There were a lot of unknowns going into Panama 70.3. First off, I have never been to Central America, so I had no idea what the experience of a new area of the world was going to be like. In fact, I have only been outside of North America once, and that was for the Duathlon World Championship in Spain in 2011. Secondly, I have not done much racing in January; perhaps an indoor track race or two, but never a triathlon. The idea of being in decent shape in January was a bit daunting. As well, I didn’t have a massive amount of time to prepare for the race. I did Ironman Arizona on November 15th 2015 and then took three weeks of recovery time. I started training again on December 7th, so this gave me about 7 weeks to prepare. I had to constantly resist the urge to cram training in due to insecurity about the lack of training time. I took solace in the fact that likely everyone toeing the line in this race was going to be in a similar situation. Finally, I have heard and read that Panama is very hot and humid. Every time I hear this about a race, I can’t help but reflect back and cringe about the painful blow-up that happened at Ironman Texas in 2015. Though I had a decent run in Kona this past year, I still was very unsure about my ability to compete well in the heat and humidity. To add insult to injury, it is the dead of winter in Canada, so the only way I could prepare for the conditions was to artificially create them.
I arrived in Panama on the Thursday before the race. The trip went smoothly and quickly. I was able to fly from Windsor to Toronto and then Toronto direct to Panama. In total, it was about 8 hours of travel time. I was fortunate in that Louis Garneau has a major distributor in Panama, and there also happens to be a Freshii there. Someone from both Garneau and Freshii were waiting to pick me up at the airport. They gave me the lowdown as we drove to the hotel: where and when to ride, where to run, where to eat, etc.
I woke up early Friday morning to do a group ride with a local tri shop called Sport and Live Centre. They took me out on a good chunk of the bike course and gave me some insight into where the winds would be blowing from on Sunday and what sort of heat, humidity and cloud cover to expect. Afterwards we stopped by Freshii for lunch.
(Sidebar: For those interested, I did not cut out any fruit, vegetables or fibre in the days leading into this race like I did before Ironman Arizona. I am happy to say that I did not have to stop at the washroom at all during the race, and I did not put on any weight during my taper leading into the race). Later that evening we hung out at the Sport and Live booth at the race expo and handed out some cool shirts like the one in the picture above.
Saturday was fairly relaxing. I made a point to do my easy run that day right around the time I would be on the run course during the race. I have to say, I didn’t find the heat or humidity bad at all. In fact, I said to Erin when I got back from my run “I don’t think heat is really going to be a factor in this race.” Later in the afternoon I participated in the Pro Panel at the race expo, and then Erin and I had a nice quiet dinner at a local pasta restaurant. As I was preparing my equipment for the next morning, I realized my bike pump was no longer working and that I had forgotten my disc wheel adapter. As I prepared even further, I realized I had forgotten my race belt. I had a mild panic attack at this point, but fortunately I was able to get a hold of the guys at Sport and Live and they assured me that they would bring a pump with a disc wheel adapter and a race belt in the morning.
I got to the race nice and early because I wanted to get a good warmup in before the swim. One of the many things I have learned from working with Gerry Rodrigues from Tower 26 these past three months is that proper warmup is crucial, especially if you are a weak swimmer. Andy Potts can hop into the water completely cold and make the lead swim pack any day of the week. For me to make one of the packs I need every cylinder and every muscle to be firing at full tilt right before the gun goes. Unfortunately, we were told the day before that we would not be allowed to do a warmup swim, so this meant I would have to get the core warm through jogging, arm swings, etc. The race was set to start at 6:30. I started my warmup at 6:10. I got to the pier by 6:25 and continued to do arm swings and jump around on the spot. By 6:30 I had a good sweat going. Unfortunately, there were issues getting the safety personnel in place and so the race was going to be delayed. In the end, the race started about 50 minutes late. By that time, I had given up all hope in keeping my core warm, and had sat down on the railing along the pier to rest my legs. No biggie, no race ever goes to plan.
We were finally let into the water and about a minute or two later the gun went. I was feeling very confident coming into this swim. I have been doing the best swimming of my life in practice, utilizing a much more open water specific stroke. I was so close to the second pack. I got out decently well and was on some feet. As we came by the first buoy a small gap opened up. I kept it steady for a good while, working as hard as I could to bridge back up. Sadly, in the end, I got dropped and swam the rest of the swim solo. Nonetheless, it was a good swim for me. I was 3:07 down to the leaders- Matt Chrabot being one of them. The closest I have been out of the water to Matt in a 70.3 was 3:57, and that was in a wetsuit legal swim. I came out of the water in 20th place.
Once onto the bike I went to work. This was the one discipline I was not feeling that confident in. I have been doing a lot of Vo2Max and Anaerobic Capacity work on the bike and have not spent a ton of time at Lactate Threshold, so I was a bit worried about how well I was going to be able to sustain my power. I had a power target of 330-340w. I will say, I made a couple of changes before this race. Looking at pictures from previous races (IMAZ for instance) I appear to be very scrunched up. For this race, I moved my bars forward about an inch, and my seat back about an inch. I was amazed at both how much better and more powerful this position felt, and how much better it looked. I looked significantly less scrunched up. As well, I switched to the new Vittoria Corsa tires with Graphene in them.
