Speechless in Panama City – The Gulf Coast Triathlon
Words just can’t describe some experiences in life. Even pictures can only do so much when in paradise. As I sit here overlooking the Gulf, watching the sunrise and having a morning cup of coffee, I’m reminded of why I Tri. It’s all about the “experience” it brings to us. The opportunity to live a healthy lifestyle and explore new places with friends and loved ones. Of course it’s also about training and racing at your maximum potential and sometimes struggling through tough courses and weather conditions. I love triathlon for these reasons too. It gives me a chance to face my demons, face the pain and overcome. To push toward the edge of things and flow through it. To become all that I can become in training, racing and life.
Yesterday at the Gulf Coast Triathlon in Panama City Beach was another opportunity for growth. A tough race with wind, heat and sun provided the perfect start to my season. As the sun came up, I stood on the beach with sand so white and so fine it reminded me of fine table salt. The feeling on my feet sent a chill up my spine. In 20 minutes I was going to run into the Gulf of Mexico and push through the big waves.
The swim is 1.2 miles and basically straight out into the Gulf, a short turn and then back to the beach. Looking out there, it seemed like the turn buoys were miles out in the water. That sent another chill up the spine. Just like that, the horn blew and we were off! The first thing you notice in an ocean type swim is the salt water in your mouth. It’s an immediate wake up call. The next wake up call is the first big surf style wave that hits you in the face and pushes you back toward the shore. At this point, you know the game is on and it’s time to get serious about the swim. The “thinking about it” part of the day is done and it’s time to “act”. The next sensation is the total enormity of the swim venue. You look up and there is nothing but water and horizon, you look down in the water that’s as crystal clear as a pool, and all you see is a very deep ocean floor, probably 50-100 feet or more deep. You notice all the fish around you, the stingrays, the jelly fish and you hope to see a dolphin. You know that the sharks are also out there watching the race and you pray you don’t see one.
The swim out to the turn buoy into the choppy waves seems like forever. With a blink of the eye and the surf at your back, the next thing you know, you’re running up the beach. Oh, there’s that sand on my toes. That brought the biggest smile of the day to my face. I made it back to shore!! 🙂
The transition area at GCT is perfectly laid out, plenty of rack and aisle space and some of the nicest volunteers I’ve met. On that note, I must say that every person, athlete and volunteer, that I met here has been wonderful. It was an honor to be part of this very famous and long standing race. In its 29th year, I believe it is one of the oldest independently owned triathlons in the USA. They are very proud of what they’ve done here and they should be!
I missed my cheer crew of Suzy, Marcella, Alex, Savannah and AJ as I ran up the beach. I was so overwhelmed with that moment that I did not see them. I was extremely happy to see them as I came out of transition with the bike. Hearing them screaming and yelling for me brought another huge smile to my face. Thank you guys for slugging through the long, hot day to cheer for me!
The bike course is a flat and fast (if the Gulf winds are low) 56 mile course. Most of the roads were in great condition, especially after I got out of the beach resort area and on to the country roads. The roads around the beach were a little dangerous with all the tourist and hotel traffic. There’s just no way for the event crew to safely secure every bit of these roads, so I knew that defensive riding was critical. A rider right in front of me almost got taken out by a car. It was so close, my heart was in my mouth. Somehow, the athlete had enough skill to quickly swerve out of the way and miss the car that turned right in front of him. Yikes!
The winds really kicked in for the last 15 miles on the bike and that was pretty tough. The heat was also building and for the first time I could tell it was HOT! Oh boy, here comes the run. 13.1 miles of fun in the sun! It was literally now Sunny and 80!!
I was super happy to see the cheer crew waiting at transition. Yelling and screaming again. Very fun! The next sensation of the day was the burning sun as I racked the bike. I remember thinking how I’ve been here before. All the years we did Memphis in May in the blistering heat and humidity, the Sufferfest of Racine half Ironman in 2005 when the temps hit 98F with a 115 heat index, and Ironman Wisconsin 2005 with temps in the mid 90’s and one of the highest DNF rates in Ironman history. I just remembered those days and told myself that this was not that day. If I could push through those other days, I could get this done. It was time to finish this race. And off I went.
The run course is a pancake flat run through the residential areas of Panama City beach. Not very scenic and I don’t even recall seeing a beach or the water. There were no spectators, just more awesome volunteers, plenty of ice, sponges, water, Gatorade, coke, and gels. They had so much stuff and so many volunteers. It was one of the best run course setups I’ve seen. About the only issue I noticed was the placement of mile marker 12. It was about 3 minutes past where I expected it to be and I thought for sure that somebody moved the sign AND that mile 13 would be only a few minutes ahead. Well, that was wishful thinking. It was a full mile (and maybe more) to that mile 13 marker. Holy cow, I thought I was going to die getting there. Maybe I was just delusional with the watch. Or maybe the course was longer than 13.1? Later I heard that some athletes with Garmins recorded 13.3 miles for the run.
Then I saw the finish line and my cheer crew. Jumping up and down – again. Yelling like crazy – again. My pace and spirits picked up and it was full power that last quarter mile to the finish line. The arms went up in victory, the smile was a mile wide and the pro photographers were snapping away. I did it!! I stood there speechless, looking out over the beach where the day started. What an amazing day in paradise.
A special thanks to my coach, Karyn, for suggesting this fantastic race venue and getting me ready for it. Through all these years you’ve been there for me and I could not do it without you!
As I refueled with pizza, coke and water, I linked back up with the cheer crew and tri buddies Andre and Jamie. I thought about the day and this trip with my wonderful girls, about my pre-race ride and espresso stop break with Andre and my Friday morning swim with Andre and Jamie in the Gulf. Then Andre said something very profound. He said, “Joe, this is what triathlon is all about. Being able to come to a place like this and share an amazing experience with your family and friends.” I completely agree Andre. This is why I Tri!