San Juan, Puerto Rico is an incredible city. With many similarities to the continental US, there are plenty of differences to make it feel exotic and far from home. Being able to simply walk off the plane, without as much as an agriculture form, let alone customs, was amazing. Not having to convert any money or do conversions in my head each time I looked at a price tag or menu was also a bonus. Having the scenery and weather of the Caribbean, the history of an ancient society all around, a mix of metric and empirical units, and a mainly Spanish speaking society definitely let you know that you aren't in Kansas anymore.
We arrived in San Juan on Thursday afternoon for the Sunday race. As expected, we were greeted by mid 80 degree temps, palm trees, and humid, salty air. Our new friend Hila picked us up at the airport and took us straight to Old San Juan so that I could view the torturous run course and get a feel of the area where we would be staying and racing. Old San Juan is a collection of very narrow, mostly cobblestone streets lined with brightly colored buildings and surrounded by the water. As an American, I think we often forget how "old" certain cities are. Our history as a country is quite brief in comparison to most societies and I think we often lack that comprehension of cities that have existed for as long as one like San Juan.
After our tour, we were dropped at the Conrad Hotel, which is very near the swim start. Upon check in, we were given an upgrade to an ocean view room as long as we were willing to take a single king bed versus the two queens that I had reserved. I expressed my disappointment to the clerk that I wouldn't have one bed for jumping on and another to sleep in, but that I would manage. Given my sacrifice, she found us an ocean view room on the end of the floor so that we would have two walls with windows! The room did not disappoint. We looked directly out onto the ocean and could walk out on our private balcony to watch and listen to the surf roll in anytime we desired. It was incredible. After settling in, we wandered up Ashford Ave to find some Puerto Rican cuisine. This was our first exposure to mofongo and tostones rellenos. Both used plantains and meat - how could you go wrong? Afterwards, it was time to check out the local froyo shop and then put Stella together and make her race ready.
Friday began by meeting up with a fellow Team RWB supporter, and stellar triathlete, Nick Chase. He and I went for a nice (probably faster than we should have) run around the swim exit, transition area, and briefly on the run course. It became apparent then that race day would be a sweat fest. Around lunch time Hila picked Nick and me up again to head to the Caribe Hilton for packet pick up, lunch, and then she drove us out of town on the bike course so we could get in an hour in the saddle without dealing with San Juan traffic. If I have one major complaint with this race, it is the trying conditions of riding in San Juan before race day. There are cars EVERYWHERE! Not only are there way too many cars for the size of the island, they drive with blatant disregard to any vehicle around them. Once we got out to a less populated area, we parked and got in a decent hour of riding while dodging dead iguana carcasses and keeping an eye out for drivers making less-than-signaled turns. Upon completion of our ride, during our commute back into San Juan, we were stopped in traffic when I looked over and said "Hey, there's Faris Al-Sultan". For those who are not familiar, Faris is a professional triathlete and former Ironman World Champion. He is well known for his signature Speedo style shorts that he races in, his long hair, and scruffy beard. Faris was not in a car as you would expect, or even on his bike, he was walking alone on the side of the road with his backpack on heading in the direction of the race site. I asked Hila and Nick if we should give him a ride and they both quickly agreed we should. I lowered my window and yelled "Faris, do you want a ride?!" He responded in his accented English asking where we were headed. After telling him we were going to the resorts, he ran across the road and jumped in the back seat. At that point, we were several miles from the Caribe Hilton, where he was staying, and as evidenced by the amount of police and barred doors and windows, this is not the city you want to wander through without knowledge of the area. He was very nice and politely answered the dozen questions I posed to him, took a picture with Nick, and then excused himself when we stopped at the Conrad to go get something to eat (we found out later that he had been living on Subway during his time there - Eat Fresh!)
Friday evening, Kim, Nick, Jesse, and I were all invited to Hila's parent's home in a very nice suburb of San Juan for dinner. This was definitely the best meal I had while I was there and probably one of the best of my life. We had fried plantains, churasco (seasoned skirt steak), two types of egg plant dishes, rice, beans, salad, pumpkin soup, flan, fresh fruit, apple strudel, coffee, red wine... All amazing. This was truly special for them to invite us in as strangers, feed us, and make us feel very welcome.
Saturday morning began with a Starbucks stop and meeting up with Cat and her new friend/RWB recruit Chris. After getting caffeinated, we walked across the road to the swim start for a 30 min swim session. Most of the 1.2 mile race swim took place in a protected lagoon before passing under a low bridge and ending in an area exposed to the open ocean, but well protected by large rocks that broke up a lot of the surf. The goal of this short session was just to get in the water, loosen up, find some sighting points, and swim under the bridge so I would know what it would feel like on race morning.
After drying off, Kim and I found a great cafe directly on the water where we enjoyed our breakfast, coffee, fresh pineapple juice, and made another new friend, Peter Terris. Peter is from Belgium, but now lives in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico where he paints for a living and trains as a triathlete. Even though triathlon is an individual sport, there is so much camaraderie amongst athletes and that is one thing I really love about my sport.
