Pucón Half Ironman RACE REPORT   January 22, 2006    

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“Animo Eric!”
The crowds cheering me on as if this were a futból match. Do they know me? Did they see me in the latest issue of Triathlete? No — get real. Stop hallucinating! My name was pre-printed on my bib number, I was on the second lap of the run, and could almost taste that cold cerveza at the finish line. But let me start at the beginning.

Getting There
It's a long trip — no doubt about it. It was Wednesday when I left my house around 2pm for a flight out of National Airport and it was 6:30pm the next day when I walked in to the lobby of the Gran Pucón Hotel.

So I'll start at National. I got there a bit early and decided to kick off the trip with a couple beers. Fabio joined me for about an hour and I started to decompress from all the stress of work that I was soon to leave behind. With no laptop in tow and spotty cell coverage in Chile it was sure to be a tranquil week. From there it was a quick flight to Miami and then an eight hour overnight flight to Santiago.

Michelle and Marian, from DC, were also on the same flights and with an eight hour layover in Santiago we decided to head into the city. There was some negotiating for a cab fare, and a predetermined ride back, and once we got that squared away we were off to the city. It was clean. It was warm, sunny, and crisp. It was also easy to get used to this tempo- strolling around looking for a cafe and some lunch while cruising the streets, churches, and absorbing the sophisticated latin american vibe. Ah, food and a chair with plenty of people watching on one of the main strips. Life was good. All smiles with some anticipation of getting settled in- yet we were still one flight and a bus ride away. But we were so close now.

And so we headed back to the airport after chilling out in Santiago. It was a short flight to Temuco- an airport so small that we were the only plane there. And as soon as we got there it was time to load up our bike boxes and gear into these small minivans in order to travel the last 100k south into the Lakes District and the city of Pucón. The surrounding mountains were green and steep, jutting out from the fields in the valley. Having traveled for over a day already it not only felt far from home but far from everything.

*Things to know: take $100 US for the country tax, or whatever they call it. But you need it in order to enter the country of Chile (at the airport of Santiago).

Pucón, Chile
Nice. Very nice. Pucón is a small upscale mountain town that is located right on the huge Villarica Lake with the Villarica Volcano dominantly in the background. The main street is about 10 blocks long lined with shops, restaurants, and adventure shops. It reminded me of some of the ski towns in Colorado during the summer. The hotel was THE place to stay. It was located at the heart of town, right on the main square - a park the size of about two or three city blocks. It was also race central which was obviously very convenient. So out the front lobby was the town and the view of the volcano, and through the rear entrance you were steps from the black sand beach.

So I checked in, unpacked and built the bike, and soon after I joined a few people on a training ride- checking out part of the course before it got dark. It was beautiful. Perfect temps, low humidity, daylight until about 10pm, awesome views- all this in the middle of January! It was a treat to get in a short ride and calm some of the pre race questions. So far so good.

All the meals were covered at the hotel, which before getting there really didn't sound as great as it really was-- made to order omelets and steak. It was also just one less thing to think about and the food was actually really good too. So every morning (8-11am) and evening (8-11pm) it was time to eat, chat it up with athletes from all over the place, and down at least two desserts per visit. Ok, maybe three or four.

The next day I got a short warm-up run in with Roberto and got to roam the roads around town as well as explore the first mile of the challenging run course out on the peninsula. It was a nice cool morning and we took it easy. He'd done the race the previous year and I drilled him for as much info as I could get.

We got back and headed right in for a short swim before breakfast. Mentally it was nice to settle into breakfast already knowing some of the course for each of the events. The water was crisp and clean- cold, but not as bad as you would think once you get going. Also having a sleeveless wet suit, which seemed to be uncommon among races here from previous photos, I was a bit nervous of how that would feel. But the swim confirmed that I would be fine. Even with the snow capped mountains feeding the lake with chilled water the sun and relatively shallow water was refreshing. It was time to relax.

Later in the day it was large group training ride out for one full loop of the bike course- about 28 miles. The surface was a bit bumpy but the overall ride was a blast. What an awesome place. As I rode back it hit me that I had done all three sports in one day- something I never do in training. But it was easy going and there was plenty of day left to sit around and I had the next day to completely relax.

