We’re claiming it: Sam Piccolotti’s grassroots off-road ultra-triathlon in Leadville, Colorado, is the hardest multi-sport non-event out there. This year, just two women are the lone participants.
On July 16, two women will attempt something absurdly hard. They will swim 2.4 miles across Colorado’s Twin Lakes Reservoir, mountain bike over 100 miles, then run a 26.2-mile trail marathon—all above 10,000 feet in elevation near the town of Leadville, Colorado. It’s less a race than an epic, grassroots, mostly self-supported adventure, and the event, if you want to call it that, will have just two lone competitors: Kathy Duryea, a 58-year-old CPA and experienced ultra-endurance athlete from Grapevine, Texas; and Zoe Nance, an exercise physiologist and triathlon coach from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“My sights have shifted from racing to the journey of epic events,” Duryea wrote in an application to participate in the Leadville triathlon. “I have spent the first half of my life being driven by adventures, and I hope to spend the second half the same way. I crave epic events not only because of the way they make me feel about myself, but also for the effect it has on others, including their own goals and aspirations in life.”
This quirky, intense triathlon is the brainchild of a guy named Sam Piccolotti, who works as the vice president of business development for a tech company in Denver, Colorado, and also runs an athlete collective and brand called No Zero Days. In the thru-hiking world, when you take a rest day from the trail, it’s called a zero day, since you travel zero miles. In a sense, Piccolotti hasn’t taken a zero day since August 2001. “No zero days is a mantra that I’ve held for 21 years,” says Piccolotti, who’s 58.
Piccolotti’s daughter, Mia Piccolotti, works in customer service at Flylow, and Flylow donated gear for the upcoming triathlon. Mia recognizes that her dad isn’t exactly normal. “I realized pretty early on that my dad wasn’t your ‘typical dad,’” she says. “I remember years ago, during a summer swim practice, I was maybe 10 years old, and my dad was in the lane next to us working out by himself and I remember the older high school girls saying to me, ‘Is that your dad?’ I got that a lot growing up.”
Mia grew up just south of Denver, racing triathlons starting around age 10, and then raced on a U.S. Junior Elite team in high school. She says the toughness required to compete in that sport is something she learned from her dad. “My dad taught me that your body can only take you so far, your mind is really what keeps you going,” she says. “Being tough isn’t just a physical feature, it’s really about where your head is at and realizing that if you want to do something, you’re already capable of it. It sounds silly out loud, but I tell myself, I can do anything for five minutes. And then five more minutes … and five more.”
Sam Piccolotti, who’s competed in triathlons for 36 years, says finding balance between challenging himself in the outdoors and his work and family life became a big hurdle for him a few decades ago, when his kids were younger. “Back then, my family obligations grew. I had a job that was very demanding, we’d just had our second child,” he says. “I was struggling finding time to balance work, family, and training.”
He used to be of the mindset that if he didn’t have two hours to go for a bike ride, doing anything less was a waste of my time. “I put myself in a negative place. I was missing workouts because I had this perception that I needed this exorbitant amount of time,” he says. “So, in 2001, I thought, from now on, I’m doing something active every single day. I’m checking the box. But it doesn’t have to be something huge.”
Some days, he does 10 minutes of push-ups or a half hour of yoga or meditation or breathwork. Over the years, he’s gotten sick, had surgery, and traveled and still, he’s logged a few minutes doing something for himself so it wouldn’t count as a zero day. “What it’s really done for me is it’s taken me out of the mental roller coaster of being in and out of shape,” he says. “I don’t beat myself up anymore for missing time.”
In 2020, in the midst of the COVID pandemic and with events and races canceled around the world, Piccolotti decided to stage his own solo ultra-triathlon. He created a course, set up his own aid stations, and recruited his son to run support. In August 2020, he swam 2.4 miles, pedaled his mountain bike over 100 miles, then ran a marathon on trail, all around Leadville. He nearly collapsed from stage 3 hypothermia after the swim, but somehow, he pulled it together and completed it in 27 moving hours.
This year, he’s in the early stages of launching the triathlon as an unofficial event of sorts. It’s likely the only ultra-triathlon in the U.S. entirely above 10,000 feet in elevation. “There’s nothing like it anywhere, as far as I know,” he says. “There have been off-road triathlons, and there have been ultra-triathlons, but I know of nothing that exists at the elevation that this one does, and at this distance.”
Piccolotti won’t be participating this year; he’s running logistics and support instead. Six people originally signed up, but all but those two women have opted out for a variety of reasons. “It looks like we’re down to just the two badass female athletes,” Piccolotti says. “Injuries and other challenges have taken the others out of play. I think they are well up for the challenge. I’m excited to see where this event takes us in the future.”