After much deliberation I am writing two posts on my recent race. This one, a pure race review for those of you who are curious about how the Triatlo Longo de Caminha, a 70.3 race in Portugal was like; and a second one about what I learned from being the last person to cross the finish line. Had I tried to do both together, an already long post would become unbearable. The race itself was so extraordinary I’m not sure I can do it justice but here it goes …
The first thing that made this race special was its organization. The idea for the 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and 13 mile run was born about a year ago while a group of local athletes called the Associação Triatlo de Caminha (ATC) chatted over a cup of coffee. They garnered support from the Portuguese Triathlon Federation and the town of Caminha and from that point on the ATC has been working tirelessly.
I have been lucky to train with them over the past two weeks, and have seen how dedicated they are (you can read my impressions here) and THANK GOODNESS I got to Portugal early because insider information on this course was definitely useful!
Most of the 1.2 mile swim took place in the Minho River. I had swum there before so I knew the water would be cold and was able to borrow a long sleeve wetsuit from an ATC member. I also knew I had to be smart about the current. Caminha is situated where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Minho River; the race swim is in the river which is fresh water, but depending on the current the water could taste salty (very strange). Yet the platform to get out of the water is actually on the Coura River: a smaller tributary that feeds into the Minho river. So you swim down the Minho, and then cross the Coura and onto the platform.
Sounds easy enough except that the Coura has a pretty strong current coming into the Minho, and well, you need to swim across it. If you don’t angle it right, you might just be swept by the Coura, into the Minho, and away from your platform destination leaving you with some heavy duty, current fighting, getting nowhere, frustrating as heck, swim like the one I had last week.
On race morning, I met up with my ATC friends who showed me the strategy of when to angle into the Coura. I was set. A punctual ferry boat brought participants to about 400 meters above the start line. As I jumped in, the water tasted salty which meant the Minho’s fresh water downstream current was not as strong. This in turn translated into a “harder” swim to get to the junction of the Minho and Coura rivers.
When I got to the Coura, I hugged the river bank as I had been told to do, however a paddle boarder insisted that I begin to cross the river. I might have overshot a bit but he was not going to let me overshoot more! In any case, I finally made it to the platform with a slower than expected swim. Still, the water was crystal clear and the un-crowded swim was beautiful. Out of the water, I hear the announcer say that 80% of the bikes had already left transition. Geez.
I also heard friends cheering, and I saw Joe who assured me that my foot which was literally frozen would thaw out during the bike.
Transition took forever. First, the system here is that when you set up transition you are given a basket and everything other than your running shoes has to be put in it. Anything (wetsuit included) left outside is a penalty. Unlike a transition mat it’s not easy to have access to your gear when its all bunched up in a basket. Or, maybe I might just have too much gear. Both are plausible excuses.
Leaving transition we rode through Caminha’s main sqaure where I go and have at least three cups of coffee a day. That whole area was lined with people cheering and was a blast to ride through. We then left Caminha through a reasonably flat road and made a right where a big brown sign read “Serra D’Arga”. We began to climb almost immediately. About 50 of the 56 mile bike ride consisted of two loops in the mountains with Garmin showing 5,358 feet of elevation. Of that, each loop had about 800 meters of 15 to 20% grades and it all came in the first half of the loop. It’s not steep enough that people fall over, but everyone slows to a crawl. I kept hearing “esta bike tem cheirinho a IronMan” (this bike smells like an IronMan). Apparently, there is no IronMan race today, anywhere, with that much steep climbing. I can’t confirm, but I know I am enormously grateful I am doing IronMan Florida with a relatively flat course.
I didn’t think my first loop was too bad. My ATC friends had taken me up the mountain twice in the past two weeks so I knew what to expect. It was hard, but I did what I was taught: go slow and don’t look up. Even so, I refused to let any negative thought in as people passed me.
The route is very diverse. You start in a small town called Argela, and as you climb, the terrain becomes more barren. After the first big climbs, there was nothing but the road and the mountain top. I could see the mountain range in all its quiet glory, and when the fog lifted I could see little towns in the middle. I passed the part where there are goats, and a volunteer was kind enough to be there to ensure none of them got on the road. I knew where the highest point was, and I kept hoping that I would reach it sooner rather than later because it goes downhill from there.
Downhill was only a partial reprieve with hairpin turns, no physical barriers preventing you from plunging into the abyss and a steep grade demanding the brakes to be pressed at all times, at least for me. And after these steep descents you weren’t quite at the bottom. You reach a small town where, fortunately, more volunteers were on hand to make sure the usual neighborhood dogs didn’t chase us down. And then you were in a valley of sorts that I labeled the doldrums.
Since Portugal has such a nautical history, Joe was explaining to the boys the origins of the word “the doldrums.” These are areas in the Pacific Ocean where the wind just stops, and at the time of the great Portuguese explorers who did not have motor boats, that meant their sailboats were stuck dead in the water.
