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Greg Banzon and the Inside Story of the Century Tuna Ironman Philippines

by Aritha Zel Zalamea

 

It was in 2009 when the country’s inaugural IRONMAN event took place: a 70.3 race in Camarines Sur. It consisted of a 1.9km swim, 90km bike, and 21.1km run course—half the total distance of a full IRONMAN.

Approaching its 10th year, IRONMAN Philippines, organized by Sunrise Events, was faced with a huge dilemma: how could an event be big enough to celebrate and surpass a decade’s worth of the top triathlon races in the country?

It was a challenge title sponsor Century Tuna was up for. Since participating as one of the sponsors of the first IRONMAN 70.3, and as the title sponsor of three 5150s and three IRONMAN 70.3s thereafter, the company had been hungry for a full-distance IRONMAN—all 226 kilometers of it. Finally, on June 3, 2018, the Century Tuna IRONMAN Philippines (CTIMPH) took place, and we found out how.

Years of Training
Century Tuna couldn’t have been more prepared. Way before IRONMAN entered the Philippines, Century Tuna was already sponsoring running and triathlon events, establishing itself as a fitness and health brand, and a strong supporter of the then growing triathlon community.

Having an athlete at the helm of the company helped. Way before Century Tuna’s involvement in the sport, its general manager, Greg Banzon, had started running at age 12, moving up to join a varsity team and even represent the Philippines at international competitions. He had joined IRONMAN and other triathlon races here and abroad.

The years of experience and knowledge in the sport between Sunrise Events and Century Tuna leave no room for doubt that they can mount a successful full-distance IRONMAN in the country. But just how did they do it?

By having the most dedicated men—and woman—cook up a storm behind the scenes: Banzon, and Sunrise Events’ founder and CEO Fred Uytengsu and general manager Princess Galura.

Early Supporter of the Sport
“I’ve been a runner for 42 years,” said Banzon. He eventually moved up to triathlons, which he described as a different challenge because it requires the athlete to strike a balance between swim, bike, and run.

“Medyo mas astig nang kaunti, he added. It’s no question then that Banzon’s heart is in the sport.

Century Tuna, in turn, had always been committed to health and fitness. The company’s most successful campaign, Century Tuna Superbods, communicated that vision. But Century Tuna wanted something more. It wanted an anchor sport. And triathlon fits.

“It’s a different shade of sport,” said Banzon, and so Century Tuna started sponsoring triathlon events some 10-12 years ago when the sport was just starting to become known in the Philippines. Back then, triathlon races didn’t see a lot of sponsors and support. The community was still small, and the number of participants wasn’t as huge as it is now.

From Sprint Triathlon to IRONMAN
Banzon recalled the first big triathlon races in the Philippines. The White Rock Triathlon, which was the premier race more than 10 years ago, offered half an IRONMAN distance. Meanwhile, the standard National Age Group Triathlon (NAGT) in 2006, the Subic Bay International Triathlon (SUBIT), saw 187 registrants—and he was one of them. That gave him the idea that triathlon can be built locally as a sport.

Preparing a game plan, he knew that they can’t mount a race with a standard triathlon distance right away. They needed to funnel people into the sport first. That’s how Century Tuna started the Animo Sprint Triathlon, which had the shortest triathlon race distance.

Animo Sprint Triathlon ran for five years. Its inaugural race in 2008 attracted about 360 participants right away, twice that of 2006 NAGT in Subic. Come 2012, Animo Sprint Triathlon had about 800 participants, which required Century Tuna to hold the race for two days.

Through those five successful years, Century Tuna grew deeply passionate about triathlon and embraced the sport as its own. And so, when Uytengsu and Galura approached him for the first IRONMAN 70.3, Banzon didn’t hesitate to commit the brand as one of its sponsors.

But he wasn’t going to just stop there. That milestone in Philippine triathlon lit a new bulb in Banzon: a full-distance IRONMAN in the country.

He wasn’t alone in this vision. Because a 70.3 was already staged here, people started ambitioning a longer course. Back then, a lot of Filipino athletes were going abroad to do the full-distance IRONMAN, as was Banzon. The natural next step for the Philippines was to have its own.

