So you’ve finally pulled the trigger and signed up for that destination race. Bravo! Traveling for a race is one of the most exciting and rewarding gifts that this wonderful sport has to offer. As a sports journalist and athlete, I have traveled to dozens of races across six different continents (you’re on my bucket list, Antarctica!), as well as countless others on American soil—and along the way I’ve learned more than a few hard lessons about triathlon travel. From what to pack to the easiest formula for beating jetlag, here are some do’s and don’ts for race travel that will help ensure you cross the finish line—and that mile-long security line—relatively unscathed.
Prepping For Your Trip
Once, during a reporting trip down to South America, my plane encountered some rather severe mechanical issues during takeoff, leaving all 200 passengers stranded in a shady airport hotel in Mexico City. This started an agonizing domino effect of missed flights and airport delays as I bunny-hopped my way down to Chile, finally arriving at the race hotel a mere seven hours before the start of the race. The moral of the story: If you’re traveling a significant distance for your race, give yourself what I refer to as an “Oh s&#t! buffer” because, well, s&#t happens.
Do know the minimum amount of time you need to be gone. For a shorter race (anything less than a half-Ironman distance), you’re safe arriving a day or two before, and flying out the same day of the race is doable. For a half-Ironman, I recommend at least two days before, as well as a full night’s rest before taking off. For a full iron-distance race, arriving a minimum of three days before is ideal, as well as at least a full day post-race to show off your finisher’s medal and re-learn how to walk up or down stairs. Tack on an extra day on either end to this anytime you’re heading overseas. Start storing up your sick days now, folks.
Don’t let the ticket agent pick your seat. Take the time to look at a map of the plane you’ll be flying in, and check out Seatguru.com to get an idea of what you’ll be working with. A bad seat can be the difference between a relaxing flight and several hours of hell at 35,000 feet. If you have a connection, try to be as far up front as possible, and if you can snag an exit row, it’s absolutely worth a few extra bucks on an international flight. I suggest an aisle seat so you don’t think twice before filling up that water bottle once (or twice) during the flight.
Do take the time to learn about the culture and the country you’ll be visiting. Is it a safe city to run in alone? Is your host city known for its sudden summer thunderstorms? Know before you go. Go to Usa.gov to keep track of any travel alerts for countries or regions you plan to visit.
Don’t wait until the last minute to get any travel visas you may need. Some countries require lengthy waiting periods or additional online forms you need to take care of before you enter the country.
Do check ahead for any bike bag fees. If you’re flying an airline you don’t have any status with (hint, hint), these fees can add up quickly, ranging from $50 to $100 (or more) each way. It’s been my experience that these fees vary widely depending on who you happen to get at the ticket counter, so if all else fails, being nice to that frazzled airline rep can sometimes help.
Packing It Up
After waiting in the sweaty, nearly empty baggage claim area of the Negril Airport for more than an hour, one thing had become abundantly clear: No one hurries in Jamaica. Soon after my bag—noticeably less bulky—finally spit out onto the carousel, another fun fact emerged into my travel-weary brain: Packing my camera, Garmin and expensive race sunglasses in my suitcase instead of safely in my carry-on wasn’t the smartest idea.
Do keep your valuables on you. From suitcase theft to baggage handlers that treat your bag like a football, you’re better off bringing a little more on the plane for safe-keeping.
Don’t skimp on bike packaging. Your bike is your baby during race travel. If you aren’t going very far and you’re short on funds, a cardboard bike box (expertly packed by a trusted bike mechanic!) will suffice. However, if traveling long distances to races is something you plan on making a habit of, then invest in a high-quality bike case. I like the SciCon Travel Plus Racing Bag because it’s somewhat affordable (around $250), and you don’t have to dismantle your bike hardly at all to get it in. However, if you travel solo you’re going to want one with wheels like the Thule Round Trip Transition travel case ($600). Using a case or bag is also a great way to keep all of your race-day essentials (helmet, shoes, etc.) in one place while freeing up some room in your suitcase or omitting it altogether if you pack light enough. If the idea of assembling your bike pre-race makes you antsy, then check to see if any bike transport services such as Tri Bike Transport operate at your race—the peace of mind they provide is well worth the price tag of $399-plus for overseas transport.
Do pack everything you need for race day first so you don’t forget anything essential. The fact that you remembered 10 pairs of underwear won’t matter nearly as much to you as the fact that you forgot your wetsuit. Go old school and write out a list and check everything off as it goes into the bag. And if you’re headed to a faraway land, consider packing your preferred race-day fuel. As long as it’s in an unopened package, airport security isn’t likely to confiscate it. (I once used an obscure Italian electrolyte drink for the first time during a race because I hadn’t brought anything of my own and the results were not pretty.)
