Havana, day 5

(See reports from days 0, 1, 2, and 4.)

Day 5 should be subtitled “roaring back” because it was the first day where I felt like my normal self: energetic and ready to explore. I woke up feeling rested and starving so once the rest of the posse was ready, we headed back to Parque Central for another breakfast. This time I got my 15 CUC worth.. an omelet, brioche, cheese, ham, a piece of pie, more Cuban coffee, fruit, fresh orange juice– I feel like Homer Simpson just thinking about it.

On the way there, we enjoyed a gorgeous walk up the sunlit Prado. Since it was Monday, school was in session and we saw a group of kids having their PE class, practicing the long jump. Combined with the rest of the pedestrians and tourists, this added a nice dash of energy to go along with the greenery.

Caution; children at play

We’d planned for this day to be our first real sightseeing day, and right after breakfast we set out for one of the major city landmarks: Plaza de la Revolución and the José Martí Memorial tower. The plaza is a very large open area, formerly used for massive rallies when Fidel spoke. It looked strangely empty even though there were a fair number of tourists moving around.

Cuba Libre!

Opposite the memorial tower, there are large apartment buildings featuring the faces (and slogans) of Fidel, Che, and Cienfuegos. Pictured here: metal Che saying “until the final victory!”

Rocket Republic colonizes the Republic of Cuba

The Martí memorial is an impressive-looking stone-clad tower with a statue of Martí at its base. The tower looks like it’s swaying when you look directly up at it, which is a little bizarre. There’s a small museum in the base of the tower, with no air conditioning and a few desultory exhibits about Martí.

Jose Marti memorial tower

For 2 CUC you can take an elevator to the top of the tower, which has two noteworthy features: observation windows and air conditioning. From that vantage point, you can see all of Havana and a good bit of the surrounding countryside.

After a bit of effort I was able to capture a picture of this bird, whatever it was, which was flying around the top of the tower. Perhaps it was a DGI surveillance bird, checking up on tourists?

Che, there’s a bird on your face!

The plaza is near the National Theater so we decided to walk over there and check it out. As it turns out, this is a complex of low-slung buildings that have absolutely nothing happening on midday Monday. Herewith the nicely landscaped sign:

The sign was the best part of the theater

By this point we were all hungry again, so we decided to head back over towards the apartment and have lunch somewhere on the Malécon. The plaza had an impressive array of classic-car taxis lined up:

Tons of classic cars

With a party of 6, though, we couldn’t fit everyone into a single car, and we could only find one! That meant that Tony, Julio, and I ended up in a cocotaxi, the little egg-shaped, two-stroke-engine-powered taxis that infest Havana streets. It did the trick, getting us to our destination intact and with only some exhaust poisoning:

Tony regards the cocotaxi with some suspicion, rightly so

We decided to have lunch and drinks at El Presidente, a restaurant and bar about a block from the apartment. Their daquiris are excellent, and I recommend them highly. Their food? Not so much. I ordered crepes with ice cream; they were out of ice cream, and the crepes themselves were rubbery and tasteless. However, the water views and the hilarity of Warren trying to speak Spanish to the waitress made up for it.

We walked back over to the Parque Central to grab some wifi. Julio wanted to go to Parque Lennon, named after John Lennon, so we grabbed a classic car and headed out for the 20-minute drive there.

The park itself was pretty interesting. Its main salient feature is a bench with a lifesize bronze of Lennon.

Other than that, it’s unremarkable– a nice city park with some open areas for kids to play soccer, a concrete bandstand/podium, and some trees. The best part of this outing was our cab driver– he was super friendly and personable and made the drive fun by (loudly) playing Cuban music on his (excellent) stereo.

Julio WISHES he could drive this car every day

After everyone had time to chill at the apartment for a bit, we headed out for dinner. Tony had suggested a place for which we couldn’t get reservations (I wish I’d written down its name). We wandered aimlessly around, stopping by El Floridita (too many lines) in search of someplace to eat, then we stumbled across a place Tony had mentioned earlier: Kilometro Zero. With live Cuban music, and superb food, this was one of the high points of my dining on the trip. I got to try ropa vieja for the first time. It is, essentially, slow-cooked shredded beef with spices, but that doesn’t capture how good it is. I look forward to learning how to make it.

