Triathlon Vitoria-Gasteiz 2018

I may not always deliver in Vitoria-Gasteiz but the city surely always does. My 7th start (?) in the adopted sports capital of the Basque Country which, sadly, ended up at km 13 of the marathon.

After being 3rd last year and having a small explosion on the marathon, I came to Vitoria much more confident and feeling much more prepared for another go in 2018. As always Eduardo and his staff were incredible welcoming and it’s always a thrill to visit the Basque Country, year after year, for the race. Even tho it is not an official “Ironman” race, it’s ran over the same distance and it really never disappoints.

Race morning was a bit different this year as we were greeted by light showers which almost made us all fear for a rainy day. Luckily it held off for most of the day only blessing some competitors on the marathon later in the day. I’ve done this race so many times that I know every detail about it so it was a very uneventful prep for race start. The only difference this year was that the half distance competitors started ahead of the full distance ones, which made somewhat of an impact on our swim since the swim course is the same with the full distance doing twice the same loop.

Cutting to the chase. Race start.

I had a great start and was right on the shoulder of Pakillo Fdz-Cortez who I quickly identified as the fastest swimmer of the starting list after some last minute and unfortunate DNS due to injury of his countrymen Carlos Lopez and Peru Alfaro. I slowly slipped back to Pakillo’s feet and eventually (got) dropped back to a solo position. Two swimmers, who I later identified as Xavier Torrades and Daniel Mugica, came around and I was happy to have someone set the pace for the entire swim. I recon I have to work on this aspect as this year I’ve let myself easily let others set the pace instead of making a real effort to get to the further man/group ahead. The fact that the last wave of the half distance went only 10-min ahead of us, meant we starting catching the slower swimmers about 1/4 of the way in, some swimming breaststroke, making the entire first lap a true crowd-surfing. Still, I was confident on my bike fitness enough to not freak out too much and was really just hoping we wouldn’t lose too much time to the front with all the “surfing”. Xavier Torrades did a great job setting a solid pace and we were out in 51-ish minutes, about 2-min down Pakillo and Matt Leeman, the two men at the front. As a note, I never actually saw Matt Leeman on the course, but I recon he did pass me at some point on the swim and I may have passed him on the bike without recognizing him among the half-distance athletes.

Unlike other races, I didn’t exactly rush thru T1, but I still managed to get out of the transition ahead of Xavier and Daniel, which could potential have played in my favor as you know how they say.. out of sight, out of mind.  I don’t know where Xavier was left behind (probably still at the transition tend) but I believe Daniel did manage to bridge back and stay with me for a few km. My game plan was simple: don’t look back, aim for 250-260w and just stay in the aerobars. 80% of the energy you spend moving forward on the bike is fighting air resistance and I knew if I did hit the target wattage – about 3.8-3.9w/kg – I would have a much faster bike split than last year (4h32 last year at 232w) and it would give me a great gap leading up to the marathon. After IM Nice, I knew I could do 250w, and the extra 10w I was hoping I would get from a more conservative pace on the first half of the race. I was also about 1kg lighter in Vitoria-Gasteiz so all in all, it felt totally withing my ability. Pakillo at the front had about 2-min out of the water and that was about what he had as a lead on the first out and back, about 50km into the bike. I’m not sure if this race was Pakillo’s first full distance Ironman or not, but I was guessing some of my experience would come into play on the second half of the bike to reel him back. I was feeling great, and above all gaining time over my swim compadres and the guys behind. I knew at that point that I was riding well, legs were responding well and I was exactly where I needed to be. Then, it happened. Trying to pull a gel that I had attached on my aerobar with tape, I did not notice the tape was also around one of the electronic shifting cables, and when pulling it, I snapped the cable out of the shifter. For a few seconds there I was standing up right on the bike, coasting looking at the loose end of the Di2 cable I was holding along with the gel, thinking what have I done. I had pulled the cable that was connected to the rear derailleur bar end shifter UP, which goes thru the inside of the arm extension to connect to the shifter. After a quick assessment, I realized I couldn’t shift my rear derailleur up and while trying out the other shifters, I had put my rear cassette on the 13-tooth cog. As this all happened on a slight downhill section, I was still coasting down but loosing speed. It gave me a few seconds to try and remove the shifter from the inside of the extension and try to reconnect the cable. I had no idea how the shifter comes out as I never done it, specially not while moving. But things got worse, when I tried to switch cables on the di2 junction box (the 6 entry one) I ended up down shifting my rear cassette even further into the 11-tooth cog. Great.

Long story short. I decided to calm down and just keep spinning the pedals. I was in second place, we were at km 50 of the bike course and I still had mental energy. You don’t need to be good at math to realize that it meant I had about 130km left but I tried to ignored that fact. I could shift my front derailleur so I had either the 54×11 or the 39×11, although the 39×11 was really noisy with the chain touching the front derailleur cage. There goes all your low-friction material advantage Pedro. At that moment, the though of doing another 3h30 without the rear derailleur sounded as much epic as insane, specially on a course with a few steep hills (luckily not long, but still…). I started to picture myself finishing the race and having quite a story to tell, how I endured 130km without a rear derailleur.  I continued.

