Situated on the volcanic Canary Island, Lanzarote 70.3 promised to deliver a unique and challenging arena in which to race. It didn’t disappoint. Following success in Japan, I was relieved to be free of any racing commitments and I was looking forward to an uninterrupted training block throughout the winter; although I found myself yearning for the excitement of racing whilst knocking out miles around the local park before dawn. The combination of the face numbing cold, work, training load, and endless darkness takes a depressingly short time to wear one down. With the Australian season set to start in late October, I looked overseas for some motivation. With a holiday to visit my fiancée’s family in Spain, it seemed crazy not to detour via Lanzarote for their 70.3. The event attracts some of the best cyclists in the sport due to its brutal nature. I figured it would be a great experience in terms of professional development. As for the hip pocket, well… money can’t buy the joy of suffering. Plans were made and after an exceedingly long winter, we boarded the first of four flights to Lanzarote and kicked back for the following forty-six hours of globetrotting.
Arriving in Lanzarote in the wee hours of Wednesday morning the thought of racing on the limit come Saturday was no longer quite so appealing. However, this is also part of being a professional. As an amateur, I always assumed that the professionals were racing in peak form and with perfect pre race recovery. It simply isn’t true. Sure, we gear up for events and race the best we can, but with the need to race frequently and often work to subsidise the costs of professional racing, it isn’t what you’d call peak form. World championships may well be an exception but even then it is a case of managing the disasters. For myself, the long haul flight to Lanzarote was the least of my concerns. After finally getting a season long hip issue to settle I’d picked up patella tendinitis four weeks out from the event. This hampered training at first before bringing the run and cycle preparation to a grinding halt two weeks beforehand. So I took to the island of Lanzarote armed with a pull buoy (to minimise kicking in my final swim sessions) and some vague hope that being fresh would allow me to excel on race day. In no way do I mention this as a form of performance disclaimer, rather it is to give an insight into the professional race. I have no doubt others were racing after long flights and on the back of injury. This is not to mention the host of top professionals who were racing under great fatigue and using Lanzarote as their last hit out before the Ironman World Championships three weeks later. The playing field was even and I was ready to see what I had on race day.
The race is based out of Club La Santa, which boasts world-class training facilities. I have heard of great places around the world for athletes to base themselves but I didn’t expect to find a facility so well equipped on the isolated east coast of the most alien landscape I’ve seen. In Europe, twenty-five metre indoor pools are the standard. Ask where the pool is at Club La Santa and you are pointed in multiple directions, as there are three outdoor fifty-metre pools. You can stay onsite (less than 100m from those pools and an athletics track) and enjoy plentiful options in restaurants, massage and physiotherapists, a supermarket, sport and bicycle shops. Situated near the Equatorhe climate is predictable and the temperature rarely falls outside 20-30 degree centigrade year round. Rain in Lanzarote is all but non-existent. When pushed, locals may recall the two millimetres that fell in the summer of 78’ but for most it is a theoretical concept. At La Santa you find yourself with many riding options beyond the racecourse with an epic climb easily accessible. The island is bicycle friendly and to cap it all off, you are surrounded by running trails. These disappear into the shimmering horizon created by the desert heat. It is the most complete training facility I have ever seen.
Race day kicked off with a one-lap swim in La Santa lagoon. Mysteriously, we were never advised of the water temperature, simply told that, as professionals, wetsuits were a no go. A non-wetsuit swim has always been my fear due to my adverse reaction to water below twenty-eight degrees. Swimming in the late afternoon the day before, I was mostly comfortable but wandering into the water under dark grey skies in order to “warm up” was another thing. Whilst swimming in the water was still comfortable enough, the fifteen minutes we were held in the starting pen and then in neck deep water was pretty chilling. My single complaint about the race was the disorganisation of the start. The officials struggled to get the professional field to hold steady on the line and the race started without all officials being aware. The small motor boat which was idling just in front of the field was caught off guard and leapt into action. Careening across the line of professionals it cut the engine when it realised a collision with the outermost athletes was inevitable. The German athlete Sven Sundberg who raced in Japan (and subsequently won Ironman Japan) was on the end of the line with me. He stopped and waited for it to glide past whilst I ducked under it and clawed my way along the underside of the hull. It was both irresponsible and incredibly dangerous. At the time it was quite concerning but once on the other side of the boat there were people to catch and all was forgotten. Swimming well outside of my capacity, I closed the gap to the main group but couldn’t quite get there. I lost a lot of time in the second half of the swim and Sven caught me as we exited the water. Both of us were ticked off but in hindsight the time lost in the swim wasn’t overly important as no packs formed on the bike.