I was actually quite surprised at how fast I was riding off of so little power. I started pushing 330w for the first little while, but initially this felt a bit too easy. By about halfway on the bike I had got the average up to about 345w, and my average speed was close to 46kph. I caught the main pack around 45km. I caught them right before a no passing zone, which was then followed by about 3 kilometers of very narrow road. I decided to sit at the back and conserve some energy. This was the second lap of the bike so I knew there was a decent downhill section coming off of an overpass back onto the main highway. I decided that I would use the slingshot effect of the downhill to my advantage and make the pass when I got to the bottom of the hill. The last thing I wanted to do was bring anyone with me. The slingshot gave me some good momentum so I didn’t have to pedal too hard in order to make the pass. I tried to utilize as much of the 25 seconds you are allotted to make the pass as I could. There were about 6 guys in the pack at this point. Right as I reached the front of the pack, I surged as hard as I could. I surged for a good 30 seconds and then dropped down to about 380-400w for the next couple of minutes. When I looked back, it was just Tim Reed and I.
There was only one guy out front now, but I didn’t recognize him. I had no idea if he could run or not so I tried to keep the power up as best as I could. As I suspected, my endurance began waning. By the end of the bike my average had dropped to 333w. I had a deficit to the leader of about 1 minute. I was starting to feel hot- very hot! I remember thinking to myself “I can’t believe you actually said out loud that you think heat is not going to be a factor in this race!” After 90km of biking, heat was a MASSIVE factor! The only words I have to describe the feeling of the run course for you are: it was disgustingly hot!
I turned my Garmin 220 on and went to work. I ran my first kilometer in 4:02. I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was running pretty well; it certainly felt like I was putting out a lot more effort than a 4:02 kilometer! My second kilometer was 4:10. I was starting to get a little worried at this point. But, I stayed focused on first, and tried not to think about all the athletes who were likely taking back 30-40 seconds per kilometer behind me. At around 3 kilometers I entered the lead. That kilometer was 4:40! I thought to myself “my god, you’re nearly at 5 minute kilometers and we’re only 3km in. You’re not even going to finish in the top 10!” (Side bar: After the race I found out “the guy out front” was Antony Costes. I was super impressed not only with his swim-bike prowess, but also how well he held things together on the run. I look forward to duking with him again soon.)
I tried not to panic and stayed focused. I got a split on Tim Reed, who was in 3rd place- about 3 minutes back. He looked good. He looked fast. I was afraid. At about 6 kilometers I went by Erin and distraughtly yelled at her “find out how much faster Tim Reed is running than me!” Erin didn’t understand at the time why I was freaking out so much, while leading the race. Afterwards she told me she thought I was having another episode like I had at Ironman Arizona. I got another split on Tim a little while later and I was now nearly 4 minutes up. It then occurred to me that my Garmin was not working properly. The times it was giving me per kilometer were completely wrong. A wave of relief washed over me. I was actually running decently well.
Interestingly, I actually felt better on the second half of the run than the first. Perhaps knowing that the Garmin was wrong played a role, but for some reason I didn’t find the heat to be nearly as “disgusting” as on the first half. I did my best to keep my pace steady right to the finish line. At 18 kilometers I finally allowed myself to believe that I was going to win the race. I choked back some tears and that dissolved into an intense shiver down the spine.
As the lead bike and I parted ways at the finish chute, he gave me a fist bump and yelled “keep pushing.” This reminded me of why I love this sport. Sure, there are others out there racing at the same time as you. But in the end it is always a race against yourself. I listened to the lead biker and put out one final surge. I pumped my fists in the air as hard as I could, trying to express the emotion and energy inside. I raised the finishing banner and then threw it on the ground as hard as I could. The race announcer greeted me with one of the most passionate slapfives/handshakes/hugs I have ever experienced. It is probably the most vivid finish line moment in my memory. Every ounce of my being was there, present, in that moment.
I need to give a huge shout out to Caesar at Freshii Panama, Marcos from Sport and Live, as well as Ryan from Freshii HQ. Without your guys help all weekend this would not have been possible. This race came onto the schedule fairly late and as a result, I put my sponsors under a tight deadline to get me all of the equipment I needed to perform my best. I have to thank everyone at LG for designing, printing and shipping a brand new kit in under 2 weeks, as well as designing, painting and shipping a brand new bike in that same time. I need to give a huge shout out to Cycle Culture for getting my bike ready on such short notice. They did a full build and tune of my new bike, and change over of my position in about 5 hours. I also need to thank Skechers for getting me the new Go Run 4s so quickly. They felt very light, breathable and fast! I need to thank Infinit Nutrition for designing and manufacturing my new custom blend in just a couple of days. It tasted great, and I felt sharp from start to finish, in very extreme conditions. I need to thank Gerry Rodrigues for his help in the water, which lead to likely my best 70.3 swim yet. I need to thank Gary Hutchinson for always getting on my case about utilizing a scientific and rational approach to my training, even though it pisses me off. I need to thank Erin for running the show. All I do is spin my arms and legs around in circles, you do the rest. Last but not least, I want to thank you for reading, cheering and following along. All this stuff is meaningless without friends and family to share it with, so thanks for coming along for the ride.
I would also like to mention that Panama was fantastic. The weather was beautiful, the people nice, the food was great, lots of stuff to do and see. I could totally see going there for a training camp in the future, and this race will definitely be on my schedule again next year. As for my impressions of Central America, I think my experience at the awards ceremony sums it up nicely. I have never been to a more packed, energetic, rowdy and passionate awards ceremony in my life. The enthusiasm and passion was contagious. Everyone stayed to cheer everyone else, from the pros all the way to the oldest age groupers. It was really refreshing to see that triathlon and the spirit of sport is alive and well in Central America.