Monday, July 13, 2009

Ironman Brazil 2009

Ok, let's cut to the chase. I've started this a few times and got lost in the boring details that made up our trip that no one cares about. So rather than do my usual "fall into the trip and be with us" style of race report, I've just written the bits that I think some of you may be interested in, all of you triathletes and non-triathletes both.

For starters, it took us 18 hours to get there. We flew LAX to Miami, then to Sao Paolo. We got our bags and cleared customs in Sao Paolo, then flew one last time to the island of Florianopolis where the event is held.

Florianopolis lies at the same latitude as San Diego but on the other side of the world. Hence the weather there is very similar. Late May is their late Fall, similar to San Diego's November. That means cool but not cold, some rain but nothing serious, with the potential for some warm sunny days here and there, too. Humidity felt the same as home, which means it's a non-issue, neither too wet nor too dry. It was perfect weather for an athletic event.

We booked this trip through Endurance Sports Travel, a company that specializes in triathlon travel. It was founded by Ken Glah, a man who won Ironman Brazil something like 8 times when he was a pro. He thought this was the best Ironman in the world but most Americans weren't doing it because of the hassle of logistics with language, travel, visas, etc. So he started this company to help facilitate the trip. The company has flourished and now does triathlons around the world, but Brazil is still the biggest and the one they do best.

For the less than the cost of booking just the flight and the hotel myself, EST:
1. Booked the flights. And no, there is no easier way to get there than the four airports. I looked. At length.
2. Provided vouchers for the bike on all air travel (airlines charge $100 per flight, on average, to carry a bike box).
3. Picked us up at the airport and transported us and the bike box to our hotel.
4. Provided shuttle service to and from the expo every 20 minutes all week long.
5. Had CO2 cartridges for all athletes on race day. Those cartridges are needed to inflate your tire if you get a flat, but they are banned on airplanes. If you buy them on site you pay a major premium and then just have to throw them away if you don't use them during the event since you can't fly them home. Having them on hand for athletes is a small but very nice touch.
6. Had a bike mechanic at the hotel to help re-assemble your bike out of the box and give it a once-over to make sure nothing was jostled out of place in transit.
7. Provided dinner tickets for non-competing spouses to get into the Ironman pre-party dinner.
8. Rented a house on the run course near transition where non-competing EST clients could hang out during the long day. They provided munchies throughout the day and dinner in the evening.
9. Threw a dinner party the day after the event for all clients.
10. Provided transportation to the airport for the flight to the next leg of our adventure.
11. Made arrangements with other tour operators to facilitate our Amazon, Rio, and Iguacu adventures after Ironman.
12. Plus they had a person in the lobby at the hotel who was generally helpful, arranging day trips if you got there early, translation services, money exchange, everything.

They definitely have Brazil nailed. We couldn't have had a better experience with them there. Several pros book their trips to this Ironman through EST, too.

One of my big fears before we left was that the bike wouldn't make it. With each transfer the odds of an airline leaving the bike behind because it is bulky becomes greater. This many flight legs had me really worried. Our bike box is a double-wide, bought with the idea that I may take my bike and do a destination event someday, too. Since he had extra room Basta loaded it up with a bunch of his gear. He put his wetsuit, shoes, attire, nutrition, and spare parts in there along with his bike. If that box didn't make it, his event was never going to happen.

So it was a big relief when I saw it roll down the chute in Sao Paolo, and then again when it arrived with us in Florianopolis (known as Floripa there).

Another guy at our hotel wasn’t so lucky. He is a New Zealander who had arrived the day before us but his bike did not. He is an Ironman junkie by all accounts. He said he'd done 5 Ironmans in 9 weeks, this would be his 6th. He flew to Brazil straight from Ironman Lanzarote. Nice guy, very calm, especially about losing his bike, but everyone thought he was crazy to do so many in such a short time.

