2002 Ironman Lanzarote
By Michael Lovato
ISSUE #16, June/July 2002 – Just as baseball has the World Series, football has the Super Bowl, and soccer has the World Cup, the sport of triathlon has its Grand Daddy event. Its name: Ironman Hawaii. This article is not about Ironman Hawaii. Just as most that participate in the great sport of soccer spend a lifetime wondering what it might be like to play in the World Cup, most also have other dream games or tournaments in which they someday hope to compete. However, this article is not about soccer. Very much like the world of soccer, triathlon has its share of “lesser” events that, although they are not the Grand Daddy, still possess a certain mystique or fame. For whatever reason–be it tradition, a unique format, an exotic destination or the challenge they pose–these races become part of a list; a list of races that someday must be done. This article is about one of those races.
For obvious reasons, each triathlete has his or her own distinct list. Formation of the list depends on many things: the triathlete’s age; the year he or she entered the sport; whether he or she is a “Dave guy” or a “Mark guy”; the favorite distance; and other difficult-to-summarize factors. Although your list might differ from mine, and mine might differ from Bill Bell’s or Paul Martin’s or Madonna Buder’s, there are certain races that by their very nature merit inclusion in a basic list that ought to be published for all to consult. I’ve taken the liberty to note a few of the events that belong on said list (they appear in no particular order): Escape from Alcatraz, Nice Triathlon, St. Croix, Mrs. T’s, St. Anthony’s, and Wildflower. I have clearly not listed all the worthy races, but rather a few just to give an idea of what we’re dealing with here.
But this article is not about any of the above races.
This article is, however, about one of the races that has held position very near the top (if not at the top) of my list for some time now. This article is about Ironman Canarias, more commonly known as Ironman Lanzarote. Perhaps even more commonly known in many circles as The Toughest Ironman in the World.
Two weeks ago I travelled from Boulder across the Atlantic to the Spanish capital of Madrid. But even after twelve hours of travelling, I still had another two-hour flight ahead of me. Lanzarote is one of seven islands that make up the Canairan Archipelago. Situated in the clear blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Las Canarias, although Spanish, are off the coast of northern Africa. I eagerly boarded my flight, anxious to see one of the few parts of Spain that was still unknown to me. Compared with a nine-hour flight, two hours zips right by, and we were soon making our final descent. Looking out the window, I was stricken by what I saw. It appeared as if I was about to land on Hawaii’s Big Island, yet upon further inspection, it might actually have been a small Greek Island. Why the confusion? The scene was unmistakably Kona. The runway sliced along the coast, parallel to the beautifully colored ocean; the land quickly sloped upward away from the sea; the palm trees were bent from a harsh tropical wind; and the whitewashed buildings of the town were in stark contrast to the darker, barren land. Oh wait, that last part was the Greek Island thing. After completing my initial inspection, I concluded that this was going to be a nice place for a race.
My bike box and I boarded a big, white bus that was tattooed with huge, green letters: Club La Santa. I had decided to stay at the host hotel this time around. Sometimes I hunt for the most economical accommodation, other times I opt for a homestay, but this time I thought I’d check out this resort I’d heard so much about. Happy to be in a Spanish-speaking country, I marched up to the reception desk, ready to make use of my bilingualness. “Buenas tardes,” I said. “Hello, welcome to Club La Santa” was the response I received. Come to think of it, that guy did look a little bit blonde and blue to be a Spaniard. I quickly realized that this was actually a little slice of northern Europe, nestled right there in little old southern Spain (not too uncommon really). Club La Santa is a Danish-owned resort, run by Danish folks, which caters predominantly to Danish and other northern Europeans. The fact that it is outside of the small Spanish town of La Santa is really just a technicality.