With transitions now a priority, I was pleased to move through transition in one of the quickest times. Heading out on the bike you have to feel as if you are leaving the last bastion of civilisation in your wake. The course is rarely flat and you were seemingly battling a headwind in all directions. For the first thirty kilometres I made inroads into a trio one minute up the road. However, it was the two steps forward, one back type of progress. Having struggled hard and never made contact, I focused my attention on maintaining the gap and trying to bring those ahead back to me on the monster climb. I was starting to feel rather negative when my energy was given a boost as pre race favourite and past winner Victor del Corral caught me at the base of the climb. Heck, if we were together at the halfway point then perhaps I could have a good finish.
Once onto the twelve-kilometre climb, which snakes its way up and over the mountains, the wheels started to fall off (metaphorically speaking, thankfully). I was still bringing some of those ahead of me back but for the most part I was only holding or losing time. I love the mountains. I picked this race because of this climb and spent my winter dreaming of dancing on the pedals in order to get over it. The reality was far from the delusion and at the top I was spent and nervous about the crosswinds. You start the high-speed descent by following the ridgeline. To your left are panoramic views of the valley whence you came and beyond that the azure blue of the ocean. On the right is a long line of wind turbines, serving as menacing reminders of the conditions. All of this is not to mention the volcano directly behind you. Thankfully the story of the day held true and the descent was into a block headwind. Unless you have ridden a time trial bike with deep-dish wheels into strong crosswinds it is hard to appreciate how frightening this can be. NeverthelessI was relieved to reach the base of the descent. With just over twenty kilometreso ride the headwind was still in play and I crawled home losing bucket loads of time in the dying stages. Cresting the penultimate hill brings Club La Santa into view and creates a beautiful moment, tinged by the thought of running a half marathon upon arrival.
The run course consisted of three hilly out and back laps that provide a perfect opportunity to keep tabs on those ahead. I had come to the race dreaming of a top six and with hopes of a top ten. The visual feedback I was getting was pretty dire. I was well down on the leading trio and quite a long way back from anyone let alone the top ten. Each person I passed en route to the first turnaround made my heart sink a little more. 17th place and with a lot of work to do was the verdict. I executed my standard plan for the run and after a strong second lap, I brought myself back to numerous competitors. Starting to feel empowered, I was mentally prepared to run hard in the final lap. With this thought process going through my head, my calf began to cramp. The shock of your muscles going into spasm at increasingly regular and concerningly short intervals is not debilitating but it is far from pleasant. This effectively capped my speed over the final lap of the run as I chose to conserve my body and current position. The cramps were manageable in their current form and pushing the envelope any further may result in the body forcing you to come to a complete stop – then you can kiss your average pace goodbye.
I crossed the finish line two minutes adrift of tenth but still in a respectable twelfth. I had come within sixteen seconds of eleventh but I did not have a clue he was only just ahead. Nevertheless I was very happy with my race. The only things that went wrong were out of my control and whilst I don’t believe that I rode well I gave it everything I had on the day. Battling the water, wind and heat on such a course made the simple act of finishing a proud moment. Are there things I’d do differently next time? Absolutely. I’d position myself differently for the swim start and I would have made use of the special needs on the run. I had not expected the lack of electrolyte solution on course (a type of drink which goes a long way to preventing cramps), but I guess I should have read the information booklet a little closer! Would I come back? Well, despite the profile I don’t think that the course suits me. However, it’s a brutal and honest course I’d love to go much faster on. I guess we will have to wait and see if the head or the heart wins out.
With the race behind me I’m enjoying some downtime with my fiancée and her family in Spain’s picturesque Navarra region. I’d love to be riding and running here but my knee complained quietly during the race and deafeningly following it. With the rest of the season likely to be delayed, I can’t ignore it anymore. Professionally this isn’t ideal, but personally I feel richer for my experience on the island.