I don't wake up much while I sleep- not unless something like an evacuation siren goes off at 4:30 in the morning! What? Is this really an alarm. Is that stupid volcano really going to blow? It was common knowledge that it was well overdue for an eruption. But what do you do? I mean I'm on the fourth floor of the highest building in the area. Do you swim as far as you can? Or do you just fall back asleep? Yeah, it must have been a test because about 10 seconds after it started it ceased. And I was fast asleep.

The rest of the time leading up to the race was pretty chill. Regular check in and a walk down the full length of the peninsula (the run course). Probably not a great sign that I was worn down from walking the course. I tried to delete that from my memory but it stuck with me. My expectations kept changing... at home when I signed up back in November my goal was close to 5:15. After reading up on the "most beautiful race in the world" and the fact that it was also the "hardest run of any half iron" I thought that 5:30 would be great. Then getting ill through the new year and the cold weather biting into my outdoor training I was hoping to stay under 6:00. Now I saw the course- primarily the run course, although the bike is no walk in the park- and I was concerned to make it under the 6 hour mark. I was hoping for that and honestly felt that I could easily be over that mark. While the bike portion wasn't harsh (steep) it was slow and steady. And the run, well, I never ran on something that hilly- not even in training. And my swim (which I just started up again in December after 6 months off) was not going to do me any favors. But I was more calm than I usually am before a race. And that could make the difference.

The Race
First of all the race started at 9am. How brilliant is that? Considering you have enough to do the morning of the race it's curious that most races start before 7am which makes for a very early morning. Plus, the hotel was race central, which meant the transition area was right outside the front lobby and the swim start was around back on the black sand beach. So there was plenty of time to get some breakfast — something light. After that it was time to set up the transition.

The transition area was one long strip on a side road that had bikes on either side. It was about one and a half blocks long with the racks running parallel to the road. Each spot was clearly marked and I made a mental note of where my spot was according to the houses and signs on the street. Since you came in one end and left out the other end during the transitions there really wasn't any advantage depending on your spot. Everyone had to run the distance of the transition area each time.

So I had everything set, bike, shoes, fuel, etc. Now I went back up to my room and started the waiting game. Hung out for a while, not wanting to put my wetsuit on to early. Tried to shake the pre-race nerves and think through my game plan: just ease into the swim and get in your rhythm, think of only one event at a time, don't get ahead of yourself, don't blow up on the bike, fuel up throughout the race, run through the tough spots, and leave enough to finish strong — but not too much that you feel like you had more to give. All this rolling through my head with my iPod cranked to get me into the zone. I was set. And with ten minutes to go I went down to the beach and somehow found Michelle, Terry and Rebecca.

We took some photos and I went through the ritualistic "what am I doing here?". Clearly it was to have fun, do your best, and enjoy it. Get all those goals out of your head because training is over — now it's about dealing with what the day has in store for you. Put your ego in check and race smart.

It was a mass start, around 450 competitors. The pros start about 10 meters in front of the age groupers but we all go as the horn blows. And we were off! The cold water on my face was clean and pure. It was refreshing, crystal clear, invigorating, and a good way to stay cool. On the way out to the first turn it was a mad house. Everyone was edging one way or another- not really getting a better line but just cutting their own path. Some elbows and kicks kept it interesting between thoughts of trying to settle into my rhythm. Looking for a draft potential was easier in theory since speeds were all over the map at the beginning. I figured after it settled down there might be someone I can hang with, if for no other reason, to sight my line and keep me straight.

It's not uncommon to feel someone next to you, or have your feet touched, maybe even an arm hits you— after all it's a race. But when I was grabbed from behind with two hands (from the same person) on my right leg as they pulled their way over my back and over to my left side, I gained a less delicate attitude to getting myself through this. My line became more rigid, when I knew where I was going, and I stuck to my goal. Heck, too bad if they didn't make it around the correct side of the buoy.

