Campeche 70.3—An Athlete's Report

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Lying on the massage table just past the finish line at this year’s Campeche 70.3, I felt two things after a race that I haven’t felt in a while: pride and peace. We spend a lot of time in life aiming for those two things, and it’s no surprise that many avenues exist in trying to equip us with those feelings (meditation programs, affirmation work, overcoming artificial adversity). For me, it had been a long time since I’d felt either of those things (and even longer to feel them both at the same time), and the source was simple, obvious even: I believed that I’d done everything I could do on that particular day.

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Was the result mind-blowing? No. I’d managed a respectable 12th pace out of 19 professional starters, in 4:14:17, a full nine minutes behind 10th place, but I believe I swam, biked, and ran to my current potential, and that belief allowed me to lie there on that table, give a small thumbs up to my dad, who was excitedly standing outside the athlete finisher’s area, and almost fall asleep a few times as two generous masseurs worked on my legs. Here’s how it all went down.

Pre-race

Campeche is a marvelous medium-small city on the western coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. You can fly into Campeche itself, or into Mérida, a larger city about two hours north by car. We flew into Campeche and caught a taxi to our airport. You don’t need a rental car for this race, although one would b helpful. Campeche sprawls out from a central walled city, which was constructed after the city decided enough was enough following 150 years of pirate assaults. They are a patient people, apparently. Pirate culture is everywhere in Campeche—it clearly is an important part of their history: living with the pirates, overcoming them, and then memorializing the struggle (kinda like race reports…hmm, metaphor?). There are many small hotels within the walled part of the city, where you will pay standard US rates for lodging (think $80-120/night). A few larger and less expensive hotels sit outside the walls, on the main coastal avenue (The Malécon), and we posted up in one of these: Hotel Baluartes. It was cheap, clean, and looked out directly onto the ocean. One of the nicest features of the hotel is that a small pod of food carts perches just outside the entrance, and we ate many of our meals there, often paying less than $12 a meal. It never gets old, paying 1955 prices for things. Another brief plug for Baluartes

Another 1950s thing about Campeche (most of Mexico, really) is how friendly and family-focused people are. Go to a park in the evening and entire families are hanging out on park benches, the kids scrambling around on skateboards and the abuelos holding court. Everyone we met was genuinely happy to meet us, we felt, even when taking into account we represented A) money and B) colonialism, either historic or present-day. Add to the fact that we clearly made the attempt to speak in Spanish, and people were very grateful. You will, however, need some Spanish to get around Campeche—many people speak no English. So prepare some basics.

OK, race logistics. Campeche is a two-transition zone race, so the usual hither-and-yonning in the days before the race is required. You swim at the Campeche Country Club, about eight miles south of the town proper, so you’ll have to get yourself down there the day before to drop off bikes, and then to T2/finish (at the convention center) to drop off your run bags. This all sounds simple, but by midday the temperature is well into the 90s, and doing anything both requires extra effort and has the potential to deplete your physical resources. The swim at Campeche is pretty straightforward, so you can probably skip the practice swim on Saturday and simply hit one of the pools around town (the municipal pool is 50m and free—natch). Skipping the practice swim will save you from making two trips out to the Country Club the day before the race.

Personally, I was worried headed into the race. Campeche lay at the end of a pretty difficult month, logistically, athletically, professionally, and emotionally. I left Portland on February 19th, headed to the QT2 Systems Pro Camp in Clermont, Florida, for two weeks of training with my coach, Tim Snow, and head coach of that company, Jesse Kropelnicki. I’ve been to a lot of pro camps over the years, and the QT2 camps are, undoubtedly, the hardest. You don’t know what you’ll be doing from day to day, so you can show up to a bike workout and learn that you’re facing a two-hour ride with big gear efforts, or a six-hour ride with two-hours of effort. Physically the effort is similar to other pro camps (high), but mentally it’s more challenging. You have to absorb new (and potentially unwelcome) information and do your best anyway. Kinda like racing. That’s probably intentional…

