even more impressively, Dede won the World Championship race by almost 2 hours. Below, the multi-time Ironman champion gives me the lowdown on how her career in endurance sport led her to sign up for Ultraman and what it took to win the title.
You’ve had an incredible career in sport, winning gold medals in swimming, becoming a 12-hour time-trial world champion and setting IRONMAN course records. So what led you to enter an Ultraman event?
I’d always been told by coaches that I got better as the distance gets longer. It got to be sort of a joke. My college swim coach had me swim the mile backstroke. It’s typically a freestyle event, but I was a backstroke specialist whose physiology was more comparable to a distance swimmer. Then when I first started doing triathlon, my coach liked doing the short, sharp stuff. There was a Thursday night time-trial series in the summertime, and every Thursday, she’d have us out there busting out a 15km all-out effort. I’d beg and try to negotiate my way to a 5-hour ride in lieu of a 15km time trial. I always preferred the long run to the track. So when my very good friend Hillary Biscay raced Ultraman, I was sort of intrigued. I tagged along to a talk she was doing at a bike shop after she’d won the Ultraman World Championship, and I was gobsmacked. I knew it was an event I wanted to try one day. It took several years to muster up the courage to sign up. Having done two now, I do feel like Ultraman is my best distance. I am somehow strangely suited to it.
You won Ultraman Florida in 2020, qualifying for the world champs in Hawaii. However, due to covid, this was delayed until 2022. Was the postponement a blessing or a challenge?
It was both, honestly. I was eager to race the Ultraman World Championship. It had been a dream for so long, so waiting an additional two years was a test of patience. Let’s face it, I’m not getting any younger! But it was a blessing at the same time. It gave me more time to sort out my nutrition, which was (and still is) a weakness for me. I had more time to plan and organize. By the time the race started, there was literally no stone left unturned. So we absolutely made the most of the extra time to get smarter and stronger.
What did your last six months of training look like approaching Ultraman WC? Did it involve long runs, big rides, races, HR Zone training, for example?
The specifics of the training plan are top secret! My coach, Julie Dibens, has a lock on Ultraman training! Her record is pristine, with Jordan Bryden winning Ultraman Canada in 2019 and then the Ultraman World Championship that same year. She coached me to my World Record in Florida and then again to my world title in 2022. I can’t be giving away trade secrets! But yes, we built up the mileage in a safe and methodical way. We did a lot of long swims in the wetsuit. I think that’s a detail a lot of people overlook. We had several weekends where we replicated the demands of Ultraman in training to practice nutrition across 3 long days. We tried to be as specific as we could with the training. I’d taken a special trip to Hawaii to study the course so that we could come back to Boulder to mimic the demands of the race in training – finishing long rides with a big climb, for instance. We just tried to be really specific in our preparations.
Nutrition-wise, what did your fuelling strategy look like, and did it go to plan?
I worked with a nutritionist to help develop my nutrition plan. What I learned in Ultraman Florida is that you can’t simply replicate three days of Ironman fuelling and call it an Ultraman fuel plan. We made some big changes to incorporate real foods at different times throughout the race. We also worked on an “ebb and flow” pattern to push calories but then also give my stomach a break. Overall, the plan couldn’t have gone better. I had one crew member whose job it was to track every calorie, fluid ounce and electrolyte that went in. It was a monstrous task, and she did an amazing job of keeping me on track. She observed what bottles I was passing back still full, anticipating flavour fatigue, and would change things up accordingly. On average, I think I ended up overshooting the calorie mark by about 5-10g per hour. In my life, I’ve never done that. The differences between my nutrition plans for Florida and Hawaii were night and day, and I think my performance reflected as much.
Mentally, how do you manage the discomfort that comes with a 3-day race like Ultraman?
I work extremely hard to prepare very thoroughly for all of my races, not just Ultraman. That’s not to say it’s not going to hurt! But it adds comfort to know I’m extremely well prepared any time I toe the line. I knew with certainty going into Ultraman that not one single athlete in the field was better prepared. Some equally, perhaps? But no one was better prepared.
During the 3-day race, I had two points where I was in a dark place. First was during the swim. The conditions started out gloriously. A nice Southern swell was really pushing us along for the first few kilometres. That all changed very drastically when the wind shifted, and we had quite a chop. My amazing paddler, Gabe, had encouraged me, “We’re over halfway!” when I thought we were nearly done. It was sobering, but I reminded myself that as a reasonably strong swimmer, a good hard swim was GOOD for me to help establish some separation from weaker swimmers. So I turned the discomfort into something that was positive for me in the race overall.
