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The Temple of Triathlon.
By Tom Demerly.

 

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(Left) Basic Underwater Demolition School students practice small boat drills while the ever-present bell looms ready for those who simply can't muster the endurance to survive BUDS.


A BUDs class with San Diego in the background.

Triathlon has more than one birthplace. Some are well known; Kona, Alcatraz, Mission Bay... Some are less famous but more important. These are the sacred places of our sport, the Temples of Triathlon. One you have never heard of is called “Yellow One Beach”.

Yellow One Beach is the swim start for the Superfrog Triathlon, one of the most unusual and difficult triathlons in the world. It may be the world’s hardest half Ironman. It is certainly one of the least known. Superfrog is hosted by people who make a point of keeping a low profile, the U.S. Navy SEALs. This place is so secret and secure that admission is granted only once a year. Photography is prohibited. To see Yellow One Beach you can look through binoculars from over a mile away, but an armed security guard will be watching back. It is a sacred place, a place of mysticism and lore. This is the Roman coliseum of triathlon. Heroes, living and fallen in battle, are made on this beach. Once a year you and I can race here. This is where you do the Superfrog Triathlon.

Superfrog is one of the oldest triathlons in the sport, over 27 years old. It takes place at the U.S. Navy’s Naval Amphibious Base on Coronado Island, California. Within that sprawling facility is the ultra-secure, top secret Naval Special Warfare Center, the home of the U.S. Navy SEALs. Behind high walls ringed in concertina wire, guarded through binoculars by day and night vision goggles at night the Navy prepares candidates for inclusion into the elite SEAL teams at the Basic Underwater Demolition School, BUDS. This is also the home of SEAL Team 5, SEAL Team 1 and SEAL Team 3, each one operational Navy SEAL units.

Superfrog is a half Ironman distance triathlon with a brutal swim in water that breaks navy SEAL candidates, causing them to “ring out” of BUDs and give up on their dream of being a SEAL. The Pacific Ocean in front of Yellow One Beach is freezing cold and habitually rough. SEAL instructors test students with “surf passage” exercises and by ordering them into the freezing water to induce hypothermia, and then snap them back from the brink by running up and down lose sand dunes on Yellow One. Aspiring SEALs are frequently injured by waves on Yellow One during surf passage drills. This is where you’ll try to swim 1.2 miles for Superfrog.

If you finish the swim at Superfrog you run up and over a loose sand dune nick-named “Mt. Suribachi”. That’s where Marines planted the U.S. Flag on Guadalcanal in World War II. You celebrate your survival of the swim BUDs style with a Navy SEAL using a fire hose to blast the saltwater off you.

The bike course passes Navy Security Police and U.S. Marine Guards going out onto Highway 75. You will negotiate four out-and-backs on a board flat, perfectly paved bike course with storm force headwinds coming off the Pacific or up from Mexico. In one direction it takes everything you have to go 18 m.p.h. In the other direction you’re going over 28 m.p.h. It is a difficult contrast to moderate. There is an aid station at either end of the course staffed by highly motivated naval cadets, Marines, SEALs and BUDs trainees. Passing through the aid stations you hear the SEAL motto; “Go Sir! Outstanding! It pays to be a winner!”


Swim conditions for Superfrog.


Mt. Suribachi: Athletes go up and over.


SEALs train at the Naval Special Warfare Center.


You'll pass the "O" course on the run at Superfrog.


A view normally reserved for SEAL candidates. The top of Yellow One Beach.

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Storm winds rolling in from Mexico test athletes in the swim at Superfrog.
(R) A traditional mass beach start.


Ideal conditions for one of the sport's greatest challenges.

Once clear of the bike you re-enter the secure Naval Special Warfare Center where the world’s safest transition area is and begin the run evolution. If you thought the swim and the bike were tough, you may be ready to “ring out” on the run. It’s like the SEALs say, “If it isn’t miserable, we don’t do it.”

The Superfrog Triathlon hosts a website that features maps of the course. One detail missing from the run course map is the section from Yellow One Beach across the dunes to the SEAL obstacle course. It is sand. Soft sand. Ankle deep, energy sapping, churned up, suffer-fest, Navy SEAL ass-busting soft sand. After running through this roughly one mile section once you’ll learn the reality of this race. It’s indescribably difficult. You will run through it again: four more times. The run is five laps. Welcome to SEAL country, it pays to be a winner.

