If general tourism is technically banned, what excuse are people using to visit Cuba? Triathlons.
Late in 2016, the U.S. eased its travel restrictions to Cuba. American athletes now have the perfect excuse to come visit. La Havana Triathlon offers a sprint triathlon and half-ironman race that drew over nine-hundred athletes looking for a new adventure.
The race does not disappoint.
The day before the race is when my dad and I meet a fellow T1D athlete, Mike, and his wife, Andi, who came to travel and compete. Andi recognizes me while looking at Instagram and seeing our La Hababa Triathlon shirts. Read the story leading up to race day here (link).
Did you do the sprint or half-ironman? “Training” for the race lined up perfectly with the holiday season and cold weather in NYC. Sprint became the obvious choice.
The Course of the Habana Triathlon
At 6:15 a.m. our taxi driver pulled into the Marina Hemmingway to sprawling crowds of triathletes roaming around the first transition area.
Race morning offers this combination of adrenaline and exhaustion that makes you nervous, weary, and excited all at the same time. Breakfast is always light, some granola, with a close eye swiping up and down on the iPhone to check my continuous glucose monitor.
“Want to see what adrenaline does your blood sugar?” I point out to Andi since Mike is considering getting a CGM soon.
Adrenaline causes my blood sugar to climb a consistent 3 points every 5 minutes despite starting at a perfect 100 mg/dl when waking up. My mind considers putting a temporary basal increase to keep off the rise. However, my fear of having IOB, or insulin on board, before hopping in the water keeps me away from treating this steady rise.
A Half-Mile Swim in the Marina
After a too-long wait at the port-o-johns, we need to sprint down the pier to reach the race start: “Is that the blue caps in the water already?”
The water is calm and warm. “This feels like swimming in the pool. Slow and steady strokes. You got this,” my mind begins reassuring itself as water laps over the swim cap.
After a few strokes I hit a rope. Apparently, the race did not start yet. We were being corralled to a new spot. Phew. At least I get to start with my wave before they leave me in the dust.
I am a bad swimmer. It is a work in progress. Not in a joking way, I am one of the slowest.
Transitioning to The Bike
Set a mental landmark to find your bike. Mike gave me this advice yesterday making it easy to spot “Look” – the yellow road bike rented yesterday from CanBiCuba.
A towel. Dammit. That is what I forgot. Dry socks are slipped onto my wet feet. I use the t-shirt I wore in the morning to dry my hands and check my blood sugar: 202 mg/dl. Good enough.
I slide the camelback over my shoulders and run down the road to the bike start.
Q: What do you keep in your camelback and on your bike during a triathlon?
A: Below is a picture of everything packed in my camelback. I do not mind running or cycling with it since the bag adds dynamic options while racing. The backpack usually holds water with a tube, a meter and testing equipment, extra food in case I need this (like when I got lost in the Atlantic City Triathlon), and phone + keys for post-race.
A: On the bike, in general, is where I keep a mix of sugary water to help fight off lows or plummeting blood sugar. For this race, there is a mixture of water and honey. Why honey? That is what was in the apartment. Below the seat is also a spare tube for any flats that may happen on the race.
Conditions of the Bike Course
The race course is smooth paved roads with palm trees lining the center lane. Without an elevation profile, the first half of the race is a steady climb while the second half is downhill where we get to let loose. One of the highlights is going through a tunnel to enter the city center.
Each intersection is closed off thanks to the Cuban police force and military. Unlike races in other countries, the only people cheering on the side of the road were a large group of school children, while others seemed to quietly be waiting for their bus to arrive.
Running along the Malecon
A red line outside of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba and the American Embassy marked where riders had to hop off and begin the run.
Cuba’s most famous road, el Malecon, runs along the coast with waves splashing over the barriers. Fishermen cast lines from a top the walls. This street is usually filled with 1950s classic American cars, but today it is closed for the race.
As I round the corner, my aunt enters a full sprint to cheer me along and capture the moment on film. She was sore the next day from running so fast.
The weather began heating up on the asphalt and I thanked myself for not choosing the half-Ironman option.
You always consider your jersey to be unique and special. Spotting someone wearing the same Ironman trisuit that I wore, given to me by a friend, made me run alongside and capture a selfie:
“Hey man, guess we are teammates now.” He happened to also be down from NYC.
The finish line outside of the embassy with giant metal arches came into sight. The pace of each stride quickens to finish the pain of the race.
My mom is screaming as the number #1 fan directly next to the finish line. Of course, she somehow manages to be next to the media and is standing in a special place that others cannot enter.
She uses her Spanish and charm in magical ways.
Having family members at the end of the race filled me with such happiness. Then we stood around waiting for my sixty-one-year-old dad to cross the line. He finished looking exhausted and stood in line to wait for a massage.
Having a dad who is faster than you
At the age of 61, my dad finished the sprint triathlon two minutes faster than me.
I could not be happier to have a father that is healthy enough to compete and beat his son. The challenge is now on for the NYC Triathlon happening July 14th ;)
Your age, your disease, the obstacle in your life is no excuse to not live to the fullest. There is a reason that athletes say that the hardest part of training and racing is all mental.
A 61 year-old can beat a 25 year-old…so what is your excuse?
Tips and Recommendations for Next Year
“Are you the coach of these athletes?” I ask a Cuban man looking over the results of the 16-19-year-old athletes.
The athlete that finished in second overall marked a time of 1:01.39 seconds. A full twenty minutes faster than me. He fell into this age bracket.
I found out that the teenager who helped translate the day before during the race set up came in 2nd OVERALL. He needs to come compete in the NYC Triathlon, I share as a hope one day.
Donate Gear for Athletes
Many of the Cuban athletes are extremely competitive with some not having proper equipment. My aunt and mom noted that many athletes ran barefoot or biked with plastic covers on the pedals instead of bike clips.
“What we really need is proper race equipment,” commented many athletes.
In the future, I would recommend athletes trying to bring down equipment to donate to a non-profit or team that requests these resources. Reach out to CanBiCuba who helped many athletes prepare and can connect you to other organizations.
Q: Would you recommend La Habana Triathlon in 2018?
A: See you there. What a magical way to see a city.
A special thanks to all the friends, family, and supports who signed our jersey for Cuba. One of the dreams I have is to be sponsored by people who believe we can all accomplish anything in the world.
Thank you to all of the following:
Jeremiah Seelbach, Amy McKinnon, Jeff Hittner, Annalisa Van Den Bergh, Mohit Ramchandani, Nathalie Lamothe, Matt Scott, Michelle Lord, Ghislain Charette, Isabelle Bujold, Christian Breslin, Michel Tynes, Krystal Chong, Megan Ananian, Susana Ruge, Celeste Bryant, Matthew McCann, Mayra Barragan, Milana Dostanitch, Scott Slater, Margarete Schymura, and anyone else that helped make this race happen.