Missed editor Brad Culp’s feature in issue 05 (April/May 2011)? Fresh from the print archive, here’s his take on racing and training in Mars—or, as close to it as most of us earthlings will get. Photography by Bob Foy.
You probably don’t remember the 1980 TV mini-series “The Martian Chronicles.” It wasn’t exactly a huge hit. The farcical plot follows astronauts sent from Earth to colonize Mars. The humans run into some strange-looking Martians and give them chicken pox, threatening the aliens with extinction. Some humans end up fighting to save the aliens, others seek their destruction, and in the end the writers tried to hammer home some message about how modern man’s lifestyle is bringing about the destruction of the entire universe. It was basically a really long version of Avatar with bad special effects and no 3-D glasses. While the costume design, explosions and dialogue were far from believable, the setting was surprisingly authentic. Charged with finding the most Mars-like location on Earth, the producers decided to head to a small volcanic island 80 miles west of Morocco.
Flying into Lanzarote, it immediately becomes clear why this island was chosen as the set of a movie that takes place on Mars. Lanzarote, and the other six major islands that extend westward to make up Spain’s Canary Islands, don’t really look like they belong in this world. Like Hawaii, the Canaries were forged by massive underwater volcanoes, which, over the course of a few thousand years, grew to produce islands. Rain is relatively rare, with most locations receiving around five inches per year. Throw in a few punishing climbs on each island, abundant, freshly-paved roads and almost no traffic, and it’s no wonder the Canaries have become the preferred training destination of Europe’s top triathletes.
Above: Pro triathletes Javier Gomez, Rasmus Henning, Martin Jensen, Emil Dalgaard, Bjorn Andresson, Massimo Cigana and friends make their way up on of the endless climbs of Fuerteventura’s lunar landscape
According to British superbiker Philip Graves, the Canaries are “the European version of Hawaii.” It’s no surprise then that Lanzarote is the preferred training destination for this 22-year old, who has every intention of winning in Kona one day. For this season’s winter training camp, Graves brought along his girlfriend and training partner, professional athlete Desiree Ficker. As an American, Ficker is a bit of a misfit on an island full of Europeans, but she doesn’t seem to mind.
“It’s unlike any place I’ve ever been to train,” Ficker says. “There are no distractions here. There’s some good entertainment at the resort and there are always activities if you go looking, but it’s a fairly bare-bones kind of place, which makes it very easy to focus.”
While in Lanzarote, Graves and Ficker make their home at the Club La Santa Resort, which has hosted endurance athletes for decades and has operated Ironman Lanzarote for the past 20 years. While they may be one of the fastest couples in triathlon, on most days, Graves and Ficker are far from the most famous athletes at the Club La Santa.
“There’s a really eclectic mix of elite athletes that come here to train,” Graves says. “The other day I saw (F1 Driver) Mark Webber hanging out. I was pretty starstruck—he’s a big deal if you’re British. There are also professional rugby teams, Olympic swimmers and runners, and so many other top-tier athletes. Whatever you’re training for, this is the place to get fit for it.”
Complete with a state-of-the-art gym, outdoor track and a massive 50-meter pool, athletes can squeeze in two or three workouts a day without ever leaving Club La Santa. But for most triathletes, what sets Lanzarote apart is the riding. The island has become infamous in triathlon circles for serving up arguably the most difficult Ironman course in the world with over 8,000 feet of vertical gain throughout the 112-mile bike leg. The most difficult climb on the course is known as Tabayesco, which is a weekly stop for most triathletes training here. According to Ficker, the scenery of the climb helps take a little burn out of the legs.
“You can see the water the whole way up, and sometimes there’s this algae that collects close to shore. It makes the water this amazing deep green, and if the sun is just right, the reflection makes the entire mountain look green. It’s on those kinds of rides that you realize how special this place is.”
Twenty minutes on the ferry from Lanzarote will take you to the island of Fuerteventura, where Danish triathlon great Rasmus Henning has relocated for the off-season. On most days Henning is the most decorated athlete on Fuerteventura, but today he has some venerable company. Reigning ITU World Champion Javier Gómez has made the short trip over from Spain to enjoy some winter training, as he has regularly done for the past few seasons.
Gómez and Henning have spent time training together in the past, but now with Henning focused squarely on winning Kona, and Gómez eyeing his third ITU world title, they only get together on occasion. Luckily for the two superstars, the island is chock-full of triathletes this spring, so finding good training company is rarely an issue. While Lanzarote has long been the preferred winter destination for Europe’s top triathletes, it seems Fuerteventura was the popular pick this year. Also at the Playitas Resort, where Henning lives with his wife and two daughters, were Andreas and Michael Raelert, Normann Stadler, Daniel Unger and Marino Vanhoenacker, just to name a few. Most athletes only stay at Playitas for a couple of weeks at a time, but Henning spent six months there this year while his new house was being built in Denmark.
“I’ve always wanted to have a place where I could stay and train for a long period of time and I finally found it here. I can have my privacy if I want it or I can go out and train with a big group. And my family is happy here. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Finding good places to train around Playitas is easy, although the training is anything but. Like Lanzarote, most roads on Fuerteventura head straight up or straight down, but the hills are often only half the battle. Winds gusting up to 50 miles per hour and temperatures around 90 degrees Fahrenheit can make a long day of training here feel like the Hawaii Ironman.
“The geography is so similar to the Big Island,” Henning says. “The roads are a lot like the Queen K—they’re wide open and completely exposed to the wind. The crosswinds in Hawaii are a lot less scary after spending some time here.”
Henning doesn’t need to venture far when he needs a workout that doesn’t involve 12-percent grade climbs and gale force winds. With a seemingly endless network of running trails and a 50-meter pool located within the resort, it’s easy for a triathlete to stay busy. Playitas also hosts a number of low-key running and triathlon races throughout the year, which Henning occasionally enters, much to the chagrin of any locals with hopes of pulling out a victory.
“It’s a small island, with only so many roads, so people always ask me if I ever get bored of training here,” Henning says. “My answer is always ‘no.’ If you’re a triathlete, you can’t get bored here.”