I’ve recently returned from my first race trip of the year, which took me to three countries, for three different races, over the course of three weekends in a row. I was fortunate to also earn three podium finishes along the way, which was a freaking awesome way to start the season, but as I’ve always said, I’m a pretty firm believer that the racing really is secondary to the experiences. So, while I promise that I will post up a quick recap of the races for those interested in all the dirty off-road details, right now what I’m most excited to tell you all about are my travels, and everything I experienced and learned while on the road. (And as usual, I find that the lessons I learned abroad, and by extension through triathlon, really are applicable to all of life!)
On this trip, which was the kick-off to the 2017 Xterra Pan-American tour, I had race stops in Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica. I raced in Costa Rica last year (and loved it!), but Argentina and Chile were new races for me, and also new countries for me. These are also countries that have long been high on my bucket-list, so I was incredibly excited about this opportunity! But I was also, admittedly, a little bit nervous. This was the first time I had ever traveled to a non-English-speaking country by myself. In the past I’ve always been fortunate enough to have either August or other friends/fellow racers by my side. But this time, it was just me. I do speak Spanish, but I am certainly not fluent, and was by no means immune to communication issues. The travel itinerary was extensive, with lots of room for error, as I would need to navigate planes, buses, taxis, and some good old-fashioned walking (with lots of baggage!) over the course of more than 40 hours of travel just to arrive at my first destination of the trip, in San Juan, Argentina. And that was only the beginning…
Needless to say, this was a trip FULL of adventure, with no shortage of mis-adventure thrown in along the way. In many ways it was every bit as challenging as I expected, but in so many more ways it absolutely surpassed all of my expectations in terms of simply being completely, utterly amazing. Each of these countries was so incredibly special in its own unique way, and I feel extremely lucky to have been able to experience them in exactly the way I did, adventures and misadventures alike!
So, as I made my way through Argentina, Chile and finally Costa Rica, soaking up every aspect of the journey along the way, here are a few of the things I learned (or re-learned!) en route:
- No matter how prepared you think you are, you just can’t avoid the packing scramble. Getting ready for the first race of the year is always a shit-show — no matter where you go! (What all do I need for a triathlon again…?! Where the heck did I put that thing last October…?!) But, throw in the fact that the first race is abroad, in a country you’ve never been to, and the packing turns into an epic mega-scramble! Getting ready for this trip was unbelievably chaotic, and the last several days before I took off were spent in total panic mode trying to get all my stuff together. As always, so many things didn’t really come together until the last possible minute, so there was a lot of stress attempting to get organized and nail down all the final details. I put so much effort into prepping for this trip, and had every good intention of being ready to go well ahead of time, but nevertheless I still found myself frantically re-adjusting bags at the Denver airport (since we don’t have a scale at home), deciding what I could leave behind at the last moment. I guess I will never actually break this cycle, despite my best efforts…
- Speaking of packing, don’t forget your Pepto-Bismol!!! (And go ahead and throw in some basic first-aid gear too.) I thought I was pretty prepared for this travel, and was really quite proud of my packing job in the end, but I totally hadn’t even thought about bringing any of the basic medical necessities for a trip abroad. Fortunately for me, my friend, fellow racer and eventual travel-buddy Suzie was far smarter than I was — and also kind enough to share with me when I found myself sick-as-heck the night before the race in Argentina. After waking up with one of the most horrendous stomachaches of my life, I spent most of the rest of the night “on the toilet,” – except that our toilet didn’t work, so I was actually outside, in the bushes. (#KeepinItReal here with all the details…!) It was about as un-fun as you could possibly imagine, and I had pretty much zero expectation of being able to race in the morning. But that Pepto-Bismol and Imodium Suzie gave me after she woke up worked some serious freaking miracles, and somehow I was able to make it to down to the race start, get through it all without sh*tting myself, and even finish pretty dang well, despite feeling like I wanted to die afterward as I spent the next hour in the fetal position. Let’s just say, I will never again leave home without these things in my own bag. Absolute lifesavers. (Also, thank God for 10 a.m. race starts!) (Also also, always travel with toilet paper! Fortunately, this was a lesson I already knew!)