Ropa vieja

 

The band at Kilometro Zero

Kilometro was pretty typical of the tourist-oriented places we ate– in appearance and decor, it would not have been out of place in most large US cities. The menu and service are what made it Cuban… and oh, that ropa! I am still thinking about how good it was.

Dinner took a long time, so afterwards, I headed back to the apartment to get some sleep. As usual, the Prado was semi-crowded, mostly with people camping out on benches using the available wifi… a uniquely Cuban sight.

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Havana, day 4

(If you’re wondering what happened to day 3, that was race day. See the race report.)

I woke up the day after the race still feeling like a pile of garbage. “I didn’t eat much yesterday,” I reasoned. “A good breakfast will fix me up.” With that happy thought in mind, we headed out to the Parque Central hotel, where our Airbnb host alleged we could get a delicious buffet for 15 CUC.

A digression about money in Cuba. There are two currency systems in the country: “CUC” and “CUP” (formerly known as MN, for moneda naciónal). CUC is for tourists, CUP is for citizens. This is a practical restriction, not really a legal one; citizens are free to use CUC if they get any. The exchange rates for both are fixed; 1 CUC equals USD$1 equals a little more than 24 CUP. There are a few important things to know about Cuban money:

  • US-issued debit and credit cards cannot be used. This is thanks to the US economic embargo. Cards issued by banks in other parts of the world work just fine. That means if you want money in Cuba, bring it with you, because you won’t be getting any while you’re there unless you use Western Union.
  • As far as I can tell, no one in the US changes CUC. You can’t get it at the Atlanta airport or any of the online currency exchanges I found. There are currency exchanges at the Havana airport but you’re better off finding one in town. Many hotels have them, but Eric took us straight to one inbound from the airport.
  • There’s a 10% penalty when changing USD to CUC. In our case, we saved about 1.5% by buying Euros and then changing them to CUC after our arrival. However, when you change CUC back to USD, there’s no penalty.
  • Prices for many things are quite low by US standards– you can get an excellent meal with drinks for 15 CUC, for example. However, hotel rooms and taxis are not particularly cheap, nor are cigars.
  • I found that I could comfortably get by on about 80 CUC/day for meals, transportation, and incidentals. That doesn’t include lodging. If you eat less, drink more, or do more tourist-y stuff your mileage may vary.

Anyway, back to the buffet. The other guys all loaded up huge plates with omelets, ham, pastries of various sorts, and all kinds of other goodies. I picked at a hard-boiled egg, a couple of pieces of ham, and a roll… I just wasn’t hungry and was still feeling queasy and dizzy. Despite that, the two very strong cups of Cuban coffee I had were quite welcome.

Our next stop was Museo de la Revolución. Napoleon’s aphorism that history is written by the winners was clearly the inspiration for this museum, which is just as propaganda-heavy as you might expect. It’s housed in the former Presidential Palace, and many of the original furnishings and decorations are intact, as are the bullet holes generated by the armed band of students who attacked the palace as part of the Cuban revolution.

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Evidence that this was formerly the Presidential Palace

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View of the interior courtyard

As you might expect, the exhibits focus heavily on the revolution and its aftermath. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are extremely prominent; Camilo Cienfuegos, who was really the true military mastermind behind the revolutionary army, gets relatively short shrift. I learned that he died in a mysterious airplane accident in 1958, shortly after the revolution. The exhibits are all labeled in Spanish but only a few have English translations, and those are mostly poor in quality and too brief to accurately capture the detail of the Spanish versions. Sometimes the propaganda quality was just over the top– the “Corner of Cretins” is a good example. The small plaques thank each cretin (Batista is the fourth, off to the left) for various things. The entry for George H.W. Bush says “Thank you cretin for helped us TO CONSOLIDATE THE REVOLUTION.” I mean, come on, guys, at least get someone who can conjugate verbs to help you write your insults!

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Cretins’ Corner

Interestingly, the museum itself contains three small shops selling random tourist crap. Not very revolutionary.

The ground floor has a small and well-hidden cafe where we stopped for a drink. This led to the highlight of my visit: reading the entries in the comment book the museum maintains for its visitors. I wish I’d taken pictures of some of the comments– there were people from eastern Europe writing (in beautiful English) that having the exhibits labeled only in Spanish was dumb; there were Australians and Canadians asking why the museum didn’t make a bigger effort to explain what was so bad about the pre-revolutionary Batista government, and one person (I think from Australia?) who said “Why are you selling Nestlé products in the cafe? They are the definition of imperialist devils!”

