We finally made it to the Ironman Puerto Rico 70.3 this past March. I originally signed up for this half Ironman back in September 2015 when I was recovering from my severe stress fracture in the top of my femur bone. I thought it would be healed in time to race in March 2016 but I just wasn’t quite there yet. I had just started back up with my running but nothing more than maybe 7 to 8 miles at that time. So we deferred our race to 2017. Luckily for a fee, the race directors let you do this. So I was very excited and grateful to have completed this awesome race successfully. And because it was during my birthday week, that made it even more special.
I highly recommend signing up for this half Ironman. It was such a well organized and challenging race. It’s a true gem in a beautiful place. We both would go back and do this again someday. We loved Puerto Rico, the people and meeting so many racers from all over the world. It was such a great experience on so many levels. It’s a difficult race, but the volunteers are excellent and the crowds on the run were very supportive. It’s all about the run at the end which is very hot, super hilly and quite humid. It was my slowest half marathon and slowest long run in a long time but it was still an awesome run course and I loved it! The 2 weeks in Florida were helpful in acclimating to the Puerto Rican sun and humidity. I’m so glad we were able to do our Florida trip right before flying into San Juan.
My goals going into this 70.3 were not really set in stone as I didn’t know how I would do in March especially traveling to such a warm climate after sitting inside on the bike trainer all winter. I was hoping to hit the top 5 but I surprised myself by placing second in my age group which is a tough one: Females 45-49. These old birds (myself included) are a tough crowd and are fiercely competitive. So when I found out I was second back in our hotel suite, I was thrilled! I ended up with a qualifying slot for the 70.3 World Championships in Chattanooga, Tenn this September, I was so happy! Only 30 spots were available to about 1,500 athletes and initially only one was allocated to my age group. But since there was an extra slot from one of the older age groups, it went to my age group which had about 75 women. And I was awarded the slot. Yippeee!
My new friends who live at the Caribe Hilton
We flew into San Juan on Thursday night with both our bikes in their strong sturdy Bike Alan cases. Traveling with two bikes and luggage is a challenge but after flying to Florida and then to San Juan we were becoming pros at this type of travel. Racing in Europe doesn’t seem so daunting after you do this a few times. We stayed at the Caribe Hilton which was the race headquarters and conveniently located to the swim exit, transition area, and the finish line. This is a very nice hotel beach resort with beautiful grounds right on the ocean. We even saw the actor Ron Perlman and his cute little doggie a few times who likes to stay there. However it’s an 80 year old hotel (first one in Jan Juan) and not all the rooms have been renovated. We upgraded to a very nice suite which was a bit costly but we were told it was much nicer than the room we originally booked. There were a few minor problems, but overall we were happy with a gorgeous view overlooking the beach and ocean. I loved sitting on the balcony and enjoying the fantastic views. And the extra space was very nice and helpful with two bikes and lots of gear.
View from our hotel suite
Friday and Saturday were focused on preparing for our race. Friday we went through athlete check-in and hit the Expo and Ironman store which is always lots of fun and amusing. It’s like black Friday for triathletes when shopping for race shirts and all sorts of fun Ironman gear. I’ll admit I had a ball in there . We later swam a few laps in the photo above which was really wonderful. It was a little wavy but not bad due to the barrier. The water wasn’t too warm but did feel lovely. And I got to test out my new fancy Roka skinsuit for the first time. The big job for Friday and Saturday was fueling and carb loading for the race. I eat like it’s my job before a race and felt we did a good job. We also did a nice run on Saturday morning, checking out the swim start which was less than a mile from the hotel. Cycling in San Juan is a bit dangerous but now they have bike lanes going into Old San Juan. Still we just did one short easy ride around the transition area to make sure our bikes were good to go. Getting our bikes to transition on Saturday afternoon was our last big task before our final epic dinner in Old San Juan before the race.
