Friday, April 1, 2011

Puerto Rico 70.3 Race Report and Travelogue

Ironman Puerto Rico 70.3 Race Report and Travel Log

San Juan, Puerto Rico -- March 19, 2011

First impressions:  Puerto Rico isn't right next door to Florida like I thought.  We left our house at 3:30 a.m. and arrived in Puerto Rico at 8 p.m.  Laura slept from roughly Flagstaff, AZ to somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico and had time left over to read me the history of Puerto Rico from one of her four travel guides.

By the time we arrived in San Juan, Laura knew more about Puerto Rico than Ponce de Leon, Christopher Columbus or Jennifer Lopez, the Puerto Rican native daughter from the Bronx, NY who welcomed us to Puerto Rico in Spanish over the plane's intercom system.  


Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory -- which has benefits for U.S. visitors.  It meant the Kukta's five suitcases and a bike box avoided a trip through customs, and I assumed it meant that I could speak English here.  

Well, yes and no on that last thing, as you'll see.

According to one of Laura's guides, Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory when Spain graciously "transferred" it to the U.S. in 1898.

Lawyers hate euphemisms like "transferred" -- unless we're the ones using them.  And no travel guide was going to pull the wool over my eyes.  

Sure enough, the internet machine says that Spain transferred Puerto Rico to the U.S. But what the travel guide omits is that our military was instrumental in convincing Spain that transferring Puerto Rico to us might allow us to stop pummeling them.

I'm no historian, but it's a reasonable assumption that Spain's military wasn't meeting expectations in that war.  Not only did they end up transferring Puerto Rico, but Guam and Cuba too.

Interestingly, the U.S. also received the Philippines in the deal, but being magnanimous winners, we paid Spain $20 million for that country.

Next vacation, we go to the Philippines.  Any time a country beats the tar out of another country and then pays the loser for the island it just conquered, that has to speak highly of a place.

By the time Laura and I landed in Puerto Rico, the U.S. had over a hundred years to imprint its culture on the island and on the historically Spanish population.

Unfortunately, the U.S. left the improvements to the same folks who designed Riverside, CA.  

McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Target and Walgreens seem to make up half the economy, the people are a little chubby and the traffic jams look just like the ones in California.

Fortunately, we left Old San Juan pretty much as it was hundreds of years ago.  And it remains more beautiful than any chain restaurant we've contributed to the island.

In truth, there's a real disconnection between what the U.S. has done to the island and how folks here live.

This becomes apparent in the conflicting road signs.  

The roadside billboard says, "Mall of the America's -- Next Exit".  But the official road sign says "Plaza de Americas, Salida 1 Kilometer".  And driving to Ponce (J-Lo's parent's home town), on the south side of the island, I almost crashed into a toll booth trying to read Spanish signs identifying the lane that didn't require exact change.

I was starting to get the hint, but I didn't understand the depths of the disconnection until I visited a K-Mart in Ponce.

I needed a cell phone charger for the car.  I walked into the store, and looked for the "Automotive" section, finding it inside of a minute.  Every sign in the building was in English.  "2 for 1" deals on velour sweats pants -- $3 for two bags of Doritos -- there was even a bad fast food place with a popcorn maker near the entrance.  

A little slice of home -- until I asked an employee for directions to the restroom.

No one in the store spoke English.  Not the customers, and not the employees.  

I had to use hand signals to get myself to the bathroom.  Which, of course, was located under the sign that said "Restrooms".  

There was a sign on the door that said "Please do not take merchandise into the restrooms" -- probably not a widely enforced rule since I was the only person in the store who could read sign.

Being in that K-Mart in Ponce was massively disorienting.  It was like Ashton Kucher told everyone at my local K-Mart, "look, Steve's coming here to shop for a phone charger.  No matter what, speak Spanish and keep a straight face."

You kept waiting for Ashton to jump out from behind the Coke display.  "Dude, you've been Punk'd."

But as weird as it is for Americans, I figured it had to be worse for Puerto Ricans.  Because if anyone is being Punk'd its them.

You imagine the locals waking up one morning and finding that someone replaced the local businesses with a Des Moines mini mall.    

