Sunday, October 7, 2012

Challenge Barcelona triathlon race report

"Original is that which returns to the simplicity of the first solutions." 
-Antoni Gaudi



Celebrating my 50th birthday in 2012, I wanted the last race of the year to be something special. As this year happens to be also my 25th anniversary of triathlon racing, I wanted it to be a triathlon. And not just any old triathlon, but a full distance race with a 3.8 km swim, 180 km bike and 42.2 km run. And as my first full distance race back in 1987 was an extremely cold one, I wanted this one to be somewhere tropical.

The lobby of Hotel Neptuno, Calella.
Soon I found Challenge Barcelona on September 30th. The reviews have been mostly very favorable. It has been voted the best triathlon in Spain. The weather has been sunny and almost 30C degrees in two previous years. The swim in the Mediterranean is not too cold, but not too warm either so wetsuits have always been allowed. The bike and run courses are fast, smooth and flat. All that I read about the race sounded perfect to me. I had also never been to Catalonia before, so Challenge Barcelona was a no-brainer.

Calella beach on a sunny calm day.
The race HQ is in a little sleepy town called Calella along the Maresme Coast, 70 km North from BCN Airport. Fortunately Hotel Neptuno provided me with a free private airport transfer. My driver was waiting for me at the arrival hall, and an hour later I was in my hotel room. It was Tuesday, five days before the race on Sunday.

The new Apple Store in Barcelona drew herds of nerds.
The weather was sunny but quite windy. I went for an ocean swim anyway. The yellow flags meaning 'extra caution' were flapping in the wind. There were no other swimmers as far as I could see. I bravely jumped into the sea, the waves rolled me around for awhile, and then spat me back on the beach. Then I discovered my shorts were full of sand.

Casa Battló is one of Gaudi's best works.
On Wednesday I bought a return train ticket to Barcelona to explore the city which Anthony Bourdain considers his favorite hub for food in Europe. I thought it might be the most exciting city to walk around. I was particularly interested in the works of Antoni Gaudi, who created a totally original biomorphic style.

The biomorphic balconies of La Pedrera are geniusly mad.
The scenic train ride between Calella and Barcelona's Placa de Catalunya took over an hour each way, but it offered good views to the beaches and the bike course. I walked a 25 km loop around Barcelona in 8 hours. I managed to see all the Gaudi architecture I wanted to see: Casa Battló, Casa Mila (La Pedrera), Sagrada Familia, Park Güell and Palau Güell.

The most popular unfinished building in the world, Sagrada Familia.
I also visited many other sights: the new Apple Store (at Passeig de Gracia 1), Columbus Monument, Casa Amatller, Casa Lleó Morera, Casa Comalat, El Corte Inglés department store and Fundació Joan Miro. I got lost a couple times, but always found something interesting to see. I think Barcelona beats other European cities hands down. I will probably get back there sometime.

Staircase to Park Güell, where Gaudi lived himself. World's longest bench on top. 86 hollow columns gather rainwater for the fountains. 
On Thursday the race registration went smoothly without queueing, although there were 1400 participants. I had some questions so I went back to the Expo on Friday. The organizers didn't speak much English, so I was directed to their info booth. Both persons there spoke English fluently, but knew nothing about the race details and suggested I talk to the organizers! Eventually everything was sorted out and the organizers did a good job in every other area except communications/marketing/PR in English.

Water flowing from the mosaic snake head fountain in Park Güell.
The weather turned more and more unstable as the week progressed. I went for a sea swim on Friday afternoon to test my wetsuit. The waves were smaller than on Tuesday, but still too big to swim fast. The water temperature felt like 22C to me, but I later learned that the official measurement was 18C.

The Witches House at Parc Güell gate. Gaudi was inspired by Brothers Grimm's fairy tale Hänsel & Gretel. The childrens house is on the opposite site.
My Catalonia travel guide book claims that it's usually sunny and warm - overcast grey skies with constant light rain are extremely rare. Unfortunately the weather report for the weekend looked just like that: overcast, constant light rain with heavier showers and possibly thunderstorms, and temperatures well below 20C. I started to doubt my motivation to finish or even start the race. I decided to start the race and then pull out of the race if necessary. I had come here to enjoy the sun, not to torture myself in cold rain. I didn't even have any rain clothing for the cycling.