After the museum, I skipped lunch and went back to the apartment for a badly needed nap. When I awoke, everyone else had made it back and we all spent time washing our race stuff and hanging it to dry on the terrace. While this was going on, Anita, our housekeeper,  and her friend Rita were cooking us a Cuban dinner of slow-cooked chicken stew with pineapple, rice and beans, salad, and fried plantains.

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From L to R: Warren, Rita, Anita, Craig, and Julio

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Yes, I ate the whole thing

It’s true, I was very hungry at this point, but I have to say that this was the best meal I had while in Cuba, and one of the best I’ve ever had anywhere. The chicken was tender and flawlessly seasoned; the pineapple was naturally sweet, slightly caramelized, and a bit spicy from being cooked with the chicken, and the beans were perfectly cooked and seasoned. I had 3 plates worth and then had to quit before I damaged anything.

Our plan for the night was to go to FAC– Fábrica de Arte Cubano, basically a super-powered art gallery and party space. It’s only open Thursday through Sunday from 8p to 3a, so this was our last chance to go. We wanted to have drinks on the rooftop bar at El Cocinero, which is next door. However, when we arrived, we found the bar closed due to plumbing problems. That turned out to be OK; we got in line about 715 but by 730 the line was down the street and around the corner. FAC admits only 800 people each night, so if you don’t get there early, you might not get in.

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The FAC line

We stood in line chatting with other visitors, including a couple from Montreal who told a funny story. They were staying at an Airbnb owned by a Canadian and his Cuban boyfriend. Non-citizens can’t legally own real estate in Cuba though, and of course the Cuban government doesn’t permit gay marriage. How was that possible, I asked? “Oh,” laughed the Canadienne. “The Canadian married his boyfriend’s mother, and the apartment is in their names.” Nice workaround!

We paid 2 CUC for admission and got drink cards– to buy a drink, you show your card and the bartender marks it, then you provide your card at the exit to pay your tab. (Lose your card and it’s 30 CUC!) There are six or seven bars inside FAC, along with a large performance space, a video gallery, and wall after wall of art exhibits. The best way I can describe the overall vibe: noisy crowds of tourist hipsters. I’m not really an art person, and I tend to walk through art museums at a pretty brisk clip, so I didn’t really see anything that made a huge impression on me. (There was a nice gallery of small pictures of zebras chasing laser pointers, though.) The big attraction was being able to sit outside on the roof in the warm Cuban air talking with my friends and hipster-watching, but eventually I started getting more and more tired and decided to punch out and head back to the apartment.

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Lance marks the spot

I was awake for maybe 15 minutes once I got there– and getting there was an adventure, not because of the taxi we took (which was fine) but because of the stairs! My quads were still trashed from the previous day’s race and so I couldn’t make it up even half a flight of steep Cuban stairs without having to stop to catch my breath. Humbling.

 

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Havana, day 2

Day 1 of our trip was about getting settled in. Day 2 was all about race prep.

Lance and I got up early-ish and went for a short run along the Malécon. We started from our apartment (the little red pin on the map), so you can sort of see where we were situated compared to the rest of Old Havana. This was just a short shakeout run, so we made a couple of stops for picture-taking along the eastern leg. You can’t see it in the map, but there’s a really interesting old fort across the strait to the east.

Running along the Malécon

Running along the Malécon

Called Castillo de la Punta, its construction started in 1590. It offers a great landmark from anywhere along the shoreline to the west because its promontory is further to the north than the rest of Havana. It makes a great scenic backdrop, too.

Castillo de la Punta

Castillo de la Punta

Further to the south along our run route, we saw a couple of cruise ships jockeying for entrance into the port. Non-US-flagged cruise lines have been stopping at some other Cuban resorts for a few years now but having them come into, or just offshore, Havana is fairly new.

Paul and Lance on the run

Paul and Lance on the run

After our run, we met up with the rest of the posse and finished getting our gear and bikes together. This was quite a production, as Julio, the 6th member of our group, was staying one block away. We’d arranged for Eric to bring a friend with a truck, so we set out on the half-hour drive from our apartment to Marina Hemingway, named after Papa himself. The drive took us through a row of embassies (not including the US embassy; more on that later) and some scenic residential neighborhoods. The marina itself was pretty well representative of Cuba: dilapidated in spots but still functional. The marina has two hotels: Hotel Acuario and El Viejo y La Mar (“The Old Man and the Sea”), which is being renovated.

