Menu

Swim, Bike, Run Europe: A Guide To International Racing

  • By Will Kelsay
  • Published May 8, 2014
Professional triathlete Will Kelsay and his partner Jennifer Fredrickson will be traveling around Europe competing in XTERRA races for the next 20 weeks, and they’re sharing their journey with Triathlete.com. In addition to chronicling their adventures, they hope to inspire age-groupers to take on new challenges.

One concept that has taken me a few years to fully grasp is how routine is great, but monotony will kill you. After a lackluster year in 2013, Jennifer and I felt like we had missed out on so many of the wonderful things life had to offer. Life was flying by and if we didn’t do something about it our bucket list of items would just sit there. For me, taking trips like this is nothing new, but each one is quite different. There are many things that I had to bring Jennifer up to speed on that I have learned from others sharing with me, or the old fashioned way, by doing it wrong the first time and learning from my mistakes (the former being the more enjoyable way). With all that being said, I wanted to share with you some ways for you to create an international adventure of your own and help you dodge the rocky spots.

The first steps

  1. Do your research on what race you’d like to use as your starting point. This sounds simple, but it all builds from here. If you find a race that excites you it will keep you motivated when it’s time to do all the admin work to make the trip happen. Do you want to do a half-Ironman? An off-road tri? Maybe dip your toes into an ultra run or long-distance swim? Maybe you want to do two races back to back? Find something that really floats your boat and go from there. If you need some inspiration, check out XTERRA’s extensive list of foreign races (www.xterraplanet.com) and Lost World Racing’s ultra trail runs (www.LostWorldRacing.com).
  2. In addition to the race, work in the “tourist” time, ideally after the race. By doing this, you build in your taper time at the beginning of your trip and save your adventurous travel time for the end. You can focus all that pent up energy from fewer training hours on your travel. It’s important to remember that you’ve done all the training that will benefit you in the race, so throwing in some panic training the week before won’t accomplish much. By structuring your time this way, once the race is over, you can relax and not feel guilty in any way for eating and drinking to your hearts delight. It’s time to focus on fun, friends, family, and relish in your accomplishment of your completed race.
  3. Plan the details out ahead of time. Doing things on the fly in the U.S. is much simpler than abroad. At home, you know the language, the culture and exactly how to get things done when something goes amiss. Not all that can be said when you arrive in a new country. Hopefully some of my tips will help you have everything planned out to go as smooth as possible.

Here’s the fun stuff. I wanted to share with you several of the little things (that you might not have thought about) that can make a big difference:

Contact the Race Staff after you Register

  • Send a quick thank you to the race contact for putting on the race, saying that you’re excited for the experience. This gives you the opportunity to double check if your entry process correctly and if all of your transportation and accommodations arranged through them are set. It’s no fun to arrive and find out you were left off the list.
  • Make sure you are receiving the race updates as the date approaches. I know many times I just skim these, but knowing these details ahead of time can really make a difference.
    • Write down the important details on paper. If for some reason you can’t get internet service, you don’t want to be left guessing where to go or what time things are happening.

Money

  • Call your credit card company and turn on international travel. This needs to be activated to use your card outside of the states. If possible, get a credit card with a microchip in it. Most American cards don’t have this, and most of the rest of the world uses it.
  • Get some cash at your local bank before you leave. Credit cards are not always accepted and the cash exchange shops at airports won’t give you a good rate.
  • Online banking is great if you need access while away. Just make sure you know your login info.

Language

  • If you don’t speak the language, that’s ok. I’ve traveled to over 15 foreign countries and gotten by fine with only knowing a few simple things:
  1. Figure out how to say hello, please and thank you. You’ll use those everywhere.
  2. After greeting someone, ask first if they speak English. It’s more polite and they are more willing to attempt to speak English if you ask first.

