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  • Tough day, tough competitors.

    Where is my hiking stick?

    Where is the finish and some cold Balboa Ice?

    Making an impression with the ladies as the 2003 Champ!


    JR gives his rendition of a tough day in Portobelo!

    In my time as a triathlete, I’ve always preferred races in which the course was selective—races in which Mother Nature was the fiercest competitor. The Portobelo Triathlon was just that type of race and Newby and I recently had the pleasure of trying to spank Ms. Mother Nature on the behind.
    She threw the gauntlet at us, too. We faced Portugese man of war in the swim, hills, heat, dirt, and massive pot-holes during the bike, and a steep scramble up and down a hill littered with rocks, roots and cowpies during the run.
    When the course is tough, it’s all about survival, baby. I worry less about beating my fellow competitor and more about simply crossing the finish line in one piece. Racing Mother Nature instead of your peers takes away some of the stress the “usual” triathlon produces.
    Of course it adds new stresses such as the stress of wondering how Newby would negotiate a course that I “mildly” understated. I stressed about how Newby would react if she had to swim a few hundred meters with an angry jelly fish draped across her face, or if she crashed on the “Paris/Roubaix like” bike course, or if she snapped her ankle in half after stepping in a bovine hoof print and then landed face first in a massive, steaming cow turd. I reckon she’d have been a little pissed if that had happened.
    Anyway, Portobelo was a tough course designed by John Collins. I’d say that the architect of the original Ironman knows a thing or two about working with Mother Nature.
    The swim would’ve been simple enough were it not for the pre-start notice that a wild pack of man-o-war jellyfish had recently made their way across the swim course. I swam every stroke with the worry of swimming through a huge curtain of high-voltage jellyfish tentacles. My worries were in vain however, due to the half dozen, or so, locals who netted up any of the remaining stray jellyfish and as far as I know, no one was stung.
    The bike course featured a hilly paved road, peppered with occasional potholes—some big enough to buckle the strongest of rims if you’re not paying attention—and a 15k stretch of dirt road that would make the pave’ of France and Belgium seem as smooth as silk. The dirt road also featured three uphill sections that were so steep that only a select few were able to ride the entire hill. And don’t even get me started on the descents of those three hills. Let me just say this—when you dread the downhill more than the uphill, you know the descent is knarly. In fact, my forearms are so worked from applying the grip of death to my brake levers, that I’m having to type this in short intervals to keep from cramping up.
    If the bike course sounds tough, it was a piece of cake compared to the run course. Once you put your sneakers on, you proceed to scamper over a hill that borders the back side of Portobelo. To say this hill is steep is an understatement—it’s almost impassable and is probably better classified as a “climb” rather than a hike, let alone a run. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit, but a couple of competitors did use walking sticks to get up that mother.
    Once again, as tough as the uphill was, the downhill was worse. There is no trail. You simply follow a long string of course marking tape through a cow pasture to a church 2 kilometers down the hill. The course marking tape served a dual purpose, as I used it to “rappel” down some of the steeper sections…really!
    After leaving the cow pasture you’re left with a short dirt road section and a scenic 4 kilometer stretch of paved road that follows the coastline back to the town of Portobelo. Upon entry to the town, you run through the mostly intact ruins of a fort, complete with it’s original cannons, that was used in the 1600s to guard the city from pirates such as Sir Francis Drake, who were intent on plundering Portobelo’s stores of gold and silver. I would’ve enjoyed this section a whole lot more if it weren’t so freaking hot. It felt like I was running laps in a sauna whilst blow-drying my hair (okay, I don’t have enough hair to blow-dry, but you get the picture…it was hot).
    But we conquered, just like the pirates ultimately did, and I’m once again reminded what attracted me to this sport: it’s the challenge. Yes, I enjoy comparing my time to the rest of the people in the race. And yes I like to “compete” as much as the next person—but what I really like is the challenge.
    Mother Nature is one tough bitch. Don’t forget that in your quest to race. Every once in a while, give Mother Nature a shot. I’m sure she’s the featured athlete in races near you. If not, look into Portobelo next year. The trip will be well worth it—I guarantee you that.