Remember the Rio Olympics? How the whole two years leading up to it was a total shit show? The arenas weren’t ready, the athlete housing didn’t have running water, crime was rampant, human sewage polluted the open-water swimming and rowing venues, and remember Zika? And then suddenly, it all sort of came together and was by most accounts pretty successful and seamless.
That’s the Havana Triathlon in a nutshell.
I’m talking about the race here. Read my travel-to-Cuba crash course here.
The race might be draft legal, or might not, and maybe aerobars and TT bikes are okay, but maybe not, and you might have to wear a one-piece kit or be disqualified, or wetsuits may or may not be allowed. The Havana Triathlon website and athlete guide conflicted each other in myriad ways, and even the athlete guide contradicted itself. Plus the newness of USA-Cuba travel presented it’s own hurdles; some airlines didn’t allow bike boxes at all, some would allow bikes, but only if they fit into standard-luggage size restrictions. Some airlines are okay with CO2 cylinders, but others aren’t.
Getting answers was next to impossible, so along with everyone else, I had to make best guesses on what to pack for my first international triathlon.
Packet pickup and bike check-in were Friday (race was Saturday) at the race start and T1 area of this two-transition race, for both sprint and middle distance (that’s what they are calling the 70.3). The two transition areas are about 12 miles apart, with the race start at the Hemingway Marina a long distance south from central Havana.
Check-in was just as confusing as all of the pre-race communications, with a 90-minute wait in line to get in the door. The holdup? Not all the race numbers had been printed, and each athlete was subjected to a medical interview (?!?!) complete with a temperature check.
Next we had to figure out the bag-check situation. The guide was clear in that bike and run gear needed to be checked the day before in specific bags. But volunteers seemed clueless as to where these bags were supposed to go. Same for the rumored athlete meeting, which may or may not take place at 7:00 pm, a full two hours after the close of check in. No one could locate the swim start, the swim in/bike out wasn’t marked, and perhaps most disturbingly of all, there were exactly TWO port-o-potties for 1,200 athletes. After spending four hours checking in, waiting around another 2 1/2 hours for an athlete meeting wasn’t an option. I was tired of standing around, and needed to focus on food and hydration.
My travel buddy Ryan and I had dined Thursday evening at a small restaurant near the Malecon, the seawall that lines the island around Havana. That meal hadn’t bothered either of us, so we repeated to load up on potatoes, beans and veggies for something like $9 each. The final challenge of the day? Figuring out how to get to the race start. We were told that cab drivers simply would not be awake at 5:00 am. But our host made a few phone calls, and convinced a friend to drive us to the race start.
The weather was looking daunting, with lots of sun and mid-day temps at 85 degrees. I’d been watching the weather in the weeks prior, and highs of 75 seemed more normal, but lucky us, it was a heat wave.
I’d brought little packets of peanut butter with me to Cuba, along with Clif bars and gels. The athlete guide said there would be nutrition on the course, but I didn’t want to take any chances. After a breakfast of peanut butter sandwiches and bananas (bought 10 for a dollar from a street vendor), it was 5:00 am and the car was waiting, just as Paco promised it would be.
At the race site, the confusion that reined yesterday had dissipated. Our bike bags were hanging neatly on hooks, and our run bags had been transported to T2. I’d wisely brought tissues for the long port-o-pottie line (which made me very popular), and chatted with other athletes, a huge number of which were American. The rumor was that the sprint race would not be wetsuit legal, but the decision hadn’t yet been made for the half, which I was doing. I said goodbye to my bike and walked to the start of the sprint race to see Ryan off, then headed to my own race start.
Natation (the Swim)
The swim took place within the marina, starting at the north end of one of the canals, heading south to turn left and swim down a different channel. So unless it was super windy (it wasn’t), there would be almost no chop, and no current at all. Basically, a salt water pool swim with very wide lanes.
10 minutes before the first wave, it was announced that wetsuits wouldn’t be allowed. Then 5 minutes later, the decision was reversed. I had already checked my bag, but figured I had time to retrieve it and fish out my sleeveless suit. There were four swim waves; one for elite men, two men’s waves and one women’s wave. There didn’t seem to be a lot of women for the half — maybe 40 of us?
Our wave come up and we jumped into the water from the wall, holding our position behind an imaginary line until the whistle.
All my pool training served me well. Sighting was a breeze. A bunch of people surged past me at first, but I didn’t worry about them and quickly settled into my own rhythm. No one swam over me, and I didn’t have trouble negotiating around others. Before long, I could see the turn buoy (and could see that people were cutting the corner — I didn’t). I noticed I’d caught up to some men from the prior wave. As the water was so warm, I was glad I hadn’t packed my full-sleeve suit, and was happy when we hit a couple of cool spots. Two left turns later and I was headed down the second canal for home, rehearsing my transition in my head. The last 100 meters or so, I fired up my kick to wake up my legs and focused on pulling hard to the finish. When I exited the water, a lot of people were clapping, so I knew I must have been one of the first out of the water.
I glanced at my watch – 40:30 for the 1.9km swim, which probably meant sub-40 since I started my watch about 30 seconds before the starting whistle. Sub-40 would be a PR for me, so I was pretty optimistic. Official results had me at 39:58, and 10th out of the water.
More odd confusion at transition. After grabbing my run bag, volunteers were pointing people towards designated changing areas. I dashed into a tent and was met with an uproar from volunteers as I was apparently in the men’s tent? Whatever — we were only stripping off wetsuits, so I didn’t understand the big deal. In any case, there were a couple of chairs in there, which saved me from hopping around on one leg. Easy peasy, and I ran to grab my bike.
