South America -- Continent #6
Chile -- Country #10
Ironman 70.3 Pucón
Jan 10, 2016
The Tri 50 States and World Continent Journey ended in Pucón, Chile on January 10th. I raced with over 1,500 triathletes primarily from Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. A majority came from people who belonged to tri clubs throughout South America combined with intensely independent competitive athletes who came from all over the globe. To be at the starting line took four years of perseverance.
Four years earlier I seriously considered racing in Ironman Brazil in May 2013 and Ironman France a month later to complete the journey. However, Ironman Brazil opened after leaving the house for a morning run and sold out before I returned. Missing out on IM Brazil prevented me from abusing my body beyond repair if racing in two demanding events in less than a 30 days. Instead I focused on Ironman France in June, got side tracked by another opportunity in Kona, then decided to race in the Ironman 70.3 Pucón in Chile.
Unfortunately, the 2013 race was already full. Racing there in 2014 was not possible as work restrictions prevented me from committing to any vacation in January due to a possible union strike at a plant where I worked. The location offered a challenging race plus near stellar whitewater rafting, horseback riding, hiking, and more. The more I looked at South America race options, Pucón billed by Lonely Planet “as a mecca for adventure sports,” became the best location to finish the journey. For the January 2015 race, I missed the sign-up period that opened six months before the race. I reached out to the WTC (World Triathlon Corporation), Pucón’s race sponsors, and to the race director to gain a late entry but nothing materialized.
For 2 ½ year period after Ironman France in Nice, I lost my way in completing the journey. Instead, I meandered to compete in qualifying races at USA Nationals hosted by the city of Milwaukee in August 2014 for the 2015 ITU World Championships in Chicago. I also wanted to compete in the 2014 Ironman 70.3 World Championships since they were nearby in Canada which required qualifying by the end of July 2014.
To minimize the chance of getting shut out from signing up for the January 2016 Pucón race, I visited the race web site frequently starting in spring then switched to daily in June waiting in vain for race registration to open up. Then the family on vacation to Norway. Constantly being on the move I didn’t check the Pucón race web site for two weeks. By the time we returned home on July 10th, race entries for the 2016 Ironman 70.3 Pucón opened, filled, and were now closed. Déjà vu all over again one year later for the preferred triathlon to end my journey. I reevaluated the path of the Tri World Continent journey and realized I was lost. I ventured off-track from completing it.
I was devastated and pissed at myself. I stewed. I moved on. I focused on racing at USA Nationals again at Milwaukee in early August, then at ITU Worlds along Chicago’s lake front in mid-September and called it a season. The left hip hurt too every time I stood up from a chair, it seemed to get stuck in place while pain radiated from my groin and upper quad. Over Thanksgiving the prior year I hyperextended my groin in a freak, non-tri related accident and didn’t think anything about it. Right after New Year’s Day 2015 on a business trip my left shin muscle hurt with pain every morning. Felt like shin splints, only on the left side. The following week when swimming, the shin and groin pain was so intense I could not do a kick workout with fins in the pool. Both areas of pain became transient lasting for days and going away for days. Sometimes together and sometimes independently. During races my right leg struggled to clear the bike seat due to decreasing flexibility and increasing pain in the left side groin area. After the race season a high school classmate, Chuck Kern, and I met in Evanston for a Northwestern University Football game. Chuck played middle linebacker for the Wildcats and held a few of their defensive records. He saw me all contorted from a painful leg, pointed at me and said, “Osteoarthritis”. I discounted his quick diagnosis and continued working out for some yet to be determined South America race.
Earlier in 2015 the WTC added Ironman 70.3 Punta del Este in Uruguay scheduled for late November. The trip would be two flights and a long overnight bus ride to the race site. The location was Atlantic Ocean coastline and the course looked beautiful on the website. I picked up my endurance training and thought about the race commitment. However, before signing up reached out to the Ironman 70.3 Pucón race director, Christopher Pons and asked if he would accept one more person into the race.
I explained the journey and strong interest to race in Chile. The note went late Friday. By Monday morning Mr. Pons granted me a race slot. In two hours I figured out how to wire money internationally and booked two airline reservations to fly somewhere to a city in the middle of Chile I never heard of on an airline I never knew existed. Also found a beautiful motel in Pucon with no air conditioning nor any association to a chain. No place did in Pucón. And finally, convinced my wife to come along on another new adventure to a far off land. Strangely, this all seemed normal to achieve the final milestone on the journey.
