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Friday, May 15, 2015

Summer Open Triathlon Race Report

For the first time I can remember, maybe ever, I was both confident and relaxed going into a race.  They say the second night before a race is the most important night and to get a full night's rest and while I might argue that it should start about a week out, more, quality, sleep is better than none.  Thursday night resulted in a quite crappy sleep with me waking up every few hours.  But Friday night, I went to bed a little early and slept soundly with none of the pre-race jitters that usually keep you awake starting at 2am.

I'd set my alarm early enough to ensure I got to the race right as transition opened, only was a tad late and as a result didn't get the money transition spot.  I did, however, still get a really decent one and set up my stuff.  We were told four-to-a-rack, but that left lots of space and I knew from experience that late arrivals would move other, non-present athlete's stuff over to make room for theirs.  Even knowing this, I took my bike out for a warmup ride since I'd never ridden the course before and couldn't drive it beforehand.  It was only a 12.5-mile loop and I had plenty of time.

We had our own lane coming out of Union Reservoir and for the next several miles marked with cones.  But when the road turned right, the cones stopped and I realized I didn't have directions or know the streets so I just winged it.  Turns out, I guessed right and did manage to ride the entire loop.  As I'd suspected earlier, coming back to my rack, someone else had racked there bike where mine would have gone.  Thankfully, he was still there and I had him move his stuff over.

I finished setting up and started putting on my wetsuit.  We still had ample time before starting, but I wanted to make sure I was acclimated to the water.  Or, at least as much as possible given the 54º temperature.  The water was cold and I got in as much of a warmup as I could manage - I didn’t want to start cramping.

We line up to start and I take a left of center position up front.  The horn sounds and we’re off.  I go out hard and strong and eventually someone catches me and passes but he’s going too fast for me to be able to hang on.  I did most of the swim on my own, without drafting, which stinks, but sometimes is the nature of the beast.  About 300-400m in my chest tightened up and I forced myself to relax and backed off.  One of my points of emphasis this year is swimming less in training, and not working so hard on the swim in racing.  Was it a good strategy, I don’t know, but I was 3rd in my AG on the swim.

T1 was a smooth transition with no issues.  Due to the run over the muddy and grassy berm from the parking lot to the dirt road I chose not leave my cycling shoes clipped in to my pedals but I did when dismounting after the bike so in retrospect, I should have just left them clipped.

The bike was uneventful.  Only two riders passed me during the entire loop and neither were in my age group.  I passed a ton of riders, but I stopped looking at age groups on people’s calves and just rode my race.

T2 was even smoother leaving my shoes clipped in to my pedals, but the problem was that due to the cold water and probably the airflow on the ride, my feet were completely numb - exactly like last year.  I ran on stumps to my rack, dumped my helmet, pulled on my shoes, grabbed my race number and was off.

I tried to keep a high turn over on the run and was initially successful, but eventually slowed down.  I don’t recall when I started feeling my feet again, but it was well after mile two.  The out-and-back course was flat, having just been grated, but sported some rough spots with decently sized rocks churned up by the blade.  There was also a massive puddle that had to be navigated.  Only two guys passed me on the run, but neither were in my age group and I believe had started in a wave ahead of me so I already had at least three minutes on them.  The second guy passed right before the finish and I should have held him off, but didn’t.

All in all, it felt like a really solid race for me at the time and was confirmed when I looked at the results later and saw that I’d made the podium, getting third.

Swim:     10:59 (3rd in AG, 31st overall)
T1:        1:14
Bike:     34:29 (3rd in AG, 31st overall)
T2:        0:40
Run:      23:22 (6th in AG, 56th overall)

Total:  1:10:46 (3rd/13 in AG, 29th overall)

Thanks to my wife, my coach Billy Edwards, my shop Foxtrot Wheel & Edge, my team Foxtrot Racing, sponsors GU Energy and Rudy Project, multisport shop Colorado Multisport, for all the support.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

La Carrera - Epílogo

I was pretty spent after the race as it was a fairly intense 75 minutes.  The rain had let up and was done for the day.  Most of the American delegation hung out at the finish line cheering on the rest of the competition whom I'd like to think was, at that point, pretty stoked to have anyone cheering for them, given the weather.

