Friday, March 8, 2013

How exploding tires and gravel roads almost cost us the race.

START TO PC1:

It is Monday February 12th.  Midnight is quickly approaching and with it the start of the 11th Patagonian Expedition Race.  It is my first time competing in a race of this length, caliber and intensity.  I am calm and relax, a little too relaxed for my comfort.

Teams busy on final preparations.
I come from a background in triathlon competitions.  Before most races I became restless, my energy levels rose and I had to keep moving to control my body.  Today is very different.  I lay on a pad on the floor trying to catch some sleep.  Sleep is challenging since we were placed next to the medical examination area and their constant chatting is not conducive of peaceful sleep.  I close my eyes and focus on my breath; I breathe and try to fade into deep recuperative sleep.

It is almost midnight.  We cycle into the plaza in Puerto Natales.  There was loud music going on, lots of people in a festival-like atmosphere.  The race will start with a 108 km cycle to Torres del Paine.  Teams in matching outfits gather around the plaza.  Veteran teams Adidas, East Winds, and Gear Junky/YogaSlackers are all gathered in the front of the pack.  The race is about to start.

Puerto Natales' Plaza, minutes before Race Start
We are Team Four Continents; an assortment of random, non-uniformed people.  The team was originally named to represent the union of the Australian, North American and Asian Continent racing in the South American Continent.  This year the team is formed by: Team Captain Taz Lawrie (Australia), Sam Salwei (United States), Tom Grundy (United States) and me, Luz Raquel Hern√°ndez-Cruz (Puerto Rico).  It is Taz's 3rd time racing the Patagonian Expedition Race, Sam's 2nd and Tom and I's 1st.  This will be our very first time cycling together and we are about to start the hardest race on earth.

Tom fixing the flat tire.
The race started sharply at midnight with the town people chanting the countdown.  Off we go!  All 11 teams cycling off to the next check point.  Our plan to stay with the lead group for the first leg of the cycle disintegrated almost immediately.

I quickly realized gravel roads are not my kind of cookie.  Sam was eager to keep going strong so he offered me the tow rope.  It was his very first time towing someone, my very first time being towed.  It was scary and weird.  It took me a few minutes to figure it out.  Not training as a team took a toll on us.  It was not the sharp rotation linear drafting formation we wanted but we were working on it. 

About an hour and a half into the race, Sam was towing me and we were finally in a semi-decent formation and booom!  His back tire practically exploded.  Sealant started shooting away from the tire and it became instantly flat.  Sam had borrowed a bike from Pete Clyden.  He didn't know it was a tubeless tire.  The tire sliced so badly that the sealant did not work.  We had to insert an inner-tube to fix it.  For some reason the valve stem collar was stuck.  Both, Sam and Tom tried to take it out for about 10 minutes.  We were sure it was impossible.  But they manage to use brute force and grippy gloves to take it out and fix the tire.  What should have taken 5 minutes took about 30.  We saw the last of the team pass us by.  We were dead last on the competition.
Tom and I in our Ellsworth Bikes.  Ignore the tow rope... ;-)

What followed was several (many – or maybe endless) kilometers of gravel roads; of us trying to establish a formation; of me getting towed by Sam and Tom (also his first time!) and of hills and hills of cycling.  Somewhere at about 4 am we passed a group.  It was Team Huemul Conservation.  They had stopped and appeared to be resting in the side of the road.  It gave us a little hope!  We were not in last place anymore!

Daylight came and with it an amazing view.  We were about to enter the Torres del Paine National Park.  The view was spectacular!  By now we were afraid we might miss the cutoff time for the second leg of the race.  We were pushing it as hard as we could.  Bumpy gravel roads are brutal.  They take a lot more effort to pedal than most roads.  I remember the entrance to the park.  We had to go by a bridge.  It was concrete.  It felt like the most polished surface I had ever pedaled on.  It was smooth, soft, easy.  I was so grateful for it.  All my pains and discomfort instantly disappeared.  I felt like I could pedal faster, stronger, longer!  It lasted 5 seconds and back to continuous gravel.

By now we were pushing redline on effort and time.  Sam was towing me on and off while Tom towed Taz.  As we saw the PC 1 (Punto de Control or Check Point) we wondered if we could make the cutoff time.  We pedaled, we hurt, but we made it with only 57 seconds to spare.

Entering Torres del Paine National Park

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