Triathlon Magazine Canada - - DEPARTMENTS - BY LOREEN PINDERA

Iron­man 70.3 Carta­gena

THE SUN WAS just ris­ing over the for­ti­fied walls of Old Carta­gena as I el­bowed my way to a good van­tage point on the muelle de la Bode­guita, the board­walk over­look­ing the colo­nial-era port.

It was al­ready af­ter 6 a.m., the of­fi­cial start time of Iron­man 70.3 Carta­gena, but things were run­ning on Latin Amer­i­can time. No one seemed per­turbed. At last, a brass band on the deck of the navy ves­sel moored there struck up the na­tional an­them. Sailors in their crisp whites stood at at­ten­tion, and the crowds around me ceased their jostling and joined heartily in song.

Stern vol­un­teers or­dered on­look­ers to cover our ears: a can­non blast, and the pro men were off.

It is hard to imag­ine a more mag­nif­i­cent set­ting: wave af­ter wave of swim­mers head­ing out in the warm, pro­tected wa­ters of the Bahía de las Án­i­mas in the di­rec­tion of a loom­ing stone fortress called the Castillo de San Felipe de Bara­jas, then turn­ing to­ward the gleam­ing white con­do­minium tow­ers of the Boca­grande be­fore head­ing back to­ward the walled old town.

Stand­ing two and three deep along the fence that sep­a­rated on­look­ers from the ath­letes, spec­ta­tors waved bal­loons and yelled en­cour­age­ment as the swim­mers emerged from the bay and ran to­wards the tran­si­tion zone. And so it would be, all day – rau­cous sup­port from ex­u­ber­ant fans who baked, along with the ath­letes, in the un­re­lent­ing sun as the ther­mome­ter climbed into the mid-30s.

I had come to Carta­gena at the urg­ing of Costa Rica na­tive Wil­ber An­der­son, the founder of Mi­ami Tri Events. An­der­son added Carta­gena 70.3 to the Mi­ami and Costa Rica 70.3 races al­ready in his sta­ble and, when we met in Playa del Coco in 2017, he was fresh off the 2016 in­au­gu­ral race in Colom­bia and could not say enough good things about it. The race is the cul­mi­na­tion of a dream for An­der­son’s part­ner, 50-year-old Ed­win Var­gas. The wiry Colom­bian coaches 200 triath­letes of all lev­els from his base in Key Bis­cayne, Florida. A one-time pro, Var­gas still has the fire. Last Septem­ber, he won the 10th edi­tion of the Epic 5 Chal­lenge, billed as the “world’s tough­est triathlon”: five Iron­man- dis­tance races in five days on five Hawai­ian is­lands. Var­gas saw Carta­gena, al­ready a prime tourist desti­na­tion, as a venue where he could

show­case the beauty and the rich his­tory of his home­land to the world triathlon com­mu­nity.

“You com­pete in the ocean. You run in­side the walled city – a UNESCO World Her­itage Site,” he said. “You see peo­ple lean­ing from their bal­conies and clap­ping.”

“It’s a beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful race, with danc­ing and mu­sic. It’s a car­ni­val!”

I met Var­gas the day be­fore the main event, as 300 ju­bi­lant, sweaty boys and girls, some as young as four, showed off their medals to their par­ents and friends at the fin­ish line of the Ironkids foot race.

“Th­ese are the lit­tle triath­letes of the fu­ture,” said Var­gas. “I am so proud of all of th­ese kids and so proud of their par­ents.”

Many of those par­ents were Colom­bians prep­ping for their first 70.3 race. Three years ago, only about 500 Colom­bians had ever com­peted in an Iron­man event. By 2018, there were 3,500.

“Now we have teams in all cities,” said Var­gas. “A lot of peo­ple come and watch, and they tell me: ‘Ed­win, next year I am sign­ing up for this race, be­cause it’s our race.’ For me, it is very im­por­tant.”