Leaving the reception, I headed out for a tour of the joint. After all, if that was to be my home for the next ten days, I had better become familiar with it. It only took me five minutes to realize why many of Europe’s Big Boys spend weeks, even months at a time training there. Not only was each room actually an entire apartment equipped with a full-service kitchen, but every training or relaxing need was met just outside the door. Just to mention the highlights, I saw an outdoor, 50-meter pool, a six-lane track, a weight room, a grocery store, a buffet-style restaurant, a mini movie theater, a sporting apparel/shoe store, a competent bike mechanic, a leisure pool, a… oops, I said I’d just mention the highlights. I soon realized that I had everything necessary to have an excellent little training camp. I’d have to come back, however, because I’d be spending most of that week completing my taper and resting for the upcoming Ironman-ah yes, the point of this story.
The following few days saw me riding and running my way up and down the hills and mountains that surround Club La Santa. Did I mention that another similarity to Hawaii is the fact that this is an island of volcanic origins? It sprouted from the sea by means of geologic processes that are far too complicated to describe in this article. Regardless, because of its origin, it holds true that the island is quite mountainous. In fact, the only flat-like parts I discovered were very close to the coast. Everything else was up or down or up. I rode to and from the National Park, Timanfaya, the home of the Fire Mountains, and one of the famously intimidating climbs of the race. Quite honestly, I was undaunted by the severity of the climbs. After all, riding in Boulder affords plenty of opportunity to ride uphill. Indeed it was not the grade of the mountains, but rather the amount of climbing combined with the wind that tended to blow All The Time. In addition to All The Time, this wind blew Hard. I’m hoping that by capitalizing these words, it will help to convey my meaning a little bit more accurately. There are certain spring days in Boulder when most cyclists opt for the indoor trainer to avoid being thrown off of the bicycle and into traffic on the diagonal highway. This wind is blowing that Hard, or Harder. Harder? Yes, it is possible, believe me. I concluded that this was definitely going to be a good place for a race.
The seemingly interminable pre-race week finally was coming to a close. I only felt that the week was dragging on a bit due to my intense readiness and excitement to get this race underway. I had trained, I had rested, I was there, I was ready. I was having a great time, and was truly enjoying the Club La Santa facilities, but I was ready to see race day come. Just before it arrived, a funny thing happened: the ever-important day-before-the-race day came. I suppose that was to be expected. After checking in the bike and all the gear (that’s such a nice feeling, isn’t it?), I headed over to the press conference. I was tickled to be taking part in my first press conference, although it was a bit unfortunate they hadn’t done it earlier in the week. I spotted my nameplate on the table amongst the others. It was right there next to the woman who won the race last year, and the woman who won the race the previous two years. I plopped myself down only to be politely informed that my place was actually behind those two women, in the back row-oops! I should have known that I was a second-tier “relevant pro” (as the invitation card had dubbed us). Not a problem, I was still honored to have been invited. The conference got underway with TJ Murphy, an American journalist, posing a question to a competitor from Finland who spoke little (to no) English. Question number two was from a German reporter to a German athlete in German. I was not sure exactly what they were saying, and neither was the majority of us-there were many blank stares. After about thirty minutes of attempted translations, confused looks, and photographs, what had to have been the weirdest press conference ever came to a close. Thank goodness, it was getting closer to the race.
Race morning I awoke to what seemed to be a fairly calm day. Oh wait, as soon as I left the protection of my bedroom, I realized I was wrong. It was windy, windy, windy. I jumped in my rental car and began the thirty-minute journey to the race start. Transit was easy. Parking was easy. This was going to be a nice day.
At 7:00 AM the gun went off. It didn’t really matter, though, because there was a bit of a false start, and our sprint from the beach was an out-of-control dash to the water. The fighting and pushing and bumping and bruising only got worse once we hit the ocean. With only about 150 meters to the first turn, things got a little tight at buoy number one. After things settled a bit, I found myself in a nice group of four or five. Based on my efforts at the gun, I assumed I was with the lead group. I later realized that my pace was far too comfortable for me to be up with the leaders. Sure enough, I exited the water as part of the chase pack, about three minutes down from the leaders. I was not too worried about the deficit, because in Lanzarote (more so than in most Ironman events) the race is not begun until the bike. Besides, I had just set a personal best, and swum faster than most people have ever swum: 46:24! (Ok, so the course was short, big deal.)
