Patagonman 2018 – First ever Extreme Triathlon at the End of the World – And my first go at this crazy niche!
One year ago, (thanks to FB for reminding me) I entered the lottery for this race after hearing about it somewhere and thinking, ‘well that sounds like a cool way to see Patagonia’. I never thought I would get in, nor did I really even investigate what the world of Extreme triathlons was about. I assumed it was normal ironman distance race in tough conditions (wind, cold water, etc.). Getting the notification in early January of 2018, that I had been accepted, provided an interesting conundrum, with thoughts of ‘what have I done??’, and the easy way out, by having to find a crazy friend who would travel to the end of the world and be my support person. I sent out a few messages to a few select friends, asking if any interest to be my support person, and none even considered it, except for Meredith. She said ‘Yes’ at the first hint of the race and trip. I was shocked. I had to ask her many times to be sure she was aware of the journey and the crazy requirements. She was unwavering, and so that sealed my fate, I accepted the slot and then promptly forgot all about it, as the 2018 race season was rapidly approaching, and I had a marathon, a half Ironman and full Ironman on tap before the end of April.
The race is part of the Xtri world (Extreme triathlons, usually with longer bike courses and crazy hard run courses than a normal Ironman race). They are usually in really tough environmental conditions in remote parts of the world (this race probably takes the cake on that aspect!). The original race in this niche was the Norseman, which has grown to almost Kona like reputation for the swim from the boat through the fjords, hard ride, and run that ends on top of a mountain somewhere in Norway.
Once or twice during the year, I looked at the race and did some high-level planning. I managed to get a Garmin file of the bike course that I loaded in BBS for the insights as the wheels and set up, as well as what kind of time I could expect.
The swim was set up just like the Norsemen with racers diving in from a boat in what was described as very cold water (around 12c or 50f). It was a point to point swim that would take place in the dark (this really concerned me, since sighting in the dark is not easy).
The bike course was a point to point from Puerto Chacabuco to Villa Cerra Castillo. The profile looked gentle for 80km then a lot of climbing for 80km then a fast descent. It was primarily north to south and the winds are traditionally from the north or north west in December, so a tailwind was expected for much of the course. The total climbing looked to be around 7k feet (or 2000m) so not an easy day for sure. With the tailwind, though, the predicted time was not much more than 5 hours for me (I expected to go easier though, more on that later). Some of the details of the bike course included two supporter provided aid stations (at 45km and 135km) and one race managed aid station (no support help there) at 90km. 3 aid stations over 180k would be something that could be problematic if the weather was hot. I planned to put 3 bottles on in that case (two with Gu Roctane, and one with electrolytes only).
The run course was always a mystery, with no Garmin file or even a map. A flyover video was sent out via FB at some point, and it showed the general course with the start and end point that could be plotted on a map. What was in between was described as: “The running leg of the race starts in Cerro Castillo Village and covers a full marathon distance of beautiful landscapes (42.2 kilometers). It runs completely free of pavement and soon after it starts, it will take the athletes up the hill through a dirt trail and then back down into a rubble road that follows a river and passing next to beautiful lakes and waterfalls. The ascending trail and the tough lay of the rubble road will make the run a challenge even for the fastest ones.” There were 2 race managed aid stations (at 10km and 20km) and then a Supporter managed aid station at 30km. This was really difficult to plan for, as I had never done an ultra or any unsupported race. I estimated that 2x500ml bladders would suffice if I ran ok for each 10km segment, and on the last (where I would most certainly be running the slowest), my Supporter could carry a bottle for me. The fueling was really difficult, as I struggle to take on only Gu Gels on the marathon run, and depend more on cola in normal races. Here, I would need to use the gels all the way to the end, I hoped to get enough kcals to meet my needs. Salt would be added, especially if it was hot.
Other Race Planning/Issues
The race schedule was another big challenge. The start was slated for 5am, with the boat being loaded at 4am, and since the swim was 75min or so from the main town of Coyhaique, that meant leaving around 2am to ensure enough time was available to don the wetsuit and cold-water gear. Waking up at 0130 was about the most stressful thing for me in planning for the race. With the 3-hour time change, that would mean getting up at 10:30pm back in Austin, which meant I would be lucky to get even a couple hours of sleep.
The next big challenge is getting to Coyhaique (about halfway through the Patagonia region), in the Aysen region. For us, that meant flying to Mexico City, then overnight to Santiago, then to Balmaceda, and then driving 45min to Coyhaique. No US carrier flies into Chile, so changing airlines is guaranteed.