The Bike

  • Have a few tools to work on your bike. You don’t have be a seasoned shop wrench to be able to make minor adjustments. Check out www.Trisports.com for several options of small tools that you can bring with you, for both traveling and while training at home.
  • Getting your bike there. Two options: ship it or fly with it.
    • If you can ship it, this is a very good option. You can insure it (airlines will only insure a piece of luggage for $500, so you’re SOL if they break your bike) and you can also track it. This option can be more difficult because it takes a bit more planning ahead of time, but is much safer to ensure your $5000 two-wheeled steed makes it to the start line in good shape.
    • If you ship it, it will most likely go through customs, so don’t put a lot of extras in there with it. It’s likely any non-attached shinny items will draw the attention of a sticky fingered customs agent (I’ve seen it happen).
    • If you fly with your bike, here are some tips to make the process less painful:
      • Pack it really well. I mean REALLY well. Disassemble it as much you feel comfortable with and wrap everything in foam or old towels. Go to your local bikeshop and get the padding that the new bikes come shipped in. TSA will be taking your well-packed bike out to inspect it, so have it packed with enough padding that when they put it back, it’s easier to do right.
      • Never say the word bike when you are checking in at the airport. You are transporting “sports equipment.” By saying the word ‘bicycle,’ they will automatically change you the greatest fee they can come up with (many times they aren’t exactly sure what the exact price that you should pay is). You’d be surprised how an innocent smile and playing dumb can make things a lot easier. You will most likely be paying for your bike (ranging from $100 to $200 each way for international flights), but sometimes you can get lucky.
      • If it’s a mountain bike, take the brake rotors off. They will undoubtedly get bent if you don’t and it’s no fun to race with the brakes rubbing.
      • Remove the derailuer hanger. I learned this one the hard way in 2012 and found out in the middle of the race that my hanger was bent enough to snap my chain. You can leave the derailuer attached to the hanger, but unscrew the hanger from the frame.
      • Don’t put your CO2 cartridges in with the bike. TSA is looking for them there. They won’t make it to your destination.
      • Leave some air in your tires. You don’t have to leave them fully inflated, but a little psi will help add protection.
  1. Have someone at home as your go-to person. It helps to have a friend or family member who can be your eyes and ears back home while you’re away. You’d be surprised how many little things you might have forgotten about until you’re not there to do them. A big shout out to my Mom and Dad for doing this for Jennifer and I while we’re over in Europe all summer.

Internet and Phone

  • Phones are amazing in the U.S. and work almost anywhere on 3G or 4G. That doesn’t necessarily transfer across borders. Know the network ahead of time and if your plan will work there. You can turn off the cellular network and use your phone over wifi only to avoid any potential overage fees.
  • Apps are great once you’re on the move, but know ahead of time if they are any good.
  • Internet is easy to find most everywhere in across the 50 states and is free in many places. That’s not the case as you travel. Airports sometimes have free wifi, but not always. Get ready to pay by the hour to use it either on your phone or at an internet café.

Transportation

  • Getting a car (Americans call it ‘renting,’ everyone else calls it ‘hiring’) is a great way to be on your schedule before, during and after the race.
    • Be aware that your car insurance at home usually doesn’t work abroad, but many major credit cards offer car insurance when you pay with their card. Know this ahead of time; I was tricked into paying for insurance in Mexico when my credit card already fully covered it. I just didn’t know.
    • You can pick up an international drivers permit at your local AAA for around $15. You’ll still have to carry your driver’s license with you, but this is more easily identifiable to the foreign authorities.
    • FYI: Petrol stations (aka gas stations) are not all 24/7.
    • GPS on your phone may or may not work. You may want to take a GPS unit with you. And make sure the appropriate maps are loaded on before you arrive. Driving is not always based on cardinal directions like it is in the USA, and learning their style of direction can be difficult on the fly. I learned this here in Europe quickly when, in my first day on the road, I took more wrong turns due to confusing signage, than I did in my entire 12,000 mile U.S. trip back in 2007. Also, road names on your GPS may not match the local names (if you’re lucky enough to have street signs at all).
  • Some races offer to coordinate transportation for you. This is a good option to help lessen your responsibilities. It’s much simpler and will allow you to look around more as you travel.
  • If you have your bike, and possibly little ones in tow, taxis get expensive. Make sure to only use ‘official’ taxis as sometimes there are just guys with a car hanging out at airports. They’ll take you for a real ride and you’ll pay for it (happened to me once in South Africa).