Don’t forget your favorite over-the-counter medications. I always put together a stash of small amounts of various medications I might need while traveling abroad: anti-diarrheal, anti-inflammatory and decongestant. There’s nothing worse than getting sick a few days before a race—except getting sick and having to venture out for medicine in an unfamiliar place.
Do get your bike serviced before you arrive at the race. It’s a good idea to have someone look it over once it’s reassembled, but don’t save any major adjustments or repairs for the on-site bike tech. They’re busy, and you’re just asking for trouble.
Ready For Takeoff
The longest flight I’ve ever done is the almost 8,500-mile, 17-plus-hour flight from Atlanta, Ga., to Johannesburg, South Africa. The gate area in Atlanta was filled with other triathletes, and in the hour before the flight I watched as they performed what looked like a choreographed theatrical dance of jumping jacks, downward dogs and pigeon stretches. I opted to read Us Weekly instead. When we disembarked, I watched them nimbly climb up the jetway while I ambled like a wooden doll.
Do treat your travel day (and long-haul flight) like a recovery opportunity. Getting in a good stretch before (and during) the flight is key. (Discretely) do some stretches in the gate area focusing on your hip flexors, hamstrings and calves. Or use a small massage contraption during the flight like TriggerPoint’s MB1 Massage Ball ($15) or a RAD Roller ($25) to loosen your hips, IT band, plantar fascia and lower back. As soon as you get on the plane, take off your shoes and put on heavy-duty compression socks. Get up every hour or two if you can (another reason why an aisle seat is a good idea), and bring an eye mask and some noise-cancelling headphones so you can get some shut-eye without being disturbed by the banging of the bathroom door or that chatty guy in 31B.
Don’t turn down water! It’s well-documented how dehydrating recirculating cabin air can be, and if you’re a few days out from a big race, there’s no better time to start making headway into your fluid levels than while you’re stuck in a flying bullet. Bring a large, refillable water bottle with you and have the flight attendants refill it every time they come by with the cart. I keep a bottle of EnduroPacks sugar-free electrolyte replacement spray with me—it’s small enough for carry-on, and a few sprays into any water or drink delivers sodium and critical minerals like magnesium and silica.
Getting To The Starting Line
When I landed in Tel Aviv, it was 1 p.m., the sun was shining, and I felt as if someone had run me over with a Mack truck. I briefly remember the tour my gracious hosts took me on that day (it involved something very historically significant and the Bible), but all I could think about was getting to a bed and sleeping for 25 years. I collapsed in bed at 5 p.m., woke up at 12 a.m. starving, and by the time I hit the track at 6:30 a.m. I felt dizzy with jetlag. My Israeli friend saw my sad state and took pity on me, half carrying me to a coffee shop where I was introduced for the first time to very strong Israeli coffee—which to this day I still believe saved me.
Do learn how to overcome jetlag in time for your race. Everyone has their own method, and truth be told the more you travel the easier it gets, but jetlag can be bad enough to affect your race. Start adjusting to your destination’s time zone the second you step on the plane. Set your watch and try your hardest to sleep when you should be sleeping and eat when you should be eating. Keeping yourself hydrated and avoiding alcohol during your flight will help considerably. Try to stay awake once you get off the plane until at least 8 p.m. local time. If you arrive at your destination and you simply must take a nap, keep it to 30 minutes max. Head out for a run in the daylight and avoid working out indoors if possible—sunlight will help reset your internal clock. And try to get in your pre-race workouts early in the morning because jetlag tends to hit hardest in the early afternoon. The best remedy to push through it is either strong coffee or a mix of beet and tart cherry juice—I carry a few packets of antioxidant-rich Beet Boost with me because those juices can be hard to find.
Don’t book your hotel/homestay without a little reconnaissance. Get a map of your race venue or check it out online. Map out the distance from your hotel to the starting line. If you’re going to have to hail a cab anytime you want to get anywhere, the costs of a slightly cheaper hotel outside of town quickly diminish (not to mention the logistics of getting a bike into a taxi!). Being able to walk or ride to packet pickup and the start line can save you a lot of time and valuable energy.
Do take the time to check out the course. Oftentimes, races in different countries come with some “bonus” obstacles to overcome. While your local race features newly paved roads, many races in, say, Europe, can feature cobblestone streets and somewhat confusing signage. Do your homework and save some embarrassing aggravation on race day.
Don’t be shy. That loud guy standing behind you in line at the pre-race pasta party? He might be your new best friend (and he might also have some valuable course information or tips too!). Meeting new people and helping one another through the adventures of destination racing can be more rewarding—and memorable—than even the race itself.