Leading up to the race, I was struggling with two issues, a lower leg injury (sustained in July) and overall end of race season burn out. My injury was an Achilles issue that prevented me from running from mid-July to the end of September, and my run volume through November was low with only easy running and only one run that topped 90min. I knew the run would be a tall order, and set my expectations pretty low (without knowing anything about the run course I actually faced). The burn out was expected, since I had been focused and racing since February, with a marathon and 2 Ironmans, along with a few other triathlons and several road races. My psyche really wanted to just get on the road bike and MTB and enjoy things as time moved into late October, and so staying focused and doing the work on the tri-bike was difficult. Add in the big early goal of 2019 – Boston, and secondarily, Galveston (for the Nice 70.3 WC qualification), and that meant my 2019 season needed to start by early December, which meant no break at all! What I decided (in early November) was to stop the focused work on the bike, but keep up the volume and time on tri bike. I felt that giving my psyche that bit of break would perhaps allow me to recover from the season mentally, while still build something for Patagonia.
The Race Week
Arriving in Chile after what seemed a somewhat arduous journey (some confusion in the airports and a very painful car rental experience) we made it to our hotel, which was the Dreams, billed as the newest in the city, and also the race headquarters. The hotel was nice with good service, but it is hard to believe it is only a year old (I don’t expect it to age well) and the next-door casino seemed so out of place, here in this pristine environmental paradise. The noise was bothersome, and I am no fan of wasting money on gambling, so it was my absolute least favorite thing in Chile. The sights on the drive from the airport to Coyhaique showed a lot of why this part of the world is so loved. The people in the town were super nice and, even though our Spanish is rubbish, they were patient and friendly at all times.
My plan for the few days before the race included a bit of running, short and easy, a couple rides (work skewered one) and one swim (to test my cold-water gear). Why would I wait to test my cold-water gear on the Friday before the race? Well, partly because Austin is not exactly cold in Oct/Nov and finding cold water is impossible there, and also, I had just procured my gear in early to mid-November.
The cold-water test swim was not on the race course (it is an active shipping port) but about 15min away on a local beach (down a long gravel road from the main road). I had prepared for the cold water by supplementing my Roka Maverick X wetsuit with an Orca base liner, neoprene booties and gloves from HUUB and a Roka thermal cap. The water was cold, very cold and for me, quite shocking. It stung my face badly when submerged for the first 5min, and I had to flip over on my back to warm it a few times. I did eventually get used to it and swam ok. I chose not to use the neoprene gloves (for some unknown reason) and my hands did get cold, but otherwise I was fine.
On Saturday, we had the race briefing, and since I had my own support car (each athlete could determine if they wanted to use their own rental car to transport the support person and the gear – to swim start, aid stations, T2 and the last aid station, where the support person could run with the athlete to the end. This was a great option, and Meredith was pumped for it too. I noted on hotel notepaper my focus points for each interaction we would have on race day, so she could keep it and use it (if needed) to get the right gear out at each juncture. The bike was working well (the morning pre-ride went well) and the body was feeling good with no niggles and plenty of recovery (work and travel forced that). Dinner was early, and we went back to Mamma Gaucha’s, which is a great pizza restaurant in main town square. I wanted to eat at 1730, but with slow service and big group (my wife, parents and Meredith) it took longer than expected, and we did not get back to the hotel until after 1900, where I still had to do the final packing and partial loading of the gear.
With that done, the attempt to fall asleep by 9pm failed, then came 10pm, then 11pm and my frustration grew. I did sleep a bit from 11pm until 0130 when the alarm went off, but I did not feel like I got more than a nap. We had the normal breakfast (from a grocery store stop on Saturday, and dishes from the hotel restaurant) in our room, and had that before walking out to meet the others at 2am. No issues for me, with all the little things going swimmingly, now I just had to stay awake while driving the 75min in pitch black roads (very few street lights in Patagonia). I did wonder how fueling 4.5 hours before racing would work out, and I took a couple bananas and a Gatorade to consume prior.
Getting to Puerto Chacabuco went fine, and I had good conversation with the others to help keep me awake. Once there, we got the bike and gear over to the transition, which was my first distinct signal this was no normal Ironman. I pretty much chose my own spot (right next to the pros, why not?) and saw that there was some organization, but no control and it was pretty much the wild west of transitions. The ship that was our ferry to the swim start was lit up and very foreboding, and the sky was dark, very dark. This put my mood in a dark place. With time to spare, I decided to sit in the car a bit longer to stay warm, then get suited up with 20min or so before the loading time. Getting dressed in all the gear was slow but went well. We took some photos and tried to enjoy the chaos and energy, but I still had the dark on my mind, and I was struggling to feel much optimism. Optimism was not something I had in general. My run fitness was known to be very low, and my bike was not great, so my power plan and run hopes were dropping by the day. I entered the boat with only one goal left, and that was not to get lost whilst swimming in the dark.
