When my husband John and I first received a marketing email about a triathlon in Cuba we were instantly intrigued. Being adventurous travelers, it didn’t take us long to check out the event website and jump straight into the deep end by registering for the race and signing up for the full travel package. And that is how we found ourselves in the early morning hours on a Saturday in late February at the foot of Canal #5 in the Hemingway Marina toeing the starting line of the 2017 La Habana Triathlon, a Cuba 70.3 race.
We landed at José Martí International Airport on the Thursday morning before the race via a chartered flight from Miami. The plane was full of fellow American racers who had all purchased the same travel package. While waiting to disembark, several of us watched helplessly as our bike boxes were piled precariously onto a luggage trolley resulting in their clattering to the tarmac when the baggage handlers started to push it forwards. Once deplaned, we made it through customs despite some stern looking custom officers and a table of white-coated doctors (we made sure not to sneeze or cough loudly as we went by) and after a long wait by the carousel, we were relieved to see our luggage and bike boxes emerging intact.
During the bus ride from the airport, we were transfixed by the ubiquitous Ladas and gleaming vintage cars that chugged on by. We were struck by the magnificent yet decrepit and crumbling buildings that frame the streets of downtown Havana. After checking into the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba (a World Heritage Site and National Monument with a long list of glamorous former guests, including Frank Sinatra, Winston Churchill, and Marlon Brando), it didn’t take us long to figure out that things move and operate at an entirely different pace than they do back in the United States. Not only is Cuba a Caribbean Island, it is, of course, a Communist country, both of which entail a very different approach to ‘getting things done’. Everything, involves a long line, a long wait, and ever-shifting expectations. Very soon after arriving, we were affectionately dubbing this unfamiliar phenomenon as being on ‘Cuba time’.
The next morning our group got a full dose of ‘Cuba time’. We were scheduled to be bused from the hotel to packet pick-up and bike drop off at the Cuba 70.3 race start by Hemingway Marina. Following instructions from the Miami-based race coordinators and travel agents who were working in tandem, John and I dutifully arrived out in front of the hotel by the appointed hour of 10:30am with our fully assembled bikes in tow. There was already a long line of racers waiting with their bikes but very few buses. As the line inched slowly forward and some of the buses peeled off, it became evident that there weren’t going to be enough buses to accommodate all of us. Plus, we were only now hearing that it would have made much more sense for us to have been instructed not to assemble our bikes but rather to have left them in their bike boxes to be transported in the cargo holds under the buses. This would have not only saved seat space on the buses but would have been much safer for the bikes themselves.
John and I found ourselves faced with trying to cram both our bodies and bikes onto the very last fully loaded bus. Reluctant to risk any damage to our bikes, we asked the travel agent if there would be any more buses coming. After several minutes of some hemming and hawing in response, we realized that the answer was dubious and it was up to us to find alternate transportation to the Marina. By now, we’d already been waiting in the midday heat for over two hours so we leaped into action. Flagging down passing vintage taxis, we finally found two drivers who were willing to take us and our bikes for a ride in their beautifully maintained vehicles boasting shiny chrome and polished leather seats.
This journey to the Marina turned out to be one of the major highlights of our Cuban experience! There we both were riding in style along the famous Malecón promenade and Embassy Row in our open top vintage cars, me in hot pink wheels with my bike packed in the trunk and John in a bright red number with his bike resting on his lap. We loved every minute of this once-in-a-lifetime taxi ride and it will be etched in our memory banks forever.
Once deposited at the Marina, the rest of the afternoon was spent waiting in yet more lines. Luckily for us we’d already made friends with another racer from Chicago who provided great company and we all entertained each other while waiting in the endless lines. First was a two-hour wait outside on a flight of stairs in the beating sun to get to packet pick up. After we made it into a small, cramped room to be issued our packets and gear bags, it was time to be interrogated one-on-one by a Cuban doctor. We were each required to answer multiple questions including when we had suffered our last fever and/or illness, how long we’d been racing triathlon, and how many years total we had been athletically involved. My temperature was then measured via a thermometer stuck under my armpit.
