Thursday, June 16, 2016

The World Report: ITU Duathlon Championships 2016, Aviles, Spain

I am the only person who can starve to death in Spain.  Jamon Iberico, tortilla, queso, vino – all great stuff, but never when you need it.

Angie and Jason, and Dave and I, have no intention of bucking our host country’s culture. We are willing to adapt; we want the full Spanish experience. But it seems that the Spanish don’t require nearly as much sustenance as I do. Coffee for breakfast, maybe a piece of bread -- then nothing until many hours later. Seems you’re only permitted to eat between 1 PM and 4 PM, and then again after 9 PM. Then there’s that siesta thing:  everything – including every restaurant, cafĂ©, and grocery store -- shuts down exactly when your body craves a morsel of something to gnaw on.

I am pretty much hungry all the time.

And nervous. We have arrived in Aviles,  and I am no longer able to hide from the inevitable. I had been in a state of semi-denial the weeks and months leading up to Worlds. It’s a stress-management mechanism, and a way to stay focused on what I need to do without worrying – unnecessarily – about outcome.

But now, we’re here and it’s real. Angie and I have 3½ days before we are to compete in the most important race of our lives.

The gravity of the event hits me during the Parade of Nations. We are marching through the narrow streets of Aviles. All the athletes – 1400 total, representing 40 countries - are in team colors and lined up behind their nation’s flag. Every resident of Aviles seems to be here, too; there isn’t one unoccupied space along the curb. 

Kristin Allyne, who is competing in her 9th world championship event with Team USA, carries the American flag and leads us along the route. When Team USA passes by, the Spanish people cheer loudly. I feel like a celebrity, returning smiles to strangers who are welcoming us as friends. It is all incredibly humbling, and I fight back tears. This crazy adventure will be enough of a blur without tears.

The entire time we are in Aviles, Angie and I wear the Team USA uniform. We are representing our country, and have never been so proud to display our red, white, and blue.  For all the bad press the US receives from foreign nations (some of it deserved, some of it not), it just feels right to step out every day in our team kit.  (Side note: I didn’t really have a choice. My luggage arrived in Madrid a day later than I did, so I had to do with what I carried on. Happily, it was everything I needed leading up to and including the race itself).

The early part of the week is a whirlwind, starting with figuring out how to park a modern car in a medieval village. (We would become experts at navigating Romanesque-era roads by the end of this trip).  The first thing we do after checking in to the Palacio Hotel is to find the bikes we rented through Raceday Transport, a partner with Team USA in shipping and fitting kickass tri bikes for events like this.

We are told that the bikes haven’t arrived yet. Somebody must have packed something in their bike box that they shouldn’t have, and Spanish customs held up the entire shipment (which almost jeopardized the entire team – but all’s well that ends well).  When they arrive the following day (insert big sigh of relief here), Angie and I are fitted on our trusty temporary steeds: she’s on a QR, I get a Guru. It’s not solid black, but other than that it’s perfect.

The days prior to the race are packed. We have a tight agenda: Bike fit, course preview, team meeting, transition walk-through, parade and team photo, opening ceremony, all in the same afternoon. When do we get to eat??

We attempt to ‘grab lunch’ (a term that you will never hear in Spanish) before our crazy afternoon agenda, but it’s hard to mesh our schedule with the local culture. At 1 PM, we’re waiting for something – anything – to open up that serves food. We wait for service, we wait for water*, we order food and wait some more. Angie and I leave before the food arrives, leaving the guys alone to try to explain this nonsense to the perplexed waiter. I spend the afternoon hungry.

* For some reason, it’s really hard to get water in a Spanish restaurant. It’s not a language barrier thing, either. Jason was an excellent translator and our trip was enhanced because of his ability to connect with local people through a shared language. The water situation must be a cultural barrier, one of the quirks about foreign travel that make it both interesting and frustrating.

I’m hoping this excess hunger is going to help me with my skinsuit. The skinsuit, as its name implies, is meant to fit like a second skin. It’s really a star-spangled sausage casing. It’s so small that Angie stuffed hers into the front pocket of her jeans before boarding the flight to Madrid.  And it’s snug, lengthwise. The straps dig into my shoulders, the open-back design is pulled wayyyyy down. I’m a bit concerned about this.  If it rains during the race, I’m bound to freeze. And what if my ass crack shows when I’m on the bike? OMG – here comes that American plumber girl again. Ugh.

My nerves are calmed a bit when Angie and I ride the course for a second time. There are circles all over this course: roundabouts and U-turns and multiple laps of the same. I want to ride it enough times to be able to not have to think about it during the race, but I will be relying on barriers to keep me on course.

The evening before the race, the anxiety builds. We are ready to get this party started.

The next morning, we are READY! Our bikes are already in transition, we just need to haul our gear to the event start, do a bit of a warm up, and wait for the gun.

Women 40+ Standard distance is the last wave. Waiting at the start line with gals from all over the world, bonding with our US teammates. The conversation turns political, much to my delight, and I attempt to convince the British girls that all Americans aren’t ignorant.  Laughter calms my nerves.