At this point, we hadn't been given any indication that there wouldn't be any amateur awards and since Amy had won the female division, we packed up our gear and rode over to where the elite awards ceremony was to take place.

We didn't have to wait long to witness history.  The American National Anthem was played for Renee's win in the elite women's race.  I have to believe that this was either the first time or certainly one of the very few times that song has been played on Cuban soil.  Certainly since the revolution.  I don't get goose bumps often, but man, I sure did then.

All the Americans who'd remained at the conclusion of the awards ceremony gathered for a group picture with the president of USAT, Barry Siff, and the president of the ITU, Marisol Casado.

Making History
Now that the festivities and competitions were over, for us anyway, we could get on with being tourists (even though, legally, American tourism is not allowed in Cuba).  Some of the group decided to take a cab back to their hotels, but a group of about eight of us decided to ride back - in our Team USA gear.  It must have been quite a sight for the Cubans seeing us ride through the streets.  We got horn blasts and thumbs ups from bus drivers and stares from pedestrians.  One driver sped on ahead of us, stopped in the middle of the three-lane road we were on and took pictures before we rode by.

With all the rain, the ride back was very wet and very dirty.  We tried to capture just how dirty our legs were but the photo doesn't quite do it justice.

Dirty Legs
We agreed to meet on a time for dinner and broke up to go get cleaned.  I didn't even bother trying to ride back to my hotel this time, instead opting for a cab.

La Carrera

This was not Cuba's first time hosting a triathlon, but it was the first time hosting one so official as an ITU competition that was also a championship race.  They still have a lot to learn.

We used the same racks as the elites, but more were set up.  We discovered shortly that they weren't actually stable, being held together by zip ties and duct tape.  As more bikes were racked, the problem erupted with all the racks (and thus, bikes) falling down in domino fashion.  After a conversation between the ITU officials, it was decided that we would use the ground as our transition area which meant the bikes were lying down too.

Because everyone and everything was so wet, body marking was impossible and was effectively nonexistent.  We had timing chips, but in retrospect, I'm not sure what for as no age group results for the sprint were ever posted.  I managed to get in a very brief warm-up swim near the water exit ramp.

The swim lay in the closed end of the marina, the water level of which was not ground level, but rather a good two meter drop from the top of the retaining wall at ground level.  We lined up on the wall before someone pointed out that it was probably not a good idea to have amateurs dive in and that having an in-water start was best.  We all jumped in and treaded water next to the wall attempting to avoid the rocks, shellfish, and other sea life that dotted the bottom.

Out of nowhere the horn blew and we were off.  I tried to hang with the lead swim pack but after only 3 weeks back into training they eventually started pulling away.  They were fast and I never found the fast feet that I normally do so my swim time wasn't my best.  I managed to average 1:40/100m for the 750m.  Out of the water and up the ramp there's another American right in front of me.  I think he passed me in the last 100m of the swim.  We are the first two Americans out of the water.

Unused to the current transition situation of everything lying on the ground, I completely miss my bike, but not by too much.  Not trusting the situation for leaving my shoes clipped in, I'd unclipped them and left them on the ground.  I slap them on and proceed to mount too early.  I'm used to a clearly marked and labeled mount line.  Running a bit further, I find the correct mount line, mount a second time and headed out on the bike.

