Thursday, October 6, 2011
The Duathlon World Championships were in Gijon, Spain. Normally, I wouldn’t have any business doing a World Championship because in theory, you are supposed to be the best in the world. In my age bracket, though, competitors are fewer in number. The top eighteen were qualified to go to this race, but there were only eighteen in my age group. I am not competitive and just participate for the experience. The disparity in the number of competitors in a particular age group leads to a Duathlon World Championship either having racers that are either very fast or older. A group of sixty to eighty year olds race in the World Championships every year in different countries. They wear jackets with numerous patches collected for every race they do over the years. Everyone knows each other and are friendly and it’s a big social event. Some of them are even fast and could actually beat me.
Duathlon is the orphan child of multisport. Fewer people do them as opposed to triathlons. There aren’t as many races available and most are shunned by triathletes. . A duathlon is a run, bike, run, which is harder than a swim, bike, run. Duathlon has it adherents, however, which are people who are great at running and/or hate swimming. I run better than I swim, therefore I like it. I feel less inadequate not being sucked down by a slow swim time.
It was a difficult, grueling 6,000 mile, twenty-three hour trip to get there by plane, another plane and an interminable bus ride. I had to wheel a forty pound bike box around airports. I don’t speak Spanish and most of the citizens didn’t speak English. The customs were different, like eating dinner late at night when I normally wanted to go to bed. I was uncomfortable even walking into a restaurant. Eating out was an adventure because I wasn’t quite sure what I was ordering. I also found out that all the good restaurants are closed between four and eight o’clock. I felt like a fish out of water most of the time because I couldn’t communicate with people or read the signs.
I had been to Europe before, but with my father, who was fluent in the particular language of the country we were going to. Knowing the language is definitely an advantage. My father got into an disagreement with a hotel clerk and won the dispute because he could argue in Italian. He would sneer at people that went on tours and never ventured into local shops or restaurants. I now understood that herd mentality. It was frightening for me being alone in a strange country.
Initially I hesitated to go to Spain. I had never heard of Gijon and the only information I found on the internet about it was that it was an industrial town on the northern coast of Spain. This did not appeal to me much. Plus there was the expense of the trip, the fact that it was a month after an ironman and I would be traveling alone in a foreign country. Gijon was about 250 miles from Madrid and required either a long train or bus ride after ten hours of flying. However, some instinct in me made me take a chance and venture on the trip. It seemed a chance for a great experience.
My first glimpse of Spain from a bus window wasn’t all that impressive. From Madrid to the coast, the land was arid and desolate. It looked like eastern Washington state on steroids. Nothing but a few ruined buildings and dried up fields with dead crops. After seven hours on the bus to travel two hundred miles, the area changed into green hills shrouded in mist.
Gijon turned out to be a charming city. My hotel was across from a large beach named the Playa de San Lorenzo. I could watch the waves come in. A marine layer kept the air cool in the sixties and seventies, but once in a while, the sun broke through. The beach had a walkway that always had pedestrians strolling on it. You could look to the west and see a stretch of old buildings and a church. It had narrow streets with lots of shop, restaurants and bars. People were always out exercising-walking, surfing, rollerblading, running, or biking. I don’t think they spent hours in front of a computer. The town has a large park with an aviary and a playground. It has numerous museums like the Pueblo de Asturias, an aquarium, gardens(Atlantic Botanical) and some ancient ruins(Roman baths), none of which I got around to seeing.
I never really got used to the nine hour time difference between Spain and Phoenix. Other than the first night, when I was exhausted and slept for twelve hours, I didn’t sleep well. The sun doesn’t rise until after eight, which didn’t make early rising easy. I ended up walking a lot because the city is interesting to walk around in and because the race venue is two miles from my hotel.
The language barrier was difficult even for the race. Most of the people in Gijon did not know English, including the race volunteers. I almost got bodymarked in a different age group. I had to rely on asking racers who knew English if I had a question.
The difficulties of being in a foreign country were eased by having team mates to talk to. We were fellow comrades in a sense, sharing the difficulties of traveling and finding a decent restaurant. You get to know people when you are stuck on an eight hour bus ride. We have to chat just to keep our sanity. I also thought it interesting to casually talk to someone from Britain or South Africa. Standing in line, I noticed a Brit that was trying to soak up some sunshine. I told him we avoid it in Arizona because we have three hundred days of sunshine a year. He said he gets maybe one day.
Race day, we had to be in our corral twenty minutes before starting. The five kilometer run started on the stadium track. Prior to the start, people ran around in the small track area like rats in a cage to warm up. The course then winds through the streets and through a park over a small cobblestone section past a duck pond and back into the stadium for the second 2.5 kilometer lap. My group started and of course everyone got way ahead of me. All the racers hated the cobblestone section in the park. I was glad I didn’t have to do it six times, like the standard race. The run has a slight hill, but it wasn’t really noticeable in the sprint race. I finished in 28:57, which seemed unimpressive for me since most people ran a twenty minute five kilometers, but not too bad for me.
The transition flow from run to bike to run was kind of complex and confusing to most people even with a walk through. We ran down a track to some hedge opening, turned and ran north then down the racks and then through another hedge opening or south to the bike exit. It was a lot of U turns and involved a lot of running on dewy grass.
The bike was the best part of the course. It started out flat and then climbed a narrow two lane road with a lot of twisting and turning through semi rural country side. It climbed for about five kilometers averaging a four percent grade, but some of it was about a much steeper eight percent for short sections. I could see the surrounding town on the hills sometimes. There were nice views of a building that looked like a French Chateau, a building that looked liked an English parliament structure and the surrounding city on the hills. The road was two lanes and narrow with blind turns.
By the time I got to the top and started the descent, everyone was ahead of me and I didn’t have to deal with too many riders. It was the one advantage of being slow. It was a blast going through all the turns at 24-30 mph without worrying about cars. The whole road was closed to traffic. After the hill descent, the route goes past the beach on the main city ocean side thoroughfare, then turns around back to go to transition. Having a city street mostly to myself on a bike was a novelty. I eased off the last two kilometers to save energy for the last run. I also didn’t want to bother to pass the heavyset Canadian guy in front of me. My bike speed was disappointing to me, but it wasn’t a fast course.
The last 2.5 kilometer run, which was the same as the first run laps was painful because I ran as hard as I could. The whole point of a short race for me is to push past my pain barrier to see how far my legs would take me. I was surprised that it took 13:19(8:35 minute miles) after that hard bike. I was happy that I could run that fast.
It was fun to race hard and short. Despite the difficulties of traveling and being in Spain, I was glad I resisted all the reasons for not going. Sometimes, I have to ignore the cautionary voices in my head that tell me that I shouldn’t do something and go with my gut instinct. This trip took me out of my comfort zone and into a different world. I didn’t fit into that world, but it was fascinating to observe.