- Always take out more money than you think you need — and just go ahead and exchange it at the airport! This was probably one of my biggest mega-fails of the trip. When I first landed in Santiago, I exchanged some USD $ for Argentinian pesos before hopping on my next flight across the border, but only a small amount. I thought I was being super smart and savvy by exchanging only a little bit there, where the rates are notoriously poor, to get me through the first day or two of my trip, and then planned to exchange more later at a bank. Biiiig mistake! As it turned out, my money went so much more quickly than expected as the charges added up throughout the rest of my travel day (a second bike fee after switching to a new airline; cab to the bus station from the airport in Mendoza; bus ticket purchase; being asked to “pay for the bike” on the bus, only to watch the baggage loader pocket the money; etc., etc.). By day two, I was virtually out of cash, and as the rest of my time in Argentina ended up going, I never did get a chance to make it to the bank. This led to lots of panic through the remaining days, and particularly on my travel day back to Chile. I also learned, several times over, that ATMs in South America do NOT like American bank cards. Not a single one of the nearly-a-dozen that I tried throughout the week ever worked for me. Fortunately, I made it through the week with my credit card (racking up those foreign transaction fees like a true champ!), and once again was reminded of the value of friendship when I was able to borrow some extra pesos from Suzie to enable me to make it through the travel day back across to Chile. Otherwise, I’d have been royally screwed!
- On that note… If you’re going to use a card somewhere, make sure that particular card is accepted there before you try to make a purchase. Especially before you go and eat a full dinner, only to find out that the restaurant only takes Visa when you brought a Mastercard. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself running down the streets of San Juan at close to midnight to retrieve your Visa from the hotel so that you can return and pay your bill! Woooops…!
- And on that note, be able to laugh at yourself. Traveling when you’re already exhausted from traveling is hard. There will be communication issues, and a whole host of various challenges. You will make mistakes. If you’re anything like me, they will be really silly mistakes, like finding yourself at the front of the security line for the domestic terminal rather than the international one after clearing customs in Santiago, Chile, and then checking back in for your second flight, to Mendoza, Argentina. (Or, finishing a meal only to realize you have no way to pay for it.) But while the mistakes are sure not fun when you’re already exhausted and clearly not thinking (or reading!) properly, in hindsight these moments are actually pretty darn entertaining. Bottom line: when traveling abroad, it is absolutely crucial to be able to laugh at yourself… and then carry on.
- It will all be OKAY in the end! Despite all of my meticulous mental preparation and research, my entire first travel day was basically a series of me making mistakes like those mentioned above, and going back and forth between feeling like a total idiot and fending off momentary panic attacks, to feeling like the most bad-ass, expertly traveled independent woman ever – depending on how I was navigating things at the moment. I cheered myself on throughout the day, with lots of #YouGotThis, and breathed a big sigh of relief with each step checked off. There was no shortage of bumps in the road, but fortunately, in the big picture, none of them were too serious. And as I navigated my way through each one, I had to constantly remind myself that everything was okay! With a little calm and perspective, and the occasional pep-talk from home, I was able to see that what felt like the end of the world in the moment was actually really not that big of a deal. In the end, it all works itself out, even if in a totally different way than pictured.
- And that’s because… For every problem, there is a solution. And often times, with a little creative thinking, the end result is actually even better than initially planned. Let’s take, for example, the day Suzie, Branden and I found ourselves stuck at our hotel in San Juan, when we needed to transfer to the race venue about 30 minutes away – each of us with a bike bag, giant suitcase, backpack and some grocery bags. We needed a full cab each to make it out there with all our stuff (the cabs there are quite small), but of course there was that whole “no pesos” problem for me… and Branden didn’t have any either. After walking around for over an hour on an ATM search with no luck, we returned to find two other racers heading out to the venue. Their names were Maxi and Victoria, and lucky for us, they were absolutely as nice as can be. They helped us squish everything into their truck, including ourselves, and brought us out to the venue with them. It was one of the most hilariously cramped rides I’ve ever taken, but also one of the coolest. And as I sat there in the back with my giant suitcase in my lap, drenched in a puddle of my own sweat and unable to see out the front of the truck, I couldn’t help but smile at being surrounded by friends both new and old, and I felt so lucky to be exactly where I was, doing exactly what I was doing in that very moment.
- People are inherently nice. Like Maxi and Victoria, whom I now consider great friends and very much look forward to seeing again at future Xterra races! (And who also gave me yet another ride out to the race venue in Chile, and even fed me lunch beforehand!) But well beyond that, there were numerous times during my travels that I found myself in questionable situations, and wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I was going to get from people, but in almost every case I was absolutely blown away by the kindness and understanding that was shown to me. Sure there were a few minor exceptions, but the overwhelming majority of people I came across throughout these three-and-a-half weeks were incredibly, remarkably kind, and I couldn’t have been more appreciative.
- When you’re not sure about something, just ASK! As mentioned above, people are inherently nice, and really do want to help you out most of the time. Besides, you will feel – and look – a whole lot less silly by simply asking the questions before you make a mistake.
- A smile goes a long way! Growing up, my friend Lindsay and I used to say that when you didn’t know what you were supposed to be doing, your best move was to “Just nod your head and smile.” We always laughed about this, but I’ve come to realize that it’s actually pretty useful advice. If you’ve asked the questions, and still have no idea what’s going on, a smile and a friendly disposition really can take you a long way. I can’t tell you how many times I relied on this fallback during my travels, and it almost never failed. Also, I’ve learned again and again the value of the “A for Effort” theory. Even if you can’t communicate super well, I’ve found that people really do appreciate effort. Whether you know a lot of the native language or only a tiny bit, give it your best shot. And if all else fails: don’t forget to smile!