The rain had stopped, but only temporarily.  At some point during the first of four laps on the bike, the skies opened up again and didn't stop.  I recall a Cuban kid riding up ahead but continuously looking back, like he was waiting for me to bridge the gap.  We were told it was not a draft legal race and so I remember thinking this odd.  He hops on my wheel and I just hammer on.  Turns out, it was a draft legal race and so he got to recover in my draft while I, being so worried about a penalty, dropped back out of the draft zone every time he pulled ahead.  We eventually overtake another rider somewhere from Central America, I don't remember where.  He hops on our wheel and a little later I hear a yell from whom I think is the cuban and feel someone rubbing my back wheel.  I turn and the second kid has pulled off to my right.  I yell something about keeping his line and to pay attention.  He takes off and I don't know if I scared or motivated him (or even if he finished), but I never saw him again.

The Cuban kid clearly wanted to work together but I still didn't know it was a draft legal race so I did all the work and continued to drop back when he overtook.  We ride our laps in the pouring rain through massive puddles praying no potholes lurk beneath the surface.  I had a damn good bike for a January and only three weeks of training.  My normalized power turned out to be 240 watts, only five shy of my 2014 peak.

We come into T2 and I don't even bother with my socks as everything is just soaked.  I start running and I feel my feet sliding around in my shoe.  Not a great situation to be in when one is looking for stability.

A few km into the run, an American passes me and I can't keep up.  My Cuban biking buddy is long gone up the road.  The rain continues to pour.  A little while later, the lead female, also an American, passes me.  I remember when my run used to be strong and vow that this year my run results will be different from 2014.  Three years off from racing and two knee surgeries did their job well.  I stay mentally strong and gut out a finish.  The run was long by nearly 500m but I'd managed a sub 8:00 pace.  Not great, but for January, it was fine.

Results were never posted so I have no idea on placing, but I was fairly close to the front.

Swim:  12:29, 750m
Bike:  37:14, 20km
Run:  26:36, 5.5km

Día de la Carrera

I wake up Saturday morning knowing I wouldn't be able to make the elite women's race which went off a little too early.  This turned out to be too bad as the US women placed 1-2.  I had already intended to watch the men's race so I gather all my race gear and schlep my bike downstairs.  I get a taxi driven by a guy jamming to Lionel Richie off a USB stick plugged into his radio.  While most of the cabs are from the 50's, nearly all have retrofitted Pioneer or Kenwood quality stereos that play CDs or take pin drives.  We head towards the race venue with my official race bracelet acting like magic as my taxi is waived through checkpoints at which he would have otherwise been forced to stop.  My driver was very happy and impressed.

I get to the race site and meet up with some of the other US athletes.  The US men are warming up and I say hello to former Boulder resident and fellow FAC member Dan McIntosh, who now resides in San Diego but whom I'd unexpectedly run into at the the airport in Mexico City waiting for our Cuba flight.  None of the US men had a great day, but one climbed his way to sixth with solid run - even after being stuck in the first chase pack on the bike.  At some point during the men's race, the skies opened up and it absolutely poured.  Everyone tried to huddle under any awning or tent that could be found.  The rain let up by the time the men finished racing, but it was only temporary.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Friday Afternoon/Evening

At this point, I still need to go and pick up my race packet so I look on the map for the marina where the race venue is hosted.  It's just on the opposite edge of the map from my hotel.  It doesn't look far so I decide to ride.  What the map doesn't show, however, is that the most direct route does not allow bikes.  I take it as far as I can before tackling the unlabeled side streets.  15 miles later (it's 8 in reality) I finally get to the marina and check out the only part of the course that was listed online.  I see an old man riding an ancient Peugeot and ask where packet pickup is located.  He's missing most of his teeth so I didn't really understand, but got the gist that it was back the way I came.  I ask the guards at the entrance to the marina and they give me better directions.  I find the location and get my packet before swinging by the mechanics tent to inflate my tires to the proper solidity.  Having killed both my bottles, I look for a safe refill station.  I find a bar that sells bottled water and while filling them up with the intention of riding home when done I see a large man wearing a Wisconsin Badgers cycling jersey and he's speaking other people who are also speaking English.  Hooray!

