If you now have to wake up before dawn to run, swim after work and spend weekends pedaling your bike, these are the guys to blame.Words: Art Fuentes | Photos: Ricky Ledesma and Nino Sinco
Like all things great, it started with curiosity.
Young triathletes who just recently entered the sport probably know only a little about how the “sufferfest” they’ve come to love and hate, first got off the ground. Some of the sport’s veterans may sometimes impart a tidbit or two to the young ones about how they entered their first triathlon, and what it was like way back then. However, the story of how the multisport movement got off its feet, hit its stride and sprinted into the major league of endurance sports has largely remained untold. At least until now.
And like all things that kick ass, the story of Philippine triathlon had humble beginnings. It had its inception in the curiosity of a bunch of fitness gonzos looking for the next great challenge.
Mountaineers and Swimmers
Last August, as concerned citizens from all over Metro Manila flocked to Luneta to voice their anger over lawmakers’ pork barrel shenanigans, RaceDay gathered some of the godfathers of the Philippine multisport scene in Balducci Ristorante and Deli in Serendra. The gathering was supposed to start at 2:00 in the afternoon, but it got pushed by a few minutes as some of the invited ones were still making their way to the venue after joining the multitudes at Rizal Park.
As triathlon enters its 26th year in the Philippines, we at RaceDay wanted to brush up on the sport’s history and trace the birth and growth of the Philippine multisport movement. We also wanted to pay tribute to the people who painstakingly nurtured the triathlon scene from its infancy to the thriving, mature community it now is.
“It was so primitive…Our transition basket was [a] kaing ng mangga (basket of mangoes),” recalls Rick Reyes of the first event they organized in 1987. To the multisport community, Rick is known as one of the founding fathers of TRAP or the Triathlon Association of the Philippines.
But before he became active in the triathlon community, he was just a regular guy from UP Diliman who liked to go up and down mountains. Climbing mountains, of course, is no joke. You have to be exceptionally fit to haul a backpack that’s up to a third of your own weight, negotiating 30 to 80 degree slopes for several kilometers, over rugged terrain, and in all types of weather. Mountaineers, thus need to keep themselves physically fit. Aspiring mountaineers are not allowed to join climbs until they’ve proven their fitness by running several rounds of the 2.2km UP academic oval.
Like many other members of the UP Mountaineers, Rick was eager to push himself physically. The mountain-climbers were also on the lookout for something fresh and out of the ordinary.
“We were reading Outside Magazine one day and we saw this article about triathlons,” he recalls with fondness. Rick and his mountaineer buddies were immediately blown away by the sport’s unique format. It looked like a meat grinder and it sounded fun.
“So I called Noel, who [was] teaching swimming back then, and told him that he had to teach us swimming.” Noel Rivera is a swimming coach in the University of Philippines Diliman. He was thinking of ways to enhance the fitness of his athletes back then. He also saw how adding a running and biking regimen could give his swimmers an edge over the competition. Noel, together with Rick and Tom Carrasco, would form the backbone of TRAP.
They didn’t know a lot about how to properly train back in the late 80s and so Rick, his mountaineer buddies, and the UP swimmers practiced all three sports each day. Nowadays, coaches may raise their eyebrows and shake their heads over such unwarranted torment as only elite athletes do such brick sessions everyday. But such wisdom was not yet available in the early days of the sport. Neither was specialized equipment, nor even attire.
“We were all in Speedos then,” Rick says. He was talking about the first event they organized which was held in Matabungkay, Batangas. It was in a beach property owned by brothers Willy and Jet Benitez, who also owned a mango orchard, which explains why their transition baskets were kaing ng mangga.
Tri-suits were still unheard of back then. Rick recalls the first time some guy showed up in a race in a trisuit. “It was actually a trisuit made for females.” But nobody knew better back then.
Unlike today’s events, which draw hundreds of participants, TRAP’s first triathlon in Matabungkay drew only around 30 racers. The godfathers of the sport never had an inkling that their ward would grow into the fitness behemoth it now is.
