THE PROMOTIONAL MATERIAL for the inaugural Ironman 70.3 race in Costa Rica is enticing: “The 90-km, two-loop bike course will take athletes through the region’s lush vegetation, with views of monkeys and iguanas.”
I picture white-headed capuchins swinging down from a vine and perching on my aerobars. As for iguanas, just how big is an iguana? Are they like turtles – do they warm themselves on the asphalt in the hot sun and, if so, how fast do they move out of your way? And how smooth is the pavement on that jungle ride out of Playa del Coco anyway?
The June 18 race being a first-time event, there is a sorry lack of chatter on social media about the road conditions. There are plenty of tips, however, about the best restaurants close to the palm-lined beach in what used to be a simple fishing village and what kind of sharks lurk below the surface of the blue-grey water. OK, I’m just freaking myself out now: this race will be only my second ocean swim in 15 years of triathlon racing. I’m unnerved and excited at the same time.
My very first sprint triathlon, in 2002, was a pool swim at the Verdun Natatorium, a few subway stops and a short hike from my home in Montreal.
Who knew, then, that getting hooked on this sport would take me from Penticton, B.C. to Pescara, Italy, running through orange groves in Florida and biking past Buckingham Palace on the exact same route the Brownlee brothers and Javier Gómez cycled in that epic contest in the 2012 London Olympics.
I never intended to find myself planning nearly every vacation around triathlon training and competition. But, when I tally up where I’ve gone and what I’ve done on my holidays ever since investing in the time-trial bike and the wetsuit and every other carefully budgeted-for piece of gear, I get it when my more laid-back office colleagues suggest I just go lie on a beach, for once.
I love reading a trashy novel in the hot sun as much as anyone else. Just not for days on end. And there is something golden about a single beach day when it comes the day after a long swim and a 90-kilometre bike ride and a half-marathon. Those hours of hedonism feel well-deserved.
As deserved, and as delectable, as the hearty Montepulciano wine my sweetheart and I savoured the day after Ironman 70.3 Pescara in 2014. Neither of us had ever been to Italy before, but we’d heard the biking was great. Because the race was in June, we beat the high-season prices and the hottest weather.
Let’s not talk about the three-metre-high waves that forced the race organizers to cut the swim course in half. The sky was grey and clouds hung low, but biking up into the foothills of the Abruzzo mountains past vineyards and olive groves was still spectacular. And, Italians being cycling crazy, crowds of villagers came off their stoops in the rain to cheer everyone on, even those of us at the back of the pack.
What you find out when you venture somewhere new is that no triathlon is a cookie-cutter event, even if it’s a branded competition like Ironman.
In Pescara, the race didn’t start until early afternoon – unheard of, in North America. “Of course,” Italian triathletes told me, “no one in Italy would be there for a 6 a.m. start.”
There were also scarcely any women competitors, and fewer still from Italy. I found myself in an age group of four – two of us Canadian. The only Italian, her bike racked right next to mine, was a lawyer from the region doing her very first long-distance triathlon. So newsworthy was it that a 57-year-old woman would subject herself to such torture that a local television crew was on hand to profile her.
It won’t surprise you that the pre-race spaghetti was as delizioso as anything you could order in the best restaurant in Montreal’s Little Italy. Nor that my prize for winning my age group was a beautiful box containing 20 different kinds of pasta that weighed more than my bike.
How could it not be a memorable trip when I was still trying out recipes for new pasta shapes – bucatini all’amatriciana, anyone? – six months after I got home.
Sure, flying to far-off destinations for a triathlon is a test of one’s organizational skills and mechanical abilities. It’s one thing to fill a plastic bin with all your gear and throw it in the trunk next to your bike; it’s something else entirely to disassemble the bike, pack it for the plane (paying special attention to the derailleur hanger) and then rebuild it 5,000 km away. (Hint: say “Yes” when your adult son offers to buy you a good pedal wrench for Christmas. And never, ever forget a spare derailleur hanger, just in case a baggage handler drops your bike case too exuberantly.)
But there are always bike mechanics at the triathlon to double-check your work. And new people to meet, other adventures to plan.
Now about those iguanas: did you know that a spiny-tailed male will forgo food for six months to win over the love of his life?
Montreal’s Loreen Pindera is an editor with CBC News and an avid triathlete.
Ultrarunner Amanda Mcintosh running at the beach in Punta Leona, Costa Rica