It was the rest of the U.S. contingent, or at least, a bunch of them.  I follow and make contact.  They were on an organized ride via a local from Canada who does Cuban bike tours.  One of the riders, a radiologist, had hit a rock and gone down breaking his collarbone.  Not good.  I offer to watch bikes while some of the others get their packets.  The rest contact the race officials and call an ambulance.  It takes 30 minutes for it to arrive and I get the back story.  Within a minute of him going down, a car stops to help.  The occupants speak perfect English and it sounds like they just came from Brooklyn.  We'd been told we would have minders; government officials following us.  None of contingent believed it was a coincidence that they just happened to be there so quickly.

We get the doctor squared away and decide to ride back together meeting for dinner at 7 at La Hotel Nacional.  We ride on the main road where bicycles are not allowed, but no one stops us.  I show them the embassies, including the Russian compound, that I'd passed this morning.  Just past it we get waved over by motorcycle police.  We pull off on a side street and look at a map for legal road back.  The police were totally cool and let us go.  We get a lot of looks riding back taking care to dodge the rocks and potholes that litter Cuban streets. If Cuba does anything right, it's potholes.  They are nasty.  Even the cars have to avoid them.

We go back to the bike shop from where they'd originally left this morning and go our separate ways agreeing to meet for dinner.  I attempt to ride back to my hotel which I know is only 2k up a road on which I'm not allowed to ride, taking side streets.  40 minutes later, I arrive back at the intersection from where I started and sheepishly figured I'd just brave the sidewalks.  It was starting to get late and I didn't want to miss dinner with the group.  I get to my hotel, shower, change, gather up all the donations I'd brought and grab a taxi to take me back to the bike shop.  But I realize, I have no idea where it is or what it's called - there is no sign,  I vaguely recall the area and so my driver goes up and down streets helping me look for it.  He's a good sport about it.  I'm late, and we can't find it.  He encourages me to get out and walk as many of the streets are one way and it's hard for him to navigate easily.

Thankfully, I see the group standing on a street corner and ask them to wait while I drop off all the donations.  We head to dinner led by the wife of our tour guide.  The food was incredible.  And ridiculously inexpensive. In the US, with that many people at that type of restaurant, dinner could have easily been over $700.  It wasn't even $250.

Nearly every building in Cuba is falling apart or looks like it's about to
I sat next to the wife of the guide; her name is Ana.  She speaks some English but as the others fire way at each other in English she sits quietly.  I engage her and get a history lesson.  Cuba, with a few, clear exceptions, is not much different from the US.  Prior to the revolution, people were racially segregated, blacks and whites (there are no Asians).  After Castro took power, that all ended and forced integration was a result.  Unlike the US, however, there are no racial tensions.  But there are still stigmas attached to each race, VERY similar to the US.  Havana is very safe and safety/security is taken extremely seriously.  The healthcare system is very good.  Most people are quite healthy and there are no fast food restaurants.  It's still socialized medicine, so help takes a while.  Our radiologist waited 4 hours to see someone.  Ana explains that before she retired she, too, was a doctor.  Only she made 30 CUCs/month.  It's an impossible salary on which to live and she says that many Cubans survive because of relatives in the US sending back money.

After dinner, we walk back to the shop and split up with some of us opting for a walk.  We walk along the sea wall and it is literally packed with teenagers, dressed like teenagers, doing teenager things (use your imagination).  Nearly all of them have cell phones, which is ironic, because the cost to send a text message is more than many Cubans make in a day.  The police are omnipresent but they only observe.
The Malecón

Ultimately, we wind up walking back to my hotel where some use the restroom before turning around and heading back.  I remain, get my race gear together, and go to bed.

Friday Morning

I wake up Friday morning in a better place than I was the night before.  But I had a knot in my stomach.  I wasn't sure what to do.  I was completely out of my element and not dealing with it well.  While I speak a decent amount of Spanish, VERY few people speak any English and it's difficult to communicate effectively.  I pull myself together and go to the hotel lobby for breakfast.  I'm careful to avoid anything that looks raw as I have no idea what's safe at this point.  I hear a Brit order food and watch him walk through the buffet.  I decide an omelette with peppers is ok.  It was.