And yet, life in Puerto Rico moves along as though nothing is out of place.  

Its like a 4 year-old kid whose mom stuffed him into bunny pajamas.  The kid likes the bunny pajamas just enough to pretend that they don't look silly.


For those who read my Cozumel race report, you'll remember my buddy Teemu, the budding pro from Finland.  Laura and I met him and his friend, Richard, again in Puerto Rico.  

Teemu was looking for pay-back after getting sick during IM Cozumel and finishing a few minutes behind me.  In an effort to ensure Teemu's motivation for this race, I reminded him of his defeat to me at every opportunity.

Teemu introduced Laura and me to his friend, Nina Kraft, a pro triathlete, in the lobby of the host hotel on Wednesday morning before the race.  And, as it happened with Teemu and Richard, we quickly became friends with Nina and her partner, Tim.

And since Tim was in charge of setting up the swim course, I was hoping to score some inside information about the swim course in the days before the race.


The next day, Nina, Teemu and I met for a 40 minute swim in the lagoon next to the hotel, where Tim and his crew were setting up the race course.

Nina shot off at a crazy-fast swim pace, so Teemu and I meandered around the lagoon on our own, swimming under the bridge bisecting the course and checking out the ramp where we would exit the water on race day.

As we were starting to swim back across the lagoon to reconnect with Nina, an excited guy with a thick Puerto Rican accent caught our attention, standing on the sea wall, waving his hands frantically.  

He yelled,"there es something big swimming in the water!  Es like a sea lion."

And then adds:

"Esa man-ateeng!"

Holly crap!  They have man-eating sea lions here?!  You'd think Tim would have shared this important information with us before we got in the water.

My arms instinctively started paddling towards shore.  Fast.

Then the guy yells, "no worry, es friendly!"  


I swam towards guy-on-sea-wall and cupped my hand to my ear -- the universal sign for please speak slower and start making sense.  

"These thing es a Man-atee!" said the guy on the sea wall.  "There are two Man-atees near the Bridge!"

Can we all agree that no sea-faring mammal as large as a Great White Shark should be named anything that sounds like "man-eating?"  How difficult would it be to make that a rule?

I'll bet pirates in the 16th century cracked themselves up every time they pulled that prank on some new guy taking a dip.

But I still didn't know anything about Manatees, except that a guy with a tricky accent, who wasn't in the water, was vouching for its friendly nature.

I started heading for shore.  Maybe the guy is Jacque Cousteau's cousin, or maybe he just likes to watch tourists get eaten by Manatees.  I had no way to know, so better safe than sorry, I figured.  

Unfortunately, my swim buddy, Teemu, was setting a course for the bridge.  

"Crap."  I thought.

I swam after him -- at a safe distance -- keeping Teemu between me and where the beasts were apparently swimming.  

I hoped we wouldn't find them.     

As we swam near the bridge that cuts over the swim course, construction workers on the bridge bellowed over the noise of the traffic, pointing vigorously to a spot about 50 yards from where we were treading water.  They seemed as excited as the guy on the sea wall -- the difference being, they were shouting in Spanish and making motions that could just as easily have meant "get the hell out of the water!  Those things are killers!"

I wished I had taken Spanish in college.

Teemu breast stroked his way closer and closer to where the bridge workers were pointing.  Ten yards back, I doggie paddled, figuring I should creep up on the Manatees using the least threatening swim stroke possible.  Also, doggie paddling has a certain fetal position comfort to it that felt situationally appropriate.

Suddenly, we saw them.  Two giant dark shapes moving slowly along the sea bottom, only 10 feet deep -- could have been Manatees, could have been Great Whites.  How could anyone tell from up on a bridge, I thought nervously.

I hoped whatever was circling below us couldn't smell fear, because I wasn't exactly feeling Chuck Norris at that point.

Teemu swam closer.  I let him.

In a fit of uncharacteristic bravery, and, if I'm honest, to keep an eye on whatever was hunting us, I dunked my head into the water.... and laughed so hard I almost sucked in a lung full of water.

There was no confusing these guys with sharks.  If ever there was an animal that looked something other than ferocious, these were it -- like a sea lion with an overbite and a big, floppy beaver's tail.