“We used to pray for a lot of triathletes to register for our race. But now we have to turn back so many,” says Ricky Ledesma, another of the acknowledged pioneers of the sport. Nowadays, he says, they even have to put on the waiting list up to 300 participants for an event.
“Everything is so easy these days with social media. Just post it on Facebook and you can be sure that lots of people will register,” he says.
But back in the mid 80s and early 90s, race organizers really had no way of knowing how many people would turn up at an event. Communication and promotion were not as simple then as sending a tweet or posting on a timeline. Even cellphones were a rarity, and only the filthy rich would have them.
Ricky says organizers would make posters and put them up in bike shops and the numerous bulletin boards scattered around UP. Then they would cross their fingers and hope that people actually sign up for a race. Oftentimes, people would only sign up on the day of the race itself. Onsite registration, which is unthinkable now, was the norm back then.
Despite their best efforts to promote races, the multisport scene remained a fringe movement. Ricky muses that they were like a secret society back then. Triathletes would see each other only during races, and more often than not, it was the same faces showing up in every event.
“I think there were only about 200 active triathletes in the 90s,” says Eric Imperio of Extribe. Eric’s group is now renowned for organizing offroad triathlons. In the early 90s, he was part of that secret society of multisport athletes who showed up race after race. Most of them wondered if the sport would ever catch on.
They were so desperate for promotion that they were even praying for someone in showbiz to swoop down Super Islaw-style and rescue the scene.
“We were waiting for Richard Gomez to take up triathlon to draw attention,” Ricky adds, referring to the most popular matinee idol back in the 90s. But while Gomez would dip his feet into a lot of sports, even becoming a poster boy for rock climbing, he would never try triathlon.
“Now we have more than enough celebrities, and a lot more eager to (try) tri,” he says.
“I was always in the red,” says Raul Cuevas, another of the pioneers who nurtured triathlon in the Philippines when the sport was still akin to a toddler taking its first awkward but exhilarating steps. Raul is referring to the lack of financial support back then for multisport races.
“Sponsors would give prizes in kind, but only a few would give cash,” Raul says. Raul and the others give kudos to David Charlton, a triathlete who owns David’s Salon, for having consistently given cash to sponsor races.
To the triathlon community today, Raul is known as the race director of the Unilab Tri United, Bike United and Timex 226 events. He is an Ironman finisher, a two-time Iron Distance Triathlon finisher, and the former head coach of the National Triathlon Team. Today, he has little trouble in getting enough financial backing for the events he oversees.
But back then, it was a completely different story. Raul was still young and fresh out of college when he started joining and organizing triathlons in the early 90s. His network was still quite narrow, and he relied on an army of volunteers to get races off the ground.
In the mid 90s, Raul was instrumental in organizing the first 70.3 triathlon in Matabungkay, the birthplace of multisport in the Philippines. He shakes his head when he looks back at how they handled things back then.
“I did it blindly, with the hope that all the costs would be covered… Since I wasn’t an accountant, it was bahala na.” If there was still anything left after all the suppliers and bills were paid, Raul and the other organizers would get to share it. But he says that hardly ever happened. More often than not, they would shoulder the expenses.
Ricky agrees. “Sponsors were hard to solicit [from] since they thought we were all crazy for doing all that (swim, bike, run) in one sport.”
“We all just did it for the love of the sport,” Raul continues.
Things began to change a bit when sponsors like Gatorade and Powerade entered the fray in the mid 90s. The duel between these sports drinks helped inject some much needed capital into the fledgling multisport scene. From having just one event a year, triathletes could now choose from two or more events.
Triathletes could also choose which race suited them best. There was the standard distance event, half Iron distance, and what was then called the Everyman distance which consisted of a 400 meter swim, a 15 to 20 kilometer bike stage, and a 4 to 5 kilometer run. The aim of such a short event was to make the sport more popular, as many athletes were unsure that they could compete in the longer distances.