The Old Man and the Sea-themed fountain

The Old Man and the Sea-themed fountain

The registration events were all held at Acuario, more or less. We were told the workflow would go like this:

  1. Get a race number and athlete wristband
  2. Drop off our bikes and bike bags in T1
  3. Drop off our run bags at T2

In my race report, I alluded to a certain degree of disorganization at registration, so it may not surprise you to know that things didn’t exactly work this way. We stood in line for a solid two hours to get in and register– registration opened at 10 and we were in line about 1015. The registration process itself was a maelstrom of people milling around trying to do 4 simple things: sign a waiver, sign up for race photos, get a race packet with numbers and so on, and get the coveted wristband. The volunteers seemed overwhelmed, and the layout was such that the crowd was funneled to the photo station first.. where you couldn’t sign up without your race number, which you wouldn’t have at that point. You get the idea.

Eventually we survived that process and walked back over to where we’d parked to get our bikes and bags. Each of us had to take all of our stuff and pack it into the event-provided T1 and T2 bags, so that took a few minutes. Then it was back to standing in another line to drop off our bikes and bags. This process was more smoothly organized: each of us had to find our numbered slot in the bike racks, park our bike, and hang our bike bags on the corresponding numbered hook. Run bags? Oh, yeah, we had to leave those too. At various times we were told that we could set up normal transition areas near our bikes, that we must set them up, and that we could not set them up (also that we could and/or could not leave helmets and shoes with the bikes). Oh, and also that we would and/or would not have access to our run bags before the race. You get the idea here too.

After another hour or so of fumbling around in the heat, everyone had their gear staged and we wandered off to find lunch. This was a bit of a challenge; our drivers had left, and the marina only featured one restaurant. Lonely Planet characterizes by saying that you can eat there, if you have no better options, which you won’t if you’re at the marina. They were right. Nothing was bad but it was, at best, mediocre. I had shrimp pasta; the shrimp and pasta were perfectly all right but they were served in an odd not-Italian tomato sauce.

Cuban pizza

Cuban pizza; note the skeptical looks of Tony and Julio

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The Cuban national tourism agency had offered a tour package for triathletes that included airport transfers, rooms at the Hotel Naciónal, and some other goodies. We found a bus going to the hotel and got on it; no one asked if we were supposed to be there, so we enjoyed the air conditioning and ended up at one of Havana’s most venerable institutions.

The imposing Hotel Naciónal

The imposing Hotel Naciónal

The hotel is set on a hill, and it has a commanding view of the water from its back terrace. Naturally, we immediately went there, whereupon I met a new friend… because of course he’d be there.

No word on whether he supports Fidel

No word on whether he supports Fidel

We hung out at the hotel using their wifi for an hour or so, then Lance and I took a classic-car taxi back to the marina while the others went home.

Riding dirty

Riding dirty

The idea was that we didn’t need to all go to the race briefing, so Lance and I volunteered to go find out two important factoids: whether the swim would be wetsuit-legal and whether ITU rules allowed swimming bare-chested. The answers turned out to be “maybe” and “yes”, and we were able to avoid having to wait until 7pm or later to find that out. We left the marina on foot and walked around the area a bit, including crossing the small and sluggish Rio Jaimanitas, before we caught a taxi back– a late-model British MG sedan that had seat belts and air conditioning– the only vehicle I rode in the whole trip that had either, much less both. On the other hand, I’d just as soon have no seat belts and no AC if it means I could roll around in this beauty all day:

What a beauty

What a beauty

We got back to the apartment and back-briefed everyone on what we’d learned. They’d already had dinner, so Lance and I walked a block over to the Malécon to look for dinner, where we found Castropol. Named after the town in Spain, and not You Know Who, this was a lovely surprise. It was easily on a par with the best meals I’ve had anywhere else; I had a grilled chicken breast with arroz moro, some fried plantains with garlic and salt, and a no-kidding-really-delicious bottle of mineral water (usually that stuff tastes awful but this was great). Portions were generous, service was friendly and quick, there was great live music, and the sidewalk-level people watching opportunities were excellent. They also have a second level of the restaurant where they specialize in Italian food, but we never made it back there to try it.

