Cancelled flights, missing bikes, anacondas and crocodiles.
This race had it ALL.
“We have to get off the plane? Why do we have to get off the plane?” I implored the stewardess. “Mam, there is an hydraulic issue with the plane and we are awaiting the part or a new replacement plane.” “But my BIKE is on THIS plane!” My triathlon guide Karen and I slowly made our way off the comfort of our roomy bulkhead seats on the American Airlines plane bound for Miami, then ultimately to my race in the jungle of Manaus, Brazil.
Angry and frustrated passengers gathered at the gate, ten deep. I did my best to keep breathing as I watched the minutes go by, slowing ebbing away our once 3 hour layover that was supposed to occur in Miami. My stomach groaned. I took my biggest breathe, smiled widely and stepped up to the counter with my white cane and my guide. After a detailed explanation to the gate agent, Tanya, my new hero started making calls to re-book us on another flight that would somehow allow us to arrive in time for the pre-race briefing in Manaus. She even threw on a reflective vest and personally went down to the runway to pull our bike and luggage off the plane when the workers refused to do so. I called the interim director of USA Paratriathlon and my travel agent, both who kept me from a full on crazy-chick meltdown. I was assured by USA Paratri that he would contact the authorities of the race and let them know my situation.
I was nervous and disappointed that we would be missing the chance to swim on the course and have an escorted bike course preview ride to help Karen become comfortable with the difficult turns on such a long, challenging bike. She is a new pilot for me, and it was literally only her 4th time ever riding a tandem. Andy assured me that all would be fine, and that the course will be, what the course will be. We hung out for 9 hours at JFK awaiting our new flight that was now a 9-hour flight to Sao Paolo then a connection in the morning to Manaus, arriving with 90 minutes to spare before our mandatory briefing. It all had to go perfectly and my bike just HAD to make this connection in a country from which I did not speak the language. Nervous doesn’t even cover the feelings I was feeling.
I slept nearly the entire cramped, overnight flight to Sao Paolo, and arrived in a chaotic, smoky and dimly lit airport. I defaulted to my use of Spanish, which I learned quickly in a country that speaks only Portuguese, that it brings on a lot of tilted heads and puzzled looks, but no help. We finally were paired up with a handsome assistant who whisked Karen, myself, our bags and bike through customs and to our next gate. I was exhausted and looking for coffee, which resulted in a shot of espresso due to my lack of Portuguese to request my much-needed soy milk to avoid triggering my asthma with milk less than 24 hours before my race. I was beginning to be a little unhappy. Karen just smiled. God bless her. “What if they break my bike? What if they lose my bike? What happens if we’re late with this flight too?” Karen looked at me and said, “We get there when we get there. Everything will be fine. Your bike will be fine.” Did I mention I’m a Karen fan?
3 hours later we arrived in humid Manaus. Three men attempted to stuff my 6 foot by 3 foot bike box into a Volkswagen Jetta trunk. Unsuccessfully and to my horror, as I begged them to stop before they injured my precious bike. It had traveled thousands of miles only to be man-handled by some over-eager taxi drivers. I was ready to lose it. The ring-leader found a hatchback that miraculously fit us and the bike and we sped off to the beautiful hotel across from the race site. We were amazed by the vastness of the Rio Negro, far wider than the mighty Hudson River I had grown up near. It looked like the ocean. The race site wasn’t even set up. Tents lay on the ground, police stood around with their hands in their pockets, and I wondered aloud if the race had somehow been postponed without our knowledge . They had a lot to prepare in less than 20 hours.
We met up with fellow Team USA teammates Howie and Zach, who helped me unpack my bike and rebuild the entire thing, piece by piece. It was a huge comfort knowing that I had to guys handy with a wrench to supervise me as I put Palomino back together. We headed off to the briefing with our whole team in a van, and were not surprised to find out that the ITU (International Triathlon Union) folks were running behind with the schedule, and we should go rustle up some food. The problem with this was that we were in a convention center and arena with nothing around but street food and a Shell gas station. We took a mouthwatering look at the delicious smelling grilled meats, fried foods and empanadas they were displaying, but decided to play it safe so far from home the night before an important race. Tonight was not the time to experiment. So, the gas station, potato chips, Nutella and diet Pepsi was my pre-race nutrition. I hardly recommend it.
Our favorite, sunny- dispositioned race official was the Technical Delegate for this race, and he gave me a huge hug of welcome, as he had already heard from the US Team about my debacle. However, we then skipped to talking strategy as poor Zach, a wheelchair athlete, was missing his hand-cycle (adaptive bike) and his luggage, which contained critical medications. Zach looked pretty uncomfortable, and had already been in Manaus for two days. We began emailing and calling to get things moving, but his bike was nowhere. At the meeting, Karen sized up our competition for me, figuring I could handily beat these girls if I stuck to a strategy of racing my usual race for the swim and bike, then going out more slowly for the first mile of the run, with a gradual pace increase. With the plan in place, I felt more confident and looked forward to sleeping in a real bed that night.
STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO! THE RACE…..