When the opportunity to race the Changsha International Triathlon first popped, I must admit I was skeptical for a minute but accepted the challenge on the next. I do love to travel and get to know new cultures – a common theme among all professional athletes who attended this race – and although I knew it would be a long hike from Phoenix, it ended up being quite an easy decision to make.
After Ironman Lake Placid I took almost three weeks of very light exercise, lets call it my mid-season transition before tackling the later fall races. After those I jumped right into Camp Flag 2019: a weeklong training camp in Flagstaff where I managed to get a lot of riding but really almost all aerobic, right before racing Mountain Man Half Ironman also in Flagstaff. At that event I was a bit far from my own course record set back in 2015 but paired with the camp it was enough of a effort in coach Jesse opinion to take a few easy weekdays before tackling a monster weekend on the verge of the trip to China. All in all, a bit of an erratic few weeks which allow me to sleep thru most of the 12hr flight to Beijing. I probably needed it.
From the minute we step foot in Changsha we – as in all the pro field for this race – were treated like royalty. Larry Upton and Rocky Chen made sure we were shuttled, catered and comfortable for the entire trip and did a phenomenal job at it. From the amazing buffet set up for every meal, to the police escort to race site for bike check in, hotel accommodation and facilities which included a stellar gym and an indoor 50-meter pool in the basement. For a few moments we felt like exotic animals who people pay to come watch. Don’t take me wrong, it’s a good thing, that’s how you grow the “professional” part of this sport. You don’t get to watch Rafael Nadal play without paying the entry to a Grand Slam either. The entire pro field for this race stayed in the same hotel so we trained together, ate together and there was a remarkable group spirit among us. It made me feel less like a weirdo by getting out to run early in the morning, go swim twice on the same day or add-on training after the race as we were all on the same pattern, sharing experiences and knowledge and helping each other get our training done. I feel like we all felt like we were there more as part of the show rather than racing and while everyone wanted to win, we would be happy for each other no matter the result. Did this affect the race competition itself? Not really, when the gun goes out, every one still focus on themselves and they will still try to get to the finish line as fast as possible. However, there is more fair play in the racing.
The race itself is one of the largest triathlons held in China. It’s sponsored by the government, it had national live (!) TV coverage on their ‘ESPN’ of China, 100% closed to traffic roads and an infinite number of volunteers. Only the Beijing Olympics triathlon event has previously been broadcast on TV live. We gave interviews, had a press conference introduction and while we had a designated area on transition, we covered the same course as everyone else and we were all reachable and approachable by any of the other participants for photos, chats and smiles.
I will open a small parenthesis to talk about my race: everything felt a bit dull. The swim felt extremely hot and within minutes I was hyperventilating and overheating. I used my sleeved trisuit and over it a sleeved swimskit which felt asphyxiating. A sleeveless trisuit would have be a better option to begin with or maybe even skipping the swimskin over it. I had chosen to fly with my road bike for this race which I had to make it work for the pancake flat 50K non-draft cycling leg but what I didn’t make it work was running after how little I drank during the bike. Only half a bottle which felt very short and made me suffer quite a bit on the final 10K. To a point where I was tripping on the last kms of the race and feeling cold. Cold is never a good sign when you are exercising in hot and humid conditions and tripping literally both ways: feeling dizzy and not being able to get my feet high enough off the ground. My finish time for the 1.5K/50K/10K was 2h23m27 which is a true testimony of how much I suffered to get the race distance covered. It’s not easy to find race results but I know that ITU aussie star Max Neuman annihilated the field with a decent winning margin over Kevin Collington and Taylor Reid who got second and third respectively.
On the day after the race we got the opportunity to hand bake Mooncakes – a traditional Chinese pastry -, taste the best traditional food at one of Changsha’s top restaurants and visit the highlight of the Wangcheng area: the magnificent Ancient Town they are building behind our hotel. All this to top off what was already an extraordinary trip.
To conclude, here are a few myths and debugs for those that want to visit China:
- The process to get a visa to China is relatively simple and fast. I used a third party called visaexpress out of Houston, TX, and once you send your passport, flight itinerary, hotel details and fill up the requirements, they will send you back the documents needed in a few business days. I would call them in advance to see if you are eligible as requirements change based on your nationality.
- The people from China are extremely welcoming. We felt loved and cherished and were treated like superstars by everyone at the event. But also on the daily interaction with non-triathletes, we were always treated cordially and everyone was extremely polite. Even the Chinese ‘TSA’ at the airport treated us with extreme respect and kindness. Obviously, we were also trying our best to be as respectful as possible.
- Surely China it’s not the ‘western’ so the flow of things is different. As we later came to find out, everything in China is organized in a way that makes sense to them, not always to us, and they make it work somehow. Similar to the first impression I got when I went to the UAE: it’s different but you learn how things work eventually.
- The air pollution people hear about all the time in the news is not actually felt on cities like Changsha. I confess we weren’t enough time in Beijing or exposed to the main city centers but despite the humidity, the air quality felt reasonable. They told us to always drink bottled water though.
- Food, general services and hotels in China sound relatively cheap to those coming from the US or Europe. Other goods, namely imported goods or from international brands, are way more expensive than in the West.
- The food is tasty and generally healthier than my previous perception. At least for most part of what we tried. I stayed away from any uncooked meat or fish and everyone was able to find baked or steamed alternatives over the traditional sweat and sour pork or fried bananas we all get at the Chinese restaurants.
- There is a lot to see and I wish I can go back. 5 days felt short for all we could have seen and explored. And this was a small portion of a city that is usually not even on people’s radar to visit, let alone cities like Beijing or Shanghai.
- Before traveling to China, you may need to download Google Translate and VPN 360 for your phone. Trust me, you will likely use it more than you think, specially if you are trying to communicate with the West.