By mid-December, a month before Ironman 70.3 Pucón, all running was painful. I could not stretch out my stride or build up any speed. In January, before leaving for Chile I took 3 days off in a row from running because of hip/groin pains. That was my longest break from running since a broken toe sidelined me in fall 1989.
Other than getting entered into the race, the most difficult aspect was travel to and from the race site. The first challenge came from the airline during check-in at O’Hare. Personnel hassled me if I paid for the bike as luggage. I did. Two different people asked for proof of payment. Neither were pleasant when I provided a receipt. The next hassle was the weight of the bike box. Above 50 pounds luggage is consider overweight. The box weighed 55 pounds. I asked how much more to fly the box at 55 pounds. Personnel talked in terms of uncertainties and vagueness. She said, “It will cost you a lot of money,” but didn’t say exactly how much.
Various items came out of the box and went into a duffle bag until each container reached 50 pounds. I tossed the air pump into the trash bin. The box now weighed 50 pounds on the customer self-check-in scale but 51 pounds on the official scale at the counter. The counter personnel didn’t want to cut me any slack but I argued she could not charge me extra. 50 was 50. The supervisor, who now came over to throw his weight into the process, nodded grudgingly with approval. Somehow that made me feel good. I wanted to ask about some type of offset on body weight compared to other passengers but knew that was not going to fly. Nor would we fly if pushing the personnel to being more pissed off at us. We finally gave in to the process, grabbed our luggage tabs, and headed to security. The plane departed with the same amount of weight except the one pound pump. And the airline burned no less fuel or earned more revenue. Something in the process seems broken.
We left Chicago with snow on the ground bound for Texas. There we were joined by a husband and wife, both professional triathletes, who lived in Houston. We continued to Santiago where additional pro and amateur racers boarded the same flight to Temuco, Chile. After three flights and a 45 minute car ride in the previous 24 hours, we arrived in Pucón in the summer of the Southern Hemisphere with temperatures in the 70’s.
Pucón was a relatively small town to host an Ironman race with a population of 21,000. The weekend population increased by an estimated 15% when combining race competitors along with spectators. Pucón is almost as far south from the equator as Indianapolis is north of the equator. It is also as close as a central point as any of town in Chile, the slender country stretches 2,650 miles from north to south and only 100 miles wide from east to west. Pucon is the referred to as the outdoor adrenalin junkie playground of South America. An appropriate location to end a journey for a triathlete who thrives on competition, confidence, and camaraderie with a shot of adrenalin.
By acknowledging the similarities and likenesses, you can create a starting point for understanding and appreciating diversity in the workplace and in different cultures. In Chile, I experienced more commonalities than undesirable differences. Relying on what my first boss in Thailand, Randy Fralix, shared with me helped bridge perceived gaps when visiting new places. This approach for first impressions goes against people’s natural tendencies, but as I focused on similarities first, then understanding of the obvious differences became both easy and enlightening. I followed Randy’s guidance for all new situations in parenting, countries, cultures, business, sports, and personal travel. I looked for the similarities everywhere and in everything: people, geography, triathletes, races, spectators, food, and in my ever changing self. One of most enlightening experiences of living or traveling abroad was our senses become more enhanced.
Certain new smells became memory anchor points for favorite food places while other smells served as warning signs of places not to enter. Awareness around personal and family security increased exponentially. You become your own personal safety detail constantly checking out for any warnings signs before, during, and after activities. Look. Listen. Keep in touch with reality. Traveling, living, or racing outside of your known areas will heighten your observational capabilities and your security sense IQ.
On Friday morning I chose boring over exploring for a 30 minute pre-race day workout. I did about 50 circles around the motel’s 100 meter diameter parking lot and front yard where we stayed. Partly because my hip hurt and mostly because the drive-way was over a quarter mile long descent with at a minimum of a 10% drop. The steepness would on the return run climb would have shocked my calves into muscle spasms that would last into race day so I passed on leaving the property.
After the run I swam for 15 minutes in the pool that bloomed with dark green algae in milky, white translucent water. I drank non-fat milk before with more transparency than the pool water. Still, swimming at the motel was more convenient and less of hassle than driving to the beach.
