by Pro Triathlete Alex
The San Juan ITU Triathlon Pan American Cup was my final draft-legal race of the 2013 season. After not being able to race to the potential I believed I had the weekend before in Cozumel, I was eager to end my draft-legal season on a high note.
I spent the week between Cozumel and San Juan in Miami. It kept the travel easy and allowed me to stay in the heat. I had the bonus of my mom taking a vacation in Miami and deciding to come with me to the race. It’s always great to have some family around and it made the race more of a vacation for me too.
Landing in San Juan I put my bike together for the third time in less than a week.
The race course was all in old San Juan, which meant lots of narrow, windy streets and some roads that looked like they hadn’t been touched since they were first put down however many hundreds of years ago. Cobbles, broken asphalt, and tree planters were all going to make this a very interesting race. Add to that two-way traffic to make things extra tight.
The swim course had its own obstacles too. Floating debris and funky sea water could prove to be difficult come race day. Later I would find out that we were swimming in a busy shipping channel and it was a popular place for ships to dump their garbage. This garbage usually attracted large numbers of sharks into the narrow bay. The local guy who was telling me this was bewildered that the race organization couldn’t have found a better place for us to swim. In the 48 years he’s been living in San Juan he would never even dream of touching that water. All good things to find out after the fact.
Race morning came a little early for an ITU race. I was down at the race site around 8:00 A.M. for a 9:30 A.M start. It was already 83°F with 86% humidity. Staying cool before the start was my main goal. I kept the warm up short and tried to maximize the amount of time I spent in the water. Dumping a few bottles of icy cold goodness on myself helped too. Swimming around, it was nice to see/feel that most of the debris had disappeared overnight.
Of the original ~50 starters on the list, ~40 made it to the start line. By now, I have accrued a few world rankings points, so I finally wasn’t one of the last guys to line up. The start was off a floating pontoon, which was hard to walk down with everyone else shaking things about. Goal for this start was to not have the pontoon shoot out from under me as everyone started—to not belly flop into the water. A quick reaction time has never been my best quality, but as the gun went off I managed to at least be moving forward off the pontoon.
Things heated up quickly in the cool waters. With the first turn buoy just 200 meters out, it was a mad dash to get into a good position. Lots of kicks to the face later, I found some clean water to round the buoy. Glancing up ahead I felt like I was somewhere toward the front half of the group. But in the water it’s always hard to tell what’s going on. Arms flailing everywhere, heads bobbing around, and if you keep your head poking out for too long you risk an elbow to the face. Feeling comfortable in the draft I tried to hold my spot and let things get settle before making big moves.
Finishing the first lap, I finally had some open space around me to swim. I felt great sitting in the draft, but I didn’t have the speed to get around those in front of me. Between sightings I could tell that a front group was pulling away and I needed to move up to remake contact with them. Others had probably noticed this too and, combined with a tight exit out of the swim, we began to battle again. Getting boxed in, I just finished the swim where I was and got ready for a Paris-Roubaix style bike race.
Hoping onto my bike, I quickly grabbed the wheels of a group in front of me. There were five of us and I had strong hopes that we could work together and catch onto the lead group of ~15. On the first lap, the bike course was already taking its toll on some of the riders, as they dropped back unable to keep such a high pace over the rough pavement and cobbles. Our small group was able to take advantage of the tight course and even ride the smooth cement gutters avoiding some of the cobbled sections. After a few laps, we began to take time back on leaders.
Not all in the group were content working together, though. Pack riding in a triathlon is a very interesting tactical battle. Everyone wants to catch the front group, but everyone is also very aware of the 10 km upcoming run. Mix in a lack of understanding how to form an echelon and a wide range of cycling ability, and you have a very chaotic bunch on the road.
A couple of the strong riders in the group would continuously attack our bunch instead of pulling through smoothly. I don’t know why so much of this happens in triathlon. It’s like they think they’re helping the group, when in reality they’re not. These attacks not only messed up our rotation and slowed us down, but it also meant that someone had to give a burst of speed to close the gap back up.
Things were so aggressive that coming out of one of the tight S-turns, I stood up on the pedals to maintain contact with the leader only to have one of the guys in our group put his hand on my elbow and shove me over. This from a fellow USA teammate! Somehow I was able to hold my balance—there was a lot of yelling and after that I was riding pissed.
When we came through transition and I saw four laps to go, I was gutted. We were only halfway through the bike and I was already feeling really gassed.
The constant rattle and the death grip I had on my bars was taking its toll on me. Just when I needed it most, I got a big boost of motivation. The out and back course made it easy to gauge how the other groups were doing compared to us and on this lap I saw that we had made a huge gain on the lead group. Seeing this, others from the group began to throw down some vicious attacks. Not wanting to be left behind after getting so close, I threw down too and chased hard to maintain contact with our group. This burst of speed got us up to the leaders with two laps to go.
Finally, I was done with putting out massive bursts on speed on the bike and could recover and try to get prepped for a hot and hard 10 km run. But it’s never that easy. I was all out of fluids on the bike. All of a sudden, I was incredibly thirsty and desperate to get to the first aid station of the run. The pace did stay pretty easy on the bike, and I found myself coming into T2 towards the front of the group.
My legs felt like hollow logs, just getting my shoes on was a feat in itself. I fumbled around trying to shove my feet in and get going. Everyone took the first 400 m very fast, in typical draft legal fashion. Very quickly, I was gapped off the back by a few seconds. The first aid station was coming up quick and the guys ahead of me cleared it all out. It’d be another 1000 m before I’d get a chance to get some fluids!
So I thought, but shortly after we started running, it began raining hard on us. At first this was kind of nice. The rain was warm, but it was cooler than my body and I welcomed it. Then, it just suddenly stopped. The sun came back out and the humidity returned with a vengeance.
Reaching the turnaround point on the first lap I was able to hit two aid stations within 200 m of each other. The only thing better than a cup of icy bliss was several of those cups, dumped all over me.
Coming back across the wet cobbles I was caught off guard. It was like running across wet ice. So happy that the rain waited until we were running to start. <yeah> Part of the cobble section was up a short climb, and once the cobbles were wet the only way up was to do short stutter steps. As the death march continued, others were feeling the pain of starting out too fast and I slowly reeled them back in. But I was running out of pavement and crossed the line with four guys within 40 seconds of me. So close to getting into the top ten! Full results can be found here.
San Juan ITU Triathlon Pan American Cup Results and Post-race Fun
I ended up across the line in 11th and there was no ice bath to dive into, what’s up with that!? Lucky for me the sky came to my rescue and shortly after crossing the line a major downpour began. San Juan was an awesome way to finish out my draft-legal race season. Full results can be found on triathlon.org.
I managed to gain some more world ranking points, I’m all the way up to 304th! Now I’ve got something to build from next year and I know exactly what I’ll need to be working on all winter to come out blazing next year.
The biggest perk of having my mom come with was that she could look up fun things to do after the race. Due to the government shutdown, all the national rainforest parks were closed, but we did manage to find some cave tours that were unaffected.
Climbing through caves with 6,000 year old carvings in them and then playing in 10-foot surf waves was the an incredible way to unwind from a week of traveling and racing.
Now it’s back to Colorado to get prepped for my final race of the year: the Rev3 Half in Venice, Florida. It’s going to be my first attempt at the half distance and I’m stoked to be able to cap the year off at such an incredible event. Thanks for reading!