The second rough spot was the last 8 or so miles of the run. I’d felt so good for so long on the run, again, crediting very thorough preparation and an awesome nutrition plan, but when things started to get hard, that’s when my crew really stepped in. My pacers did a wonderful job of distracting me from the pain (one was singing some 80s pop hits, and who doesn’t love a good 80s jam?), and another was counting down the landmarks. One benefit of having spent so much time on the Big Island of Hawaii for Ironman racing is that we knew that stretch from the airport so incredibly well. So the landmarks came one after the other, and we celebrated each one as a little mini-finish line.
What kind of targets did you have during Ultraman?
Again, my coach, Julie Dibens, had me extremely well prepared for this race. We learned so much from our experience at Ultraman Florida, and we used that knowledge in planning for The World Championship. We’d studied the course and had specific power and HR targets for every section of the course. Julie was a part of my crew, which was a huge blessing to have her there. She was able to coach me through the whole thing, making changes to the plan from time to time depending on the dynamics of the race. We paid almost no attention to time. While I was able to set a course record by nearly 45 minutes, the time was never our focal point. The conditions around the island are so variable, so you are really at the mercy of Mother Nature in terms of how long it is going to take you to get from point A to point B. Our focus was on my own effort and pacing and getting to that point B before anyone else.
When in the water, on the bike, or on foot for hours, what goes through your mind – are you focused on targets and stats, or does your mind wander?
I stayed remarkably focused through the entire race, really. I focused on technique, HR, pacing targets and my fuelling schedule. It’s an open course, as well, so it’s “heads up” riding and safety first. There was a lot to focus on, so it was pretty easy to stay engaged. I also had a great crew who was never far away, so I’d interact with them as well. In the past, I’ve been known to ignore signals my body is giving me to warn me that things might be sliding off the rails. I’d try to use my mind to overpower my body when maybe I should have been more sensitive to the signals that my body was giving me, so for Ultraman, I was intensely focused on how my body was feeling and what signals it was giving me as to how to tweak my pacing or my fuelling. Again, it’s a lot to think about. I was truly never bored.
What does it take to compete at world champion level in your 50s compared to how you approached racing in your thirties and beyond?
I could get away with a lot more in my 30s and 40s. Competing at a world-class level as a 50+-year-old demands attention to detail across every aspect of training and recovery. Compared to my earlier decades of racing, I work with a physical therapist on a proactive basis. In other words, I see a PT before I get injured, not just after. I do prehab exercises and warmups before training. Regular massage and dry needling/acupuncture are also part of my weekly routine. I sleep more than a newborn baby, and I’ve had to up my nutrition game in a big way. I can’t be sloppy about any of the “little details” because they all make a big difference now.
I also find I have a greater appreciation for my sport now than I had in my 30s. Not that I took it for granted then, but I don’t think I savoured the opportunity as much then as I do now. I’m not sure if that’s maturity, perspective, or just knowing that it doesn’t last forever, but I just feel really lucky and grateful, more than I did when I was in my 30s.
Will we see you race more Ultraman events in the future?
I don’t have plans to race another Ultraman event any time soon. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what I could do better than I already did. I sort of feel like that chapter has been written. But never say never. The Ultraman Ohana is a powerful force, so I may be back.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing/training, and who are you sponsored by right now?
I am kitted out by my very good friends at Smashfest Queen. I am long-time best buddies with one of Smash’s founders, Hillary Biscay, and it brings me such pride to represent this brand. The apparel itself is great stuff, comfortable and well-made. But the fun and, at times, whimsical designs make me happy every time I put them on. The distinctive kits are a marvel, and I can always spot another Smash sister out on the road. It goes beyond the kit as well because while they’ve created a brand, they’ve also built a marvellous community as well.
In addition to Smash, I am sponsored by Waterfall Racing. They are another wonderful community from all over the country that ensures that no one ever races alone. We are bonded by our love of sport.
I’m partnered with Certified Piedmontese, a beef company. Sounds crazy to have a beef sponsor, but it’s true. It’s crazy because I used to be a vegetarian. I was so picky about the quality of meat, especially beef. And then I found Certified Piedmontese. It is leaner than traditional beef. Grass-fed, grass-finished, non-GMO certified. It’s higher in iron than traditional beef. The quality controls are truly next-level, and it’s something I feel really good about fuelling myself with.
And I can’t forget Hunt Wheels and Deboer Wetsuits.
I hopefully have one or two more announcements coming as well!