He called the airlines every few hours throughout the days prior to the event and they told him each time that it was at a different airport someplace around the world. The afternoon the day before the event they told him it was in Basilone, France. He didn't believe them as they had told him Rio de Janeiro, Sydney Australia, Phuket Thailand, and Paris on previous calls. He'd decided they were just making up locations since they had no idea where it was. In any case, it was obvious his bike would not make it to Florianopolis in time for the event. So Ken Glah called a friend, a serious triathlete who lives in Floripa but wasn't doing the event due to injury, and talked her into letting this guy she didn't know borrow her bike. She brought her ultra-expensive tri-bike over, the mechanic adjusted it to fit the New Zealand guy, and he was set. He obviously didn't pack all of his other tri-gear into his bike box.

Speaking of the bike mechanic, this guy was great. Manuel, a young guy of Asian descent who lives in Floripa and speaks Portuguese, of course. Not English. Every time Basta takes his handlebars off for packing into the box he's had trouble re-attaching them. There ends up being too much play in the head tube. This time, same thing. Same odd 3-4 cm of play that shouldn't be there. He took the bike down to Manuel, who had a big stack of bikes waiting for his attention. We left it there with him for a day and a half while he worked through all of these bikes that needed their final assembly and once-over. One bike had been damaged in transit and he spent a great deal of time getting it fixed and functional. It was starting to look like he might not be able to get to the bikes that only needed the once-over in time. Basta might have to ride his with the odd play yet again.

But no, by late evening Manuel had powered through all of the bikes and gotten them done. Basta's handlebars were fixed. Manuel was concerned that Basta was attaching them wrong and set out to teach him how to do it properly. No small task, given we don't speak each other's language. With a very good picture that he drew and a smattering of English he showed us how it needed to be put together next time. The bike was tight and sound for race day, and now I know how to do it right for next time.

The day before the event Basta wanted to swim part of the course, so we went down to where they were building the Swim start arch. Small, gentle waves rolled up onto the soft white sand. A light breeze slowly swayed the palm fronds. An occasional dolphin pod showed their backs as they cruised around the bay. A few small islands decorated the ocean just offshore. Idyllic. A lovely place for a swim. The tepid water was made nice and warm with the wetsuit. Basta swam for about 30 minutes in the pool-like water and felt much better about the swim after that.

Later that afternoon he took his bike and various bags to check into transition. There they assign a volunteer to you to help you take your bike to its spot, explain how everything will work on race day, and answer all of your questions.

Basta came through with his must-be-a-local-no-matter-what-county-we're-in coloring. The guy assigning volunteers to athletes assumed he was Brazilian and said, "Portuguese?" as a formality. He was surprised when Basta said, 'no.'


"No," Basta said. "Un poquito español."

"Ah. Italiano?"

"No," Basta said. "Dutch!"

"Dutch?" The guy was taken aback. He looked over his group of available volunteers to see if maybe there was one who might speak Dutch. But no.

"English?" he asked hopefully.

"Oh, ok. English," Basta agreed. Everybody laughed. Basta got a very helpful English-speaking volunteer to help him get situated.

Back at the room, the night before the event, Basta did not appear to be nervous. He said he felt great and that he wasn't nervous at all, just excited to have the day actually come. He didn't even spend much time checking and rechecking his morning preparations as he sometimes does. I wouldn't have been so easy, that's for sure. I really need to work on my own pre-race nerves. Relax and enjoy the day. Basta seems to have learned this concept and embraced it fully.

I didn't sleep very well that night, but I think he did. He sounded asleep most of the time. He said he woke a few times but felt rested.

The Event
The wake-up call rang at 3am and Basta bounded out of bed to answer it. Then he went straight to the kitchen and started downing his pre-race calories. A few bars and his usual morning shake gave him around 1,500. I looked out the window while he ate and saw palm trees whipping in the wind. What was this? Yes, the wind had really picked up through the night and was now howling.

Since the entire hotel was full of EST guests, the breakfast area had opened at 3am for us. When we went down around 3:30 the breakfast room was already full of triathletes. Some were talking nervously, some were very much into their own thoughts, and some looked completely normal like this was the same as any other day. Basta had bread, eggs, potatoes, various fruits, and some coffee to finish off his calorie requirements.

Then on to the bus. A tense and sleepy bus full of we competitors and spouses trundled off to the expo in the dark of 4:30 am.