Casa Comalat is a fine example of Gaudi's influence on other architects in Barcelona.
On Saturday it was pouring when everybody headed to the movie theater for our race briefing. The race director seemed a bit nervous. The bike check-in scheduled for the afternoon would be cancelled due to bad weather. We would only bring our race gear bags into the T1/T2-tent and receive our ankle chip straps. The bikes would be have to be placed in the start area early on Sunday morning. The presentation finished with the RD refusing to show the latest weather forecast to us, only mentioning it changes so often it's not reliable anyway.

60-meter-high Columbus Monument has an elevator inside (if it works).
On Sunday morning the rain had stopped for a while at least. At 7:30am I walked with my bike on the wet roads to the T1. I hang my bike on it's assigned location and memorized where it was. The ground was covered with red carpets, but the mud was bursting out through the seams. All transitions would be more or less muddy today. Also the run course would go through the transition area after each of the four laps.

Huge lions guard the Columbus Monument.
I went inside the transition tent and put on my wetsuit, silicone cap and goggles. I put my street clothes in the green bag and checked again that all my bike gear was in the blue bag and run gear in the red. Then I headed out to the beach to hang out with other competitors. It was about 15 minutes before the first swim wave start at 8:30. I was in the fourth wave at 8:36.

Barcelona view from Montjuic towards Park Güell.
I was chatting with fellow Finnish racers, when I suddenly realized that I had only a couple minutes left. I walked through the gates towards my group with silver caps. I just arrived there on time when the horn sounded and we were off. I calmly entered the water in among the last. My plan was to enjoy the experience and stay at about 50% effort all day.

Another BCN view from Montjuic park.
The sea was relatively calm and the whole swim was very nice. I swam most of the 3800 meters without drafting behind anyone. I wasn't in a hurry and let other swimmers pass me without a fight. I was astonished to see the sun come out on a blue sky. I could see the sandy white bottom of the sea, but disappointingly no marine life whatsoever. We swam towards the lighthouse and back. It felt very easy and comfortable. I clocked 1:15:37 when I climbed back on the beach and hurried to T1.

Rooftop of Fundacio Joan Miro.
I thought it would start raining during the 180 km bike, so I put on a long-sleeve shirt under my short-sleeve cycling shirt. You always feel a bit chilly right after the swim. After about 20K I felt warm and stopped for a toilet break. I put my long-sleeve shirt into an empty bottle cage behind my saddle. The weather was excellent. It was fun and I felt like I could finish this race in under the 15 hour cut-off.

Sculptures and a painting inside Fundacio Joan Miro.
I kept on riding the first 70 km loop at a steady comfortable pace. There were some aid stations where I took bananas and stingy-tasting sports drink. Mostly I relied on my own Clif Blok Shots and Gels with caffeine. I also had a bottle of SiS Go isotonic gel and nuun Kona Cola.

There is a lot of stuff to sort out before a triathlon race.
The old N-II road 'Carretera Madrid-Francia' was in excellent condition. The asphalt was smooth and the hills were small enough not to slow down the pace too much. What's best, the road was closed from other traffic. Drivers who aimed to take this road were given a free ticket for the new motorway. It was fantastic to ride through charming little towns along the coast. The only sound was the wind and the waves crashing on the beach, except tons of people cheering us 'venga, venga, venga' or 'vamos' or 'animo'!

A dude training in endless pool at race expo as BCN train passes by. 
Soon I finished the first loop and made a U-turn in the roundabout to do the same again. I chuckled at the infamous '666' sign again (indicating the distance from Madrid in km, this is a local joke, there is not much love lost between Madrid and Catalonia). Just as I thought bike riding could not get any better than this, the headwind picked up. I slowed down, and other riders passed me frequently. Spanish drivers are notoriously crazy (although they themselves seem to think the Italians are much worse), and Spanish riders are not much more risk-averse. Some of them passed me very close on the right side without giving any warning. The only thing I fear more than flats are crashes. Fortunately I didn't encounter either.

