Through the Gates of Hell
The Friendly Island Goes HalvsiesSt. Maarten and St. Martin are two halves of one island. The former is part of the Netherlands Antilles and is very American (they use primarily dollars, speak English, etc.) The latter is part of France, and is very French (but American-friendly). They use Euros on the French side, which makes it currently very expensive for us Americans.
We'd been to the island of St. Maarten once before, about five years earlier, and it has changed quite a bit. For one, the traffic is horrendous. If you visit, I highly recommend finding a nice spot and remaining there as much as you can during your stay. The roads are in very bad shape, very badly signed, filled with rental cars (and this wasn't even the high season), trucks, buses, endless construction projects, and locals who think nothing of stopping anywhere in the road to say hi to someone. Plus, there are almost no stop signs or traffic lights, and even though there are numerous roundabouts many people don't really know how to drive through them.
The weather was perfect -- in the 80s every day, with maybe one or two 5-minute refreshing rainstorms during the day or early morning. The wind did pick up some times, which added some chop to the water, and made the swimming much more "interesting". I love to swim, and was out every day, and I can say that the water was much more busy this time than when we previously visited. Jet skis, wind surfers, etc., none of whom expect to see swimmers, all made swimming across a bay a bit more of an adventure.
I rented a bicycle from a shop called TriSport, which I highly recommend. The island is very hilly, which makes cycling either more fun or more of a pain, depending on your demeanor. However, what really changed since my last visit was the traffic.
It was generally true that I could ride significantly faster than the cars, but it requires riding very aggressively. I learned this technique by watching the scooters and motorcycles on the roads there. You cannot ride on the right side of the road, as you will get cut off by almost every driver, and the potholes are immense. You have to ride right down the center line. If a big truck is coming the other direction, you simply pop back into the line of cars.
One other thing that has really changed in the past few years is the amount of construction. I had a magazine from a local nature group that had hiking and biking trail maps. I spent a couple hours trying to find a particular hiking trail and a nearby biking trail shown on the map. I finally found some promising dirt roads, only to shortly thereafter get chased out by a guy on an ATV, telling me that it was a construction zone. It seems the trails are gone, and are being turned into a pink hotel, a boutique, and a streaming hotspot.
Spoiled by the Unspoiled QueenAnyway, on the Friday after we arrived, we went down to the marina, put the rented bike in the back of the ferry, and took a ride over to Saba (also part of the Dutch Antilles). The boat takes a bit over an hour to get there. I knew nothing about Saba before we went, and nothing about the race, other than the fact that it was supposed to have a big hill climb on the bike, and that the run was mostly on trails.
However, from the ferry, I could see the bay where the swim takes place, and the start of The Road -- an incredibly steep incline at the base of an incredibly steep mountain. One of the ferry crew, on discovering I was planning on doing the race, started warning me about how hard it was. He described a 45 degree ascent on a road that was originally believed would be impossible to build.
Suitably scared, we landed. There was a truck waiting to take the bikes to the hotels at the top of the hill, and a taxi waiting for the race contestants. No, I didn't cycle up, even though it was only a few miles to our hotel. The island is only five square miles, and there is only one road (called, The Road), but it rises to something like 800 or 900 meters, and has a cloud forest at the top of its active volcano. The island is nicknamed "The Unspoiled Queen", and has only about 1500 inhabitants.
We had a great visit to Saba, as there is just about nothing to do. (There are no beaches to speak of, although scuba is very popular). Nothing but enjoy the view -- just about 360 degrees of seascape panorama. The village we were in is called Hell's Gate, and the guest house is The Gate House. That's right, a gourmet restaurant, with an award-winning wine list, extraordinary views, and as far as I know not a single door on the island even has a lock.
Isn't a Race Supposed to be Fast?So much for the fun part. The race was on Sunday morning. No getting around it. As usual, it rained for a just few minutes, but pretty hard, right around sunrise. Made it cooler for the race, but it also meant that the roads would be wet. Yes, the course was mostly uphill, but there are some short, steep, windy descents, and wet roads would make them more treacherous.
I got a ride to Wells Bay, where the race starts, and my bike found a ride in a truck as well. There was just a tiny beach for the start. (We were lucky -- a few days earlier, there was no beach at all.) There was just a tiny field of competitors -- about 16 individuals (like me) planning on doing the entire race, and seven teams of three.
The swim portion of the race (about 800 meters) starts on the beach, goes out to a first buoy, turns left to a second buoy, and then returns to the beach. The swell and surf were significant, but certainly swimmable. However, the buoys were small and were hidden from view by the swell when swimming.
The race started. As the mainlander not used to entering the surf, I was one of the last to actually start swimming. But there was a boat to sight on at the first buoy, I got a good line and swam steady, and I soon passed several swimmers and found myself alone. Eventually, I made it to the buoy, and two swimmers appeared from nowhere.