My last task for Saturday (besides eating) was to take a quick ride and then rack my bike in transition. I suited up and headed out to try to find someplace I could ride for 45 mins. I basically went up and down the road as far as I could. Everything seemed to be running smoothly and on my way to Sixto Escobar Stadium, the site of transition, I hit a HUGE pot hole. I ejected my water bottle, my entire cockpit angled down, and I was quite worried about the integrity of my tires, tubes, and wheels. I got to my rack to begin the examination. Everything looked ok, I borrowed a wrench from a competitor, adjusted my aerobars, and made sure my wheels were true. Crisis averted. I quickly ran back to the hotel to shower and hit the pro panel so I could say hi to Tim O'Donnell (TO). Back from the pro panel, it was time for a quick nap and then an early dinner of chicken fried rice at the hibachi restaurant and a little more froyo to end the night.
My alarm went off at 0415 and I quickly got up, shaved, showered, ate, grabbed my gear and headed for transition. I got Stella all set up for her big day and then headed back to the hotel. I was in the very last age group wave, 0740, so I figured I would rather relax in my hotel room versus sitting in the grass at the swim start and waiting in port o potty lines. This was a great decision. I hooked up the Compex for some pre warmup and potentiation, sipped my Ensure, coated on some TriPainRelief, laid in the bed, and mentally went through my race plan in detail. At 0715, Kim and I headed downstairs to the swim start, she coated me once more in suntan lotion, zipped me into my swim skin, and sent me off for 70.3 miles of fun!
The swim has never been my strong suit, but I have worked on it a lot and I am getting to the point where I would call myself a swimmer. I won't be the first guy out of the water, but I will leave myself in contention. I lined up near the front of the deep water start and planned on going with the first group as long as I could. This plan was great until we hit the first wave of stragglers from the heat in front of us. Our group of ten or so was blown apart and I found myself with no feet to follow. I dug in knowing I would have to pull hard to maintain a decent pace working all by myself. I found myself in a decent rhythm, but it was taxing. I was breathing every other stroke, instead of every third, and I was praying for the swim finish to come quickly. Upon completion of the loop in the lagoon, I headed towards the bridge. This is where you get into line of sight to the open ocean and you begin feeling the effects of its large surf. The pull and surge has its intoxicating effect, but it's race day and you can't let it bother you. I climbed the ramp at swim exit and looked at my watch; 33 minutes. Not quite the 30 that I had wanted, but not the end of the world. I pulled off my Aqua Sphere Kayenne's and swim cap and began the half mile barefoot run to Sixto Escobar Stadium.
Nothing major to report. Tried to control my heart rate after the extended run to transition, pulled off my swim skin, number belt on, helmet on, gel flask in the pocket, unrack Stella, turn on my Edge 500, and off I go!
Typical running out to the mount line, a huge congestion of folks trying to clip in, and then swerving wildly as they try to get up to speed and paying no attention to other riders. I got out of that mess and finally found some space on the open road to get my shoes on. No sooner do I get my shoes on when I hit another pot hole. Not as severe as the one the day before, but significant enough to launch my bottle of Hammer Perpetuem from between my arms. Not having that bottle is not an option. I would end up in a ditch somewhere having hallucinations of riding my beach cruiser across the sky. I jammed on the brakes, unclipped my feet, gathered my bottle, and pushed on. Crisis numero dos solved. Riding out of town was good. I felt smooth and fast. As expected, since I began in the last wave, I was passing riders by the handful every time I looked up. More importantly, I was seeing some calf numbers between 30-34. Pretty much as soon as we got out of town, the roads were soaked. Not a huge deal except this would be my first time riding in wet conditions since the doomed day last August when I broke my hip. Definitely some anxious moments, but I had a task at hand and it would take more than rain to slow me down. I hit the first turn around and still felt good. I had felt some side winds, but my pace had been solid and I was minding my power output and nutrition. I had been passed by one rider and I tried to go with him, but he was beyond my range of smart energy management. Props to him. So basically I rode alone, moving through group after group, observing some massive draft packs (probably 50+ riders in a couple of them), and hit a pretty big downpour on the way back in on my first loop. It was on my way back in after my second loop that the headwind got nasty. Flags were starched directly against our direction. Not exactly how I wanted to end the ride, but that's how it was. I pushed hard to fight it and caught another guy in my age group before making it back to T2.
Pretty standard stuff. Felt good about the lack of bikes on the rack. Helmet off, hat on, sunglasses on, socks and shoes on, turn the number belt around and run the hell out of there.
This is where it got ugly. From the beginning my stride felt labored. I had a plan to find 170 beats per minute (BPM) on my heart rate monitor and stay there, whatever pace that got me. It was a great plan, except I just couldn't do it. I would hit 166 BPM and feel like I was going to collapse. Even with the hills, my body didn't want to pump my heart any faster. It was incredibly hot and humid. Each aid station it was a Gatorade in the mouth, a water over the head, ice down the kit, and the occasional Coke if it was handy. The picture of the first major hill in Old San Juan is pretty popular in the race photos and it is a hill to be respected, but it is one of many and not the worst that the course has to offer. My personal (least) favorite was a cobblestone hill that is directly outside the gates to the fort. It was just as steep, if not steeper, as the other I mentioned, but the road surface makes it much tougher. When you enter the fort, you run along a sea wall and beautiful does not describe the scene. On one side is a stone wall that I couldn't even guess the age of. On the other side is the ocean slamming into the rocks. Here are the catches; the sea wall and fort wall is not straight, so you do not know how far you have to go until you get to the turn around. Each time you round a corner, it just keeps going. There is also very little breeze due to the massive fort wall so the hot, humid air is now still. Lastly, since it is a historical site, they are very picky about trash accumulating, as they should be. For triathlon, this translates into no aid stations. Add all these things up and it makes what should be the flattest and easiest portion of the run quite difficult.