On the boat, the wind was cutting and I, along with and many others, found corners that were protected to wait the journey out. For many minutes we did not move, then only moved very slowly and it became clear we were not going to option A. I learned while on the boat, that there were two options; the primary, which was the point to point from out in the channel or the alternate, which was an out and back inside the bay area. The winds were up, and the water was quite choppy, so the Navy sent us to option B. It took a while to get the turnaround boat positioned (my estimation) and so when 5am came and went, I wondered when the race would start. I was not disappointed, as every minute it ticked closer to dawn, the more light enveloped the sky, and my fear of getting lost in the ocean in the dark faded.
We eventually got to the point we were supposed to be, and we had some communication, similar to the teachers in Charlie Brown comics, so it was mainly rumor style communication that informed us of what was going on. Once the ship stopped, it opened the rear door, and we could see a ship lit up in the distance. That was the turnaround, apparently. The course was now a long tangent out to the ship, then a sharp 160deg turn around the ship and back to the port. Somewhere on the port. I realized when I made the turn, the port is about 1km long and having no idea where in that kilometer I just picked a mid-point (blue wharfs) and fought the wind and chop. I did not think I was swimming well, but no one really passed me while I passed many early and a few here and there. The biggest story of the swim, other than the wind and swell, was the weight of my neoprene gloves. They felt like 2kg weights that I had to lift on each recovery stroke. It was a totally unexpected workout for my triceps that really slowed my stroke rate down in the last third of the swim. I had to stop 3 times to sight (as in taking off the goggles to scrub the port with my eyes for a swim exit or swimmers that were closing in on a point). Getting that info allowed me to swim a rather good line, for once. I made it to shore without any further drama or issues, and I was super pleased to have gotten the one part of the race that I most feared over. I took a look at my Garmin for the time, and it was right where I kind of expected, or rather what I thought it should have been with all things considered.
Swim – 1:05:xx
T1 was not exactly a recognizable place, more a mass of bikes, people, racers and some nudity to keep things interesting. As I had no idea where the swim exit was in relation to the transition area (it was set up after we left on the ship), I ran a bit like a lost chicken for a 10-20 seconds, as I tried to sort the carnage and find my team/transition spot. Once there, the transition was efficient (with only a little hiccup of having to pull out my cycling shoes from new Roka Transition Pack – which is just plain brilliant and got the nickname, ‘the Harry Potter backpack’). I had planned to take as long as needed in transition to ensure I was fully dry, warmed up, changed to the correct cycling kit (Garneau which provides all my kit), refueled, etc. and so there was no hurry on my part. Those around me were in a hurried panic it seemed, while I moved with no obvious sign of hurry. As I had thoughts of Whistler in 2015 when I got out to cold rain, but was so warm from the swim, and there I had chosen to not put on a vest or jacket and found myself passing out from hypothermia within 90min. I had to ask if it was cool out. The consensus was that it was, and so I donned a full sleeve jersey (was the plan) and tights (was an option) but no shoe covers. I did grab gloves, since I did not want to risk cold hands that could possibly result in dropping my gels/salt chewables.
T1 – 8:58
On to the bike and off to the races, as the saying goes. Once I got out of the port, I got to business and sort of laid on the gas. With occasional thoughts of the run and the desire to ride easy, I tried to hold back, which was hard mentally, but a good idea as the day would go from easy to hard in a very quick fashion, with hills arriving sooner than I expected and never ending until the last 15km. After passing a bunch of people in the first 10-40min, things got very quiet and from there to about the 2-hour mark, I only saw a few more racers, and then after 2 hours I saw one rider (my new friend Pat) who I passed in the last hour of the bike. It was a very lonely bike that would become even more lonely on the run. With such a small field and those ahead of me staying ahead (the pros) everyone else riding slower, and the course being point to point, that makes the huge gaps sensible. It was strange as by hour 5, it had been some time since I had seen anyone other than my Support team, and the photographers on the course.
The aid stations came relatively quickly and at 45km, I did a full 2 bottle replacement and a loo stop. Nothing else since I had all my gels still with me (was to start taking those from 90km onwards). 90km was just getting water from volunteers (who were eager and very helpful). I added NUUN tablets to the bottles there, to ensure I was keeping that balance as I hydrated. Not long after I left that aid station, I hit a bump and my bottle popped out. I immediately hit the brakes, did a quick U-turn to retrieve the bottle. The bottle the volunteer had filled and placed behind my seat, unfortunately was not fully placed in, nor was the lid tight. Fixing that small issue, I got back on the road and to the business at hand. Getting to the 135km aid station was all about hills and tailwinds, which was what I had expected.
What I did not expect was the road conditions. Driving it gave me a slight awareness, but riding it was like having to be on full alert all the time. It would be perfectly smooth for a bit, then a rough section would pop up or a series of broken bits, holes or cobblestone sections. It was so relentless yet nice in between, that it became a real theme of the bike course, along with the wind and the climbing.
