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News | March 17, 2021

An (uncommon) story of an (extra)ordinary man

By Ally Rogers, DIA Public Affairs

This is a story of a man, not unalike you or me. But a man who, at the age of 61, became one of 18 people in the world to complete a continuous 2,812-mile ultra-triathlon.

To put that distance in perspective, a typical Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2-mile run, for a total of 140.6 miles traveled; and, the direct distance from the center of Boston, Massachusetts, to the center of Los Angeles, California, measures 2,599.6 miles.

But the Double Deca Ulta-Triathlon that Al Manning, MITRE contractor for the Defense Intelligence Agency, competed in and completed is comprised of a 48-mile swim, 2,240-mile bike ride and 524-mile run in Leon, Mexico.

More than just a story about a tried-and-true athlete and DIA colleague, this is a tale of a journey that began 20 years ago.

“Most people have never heard of a double deca (triathalon),” Manning said. “It’s called that because it is 20 times the length of an Ironman triathlon. The race is done continuously; there are no timeouts.”

Manning explained that he didn’t wake up one day with the intent to tackle such a long race. Instead, it was a progressive phase of looking for the next challenge.

“For those old enough to know, your body’s warranty ends at age 40,” he said. “After that, stuff starts to not work as well as it used to. By the time I was 42, I felt old. I needed a special pillow to keep my neck from hurting, a special mattress to keep my back from hurting, a special this and a special that.”

In 2000, Manning finally reached a point where he no longer wanted to feel his chronic aches and pains, and set his mind to changing the downward trend he had been physically experiencing for years. Applying Newton’s first law – the law of inertia – he started moving.

“I resolved that, every year, I would be a little stronger, a little faster, a little tougher and a little leaner than the year before,” he said. “Maybe not by much, but at least a little.”

Having only grown up dabbling in minor physical activities, he deciding that bicycling seemed like a manageable activity. At first, he began biking to gradually build up strength and work out the kinks. Eventually, he used his workday commute as physical fitness time.

Manning lives in Virginia. At the time he decided to substitute bicycling for driving, he was commuting 50 miles roundtrip. When his position moved locations, his commute increased to 70 miles roundtrip.

After a couple years, he read an article in a magazine that said bicyclists were “mere mortals” when compared to those who compete in Ironman races. Manning recalled thinking that an Ironman was impossible.

In another gradual progression of challenges, he began with a half-Ironman in 2015. After learning from his mistakes and growing as an athlete, he tried a full Ironman.

“A lot of what I do is because I’m answering the question, ‘Why can’t I?’ I think people set too many limits on what they think they can or can’t do,” Manning said. “Endurance races are not about winning; they are about overcoming limitations and dealing with adversity.”

In his first Ironman, Manning crossed the finish line with less than 15 minutes remaining in the race. Through the next few years, he completed 10 Ironman races before he took on the next challenge – ultra-triathlons in the form of a double, and later a triple, Ironman.

“It’s said that triathletes were ‘mere mortals’ compared to the ultra-triathletes who would race continuously for days on end,” he said. “So I signed up for a double-Iron (281.2 miles) and barely finished. It was the first time I raced through the night and my first encounter with the hallucinations that come with sleep deprivation.”

Manning explained that, in ultra-racing, there’s a different mentality involved. It’s less about racing and more about pacing because it’s a game of endurance and perseverance. He added that, in this elite class of racing, participants have the added stress of dealing with life, biological needs and the emotional rollercoaster experienced when things go wrong.  

“The less sleep you get, the wilder that rollercoaster can be. In my race career, I’ve only failed once. I’ve never been removed, but I’ve come within minutes of cutoff numerous times. The race I failed – my first triple Ironman – I threw in the towel with six miles to go. I went 415-plus miles, without sleep. I was exhausted, and thought it was impossible to finish on time.”

He recalled having two hours to complete six miles, but was unable to mentally process that his three-miles-per-hour pace would have him cross the finish line before race time ended and coordinators pulled him from the course. So, he quit. The next morning, not only did he feel foolish, but once he could understand his mistake, he determined that he would never quit another race.

“I start each race with energy, enthusiasm and plans for spectacular accomplishments,” Manning said. “But then life starts to happen — the weather goes bad, some important part of my body gives out, or I forget to pack something important. All the idealistic expectations I had at the starting line become crushed by the reality of circumstances I did not foresee. 

“But I keep on going, eventually crossing the finish line as a broken little old man that is happy to just be moving at all.”

In 2018, Manning completed the New Orleans deca triathlon, during which he learned about the double deca triathlon. A race of that length had only been held twice prior to the 2019 Leon, Mexico, event – in 1998 and 2009. Only eight finishers completed the Mexico event. The double deca race is 28 days of continuous movement. Participants must complete the mileage of the swim before moving on to the bike, which must be completed before taking on the run. According to the International Ultra Triathlon Association, which records the world leaders in ultra triathlon racing, Manning is the only American ranked and holds the first place record in his age group.

When asked what the next challenge is for him, now that he’s completed the double deca ultra-triathlon, Manning said he doesn’t know.

“The double deca is it – there is no longer, continuous race,” he explained. “I don’t say ‘never’  too much anymore. So maybe there will be something else that comes next. For now, I’ll compete to keep my rankings.”

When he began his journey to live a healthier lifestyle, his wife questioned his decision to simply ride his bike to work. Then, when he moved on to Ironman races, she thought he was wild. After a time, Manning explained, his wife and their two daughters learned to embrace his newfound hobby.

“They’ve come to accept and expect this from me,” he said.