In a coun­try with a stub­bornly high in­equal­ity gap, where the monthly min­i­mum wage is just over US$250, triathlon is far from af­ford­able for many. How­ever, Colom­bians love sports, and they have signed on en­thu­si­as­ti­cally. Var­gas says it’s not un­com­mon to see lo­cals at­tempt­ing their first triathlon on a $200 bike, with­out cli­p­less pedals. Many promis­ing age groupers have found spon­sors to help pay for their gear and races.

The sport is also catch­ing on with Colom­bian women. In 2016, only 13 per cent of the par­tic­i­pants in the Carta­gena race were women. By 2018, that fig­ure had more than dou­bled to 28 per cent.

Var­gas says watch­ing other women par­tic­i­pate in the race has in­spired many fe­male spec­ta­tors to say, “I can do this, too.”

“It’s a beau­ti­ful sport. It’s healthy. It’s good for your heart and for your mind, as well,” he said. “You can ap­ply what you get from this sport to your work, to your fam­ily, to your life.”

Carta­gena is about the size of Mon­treal, and the traf­fic is chaotic. In the days lead­ing up to the race, I couldn’t fathom how or­ga­niz­ers would man­age to shut down streets clogged with taxis, scoot­ers and horse-drawn car­riages to make way for more than 1,700 triath­letes.

The bike por­tion in­volved clos­ing a 45-kilo­me­tre stretch of the Via al Mar, the high­way that runs along the Caribbean Sea past beaches and man­groves. The course is flat and fast, with kids from the out­skirts of the city lin­ing the road to cheer ev­ery­one on – even the strag­glers.

The high­way and the streets lead­ing to it seemed eerily quiet on the morn­ing of the race, save for the revving of the en­gines of mo­tor­bike en­thu­si­asts there in full club regalia to help the po­lice pa­trol the bike route.

“We have a long list of vol­un­teers,” Var­gas told me. “We are work­ing with the lo­cal schools and the uni­ver­si­ties. We have the sup­port of the mayor of Carta­gena, the gov­ern­ment, the po­lice, the army, the navy.”

It all added up to a lo­gis­ti­cally well-oiled ma­chine, with aid sta­tions at ev­ery kilo­me­tre along the blisteringly hot run course, and hawk­ers mak­ing a de­cent profit sell­ing ice-cold bot­tled wa­ter and straw sun hats to the spec­ta­tors.

Brazil­ian Paulo Ma­ciel da Silva broke the tape at the fin­ish line in 3:55:29, edg­ing out Aus­tralia’s Tim Rea by a 1:38 mar­gin. Lau­ren Goss of the U.S. fin­ished first in the tiny field of four pro women, her se­cond vic­tory in Carta­gena, in 4:22:54.

Af­ter the pros came in, the spec­ta­tors hung in there on the sizzling side­walks for an­other four hours, cheer­ing wildly for ev­ery triath­lete who crossed the fin­ish line, no mat­ter what their pace. Triath­letes like Sa­muel Bo­cane­gra, a 46-year-old for­mer mil­i­tary of­fi­cer who lost a leg to a land­mine in 2001. Run­ning on a pros­thetic blade, his dog along­side him, Bo­cane­gra fin­ished the race in 7:43:46. He was hailed as a cham­pion, as was Juan Car­los Cruz Valder­ruten, the 57-year-old Colom­bian who was the last triath­lete to cross the line be­fore the cut-off.

The Carta­gena race isn’t yet on the radar of many glo­be­trot­ting Cana­dian triath­letes. We were only half a dozen at the 2018 event. Ed­win Var­gas hopes to change that. The race or­ga­nizer has his sights set on be­com­ing the venue for a 70.3 World Cham­pi­onship, when it next comes up for grabs.

“I am an am­bas­sador for Colom­bia,” said Var­gas. “We are at this mo­ment in a new cen­tury, and this is a new coun­try. Colom­bia is safe. It’s beau­ti­ful. It has moun­tains; it has the sea. The prob­lem is, when you come here, you won’t want to leave.”

Mon­treal’s Loreen Pindera is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Triathlon Mag­a­zine Canada. Read her “In­side the Age Group Mind” col­umn on p.8.

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