The swim is a two lap course, something I hadn't experienced before. Between the two laps is a 100m run/meander (included in the official time) on this beautiful black sand beach. It was like watching drunk people sprint down a corridor slamming into the sides as they went, all to get to the waters edge again and hesitate. Do this again? Sure why not. Good news was that the field was clearly spread out. And at this point all the nerves had passed, now it was about focusing on what was in front of me.

On the way back of the second loop, sighting was almost comical — imagine having a snow capped volcano to point you in the right direction. While I could hardly see the buoys because of the angle of the sun, the volcano was a nice guide that was hard to miss. Luckily it was also aligned with the course. And as the bottom of the lake came closer into focus I knew soon I would be on my feet. Rushing up out of the water, stripping off my cap and goggles, I hear an "Eric!" right next to me. Terry was right next me as we headed out to T1— what are the chances? Not my best time in the water, but certainly not the worst, especially considering the mid course run.
Swim - 42:56

Wetsuit off, and socks and shoes on. Helmet, sun glasses and race belt. Bike. Smooth with no snags, and I was running out to the mount line.
T1 - 2:42

Heading out of the transition through the center of town the road surface was rough, with grooves to navigate, as well as athletes not yet in their shoes. I raced ahead and was delighted to be on the bike. The route was two loops (out and back's) with a relatively consistent incline on the way out, increasing intensity until the last three miles which leveled off.

Going out I was cruising, getting myself warmed up, fueled up, and situated for a nice ride. Passing a good number of people kept my mind working, motivated me to keep pushing, and got me smiling. Thinking about the awesome day, on these quiet roads rolling through the back country of Chile, just miles from the Argentina border and in the foothills of the Andes, was a relaxing feeling. What more could I ask for? Well, maybe the road surface could be smoother. I know, that seems to be picky, but the rattle from the rough gravel pavement was affecting my comfort. And by the look of all the tools, tubes, and miscellaneous items that had rattled free and now lay along the road, everyone was getting jolted. That's really the only thing I wish were different about the bike portion of the course.

Getting to the turn around I was feeling good. Strong. I kept on fueling up on gels. And then I realized I had a tailwind until I turned around. Now I had a headwind, this when I was supposed to have an easy decline back to town. Regardless, it was better than swimming. And so I kept at it on the way back of the first loop. The wind was picking up as the day grew longer but the sunshine and dry warm weather was as nice as you could ask for. Maybe in the high 70's through the bike portion- and potentially low 80's for the run.

There was quite a bit of bike traffic at times and passing wasn't always easy- having to pass on the right because people hung out in the center as well as triple passing at the same time (3 lanes of bikes). Not the best etiquette but the aggressive nature of the race was all art of the day. Generally I kept my distance and tried to pass quickly so I could get into my own rhythm and not worry about the congestion.

So at about 3 miles from town on the first loop (near the airport) I got boxed in. How? Well, I was going at a good clip with about 5 bikes in tow- and yes I mean I was pulling and they were benefiting, which really doesn't bother me, because I'm out there for myself. If they need the drafting help then they have to face themselves at the end of the day. And that's when I heard a ref motorcycle approaching from behind- i almost smiled. I had someone ahead that I would pass easily, and began to go around the left. At that point the train behind me got nervous and started to pass me in order to not get a drafting penalty, but unfortunately they didn't have the power to successfully pass me (around the left in the "third lane") so they fall apart right in front of me. I have two people on the left, one or two behind me, the original person on the right just behind me and two people pulling off in front of me slowing down because they were all juiced out. So I stop pedaling because at this point we're all going to be one big pile up. This all happened in about 3-5 seconds, and meanwhile I'm thinking I have another 10 seconds (you have 15 seconds to get out of the drafting box- either to the front or the back) to get myself on track. The irony is that the motorcycle was in the "fourth lane" right next to us and pulls me over! I'm shocked, well pissed really. Does the ref even know what drafting is? Do they know how to count to 15? Have they ever ridden a bike? I honestly think they just needed to penalize someone and they didn't care who it was.