We were up early on race morning to get our running and cycling gear into the transition area at 4:30am! I felt more nervous and apprehensive about this race compared to the half and full Ironman in Mont Tremblant last year. I am not sure why. Maybe I felt that so many other athletes we know were tracking us. I was also nervous about my swim after working so hard with Lisa and Dave. Would I let them down? Would I be slow without a wetsuit? I was also nervous about the heat and the run. And I was nervous about how Scott would handle the heat after a brutally hot day last year in Mont Tremblant for the 70.3. And to make matters worse, I ended up with real dairy milk when I asked for soy milk for our oatmeal. Luckily I don’t think I had enough to really make me physically sick. But I did feel a bit nauseous and worked up that morning, even walking to the swim start. I was really feeling badly at the start due to nerves. However, that all changed once I started racing!
The swim takes place in the protected waters of the Condado Lagoon but then finishes in the ocean waters which are a bit choppier. I thought this was a beautiful swim and loved the lagoon. It wasn’t very deep and it was really neat seeing the bottom only a few feet down once we got towards the Dos Hermanos Bridge. I read several blogs and race reports and everyone seemed to agree that it was a very calm swim except for the currents under the bridge. For our race, the waters were calm and nice until heading back towards the bridge where it got a bit choppy the closer we got to the bridge and ocean. And once we got past the bridge, the waves were bigger and the current was strong. I felt like I wasn’t going very fast even though I could see the swim exit. But we were told in the athlete briefing to just keep swimming and we would all get there even if it didn’t seem like we were moving.
Swim Start beach on Saturday morning
The one big problem for me was that only the pros were allowed to have a warm up swim and I need about 1,000 yards to truly feel good and warmed up. So my strategy was to start out a bit more mellow to avoid any panic attacks like my previous 70.3 in Mont Tremblant last June. I started a couple rows down on the outside closest to the beach. Each wave started in the water but it wasn’t cold and we could touch the bottom. It was very pretty and I loved the views of the hotels along the lagoon. My wave had combined all women aged 40 to 49 so there was a lot of us in bright green caps!
I didn’t have any panic or anxiety attacks in the beginning and it didn’t take as long to settle in and just focus on swimming. But I am still not a confident triathlon swimmer and I let people cut me off and take my water. I am not aggressive in the swim portion and I need to learn to hold my own. Lots of women passed me because of this. After about 10 minutes, I was starting to feel decent and tried to pick up my pace. This was gradual but I felt like I was getting faster after 20 minutes. I caught up and passed a few women in the previous wave that went off 4 minutes before us. But eventually the fast swimmers from the next wave passed me too. Turning at the buoys was a bit messy and chaotic but the second one went better.
Heading back felt like a long stretch. It got choppier and wavier as we got closer to the bridge and ocean. There were a few women in my wave who I swam with for the stretch back. They seemed like decent swimmers and I felt like staying around them wasn’t a bad idea as I didn’t have to sight as much. Sighting was harder with the waves and I had to take my head out of the water higher (back to my bad habits and this probably slowed me down). But I was keeping up with the same small group of women. I felt someone on my feet for a good stretch heading back and got a bit annoyed as they kept hitting my feet. So I sped up and kicked a bit hard to get away. Other than that it wasn’t too violent or aggressive out there. (Scott said his wave was violent and very aggressive with kicking and punching)
Scott is such a strong swimmer! He rocked this!
The waves and chop increased by the time we got to the bridge and the current was going against us. This swim was nowhere near as bad as IMMT but still slow going on the last stretch. Underneath the bridge it wasn’t as scary as I had expected due to the strong currents. After the bridge it was wavier as we were close to where the bay meets the ocean. But it was great to finally see the end of the course. I swam hard still around the same three women in my group. I was so happy to get out of the water and surprised it took me a little over 42 minutes. I was almost 5 minutes slower than MT 70.3 but this swim was without a wetsuit and the bay wasn’t as smooth as I had expected.
Overall it was still a successful swim. I didn’t have any panic attacks. My official time was 42:20. I was 29th out of the water which is what I normally do. It was my first swim that was partly in the ocean. It was also my first real open water swim of the season. Lisa says my swim is still a work in progress. Scott had an amazing swim! He swam a 33:48 which was a great time for that particular swim. I’m so proud of him!