After realizing that I was not going to have the stellar run I hoped for, it became all about damage control. I tried to stay as cool as possible, concentrated on leaning into my stride, made good use of the downhill sections, and made sure I kept fluid and calories coming in at every aid station. I walked many of the stations to ensure this and to break up the run in my head: "Just run to the next Gatorade..." I did pick it up for the last few kilometers and told myself I had nothing I needed to hold back for. This also helped to make sure that I wouldn't give up any more than the two positions I had already lost on the run. I knew I wasn't where I wanted to be, but it wouldn't help to make it worse.
The support of Team RWB members on the run was phenomenal. I am so thrilled to be apart of this organization. I also had Kim sitting at the top of the famous hill to encourage me and give me updated positioning. She had told me I had come off the bike in 7th and then it was up to me to watch any calves that went past. Now results show me coming off the bike in 8th... whatev's.
At the end of the second run loop, there is a turn off to go to the finish. Guess where it went... Up another hill. But this time I could hear and see the finish line. It was a pain that came with an immediate reward. As I crossed the line, I think my overall feeling was one of relief. I took my medal, finisher shirt, gave up my chip, and hobbled over to the fence where Kim was waiting for me. I could barely hold myself up. My entire body ached and felt like I would have a full body cramp if I took one wrong step. I eventually got to the ice bath (more like a slightly chilled bath at that point) and it felt good to sit in the water for a few minutes. I got out of there and had Kim inspect what felt like two giant blisters on my big toes from soaking wet shoes. I shoved down a slice of pizza, but looking at the second piece made me feel ill. It was then that I decided that I needed to search out some IV fluids. After telling them all the right things, I quickly had a line in my arm. I laid there for awhile, entertaining Kim with my involuntary dancing calf muscles, and let the miracle of saline work its magic. I felt 100 times better after that bag. I grabbed my things out of transition and headed for the Conrad.
I won't go into all the details of how Ironman World Championship slot allocation works, but it's important to know that it is not based on a time, but rather placement in your age group. The number of slots your group gets depends on the number of people in your age group relative to the total number of participants. San Juan had 50 slots to award to the 70.3 WC for the entire race. I figured that males 30-34 would likely get 3 of those 50. When we showed up to the award ceremony/roll down, I went to see how many we had gotten and how many had been taken. I was thrilled to hear that we had been allocated 4! slots and only 1!! had been claimed. This meant that if no one else showed up, we had 3 slots to award beginning with the 5th, 6th, and 7th place finishers. I was in 10th. I needed 3 people to pass on roll down for me to get my slot. Not likely, but not impossible. After awards finished, they moved straight into roll down. The first few groups had zero spots roll so they were quickly to my male 30-34. The 5th place finisher took one spot, 6th was a no show, 7th took a spot... one spot left. He called the 8th place finisher's name... Not a peep. Then he called for the 9th place... No one got up. The announcer then said "from Columbus, Ohio..." he didn't even have to finish, I was already yelling with my hand in the air and half way to the stage. I had run one of the ugliest half marathons of my life and found my ticket to the World Championship! I was over the moon! In my haste, I had forgotten to grab my checkbook out of the bag, so Kim came over, gave me a big hug, congratulated me, and handed me the checks. It is time to resolve some unfinished business in the desert!
The rest of the trip had a celebratory mood to it. We celebrated the race and St Patty's Day on Sunday night with Hila, Nick, and Jesse in Old San Juan - made complete by my green TrendyCharlie shirt that was brought just for the occasion. Monday we decided to have a lazy day at the hotel and it was awesome. Kim and I ate breakfast at our little cafe on the water with Peter who just happened to be going there on the same elevator that we were getting on, sat at the pool having fruity drinks and making new friends (met Heather who managed to secure a Vegas slot and age group award after breaking her foot at mile three of the run), got cleaned up to hit happy hour at the Caribe Hilton, then grabbed a taxi to Old San Juan to check out a little pizza shop I found on Google maps called Pirilo. Amazing pizza and it had plantains on it! Of course, the night wasn't complete without a stop at the froyo shop and then some time spent on the beach watching the waves crash.
I went to San Juan with the goal of bringing home a qualifier's slot to Vegas, and I did that. It may not have been how I envisioned it happening, but the end result is the same. Along with that, I had the pleasure of meeting some great people, eating some fantastic food, and seeing some amazing things. I'm coming home with a funky sunburn, my qualifier certificate, some gnarly chaffing, a finisher shirt, a raging plantain addiction, and a smile on my face.