On a Handshake
Seeing how well Sunrise Events organized the first IRONMAN 70.3, Banzon wanted to sponsor more of their races. In 2012, Century Tuna and Sunrise Events introduced the country’s first 5150, better known as Olympic or standard-distance triathlon race.

By the second Century Tuna 5150, the 4-year-old IRONMAN 70.3 had become overcrowded—most of the races were sold out. Again, Banzon saw an opportunity.

While Banzon and Uytengsu were in Cebu for the fourth 70.3, the two agreed—on a handshake—to schedule another half-distance IRONMAN, this time under the banner of Century Tuna. Set for the following March, it was going to help decongest the other 70.3 and give athletes an additional platform.

But Banzon wanted Century Tuna’s 70.3 to be different. Seeing how festive the races in Cebu had been, he thought of positioning the brand’s version to be the most accessible. He brought the IRONMAN 70.3 to Subic.

Needless to say, Century Tuna’s first IRONMAN 70.3 was a huge success, much of which hinged on the smart choice of venue. Participants raved about the new experience of biking on SCTEX and NLEX, the convenience of traveling to Subic, and how well it was organized.

Banzon pointed out that the event, which he described as “plantsado, was successful also because of strong support from partners Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) and NLEX Corporation.

“It was the beauty of working with SBMA and NLEX,” he said. They gave Century Tuna full support and access to their resources.

Still, that didn’t distract him from his real goal. That’s why, even as they started planning the 2015 Century Tuna IRONMAN 70.3, he again reminded Uytengsu of his IRONMAN intentions.

On the second year of Century Tuna’s IRONMAN 70.3, Uytengsu was finally convinced that the time was ripe for a full-distance IRONMAN. He then asked whether Banzon was really serious about sponsoring it.

We all know the answer to that.

Hurdles to the Finish Line
After having punched in the numbers, finalized logistics, and settled contracts, they encountered new and unexpected kinks to straighten out.

When a new government administration took over in 2016, the SBMA board members who approved to hold the IRONMAN in Subic Bay Freeport Zone were replaced. The new board had to review the already signed contract to stage the event, so Century Tuna and Sunrise Events had to reassure them of a well-managed event.

On the other front, NLEX also needed to have a more detailed look at how to execute letting athletes use the highway. Despite its strong grip on the idea of giving Philippines its first full-distance IRONMAN, NLEX might have underestimated the exigent demands of such a milestone: closing half of the expressway from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For the previous races, NLEX only had to close part of the expressway for half a day. Again, Century Tuna and Sunrise Events ran the extra mile to reassure partners and keep eyes on the prize.

Then there was the cost. A mind-blowing P20 million was needed to sponsor the event. Banzon made that possible by reallocating part of Century Tuna’s budget for Superbods. Rather than spending on big-name celebrities as they usually do, they allotted the budget for the second half of 2018 to IRONMAN instead.

But what of the participants? When the organizers computed for the optimal joining fee to make the event happen, it was going to be about $650 or more than P30,000. The number is seemingly prohibitive given the times, but the most affordable IRONMAN, the one held in Langkawi, Malaysia, had an early bird joining fee of about $580.

Fortunately, the organizers received little flak for the price tag. The athletes understood what it had to take to mount a full-distance IRONMAN in the Philippines.

“Maging IRONMAN sa Sariling Bayan”
When everything was ironed out backstage, Banzon was then faced with a pressing problem: how do they rally people to join CTIMPH?

Banzon asked help from industry friends RaceDay Triathlon’s Monching Romano, The Bull Runner’s Jaymie Pizarro, and SwimBikeRun’s Carlos de Guzman.

The first idea was to tell people that “hindi ka triathlete kapag hindi ka pa nakapagIRONMAN,” and gather all Filipino IRONMAN finishers to announce the race. But it seemed too elitist and exclusive that people might instead be discouraged to join. Then there was the cliche strategy of challenging people with “kaya mo ba?”

Finally, Romano had an idea: Maging IRONMAN sa sariling bayan. And that became the battle cry of the first IRONMAN Philippines from its announcement in August 2017.

They still gathered triathletes to promote the upcoming CTIMPH but they organized a sign-up event instead—a grand one. Following the nationalistic theme, there were singkil dancers at the venue, where Philippine and IRONMAN flags were interspersed to build the mood. As an additional come on, the sign-up event offered free breakfast to anyone and everyone who would register.