I head to the front desk to ask about making change.  The woman working informs me that this hotel doesn't make change and that I would have to go to the bank.  I ask where it is and she tries to describe it before telling me to go upstairs to the gift shop to buy a map.  I do, but the map is three CUCs and I only have 1 left from the previous night.  She points out the street where all the banks are and lets the take the map making me promise to return and pay the additional two CUCs.  I head back to my room, reassemble my bike and pack my bag to bike over there but finally decide that a cab is the best way to go.  I load up my necessities: passport, Canadian dollars, health insurance card (we were told to carry it everywhere), wallet, and iPhone which is currently a $400 paperweight that can also play games.

The view from my room
I go downstairs and get a taxi explaining to the driver what I need to do.  Change first, then a SIM card for my phone.  Changing my currency was easy.  We drive for a while to where a Cubacel office is passing all the embassies:  Kuwait, Sri Lanka, Malaysia.  We start passing one that keeps going and has a massive concrete tower that overshadows the entire compound.  I ask what embassy.  Russia.  I forgot to take a picture of the Russian embassy, so I shamelessly ripped them off of Wikipedia.  Like every other building, the embassies are old.  The Russian embassy looks like something out of a Steven King novel.  Old, greying concrete from the 50's comprises all the buildings.  Seeing the brand new Audis parked in the compound is just flat out weird.

Russian Embassy (courtesy Wikipedia) 
Russian Embassy (courtesy Wikipedia)
We arrive at a Cubacel office but the line is at least 40 people deep.  I ask if I can get a SIM card for my phone from one of the locals, a kid, waiting in line.  He says yes, but I have zero interest in waiting for several hours.  He takes me around to his buddies and asks them if any of them have an extra SIM card.  They don't.  I go back to my taxi and ask if there's any other offices.  He says yes, but it's in the complete opposite direction of my hotel than we went.  Disheartened, I told him to just take me back to my hotel, but he tells me wait a minute and we find a hole-in-the-wall satellite office on some random side street a few minutes from where we were.  There were only a few people in line and one of them speaks perfect English.  I ask why so many people are waiting at the offices and he says that it's the last day of a 2:1 promotion by Cubacel.  All Cuban cell phones are prepaid and the promotion is for every CUC you spend, you get one.  No limit.

I get my SIM card and take it next door to be cut to fit in my phone.  I plug it in and turn it on.  After unlocking, I see full bars and Cubacel in the corner and nearly cry.  I speak with a man who has family in Miami and he shows me how to make an international call.  No texting.  The Cuba systems don't talk to the American ones.  The embargo is present everywhere.  I call my wife and get her voicemail.  I finally break down and cry babbling something incoherent about needing to talk to her and then hang up.  I have the cabbie take me back to my hotel trying a few more times to reach her.

I try again when I get back to my room.  Success!  I try to keep it together while I talk to her and fill her in on the previous 40 hours.  I am doing much better.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

In Cuba and Back in Time

It's late Friday night and I'm about to spend two hours trying to get through Cuban immigration.  There are 30 counters all with officials working but there are literally 400 people waiting in various lines.  Apparently 7pm is when all the European flights get in as well.  I pick one that looks shorter but after waiting 20 minutes and literally not moving, I pick another.  And then another.  This last one turned out to be the winner, but when each person takes two to five minutes at the counter I did the math and settled in to wait.  I chatted with the two men behind me in line who were on my flight from Mexico City.  One is an attorney for casinos and the other is in marketing.  They are here for a bachelor party, only the bachelor missed his flight.  Mexicans come to Havana to party.  It is to them, what Cancun is to Americans, but without Americans.  The attorney's son was born in Dallas and he speaks about his many ski trips to the U.S., including several weeks he spent in Telluride.  We then talk football; the American kind.  He's a huge Raiders fan.  I apologize.