I didn't know it at the time, but one of the two was the man who had won this race every year so far, and who was to go on to win for the fifth time that day. But at the moment, all I saw was two swimmers, one who turned this way, and the other who turned that way. Of course, I couldn't see the second buoy, so I just chose a course half way between the two.
Of course, that was a bad idea. I was guaranteed to be wrong. But after a couple minutes, I was able to correct my course, and turned a bit behind the swimmer who had gone this way. Then it was hard back to the beach, and I was gaining on him all the way. I was still behind, when, by some miracle, I caught the wave to the shore just right and he didn't. I actually beat out of the water by four seconds the man who was to go on to win the race, and at that point I was in third place (over two minutes behind the two swim leaders), at what was to be my best position all day.
Then it was up the beach, over the rocks, and through the parking lot, where the bikes had been left. I took my time putting my shoes on, because I had just come by car down that road and I knew how steep it was. I had my excuses ready -- I was on a cheap, heavy, rented mountain bike. The chain was rusted (but all the gears worked) and I rode the bike with platform pedals wearing my running shoes. But I was looking to see if I could get up that hill anyway.
Take the steepest climb you've done. Now, double the grade (or maybe triple it). Then, climb that super steep hill for the first kilometer or more of a race, and keep climbing hard for most of the rest of the race. A small number of the competitors in this race actually ride all the way. Most end up pushing their bikes. I rode for maybe two minutes, red-lining the whole time, then zigged when I should have zagged, and ended up unable to continue on the pedals.
But the funny thing is, pushing the bike was almost as fast as riding it, and I was using lots less energy, so maybe it wasn't a bad idea after all. After maybe 15 minutes of pushing, I got to the top of the first climb. I got back on the bike, but I could barely balance, I was so tired.
There were more ups and more downs. Perhaps it was lucky that the roads were wet, as it gave me an excuse to go more slowly on the descents and take the time to recover. Then came the last climb, which was almost (but not quite) as hard as the first. This one I made without walking.
The ride was only 8 kilometers, but it had taken me over 50 minutes to complete. And I was wobbling on my feet as I tried to find the trail to start the run. I was now in eleventh place overall. I just went easy for a bit, hoping to find all the turns in the trail, and hoping to get into a rhythm.
But, alas, a rhythm was not to be found. I recovered my legs soon enough, but the trail got more and more technical. After a bit, it turned into a very long, steep, treacherous descent. I was wearing my road running shoes, the trail was slippery, and, although I run trails all the time at home, this was slow going. I got passed by one, two, three "runners" who, I swear, had mountain goat genes.
The "run" section of this race is only officially 5.3 kilometers, but I didn't get to the 1/4 mark until about 17 minutes into the run. I should be almost done by now! Instead, I'm getting passed by people who train at sea level.
Finally, the trail goes back uphill. Again, incredibly steep. But at least I'm more at home. Trail running in Colorado has prepared me for this part of the race. I start catching up to the people who had passed me. I'm getting more confident. But then more downhill, and I'm getting passed again. And then a very long uphill. I try to use the uphill to get as much time as I can, and I make my way past the three people who'd gone by me a bit earlier.
But there were some more sprinkles. The trail was getting muddier and more treacherous. And this long climb would end with a very steep descent almost all the way to the finish.
On the tricky part, another runner was staying right behind me, letting me pick my way gingerly down the trail in my now-mud-caked and soaked shoes, down the moss-covered rocks, every step carefully chosen. And when we heard steps coming up from behind, my shadow passed me, and then the other runner, leaving me to wonder what special shoes they must be wearing to get through this at such speed. I was well behind both of them at the finish, in 17th place overall (out of 23).
Some of the lessons for anybody to take into this race: First, it's all about the bike. You need to get the lightest bike with the easiest gearing, then you need to spend time training on these hills, or hills very much like them (if you can find them). Second, trail running practice is crucial (although very little of the trail section was actually spent running -- most was "speed hiking"). But having good trail shoes and practicing treacherous, slippery trail descents is the key. You cannot brute force that course.
But here's the biggest take away. This is a teeny race, all local. I'm sure I was the competitor from the furthest away. (Just about all the others were from Saba or St. Maarten or St. Martin.) Not counting travel, the race entry fee is only $35, and that includes not only the t-shirt, the pasta dinner the night before, and the BBQ lunch after the race, but also the taxi rides and truck transportation for the bike all around the island all weekend. This type of small event is something that you will never find in Boulder anymore.
So, if you are interested in doing something completely different, and adding a unique challenge to a relaxing vacation, consider the Saba Hell's Gate Triathlon. Send an email to Susy at TriSport and she'll help you arrange it; she was helpful to me in many ways.
And, by going into the race knowing that I was using the wrong bike and the wrong shoes, I was forced to do the race "just for fun".
[Updated 12/18/07 with this link to my pictures from Saba.]