- ALWAYS carry snacks. Especially when you decide to run through the lunch hour in San Juan, excitedly taking in all the sights and color and vibrancy of a city so full of LIFE as everyone enjoys their lunch break… only to realize that you’ve finished just in time for the ciesta, when all restaurants and grocery stores are now closed, and you yourself have zero lunch options. All I can say is, thank God for CLIF Bars, time and time again.
- Sleep whenever you can. Same goes for eating. When you’re on the road and on the move, you don’t always know when your next good meal might come, or what your next sleeping scenario will be. Eat the airplane food, even if it’s awful. Because it’s a heck of a lot better than being hungry. Take a nap in that bus seat, because you who knows when your next opportunity may be. Just do it. Sleep is gooood!
- Buckle up! And leave the driving to the locals. I’ll leave it at that, but let’s just say if you make your way to South America, and particularly Argentina, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
- CTFO, and BE ADAPTABLE. This is honestly probably my number one lesson, not just from this trip, but in all of life. When you’re racing in three foreign countries, with schedules and cultures very different from your own, things are not going to be just like they are at home. In fact, most things probably won’t be even remotely like home. Change is basically a constant when traveling, and things almost never go according to plan. Expect the unexpected. Be ready to adjust, and to adapt. Keep an open mind. Above all, do not freak out when things don’t go the way you want them to. If you’ve come in to a race week abroad with a strict training plan, go ahead and throw that shit out the window now. Let it go. CTFO. (If you don’t know this acronym, look it up, and adopt it in your daily life going forward! ;)). In Argentina, most of our dinners started at 10 p.m. and ended around midnight. We didn’t get to bed before 1 a.m. for the first three nights in a row. It was certainly not the ideal race prep we were all used to, but stressing out about it wasn’t going to do us any good. You’ve got to just roll with it – and better yet, embrace it. Enjoy the company. Drink that last glass of Malbec at dinner, and stop worrying about your watch. When you get lost, take in the view. When you don’t get out for a pre-ride until 6:30 p.m. instead of your planned 3:00, just enjoy that beautiful sunset, and let the rest go. Soak it all up, and be in the moment. It’s all a part of the joy of travel, and embracing the experience fully, for exactly what it is. After all, you don’t travel all the way to South America to sit in your room in compression socks all day… As I always say, you can’t lose sight of what is actually important. If I were to ask myself what I will really remember about this trip 10 years from now, I know hands down that it won’t be my race results, but rather everything that happened in between. And it’d be a darn shame to think I spent that time stressing out about all the things I couldn’t control, rather than simply enjoying them as they came.
- Connection knows no borders or language barriers. I can’t possibly overemphasize how many times this was reiterated to me throughout my trip. It is absolutely true that everywhere you go in life, it is the people who make a place what it is, and who shape your experience there. I was beyond fortunate to come across so many incredible people who made my experiences in each of these countries so wonderful. And even in times when communication was difficult, or extremely limited, I was constantly in awe of just how much connection I still felt with everyone I met. Sometimes, you just don’t need words. Because when it comes to the really important things in life, there’s an unspoken understanding; a connection that runs deeper than language. I will remember many of the people I met on this trip for the rest of my life; and even consider some of them family. I had the most incredible host family in Chile, and truly did feel just like I was another member of their familia by the time the week was over. It was really difficult to leave there after all they did for me and what an amazing connection we established, but I know that just as differences in language can’t prevent a connection, distance also can’t break this one. I’m already excited to go back and visit them again next year!
- Traveling is HARD – but oh so worth it! This was my most intensive travel thus far in my racing career, and man was it exhausting! Racing three weekends in a row was difficult, but that part was nothing compared to all the navigation in between. I was SO fortunate to have so many people helping me out along the way and making things a whole heck of a lot easier than they otherwise might have been, but it was all still a challenge. I know there are many racers out there, on different circuits and in other sports, whose travel schedules are significantly more demanding than mine, and I have so much respect for them for getting it done week after week despite all of that extra stress. However, I can also say with certainty that, while difficult at times, traveling is absolutely one of the most rewarding things out there. And while “Race-cations” certainly aren’t actually vacations by any means, there’s still plenty of opportunity to take in the sights, sounds and most of all the heart of a new place while racing on the road, and in a totally unique and incredibly special way that many others won’t ever experience. I couldn’t be more grateful for all the ways I was able to do just that on this last trip, for everyone who helped me along the way, and for everything I learned in the process.