And there it was: the famous Ironman Lanzarote bike leg. This race has seen accomplished athletes swear it off as “never again” or proclaim that “now Hawaii will be a cake walk.” I was anxious to see how it treated me. I had decided to deviate from my normal strategy of riding conservatively for the first half of the 180 kilometers. I planned to go hard when I faced up hills and headwinds, counting on the recovery that would come from the down hills and tailwinds. As it turned out, this new strategy was not a bad one. What I had not counted on, however, was that during my downhill and tailwind recoveries, I would lose so much time to my competitors. Previously I had thought that I was a good technical rider, and that I descended fairly well. I have since discovered that this is not entirely accurate. In part due to my comparatively low familiarity with the course, and in part due to my poor wheel selection (front quad spokes don’t mix well with gusty crosswinds), I lost major time on the descents. It didn’t seem to affect things terribly, though, as I managed to make up most of the time lost while climbing. I then began a cat-and-mouse flip-flop with three or four other top-ten riders for the remainder of the ups and downs (about 80k). To add a bit of insult to my poor-descending injury, I managed to take a wrong turn at the end of the bike ride. Ah well, I thought, it’s all just more time I’d make up on the run.
Leaving T2 in Puerto del Carmen is electrifying. The crowds are amazing, and they know it. They happily give you energy as they scream and holler at you all the way up and down their charming beach town, proving once and for all that triathlon is BIG in Europe.
The folks that created this longest running Ironman in Europe (this was the eleventh year) had a few crazy ideas up their sleeves. First and foremost they made everyone endure five plus hours of cycling pain and beauty (the cycling course, in addition to cutting through barren lava fields and quaint villages, afforded a few breathtaking panoramic views from lookout points with no guardrails). Next, they decided to make the 42.2-kilometer run be a quadruple out-and-back. Hmmm…not sure about that one.
For me the run began wonderfully. The multi-loop course gave me an excellent opportunity to see where I stood relative to the other competitors in the race. And, since I was feeling so great, I was able to cheer for Peter Sandvang, the leader, as he ran the opposite direction. From the looks of it, he had done some serious damage on the bike, and was reaping the benefits of a nice cushion-second place was well back. Later, on my second loop, I was fortunate enough to check out the women’s race. It looked like a heated battle between Lisbeth Kristensen of Denmark, Gillian Bakker of Canada and Spain’s own Maribel Blanco Velaso (who eventually overcame them both for the win). Perhaps had I paid more attention to my own race, I would have maintained the “good feeling” I had for the first 25 kilometers. However, as it was, my negligence toward proper hydration and nutrition provided for a nice kick in the pants. From approximately 16 or 17 miles on, I suffered a painful process of blowing up. Although I felt that my fitness would have allowed me to maintain my first half’s pace, my pathetic attempts at calorie consumption denied me the opportunity to find out. I had slowed to a trot.
Nevertheless, I finished the race urged on by the hoots and hollers of thousands of screaming spectators. I crossed the line and proceeded straight to the drawing boards, hunting for the reason that I let another race fall prey to my nutritional inadequacies.
Happy to have participated in a race that for so long stood enticingly at the top of my list, I vowed to return to this wonderful and challenging race. Knowing that there are other races that can fit the bill when it comes to tradition, a unique format, an exotic destination or the challenge they pose, it is hard to imagine that any one other could simultaneously deliver on all four aspects, as does Ironman Canarias. Is this the toughest Ironman in the world? To answer that question is tough (perhaps an indicator that all regarding Lanzarote is hard).
When factoring in the heat, the wind, the mental strength required, the level of competition, and the unique unknown, nothing is harder than Hawaii. When just factoring in the heat, the wind, and the terrain, my opinion is that nothing is harder than Lanzarote. Relatively speaking, my experience at this distance is still slight. However, I can say that this is the hardest I have ever had to work, and it’s the longest time I’ve taken to cover the 140.6.