An Unexpected Turn

Panama City, Panama

I spent the past week reminiscent on my time in Panama and there is only one way to sum it up…not enough time.  Usually I pick my races with the intent of exploring every minute I am not racing, but this time was a different.

At the very last minute I decided to sign up for Ironman Panama 70.3.  Last minute meaning, two hours before registration closing on January 31st and racing on the 12th of February.  I wasn’t ready, I went back and forth on the decision, but was persuaded after numerous people gave the two thumbs up for the destination.  Well, I am all about the destination races.  The opportunity to swim in the Panama Canal was irresistible!

Three days before I was to leave for Panama City there was the big announcement, which I was not expecting at all; Lance Armstrong was going to race the same race I was doing!  Was this going to have an influence on my racing, absolutely not…or at least that is what I thought.  As I started getting myself ready for the race, I came up with the brilliant idea of trying to find a pro to interview about traveling to races.  (You will soon see where I am going with this)  I keep my packing simple, maybe it is the years of practice, maybe it is that I get tired of schlepping so much stuff around, or maybe it becomes too much for me to keep the clean-unused clothes from my dirty ones when repacking.  But I have mastered the art of packing; I know exactly what extra foods I need, how little I need for my race, how many pairs of running shorts, sports bras and cycling shorts I truly need.  I can pack and unpack my bike in 15 minutes – apart and reassembled…I only wish TSA could learn to properly close my bike case so they don’t damage it anymore than what they did on this trip (yes, I am very bitter and upset over this.  Brand new bike, year old case and they manage to damage my bike and case due to their carelessness; but we will save that for another story.)

Always apprehensive about doing a freshman race, but after hearing so many great things about the country itself, I was easily sold on the destination.  Knowing I was not ready for a race of this distance I knew it made no since to try to taper, so I decided to train right through the race.  Strategy worked out great until about 30 miles into the bike and then again with the last 6k to go in the run.  In all honesty, it was about the least prepared race I have even been to a race.  But I won’t get down on myself, because I can always come out on the other side and say I had the fastest swim of my life by 5 minutes in a non-wetsuit race.  5 MINUTES!  Sheepishly I will admit there was a current, but the excitement of getting to swim at the mouth of one of the World Wonders of the Modern World is enough to get anyone’s adrenaline pumping to where it would impossible to have a bad swim.  A straight shot, point-to-point, saltwater swim that was just below 78 degrees Fahrenheit and not over-crowded swim; even the less confident swimmers were bound to have an ego boosting first event.  It was AMAZING and I would honestly say this is the first time I have ever done a race where I said I would come back to, just to do the swim again.

But before I get too far ahead of myself – Panama City is one of the few countries I could honestly say is one where I would recommend everyone travel to at least once in their life.  There is not only a lot to do as far as endless beaches, untouched jungles, a rich culture that links back to ancient civilizations, but Panama is the gateway that connects the East to the Western World.  It is a city that only 5 years ago had buildings that scrapped the sky at 10 stories is now covered with 40, 50 and 60+ story buildings that look just as modern and architecturally interesting as what you would find in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.  In fact, it was told to me by the only English speaking local I found, that the city is often referred to as Little Dubai in Central America because of the architecture and booming industry there.  It is a country where Central America connects with South America, but there is no road linking the two – only jungle, which is one of the most dangerous passes in the world to make.

There is so much to do; at least a week is needed to begin to scratch the surface of this small country.  As the old mixes with the new, you are able to find the classic open-air fish markets and ones with local needs, to high end shopping within a couple miles away.  The unscathed natural landscape is breath taking as you look from the stunning ocean view to the lush jungles of Central America which houses animals that include ocelots, pumas, snakes and sloths (which I missed seeing).  Then you look to the Canal, which is beyond anything you could imagine.  It is a place where natural landscape mixes with steel as it cuts its way through an entire country, forging the path for massive cargo ships to cruise lines to pass from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean.  Then you have the Panama Railway that runs along the side of the canal almost point to point. 

On the bike course we were lucky enough to get to experience the most of what the country has to offer over 56 miles/90km.  With it being an out and back course with lots of hills…LOTS of hills and crosswind, you get the opportunity to ride on the very well paved course as you ride over the Panama Bridge of the Americas, then finishing on the Pan-American Highway, getting to see the new age skyline of Panama City.  Once you get over the fear of blowing off the bridge, take a moment to enjoy the view of the Canal and landscape that surrounds the city.

With the excitement of having an amazing pro field at this race, the crowds and volunteer support was above and beyond.  (Apparently having one of the most recognizable athletes of all time participating in the race; not only brought an excitement in the air to the other athletes but also brought a mass crowd of media I have never seen at a race like this.)  I will be first to admit it is cool to get to compete in the same race as Lance Armstrong.  It was even better once I found out how many race photos there were due to the abundance of photographers on the course attempting to get shots of the newbie.

As the race transitioned off the bike and to the run you got to experience a whole new geography of the country as you find there are several islands off the coast of Panama and there is a series of them that are connected by a causeway; and this where the run took place.  Tropical, windy, hot…VERY HOT.  I will quote Rookie Armstrong by saying, “it is hotter than donut grease,” and it was.  If hadn’t set myself up for 6 hour of torture to begin with signing up last minute and not fully trained, I did myself in by picking a race located 9 degrees of the equator in the dead of the winter.  I wish I could say that my run was better than my never-ending ride, but it didn’t get any better.  In fact, it took 15km before I actually felt like the legs that were placed under me started to work.  In most cases I would say booking your hotel as close to race location is a good idea, but when you have to run by your room 4 times during the race; it can be mental torture when you feel like your race finished the moment you got out of the water.

The race was finally over!  As happy as I was to have crossed the finish line regardless of what my time was, I found the race to have an unusual excitement.  Maybe it was having Lance there.  Maybe it was the Latin hospitality.  Maybe it was the range of athletes who came from all over the world.  Whatever it was, I wish every race had this type of buzz. 

In my effort to get an interview with a pro, I thought it would be great to attempt to get Mr. Armstrong, but then again what are the chances?  Normally the pros are fairly easy to encounter and I knew I would have to work for it if I was going to get one.  The morning before the race while I was out testing my bike out I looked ahead about 100 meters and see him.  Black and yellow, he was hard to miss as he looks up like a spooked gazelle as he runs across the street with his bike in hand and gracefully mounts his bike and starts to accelerate away in the opposite direction as I was going.  Without thinking (logically), I go for a U-turn and the chase was off.  It was for the next 10 minutes of my life I actually believed I could catch Lance Armstrong for and ask for an interview.  Yes, I really believed it…until I lost him.  Of course, but wow, what a rush it was.  No, I never got my interview with him and hopefully one day I will get the chance.  But I think I something a little better; later that day I ran into a fellow pro great, Rasmus Henning.  Approachable, nice and well spoken, Rasmus happily took the time to have a quick word with me about traveling throughout the world for his races…had he has raced in a lot of places.  So in my very first interview I got a European Great and he had a pretty good race, taking 4th overall.

After 55 hours of him making his way from his home in Lanzarote to Panama City, he wasn’t the only one who traveled great distances to make the race.  At the start of my race I found myself standing within a group of 3 other girls with one being from Sweden, one from Quebec and the other from London and all here for their very first half ironman race.  As I asked them, “why, why Panama?”  I got the answer I had hoped with, “Why not?  Sounds like a great place for my first.  I have never been to Central America and have always wanted to see the Canal.”  These are the athletes I love being around; people with the same passion to discover the world like I do through racing.  It was one of the first times ever I found myself at a race where I felt like I actually fit in.  What a great place for a race, and even a better place to meet other triathletes.

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