With Fabio from Costa Rica - defending champion from 2002.
Paula and JR's weekend adventure in Panama/Portobello.It has only been three days but it has felt like a week of activities/ vacation/ adventure…and of course racing down here in HOT, HOT and did I mention HUMID Panama. The highlights went something like this:
Still in the city, James and I headed out to run around 8.30am. There is a small park about a kilometer up the road, with a 3.5 km running loop. It was at this point we realized just how excrutiatingly hot and humid things were going to be. It was a total shocker to the system and on this run I realized that any race strategy would have to involve the management of the heat factor. That was it for working out on Friday. The rest of the day involved a trip downtown to the bike store and a little look around. Paul had requested that I try and find him some kind of cheesy t-shirt or paraphernalia with Manuel Noriega on it. I asked our guide Jorge where I could find something – come to find that Mr Noriega’s existence has been erased completely and utterly from this society. There is not a single reminder of the dictator in any way shape of form to be found here.
Later in the afternoon it was the gathering of race officials, athletes and dignitaries for the race meeting/press conference at the hotel. The whole affair was in Spanish, but we diligently sat through it. The top athletes were introduced and asked to say a few words. Nothing out of the usual for a pre-race press conference. This was followed by a beautiful pasta dinner hosted poolside at out hotel.
This day was like an entire vacation rolled into 12 hours. At 7.30am Jimmy and I were picked up by our new friend Jackie and driven out to a local airfield to take a trip in his new helicopter. JR’s first helicopter ride!! Down here in Panama there are no rules and restrictions about where one can fly or land a small aircraft. We started our journey up the canal and over the locks. It certainly gave me a full appreciation for how amazing the lock system is. At ground level it is hard to truly comprehend the drop or rise that takes place as the ships have to move through. With a quick left we headed over to a lake and up a river straight out of ‘Apocalypse Now’. We were flying about 20 feet above water level following the curves of the river with dense jungle rising up on both sides. Then all of a sudden some children appear at river side and Jackie simply sets down the helicopter on a tiny piece of rocky shore. We have arrived to visit one of the indiginious Indian tribes that still live out in the dense jungle areas. A quick tour by these small and very beautiful people (who do not even speak Spanish but their own dialect) gives an amazing glimpse of how basically and simply people can live – it was like another planet. After about half an hour it was back into the air and a scenic route back to the city,
Within 2 hours of being out in the middle of the jungle we were packing up the truck with race organizer Alan and it was off to Portobelo on the Atlantic side of Panama – about a 2 hour drive. Portobelo area has a far more Carribian influence and reminded me of a smaller St Croix. On our arrival a quick unpack at a small inn with all of 8 rooms right on the water and it was off to see the bike course. JR and I rode all but 5 km of the course because I was anxious to see the off road section. The course was quite a bit harder than JR had led me to believe. The dirt road was more like something in an XTERRA race and there were some good climbs on it. I was thankful for a 25 cog on my rear to make it up one of the hills. After barely making it up he then tells me that not many people ride up the hill (funny how he had not mentioned this part to me on the phone hen talking about the event). I was very thankful for the cross bike and can honestly say that had I taken his first advice to bring a road bike I would never have started the race. By the end of the 12 km of dirt I had gotten my mind around feeling like (Roch’s) cross bike was a mountain bike without shocks – but there was still some anxiety in my mind about making it both up and down a couple of hills come tomorrow. (I have very confidence with off-road handling and general technical skills).
The evening finished out with a group of folks gathering at out small hotel for some pizza and lounging on the many hammocks at the ocean front. Most exciting was the presence of John and Judy Collins whom I had not seen for a while. After what seemed a lifetime of activities it was off to bed for race day was just a few hours away.
This was triathlon in it’s purest grassroots form. It was funny and exhilarating to be so back to basics. Check-in and race packet pick up were right there race morning and things were generally in a state of confused chaos. Somehow it all got done and everyone was ready to go a mere 15 minutes after the scheduled 7.30am start time. The race itself turned out to be one of the most difficult short races I have ever done. It was like an individual adventure race. The ride is hilly with huge pot holes in the road, lots of short steep hills – and the dirt section off course. I not just made it through, but on the return trip actually started to get some level of confidence on the flatter dirt section. I am still amazed at how JR and a couple of the other top guys could ride on road bikes. On the only out and back saw JR way off the front – the challenge he had been expecting from the South American contingent was not materializing.
After a great ride (I was whooping when I came back onto the asphalt after staying upright) back to the town of Portobelo – it was on to the run section which was a whole story unto itself. The first couple of miles take you straight up and over a mountain before looping around to the coast road and back into town. Let me just say that I think the first 2.5miles I ran perhaps the first 500yard to get to the trail. Going up the mountain it was through thick jungle with large roots covered with leaves- I just kept tripping over myself on the narrow path – so opted for a power hike. That was nothing compared to what we were faced with coming down the other side. I can safely say that NO-ONE ran the mile and a half down the hill. It is basically a vertical drop and there is NO trail- just a rutted up grassy potholed mountainside that the local cows graze on. Stretches of tape showed the general direction and that was it – point and go whatever way possible. I tried everything – sliding, trying to skip a little, side stepping – but mainly I just got into it and enjoyed the challenge. It was easily as tough as any of the run sections I have experienced in my limited adventure racing. Finally we hit a dirt road which headed back to the coast for the final 2.5 miles along to the finish. Coupled with the heat of the day the finish line could not come soon enough. A total time of 2 hours and 40 minutes was good enough for 6th overall and a win in the womens division. JR dominated the field with a 2 hour 15 minutes win a full 14 minutes ahead of 2nd place Evencio Geant from Venezuela.
What a race! For anyone looking for something different and an experience out of the ordinary – this is the place and the event to come to. After the awards conducted in the town square with a bull horn with the support of all the local townfolk, the largest and most successful running of the Portobelo Triathlon came to close. It was time to head back to the big city and the Pacific Ocean.