Grilled chicken? Why, yes, thank you

Grilled chicken? Why, yes, thank you

Full and sleepy after the 10 or so miles I’d walked/run that day, I headed back to the apartment and was in bed by about 830p. Now might be a good time to mention that I’d been getting steadily more and more congested– going through a pack or so of Kleenex and 2 12-hour pseudoephedrines per day, yet still continually honking like a foghorn. I was feeling a bit run down but was optimistic that a good night’s sleep would set me right. If you’ve read my race report, you already know how that turned out.

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Havana, day 1

My first “you know you’re in Cuba when…” moment was the customs agent wearing fishnet stockings. Before that point, José Martí International Airport in Havana looked mostly like any other airport terminal. As we got in line for customs clearance, though, I noticed that all of the agents were female, and most of them were wearing uniforms that were considerably shorter and/or tighter than I’d expect to see on a TSA agent. Then Warren pointed out Agent Fishnets and I knew: I was someplace really different.Clearing immigration itself was very straightforward: I turned in half of my tourist card, had my picture taken, and was cleared out into the baggage claim area. Our bike boxes eventually appeared on one end of the terminal and our bags on the other, and we proceeded to the declaration line. No one inspected our bags.. well, except for the TSA.

Outside immigration we met Eric, the driver that Tony had arranged to pick us up. He had an immaculate gray 1952 Plymouth coupe for us, or at least for 4 of us, plus a friend with a van to take the other 2 of our party, plus all 6 bikes.


 Eric gave us a well-narrated tour through Havana, which simultaneously looked exactly like I thought it would (lots of classic cars, plenty of exhaust, bright colors, crumbling Soviet-era buildings) and nothing like I thought it would (packed streets, thriving businesses, a fair number of new-looking Chinese Geelys and other cars). Then we went by the big stadium, featuring this sign hailing Fidel as the “permanent inspiration of the best athlete” and showing him in various uniforms. 


Eric expertly navigated us to the Airbnb we’d reserved, “Casa Hendrik.” I can’t say enough good about this place– when I write the review it deserves I’ll post it here. Hendrik was a marvelous host and the apartment was perfect for what we needed. It doesn’t look like that much from the outside but had two marvelous terraces with a view of the water. This photo shows the view from right outside the door of my room, where there was a small porch, looking down onto the 2nd floor terrace; you can see water in the upper-left corner.


Next to the rocking chair is a small cage with two birds. Why? Because Havana, I guess.


The photo shows Craig and me on the top-floor terrace, which is reachable by a tiny and completely unsafe concrete spiral staircase. No handrail, nothing on the outside other than a 30-foot drop, and a stair pitch and size completely incompatible with size 13 feet. So of course I went up there as often as possible. 

Hendrik introduced us to Tia (Spanish for “auntie”), the 95-year-old woman who lives on the ground floor. Her vocation is neighborhood coffee lady, so whenever we needed a shot of her coffee, which tasted like what they must drink in heaven, we’d go see her. Little cups packed a big punch.


Lance quickly started putting together bikes on the tiny front porch, gathering a fair amount of curious stares from passers-by. Our neighborhood had a number of other casas particulares (private rooms that the owners are allowed by the government to rent), along with small shops and so on. It was a good mix to give us a taste of Cuban life.

For dinner, I’d asked Hendrik to make reservations at Paladar Torreson. Paladars are licensed private restaurants, often located in people’s homes (as this one was). Dinner was quite good; for about $12 US I had a plate of 3 small lobster tails, bread with an excellent hummus-like spread, arroz Moro, and a (watery) Cuba Libre.

  

Best of all, the paladar overlooked the Malécon, Havana’s famous waterfront road, so we got to people- and traffic-watch while we waited for the sunset… which was spectacular.


After dinner, we went to walk the Prado, one of the main drags in Old Havana. Most of the big tourist hotels are near there, as is the National Grand Theater and the Capitol building. It was crowded with skateboarding kids, strolling lovers, tourists, locals, and the occasional street dog.

This is a building whose name I forgot to write down:


And here’s the Hotel Inglaterre:


After the Prado, Craig and I went back to the Malécon to look for some of the famous wifi parks. We found some but couldn’t get them to work… more on that in another post.

