ERM: How do you have time to train and compete in these epic distance races?
Santilhano: My athletic endurance activities are done during my vacation time or on odd long weekends. I was introduced into endurance racing during my experiences with Outward Bound in South Africa during high school. The lesson of the tortoise and the hare was made very clear during this formative time. This lesson is what has gotten me to the finish line of my hardest events.
ERM: How did you get started in endurance racing?
Santilhano: What caused me to develop the ultra gene was when I recognized the missing sprint genes for top ten finishes. I also decided to get my money’s worth: if I was going to get hot and sweaty with effort, then I might as well do it for longer than a mere hour. Plus, my Outward Bound experiences had taught me techniques for outlasting faster and more agile, athletic friends. I even had this experience recently on a road bike race: I started last once the gun went off, but soon climbed up the field to finish in the top 3rd.
I ran my first marathon in my mid 20s, after I completed nursing school in the UK and returned to South Africa. Every town in South Africa has a run club, like every town in the US has a coffee shop (even if it is not a Starbucks). I completed my first Ironman in 2000 at age 30, with a Triple IRON distance race & Ultraman Hawaii in 2007, followed by a Quintuple IRON in 2008.
ERM: You were the 199th person to ever swim the English Channel?
Santilhano: Yes. I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. After high school, I started attended nursing school in England. After completing my nursing education and doing some missionary work in West Africa, I returned to South Africa in the mid 1990s, where I specialized in children’s nursing.
I came to the US in early 1994 and found a swim coach to train me for the English Channel. It’s easy to find or Google either of the two organizations that help swimmers with escort boats and logistics. I was introduced to long distance ocean swimming by a nursing instructor on my children’s nursing specialization course.
ERM: How did you decide to do the Deca IRON, and who do you train with?
Santilhano: I always knew about the Deca Ironman, and the Enduroman dates fitted with my schedule. I thought I would like trail running more than a paved run, which the Enduroman race provides. I tried to do a lot of back-to-back marathons, bike rides, triathlons. I was hoping my previous events, such as Race across America in 2010 and Paris Brest Paris and Arch to Arc back-to-back in 2011, would be good training.
I currently train with Team Sheeper, a San Francisco Peninsula Triathlon team that has a very diverse population of athletes and training regimens. Tim Sheeper is the head coach, who still podiums in most events that he competes in. He is an inspiration and role model for any triathlete – how to race fiercely with true humility. The motto I developed for my solo non-wetsuit English Channel swim in 2006 was to “swim with gratitude”. I try to take this into every event.
ERM: Do you have any sponsors?
Santilhano: I have been fortunate to have equipment sponsors that have come alongside me during certain events over the years. They are too numerous to name, but in 2012 they have included Rock Tape brand of Kinesio tape and Stretch works for Resistance stretching before and after my Enduroman Deca IRON.
Hammer Nutrition was extremely helpful for my Solo Race across America, as was Sycip Bicycles, Sheila Moon and Black Bottom apparel. Vespa Power Products has been a partner during my 100-mile trail running career.
ERM: Where do you get the drive to race these great distances?
Santilhano: Mentally what drives me is the opportunity to see how my body reacts in a new environment. I see it as a human laboratory. Your body has to stay within certain physiological limits. Putting myself in extreme environments or situations to see where the breaking point happens – and how to get myself to the finish line after the breaking point – is where the growth happens. This year I think the growth continued through the 2-month recovery period after my Enduroman Deca IRON.
I still have space to grow in mental fortitude, in terms of not accepting “No” for an answer and being able to fight for one’s rights to continue racing or have someone with you who will help you fight for your rights to continue if it is safe. My crew did this on my second English Channel swim, on a very big spring tide in 2011. The swim was part of the Solo Arch to Arc triathlon from London to Paris.
ERM: Any tips about nutrition?
Santilhano: Know your calorie burn rate. In my next deca, I will have a calorie plan and sit down for my meal breaks.
ERM: What are your biggest learning points after reflecting on these races?
Santilhano: There are always more lessons that appear over time. Having a sports psychologist who can help complete the recovery process is helpful, especially when desired results were not achieved.
And in terms of injury, prevention is about listening to your body and working with it. In regards to healing, I will try the natural route first before seeking the Western medical approach. Restorative yoga and some of the Chinese medicine therapies are much less invasive with the body processes. I describe massage as the glue between good nutrition and good hydration.
ERM: What motivates you?
Santilhano: I don’t have children of my own, but will often dedicate my events to the children I work with. They give me songs that get played at certain check points, and I bring back stories or show them photos of the event. In Race across America, I found candy for them that was not available in California. The children I work with are my true inspiration.
ERM: Any final thoughts?
Santilhano: How I got to where I am today is by not accepting limits. Boundaries are to be expanded. Even in my last event of the Enduroman Deca IRON in England, I told myself: If I am breathing, then I still have energy.
Read more about Michele at: www.outdrmich.blogspot.com/