After the medical interview, bike and gear check in was yet another line in the hot sun. At each checkpoint, we were met with Cuban race volunteers and officials who attempted to explain the rules of check-in and race day in specific detail. Most spoke no English, and given our limited Spanish skills, we had to communicate via advanced Spanglish and extensive hand gesticulations. The language barrier and clearly imperfect race management resulted in each of us emerging from bike and gear check in with a completely disparate understanding of race logistics. None of us were really sure whether we were supposed to have left all our bike and run gear with our bikes or not? Given how drained we were from the hours and hours of lines and waiting in the heat, we were pretty much resigned to whatever uncertainty and changeability was going to transpire the next day so we boarded a waiting bus and headed back to the hotel.
Back at the Nacional, we ventured out to procure some bottled water as one can’t drink the tap water in Cuba. Our Chicago friend led the way to a fascinating gas station minimart she had discovered a couple of days earlier. Inside, the store was typical of Cuban markets, with some large casket type refrigerators bursting full of nothing but frozen hot dogs and chicken drumsticks. There were plenty of rum varietals lining the shelves but not much else except cooking oil and canned vegetables including industrial-sized cans of mushrooms. Food is rationed in Cuba and the people make do with whatever is being offered that day.
Along the way to the market, we handed out t-shirts and baseball caps that we’d brought with us to give out to Cuban people. We were quickly mobbed by a group of school kids who happily took the free goodies! We took a different route back to the hotel and passed by a produce store who’s owner popped out making a mock ‘cowboy shooting guns pose’ at us as we snapped his picture. Clearly, he had watched one too many John Wayne movies. Most of the vegetables he was selling looked rather sad and unappetizingly wilted.
There was a tiny bread store on one corner but the proprietor gave us a big frown and wagged her finger at us when we tried to step inside. Nearly all of the buildings are in a state of disrepair with crumbling facades and faded paint. The architecture is beautiful but has been virtually unmaintained for over fifty years since the Castro Revolution. It is strange to me that the vintage cars are so well polished, preserved and cherished yet the buildings where people actually live are falling apart under their feet.
After such a long and draining day, we opted to forego the group dinner out that night and dine downstairs in the hotel’s elegant ‘Comedor de Aguiar’ restaurant with our friends from New Hampshire. Like all the meals we had while in Cuba, the food was decent but unimpressive for what one would expect at a luxury restaurant. John and I both ended up ordering the Carne Asada with rice and black beans. However, we were treated to a riveting operatic performance by three young Cubans during the meal which helped compensate for any lack of gastronomic flair.
Saturday was finally race day and John and I were up and downing our oatmeal and coffee by 3:45am! Rather than risking the whole bus mayhem again, we had arranged a private taxi (not a vintage one this time, unfortunately) to drive us to the Marina. This all went smoothly thankfully and we arrived at transition in the dewy morning darkness. Almost immediately, and as we had predicted, there were mixed messages circulating amongst the crowds of racers as to various race logistics and details. Even the race officials themselves (!!) were confused and uncertain of things so we were unsure until just before the very start of the race as to which canal we would actually be swimming in and whether the swim would be wetsuit legal. After the sprint triathlon set off in an adjacent canal, all 70.3 racers gathered at the foot of Canal #5. We had all donned our wetsuits when whistles were blown and it was announced that the water temperature was over 78 degrees and that wetsuits were ‘no permitido!’
John’s wave set off before mine. It was an in-water start and I watched from the edge as he leapt off the cement dock into the rather murky looking canal below. He motioned back to me that the water was nice and warm and then seconds later the horn blew and off he went. A few waves later, it was my turn and I jumped on in. The water was salty but very warm. As I treaded water with nerves jangling, I adjusted my brand new pink and black Pearl Izumi Elite-In-R-Cool Tri Kit that I was racing in for the very first time and hoped it would perform well without a wetsuit over it.
The tropical water helped me get into a groove and, once my stroke speed calmed and leveled out, the swim was very pleasant. In the Athlete Information Guide, the rough translation from Spanish to English had read that “if athletes are to swim into a submerged yacht, please proceed to another canal.” John and I had chuckled about this beforehand. There were, in fact, plenty of yachts positioned on either side of the canal, some quite huge and magnificent, but their presence did not present much of an obstacle as they were firmly moored in place. Sighting was much easier than in most open water swims as the high cement walls on either side provided a good gauge of placement. I did hear after the race that one poor swimmer somehow managed to lose her bearings and swim slap-bang into a wall where she became impaled by sea urchin spikes.