One final note. Cubans are absolute masters at making stuff work with very limited resources, as evidenced by the light in our bathroom. There was a nice wall-mounted finial, but someone decided to add an LED can light… so they did. An angle bracket, some wire, and a plastic bag to wrap it in… done!


I hit the bed exhausted but intrigued by what we might see the next day. I was not to be disappointed.

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Training Tuesday: Havana Triathlon race report (25 Feb 2017)

(The Garmin Connect app doesn’t work on Cuban government wifi, so I can’t post course maps, etc. The final race results aren’t up, and since I didn’t have my phone I don’t have any pictures from the race itself, so this report is all you get for right now.)
Summary: great experience, awful performance. 8:12 for a 70.3 is nothing to get excited about. I guess I was not as well prepared as I thought, but there were a couple of other external factors. First is the fact I was sick. I didn’t realize how sick until today (Tuesday), 3 days post-race, when I’m feeling normal and comparing it to how I felt the day before and the day of the race. I had been sniffling and snuffling all week, since maybe 2 days before we left, and was regularly taking 12hr pseudoephedrine for a solid week before race day… not a great setup for the race. I was short on sleep ( people here don’t really get their nights started until midnight or so, so we’ve had significant traffic noise and street noise each night), averaging about 5hrs of real sleep each night for the 4 days pre-race day. I also ate poorly, out of necessity, the day and a half before the race. Those aren’t excuses, but they were definitely factors.

Prep

We spent the entire day before the race getting registered, dropping off our bikes and transition stuff, and so on. I logged about 10 miles of walking. This was not a good idea. Race registration was at the marina; it took about 2 hours to get through packet pickup, then we had to drop off our bikes. The best word to describe the race was “disorganized.” There was a lot of mis-information and non-information, and the whole experience really made me appreciate how hard RDs have to work to put on a smoothly running race. This is only the 3rd year for this race so I am confident that they will improve.

This was a point-to-point race: all our bike stuff went in 1 bag, and all our run stuff in another. We dropped the bike bag off with the bike and gave the run bag to the organizers, who staged it at T2 for us. This put a very high premium on making sure the right stuff was in the right bag, which for the most part I got right. However, that process adds some mental stress, even if you’re a heavy checklist user, as I am.

I had a small lunch (shrimp pasta in an interesting but odd not-tomato sauce) and a good but small dinner (grilled chicken, rice, black beans, a few slices of fried plantain) and got to bed about 830p, where I slept for maybe 5 hours total.

Pregame

I got up at 410a, had breakfast (small pack of honey roasted peanuts, a protein bar, plenty of water), and met the others downstairs for our van ride to the marina. The organizers had told us that we’d have access to our bikes so we could fill bottles, etc, and this turned out to be true. They had also said we’d have access to our run bags, which was not, so I started the run with no water… more on that later. There were nearly 800 participants in the race, for which the organizers thoughtfully provided two (2) portapotties. With no toilet paper. That was awesome. Luckily I had some Kleenex with me.

There was a great deal of confusion over where the swim was supposed to start. Nothing was marked, and none of the volunteers seemed to know what was what. Once the sprint swim started, the RD eventually herded everyone to the right area and collected our after-race bags. Before the swim, I put my glasses, street clothes, etc. into that bag for access later.

Weather and conditions

It was mid-70s at swim start, with a water temperature of about 76. The wind was calm until later in the day– it started to pick up about 11a and reached its peak when during the run leg on the Malécon. The forecast high temperature was 85. I don’t know how hot it got, except that the temperature sensor on my watch registered a max of 105. When it’s on my arm, it reads about 15 degrees higher than ambient FWIW.

Swim

The RD said wetsuits were optional, so I swam with my sim shorts. The plan was to jump in the water at the land side of one of the marina’s berthing lanes, swim down that lane, across the mouth of the adjacent lane, and back down the next lane, for a total of 2100 yards or so. I don’t have good data from the swim– my watch showed I swam 1375 yards in 48:08, but the other guys with me all had correct distances, and the race results aren’t posted online so I can’t cross-check. I felt pretty good on the swim overall, at least until last night when Lance told me he saw two of the yachts in the lane we were in pumping gray water overboard as we swam past. One interesting note: when I jumped in, I forgot to hold my nose and so pumped my sinuses full of marina water. My nose was fine for the rest of the race, go figure.

