Manuel Huerta, a professional triathlete from Miami, is not particularly religious. But he has been praying a lot in preparation for his next race — not that he will finish first, but merely that he and his bike will survive the journey to the start.
So far, praying has not sufficed. Huerta’s $5,000 Orbea Orca bike did not make the connecting flight to Buenos Aires from Miami; it arrived a day later than he did, pushing back the last leg of a 26-hour trip. At least his bus did not stall in the summer heat on the bumpy, eight-hour drive past hundreds of miles of cow pastures to La Paz.
A triathlon scheduled for Sunday in the heart of this remote pueblo in northeast Argentina has drawn a stacked professional field. It kicks off the 2012 qualifying season for the Summer Games in London, the fourth Olympics in which the triathlon has been included.
For those used to competing in places like Lake Placid, N.Y.; Hamburg, Germany; and Kona, Hawaii, La Paz may be the most exotic event of the year.
“When I first heard there were piranhas in the river where we swim, I felt a little nervous,” said Huerta, 27, who has competed in La Paz three times. “But people in the town told me they are not actually the dangerous kind.”
Huerta is well known around town. He won the race in 2008. Another top finish this year would help his chances for claiming a spot on the United States Olympic team for the first time.
The race Sunday also counts as the Pan American championship, granting double points for Olympic qualification. This has brought the best professional field to La Paz in the event’s 28-year history.
“I haven’t heard much about La Paz,” said Flora Duffy, 24, who is hoping to qualify for Bermuda’s Olympic team after a disappointing performance at the 2008 Beijing Games. “All I know is that it’s way the heck out there and that it’s going to be hot.”
Temperatures topped 100 degrees this week. In the afternoon, dogs slept under trees while locals fanned themselves on shaded porches or in the nearest air-conditioned room.
“The course itself is not complicated,” said Fernando Baez, the event’s organizer since 1987. “It’s the heat that’s the real challenge.”
From the town’s port, athletes will be transported on cattle barges to the start, a sandy bank along the mud-colored Paraná River, the second longest river in South America. They will swim two buoyed laps, both with and against the current (1.5 kilometers, a little over nine-tenths of a mile), cycle the town nine times on bike (40 kilometers, about 25 miles) and run four mostly flat laps on city streets to the finish (10 kilometers, 6.2 miles).
In keeping with tradition, residents of La Paz (population 25,000) will come out en masse to line the course. They will hang signs and flags, bang drums and set off fireworks. The city block with the best decorations will win an award.
“For some reason that I am still trying to figure out,” Baez said, “in the land of soccer, the people of La Paz know only triathlon.”
The sport here dates to the mid-1980s when the Argentine TV host Pancho Ibáñez introduced the “unique new challenge” on his hit show “El Deporte y el Hombre” (“Sport and Men”), through images of a United States Marine triathlon on a Hawaii beach. Nineteen local athletes competed in the inaugural La Paz triathlon in 1985.
Since then, the sport’s popularity has grown despite its high price tag. In 2005, a triathlon school opened in La Paz to coach local hopefuls. Residents study the biographies of triathletes who come through town and place bets on who will win.
This year, Argentina’s most famous triathlete, Oscar Galindez, will return after nine years on the Ironman circuit. Baez calls Galindez the Maradona of triathlon, in reference to Argentina’s famed soccer star Diego Maradona.
Galindez, a native of Córdoba, in central Argentina, won La Paz eight times from 1990 to 2000 and is a five-time Pan American champion. He brought his 15-year-old son, Thomas, who will compete in a triathlon on Saturday.
Galindez will make a small donation to the city, in honor, he wrote on his blog, of “all the love and care I received in the years visiting the city.”
In total, 1,000 competitors are here for three days of competition in youth, amateur, paratriathlete and elite divisions, and only 100 of them live in La Paz. Elite competitors come from 13 countries in the Americas. The men’s elite race closes the weekend on Sunday afternoon, a time slot usually devoted to the siesta.
Baez, a full-time lawyer, admits to being exhausted, stressed and unable to eat. His phone rings nonstop. He is overseeing every aspect of the event, including the 800 local volunteers working to make sure it goes off well. La Paz, he explains, is not a town known for its planning and logistics skills.
Huerta said: “This race is more than just a race. It is the town’s carnival. They’ve been waiting since last year’s triathlon for it.”
On regional radio station 94.7, the radio program “Locos por el Triatlón” broadcasts news about the event and will stream Sunday’s elite event live online. Saturday night, a party in the port will feature a fireworks display, dancing and awards until 2 a.m. The elite racers, however, will be resting.
“Sometimes when I get to these places, I just want to go off and explore and have a holiday,” said Duffy, who balances her training and travel schedule with school at the University of Colorado. “But I’m here to race. I’ve just got to get it done.”
On Friday she will swim in the municipal pool and jog through town to keep things moving. Friday night is a briefing for the elite field, where she will greet familiar faces from the world circuit. Dinner will be pasta or something simple, to supplement the bread, peanut butter and oatmeal she brought from home.
“You don’t want to try anything too different before a race,” Duffy said. “Usually the hotels westernize their menus for us for a few days.”
When the town’s few hotels are booked, the local triathlon association arranges for visiting athletes to sleep in residents’ homes. During Huerta’s first two visits, in 2007 and 2008, he stayed with Lucho and Mecha Castrillón and their family and pets, which he called an unforgettable experience.
“It’s the best treatment I’ve ever gotten,” he said, “over a five-star Hilton in New York City.”
Adrian Castrillón, 33, the fourth of six boys in the family, was inspired by Huerta’s visit. After Huerta’s 2008 win, Castrillón quit smoking, using a herbal vaporizer pen at first and then completely. Then joined the local triathlon club. On Saturday, he will race the sprint distance for the second year in a row, wearing the bike helmet that Huerta left behind for him.
Huerta’s wetsuit and number are on display in the family’s guest bedroom, as are a photo of his 2008 finish and his winning medal.
Huerta said he would visit the Castrillón family, but he is staying in a hotel with his girlfriend, Piri, a triathlete originally from Argentina. In his place, he sent a teammate, Barrett Brandon, to stay with the Castrillón family. Ten men and four women from the United States team will compete Sunday.
“I told my teammates it’s a hard trip coming from the States,” Huerta said, “but that when they get here, they’re going to fall in love with it.”
(La Nota digital)