So it gets worse, I have to stop, endure the humiliation, and let those groupies bike off in their pack. Waste time yelling at the official- and let me tell you I didn't know my spanish was that good, but all the expletives came out naturally. I coulda killed him. And that really wasn't going to help me out, neither was all the negative energy I was boiling inside! Aaaargh. So that stuck with me through town and as I was going back out on my second loop I realized that it didn't matter- this race was for me- who cares, you better enjoy this because that run is gonna suck. And you're wasting energy just thinking about it. So I flipped a switch and was all better- I think that's what experience buys me. Of course I was nervous as anything now because a second penalty would disqualify me. So it was a cautious second loop. Braking at times to have my 30 feet (10m) of separation. I just had no confidence that they knew how to assess a penalty. And so it became slower than I would have liked.

At the turn around I got some more water... in someone else's bottle! Is this standard practice? Do I really want to suck down some water from a reused bottle? I really didn't have a choice. The headwind was growing in intensity and the ride back to town was more work than I had planned on, feeling my legs get tired I knew I had to leave some for the run. And when I felt a cramp come on I instantly downed a gel and all my fluids - as well as pacing myself. And that all seemed to work for me as I made it back. The crowds were cheering, the early runners were on the course and now my mind shifted to transition two.
Bike - 2.52:20 (including the stop)

Roll in and stop. The drafting penalty is added in T2 by standing to the side in the penalty box while they time your three minutes. And with three minutes to spare I gave the officials a little more of my attitude than I'm sure they wanted to hear. Since they were overwhelmed with timing a dozen athletes on one stop watch I told them I was timing my own penalty-- after all its my split for T2. I think they were happy to get me out and on the run because they didn't even check my watch. It was a nice break though- I'd never stopped in the middle of a race like that. It was weird. Ok, that's done, helmet and shoes off- running shoes on. Hat and that's it? I think I have everything... so off I went.
T2 - 4:14 (with 3 minute penalty)

The run started out great. The first block I felt like the day was mine and then I took the 90° turn onto the "peninsula" which hits you like a brick in the head. Its about 200 meters of up at 10 - 14% grade. It almost felt as if I wasn't moving. That continues, up and down, with some steeper grades, throughout the peninsula. There are three laps (out and back's) so the hills were not going away. The only reprieve was the flat section of the run that goes through town, but that was a much smaller portion of the loop. It was such a stark difference in running styles but it did help to break up the run into sections.

Going through town was like being in the middle of a parade- tons of people cheering you on - "Animo!", which humorously many Americans thought they were cheering "Animal!". The music blared and all the restaurants had sidewalk seating; I could smell the french fries, grilled salmon, God knows what else - but it was evil. At the end of town you would get a noose for each loop you ran. They told us it was so we would remember which loop we were on. Ha! There's no way you're gonna forget which loop your on when you have so much time to think about it on the peninsula. And after the third noose you collected you were entitled to head to the finish line on the beach.

My goal was not to bonk and to keep running. The first loop felt slow but when I looked at my split I was at 35 minutes which gave me a huge boost. If I could pull off a 1:45 (three :35 loops) on the toughest run of my life, I'd be on target for a sub 5:30 race total, which was completely insane for my realistic goals after the past month of non-training. It seemed possible because I didn't feel like I was running particularly fast and it seemed I could maintain this pace without blowing up. Then the second loop started. I guess I did forget about that first loop- and the hills on the peninsula. All that calculating went out the window- this was no run on Hains Point.

One of the fun aspects of the run was that you got to spectate as you ran because going out and back three times meant you crossed paths with everyone, and got to cheer your friends on. Somehow cheering for someone else when you yourself are racing gives you some energy. It was hard to tell if they were behind or in front of you, unless you got a good look at their nooses. And some people like myself put them inside their jersey so they wouldn't flop around.

I strolled up to Roberto, a friend I met just a few days earlier from Brazil. We talked about the wonderful day and how lucky we were- right- we were cursing the heat and the hills. We were together for a mile or two as he sped up on the downhill's and I passed on the uphill's (all within meters of each other). It was like analyzing run technique on slow motion video. I was taller and should have a longer stride- why was I not getting the advantage down hill? This was mildly aggravating because it meant I was throwing away some crucial coasting. But it was what it was- and it didn't seem to change despite my efforts. Something to learn there but it wasn't going to be today.