T1

T1 took 11:08. FAR TOO LONG. This consisted of a 1/4mi or so run from the swim exit to the bike area. Our bike bags were hung on numbered hooks, and volunteers were checking numbers so that by the time each athlete got to the hook, they’d pulled the correct bag. ITU rules don’t allow setting up transitions in advance, so I had to dig through my bag to get socks, shoes, chamois cream, a shirt, sunglasses, bike computer, and nutrition, then get it all put on or tucked in pockets, then run out to the bike and set it up the rest of the way.

Bike

The bike course started with a couple of short climbs that I wasn’t expecting. I’ll put the route map on my blog later when I have Internet again (or you can look it up if you follow me on Strava), but basically we rode around a residential district, then up Linea (one of the main drags) and through El Tunel Linea, then turned around and reversed the route and diverted onto the main east-west autopista. There were tons of volunteers and cops managing both vehicular and pedestrian traffic; they had shut down our side of Linea for racing, so all the traffic was squeezed into the opposite side of the boulevard. I give the race organizers full points for this.

Havana is not what I’d call a polluted city but there is much more vehicle exhaust than Americans are used to– lots of poorly tuned 2-stroke gas engines and big diesels. Riding through that was not my favorite. In addition, there are tons of road hazards. I would describe the overall road conditions as fair– the worst of the roads we rode are no worse than some of the hot spots on Redstone Arsenal or the area near my house (I’m looking at you, Burgreen Road). There are lots of potholes, sunken manhole covers, and so on, and none of them were marked, but they were easy to see.

On the autopista, the course was a series of very long 1-3%climbs and short, quick descents out to about 35mi, then a turn back into the city. As the day wore on it got hotter and windier, with a moderate cross headwind on the way back in.

There were 5 or 6 aid stations with bottled water on the bike course. I drank probably 6 bottles of water on the bike, had a Honey Stinger waffle each hour, and had a small banana (maybe 5″ long) at the turnaround rest area. At the first rest stop (maybe 20mi in) I stopped, put on my arm sleeves, and soaked them, my head, and my jersey with water. That helped a bit. At the turnaround rest stop I stopped again and drank an incredibly tasty can of the local equivalent of orange Gatorade– muchas gracias to the volunteers who thought to have that on hand.

After the highway the route took us back up Linea and through the tunnel again. (I did shout “TUNNELLLLLLLLL” each time I rode through it, like the kids and I used to do when driving through tunnels, so that was fun). There were several groups of uniformed schoolchildren along the route who went nuts whenever they saw a cyclist, so that was really fun.

I tried to stay in the prescribed power range but on the back half of the bike course was trying to make up time and started pushing harder. This was a critical mistake. 3:41 on the bike, when I was hoping for 3:15 or better, was rough.

T2

T2 was set up right near the US embassy and Monte de las Banderas, a local monument with some Fidel-era slogans. Racers biked in and handed their bikes to a handler, who racked it, then ran down the chute to get their run bags. I did that, found a changing tent, and started trying to change, but I was in a fog– I put my belt on backwards, couldn’t get my shoes on the right feet, and went the wrong way leaving the chute. There was no water in T2, so I started the run with empty bottles. 8:05 in T2, most of which was spent sitting trying to catch my breath. I was so hot I actually had goosebumps. I’m lucky it wasn’t longer.

Run

I ran for, maybe, half a mile and then my legs just gave out and I walked. Occasionally I burst into a dispirited sort of trot but I was having trouble moving my legs. Eventually I shuffled through the first aid station and got some water in my bottles, on my arm sleeves, over my head, and down my back. I wish I could say that I magically revived but no. I nearly quit about a dozen times but kept shuffling to a 3:20 finish. That is by far the worst half marathon I’ve ever run, both in terms of time and of quality. There is no way to dress it up or make it look better.

Oh, did I mention that there were no bathrooms on the bike or run courses? No? Because there weren’t. I barged into a restaurant on the Malécon for my run potty break. Twice. Hope they didn’t mind.

The finish

All my friends finished before me, so I had a great welcoming committee as I crossed the finish line and got my medal and finisher’s shirt. I plopped down and collected myself for a few minutes, then Craig and I took a cocotaxi back, which was like riding inside the Devil’s lawnmower, with lots of exhaust and swerving. Warren was kind enough to ride my bike back for me and put it away. 

