Friday, August 3, 2012

Venga! Venga! Venga!

Racing at the ITU Long Course World Championships last weekend in Vitoria Gasteiz was one of the most amazing experiences of my triathlon career.  For many triathletes the ITU Long Course Worlds are probably seen as a consolation race for the real triathlon dream of Kona, but I have to say, racing for your country offers a little something special that you're not going to find elsewhere.  Travelling through London to Europe during the Olympics probably added a little something extra, but it was a truly amazing experience I'd encourage others to pursue.

So here's my race report.  Its going to be long, so maybe grab a coffee before you sit down.


Arriving at the airport I actually wore my Team Canada jacket, which I knew would draw some curious stares and smiles with my giant bike box (I packed my bike in a BikeND case that was kindly lent to me by Rose Serpico of Tri It Multisport).  Checking in for a flight to London, in Team Canada kit, with uniquely large luggage, two days before the start of the Olympics somehow gives people the impression that you're an Olympian. Go figure!

But the flight over to Spain was good, we stopped in London for a few hours to take in the pre-Olympic atmosphere, and then went on to Bilbao and our final destination Vitoria Gasteiz.

We didn't arrive at the hotel until late at night but I still managed to find the energy to put my bike together late that night.  Sadly though I was so bagged that I slept right through the team ride out to the lake for the swim course familiarization.

All of team Canada stayed together in a team hotel, which was pretty cool.  One thing that you miss a little bit in triathlon is the comraderie of actually being on a team.  But seeing all the other Canadians there provided a welcoming and warm feeling.

The Friday before the race we went down and had our own opening ceremonies in the city's main plaza.  We saw plenty of other athletes from the 34 other countries represented at the long course worlds.  Much of the field was from a few well represented nations, including; Spain, USA, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Germany, Denmark, and a few others.  After the opening ceremonies we went back to the hotel and watched our fellow countryman and fellow triathlete Simon Whitfield carry the Canadian flag into the Olympics.

The Saturday was race check in, a day when time is divided between the complicated logistics of a point to point race, and the urgency of doing as little as possible.  So when you aren't standing in line with your bicycle or having numbers drawn on you, you're sitting and eating.

That night I definitely had trouble getting to sleep, a combination of nerves and jet lag kept me up until about 1:00am.  It reminded me of last year when I met Ironman Canada's founder Ron Zalko, who told me you never sleep the night before the big race, this was really the first time I had really dealt with the phenomena.

Race Day

We took a shuttle from the hotel at 6:50am.  It was a cool morning with the faintest traces of precipitation in the air mixing with the quiet collective tension of athletes mentally calibrating themselves for the day ahead.

We arrived at T1 half an hour later and hundreds of athletes from around the world seemed to all become a familiar mosaic of talent and athletic professionalism.  Athletes from each of the 34 countries seemed to settle into the same routines that you'd see at your local community triathlon.  You could certainly sense that everyone here meant business, and as an athlete it was a pretty special feeling to be counted among the global talent.

As I readied my swim gear I noticed my swim cap colour was different than those around me.  Rather than red I had an orange swim cap.  I notified one of the officials about this and after about twenty minutes they assured me it would be fine.  Of course when I went to the start area this wasn't the case and I was prohibited from entering the beach.  After a few minutes of arguing with the clock ticking down to the start, they realized that they were in error and rushed me to the beach.  As I put the swim cap on and ran to shore, the horn went off and my wave started.  I was already playing catch up and the race had barely begun.

The Swim

I'm not a great swimmer.  In fact I'm a pretty mediocre swimmer, and in contrast to that field I was actually a pretty bad swimmer.  In the rush to shore I hadn't set my goggles properly so when I put my face in the water they instantly filled up with water.  In frustration I stood up to empty them out only to watch about 60 guys in my age group put more distance on me.

I tried to mentally reset myself but I'd become a bit frustrated.  The buoys were blue and probably about 500m apart which made sighting very difficult.  I felt a bit spoiled by the bright orange buoys every 300m we get at races like Ironman Canada.  The mental game was just getting the best of me.

I eventually reached the first buoy at 1500m out and looked at my watch to see how bad the damage was.  I was at little over 30minutes which was actually pretty good for me.  That definitely helped ease my tension.  I carried on the swim and gradually wave after wave would catch me until I was simply swimming with all the other back of the pack swimmers that in any other race would be just average.

Sighting was a major issue through the race.  Every once in a while you'd notice the field actually swimming an arc to the next buoy since they'd sight for something that wasn't quite lined up with the buoy.  This definitely added distance and my suspicion that the swim course was a bit long was confirmed a couple days ago on slowtwitch when some other people said the course was over the stated for 4km.

In the end I swam what seemed to be a dismal 1hr40min swim.  A full 13 minutes longer than what I swam at Ironman Canada last year which was only 200m shorter.  But upon further examination I actually swam about 4600m putting me at a swim pace of 2:08/100m.  Not half bad, but still the combination of bad sighting and a long course made my swim the length of a feature film.

The Bike

The bike is my specialty.  I pride myself on being the stronger cyclist in most races but on this day I knew that in a field that had earned their way to be here the same way I did, I'd probably simply be on par with the rest of the field.  But I hit the course knowing that there's no way the bike could be as mediocre as the swim. About 45 minutes later I was really questioning that belief.