The swim course took us down the whole length of Canal #5, out into what appeared to be the open sea (where I became briefly entangled in a large frond of seaweed), around the corner and back down a parallel canal. I noticed at one point that a couple of stray dogs (which sadly are ubiquitous in Cuba) were running up and down the side of the canal excitedly barking at the swimmers below. My only hope at that point was that they didn’t try to dive in or lose their footing and fall, as that would have spelled the end of my race while I rushed to their rescue! Happily, this didn’t transpire and my new kit performed wonderfully in the water without any drag or chafing.
T1 took a little longer than it should have while I fumbled to get socks on over my wet feet. Once I exited the transition area, mounted my bike and clipped in my Pearl Izumi Tri Fly carbon bike shoes, it was straight out onto the open road. I wanted to take it all in as biking 56 miles through Cuba was going to be a totally unique perspective and adventure. I wasn’t disappointed in the least. The initial section of the bike course took us through a part of downtown Havana which was teeming with people everywhere you turned. The sidewalks were literally packed and there were hordes of people and cars for several miles. I can only compare it to biking through Times Square at rush hour! Despite there being hundreds of armed militia and police manning the bike course (we had been told there would be over 1,500 of them out there), people were stepping out in front of us right and left without looking and with no warning. I spent that particular part of the course yelling loudly in order to avoid multiple collisions. The fumes from the old vintage cars were potent and we were breathing in all the smoggy air as we biked through this congested area of town.
Once we left this crowded downtown area, we were out into the countryside with fields and plantations as our backdrop. There were many horses, goats, and cows along the way. For a long stretch, we were biking along one side of a dual carriage highway. Across the divider, cars, trucks and the occasional horse & buggy trotted on by. A few times, trucks loaded with workers drove by with all the occupants cheering us on loudly. There were aid stations every few miles and at one of them the lone volunteer was taking a siesta in his folding chair with a Panama hat pulled down over his face.
After 56 miles, I was happy to be off the bike and on to the run. The midday heat had set in by now and it was hot and humid right from the outset. Despite the sun and heat, the run course was spectacular as it was two out and backs along the famous Malecón seafront boulevard. I saw John a couple of times looking a little bit wilted as he ran by in the other direction. However, the last time I saw him he was closing in on the finish line and had perked up in anticipation and was looking super strong. The heat took its toll on my second out/back and the fact that there were NO portapotties on the course whatsoever (big yikes!) or nutrition other than plain bottled water at the aid stations didn’t help propel me along.
After struggling through the last couple of miles, I was ecstatic to finally cross the finish line in just under six hours and to find out that I had come in first out of nine women in my Age Group! John was thrilled to have come in third in his Age Group to claim the bronze. We regrouped and recovered while huddling together under the shade of a tent while exchanging war stories and waiting for the awards ceremony to begin. The ceremony turned out to be wonderfully executed with much pageantry as ladies in traditional Cuban garb escorted each award recipient out and up onto the podium blocks. As I was standing there on the top block, I made sure to savor the moment and enjoy the fruits of my hard work and perseverance out on the challenging course.
Luckily the finish line was right on the Malecón and only a half mile or so from the Hotel Nacional so it was an easy ‘limp’ back to our room. After enjoying a hot bath, celebratory Mojito or two, and a hearty meal of Ropa Vieja, black beans and rice with friends at the Hotel’s ‘La Barraca’ al fresco restaurant overlooking Havana Bay, John and I were ready to call it a day and hit the hay.
We had the whole day on Sunday to bask in the aftermath of the race and enjoy some sightseeing and a tour of Old Havana (a UNESCO world heritage site) with our travel group. We explored the maze of stalls in the arts and craft market; bought some trinkets and souvenirs; people watched in the Plazas; admired the ancient San Francisco de Assisi Cathedral, and wandered down the picturesque cobblestone streets to the Plaza de Armas which very much reminded us of parts of New Orleans’ French Quarter. The group lunch was in the stunning open-air courtyard of the Hotel Florida. We were treated to a flamenco performance between courses which was really special.
Both John and I felt like we had truly experienced Havana and seen parts of Cuba during the race that we might never have seen otherwise. We also met some great people and made new Tri friends who we plan on keeping in touch with going forward. We bid Cuba ‘Hasta La Vista’ as no doubt we will be back again in the future to experience more adventures on this fantastic and highly unique Caribbean island.