I’ve been racing pretty well so far this spring, so I decided to throw my name into a few ITU Pan-American Cup races in June. My world ranking in the ITU has plummeted this year, due mainly to a lack of ITU racing on my part, from 60 to 110. It turns out you can’t hold a ranking if you don’t race, and without a high enough ranking you can’t get into big races, no matter how many people think you should be there. So I flew south to Colombia (when it’s spelled with two ‘O’s it refers to the country, rather than the school, town, or production studio) for back-to-back Pan-American Cup races. Looking at the start lists for these races is quite a bit less intimidating than a race like Saint Anthony’s or a World Cup, but there are enough people in the ranking battle that neither race is without some solid talent.
The first race was in Cartagena, a coastal port city with a wall around the inner city. The bike course went around and through a fort and through a section of the city that looked very similar to the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was a cool course and previewing it the day before the race I was really excited for a bike course that offered more than an out and back on crummy roads. The only daunting problem was the heat. I haven’t done any real specific heat training this year. I had decided at the beginning of the year to avoid races with extreme heat and focus on courses that suit me well. It wasn’t until the day before the race that I realized this would be one of the hottest races I’ve ever taken part in. The temperature was around 90 degrees, but the humidity of 70% raised the heat index to 112. Coming from 10% humidity in Colorado, my body was in shock. The water temperature didn’t help either. On Saturday I ran 3km to the race from my hotel so I could preview the swim course. By the time I got there I was drenched in sweat and downing every water source in sight. The ocean, to my surprise, was so warm that I could barely manage a 20-minute loosen-up, and I needed a few bags of water before I was ready to jog home. Still, I figured that with good fitness I would be able to manage the heat just as well as anyone else when it came to the race.
Race day was even hotter. When I stepped out of my air-conditioned hotel room it was like walking into an oven. I brought an extra bottle of ice water to drizzle over my head while I set up for the race. Before the start another athlete came to me and said, “good luck, but I don’t know that we can call this a race. It’s going to be survival.” The swim was so warm that I was content to sit in the pack and follow feet. When I started the bike I was already so hot that I skipped pulls in an attempt to regain composure. By the time the bike was half way over I had goose bumps on my legs. I had planned to attack with another athlete, but each lap we found each other and said, “Maybe next lap”. The pack rode just fast enough that nobody wanted to go it alone, but so slow that nobody was really “pulling”. With a half lap to go I finally decided to go for it. I got 25 seconds into T2, but 1km into the run I was gassed. My HR was at max, my pace was slowing rapidly, and I could barely breath the thick air. I turned my thoughts to the next aide station and focused on staying cool, too stubborn to walk, let alone drop out. I ran the slowest 10km run of my career in 39 minutes, and then collapsed into the care of two Colombian nurses who poured ice water over me and kept a constant supply of cold fluids coming my way. I was 10th. I’m not real happy with the finish, but it’s hard to blame fitness. If I had planned this race further in advance I would have been running in sweats in the middle of the day, but I had no idea that I would be faced with that kind of heat. Even my sunscreen couldn’t hold up to the weather. My back is blistered with sharp red lines around the edges of my race suit. In short, Cartagena was a bad choice for me.
Other than the race, I thought Cartagena was a cool city. The old town is a place I could have wondered through for a day, if I had the chance. Where I was staying was a younger, more beach oriented area. It was littered with expensive fast food and not many healthy restaurant options, so if I ever go back I know to stay in the older part of the city. I will say the race was well organized and they were prepared with plenty of water stations on the run (in 10km there were 20 chances to get water). I only wish there were protocol for extra water on the bike, or at least a course with some shade. An 11:45am start in weather like that is not safe for anyone.
Next up is another Colombian race, but I’m heading up into the mountains near Medellin. The town is called Guatape, and it’s nothing like Cartagena.