Once into transition, Basta checked out his bike, making sure it had survived overnight all alone and in the rain. He loaded it up with his nutrition for the first half of the ride, which consisted of Power Bars cut into bite-sized pieces. He'd tried many things for nutrition during his training and learned that this worked best for him. He had Fluid in his bottles and Speedfil, a mix that has some protein in it as well as electrolytes. He's trained with that for many miles, too, and likes it. No salt tablets since this was going to be a cool day and he's not a particularly salty sweater, anyway.

Wetsuit on, two Gu packets at hand for the swim, one for right before and one for the halfway point, and he was ready to go. Soon people started to clear out of transition and head down to the beach. We joined them.

And saw the water. Our gentle little ripples were gone, replaced by crashing waves. The wind had stirred up the ocean and it was not a calm pool any longer. The wind wasn't howling quite so badly any more but the water would take a while to settle down. The tide was coming up and by my estimate had at least another half hour to go before it reached its full height. That meant the swimmer would be pushed towards the shore.

But the conditions are what they are. You take them as they come on race day. We had a few goodbye/good luck kisses, a brief rush of anxiety, and then he trotted away down the beach to toe the line, sucking his first Gu as he went. There was some music, some speaking on the microphone, and then with the boom of a cannon they were off!

The Swim
They were to swim out to the first buoy, across to a second one, then in to the beach for the first mile. They trot down a railed off path along the beach, across a timing mat, then out to another buoy, across to the final buoy, then in to the swim finish. The course is a big, flat-topped M.

Everyone seemed to be swimming far to the right of the first buoy. Was it the swell making it hard to sight or was there current out there, too? Eventually the pros rounded the first buoy and headed towards the second, a long line of swimmers behind them. Soon it became clear -- there was current out there, probably tidal flow. Everyone was being pushed towards shore and had to fight to make it back out to come level with the second buoy. As the line of swimmers stretched out there was a distinct sag in what would have been the direct line between the two buoys.

The pros made it to the second mark, turned and headed to shore. There was a big white marker on the beach showing where they were to go. But it was on the right side of the actual spot where they needed to start their run up the beach. With the current pushing everyone right anyway, people ended up waaaayy down the beach from where they should have been. They had to run quite a while in the wash to get into the chute that guided them across the timing mat and down to the next leg of the swim.

Race officials realized what was happening and moved the marker buoy up the beach to the left side of the chute, but it was too late. Everyone was just playing follow the leader since sighting was so difficult, and everyone ended up far to the right of where they needed to be. Volunteers in kayaks tried to steer people left towards where they needed to go, but it didn't seem to help. Follow the leader plus current prevailed.

Many people came through before Basta, as expected, but there were many more behind him, too. He's still a middle of the pack swimmer. He pulled the Gu out of the sleeve of his wetsuit, sucked it down as he trotted, and then he was off on the second leg of his swim.

Shortly after he finished his first lap a woman came out of the water, desperately asking volunteers for goggles. Her eyes were squinted practically shut and were watering from the sting of the salt water. Her goggles had been knocked off by another swimmer or the strap had broken, something. The volunteers were no help, they didn't have spare goggles for her. But I did. I had a backpack and inside were Basta's extra goggles. I started digging for them and called to her, "I have goggles, over here!" and she trotted over to me. She was an older woman, probably in her late 40's. I handed the goggles over the rail to her and she said, 'gracias! gracias!' over and over again. She called her race number to me in Spanish, several times over, as she ran to start the second lap. I guess so I could get the goggles back from her when she finished. "No, no, son tuyos", I called after her. They are yours, keep them.

I headed over to see what I could see at the Swim Out area, so I didn't see much of the second leg, but Basta said it was just as difficult to get to the second lateral buoy as it was on the first leg. The current was still pushing. He said the swells were so high that only if you got lucky and looked up at the top of one and caught a glimpse of your buoy could you tell where you were going. Most of the time it was just following feet.

But he did it. He finished the swim in 1:36:24. He had estimated a 1:20 - 1:30 swim, but conditions obviously took that away. Still, he finished without losing the rest of his race.

He nearly ran past the strippers and they had to shout and wave to get him to come over and sit down. Once they had him they got his wetsuit off in short order and sent him on his way.