Within the first three hours, CTIMPH was sold out at about 1,400 registrants.

Of course, Banzon was happy. He didn’t expect such strong reception. But that immediately turned to fear. Some participants might just be too excited to join without actually being ready for it—something that Banzon was familiar with when he joined his first IRONMAN in Langkawi. That careless enthusiasm might translate to casualties.

The organizers felt that it was their moral obligation to screen out people to ensure that they were fit enough for the full-distance IRONMAN. But doing that wasn’t going to be easy after the registration.

For Banzon, the participants should’ve already finished a half-distance IRONMAN to qualify. Uytengsu narrowed it down further, requiring participants to have finished a half-distance IRONMAN from 2016 onwards. As expected, it didn’t sit well with many people.

The new rule saw about 400 registrants at risk of getting cut off, but there was still time. The 400 or so were encouraged to join and finish a 70.3—or any race anywhere in the world with the same distance. Half of the 400 complied and made it to CTIMPH to complete the 1,246 participants, mostly from the Philippines, China, Japan, USA, Singapore, Australia, and the UK.

Safety in Bigness
More than anything else, CTIMPH was a celebration of the Philippine triathlon community, so it shouldn’t be just another race. It should be a party.

For the venue to reflect the grandness of the event, Banzon dressed up Subic Bay Freeport Zone, ordering banners as big as buildings, installing tarpaulins around the swim course for as far as the cameras could see. From the meal area for carbo-loading to the media center, nothing about CTIMPH was modest. But what Century Tuna really invested a lot in was safety.

Aside from feeling duty bound, such an emphasis to mitigate risk was just natural for a publicly listed company with multiple awards in corporate governance and financial diligence. The measures taken by Century Tuna showed the brand’s commitment to ensuring no loss of life.

On the swim course, arguably the most dangerous leg in a triathlon race, Century Tuna got Sunrise to deploy 6 divers, and 70 marshals, 10 on kayaks, and 6 on jet skis. There were 10 pump boats with 3 marshals each.

On the bike course, 400 marshals were assigned. Traffic marshals amounted to 100, while another 100 manned the stretch of SCTEX. Food, beverages, and first aid were also available at pit stops.

The run course had 250 marshals. 20 people were designated communicators, while community local officials totaled 50. Volunteers from the triathlon community itself numbered 200. Run aid stations offered water, beverages, bananas, and sponges. Portable toilets were also installed.

Medical ambulances were on standby, ready to rush anyone to the two hospitals that were commissioned for the race. One was inside Subic Bay Freeport Zone and another in Clark Freeport Zone, ensuring that a medical facility was within 45km from any point in the course. Liaison officers were stationed in each hospital waiting to receive and assist a patient, including footing the bill.

Medics were everywhere. Doctors were also on site.

The medical team can spot and assess an athlete seen to be stressing out. Banzon gave them the authority to pull out any participant who would be deemed unfit to continue.

DNF—For Now
The efficiency of the safety measures and the team was tested by Banzon himself. After finishing the bike course, he felt like throwing up but didn’t want to do so on the carpeted floor. He threw up on the grass instead, where, to his chagrin, the medics were stationed.

Upon seeing Banzon in distress, the medics asked him to not continue with the race. Banzon insisted that he was fine, so the medics called in Galura, who begged him to call it a day. He had nothing to prove, she said. Still, knowing the significance of the event, Banzon wanted to finish CTIMPH as he had finished previous IRONMAN races elsewhere. At the very least, he wanted to experience the run course.

Banzon continued, but with medics keeping a close eye on him. At the 8km mark, they took his vitals. Again at 10km. And at 12km. After 18km, a doctor was already there to deliver the final verdict: Banzon, athlete 1122, was to stop.

It was heartbreaking. He really wanted to get the CTIMPH medal and everything that it stood for; the ribbon was even created by weavers from war-stricken Marawi City. But Banzon didn’t want to break his own rule. And even without him admitting it, his life, of course, was so much more valuable than finishing a race.

As Galura said on the course, having finished a full Ironman twice before, Banzon had nothing to prove. But what wasn’t said, we all know: he still had the second Century Tuna IRONMAN to prepare for.

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