For the first time in days, the sun makes an appearance. Mediterranean sun. It’s not ‘hot’, but it will be and I make a mental note to STAY HYDRATED. I wish I had more food. Too late now.

The race site is a huge, post-modern dome, across the river from the city center. Every day, we descend to the river via a twisting maze of stone streets, walk up a cantilevered ramp, cross the multicolored bridge. By the time the race is over, we will have walked this route many, many times. It feels familiar. The race course is designed to encourage spectators, and from the ramp and both sides of the river, fans watch and cheer. Racers must pass this area many times: twice on the first run, 2 ½ times on the bike, twice more on the 2nd run.

I take my position. The gun goes off.

The first run is fun and exciting. Cheering crowds, cries of ‘Vamos!’ and ‘Team USA!’ keep me on pace for the 10K. There are 2 aid stations along the running course. Although Angie has been trying to teach me how to drink while running without drowning myself, she has not been successful. I take a bottle hand-up at every opportunity, sometimes choking on it but mostly pouring it over my head, hoping that somehow the hydration reaches my rapidly-depleting cells.

First run completed, onto transition.  To those unfamiliar with multisport events, the transition area is where you ditch your running shoes and get your bike (T1), and then switch back again once you’re done with the bike leg and ready for the last run (T2). The object is to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Because of the huge competitor field, the transition area was extra long, added ½ mile of running – ¼ mile each transition – to our race.

Once on the bike, I’m in my zone. I’m also confident that I know where I’m going, thanks to the multiple course previews that Angie and I did earlier. Still, the course is 2 ½ laps of circles, twists, and turns. Arrows point out the routes for standard and sprint and lap count, but you have to pay attention. Course re-con gave us an idea of where we could put the hammer down without missing a turn or crashing into a barrier. Never underestimate the power of course re-con!

Speaking of speed, this race was all about pacing. This was the first time either of us competed in standard distance (10K run/25 mile bike/5 K run). Strategy is required. Ours was simple: Do the long run at a moderate pace, keep a moderate to high intensity on the bike but save something for the 2nd run, then open it up for the final 5K! Of course, this works only if you have something left in the tank at that point.

Coming into the last half- lap of the bike course, my calves start to cramp. It’s dehydration, I’m sure. I acknowledge it and then try to block it out of my mind, strategize how to manage during the last run.

I’m off the bike and the world seems to be turning in slow motion. With forced deliberation, I get my shoes on and force my leaden legs to move. It’s only 3 miles, I tell myself – this race will be over in less than half an hour as long as I keep moving.

Self talk when I’m suffering: Visualize the finish. Visualize grabbing that little American flag and waving it as I cross the line, smiling. Do it for your country. Do it for Team USA.

My heart feels like it’s going to explode out of my chest. Good thing the skinsuit is tight. I slow my pace, but keep moving. I stop running, but keep moving. Gasp out a ‘gracias’ to the guy who hands me a bottle of water. Take a sip, pour the rest over my head. Water pours down into my shoes, and I feel blisters emerging. My legs are protesting, and my brain is fighting them. KEEP GOING.

The cheering crowds have thinned. I am happy for that. There is nothing they could do or say to make me feel stronger, and I hate to look like I’m suffering in front of people.

As I near the multicolored bridge, there is more spectator fervor. Dave and Jason have been following us throughout the race, wearing custom T-shirts to show who they support. All of it becomes a blur. Maybe I’m delirious, or just too focused on finishing. I miss my little flag hand-up somehow. I am relieved to finally cross the finish line, with a smile but without a flag, and ready to put this race behind me.

If there is a finish line photo, it’s not the one I was hoping for.  I probably look a little pale, maybe ready to fall over. The finish line photo I was hoping for is me looking fresh, triumphant smile, arms raised in victory, little flag in hand. Maybe next time. **

**Never say never.

True to Spanish sensibilities, the award ceremony starts at 10:30 PM (on a Sunday night! Don’t these people go to work on Monday??!!), and lasts until well after we sneak away and head back across the river. It may be Spain, but it’s still ‘Gin Sunday’ in my little world. Back in the Plaza, we find one little outdoor bar still open.

I complete my rehydration protocol with a terribly refreshing gin and tonic. We hear (rather than see) the fireworks that mark the end of the 2016 World Duathlon Championship festivities.  Now we can pack up our gear and sweaty clothes, and embark on the next phase of our trip: a deeper immersion into Iberian culture.

Sometime back in 2014, after a good finish at a local duathlon, Angie suggested we compete at Nationals the following year (2015). And we did, in St. Paul, MN, and qualified for Worlds, in Spain (2016). And we competed at Worlds and we both finished well (she took 12th in her age group, I took 5th in mine).  And then, it was all over.

What next? Who knows? Time will reveal new opportunities.

For those who have the ability and desire to compete in a National or World Championship event, I encourage you to go for it. By doing so, you will be competing against the best in the nation, or the world. You will get to experience a new place – maybe a place you never knew existed – as a national representative on a global playing field. It’s as close as many of us will ever get to an ‘Olympic’ dream.

Gracias, Aviles, and Team USA, and everyone who made this event unforgettable.

Muchos gracias, Angie, for making the impossible happen. And Dave and Jason, for your unwavering support of our great ideas.