The Bike
The bike course is two loops. Though it is billed as a flat course there are some hills. The course wound through streets protected by large buildings and open stretches on the highway along the beach. With plenty of turns they had either headwind, tailwind, crosswind, or protection from the wind such that the wind wasn't really a factor in the ride. The wind continued to fade as the day wore on, too.

Most other spectators who have an athlete out on the course say they worry during the swim and feel much better after their beloved gets out on the bike. Not me. I worry most about the bike. While there have been tragedies where someone drowns during a triathlon swim, it is very rare. I don't worry about Basta in the swim. The bike, though, another story. I worry. So much can happen on the bike. It troubles me with my own riding and very much when he's out there on training rides or in events.

I took up residence at the special needs bike hand-off spot, halfway through the bike course. This turned out to be an amazing place to spectate. I learned that unless you are a pro and know how to grab a bag at top speed, you shouldn't do it. You also really need to get a volunteer who knows how to hand off a bag at high-speed, too, because a bad one can cause you much trouble. I saw a volunteer take down two separate riders because he held onto the bag too long and knocked them off balance. Down they went, elbows, shoulders, and knees bloody, the volunteer looking sheepish but not knowing what he'd done wrong to cause this.

After the pros and super-fast age-groupers came through it settled down to people who stopped, got their bag from the volunteer, fished through it and took what they wanted out of it, maybe let the volunteer hold their bike while they used the porta-potty, and then were off on their way again.

Basta was amongst this group.

He got his special needs bag, pulled the second half of his Power-Bars out of it and loaded them into his Bento Box, then saw me on the curb and came over. He said he felt great and was having a good ride. No flats, no wrecks, no blood, no broken bones. Good.

Except that he had gone over a speed bump and launched both of his bottles and his gel flask very early on in the ride. He uses his Speedfil on the bike and the bottles were just for refills. He could refill with the Gatorade at the aid stations as needed. He had plenty of nutrition aboard and could do without the gel flask, too. So he didn't stop to get them. But a guy rode up to him and offered a bottle to him. In choppy English he said, 'I saw what happened, here, I have an extra. You will need it, take it.' Basta said, 'No, no, you need it too, I'll be ok' but the guy insisted. Basta took the bottle mainly to acknowledge the man's kind gesture and make him feel good.

56 miles down in 3 hours, 15 minutes. 56 miles to go.

A lot of the guys he does his weekend rides with have done Ironmans before and a lot of them have hired coaches to help them. Pretty much all of them said he wasn't riding enough long distance rides leading up to this and predicted that he'd struggle making it the whole way on the bike.

To that I say this: The goal of every professional coach that you hire, either in person or on the internet, is to make you as fast as you can be. That involves pushing you and pushing you hard. My goal with Basta, with his complete concurrence, is to get him to these events very physically ready and injury-free. He wants to be doing triathlon and to keep this level of fitness into his 70's, and he won't be able to do that if he's chronically injured. Pushing yourself hard and an abundance of super-long workouts leads inevitably to injury and burnout.

His program for the bike training was in each month do one century ride, two 60-80 mile rides, and a 30-40 mile sprint. These are the long weekend rides. During the week he'd ride the Computrainer twice a week. I believe, and still do, that this is ample distance on the bike to prepare for an Ironman. Not to win it, no. But to finish strongly, yes. He was plenty ready for this bike.

And it showed. He finished the second lap with no trouble. It rained briefly during this lap, but still no flats, no wrecks, no blood. He did see an ambulance racing past once and saw a woman down with many people around her, but he made it unscathed. Total bike time 6:24:02. He actually negative-split the bike, doing the second half in 3:09. He didn't lose any steam at all in the long miles. He took it a little bit easy to save some leg for the run.

The Run

Volunteers took his bike and he trotted off to the changing tent. He took off his helmet, put on his running shoes, and headed out the tent, then realized he still had his bike shorts on. Oops. In all other triathlons he wears the same outfit throughout, but for this Ironman he had on full bike shorts and then intended to change into tri-shorts that don't have the big crotch pad for the run. Fortunately he noticed that before he left transition so he went back and changed. Then it was off on the run for real.
The run is a mostly-flat course with two big hills. One hill is long and steep, the other is shorter but incredibly steep. These hills come on the first lap, you go up them and then get to go down them on the way back. This first lap is 20 kilometers. The wind had settled down long ago and was no longer a factor.

