One athlete reflects on her experience competing in the San Juan Half Ironman after witnessing her hometown recover from the devastation.
Photo: Carla Coira
Carla Coira is energetic by nature, but when talking triathlons, she gets especially animated. The mom of one from Puerto Rico will gush about falling hard for triathlons, combining her love of the feeling of accomplishment with the constant desire for self-improvement. Coira discovered triathlons after joining a spinning club post-college and has competed in five Ironmans and 22 half Ironmans in the 10 years since. "Every time I finish a race it's like, 'okay, maybe I'm going to take some time off,' but that never happens," she admits. (Related: The Next Time You Want to Give Up, Remember This 75-Year-Old Woman Who Did an Ironman)
In fact, she was training for her next full Ironman, scheduled for the next November in Arizona, when word spread that Hurricane Maria was about to hit her hometown of San Juan. She left her apartment and headed for her parents' house in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, since they had electricity generators. Then she waited anxiously for the impending storm to hit.
The day after the storm, she returned to San Juan and found out that she had lost power. Luckily she didn't have any other damage. But as she had feared, the island as a whole had been devastated.
"Those were dark days because there was a lot of uncertainty about what would happen, but I was committed to do the full Ironman in less than two months," Coira says. So she kept training. Training for a 140.6-mile race was going to be a huge feat, but she decided to continue if only to take her mind off the effects of the hurricane. "I think the Ironman helped to keep us going through those difficult times," she says.
Coira had no way of contacting the coach of the local team she trains with since no one had cell phone service, and she couldn't bike or run outside because of fallen trees and a lack of street lights. Swimming was also out of the question since no pools were available. So she focused on indoor cycling and waited it out. A few weeks went by, and her training group reconvened, but Coira was one of few to show since people still didn't have electricity and couldn't get gas for their cars.
With just two weeks before the race, her team was back to training together—albeit under less-than-ideal conditions. "There were a lot of trees and fallen cables in the streets, so we had to do a lot of indoor training and sometimes set up a hook or a 15-minute radius and start training in circles," she says. Despite the setbacks, the whole team made it to Arizona, and Coira says she felt proud that she was able to finish given that a huge chunk of her training was solely cycling indoors. (Read about what it takes to train for an Ironman.)
Photo: Carla Coira
The following month, Coira started training for the Half Ironman in San Juan scheduled for March. Luckily, her hometown was effectively back to normal and she was able to resume a normal training schedule, she says. In that time, she had seen the city she lived in her whole life rebuild itself, making the event one of the most meaningful moments in her triathlon career. "It was one of the most special races, seeing all the athletes from outside of Puerto Rico come in after the condition it had been in and seeing how beautifully San Juan has recovered," she says.
Getting to run through the scenic course and spotting the governor of San Juan competing alongside her added to the high Coira felt from the event. After the race, the Ironman Foundation granted $120,000 to nonprofits to continue Puerto Rico's recovery, since there's still a ways to go, and many residents are still without power.
Coira's positive outlook despite the devastation is something she shares in common with most Puerto Ricans, she says. "My generation has seen a lot of hurricanes, but this was the biggest in about 85 years," she says. "But even though the devastation was worse than ever, we chose not to dwell on the negative. I think it's something cultural about people in Puerto Rico. We are just resilient; we adapt to new things and continue to move forward."
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