The run from the swim exit to the transition area was about 700 meters and many people including ourselves had a pair of shoes near the swim exit. I’m so glad we had the shoes since it was such a long distance to cover barefoot. We purchased some cheap Walmart running shoes in Florida for under $20 each, but they were comfy and did the job! I probably lost a minute weeding through the crowd of people and putting on my shoes but they were easy to find. The race director encouraged this as running on a small pebble or rock could ruin your whole race day even though the roads weren’t that bad at all. Better to be safe than sorry! So my transition was 5 minutes and 48 seconds.
My bike ride was the big surprise of the day. I honestly didn’t know how this would go as there were just so many variables. I had only been riding my bike on the roads in Florida for two weeks and spent the rest of the winter on the computrainer down in our basement. I had my best bike performance since my stress fracture in 2015! Lisa had me working very hard on the computrainer. I was feeling strong from pushing some long difficult intervals with high wattages. The four hour windy bike ride we did with Lisa and Kate in Clermont was also very helpful as my key training ride before tapering. But without any big hills or substantial climbs, I didn’t know how I would do since hills were what I did best 20 years ago racing. I surprised myself and rode very well and strong on race day. I biked my way into 6th place from 29th with the second fastest bike split in my age group (the fastest woman was only around 30 seconds faster).
For the first 15 to 25 miles it was quite stressful and difficult dealing with a crowded course with packs and constantly leap frogging the 3rd place woman, a few other women and a big pack. The pack was frustrating because I would pass them and then they would pass me. I had to keep slowing down and speeding up. It wasn’t fun and I was not a happy camper. This situation seems to be normal on Ironman branded courses with a lot of racers. But I was riding strong and seemed to feel decent. And for a while I was averaging a good pace (21-22 mph). But I did have a little tail wind or favorable cross wind on the way out. I was riding well but still being a bit conservative as I was expecting some places to be very windy but it was never too bad. Perhaps all those crazy windy days in Clermont, FL made race day in Puerto Rico feel reasonable.
On the first loop heading back a motor cycle came up to the pack that kept leap frogging me and gave one girl a blue penalty card. She was annoying and blatantly riding with the pack. Didn’t these people go to the athlete briefing?? The race director and referee were very clear about the drafting. The large packs of riders and constantly worrying about a penalty card cost me a few minutes overall since I had to keep slowing down and backing off.
On the second loop it wasn’t as crowded and the pack seemed to have dispersed a bit. I was still riding well and keeping on top of nutrition and hydration. I filled up my front bottle with water 3 times after I finished most of the tailwind in it. I felt I did a really good job with my shot blocks and taking in enough Tailwind and clear water. It was getting hot and I was prepared for the rest of the ride and the run to come.
The roads were quite rough in several places on the loop and that wasn’t fun as I kept worrying about my wheels or getting a flat. And during the second time on the loop there were lots of water and gatorade bottles on the ground and I almost hit a couple of them. This was very nerve rattling, but I stayed upright. It was a little windy right by the water heading back both times but not too bad. I would be riding between 20 to 21 mph in the windy, rougher sections. And about 21-22 mph on the favorable sections. This is fast for me even on the flats for a 70.3.
On the final 10 to 15 miles I had to fight a bit to keep up my speed as the fatigue was settling into my legs. I was also getting warm out there. The sun was getting strong and there was not much shade at all on the course. And it was getting humid! Also my neck was so darn uncomfortable in the aero position. I got out of my aero bars a few times especially up the small rollers at the end to give it a break. The last couple miles are slightly frustrating as I didn’t know how the course ended and kept thinking I was at the end but would have to make another turn. However, it did end and I was so happy to see a respectable time on my Garmin. It was my best ride in a long time! My official time was 2:41:13 which was 20.84 mph and was great for March!
The third place woman Ayesha was the one who played leap frog with me for most of the ride. For the last third of the ride she was ahead of me but I caught her on the last few miles. I ended up just a few seconds ahead of her. She was faster in the transition area by almost 2 minutes! (yikes) But I knew I would meet up with her on the course. I wasn’t worried as the best part of the day was about to happen! I love to run!
The run was epic! It was a beautiful out-and-back course in Old San Juan with much of it having ocean views and great crowd support. And we ran it twice! The run is a beast and the race director built it with the purpose of being super challenging. It’s extremely hilly and I felt like I was either running uphill or downhill. And the heat was brutal! It was in the mid to high 80sF but the humidity was killer. And I think being closer to the equator makes the sun feel like you are in an oven. Even the local racers felt it was very hot! It was a crazy hard 13.1 but it was awesome! I was so hot out there, but I still loved this run!