The choices open to athletes grew further in 2003, when Extribe organized the first offroad triathlon in the Philippines. First held in San Juan, Batangas, the Extri has become the longest running offroad multisport race in the country.
But it was mostly still the same people joining race after race. Rick, Ricky and Raul recall an athlete who would join a Gatorade race wearing Powerade uniforms and then show up in a Powerade event sporting Gatorade colors.
Still, other race organizers like Extribe continued to bleed.
“We would produce races that did not have major sponsorships and did not have enough participants to cover the costs of a race,” Eric adds. Extribe, founded in 2003, operated at a loss for the first three years of its existence. But these guys were just too passionate for the sport to let a minor detail like finances get in the way.
“We were focused more on sustaining our projects than making a profit from them,” Eric says.
Adolescense and Maturity
“Entry fees for the Everyman never went over 250 pesos,” says Nino Sinco, the brains behind the event. He and the other multisport pioneers around the table are amazed that entry to the Ironman 70.3 now costs 12,000 pesos and up. The sport has come a long way.
Nino first learned about triathlons in the early 80s via Sports Illustrated. But he has been doing triathlons as far back as the mid 80s even if there weren’t any official races yet then. He was the coach of the Ateneo swimming team that time and would do bricks with his athletes.
He officially became involved in the triathlon scene in the mid 90s when he became the Sports Marketing Manager of Gatorade. From his position in the sports drink giant, he saw the gradual ascendance of triathlon into a mainstream sport. While earlier events would draw fewer than a hundred participants, the newer events backed by major sports drink financial muscle were attracting nearly twice that number.
“In one event in Cebu, we were surprised that 180 signed up,” Nino says.
Event organizers were also more accommodating back then. They didn’t restrict participants to using highly specialized time trial bikes. Even mountain bikes were allowed in road triathlons, as long as they passed safety inspection. Only a few athletes had proper tri bikes.
“Now, you can hardly see an Ironman racer who isn’t on a carbon tri bike,” he says.
Raul credits the phenomenal growth of triathlon to the equally explosive growth of the running community in the Philippines. He says that a lot of runners eventually transitioned to tri in search of a greater challenge.
Rick meanwhile says that the entry of the Ironman franchise into the country greatly boosted the sport’s appeal. By his reckoning, the number of triathletes has been growing at around 20-25 percent per year since the franchise entered the Philippines.
“I had a feeling that it was going to be big, but not this fast,” says Ricky.
Some triathletes today would probably also be shocked to learn that back then, it wasn’t a mortal sin to have a drink or two the night before a race. Raul says that one time, he even stayed up drinking til 5 in the morning. Since the race was at 5 am, he didn’t bother to sleep at all.
“I miss the purity and simplicity of the races back then,” muses Nino.
Rick, Ricky, Raul, Eric and Nino all agree that triathlon’s amazing growth in popularity over the past few years is a great thing.
“Today you have several premium events the whole year round with thousands of active triathletes all over the country,” says Eric.
But it’s a growth that has surprised most of them. They are also wondering if it’s growing too big too fast. With several events now being held a month, sometimes within just a week of each other, they wonder if there would be enough participants to make these races profitable.
“Maybe there should be a governing body that would regulate the number of major events held each year,” Ricky says. He is concerned that the multisport’s amazing growth may not be sustainable, and that the scene may burn itself out.
Nino agrees and says that the sport may have reached fad status right now. He wonders if it will eventually lead to attrition in the number of participants, which would leave only the true multisport devotees to carry on.
They are, however, all certain of one thing: Triathlon has come a long way, and it is here to stay.
Eric Imperio of Extribe was not able to make it to the Balducci Restaurant interview last month due to a schedule conflict. However, we were able to interview him by email, and we included his contributions to triathlon in this story. Coach Noel Rivera was likewise not able to make it to Balducci, nor answer our questions via email. But since the weight of his contribution to Philippine triathlon is undeniable, we briefly made mention of his major part in the sport here, culled from the recollections of the other multisport godfathers who attended the RaceDay gathering.