I finally get to the front of the line and it's my turn to play 20 questions with the officer.  Where are you from?  What is your flight number?  Have you recently been to Africa?  I....wait, what?  Africa?  Have any of your family members recently been to Africa?  Cuba takes the Ebola threat quite seriously.  Do you have health insurance?  Show me.  She finishes and unlocks the gate to let me pass.  I go though X-ray and then on to baggage claim.  Since it's been two hours, our luggage has already been offloaded.  I find my suitcase.  It's missing the brand new REI luggage tag I just bought.  Maybe it got ripped off.  Where are the bicycles?  I ask some official looking person in Spanish.  He rattles something off that I don't understand.  I ask him to speak slower.  They are in the corner.  I find my bike box and it, too, is missing it's luggage tag.  They were ripped off all right.

Exiting baggage claim and into the terminal, I'm met by hundreds of people all waiting for someone or something to go through those doors.  They all stare at me.  After all, I have a massive box on wheels.  I push it around the terminal looking for cambio, change, where I can get some CUCs, convertible Cuban pesos.  Cuba has two currencies:  the CUC which is used by foreigners and tourists, and the Cuban peso which is not.  In reality however, it seems like everyone uses the CUC.  The CUC is pegged at 1:1 to the American dollar, but there is a 10% penalty for converting dollars to CUCs so I brought Canadian dollars, which have no such penalty.  I was told that it wasn't all that long ago that locals would be arrested and thrown in jail if they were caught with American dollars.  Wow.

After wandering around for a few minutes, a cabbie walks up to me and asks if I need a taxi.  I say, si, pero tango no Pesos.  Yes, but I have no Pesos.  He shows me to the second floor where I make change.  I ask about Cubacel, the national cellular carrier.  He says they are closed.  There will be no phone calls tonight.

We go outside to his cab and along with only one working headlight, his cab held together by will alone.  We barrel along on pitch black streets at speeds your mother told you never to drive, barely missing cyclists who wear no lights or helmets.  Everything is old.  Everything is run down.  Think of it as buying a brand new house and car in the 1950s and then just letting them sit.

I get to my hotel and check in.  They have no WiFi.  It dawns on me that I cannot contact my wife at all and tell her I made it and I'm ok.  I get to my room on the 12th floor and my first thought was "Oh.  Hell no."  All the reviews I'd read online and ignored were right.  It was a two star hotel.  I changed into some warm weather clothes and took a taxi to the National Hotel which I knew had WiFi because some of the other athletes had posted.  Not only were they fully booked, the business center which sells the WiFi cards was closed.  I tried to make change at the change counter but was told it was for guests only.  I took a cab back to my hotel and nearly lost it and broke down.

Completely disconnected.  Alone.  Exhausted.  A stranger in a strange land.

Cuba Bound

It's just after 4am and I'm sitting at my gate at DIA for a 5:30 departure.  The dichotomy of where I am and where I'm going is pronounced: It snowed 4 inches last night and is currently 14 degrees outside.  Daily temps in Havana for this time of year are in the mid 80s - though it does cool off to the mid 60s at night.

I peruse Facebook posts from the athletes who left yesterday and briefly chat with another who leaves today.  It seems everyone is getting in earlier than myself as I don't land until 7pm.  A thought enters my head that I haven't seen any posts from anyone since they left and wonder as to the Internet situation there.  I'm not even sure yet if my hotel has wifi.

While this trip is about making history and helping the future of the sport of triathlon in Cuba, I can't help feeling like I'm going back in time.  The embargo went into effect nearly 15 years before I was even born and the recent pictures I can find online show a country that in 2015, still looks like something out of the 50's with the classic cars.

The reality of what I am embarking on finally starts to set in and I am both very nervous and excited.  Few people can say they've truly represented the United States in anything, but the small size of this group (25) and the destination makes this feel even more important than the Olympics - except that no one is watching.