So this was the hottest and hilliest 13.1 run I’ve ever done in my life! But I did prepare for the conditions. We both did a bit of sauna training after our masters swims a couple weeks before heading to Florida. I also made sure I did a few runs in the hot Florida sun including some hard intervals. I was still a bit slower than anticipated but overall I had a good strong run in spite of the conditions. My run placed me into second place and my run was the second fastest in my age group. The winner from Bermuda ran over 4 minutes faster. Coming from Vermont, I’m OK with that, especially for a March race.
Lisa suggested starting off at 8 minute miles which seemed reasonable. My first mile was around an 8:04 and that felt like I was pushing things a bit so I backed off a little so my next couple miles were around an 8:11 to an 8:17 pace. And that included climbing the “wall” for the first time. It was slow and very steep but I ran up it conservatively concentrating on good form, high cadence not pushing too hard. And this worked well. The next part of the course still had plenty of climbing but it was more gradual and I regained my pace. I was doing a good job of taking water and ice at the aid stations. And I was diligent about taking a power gel every 20 minutes (alternating between caffeine and non-caffeine).
The “Wall” – we walked the course on Monday
Eventually I was on a good downhill and then another steep downhill on the dreaded cobblestones. They weren’t as slippery as I had been told but I was still slower and careful on them. Then we ran under the gate and out onto the Paseo Del Morro which has been nicknamed the “microwave”. It was hot but not quite as brutal as I had anticipated. It was the only section that was “flat”. I wasn’t able to run faster but was still pushing a respectable pace of around an 8:15. I was hoping to see more feral cats but only saw one orange kitty from the corner of my eye. The cats that live out there are protected and fed.
Running back up the steep cobblestones was difficult and slow going! And then back up the next hill after turning left was hard as well. But this small section had some shade. Many athletes were walking but I just jogged up steady trying to stay light on my feet. I was still doing pretty well as my pace evened out to an 8:31 after all that climbing. Heading back on the main road to the finish area was still hot and oppressive, but I was still trucking along. I was still running up a gradual hill before running back down towards the finish area. When I was going back down with a mile to the finish on the first lap, I caught up to the 3rd place woman Ayesha. She was a local woman and many people knew her on the course. She was also pushing a good pace of around 8 minute miles or slightly faster. I stayed behind her for a bit as it seemed like a good pace I could handle at that moment. At the aid station close to the finish we both took water and ice. So she knew I was right there and we went back to playing leap frog which was fine by me.
We ran up and down the cobblestones!
On the second lap I lost Ayesha going up the gradual hill in the beginning by the water. And then I never saw her again. It turned out I was over 3 minutes faster on the run so she must have slowed way down. I eventually forgot about her as it was getting really hot and I was wondering how I would handle the hills again. I did OK on the “wall” but that mile was a little slower and my overall pace even after running a while was closer to an 8:45 as opposed to an 8:17 on the first lap. But then I recovered with an 8:02 mile following that. It must have been on the flat “microwave” section. This felt hotter on the second time around and I was getting very uncomfortable. I was actually worried about the next 5 miles and maintaining my pace. But I knew I could suck it up for 5 miles. Running is what I do best!
Running jogging back up the steep cobblestones was slower than the first time. Everyone else was walking. I just focused on a nice quick turnover and one foot in front of the other. The long climb back up to the aid station was also more of a jog and the next gradual hills were slower too. My overall pace was about a 9:12 on that mile which wasn’t bad as my initial pace going up the cobblestones was around 11 minutes per mile! eeeeek! Glad I picked it up. My next mile up the gradual hills on the main drag was about an 8:14 pace which wasn’t bad and I realized I wasn’t going to fizzle out or have a bad ending to the day.