Afterwards I re-constructed the race bike though hampered by a dropped clamp screw for the aero bars. It fell through a space between the slants of the wood deck at the pool. The black screw blended in with the black volcanic soil six inches under the deck. The wood slants were bolted into the support from underneath and not easily removable. With some ingenuity and luck, I picked up the dropped screw with the bolts placed in the dropouts to protect the bike frame during transportation. That single activity doubled the amount of time required to get the bike race ready. Just another frustrating morning before race day.
On Friday I checked in for the swag bag and numbered up my bike, race belt, and helmet. Fortunately, one of the volunteers was an American woman from Boulder, Colorado. She recently relocated to Chile and worked as an English teacher. She helped many non-Spanish speaking competitors, like me, along with lots of Spanish speaking competitors who she communicated with ease. She also helped everyone out on the beach on race day to get properly queued up for the swim start.
The transition area took over the streets of three long city blocks stretching away from Lake Villarrica into the shop and restaurant area of Pucón’s city center. The entire transition area stretched over 500 meters on a design that looked like a three-sided Z except made of two right angles. The transition area was fenced in at either curb that defined the separation of street and sidewalk. Bikes were set up perpendicular to the sidewalks in 2” x 4” wood frame slots for the wheels and a square shaped frame lined both sides of the entire transition. Pros’ pits were closet to the water, and me a late addition, found my pit area 500 meters away. Close to 1,800 individual transition frames erected, one assigned to for him or hers specific space to rack their bike and place transition bags. Each spot was reserved and identified with personalized placards marked with the racer’s name, country, race #, sex, and age group. Imagine the transition set up like pit row in the Indianapolis 500. That was what the transition area on a main street in Pucón reminded me of based on watching The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Except all the sign information was in Spanish. Mine showed Estados Unidos. I recognized my home country from what I learned in 8th Grade Spanish class.
Lots of fast bikes were already racked when I walked the carpeted transition area to put my equipment and gear in its designated spot. The racers and spectators were friendly and helpful in providing info about where to locate my spot and where to enter and exit on race day. Many spoke English but not all. I tried to speak my best Spanish. Somehow we all communicated to get the info needed to be race ready.
With no body markings required for this race we were required to wear a race bib with numbers for both the bike and run legs. I put mine on a race belt and tucked that into my helmet in the designated transition spot ready to be picked up and put on after the swim leg.
The race started exactly on time. Countdown started 15 minutes before the start race as officials walked from the far end of the transition area and swept us forward towards the beach start at Lake Villarrica. It reminded me of a ski patrol sweep of the mountain at the end of the day except we were just getting started.
All triathletes gathered on the black volcanic sand beach in their mostly black wetsuits. With overcast light grey skies, the misty fog above the water, and a dark grey dust cloud bellowing up over the black sand I felt like the race was being held in black and white monochrome instead of Technicolor. The lack of color made the race site look 2-dimentional, instead of real life 3-D. The Day-Glo green swim caps all competitors wore seemed like computer generated additions on a real life flat screen viewing monitor.
Triathletes lined up on the beach given the guideline to self-seed their starting sequence based on quicker swimmers near the front of the start queue and slower swimmers near the end. The race announcer directed us and the spectators to observe a moment of silence before the race started.
The male pros took off at the sound of the gun followed a few minutes later by the female pros. The age group progression started and looked like a moving snake as each segment disappeared into the water to rise back-up with a flurry of swim strokes and splashes. It slivered out towards the first turn buoy before snaking back towards the shoreline. I slotted myself somewhere near the middle. With a step into the water at Ironman 70.3 Pucón I entered into my fourth decade of triathlon racing.
The water was clean and clear though with the dark black sandy bottom my mind took a few minutes to realize how far down we could see. Bright flecks of lighter minerals sparkled amongst the black sand to provide some recognition of the water depth.
The Athlete’s Guide for the race informed us the swim course was two loops. It wasn’t. The course was shaped like the capital letter “M”. Each loop was half of the letter “M”. Each portion was just less than a one-kilometer swim with an 80 meter run on the sandy beach between each swim segment. We swam in reverse direction in how the letter would be written. The entire course was outlined in bright orange buoys spaced 100 meters a part. A rope strung buoy to buoy served as a warning to swimmers not cross over into the returned paths of the other competitors. The time-trial start was efficient. Quick, steady, and fair though we really never knew where in relationship we were time wise or place wise to our like age-grouper competition due to the self-seeding start.
We exited the swim and ran across the beach onto the main street of our fence enclosed transition area. I ran three long blocks in bare feet on the carpet to reach my bike.