After camp, I traveled to Tucson to run my own camp for CBCG, the coaching company I run with several other coaches in Portland and other states in the west. While attending camp is tiring, running a camp is exhausting. You have to juggle organization, logistical requests, safety, food, transportation, lectures, bike maintenance, sagging and support, workout building, and the emotional management of your participants. I didn’t get much sleep each night, and definitely picked up some stress and strain throughout the week. By the time Amy and I headed to Campeche, I was tired, grouchy, sore, and not really looking forward to racing. I got some good talkings-to from Tim, my coach, who suggested we go totally data-blind for the race, and from Linsey Corbin, my housemate from Pro Camp (“You’re racing in Mexico: safety first, fun second, results third,” she told me the day before the race). The night before the race I’d resolved to aim for fun, and to simply do what I felt I could. Mentally, I wasn’t in a good spot. I felt heavy and tired, and was having trouble with headaches and caffeine management. I would go for runs and feel blown out. I hadn’t gotten in much training the week of the race.

Race morning, though, I felt good. I always know that things tend to go well if I’m feeling jokey and unconcerned on the start line, and after a solid warmup in the water (Campeche DOES allow you to warmup before the race, which is a very nice perk—there’s a little area to the north of the start line where they set up a buoy line that’s about 100m long)I jogged to the start line. I found Trevor Wurtele, who is always a good swim mark for me, and we chatted and joked a bit before the start. Most races give you a start countdown, but no such luck at Campeche! Trevor and I were talking, and suddenly the horn blew! We both started poorly, even getting hung up in the caution tape they used to hold us back from the water, and flopped into the water well into the third row of swimmers. “Oh well,” I though. “Not a great start. Let’s just jump on some feet and do what we can.” Oddly, I latched onto the pack of guys right in front of me and just swam at around 80-90%, I’d say, which is what Tim had suggested I do. Usually, I’m a mental midget in the swim, going out too fast and then getting dropped by swimmers I “should” out-swim. Instead of focusing on them this time, though, I focused on my effort, and by the first buoy I could see the lead pack going away, but felt confident I could hang out in the group I was in. Sure enough, I came into T1 in a group of 5-6 swimmers, including eventual runner-up Michael Weiss, about two minutes behind the lead group of Terenzo Bozzone and the other super swimmers.

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On the bike, I also tried to avoid my usual impulse, which is to ride like a maniac and hold on to the group I exited the water with. I tend to need plenty of time to warm up, regardless of sport, and so I just kinda did my own thing, riding hard but not forcing it. I had my bike computer taped over, so I had no idea what was happening from a power perspective, and I really enjoyed that. Losing focus on the numbers allowed me to listen to myself and try to figure out what I could do. By the end of the first 16 miles or so (the end of the first out-and-back, of which there are two) I calculated I was about three minutes behind Terenzo, which put me in a pretty solid place. Trevor Wurtele caught me right around this point, and while I didn’t try to ride with him, I did resolve to keep him in sight for as long as possible. One cautionary note about the bike leg at Campeche: the bottles of water come in standard bike bottles, but the sports drink (Gatorade regular formula, so get ready to add salt) comes in those stupid bottles with the tapered waists. They don’t fit in normal bottle cages, and when I picked one up at the second aid station, it rattled around so much I found myself paying more attention to keeping the bottle on board than on riding. I shifted to only taking in water, and grabbing a bottle of sports drink at each aid station, drinking 1/3 going through the station, and then tossing the bottle before exiting. Not ideal, and I could definitely see salt building up on my kit as the bike progressed, but there wasn’t anything else I could do, I felt. I knew I had three salt tabs in my run bag in T2, so I planned to simply down two of those as soon as I got to transition. 

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In terms of the actual course, I would describe it as rolling, with the real challenges coming from wind (it’s head/cross for the first half of each out-and-back, then tail/cross, then head/cross again, and finally tail/cross as you get to to the turnaround), heat (you’ll get really hot during the tailwind sections), and traffic. As much as I love racing in Mexico, it’s still Mexico, which means some odd rules, and then a lot of people not following the rules. We were instructed to ride North American style (ride right, pass left) for the first 7k of the bike, then switch to Aussie rules (ride left, pass right) during the out-and-back section for the next 65k or so, and then switch back to North American rules for the run in to transition. About half the age-groupers followed that prescription which led to…chaos. Knowing the Spanish words for right (derecha) and left (izquierda) is a good idea. In any case, I just kept plugging along at my “moderate-hard” effort, and guessed that I was riding in around 10-12th place, which was a good spot for me. I came off the bike thinking “Huh, my legs aren’t shot,” and figured that I would be able to put up a solid run.