The EST house was on this course near transition. I had come back to this house during the bike, had a little nap in the hammock by the pool in the back, ate some of the munchies they had for us, and chatted with other spectators. Mostly Americans and Canadians, wives and parents and the occasional husband here to support their athlete. Each time a runner who was associated with one of us came by the whole group would cheer for them. The three principle EST employees were there, keeping track of everyone on the course.

Each time Ken Glah came by the whole house erupted. He's now a 45-49 age grouper, and he finished in 9:25:56, taking second in his age group. After he finished he came over to the house for some food and a shower, then settled in to see how everyone else was doing. People said he isn't training much at all these days.

Basta came by the house, said hello as he trotted by, then came back the other direction within a few minutes sporting a yellow arm band that showed he had finished one lap.

The second and third laps went through town, were flat and just over 10 kilometers each. I figured it would be about an hour before Basta came by again. It was quite dark by now and the crowds were thinning out a little bit. Well over an hour later Basta came through again. He was still running, still looking pretty good, all things considered. He was smiling and happy to be approaching his last lap.

He went on to the turn, got his pink arm band that showed he was on his third lap, and headed out for the final loop. I fell in next to him as he passed the spouse house and ran with him for about 100 meters. He said he hurt all over and was having to walk here and there, but mostly he was running. At that point he was running pretty well, too. I had to pick up my pace to keep up with him. I figured if he had a last burst of energy and could keep the pace he had for most of this last lap, he might do this one in about an hour. That would give him a sub-13 finish, which would make him very happy.

Near the 13 hour mark I went down to the finish line to await his approach. So many happy people crossing that line! They did not enforce the 'no family in the chute' rule and the finish was often clogged with spouses, children, parents, siblings, cousins, friends, neighbors . . . too many damned people interfering with other athletes trying to finish and get a decent finisher's picture. I hoped there would be a little clear space between finishers when Basta came through so he wouldn't have to trip over children or get a finisher's picture with him off to one side while someone stood with their entourage, kissing and crying, right under the finish arch. I swear, having the family interfere like that BEFORE the finish is one of the stupider thing I've ever seen. Make an area AFTER the finish line where athletes can kiss and cry with their families and solve the problem. Ironman recently made the no-family in the chute rule but since they don't enforce it it's meaningless.

Anyway. 13 hours came and went, no Basta. Then 13:15. So he was having a tough last lap. At least when I saw him last he was still running and still having a good time. He really embraced that, 'enjoy every moment' advice and was having a great day, no matter how he felt or how long it took.

At 13:34, Basta turned the corner into the chute. He did have clear space with no other athletes in the immediate vicinity. He said he timed it that way intentionally, making sure no one was in front of him and that there was plenty of distance between him and the guy behind him. He had a clear chute, so he stuck out his arms and swooped from side to side, like an airplane coming in for landing. At 13:34:13, he jumped high in the air across the finish line. The announcer was impressed with his finish performance and called out, in heavily accented English, "Adriaan Fan der Cap-Ay-Yen, from los Estados Unidos, djyoo are an Iron-Man!!" He wasn't saying that for everyone who crossed the line.

I made my way through the crowd and found Basta in the finisher's area. He was very, very happy and a little delirious. He wanted out of there, so we went over to transition, got his bike, and walked up to the EST house. There he had some dinner and chatted with some people, but mostly he wanted to get back to the room. The EST bus whisked us and our bike off to the hotel in no time. There we popped the bottle of champagne, Basta had maybe half a glass, and then he was out like a light.

He awoke the next day feeling very good. His neck and upper back were sore from riding aero for so long, as always, but I rubbed him with some Alcis crème and that took the soreness away. His legs were a bit stiff, but he felt surprisingly good. He could definitely feel that he'd had a very long, physical day, but he wasn't hurting. He was even walking down stairs normally. One rub of Alcis was the sum total of what he had for pain mitigation for this whole experience. Well, that and some caipirinhas.

Downstairs at breakfast and throughout the day we talked to others about their day. The New Zealander finished without trouble and got his benefactor's bike back to her unscathed.

