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.