That is what this part of the course felt like. I’m not sure how many miles it is, I am guessing 15 or so of ups and downs. Nothing very steep, but nothing flat either. The road was too bumpy to get on aerobars for long, and as soon as I went onto the big ring, I had to switch back down for a small climb. What also makes this stretch extra difficult is that mentally, you are thinking you will have to climb up again. And truth be told, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to make it. Because as they say here, with a little struggle anyone can make it up once; but twice … that’s another story. What an understatement.
Right after the turnaround for the second loop, I passed an aid station with the most helpful people I’ve met on a race. I stopped and they ran to me, pouring water into my bottles and trying their best to give me everything they had. I said many “obrigados” (thank yous) and began the arduous climb again. This time, my bike became heavy even faster. I felt the difference from the first loop and knew my legs were shaky. I repeated my mantras, I thought of my family and all of a sudden I stopped. Crap.
Because once you stop it’s easier to stop again, and so begins a battle that has more to do with your mind then with your legs. But I was determined. I knew that at the rate I was going, walking the bike up the steepest parts was actually faster than riding it, and I still had to think about the half marathon that would follow. So I devised an on-the-spot strategy that, in the end, served me well. This was my decision making tree: first I would climb; as things got tougher I would shift to the lighter gears; when I was at the lightest and it got tough I would stand up; and when that was too much I would zig zag; and when that would translate into snail pace I would walk just ten or twenty meters of the incline that were left.
Two people caught up with me while I was doing this, and they both continued pedaling. Some time later I passed them as they too were walking. I decidedly believe that was the right strategy for me even if my ego complained about it constantly. My secret though was to walk only the parts that would be too painful to ride, and as soon as the incline came down a tiny bit, I would ride again. That meant that at times I would start riding again in 8 to 10% inclines. Oddly enough those felt totally manageable!
Soon I found myself alone in the Serra. I knew the traffic was cut off, I knew the aid station was still ahead, and I just soaked up the whole scenery. This was an incredible moment for me, and will come on my other “mushy post” so onto the rest of the course….
When I hit the highest point for the second time, it finally dawned on me that I really was going to be able to do this and I had a moment of elation right before the moment of fear during the descent, and then I was right back into the doldrums. This time though, my legs felt like bricks and if I tried to put a slightly heavier gear so that I would go a bit faster, my legs screamed. I ended up doing the whole thing in the small ring, at a light gear, spinning because my legs could not bear a lot of weight, this meant things took longer but it was the only way I would be able to finish and get onto the run.
Alas, I made my way out of the doldrums and headed down again through the main square. I heard a lot of cheering; and realized my entire family was there watching me pass through. I wished I could stop and tell them how much that meant to me but I couldn’t so I blew them a kiss and whizzed by. At transition, I saw Joe and Dreamer and after the high of seeing them, I also saw one of my Portuguese friends who, get this, had already finished the race. He was getting his stuff OUT of transition. Granted, this guy ran the Madrid marathon in 2:40 but still – it was somewhat demoralizing – though not enough to stop.
Miraculously, my legs felt great during the run, and I was keeping a good pace for me. The run was an out and back course of asphalt, boardwalk, sand, and rocks. You name it, we probably had to run through it. The first part was on the river wall, and there were a lot of people coming back to finish their race. With few exceptions, everyone that passed me panted “força” (strength) as I ran by. My strategy for the run is always the same… just run another mile and see what happens.
The scenery was gorgeous as I ran along a lonely, rocky, coastline in Moledo, Portugal. The route then took us through a beach town, Vila Praia da Ancora, where you run along a concrete boardwalk. Amazingly enough, there were still volunteers along the route that would tell people who were enjoying a Sunday afternoon to move over so that I could run uninterrupted. People would indeed move, see me, and then clap and encourage me. This kept me going for a while until a woman out of nowhere passed me and I couldn’t keep up. Someone rode a bike next to me and told me I was the last person in the race. I mentally disintegrated realizing I was dead last with five miles to go.
Right then, I was at a water stop on mile nine and I recognized one of the volunteers. He was the guy who put my bike together in Portugal and is part of the ATC. When he realized it was me, he gave me a big hug, tried to get me to eat and drink more than I could, and took a picture to send to the group so they knew where I was. It was then that I also remembered the first thing that made this race special … the people.
So for the next five miles I slowed down, and enjoyed the view. I walked if I needed, and kept moving forward but I was a tourist again just taking in the immensity of what I had just been through. The last mile was on the river wall and I saw some of my friends again. Here some volunteers returning back to the finish line on their bicycles caught up with me and rode next to me the rest of the way encouraging me at every turn. I was going to make it to the finish line located in the main square.
The award ceremony had long been over, most athletes had already left, and many people were sitting on sidewalk coffee shops. When they saw me, they would ask the volunteer if I was the last one and when he would say yes they would clap and cheer. Many stood up. I put my hands together as a thank you gesture and began to cry when I saw Joe and my family there, and then I saw my boys waiting to cross the finish line with me. They had been there for hours.
And though I hate to finish this post right here, it was the end of the official run. Right in downtown Caminha, smack in the middle of the central square where I still have coffee three times a day, was the most fantastic finish line to date. The race was finished, but my putting my head around what I had just been through was about to begin.