I don’t tend to write race reports on half distance races as they are never really the ‘A’ race of the season but this one was a little different. I was covering the race on behalf of Triathlete Europe but also racing to check it out from a competitor’s perspective. I love to travel to races but have never raced in mainland Spain and I also wanted to find out why a non branded race in northern Spain bucks the trend by selling out without the whiff of Ironman or Challenge present.
With the race held in the Basque region of Spain there are a few differences immediately apparent. The name Vitoria-Gasteiz is actually the same place name, twice, put together, one in Spanish and one in Basque. My ignorance on how different the language could be was well discussed on my way from the airport to Vitoria. The flight was a quick hop from the UK – 2 hours was pretty painless. My taxi ride covering the remaining 70km was spent in the company of ex pro cyclist Alvaro Gonzalez de Galdeano. A great person to chat to who had plenty of stories of him and his brother over their careers. He won a stage of the Vuelta and the Giro and the Spanish National Time Trial Championships in his years racing for Once and Vitalicio Seguros. He gave me the low down on the course and wished me luck when we parted. As alluded to above, he also gave me a few phrases in Basque to help me on my way.
After meeting with the organisers I made my way to the pro conference to meet with the main contenders and get some content for my article to lead up to the race. Having never been this close to the pros before, it was for me, a self-confessed triathlon nut, a pleasure. Chatty, down to earth, relaxed and wanted to be here, it was a great advert for the Vitoria race as there just didn’t seem to the pressure cooker environment of the bigger races we get more exposure to. From KPR ranked athletes to the local pros it affirmed why I love my sport so much.
What was slightly more concerning for me was when they found out I was the only English speaking ‘journo’ there and every part of the conference was repeated in English and directed at me, I didn’t know whether to smile and take notes, just listen intently and nod or crawl under my chair !!
Back to the race in hand. I am normally pretty organised so I felt a little under prepared for this race. The lake was around 12 miles away and not having a car worried me a little as I didn’t really know the area. My back up plan was that I knew someone who came from Vitoria – Josh and myself had been chatting for years on social media after meeting via the runnersworld forum but had never met. Josh had raced last year and turned out to be a great help all weekend, so thank you sir. Once we registered we arranged to meet on the Saturday to ride to T1.
The race is well set up and geared towards the competitors and their supporters, if you don’t have a car the race puts on buses in town to get to T1 with bikes and bags and returns you back to town for T2 racking.
We rode to T1 as I wanted to check out the bike and the roads, even if it was for only 14 miles or so. The whole process was very quick; chip sorted, bike racked, kit bag hung and back to Vitoria to hand in the run bags in town. Being a split transition can make this a bit of a logistical nightmare but it all seemed to be handled very easily.
I woke to sort myself out and get breakfast, as the hotel had agreed to open breakfast at 4.30am and provided an adequate buffet with good strong coffee to wash it down with. Then back to the room to get my swim stuff and out to the waiting buses. Again, the race had laid on a huge number of buses, so no one was going to miss out. As I settled in, one of the pros, Pedro Gomes sat next to me, recognised me from the pro conference and started chatting again. Legend.
With a full and half distance race, and a separate pro start there were a few waves before mine. The ladies started together just before and, as they were called up to the start line, they were all clapped out of the crowd – a pretty supportive gesture with no hint of cynicism and a nice touch from all of the local male athletes.
The swim was one loop anti clockwise following the massive yellow buoys. To be honest I think the start area could do with being opened up as we were a little cramped and my pet hate is a buoy in the first few hundred metres to turn at, just an excuse for the crazies amongst us to get slightly more aggressive than required but I just went out a little wider to start with, the swim was pleasant and pretty toasty. For the pros it was optional wetsuit but I think it could have been an amateur choice as well.
Out in 32 minutes and change which with the longer swim (turned out to be 2050m), felt fine. I didn’t overexert myself and I knew I would be chasing straight off the bat with swimming not being my strongest discipline. The run to transition was well supported with spectators sticking around for the full distance guys behind us. One benefit of supplying buses for all athletes and supporters is you get a lot of people out at the swim and on the bike course. I grabbed my bag and stuffed the wetsuit in, grabbed the helmet and shades and set off for the bike. In and out in 3:47 which due to the size of transition was pretty good.
I knew this would be tough, the Spanish are known as good bikers and there was a lot of good-looking carbon about, so time to see if they could ride it. The course takes a clockwise route around the Ulibarri-Gamboa national park, we were doing 2 laps, while the full distance takes in a longer loop that they do twice with a smaller one thrown in to complete the course. The roads are pretty smooth in the majority giving a good opportunity to get to speed and hold it but it was also a bit windier than I would have liked so it was a sufferfest on the 2nd loop return.
I set about reeling people in, but had no idea who was in my AG so I just set off at target watts of 220 and pushed harder when I could. The first 25 miles were pretty uneventful, the roads were that good I was holding around 23mph and passing enough people to make me think I was going well. The scenery was great and somewhat removed some of the pain when you had time to look at it.
At about 30 miles I noticed a group ahead of me being followed by a few motorbike marshals, I naively thought this would be broken up by the time I got there. It took an age to catch them but by this time it was still a sizeable group with marshals riding alongside talking to the cyclists.
It’s not uncommon in fast looped courses to get drafting but having the marshals here I was a bit surprised it wasn’t being sorted. The motorbike marshals were less than impressive – having discussions with individuals wasn’t going to sort anything out and all the while I was working my way through them and then being swamped as they refused to let anyone ‘set’ a pace and work legally. I was having to put in surges way beyond the power I wanted to but I just wanted to get out of the pack and leave the marshals behind arguing.
