“We don’t think you’ll die.”
Those were the words of encouragement Manmadh Rebba got from his friends and fellow triathletes Zharel Silva and Chris Fesq as he was gearing up for his first triathlon, the 2013 Miami Man. Just three short months before the race, with the help of Silva and a slew of YouTube videos, Rebba had taught himself how to swim at the age of 34.
“I focused on conquering my fear. The fear was I would drown and die,” Rebba says. “You can’t just move your arms and legs and think you can swim; you have to work on each and every muscle group. So, I rotated the left hand like a thousand times, then the right hand, then the legs, then the breathing — and then combined them.”
Rebba grew up in south-central India, where his athletic opportunities began and ended with street cricket, and studying was more of a priority than access to a swimming pool. He attended Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University for architeture, and after working in India for a few years, he decided to pursue a master’s in construction science and management at Clemson to bridge the gap between his academic background and more practical knowledge.
From there, Rebba began working as a construction project manager in California before temporarily relocating to Miami for the Port Miami Tunnel, an under-ocean tunnel project. In Florida, after finishing the 2013 Miami Man (without dying), Rebba “got the triathlon bug” and moved on to other triathlons, then half Ironmans, then his first Ironman in 2016. Later that year, Ultraman Florida caught his eye online.
Ultraman races consist of a 6.2-mile, open-ocean swim, a 263-mile bike ride, and a 52.4-mile run, completed over three consecutive days. Looking at Ultraman Florida, Rebba remembers thinking that Ultraman athletes must be gluttons for punishment “because I’d done an Ironman, and that was painful. I was like, ‘Those people are crazy, man.’” But just three days later, Rebba called the race director and asked, “Do you have any openings?”
Thanks to a last-minute dropout, Rebba got into Ultraman Florida — three months before the race. Training became almost nonstop. When he wasn’t working 60-hour weeks, Rebba was fitting in two-hour workouts at 4:35 a.m. and lunch break runs to a nearby burger joint, where he would cram down a sandwich and run back to work. “When you’re running 52 miles on the course, your body should adapt to running with food in your stomach,” he explains.
Rebba was the second Indian male to finish an Ultraman race and the first Indian to qualify for Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii. He has since completed three Ultraman World Championships and aspires to finish some of the most famous ultrarunning races in the world, like the Badwater Ultramarathon and the Barkley Marathons.
But what’s the secret of Rebba’s incredible endurance? How does he keep going, mile after mile, race after ultrarace? For him, the finish line affords a priceless feeling: “When I finished Ultraman Florida and Ultraman World Championships, I had the emptiness of a Zen state. No pride. No ego. Nothing. And that was the most beautiful part of my race. I always strive to get to that nothing feeling because that’s the best state of mind.”