Portobelo Triathlon History and Update
 All triathletes will set new records for the Portobelo Triathlon in Panamá this year because there is going to be a new course. There will be the same swim from La Guayra to Isla Grande and back, but no more carrying of the bike up a mountainside. The run will still be a hike up over the mountain behind the town of Portobelo. Mountain bikes are still required because there is still the hilly, rough dirt road part to José Pobre and back, and later, a gravel road spur off the paved road in the valley. In addition, there will be a 1/2 Portobelo Triathlon. That swim distance will be from Isla Grande to La Guayra. The shorter bike leg will be on hilly paved roads plus the dirt road spur in the valley of Nuevo Tonosi. The 5k run will be on pavement, from Portobelo toward Buenaventura and back. The finish for both will be at the old Aduana in Portobelo.

Good for us this change. It may be possible after all to do the event and still be at the cruise port, Colón 2000, to board our ship to Miami that day. We have been biking on the Cacique and José Pobre roads to prepare for this triathlon. We were sorry that we would miss the hike-over-the-mountain-in-the-footsteps-of-the-pirate-Henry-Morgan part of the run. We had planned to pay our entry fees for the entire event but be recorded as a Did Not Finish (DNF) on the race results.. We knew there would not be enough time for us to do it all based on our prior finish times for Portobelo. That set me to thinking.

The old finish times, personal records (PR's), course records - out they go this year. The price of making changes on a competitive course is that you lose the prior history of competition on the course, for everyone. A run friend here (Sjef) said he would not do the Portobelo course again because the course changes took away his means of seeing whether he had become slower or faster over time. I agreed with him on that count. Both of us wanted the event to stay the same as it was in a particular year. Each of us wanted a different year's Portobelo course to be our personal baseline. Now there is a new course map. Plus a half-distance event, too, on the same day. I am usually in favor of keeping to the same course year after year. But these changes bring a smile to my face. I think the two new courses will be very popular if the entry fee is not out of sight. Where do we sign up?

John and I supported changes on the Portobelo course during the first five years, 1998 – 2002. When we mapped the course in 1998 we wanted the course to connect places known in Caribbean history, small coastal towns and sections of geographic difficulty. It was not that long an event, in actual mileage. Then we decided the course should be extended to the distances of a standard short triathlon - about 25 miles of bike, about 6.2 miles for the run. The terrain was cross-country and on country roads.. We changed the distances of the swim, the bike and the run legs. We had started the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon in 1978 based on the geography of the island of Oahu in Hawaii. We designed the Portobelo course based on the geography of the Costa Arriba. For the swim leg in Panamá, for example, we made it island to mainland, then mainland to island to mainland.

Changes in local conditions affected the course each year. When we started the event in 1998 there were dirt roads for all but a few miles of the run. The second year the hard dirt, hilly roads had been bulldozed or torn up in the places where the road was being prepared for pavement. The road surface changes continued each year. Were the holes on a dirt road now filled with gravel? Better for car drivers but hard on bicyclists. When we changed the date of the event from one month to another we had to deal with rainy season or dry season conditions.

We were still sorting out the run course in the mountain pastures when Paul Newby-Fraser, the Queen of Kona, Seven Time Champion of Ironman, told us that the Portobelo course was as hard for her as a very difficult 1/2 Ironman. Do not make course changes simply to achieve certain distances, she told us. That is when we realized that our idea of a good paved road and a good, hard gravel road had changed since living and driving in the Americas. To a triathlete from outside the country the whole bike portion was of off-road quality, including some of the paved roads on the coast. We did not realize it then, but the original course of the Portobelo Triathlon met the requirements of an Xterra course, the trade name of an off-road triathlon.

The Panamanian triathletes who took over the responsibility for the Portobelo Triathlon continued to make changes to the course. Here in Panamá the pioneer competitors wanted an extreme Xterra-type course. And they got it. We had researched many routes for the swim, bike and run legs before 1998. We had hired local guides to find trails. We described some bike legs we had tried out that called for some carrying of the bike uphill. The triathletes did some trial runs. They decided on a change in the bike course that was up and over a hilly, cross-country area that we had heard about from Park employees.

We tried the new change in the bike course before race day. It was not for us. Our bikes were too heavy to carry. We did not have the technical skills to ride the downhill parts. We got lost on top of the coastal hills. We did not want to risk breaking an ankle up there. How to get a stretcher in and up on our original course had been something of a planning problem. This was worse. But the hard charging triathletes liked it. It was really hard. Our running friend loved it. He was good at back-country challenges like that.

Later, the event organizers heard the "I don't want to carry my bike" critics. They added an alternative bike leg for the course that allowed the competitor to pedal the bike the whole way – on the original course. It was billed as a choice for "over-50" competitors. Nice for John and me. But the "over-50's" triathletes we knew wanted to do the carry-your-bike course. And there were some "under 50's" who would have liked to choose the pedal-the-bike-all-the-way course. So, with regret, many would-be Portobelo triathletes did not enter the annual event.

In March 2011 there was a sprint triathlon on parts of the Portobelo triathlon course. That was popular. We have a triathlete friend (Melissa) who was going to fly back down to do that shorter triathlon again in 2012. That sprint triathlon was not on the calendar this year. Now, for 15 April 2012, this good news. There will be two triathlons in Portobelo National Park on the same day! Do the long Portobelo Triathlon, close to the original course, and have great fun. Or enter the short course, which skips the very highest bike and run hill climbs. And, for the two of us, be able to get to the cruise ship in Colón by noon.

What will be the legacy of the changes in the Portobelo triathlon format this year? For ever more there will be on the record books all the times that were done on the prior years' courses. That includes the first place finishers, the age group titles and the personal best times. No one can beat those records now. And everyone who enters a Portobelo triathlon this year will set a personal record, a PR!