The bike course was an out and back route on smooth roads. We continued to ride under cloudy skies and experienced some misty rain on the outbound portion of the course. We were quickly into the countryside on a closed course, no other motorized traffic except the race officials on motorcycles allowed. Extensive drafting occurred during the bike. Referees blew whistles at racers but rarely, if ever, enforced the violations by waving yellow or red cards. All the penalty stations were empty. With minimal incentives to break off the draft, the violating cyclists didn’t show much interest to drop back from the bike in front of them.
The terrain included a mix of flats and mile long gentle climbs and descents. Nothing too steep or challenging for most riders. Though for me, 56 miles of riding outdoors was the biggest bike challenge. I hadn’t been outside on bike since October. I chose to ride my primary race bike, a black Kestrel Airfoil I had not been on since May. The bike leg ended fine with the help of a wind-aided push up all the returning hills and one big downhill. The natural wind boost made me feel I was flying when returning into town after 45 miles of riding.
With my biked racked and racing shoes on, I started my strongest tri leg and quickly found myself ill-prepared for the run. I hurt. All the pain experienced during the last few months of training showed up at the start of the run. No surprise really. I never could find relief from stretching out my stride or trying to boost leg speed for the previous 15 weeks. From the first step out of the transition area I was in survival mood.
The Pucón course was designed to include the best and worst for racers, spectators, and officials. The run course was compact consisting of three loops, just over four miles (7 kilometers) in length. The lower, flat portion of the run course was lined with spectators the whole way. The spectators cheered loudly and continuously for all racers. Spectators near the aid stations were the most motivational as they encouraged us to keep running after we grabbed a drink or gel of nutrition. There is nothing better on the run leg than a cheering group to discourage you into a walk during a race.
We experienced the most challenging area of the run course in an area called “The Peninsula”, a private community with restricted access outside of race day. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Race officials informed us of the “Big” climb on the Peninsula which was outright misleading. The big climb included four climbs and descents on the Peninsula going out each lap. Then we turned around and ran the same four up and downs again to exit the Peninsula area to earn the right to run on the flats in front of thousands of welcoming spectators. We ran three laps for a total of 24 hills that torture our quads and lungs as we tried to run the final 13.1 miles. I strained for oxygen as the lactic acid crammed itself into every nook, cranny, and contour of my over-worked leg muscles. The calves cramped. The quads hurt. The gluts seized. The knees buckled. The lungs burned. The course tested but broke the will of few triathletes. Each lap on the Peninsula was a progressive notch up the pain scale. Each one hurt worse than the previous lap. With few spectators allowed on this portion of the course cheering, all we heard were athletes’ grunts, moans, and an occasional sound of crying during the self-induced sufferfest.
The clouds blew out and the sun came out for post-race celebrations. Over 100 triathletes, including me, jumped into the lake afterwards to cool off and relax.
One of the biggest changes in the sport over 30 years of participation was triathloning was a weekend brag. Now it’s an on-going lifestyle for Type A personality athletes. No longer a silo of athletic capabilities. The skillsets needed for the lifestyle all enchantments being a best spouse, parent, and professional work careers. A participant went from telling co-workers at the office or friends in the neighborhood she did a swim, bike, and run race, more than three times the sport than of a simply 10K run or a round of golf, to she is making a choice to challenge her abilities against all comers in an almost $3 billion dollar sports business in the US alone. Below are ten other significant changes since the mid 1980’s:
Gender ratio gap decreased
Age range of competitors approached 75 years
Top end caliber and depth of competition increased in all agre groups
Intensity of racers morphed from finishing to breaking time barriers
More races with more variety of distances and geographical reaches
Internationalization of the sport made passports required equipment
Bucket list check off created for specific races, not a single tri
Coaching became a sustainable professional career
Sophistication of race and training equipment increased
Using my observational power of an unscientific sampling, tattoos showed up on more competitors in 2016 than compared to 1986. I don’t recall seeing a single Ironman tattoo during the Chicago Bud Light Tri though undoubtedly a few competitors sported them on their calf or elsewhere back then. After the Pucón race, more passengers with Ironman tattoos flew into Santiago than people with tattoos of barbwire, butterflies, roses, and angels combined.
Triathletes experienced vacation destinations at the most beautiful places in the US and the world while others only saw the sites or pictures on-line. Triathletes keep racing because they keep winning in their own chose terms.
Results: 484th overall. 10th in age group