Packing

  • Put all of your most important items in your carry-on. Keep your petals, shoes (running and cycling), helmet and kit with you so if your checked luggage gets lost, you have all your most important personal race items. You can fake the other stuff. A big shout out to Nathan (www.NathanSports.com), Outdoor Tech (www.OutdoorTech.com), Rudy Project (www.e-Rudy.com) and Altra Running Shoes (www.Altra.com) for outfitting us with the best performance gear and sports travel technology.
  • Bring extra gear. It’s easy to throw in an extra pair of your favorite goggles, but it’s hard to find a replacement pair on race morning if yours break when you put them on 30 minutes before the race.
  • Wetsuit and speed suit. Unless you are traveling to the Caribbean or other tropical area, bring your wetsuit. Time and time again, I have seen water miraculously drop to wetsuit legal levels on race morning. It’s not fun to try and race in a wetty you borrowed from someone just minutes earlier (again, I learned that one from experience).
  • Don’t forget to pack your favorite toiletries too. You probably won’t be able to find your favorite products, like Reflect Sports HooHa Ride Glide (chamois cream), swim shampoo and conditioner (www.ReflectSports.com).
  • Make sure to keep your bags under 50 pounds. When packing for a three-sport event, this can be difficult. The trick is to put the flying-friendly heavy items in your carry on. It’s harder to carry, but helps you avoid those monstrous overweight fees.
  • Bring drinks and snacks. On many occasions I will purposely fill my water bottle with Skratch Labs all-natural sports drink mix (www.SkratchLabs.com) and water before arriving at the airport. I always end up chugging it while standing in line for security and know that I’m on top of my pre-race hydration. I bring snacks because every time I walk into an airport I get a craving for Panda Express and having a Breeze Bar on hand helps keep me in check. Jennifer and I have lived on Breeze Bars (www.BreezeBars.com) for most of our trip this far!

Toilets (Yes, this gets its own bullet point. Relieving yourself is not always as easy as it is at home.)

  • Many countries don’t use toilet seats on their toilets. Sometimes there’s a toilet, sometimes there’s a seat, sometimes there’s just a hole in the ground. Get good with your aim.
  • Some countries don’t have public toilets and if they do, you have to pay for them.
  • Bring your own toilet paper. Some countries use paper that could scrape paint from walls, others don’t even have it. You’ll be much happier if you come out of the toilet with both socks still on your feet (in case of emergency, those can be used for TP).
  • Look for American restaurants like McDonald’s and Subway. Just like in the states, they design a bathroom into their restaurants.
  • The simplest piece of advice is that if there is a toilet nearby and you have the option to use it, do it. You never know when the next one (free or not) will be.

Food

  • If you are particular about your meals leading up to the race, bring it with you. Food is packaged in foreign languages, so you probably won’t be able to interpret the ingredients if you have special requirements like vegetarian, gluten-free, etc. Also, markets are small, may not carry what you need and may not be open when you need them. Stores aren’t as easy to find or navigate as at home, which can be part of the travel fun, but when you want to race well, don’t leave those few key meals to chance. Save the fun trying new cuisine for after the race.
  • Know the water. Some places it’s safe to drink, it might even be better than what you have at home, but some places have the same quality of H2O as a roadside puddle. I’ve learned from experience (again); check the bottle cap before you drink it.

The Course

  • Most of us will check out the course before we race it. At international races this is even more important. If you get lost on race day and don’t speak the language or can’t understand the signs, it’s going to be really hard to find your way back on course. Know where you’re going to get there fast.

Expect the Unexpected

  • If I have ever taken a race trip where everything went perfectly from the moment I left my front door until the day I returned home, I can’t remember it. That doesn’t mean things have been unpleasant, unplanned or unhappy, but rather that when unexpected situations arise, I was ready. That’s part of the reason you’re traveling somewhere new. You want to experience all that another country and culture has to offer, so just do a little work ahead of time to make sure you don’t make easily avoidable mistakes.

Do you have an international trip that you want to share with others? Something that every triathlete should try? Or maybe one that every triathlete should avoid? Tweet them to us here.

More “Swim, Bike, Run Europe.”

FILED UNDER: Features TAGS:

Get our best triathlon content delivered to your inbox

Subscribe to the FREE Triathlete weekly newsletter