My day from that point one was pure survival tho. I lost focus on watts, bike position, efficient pedaling.. and despite my best efforts to try and control the pace and try to play with the available combination of gears, it was a true challenge just to get over some of the hills. The course can be described as having “rolling hills” but on some even the 39×11 is really not light enough. And then those 5-6% inclines where I was either doing 50rpm or 130rpm were really putting a hurt. To my surprise tho, and even though I was completely all over the place in terms of cadence and wattage, I was not loosing that much time to the back and it took about 50km for the next man back (fellow swim partner Daniel Mugica) to catch me again. He caught me on the second climb up the dam and was kind enough to wave to follow his pace. Little did he know, but I appreciated the kindness. About that same time we caught Pakillo who seemed to be also struggling but with his lower back. I continued. I guess Daniel was surprised at that point that he took the lead, I was surprised I was back in second but that didn’t make anything easier. By then, body was saying “you are done” and mind was saying “not that easy buddy, think about all the sacrifices, think about how epic this will be if you finish”. Raul Tejada eventually caught me on the final lap – the course is three laps, with the final lap being shorter – and I can’t really recall where. I do recall however, there is a +10% climb on the final, shorter, lap of the course, that I honestly still can’t believe I didn’t fall off my bike there. After 4h30 of riding I was finally off my bike. Funny enough, 4h30ish, about the same time I did last year and same watts (230w) but with double the suffering and using half the current fitness. Again, to my surprise I was only about 3-min down the lead and 50-seconds off second place. I had no idea how much of a cushion I had over the main “pack” of chasers, who I could see it was a BIG pack on the only out and back of the course, and they seemed to be still about 4-min back on the last check. I guess the fact that I was still close to the front and clear of the pack chasing gave my mind a little excuse to not give up just yet.

T2. Off the bike, I ran down to the tend and for a split second I thought I would survive 42km of running but as I sat down inside the tent to change gear I immediately felt my quads saying ‘oh boy’. Changed into run gear and started running hoping they would loosen up. I asked who was ahead and I couldn’t believe I was still so close to the front. There was hope. I felt terrible from the first meter but concentrated on doing what I had written on the day before – grind thru that low moments. You never feel great coming off a long ride anyways, specially one that ended up being so high on muscle tension and since I do a lot of low cadence work, I was hoping it would go away. My concern at that moment was not just feeling terrible at the muscular level but also feeling extremely thirsty. With all the struggle on the bike, I must have also screwed up how much I was drinking which was clearly not enough. The run course is four laps and I really couldn’t DNF without at good try at my best. I’m sure you’ve read multiple reports of how loud the crowd from Vitoria-Gasteiz is as you ran past the Plaza the Espana where the finish line is. I won’t be able to describe it, it really gives you the chills. This year, they changed the course a bit to go through even more crowded streets which made it insane. ‘One KM atta a time’ I thought. I tried to focus on slowing down and drinking a lot on the aid stations, when a charging Xavier Torrades and Alejandro Santamaria flew by me after about 10km of running, leaving me in 5th place. Top 5 wasn’t so bad I thought but I guess the universe had a different plan and with about another 3km of running done, my body simply just gave up. Not sure if it was a combination of dehydration, high muscle tension, or just my mind giving up on my body after such a long battle between the two on the bike course, but as I sat at one of the aid stations, I just could not put one foot in front of the other anymore.

It took me about 30-min to be able to move again towards the finish line to collect my stuff. I had to stop halfway thru and sat on a garden bench to regain strength as I witness an incredible battle between Xavier and Alejandro for the win, who both ran sub 2h50 marathons. I made it back to the finish line just in time to see Alejandro take it with an ecstatic crowd producing an almost deafening noise. I was both happy for Alejandro, overwhelmed by the ground-shaking cheers of Vitoria-Gasteiz and extremely sad I could not be part of it. I stayed there for about 2 hours, watching others finish, trying to live that joyful moment I had hoped for myself on that day.

But it’s not from bad or unfortunate races that I will want to remember Vitoria-Gasteiz. As I sat on the garden bench on my way back to the finish line after dropping out, and while swamped in sadness, the couple next to me asked me if I was Pedro Gomes. Surprised, I told them yes. They said they remembered me from the previous years, they were locals from Vitoria-Gasteiz and while not particularly into doing this sport, they always love to come out and watch the competitors. They asked me about my race, we talked about triathlon and how there are so many variables that are part of this sport. I was just amazed that a totally random set of strangers, not triathletes, from Vitoria-Gasteiz knew me. It filled my heart, as did seeing so many portuguese athletes choosing Vitoria-Gasteiz to do this sport. In a way, I want to believe I played a small part on that decision and that’s how I want people (and myself) to remember my visits to the city. I will be back.

Thank you for reading!

Race video, courtesy of www.triatlonchannel.com

Pedro Gomes

Pedro Gomes is a professional triathlete made in Portugal, currently based in Dubai, UAE. He's also a certified Ironman triathlon coach and a self proclaimed donut connoisseur.