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THA’s Kutler finds his personal grit in Ultraman Israel endurance challenge

Laurence Kutler competes in the 171-mile bicycling leg of the March 6-8 Ultraman Israel endurance challenge. (Courtesy Laurence Kutler)

As if completing a 320-mile race in three days isn’t enough, doing it in 36 hours is an enormous challenge. Included in that are a 6.2-mile swim through chilly mountain waters and cycling 171 miles across a desert at the lowest point on earth, not to mention running a 52.4-mile double marathon. What comes out on the other end is an “Ultraman.”

Laurence Kutler finished the March 6-8 Ultraman Endurance Challenge in Israel in 34:12:15, 108 minutes under the time limit, placing seventh among a field of 30 athletes. The race is limited to 40 participants on an invitation-only basis. At age 65, he was the oldest and only participant in the over 60 category. No stranger to intense challenge, he says this finish was a personal coup. 

The first Ultraman distance event was held in Hawaii in 1983. Today, there are numerous Ultraman events held worldwide. The Ultraman Israel endurance challenge, since 2017, is a 515-kilometer race that starts at the Kinneret or Sea of Galilee in the north and finishes on the Red Sea, at Eilat, in the south. It’s divided into four stages over the three days, and each day has a 12-hour cutoff. The first day includes swimming and biking, followed by a second day of biking and the double marathon on the final day. Participants who do not reach the finish lines within the time limits are disqualified.

Kutler, the head of school at Tucson Hebrew Academy, reached Israel two days ahead of the March 6-8 race to acclimate to the 57-degree Kinneret waters. After the 6-mile swim, he finished 93 miles on a bike along Israel’s longest Highway 90, to its intersection with Route 1, the Lido Junction, near the Dead Sea. Continuing on bike the following day, he says at one point he ran out of steam. “At about mile 140, I didn’t know how I’d make it. I said, ‘Hashem, you’ve got to help me do this. I have no more power.’” With a second wind, Kutler was able to pick up speeds of 23 to 25 miles per hour on the flat stretch en route to Eilat.

He describes the race as a spiritual experience of a different type. “I grew up with the Zionist philosophies of Zvi Yehuda Kook and Aaron David Gordon . . . with a holy Jewish homeland philosophy.” But, on this journey of endurance, Kutler says he felt much closer to the land of Israel. “The desert, the Kinneret, the Dead Sea, spoke to me in a different way.” Drawing strength from the environment, he called on his reserves by entreating, “Wind can you give me energy, mountains can you give me energy. The land itself was a factor to traverse, but it had the capacity to energize me.

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from?” from Psalm 121 ran through his mind, Kutler says. “I had to get myself out of the way and let that help come.”

He says this is a facet of education that’s not taught. “It’s an unwritten curriculum of Jewish spirituality. We don’t teach this major component in life — it’s grit. It’s what to do when you run out of strength. How do you persevere?”

Kutler looks to turn his experience into a teaching moment for THA’s students through a personal presentation. “When you get to the end, you learn you can do it. No matter how depleted you are, there’s still 30 percent more. Grit is a mental toughness you gain through training and through doing. No one can teach you this in the classroom. You can only experience it yourself through athletics, sickness or emotional distress. You find a strength you didn’t know you have. The Talmud tells us the reward is equal to the effort. Unless you push yourself to the end, you’re not going to know.”

A veteran of 15 Ironman triathathalons (a one-day event including a 2.4- mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run) Kutler said he’d never found himself as depleted as in the recent Ultraman exerience. “It was physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion. Every day of the race is harder than the day before. It’s a very personal challenge.

“The power of the mind to overcome difficulties and endure is important. You think you know who you are until there is nothing left. That’s when you learn more about yourself.” He went into this race with three things in mind: belief that he could do it, a ‘gonna do it’ attitude, and a focus on execution.

And with each endurance accomplishment — even on this, his fourth Ultraman challenge — he learns something different about himself.  “This is self-discovery, and it is worth the answers if you want to learn about it,” he challenges.