November 7, 2004
By Mike Roberts
We arrived in Panama City the Wednesday before the Saturday race. The weather was overcast, the wind was brutal, and the waves were six to seven feet. I thought about joining the organized swim practice, but when I learned that one competitor drowned soon after hitting the surf, I decided to extend my swim taper and stayed in the condo. By Friday afternoon, the weather cleared, the surf calmed, and the red flags were replaced with yellow flags. On Thursday and Friday I did the usual registration, race meeting, bike check-in, and drop off of the many transition bags. Needless to say, there were lots of very serious, nervous, and fit individuals in town.
I slept better than expected, woke at 4:00, ate an English muffin and a big carb/protein shake, grabbed a big bottle of Cytomax, and began walking alone toward transition a half mile away. The walk was strange; it was cold, pitch black, and, despite the fact that the streets were filled with athletes heading in one direction, it was silent. Once at transition, though, the energy started to build. I dropped off my special needs bags, got body marked, and made my way to my bike, where I aired up the tires, filled the two water bottles, attached a canister of salt pills, loaded the back of the bike with two bottles of IM cocktail (each bottle contained 600 calories – two scoops each of Met Endurance, CarbPro, and Cytomax). I had two more such bottles waiting for me at Mile 56 on the bike. I pulled on my wetsuit, grabbed my cap and goggles, and dropped off my warm-up clothes. The funny thing was, as soon as I finished my little pre-race checklist, I was immediately overcome with a sense of anxiety. Probably because I knew I only had one thing left to do.
I was a little nervous about the swim. I’m a pretty good swimmer, but I don’t like the aquatic combat that erupts at some triathlons. I don’t the know the actual figures, but we were down from 2,600 participants to 2,400 on Friday, and I heard that 2,100 or so finished. Still, it was a big crowd. By 6:30 a.m., I was on the beach. The weather was clear and 47 degrees, but the water was glass. Not a ripple to be found. The sand was freezing cold, my feet completely numb. According to the announcer, however, the water temperature was 78 and the air temperature would soon reach a maximum of 70 degrees. Perfect. I was surprisingly calm. I found my parents, who for the first time, showed real excitement about the event (they later commented that the atmosphere at an IMNA event is a little different than at a local tri). Anita and the kids were on their way, but I never saw them before the race.
When the music cranked up, the announcer started getting anxious, and the helicopter showed up, I knew things were getting ready to start. My plan, of course, was to take the entire day very slow and easy, as this was my first foray at this distance. I really had no plan to race this thing, just survive, finish, and enjoy. Still, the best piece of advice I got about the swim was to start toward the front, swim under 1:10, and you’ll enjoy the experience much more and avoid most of the combat. So, I lined up in the second row. When the cannon shot, we hit the water, and – suddenly – it felt just like a normal triathlon. The first 200 meters were a little rough, but I soon found some open ocean near the front, about 50 meters west of the pack that was hugging the buoy line. At the turn-around buoy 1,000 meters into the swim, things got very, very congested. I dog-paddled for a few minutes as we made our way around it, then headed east straight into the sun. After a couple hundred meters or so, it was back toward the beach. As we neared the shore, the huge crowd on the beach was a very cool sight. When I hit the sand in 30:45, my first thought was, “you’re the bravest, most amazing swimmer in the world, maybe you can break an hour.” That was quickly followed