During the five laps that make up the 13.1 mile run you will pass by the Naval Special Warfare Headquarters, the office where the Admiral, commanding officer of all SEAL Teams, is housed. The admiral is not in his office today. He is front of you doing the race. You’ll turn left across Gator Beach and left again up toward the firm sand between the cold Pacific and Yellow One Beach. It’s picturesque and inspiring. The cool breeze off the Pacific (that was a brutal headwind on the bike) is pleasant now. Enjoy it. At the Naval Special Warfare Center pleasant sensations are fleeting. Another left hand turn at the top of the run course puts you into oddly loose, black sand. Surely no race would have you run more than a few steps in sand like this. No race except one designed by Navy SEALs. For a little more than a mile (it seems like four miles) you’ll try to figure out how to run in sand so soft it feels like oatmeal. Your feet sink, your ankles twist and you slow down, way down. About the time the absurdity of it sets in you are lapped by a man in a black tri suit with “Navy SEAL” written on the back. He is going twice as fast as you, seemingly floating over the loose sand. That is U.S. Navy SEAL and Ironman Hawaii finisher Mitch Hall. The rest of the fellows who pass you on this section are usually Navy SEALs. They are used to running in soft sand with forty pounds of equipment in the middle of the night with a bullet or two whistling overhead. For those guys, Superfrog is a fun day off.


A multi-lap swim means athletes are running up the beach for multiple surf passages.


Flat and windy: Four loops on the bike.

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Most of the Superfrog run course is on sand. From firm footing on the beach (right) to ultra-soft sand near the Obstacle Course.


Navy SEAL Mitch Hall wins Superfrog.

After surviving a swim that has been featured in Discovery Channel documentaries, trying to punch through tropical storm winds lashing up from Mexico and then re-enacting the first twenty minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” five times between Yellow One Beach and the SEAL obstacle course your feet will touch pavement again near the blacked-out doors at SEAL Team 3. You’re running on asphalt now up Trident Way in front of Naval Special Warfare Center Headquarters toward one of the toughest finish lines to reach in our sport. When you cross that line you can say you’ve done what may be the sport’s toughest ½ Ironman and you’ve done it in one of the most unusual and exotic locations in any sporting event.


Sarah Demerly battles headwinds on the outbound leg at Superfrog on the way to 5th overall.


The Admiral presents awards at Superfrog. The little wood trident inscription is the only way for a civilian to win a version of the coveted SEAL insignia.

It is fitting the SEALs host such an unusual and demanding event. The hallmark of SEAL operational capability is excellence in any environment, any conditions. Superfrog is the triathlon manifestation of SEAL toughness and adaptability. Naval Special Warfare has increasingly turned to multi-sport as a demographic ideal for recruiting. Triathletes and multi-sport athletes traditionally have a higher success rate during BUDs (Basic Underwater Demolition School) than any other athletic demographic. The SEALs are looking for a few good triathletes. At the 2007 Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii the race was opened with Navy SEALs parachuting into the swim course. SEALs are part of triathlon and triathlon has always been a part of the SEALs.

Superfrog is an incredible race, an unsung classic with the same heritage and history as the other classics like the Hawaii Ironman and the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. Few people outside the Special Warfare community even know about the Superfrog Triathlon. This race is about the very roots of our sport: Who is best? Who is toughest? Who can adapt to nearly impossible conditions? Anyone can complete a ½ Ironman but it takes special determination to finish Superfrog. It takes a reverence for the things that distinguish our sport. To do this race you must be a special kind of triathlete. You must have a spark of the flame that burns so strong inside a Navy SEAL. Like the men who put together the event Superfrog is quiet, elite, low key. And just like those men who slip through the dark, freezing Pacific, battle the wind on the bike course and struggle through the sand between Yellow One Beach and the SEAL obstacle course, this race is tougher than words can describe. If you finish Superfrog, you are special kind of triathlete.


SEALs training in San Diego Harbor.

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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