Following the 135km aid station, the course entered the Cerra Castillo national reserve and featured a 20km drag up a canyon. The wind was supposed to be a tailwind through it, but magically on race day it turned, and we had a stiff headwind which made the gentle slope of the climb a real grind. This is where many people found their limit. I cursed so often and loud, that I began to wonder if the camera guys could hear me. My pace slowed so much, that my estimated time went out the window and the desire to hold back lessened with every pedal stroke up that sodding climb. It was relentless and it took a lot of power to keep the speed above 10mph, which was counter to my plan. Getting over the top took forever and the reward was a super-fast switchback descent to the valley below that held T2. The descent was the kind I would normally get a real kick out of hanging it all out, but the temps were suddenly so cold, I began to shiver, keeping me a bit stiff. The wind was really kicking here, and it was the only place I had a big front wheel reaction, and a reaction it was. I laughed a couple minutes later as I thought to myself, ‘well I am certainly awake now!’.
The ride in the valley was easy and the last few kilometers went by quickly with no drama (although I was confused when I passed what looked like transition (was some kind of MTB race event), but did finally make to T2
Bike – 5:33:xx
What can I say about this run? After the race, Barry from Scotland told me after I spent several minutes whinging about how hard it was, ‘Mate, you are not supposed be able to run the entire run courses in Xtri!). I wished I had known that going in..
The run started off pretty gentle with a gravel road (main road under construction) for a bit, then a volunteer waved me into the trail network. Ignacio (Race director) told us in the briefing that the trail would be marked with a big Merrell banner every 500m, and that we should always just stay on the main trail (if we had an option). Well, it did not take long for me to find this not as straight forward. Running up the steepest hill I have ever attempted to run (20% grade), lead to a series of trails that crisscrossed this ridge line, and I managed to take the wrong one, which brought me around to the top of the ridge from the right and I saw the Merrell banner below me, so I followed it down (heading back towards T2), it took a minute or two before I remembered from the glance at the map, that the course did not double back, and immediately knew I was going the wrong direction. Turning around and going back up the sodding ridge to the banner and then following that trail over the top and down a steep descent led to another banner, and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing I was back on the course. From there it was up, down, up, down and on and on with a couple of stream crossings and eventually the trail moved to a dirt road for the remaining distance. The two aid stations were at 10 and 20km which were far too few (for me), as I wanted more calories than I could carry, and only getting a bit of Powerade at each was not enough to meet my needs.
I knew the run was going to be less than stellar for me, due to my injury, and the limited running I did in preparation for this race, so I was happy to go much slower than my ideal. With this course being immensely harder, I was faced with the question of even finishing at times, as my quads got absolutely destroyed by the endless steep descents off the climbs. In the last 10km, I could barely even jog on the descents (and most of the last bit was downhill) and had to focus on not collapsing in complete muscle failure.
The two most defining things of the run, outside of the sheer difficulty, was the absolutely epic views and the total loneliness I felt. The views were so amazing that I cursed myself for not bringing my phone. I tried so hard to remember the views of the lakes, waterfalls, canyons and mountains but all are fading in the days following. The other defining aspect was being so alone. Having spent nearly the whole bike course, save the first hour or so, alone, I was already a bit nonplussed when I got to T2. From T2, I never again encountered another racer and it began to get in my head. I never really thought about how much I need to be around others in races, to somehow share the experience or something. Seeing Meredith at the 30km mark was such a huge relief, as I both needed the company but also needed some motivation, which was severely lagging at that point. I had one request for her, and that was to ensure we kept running, no matter what (running is a very loose term of what we did, but there was no walking). Time from that point seemed to be suspended, as the road was much more open and the distances we had to go were seen. I did find I felt stronger (from the 3 Gu gels she gave me) and began to run a bit better as the distance ticked close to 38-39km.
Getting into Puerto Ibanez and that long final stretch was beyond amazing, and I was nearly brought to tears many times. After such a long day and one that shocked me in many ways, and pushed in many others, I was so elated to be finishing that it was hard to keep myself from losing it. Seeing my wife and parents as I got close gave me such a huge rush, that I finally was able to get slightly ahead of Meredith (who shared she was taking great pride in outrunning me up to that point :)).
At the finish, they had a bell set up that we were to ring as we passed the line, and it was totally unexpected for me, and I had to react very quickly to avoid running past it. Some crazy thought sprung into my head, that a bell like that is used to quit, not to signify a finish (BUDS training), but I rang it proudly once my head finally cleared, and I was able to stop moving.
Run – 4:23:xx
Total Time – 11:15:xx (8th Overall)
What a day, event and trip. It was far more challenging and memorable than I could have ever expected. Chile is an amazing country, and the people in Coyhaique and across the region live in a spectacular place.
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