Going the distance

Run, swim, cycle: endurance events like the triathlon and the marathon are taking off across the Caribbean


It’s six o’clock on a Sunday morning, and I’m lowering myself into the Hudson River — a most un-Caribbean body of water — to do a most un-Caribbean thing. I’m about to compete in the Ford New York City Triathlon, an endurance event that includes a one-mile swim, a 25-mile bike ride, and a six-and-a-quarter-mile run. My American friends call it an Olympic triathlon. My Jamaican friends call it lunacy.

Waiting for the starter’s horn, I worry that my Jamaican friends might be right. What’s crazy is not the physical challenge I’m about to endure. Crazy is swimming in water so cold that I can’t feel my toes, and so inky that I can’t see my black wetsuit. So I make myself a promise: next time the water will be clean and warm.

Next time I’ll do this at home.

Turns out I’m spoiled for choice. The endurance bug is alive and well in the Caribbean, and a crop of distance events has sprung up that take advantage of the region’s breathtaking scenery and varied topography. Elite athletes and age groupers from all over the world are flocking to the islands to join the growing band of Caribbean professional and recreational athletes lured by the physical challenge of an endurance event. The Caribbean is a region of sprinters, true. But we can go long when it counts. We favour five-day Test matches, and dance day and night at week-long reggae festivals. And how could a few hours of sweating scare us when we’re used to chipping around Port of Spain for two days?

For those of us who can still stand after Carnival, the Caribbean now boasts a full calendar of events to test our mettle. There’s a Half Ironman triathlon, nearly a dozen internationally certified Olympic-distance triathlons, a handful of shorter sprint triathlons, and endurance cycling events. Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados all boast full-length marathons, and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States hosts an annual marathon that rotates among its member countries. A dozen half-marathons round out the running calendar. Even the venerable University of the West Indies has got in on the act, with an internationally certified half-marathon, and running clubs across the region host scores of 10K and 5K road races, giving pros and newbies alike a chance to warm up for the big events.

“Distance events are gaining popularity in the region because of the challenge, and because they don’t require much specialised equipment,” says Dennis Johnson, president of Jamaica’s fledgling Triathlon Association. “We have the weather, the great [scenic] roads, great oceans for swimming. We have a crop of competitive athletes here, and our communities overseas who want to come here to compete.

”As the events mature, each is developing a distinct personality. Jamaica’s increasingly popular five-year-old Reggae Marathon brings out as many revellers as runners to cruise Negril’s mostly flat, ocean-side road, aided by the music of local steelbands and reggae musicians. In only its second year, UWI’s Half-Marathon in Trinidad attracts world-class international athletes, and is carving out a niche as the premier intercollegiate sporting event in the Caribbean, luring university-level runners from the region and the rest of the world. Cuba’s Marabana Marathon, Half-Marathon, and Mini-Marathon series are revered for both the challenging courses and the stellar off-road events. Tour companies package the races with a week of activities showcasing the best of Cuba’s geography and culture — trips to Varadero’s beautiful beaches, snorkelling over live reefs at Cayo Levisa, walking tours of Havana.

It’s a model that could prove useful as the region looks to diversify its tourism offering. The revenue generated by race fees from endurance events pales in comparison to the ancillary spending on accommodation, travel, and other tourism-related services. Last year’s debut of Ironman Western Australia resulted in an additional $5 million in direct visitor spending, and a slate of similar sporting events in Hawaii, home of the granddaddy Ironman Triathlon, contributes more than $75 million of the $10 billion in estimatedannual visitor spending.

“We’re already seeing a lot of inter-island travel for the event,” says UWI’s facility manager, Sherlan Cabralis. “It’s a chance for athletes from all around the region to get to know each other and compete against each other.

”I’ve already registered for the 2006 New York Tri, but who needs the Hudson when you can head to Havana? Next time, I’ll leave my wetsuit at home.

King of the Roads

No one knows Caribbean road races like 25-year-old Vincentian Pamenos Ballentyne. His dominance of long-distance races in the Caribbean has earned him the title “King of the Caribbean Roads”. Ballantyne has won Jamaica’s Reggae Marathon three times, the Barbados Marathon twice, the Trinidad and Tobago Marathon seven times, and the OECS Half-Marathon a whopping nine consecutive times. Not bad for a man who trains in St Vincent on a grass field usually used for soccer and cricket matches.

Test yourself with some of the Caribbean’s best endurance events.

February
Clico Trinidad and Tobago International Marathon
Chaguanas, Trinidad
www.clico.com/marathon

Nevis International Olympic Triathlon
Oualie Beach, Nevis
www.neviscycleclub.com

April
Brac Turtle Triathlon
Cayman Brac, Cayman Islands
www.bracturtletri.com

May
Rainbow Cup International Triathlon
Grafton Beach, Tobago
www.rainbowtri.com

Jake’s Jamaican Off-Road Triathlon
Calabash Bay, St Elizabeth, Jamaica
www.jakestri.active.com

St Croix Half Ironman Triathlon
www.stcroixtriathlon.com

June
Rincón Triathlon
Rincón, Puerto Rico
www.puertoricotriathlon.com

August
City of Port of Spain International Duathlon
Port of Spain, Trinidad
www.rainbowtri.com

September
St Croix Wall2Wall Triathlon
St Croix, US Virgin Islands

November
Conchman Triathlon
Freeport, Grand Bahama Island, the Bahamas
www.conchman.com

Marabana Marathon and Half-Marathon
Havana, Cuba
www.cuba1tours.com

UWI/SPEC International Half-Marathon
St Augustine, Trinidad
www.sta.uwi.edu/spec/marathon/index.asp

December
Reggae Marathon and Half-Marathon
Negril, Jamaica
www.reggaemarathon.com

Run Barbados Marathon and Half-Marathon
www.runbarbados.org

Cingular Cayman Islands Marathon, Half-Marathon, and Relay
George Town, Grand Cayman
www.caymanislandsmarathon.com

Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States Half-Marathon
Rotates throughout the Eastern Caribbean