It did get hot and I did want ice but what I got was a baggie of water. Was the ice melted? Can't the volunteers tell it's melted- what am I going to do with this? It took me several stations to figure out that was drinking water. In a baggie? Bite off a corner and drink it down- sure it actually made it easier to hold than a cup. But there was no ice for my cap and I was getting hotter and slowing some. I think that loop took me about 45 minutes. That wasn't helping. But as soon as I got that second noose it was just one more lap. One more roller coaster ride and I was on my way to the beach. On my way to a cold beer.

So now my goal was to get this run done in under 2 hours. That meant using up what I had on the last lap- getting closer to what my first lap time was. And there was that beach finish which added some distance. Whatever it was, it was coming to a close. My heart rate was getting pretty high and I didn't want to blow up but I wanted to use everything I could. And it dawned on me that coming back on the last loop everyone I saw on the other side of the course is now behind me- this is it. No more hills. And my speed picked up. Town was fun. I started to focus more and enjoy the proximity of the finish line. I told myself to go hard at the last half mile but apparently I had already pushed my limit because it was all I had. I was practically sprinting at this point veering around other runners. The black sand absorbed my steps even though I pushed with all I had. 50 meters and I'm not sure if I remembered to breathe - it was all out. And I got my finishers medal and bracelet.
Run - 1.59:06

Breathe. Drink. Massage. It was good- no, it was great. Vacation officially just started. All those aggressive athletes now edging for a massage. Loud latin flavor filled the air. Celebrations all around. I was happy.

Swim 1.8k 42:56
T1   2:42
Bike 90k 2.52:20
T2   1:14
Run 21k 1.59:06
Total*   5.38:18

*3:00 erroneous drafting penalty at T2 is not included. Official time 5.41:18.

The Climb
Villarica Volcano. Wow. It was the day after the race and I thought that it would be a simple hike up to the top- after all this is a tourist thing to do right? Sure, gear up with ice axe, crampons, and bunch of other things I've only seen in movies. Ok, maybe this is serious.

We took a bus to the the base of the volcano maybe a half hour away. Ironically the road followed one of the huge lava cuts right up to the starting point, about where there was still snow. At this point, if my conversions are right we were at about 6500 feet with the peak reaching almost 10,000 feet. We got a quick lesson in ice axe safety so you won't slide down the mountain and die. After that it was up above the clouds. Slowly snaking up the volcano, each view was breathtaking. You could see various other volcanoes on the horizon, tons of mountains, lakes and a perspective that would be etched into my memory for some time. As we got higher the air got thinner and the horizon was so distant that you could see the curve of the globe. Absolutely amazing.

With a few stops along the way to refuel and take it all in it took us a bit over three hours of serious effort. Just think, you're climbing with a group of about 30 triatheletes from all over the world. Peter, who was right next to me on the way up, happened to finish sixth the day before. Not in his age group- no, overall in the pro circuit. So you can imagine my surprise when I'm striking up a conversation and inquire, "So how'd you do?" Point is, this was one of the faster hikes.

When we got to the top we were on the edge between the cauldron and the steep slope down. We were looking directly into the beast as lava spit up right in front of us. The deep moans and bangs made it clear we had no control here. The world was changing right in front of our eyes and each second we had here was precious. It was also the lunch stop. And here I was sitting atop the world in Chile, in January.

The trip down was fast. My legs thanked me as I slid on my bum down these chutes - an exhilarating ride which erased the altitude in about 20 minutes. Cruising down we came back under the scattered clouds and quickly made our way to the base. It was a treat that was clearly under-emphasized in any literature I didn't read. Something you can not miss if you visit Pucón.

The next few days flew by - spending time getting in some more open water swims, eating like kings, enjoying the hot springs, going hydrospeeding*, and being a tourist. A few drinks here and there, some sun, and getting some sleep.
*Hydrospeed is the equivalent of white water rafting class 3 rapids with no raft- just a boogie board to hold on to as you get tossed down the river.

Going home was faster than the trip down. And it was a rude awakening to hit the cold winter air as I arrived in DC. But now I was fueled for a year of training. The season was underway.


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