Ciclismo (the Bike)
I’d packed two bottles on my bike. Bottle #1 was a two-scoop Perpetuum bottle, and #2 was plain water. In my bento box, I had two gels and a Clif bar. I’ve never seen such terrific aid stations on a bike course; there were probably six of them, all with cold water, gels and bananas.
The bike course for the half was in roughly three parts: a 15-mile northbound out and back with a turnaround near T2, then a 30-mile section on one side of a divided highway, then about a 10-mile (ish) return trip up to T2. The roads were in surprisingly good condition. Cuba is a poor country, and I didn’t expect smooth roads, but they were actually okay. The course itself is mainly flat, with some long rollers of no more than a 3 or 4% grade. We rode on a closed side of divided roads, with traffic diligently monitored by police and volunteers at every intersection. Given the lack of organization at check-in the day before, I certainly had not expected such abundant and competent on-course marshals.
I cruised out of transition and spent the first three or four miles finding my bearings and getting my legs spinning. The first section took us through the outskirts of Havana, and many pedestrians found themselves spectators. While the closed road was great, lots of pedestrians took advantage and wandered about on the road, or tried to cross, so I still had to keep my wits about me. I passed a few women and several men early on, and after the first turnaround, had plenty of space. The middle highway section was boring, but that actually made it easy to focus. Aside from the vintage clunkers on the other side of the highway, you could have been anywhere.
My dream was to finish the 90km in under 3 hours, but I thought 3:10 was probably more realistic. At the midway point, I was feeling good, averaging about 19 mph. I plucked off a few more men and one or two women. But at about 40 miles, I began to really feel the heat, and the sun now beating down. And some of the saddle/shorts problems I had noticed in my long training rides reared their head. I began having a lot of saddle discomfort and my shoulders were screaming. I fell off my pace in the last 15 miles, and was passed by a couple of women.
As I got closer to T2, we were back on city roads, with lots of people and kids, some cheering. I passed a bunch of boys making the universal ‘blow job’ gesture with their hands and mouths. I flipped them the finger. But a few minutes later, a bunch of little girls were going nuts cheering, and that was cute. I gave them a shout and a wave.
I cruised into transition at 3:04, another (small) PR for the distance for me. (The fastest woman clocked 2:32 on this course, which seems insane to me. Then again, ‘her’ name is Wolfgang, so that could be a reporting mistake.)
A volunteer took my bike from me, and another guided me to my run bag hanging on a hook. A quick shoe change and I was off.
Carrera (the Run)
The 21km run course was a two-looper, along the waterfront road in central Havana. By now, the sun was at it’s highest and there was simply no relief from the blaze. It must have been 85 at that point, but felt hotter surrounded by concrete. Bike-course support had been great, but run course support was terrible: water stations were weirdly spaced; some had run out of water, and none had anything but water. No electrolyte drinks, no gels, no nothing. I was glad I’d brought my handheld water bottle pre-loaded with NUUN tablets, along with a couple of gels in my race belt. I alternated drinking my electrolyte solution with water.
While I had high hopes for a two-hour or 2:10 run, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. The cold I’d been fighting for the last week was still in my chest, and the heat was so relentless. I had a little talk with myself at that point. I’d just do what I could, and keep moving. There were no course markings, so it was hard to tell exactly where I was, but I tried to shake it off and sink into the pain, trying to feel it as an abstraction rather than a reality.
I was passed by several women on that first loop, but even though I was really only trotting at a slow jog, I passed several of them again on the second loop after they’d given up to walk. While not hilly, the conditions were just brutal. Only two women even finished in under two hours. In the last two miles, I felt like I was able to pick up the pace and grit through the pain I felt pretty much everywhere. There were two women walking about 1/4 mile ahead, and I concentrated on passing them (they had passed me earlier).
Finally, I hit the finish chute and collected myself, keeping my head up for a decent finish, which my buddy Ryan was kind enough to record. Run time: 2:40.
In the end, I finished 3rd in my age group and 15th overall among women (of which there were only about 40). So hey! A podium for the first time in a half. Small race, sure, but I’ll take it. Unfortunately I didn’t stick around for the awards, and the trophies looked kind of cool.
Why the hell did I want to do this race? I struggle to remember. A big part of it was having an excuse to travel to Cuba, a place that’s only recently opened up to Americans. But I also wanted to redeem myself. I hadn’t raced a half-distance tri in almost two years; those two races in 2015 had been disasters. Eagleman, especially, was a horrible race for me. The 90+ temperatures, my lack of fitness, and my lousy mental focus resulted in more than 7 hours of misery and feeling sorry for myself. The Cuba race looked pretty similar to Eagleman: hot conditions, and a mainly flat course (=constant pedaling).
Although I didn’t come near my wished-for 6-hour race, I’m pleased with my swim and bike, both PRs even before I had breast cancer. My run, obviously, still needs a lot of work. I’m heavier than I should be and haven’t been able to lose weight (I suspect some major hormone issues). Plus I raced with a respiratory infection. Then there was the heat — my body just wasn’t used to that temperature so early in the year.
But I never gave in to negativity, and didn’t beat myself up mentally. It was my fastest half since 2013, so I have to be proud of that. In the end, I was 15th overall, and 3rd in my age group. But more than that, I felt strong and prepared, and had a great time in Havana. After showering and food, Ryan and I met up with other triathletes for salsa dancing until the wee hours of the morning.
Altogether a great day: A solid race, good nutrition prep, a positive mental attitude, and enough energy left to stay upright until 3:00 am and dance with Cubans.
Thinking about doing this race in 2018? Feel free to hit me up with questions!