A Mexican man who was in the wheelchair division talked about going up the super-steep hill. His front wheel kept lifting up because it was so steep and he thought it was going to come all the way up and over at times. He had to keep throwing his weight forward to try to keep it down. The veins on his arms were huge from the effort of pushing that wheelchair up that hill. Good thing they only had to do that hill once. He didn't speak much English, so he was pantomiming it for us English-speakers while someone who spoke both Spanish and English translated what he was saying for the group.

Greg, a young man in the 24-29 age group, had a bad day. He is nearly ready to turn pro and was hoping to qualify for Kona in this very tough age group. He was flying on his bike when his back tire went into a depression where the road had subsided from a pipe installation underneath. He had on racing tires with insufficient tread for these damp-road conditions, and his back wheel just rolled out from under him. He hit the ground knee-first , then shoulder, then continued the roll with bike still attached to his feet, hitting the ground again with the other side of his body. His bike broke, he had scrapes all over his body, and he had a tremendous pain in one leg. Still, he got up and tried to ride on. Then he realized that his bike's frame had a huge crack and that pedaling with one leg was getting him nowhere. He stopped. An x-ray later that day showed that he had a spiral hairline fracture in his femur.

But he did much better than another EST client, the woman who needed the ambulance that Basta had seen flying down the course. Unknown what caused the accident, but she went over her handlebars and landed head first, smacking her face and head on the road. Her helmet broke, plus she impaled her thigh on something and was bleeding profusely there. The ambulance took her off to the hospital. X-Rays showed that she had a concussion but no serious brain injury. Her husband was doing the race, too, so when he finished an EST employee took him to the hospital. They kept her overnight for observation. They eventually sent the husband back to the hotel since they had no place for him to sleep in the room, but Ken Glah had one of his people stay all night with her. The hospital staff spoke only Portuguese and the woman spoke only English, so the EST woman was there to translate and make sure the woman knew that she was being well cared for and it would be ok. An EST staffer also got her bike and all of her gear out of transition the next day.

She was ok, too. She made it to the dinner party that Ken throws for all of his guests the day after the event. She had a huge black eye, bandages here and there on her face and body, a stiff leg that had probably received some stitches, but she was happy to be out of the hospital and walking. She would be good-as-new soon.

Other people had very good days. John, a man from Florida in the 70-99 age group, finished in 16:09. He is 72 years old. There were two other men in their 70's in this event. But he was the only one who finished, so he qualified for Kona. He was very, very happy to have qualified and is looking forward to the big one. Then he says he's retiring from Ironman distance and will stick to Olympics. He started doing triathlon when he was 54.

Then there was Rosie, a 54 year old woman who finished in 16:57:32. That's two and a half minutes before the cutoff time. This was her first Ironman, she'd been fighting the flu for a month now, and was so pleased to have made the cutoff. She wasn't last, either. Two other people made it in behind her before they closed the course.

I don't know if this was a life-changing experience for Basta as it is for some people. In some ways maybe it was. He says he feels calmer and more patient now, thanks to Ironman. He's proven that with proper preparation and a good mental outlook (and good nutrition), anything is possible. He says he is going to write a paragraph or two on what he feels about this experience, so stay tuned for that.

As for his triathlon future, he definitely has the Ironman bug. He wants to do one a year from now on, until he's in his 70's and will qualify for Kona through attrition. I need to figure out how to get him to run better on tired legs, but overall I think he's doing very well. He took this one, his first, rather conservatively, but now that he knows he can do the distance and how it feels he can push it a little harder next time.

Right now he's just enjoying this feeling of accomplishment.

I hope this report was worth the wait. Thanks to you all for supporting Basta throughout this adventure. He appreciates it very much!

Links to all pictures from this experience are here


Anonymous said...

Well worth the wait. Nice description Anne- as usual. Nice job Adriaan - keep it up - Kona is waiting.


Anonymous said...

Hej! I enjoyed very much reading! You have done a tremendously nice job! I am very happy that he made it! He is allowed to be proud! I sincerely hope that you can find your ways to pic up training. See you in Europe!/Crister

Anonymous said...

Nice write up.

Anonymous said...

Great write up Anne! I have lots and lots of questions but I'll leave that in another e-mail or this Sunday. Congratulations Adriaan!!