They were gnawing on seaweed like cows, minding their own business.  If they were going to eat us, they'd need dentures, because it would take days for these guys to gum us to death.

Teemu and I spent the next 10 minutes or so snorkeling around with the funny looking sea cows.

Maybe it was the excitement and fun of hanging out with the Manatees, but I didn't see the swim course as much of a problem.  The lagoon was very salty, so we were buoyant, the swells were modest and the current seemed manageable.  I figured I'd swim close to 30 minutes without much difficulty.  

I would be proven wrong.


The next day when Teemu, Nina and I did a pre-race run on the run course (which I had run the day before), I told them I didn't think the course was that hard.  A couple hills, a little heat, but not that slow.  I said I was hoping to run about 1:35.

Two miles into our run, Nina looked at me and said, "this course is not that easy.  If you run 1:40, that would be good."  

I really need to listen to people who know stuff.


A couple days before the race, Laura and I were in the hotel lobby doing some work when Laura nudged me and said "that guy is having trouble getting his email.  He's a Sprint customer.  You should help him."

His name was Doug.  "I sell compression pump leg sleeves.  Good to meet you, Steve!"

A few hours later, Teemu, Nina, Laura, Richard and I were sitting in blow up chairs at the race expo encased in rubber leg sleeves, getting pumped.  

For a guy who enjoys a nice compression sock, this was good stuff.

And if, like Teemu and me, you scored a set of leg sleeves that were slightly too long for you, your private parts got a special massage.  So that was nice.

A couple days with Doug's magic pump and the legs seemed ready to race.


At the gun, I swam out with the fast group in the 45-49 wave.  I was 3rd or 4th in a line of swimmers who were obviously planning on swimming close to 30 minutes or faster.  I was still in that pack around the first buoy.  

But things didn't go as planned.  I lost the feet I was following and suddenly found myself in that no-man's land where I was leading a group of 180-or so 45-49 year olds around the course, while the top 10 guys were opening a gap on me.

And unlike a mass swim start at an Ironman where there's always another set of feet moving a little faster than your pace, here, because we started in waves based on age groups, there wasn't another set of fast feet to draft.  

I exited the water in a disappointing 34 minutes, 14th in my age group.  

Laura was standing at the swim exit cheering.  "You're 4 minutes behind 4th place, honey!"  I didn't even want to know the gap to first.  4th place was probably a lock for a spot to the world championships, so that became as good a goal as any.  

I sprinted the long run through the streets of San Juan to transition, moving into 13th place along the way, skipped the socks and was onto the bike in a solid 3 minutes and 40 seconds.


Within 5 minutes on the bike, I had passed three more competitors and was riding in 9th place.  At mile 6, I was 8th, at mile 7, 7th.  And so on, until by mile 20, I had caught all but two of the guys in my age group.

This was an ideal bike course for me, the kind of mildly rolling, warm and windy course that allows me to stay in the aerobars all day long.  Being a little guy, I seem to have a knack for dissipating heat and sneaking through the wind.  And with the wind blowing straight at me during the last 10 miles, I was grateful that my buddy, Darren, graciously allowed me to take his race wheels half-way around the world while mine were in the shop.

News from the power meter wasn't good, however.  I generally ride 70.3's at 210 watts or above, but I now found myself at 190 watts and working a little too hard.  

At mile 25, I was passed by a guy in my age group, dropping me into 4th on the bike.  I hadn't been passed on the bike in a race by someone in my age group in over a year.

Not wanting to jeopardize my race by pushing too hard, I decided to take it easy for the second half of the bike, setting myself up for a strong run -- a run for which I'd been training like a maniac all year.  

Tactically, I knew this was the right decision, but something wasn't quite right.  My legs felt tight.

I got to the bike-to-run transition in 4th place with a 2:26 bike split -- only a minute or two slower than I'd expected -- but, in hindsight, given the favorable course conditions, about 5 minutes slower than I needed to ride.


I racked my bike, bent over to put on my shoes, felt my quads and hip flexors seize up and plopped on my butt to stop the cramping.  "What the heck?", I thought.  I was hydrated, had taken plenty of sodium and had paced well.  But I felt like someone had beaten my legs with a baseball bat.

