One foot in front of the other continuously for more than 100 miles was all that was on Canadian Gerard Charlton’s agenda while he ran through Death Valley last October.
The veteran endurance sport participant was on the third leg of Uberman, a punishing ultra triathlon that pits participants against daunting distances in swimming, bicycling and running created by Malibu resident Dan Bercu. Charlton wasn’t worried about the desert’s less than ideal climate or outracing opponents to the finish line on California’s tallest mountain. He was simply relishing being let “out of [his] cage,” and fixated on finishing the affair that a 2017 Outside Magazine article deemed “The World’s Hardest Endurance Race.”
“The other competitors/participants are there just for camaraderie as far as I’m concerned,” fifty-six-year-old Charlton, the 2018 Uberman winner, typed in a May 1 email to The Malibu Times. “I think most people will say it is all about digging down deep into your ‘pain closet’—into your soul and seeing where you can take yourself. A very personal thing.”
That’s what Bercu hoped for participants to get out of the 556-mile spectacle when he first dreamed it up a few years ago. Bercu, a commercial real estate developer, said the race is for people looking for a great test.
“It’s for people that are dreamers and are just looking for a huge challenge to motivate them to get out of bed every morning,” he said. “Anyone who is determined can persevere and do it. It’s a matter or perseverance more than skill.”
The race begins with a 21-mile ocean swim from Catalina Island to Palos Verdes and continues with a 400-mile bike ride that passes through Malibu, out of the Los Angeles area and up 20,000 vertical feet before descending to Death Valley’s Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. The last leg of Uberman consists of a 135-mile run through the northern Mojave Desert to the trailhead of Mount Whitney at 13,000 feet.
Bercu would love for some Malibu residents to enter Uberman this year.
“This is an amazing course in Southern California,” he said. “People in Malibu could achieve this.”
Bercu knows because before he founded Uberman, he swam, biked and ran the course. He was looking for a physical challenge to complete for his 50th birthday a few years ago, and after reading about the Badwater Ultramarathon, billed as “the world’s toughest foot race,” Bercu decided to run the desert race route. For three months, he went on long runs down Pacific Coast Highway to train for the run. Then, armed with energy bars and Gatorade drinks, Bercu went to Death Valley and ran a marathon a day for six days.
He equated his run to a vision quest. “It’s very beautiful there,” Bercu said. “A lot of hours spent on my own thinking about things.”
While taking a flight that passed over the English Channel, he speculated about what it would be like to swim that waterway. It inspired him to start practicing his ocean swimming at Zuma Beach. He later rented a boat and made the swim from Catalina to Palos Verdes over four days. He then biked for four days from Palos Verdes to the desert.
During this time, he also solicited advice from locals including Hall of Fame swimmer Jim McConica, ultramarathon runner Chris Frost and cyclist Greg Turner.
“I thought, ‘What if we did a race that combined the whole course?’,” Bercu said. After he spread the news about the challenging route on social media, Uberman was born.
Competitors have completed Uberman as a relay team, some have completed stages of the event and some have had to bow out due to injury.
Italian Giorgio Alessi, 54, won the inaugural Uberman in 2016. Australian Timmy Garrett won the challenge the next year. Charlton won it in 2018. The trio, conquerors of a bevy of endurance competitions, each finished Uberman within eight days. In fact, they are the only people of more than 20 overall participants to complete it from start to finish.
Charlton finished the challenge in the fastest time yet—166:40:00.
Soon after they won their respective races, Alessi, Garrett and Charlton each grasped the Uberman trophy—which resembles a hammer—posed for pictures with family and friends on Mount Whitney, and were given an Uberman pin.
“You get the hammer, do a picture and everyone is gone,” Bercu said. “There is no podium. No speeches. Then, it’s back to real life. It’s all about self-recognition.”
Uberman’s creator said Alessi, Charlton and Garrett finished the ultra triathlon because they didn’t approach it like a typical race.
“The actual ‘training’ preparation really only took about nine months of slow build up,” said Charlton.
Alessi and Charlton said a big chunk of their training focused on completing the ocean swim.
“The swim is always the worst part in a long tri for me,” Alessi said. “Even after only 17 hours in the ocean I get fatigued. Not knowing what lies between you and the beach in terms of marine life and currents does not really help.”
Charlton said Uberman’s swim was mentally challenging while the Death Valley run was the most physically challenging thing he had ever done.
“No worries about quitting there—just keep going, as the end is the only thing that matters at that point,” Charlton said.
Bercu explained people without endurance sports training interested in participating in Uberman should train for six months to a year beforehand.
“It’s a challenge open to anyone with the guts to show up,” he said. “It’s a cool adventure or journey to be on.”
The fourth iteration of the annual event is set to begin on Oct. 10. There is no entry fee. The race is open to anyone, though participants must supply their own race support crew and aid stations.
For more information, visit uberman1.com.