My trusty old aluminum-frame Cervelo P3 ready to race in my hotel room.
The dark clouds that had slowly gathered over the day finally produced some light rain for the last 40 km. It wasn't too bad, but the temperature dropped and I stopped to put on the extra shirt and cycling gloves. The last short loop went by quickly and I headed back to Calella. The last 3K (the same as the first 3K) was tricky with narrow roads, speed bumps and lots of turns. I reached T2 in 6:43:03 (total time 7:58:38). My Suunto Ambit recorded 474 meters of climbing.

My swim start 8:36am on Sunday (photo: Challenge BCN/flickr).
I changed into a T-shirt, new socks, Hoka One One Stinson Evo shoes and running cap but kept the same triathlon tights on the whole race. I had seven hours to run the marathon and I was sure I could do it. The rain had stopped and the weather was ideal for running with clouds covering the sun.

My swim finish, trying to wash sand off my feet unsuccessfully.
The first of the four 10.5K laps went well once my legs got used to running. I ate oranges and bananas which were good, but the sports drink they served started to bother me. I had a toilet break which made me feel better for a while.

Passing the Calella lighthouse soon after bike start.
For the second lap I changed nutrition strategies. I tried cola and energy bars at every station. The only problem was that the 'cola' they had in small bottles tasted like bad medicine. Soon my stomach felt sick and I was in trouble.

Enjoying the fantastic scenery with local energy drinks.
For the third lap I switched to gel and water. That felt good, but I had to walk a lot to give my stomach a chance to settle down. It was dark already and the full moon was behind the clouds. I wasn't too concerned as surely they would have street lights, right? Wrong, a couple kilometers in the middle of the loop lacked lights. I was walking anyway so it didn't really slow me down though. I might have looked a bit tired, as a medical scooter patrol drove beside me and enquired if I'm ok. I faked feeling fine until they left me alone.

Running the marathon in cool evening air was a blast.
For the last lap the gel and water started to make an effect and I was running again. Not fast by any means, it was more like the dreaded 'Kona shuffle' that you will see a lot if you watch Hawaii Ironman. Still this was mentally easy for me, having for example finished Trail Verbier St-Bernard in about 28 hours this summer. I reckoned at this pace I would finish in under 14 hours, only a half of that and well under the cut-off.

I did it my pace! Vamos! Animo!
The last km's felt like miles. Finally I reached the finish gate in 13:45:37. My marathon time was 5:36:28, not one of my fastest, but who cares. This was my 11th and slowest Ironman-distance finish. I had plenty of fun and mostly a very good time. A heavy 'gold' medal was awarded to me. I went to pick up my bags and bike. An incredible fireworks started right then and I stopped to watch like everyone else who was still around. It must have taken 5-10 minutes. Thank you Challenge Barcelona, Calella and all the wonderful volunteers and supporters!

Finisher T-shirt, medal and wrist band on the table of my hotel balcony.
The race statistics showed me later that there had been 1159 finishers. I had been 1090th. There were 125 DNSs, 92 DNFs and 7 DSQs (for drafting on the bike, you got a 8 min penalty for each warning, and if you got three warnings you were out).

Fantastic fireworks started only minutes after I finished. (Photo Challenge BCN/flickr).

I'd certainly recommend Challenge Barcelona for those interested in a full-distance triathlon in a great location. BCN rocks!

6 comments:

Will said...

great post and pics! happy birthday! sounds like you had a great time in Spain. I'm celebrating my 50 in '13 and I'm not sure what to do. I think you've given me some ideas....

Trail Plodder said...

Thanks Will! Whatever you do in 2013, think big! Hope to meet you again somewhere then!

Florian Heigl said...

Awesome race report! I just read it to get myself phsyched for Oct 6th 2013!

Trail Plodder said...

Thanks Florian! Challenge BCN is a fantastic race, have fun!

Björnen said...

is this race more or less always with wetsuits ?

Trail Plodder said...

yes definitely wetsuits, the water is not too warm.