The last mile I tried to savor the experience and take in and appreciate the sights and festive spectators. I was in Puerto Rico doing an epic race! How many people get to experience this! We are so lucky! And I felt decent at the end and picked up the pace a bit. I think my last mile was around a pace of 7:20 and 7:30. But it was a gradual downhill. Much to my disappointment we did have to run back up that short little hill at the end when we first started. And that felt a little rough. But I knew I was almost done. I ran strong to the finish. I also celebrated by smiling and raising my arms with excitement and happiness. I was so thrilled to finish. It was a great run! It was my slowest half marathon with a time of 1:47:35 but it was my most memorable one for sure. And I’m proud of this one! Scott had a tough run in the heat but he didn’t get sick like his previous 70.3 last June. He was conservative and took it slowly as he still has troubles in the extreme heat. But he is a champ for finishing well!
On Monday we spent half the day walking the race course and exploring Old San Juan being tourists. We probably shouldn’t have walked so much and let our legs recover. I wasn’t feeling too sore, just a lot of fatigue in my quads mostly from the bike ride. It was so fun to see the sights. Plus I wanted to meet some of the feral cats that I didn’t see while running on the “microwave”. Later I did get into the water and swam a few recovery laps from the hotel beach. That felt nice and relaxing after a long day of walking.
On Tuesday we did a little snorkeling in the morning over at Scuba Dogs which was right by the race finish area. They were great and I felt confident to snorkel for the first time ever! It was nice and relaxing and we saw some pretty fish. I also saw fish when swimming laps on our beach area by the hotel but with the snorkeling equipment it was easier to see the fish. Later in the afternoon we sat by the ocean on the hotel resort grounds and drank several delicious pina coladas! It was the only time we truly indulged in fancy drinks like that. It was an amazing afternoon and we both enjoyed it so much! Sometimes you just have to live a little!
My new friend Igor the Iguana
On Wednesday we celebrated my birthday by hiking in the El Yunque rain forest. We rented a car for the day and drove 45 minutes out to the beautiful national forest. Getting there by 9am in the morning was the smartest thing we did all week! Later in the day hordes of tourists were parked all over the place!
We hiked about 2.6 miles to the top and had amazing views from the tower. The trail was a lot of fun and I enjoyed being in the woods so much. There were only a few people we passed and for the most part it was nice to be alone in the rain forest. It took longer to get back as we made one wrong turn and ended up hiking about 6 miles. It was not really a problem as I was surprised at how well my legs had recovered by Wednesday.
Food and Beverage Report
We found a couple great vegan-friendly restaurants in Old San Juan. Our hotel had several restaurants but only the Pina Colada Club had a clearly marked vegan black bean burrito which was very tasty. We ate that one 3-4 times! The Palmeras also in the hotel served breakfast. Before the race we ate their oatmeal and bagels. They did have soy milk. They had a huge buffet with fruit and we were allowed to take a few bananas. The hotel also had a full service Starbucks which was so awesome. We discovered they had this “Perfect Oatmeal” which was great breakfast food. They also had plain vegan bagels which were fine with jelly. And their soy lattes tasted just like the ones at our local Starbucks.
Café Berlin was our go-to place for good hearty vegan meals pre-race. We had dinner Friday and Saturday night there. They have several clearly marked vegan options. We even had this great pasta dish with vegan sausages. We also got back there for a nice hearty lunch on Monday after walking the race course! And they had a few yummy vegan desserts. I loved the chocolate cake!
For my Birthday dinner we ate at truly special and unique restaurant that was also very vegan friendly. The Verde Mesa provided a lovely dinner experience for us both. I had the special chickpea cous cous dish that was splendid! The only downside was that there were no vegan desserts. The service was excellent and the hostess treated us so kindly especially learning it was my birthday. She even prepared special cocktails for us.
Overall it was truly a wonderful week in Puerto Rico. I can’t say enough good things about Ironman Puerto Rico 70.3. The people love this race and take pride in their local event. The race organizer does a super job. It turns out that triathlon is a popular sport in Puerto Rico. There were many tri-clubs from the Island and so many locals who participated in the race. It was also the Pan American Tri Club Championship and Puerto Rico did very well.
For me it was a special race on many levels. I had a breakthrough in my bike and felt so good about finally having a respectable performance. I had a strong run in very difficult conditions. I have work to do in becoming more confident in my swim but it is progressing.
I miss Puerto Rico and hope to go back again someday!