After struggling for a minute to wrestle into my socks, it dawned on me that somehow I had fried my legs on the bike.  This mystery would trouble me until well into the night when I remembered making an ill advised saddle height adjustment the day before the race.  

Running onto the course, I could barely hold a 7:45 pace, much less the 7:15 pace I was planning to run.  

And things didn't get better.

The sun came out, the wind disappeared and the hills seemed longer than I remembered.  I kept hoping that my legs would loosen up and that I'd be able to run semi-normally, but nope.

And it didn't help that Nina was right about the course.  It seemed a lot hillier after a bike ride.  And where it was flat, it wound through parts of the city where a 14th century fortress blocked the ocean breeze, making it unbelievably hot.  Stupid Conquistadors.

By the start of the second loop at mile 6.5, I was still holding on to 4th place by some miracle.  I could see Ted, a fast runner in my age group, about 6 minutes back at the turnaround and was determined to make it tough for him to catch me.

But the legs were toast and not only did Ted catch me, but 2 other guys did as well.  By mile 10, I was in 8th and just looking to hang on to a top 10 finish.  

Since I'm in a pretty big age group, I figured there would be 4 spots to the Ironman 70.3 World Championships and that I might still have a chance at a roll down with a top 10 finish.  But any lower than top 10 and the odds went down precipitously.  

Laura and Richard were there to cheer me at mile 12, giving me the willpower to run hard (though still not fast) through the finish line.  

I put on an unnecessary burst in the last quarter mile to hold off the guy in 9th place, a guy who, it turns out, was almost 10 minutes back.


Sprinting across the finish line, I staggered into the arms of a volunteer and was practically dragged to the medical tent.  

I was feeling a little tired and my legs were sore, so I was hoping for a chair, a bottle of water and some ice-bags.

But the team from Gray's Anatomy Puerto Rico had other ideas.

Within minutes, medics hooked me to an EKG, a blood pressure cuff and a pulse reader, while a determined nurse stabbed repeatedly at my arms, trying to connect me to an IV bag.  Two burly orderlies each grabbed a leg and started massaging.  

World leaders shot in assassination attempts don't get this kind of medical care.

The doctor in charge was chewing on a donut as she directed the proceedings.  And as I started feeling better, that donut was looking pretty good.  

The donuts were kept just out of my reach, however.  I assume, out of a concern for my cholesterol level.

Thirty minutes after arriving, the medical tent was beginning to resemble a MASH unit as the heat took its toll on the competitors.  And since my vitals were normal and I was getting hungry, I asked to be unplugged so someone more needy than I could have my cot.  

Despite my improved condition, however, I was having some difficulty convincing the doc to release me.  

Fortunately, I had a person on the outside.

After Tim fortuitously wandered through the medical tent and said hi, he sent word of my incarceration to Laura.  Laura somehow talked her way into the medical tent, helped me to my feet and and smuggled me out while the doctors were distracted by the screaming of a girl in a full-body cramp.


In the end, I ran a 1:46 half marathon -- about 10 minutes slower than I'd planned, but better than having walked the run, which was not out of the question, given how sore my legs were.

My total time was 4:53.  The last spot to the world championships went to the guy just ahead of me in 7th place, who finished in 4:50.  

Teemu finished in 4:36, in 3rd place in the 25-29 age group, scoring bragging rights until our next matchup.  Of course, I reminded him that I'm still 1-0 at the Ironman distance, that he's 17 years younger than me and that I was still getting over the shock of nearly being eaten by a Manatee a couple days ago.

Nina finished in 4:31, in 8th place among a strong pro women's field.

Next up:  Ironman St. George.

A postscript on travel in Puerto Rico:  

If you're considering a trip to Puerto Rico and you want to zip-line through the rainforest, it's perfectly ok to meet your swarthy, bearded, militia-looking guide on a remote jungle hilltop and to follow him into the rainforest.  

No, Laura and I didn't do this, but we did abandon Teemu and Richard there.  And they were returned to us unharmed with big grins on their faces.

Great island, great people.  As a gesture of appreciation, our chain stores should give them Spanish advertising.  Shouldn't be a big deal -- we've got it in California already.