Things were going fairly smoothly until I realized I actually had my race number on backwards.  I figured I'd keep riding like this until someone told me to pull over.  For about half an hour I made my way up the field until one of the course refs on a motor bike told me to pull over and turn the number around.  I complied and watch about a dozen riders I'd passed make their way by.

I kept rolling along and about half an hour after that I rode over a piece of tape with a rock attached.  I affixed itself to my rear wheel and despite my best efforts to get rid of it with my hand, then my foot in a dangerous cycling maneuver I had to pull over again and remove it.  In total the number and the tape probably only cost me a minute, but the frustration simply mounted.

Soon after though I was able to hit the reset button.  I enjoyed the rolling foothills of northern Spain which weren't unlike the foothills of Southern Alberta.  The Pyrenees are fairly close to the area of the bike course so while the ride wasn't through the mountains, it was never really flat.

As you'd roll through each town there would be many spectators and fans cheering you along making you feel like a rider in Spain's prized grand tour, the Vuelta de España.  Having people cheer you on in a foreign country on as "Canadiense" was pretty special.

I knew going into the race that I probably wouldn't have the same legs I have back home.  I'd arrived in Spain only three nights, two days, before the race.  A long flight, lots of walking, coupled with the jet lag were sure to have an effect on my performance.  Knowing this I paced myself by heart rate and perceived exhertion (RPE) rather than power or watts.  In a 120km bike ride followed by a 30km run I knew that going out too hard would cost me later so I definitely backed off a bit more than I maybe would have had I been on home turf.  I simply listened carefully to my body and replenished my calories with a steady stream of gels and fluids (less one bottle of gatorade that I dropped while trying to refill my aero drink at about 95km).

After 120km we entered Vitoria-Gasteiz to the thunderous cheers of thousands of spectators and dozens of police officers and traffic controllers keeping an open road for us.  People held up in traffic because of the road closures we'd caused were cheering out their window pushing us along to the city centre.  The energy that had depleted over the past three and a half hours was starting to come back up and seeing all those people on the streets I knew I was in for something special on the run.

The Run

Hitting the run I had the freshest legs I'd ever had getting off of the bike.  That was a welcome feeling considering how carefully managed my bike ride had been.  Maybe it was the steady pacing, or maybe it was the thousands of people yelling "Lopez, Canadiense!" but I felt strong and ready to run my 30km and cross the line proudly representing my country.  I could sense that some Spaniards were puzzled by my Spanish name and Canadian jersey which I think got me some extra cheers along the way.

I can't express in words how much energy the crows were creating on that 7.5km loop.  If you've ever watched the Tour de France and seen the electric and unbridled enthusiasm of the crowds as the stage nears the top of a mountain peak reaching into sky you'd have some sense of the amazing ability for Europeans to transfer their energy to an athlete.  Children would be looking for high fives, strangers would be yelling your name, volunteers would be taking care of you.  Every step you took you'd hear Spaniards yelling "VENGA! VENGA! VENGA!" meaning "Come on! Come on! Come on!" This was mixed with the occasional yell "¡Animo!", which while it sounds like "Animal" which might loosely apply as a cheer, it actually means something along the lines of "Head up!", "Cheer up", or "Have heart".

Only on the backside of the run course would you have a quiet moment to yourself to dig a little deeper and push a little harder on your own and maybe reflect on how far you'd come.

Each time I'd get through the backside and near the start/finish area I'd be warmly greeted by my wonderful fiancee Shirley who had a different sign each loop to welcome me back to the crowds.  At Ironman Canada last year when I hit a rough mental patch on the run I wanted nothing but to shut everyone out.  Today I just wanted to reflect back all the positive energy I was receiving, and seeing her there definitely helped.

I kept a steady pace and only walked the aid stations, which was exactly my plan.  With them spaced about 3 or 4km apart I knew I could take measured breaks at them and still put down a good pace.  Having a bit of a chip on my shoulder from my last race, Chinook Half Ironman, where I blew up on the run, I knew it would take a bit more confidence and belief in my ability to stay in a strong mental space.

I'm not sure what other athletes think about in the final laps of a race.  Sometimes I think about my pace and a bunch of other technical physiological details, sometimes I think about my friends and family and the people who help me along the way.  Today I thought about my family, all the well wishes I was sent on Facebook and Twitter, the card from my awesome friends and the team at Lululemon, all the  triathletes at Tri It Multisport and No Limits, my buddies Jon, Dave, and Shayne all racing Calgary 70.3 on the other side of the globe at that moment, of course my sister who has provided me with so much support and positive energy and who I sadly didn't have time to visit while I was in Spain, and last but not least my amazing fiancee Shirley who has been my biggest fan and a pillar of strength for me and who has inspired me so many times to pursue sport with passion and dedication.

I finished the run in 2hr40min.  Keeping a pace of roughly 5:20/km for 30km.  A result I can be proud of and that got me across the line at around the 8hr mark.  I believe you can always be faster and stronger, and this race was no exception.  Its been a busy year and I've kept things balanced and while I've been focused on training, I know that there's still plenty of untapped potential for me to go after next year.  But on that day I know I gave it my all and executed a good race.

Done for the Season

It was an honour to represent Canada and race with the maple leaf on my uniform.  I'm now looking forward to cheering on our athletes in London and taking a couple months off from training.  I may do some run races in the fall, and you'll be able to catch me on the highways enjoying my road bike, and on the tennis court rediscovering a sport I've been looking forward to playing all season.  I'll keep the blog posts coming, and with IMC around the corner I'll post some pointers on that in the coming weeks.

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