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The run course at Campeche is a double out-and-back that proceeds south along the town’s main drag for 3.25 miles. There is little shade, and just like the bike, the wind is changeable. I stuck with standard hot windy running rules (don’t run fast with a tailwind, as you’ll blow up as your system overheats, and lift your effort into the headwinds, where you’re kept a little cooler by evaporative processes), and just kinda got out and started cruising. My run has been a huge question mark over the past three years, so I didn’t want to push early and blow up. Patrick McKeon passed me fairly early, and then another runner around mile five. No matter, I just focused on building my heart rate over the course of the run. Since it was a hot race, I knew I’d be seeing high heart rates for a given effort, and just resolved to build that number as I rolled along. I was looking at 155-157 BPM for 6:45-6:55 pace, which is definitely high, so I just pegged the effort there and hoped I wouldn’t see many miles over 7:00/mile. The heat built from darn warm to downright sweltering, and I focused on heat regulation as best I could: every aid station I took handfuls of ice to hold in my palms and chew (chewing ice has been shown to be the best way to drop your core temperature), swallowed half a cup of Gatorade, and downed a bag of water (yes, a bag of water! When you race in Mexico water comes in little 2 oz baggies; terrible for the ocean, good for racing). I also backed off as I went through the aid stations, pretty much sticking to Ironman strategies. I knew I wouldn’t be catching many runners, but that wasn’t my goal—I only wanted to put up a respectable run, where I built my heart rate over the course of the run leg. Around mile nine I saw Patrick McKeon struggling up ahead and thought “Yes! My one pass for the day, probably.” He was struggling with the heat, and I made the pass around mile ten, just after the final turnaround. Unfortunately, I could see there was another pro not far behind, so simply cruising in wasn’t an option. I resolved to make the final three miles my highest effort miles, and was able to do so, even though a few times I got that terrible, dizzy, “the engine is on fire” feeling. At the turn to the finish I risked a look back, and didn’t see anyone behind me. I could finally kinda shut it down and just jog the finish chute to the line, which I did, gratefully.

Mistakes:

  1. Leaving my shoes tied when I dropped them off in transition the day before! Double-knotted, even. I must have looked like a total idiot, untying shoes before getting after the run. The fact that I did this makes me think I really didn’t believe I was going to be able to run well. Resolve: get some damn quick-laces back in my sneaks!
  2. Winging my hydration system. I usually simply zip tie a bottle cage in between my bars and call it good. With the tapered Gatorade bottles at Mexican races, this meant it wasn’t possible to take sports drink. Since I’ve got one of those fancy new Aeria Profile Design Aerobars, I can easily install their hydration system that goes with it. Problem solved.

What I ate:

  • 4 am: 2 cups white rice, Banana, 20 oz water with two scoops Skratch. 100mg caffeine in pill form.
  • 6 am: Powerbar, 100mg caffeine.
  • On bike: five bottles water, two bottles Gatorade normal formula, five chocolate PowerGels (25mg caffeine each)
  • On run: one package Honey Stinger energy chews with caffeine, two double latte PowerGels (50mg caffeine each), three SaltStick tablets, 1/2 cup of Gatorade at each aid station, 1/2 cup of water at each aid station, 1/2 cup of Coke (“Coca” in Español) at two aid stations in the final three miles, so much ice.

What I’m taking away:

  • You don’t have to feel good to be good (well, let’s be honest, fair; I was still 24 minutes behind Terenzo when he won, or about 3.5 miles!)
  • Just do your own thing
  • Have fun! I haven’t enjoyed a triathlon in ages—they’ve been exercises in frustration and self-hatred for the past few years. Tuning out the numbers and just swimming, riding, and running to what I felt like I could do was a huge boost. It kept me present, rather than inside a device (and in my own head, telling myself stories about what I “should” be able to do).

OK, that’s it! Hope you found SOME of this useful.

Chris