Each time I tried to sit at the front, someone would take it upon themselves to sit in front of me and slow up forcing me to drop off which then meant everyone else behind me instead of taking my drop, decided they needed to get in front of me, others just sitting to the side. At one point, I swear it looked like a group Sunday ride. On one occasion the motorbike marshal even asked me to drop back, 3 seconds after one of the guys who had been blatantly drafting sat in front of me, I explained I was and she nodded and drove off.
In the end I over reacted and decided to burn the spare matches and use the main downhill to make a break. I knew we were joining the full ironman racers once we got to the bottom of the hill and I could use them a little for interference. I hit the gas trying to get a few hundred metres of space. It worked, and I was surprised that although the Spaniards are renowned for climbing the bunch around me couldn’t descend for toffee. I knew I was compromising my run, but I was here to enjoy myself and battling with cheating on the bike was ruining my day. So I decided to focus back on the scenery and calm things down a little.
The last section of the bike was very enjoyable although tough at the higher power. I was caught by some of the faster riders as we came into town but I was at this point thinking about the run and the temperature was beginning to rise.
This was an experience for me, as you ride into T2(a), the bike is taken from you, you then run around 200m between some buildings to T2(b) along some matting, flanked by enthusiastic support, to the run tent where the run bags were. Quick change and I was out, loud support as you move through the top end of town to a small turn around and then out onto the real course.
The run for the half iron distance is 2 laps to complete the course. It’s a mix of shaded parks on paths and a little gravel out to the turnaround at the far end, then you meander your way back to the town centre to pass through the central square in town. The support at this end was pretty loud.
I didn’t feel fantastic getting off the bike and it was pretty hard to work out who was in my age group so I decided that anyone in front was a target and anyone behind was a hunter. With numerous out and backs sections it was easy to check on the progress of people around me. As is usual in the first half of run leg after expending too much on the bike I was quickly overtaken by 3 people in the first lap so after the 3rd one I decided that I would try to pick up the pace to match at least. It made me feel better for about 30 secs and then I had to slow up again!! I did manage to stop the rot though and at last halt the passing from runners behind me. The end of the first loop came sooner than I expected, working out I had covered 6 miles and not the expected 6.5 ish I was over the moon, I realised I only had six left – small things are sent from heaven!
The support in town was awesome and they were just shouting for anyone which was quite a lift, there were lots of shouts of ‘animo’ which I thought was a reference to the pirate top and probably ‘skull man’ or similar which is what we get at foreign races a lot, but its a general term to support any athlete. Must be a bit like ‘good jawb’ but for Spaniards.
Towards the middle of the second loop I could feel the energy leaving me at a pace and I was trying to hold my run speed rather than succumb to the feeling that I just wanted to curl up and sleep under the nearest tree. I wasn’t badly placed but I knew I had lost a few overall at the start. It helped to run through some very shaded areas as the temperatures were still climbing and I was thinking about the full distance guys and how they would be coping at the height of the afternoon heat. Still, I was going to be finished soon so I brought myself back pretty quickly from the negative thoughts.
The finish through the centre of town couldn’t come soon enough and I milked the great support all up through the square and into the finish area. I hadn’t lost too much in terms of pace at the end but I had gone way into the red on the HR trying to stay there. I was happy to hit the finish line to see loads of cameras at the end lining me up for a great picture, arms aloft and a pause for effect !! Then they started angrily gesturing for me to get out the way, it turns out I was just ahead of the first female pro and they were waiting for her, not me ! Oops !
I finished in 4hr 38min and was pretty pleased with myself, initial results put me 5th in my AG and 37th overall. Not bad for early season at a pretty competitive race.
The next day
The official results were published to coincide with the awards which I couldn’t attend as I had to fly back. After I got home the next day I found out I had been DQ’d. Looking at the results it was for the following
NO PARAR EN EL PENALTY BOX
OK, that was pretty clear, not stopping in a penalty box, but I hadn’t been given a penalty !
Yes, I had been in a group that was struggling to sort out their drafting issues but I didn’t see one person carded. We were told at the race briefing that a blue card would be shown to the offender and they were to go to a penalty tent, but I never saw one card even though there was plenty of opportunity.
It turns out there was around 30 people (in the half and full distance) who had the same penalty so one must assume the communication broke down, if there is one thing you don’t do whether you agree on the infringement or not, is not go to the penalty box, as that’s an instant DQ instead of 4 minutes time penalty. So I will chalk this one off as a miscommunication and at some point go back and set the record straight by doing the full distance.
This is definitely one of the tick box races in Europe, stunning scenery, great support, well run race and cheap accommodation, food and drink. There is no ‘Ironman’ brand to appeal to people chasing the M-dot but this is about more. The organisers want the athletes to keep coming back, and it sells out consistently every year which speaks volumes. We can relate this to the Outlaw in the UK; it has a cult following, and even with the demand it doesn’t sell the competitors short. It has been a Challenge race in the past but I think this has actually added to the appeal, they’ve learned how to build a brand and when you speak to the organisers you realise that they are as passionate as the racers. I think that’s partly the Basque nature but it really resonated with me as someone who has lived with and loved triathlon for almost 20 years. From the tearful finish line speech by Alejandro Santa-Maria all the way to the last few competitors in the full distance, all I saw was passion for the race and the town. Can’t ask more than that. In an area of Spain so different from the south coast we are so exposed to, it really removes you from the normal hum drum of European races. I think the only thing missing is more competitors from the UK.