One thing I like to build into my schedule is racing outside of North America at least once a year. Why? There's a couple of reasons. The first is travel puts additional stress on me. You have to contend with jet lag, a certain degree of culture shock, and a different climate. It's not easy to adjust to all that, especially not in a short time.
I also think it's very important to test myself against other athletes. When you race in North America alone, you get to know your competition fairly well. You come up against the same guys over and over again; you learn their racing styles, their tactics, their strengths. And unless a dark horse shows up on the scene--a new contender or an athlete who usually races on another circuit--there's not much change. Jumping to the other side of the pond lets me compete against people I might never get the chance to race otherwise. Not only does that help me prepare for races when I will encounter new faces--such as championship races that attract athletes from the world over--but it also keeps things fresh and exciting.
My destination race location this year was Triathlon Vitoria, located in the northern Spainish town of Vitoria. I'd actually visited this town before; in 2013, I spent two months training there, meaning I'd already ran, ridden, and swam some of the areas I was now revisiting. Prior experience with an area--its geography, its climate, and even just its scenery--can give you an advantage when it comes to race performance, but it's never a guarantee. In racing, nothing is a guarantee.
The Triathlon Vitoria race was an interesting choice for me, in part because it's not under the Ironman or Challenge banner. In North America, professionals are largely limited to Ironman-branded events. Not so in Europe. The number of new faces in Vitoria gave me new insight into the European racing scene: It's possible to have a (lucrative) career outside of these large series. In fact, as some told me, there's a number of independent races that offer comparable or larger prize purses. And these independent events attract a good many athletes; Triathlon Vitoria pulls in somewhere in the range of 2,500 athletes each year.
Much as European triathlon culture is worlds away from that in North America, Spanish culture is a far cry from what I'm used to at home. The Spanish have a much more relaxed attitude; there's no need for rushing around like we North Americans do. Lunches are often leisurely affairs, and no one really considers about dinner until 8:00 pm or so. You can rest assured, however, there will be plenty of food on the table when you do sit down to a meal.
This more lax attitude played into race set-up; the bike drop-off didn't open until 4 the afternoon before the race. I ran right up against culture shock here; my North American self would have much preferred to get everything done early, then kick back and relax by reading or playing with my remote controlled car (yes, it came with me). I always feel I'm at my racing best when I can tick everything off the to-do list, then spend time clearing my mind.
But as Paulo says, "Rituals are bad, you need to be able to win races under all conditions." As much as I was floundering in this different environment, I couldn't let it bother me.
The race was two transitions, so we had to be bused to the race start. To be honest, I felt kind of funny going into the race. My body just didn't seem to be awake--a result of jet lag? Perhaps, but the fact was I couldn't find my usual race focus. I wasn't firing on all cylinders.
The swim did not go as I had hoped. I just could not get my body to react the way it had at Mont-Tremblant two weeks ago. I didn't have the control; I couldn't find the relaxed swim stroke. Still, I put my head down and pushed hard. This was a race just like any other; I was going to give everything I had on the day.
I came out of the water in about 6th place--not a great start to the day--but I knew I could make up time on the bike and the run. But even as I transitioned onto the bike, things weren't falling into place. My body wouldn't settle into that familiar racing rhythm. At that moment I knew I had to be smart; this was a race where I'd have to rely on my wits, not just my strength. I quickly overtook a few athletes, working up into 3rd place. I tried to gain on 2nd, but my legs just were nit there: 4th and 5th were working on reeling me in. They came by at about 40km; I had to stay with them, no matter what. The last podium spot was at stake, and I was going to fight for it. As the bike wore on, the power I'd been missing returned to my legs. Now I had to play smart. I let the other guys set the pace and hoped my run would take me to a good finish.
We rode into the city, through the crowds that had started to gather along the course. The number of spectators was overwhelming; the turnout, amazing. I had no time to take in the crowd; a quick transition put me back into 3rd as I went out on the run.
I wasn't safe, though. This was a fight to the last, and 4th was gaining on me. I stepped on the gas, trying to shift into higher gear--but there was nothing there. About 4km into the run, I was caught, sliding back into 4th place. I gritted my teeth and determined to hold on; even if the podium wasn't in my grasp, I wasn't going to concede defeat. Under the Spanish sun, I fought for every second to hold onto 4th place.
I crossed the line in 4th, one spot off the podium. It was not my best result; it was not my best performance. That much I already knew. But we have to take these things in stride; every race you run cannot be your best race. You'll have good days, but you'll also have bad days. The important point is to take as much away from those less-than-amazing performances as you can, and to apply those lessons to future races.
It's safe to say I learned a lot from this European adventure--about myself, about combining racing and traveling, and even about racing itself.
Perhaps one of the best lessons I've learned? Take a bit of time after the race to explore and take it all in. You never know what you'll discover.