Post game

Literally all I could do when I got back to the apartment was sit in a chair, stretched out. I couldn’t really turn my head because my shoulders and neck were so tight, and I didn’t even have the energy to banter. I have never felt so sick or tired after a race. I eventually straggled upstairs for a shower and a half-hour nap, which helped. The thought of food was absolutely repulsive, so when the posse went out for dinner I went to bed instead about 830p and slept for maybe 7 hours total. The next morning, I got up and picked my way listlessly through the excellent breakfast buffet at the Parque Central hotel and then shuffled through the Museum of the Revolution (more details on both of those in a later post), then went back to the apartment for a big long nap. I didn’t really start feeling normal until Monday afternoon but am now fully recovered. Lots to learn from the overall experience, including a) don’t race when you’re sick and b) make sure your race prep is strong. Onwards!

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Havana, day 0

I woke up at 0315, 45 minutes early. Why? Who knows. I was thoroughly packed so I had time for a leisurely shower and a last-minute gear check. Warren picked me up right on time and we headed for the airport, where we were soon joined by Lance, Warren, and Craig.

At checkin, Delta didn’t know how to handle us. First, they had to figure out how to sell us a Cuba travel card (CTC).. more on that in a minute. Once that was done, our agent discovered that the computer said “no bikes are allowed for transport to Cuba.” This directly contradicted what Warren had been told by Delta on the phone and what I’d been told both in email and via Twitter DM. The agents were patient and helpful but ultimately couldn’t override the computer without getting the local redcoat to come fix us up. 

Delta’s standard fee for bicycles is $150, and they cheerfully applied that on this flight to each of us. The agent apologetically pointed out that my suitcase was 6lbs overweight (because it has about 15lbs of donated clothing, a skillet, and some other stuff for our Cuban hosts) so I had some last-minute juggling to do to make weight. (Meanwhile, Julio was doing the same thing departing Louisville, except that they accepted his bike without question.)

Once that was finally done, we had an uneventful flight to Atlanta and a walking breakfast en route to the international terminal.

We stopped at the currency exchange booth and found that they didn’t carry Cuban currency– not a huge surprise. Tony had coordinated a bulk purchase of Euros, because it worked out slightly better for us to buy Euros in the US and then change Euros to Cuban pesos (CUC).

Now, back to the CTC. Cuba doesn’t issue visa per se for US citizens. Instead, you need a CTC. The airline can’t let you board a flight to Cuba without one, so you either have to buy in advance through a consolidator (which costs $85 or so) or from the airline, usually $50. Delta charged us the $50 fee at checkin, so all we had to do was fill out a form certifying that we had a legitimate reason to go to Cuba and show our receipt for the $50. The gate agents gave us the actual CTC and checked to make sure we’d filled it out properly– apparently lots of people get the date format backwards and end up having to buy another CTC. The form is in two parts: Cuban customs collects part 1 when you arrive, and you turn in the matching part 2 when you depart.


After checking all the documents, that’s when you get your boarding pass, which is stamped to indicate that you’ve passed the documentation checks and can legally board the flight. US citizens traveling to Cuba are required to have medical insurance, since they aren’t covered by Cuba’s government insurance system. The $25 fee for this insurance is included when you purchase a ticket on Delta, and your boarding pass is proof of purchase.. so you’re legally required to keep your boarding pass with you at all times in country.


Apart from the documentation procedures (which are really very similar to any other Delta international flight), the boarding process and aircraft are identical to what you’re used to. We flew a domestically configured A319 with wifi, although wifi only works in US airspace. To make sure that this gets posted, I’m going to actually post it while we’re still in the air over Florida; you’ll have to wait until the next installment to learn about our arrival in Havana, race packet pickup, and our (planned) dinner at Paladar Torreson.

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Training Tuesday: pre-Havana smorgasboard

In two days I’ll be headed to Havana for my first 70.3 of the season: La Habana Triatlón. Things here at la casa have been fairly chaotic as I’ve tried to clear my work backlog, learn and prepare for travel to a completely unique country, and get my normal training and race prep together. Here are a few highlights:

  • Alex handed me over to a new coach, Jon Fecik. Jon is a professional triathlete. I can’t summarize how excited I am to be working with him– even after only two weeks it’s clear that he is going to be a great match for my training needs. So far I’ve learned a ton from him and I think I have a solid race plan.
  • The weather in Havana this weekend: forecast high of 85 degrees and sunny. The water temperature will almost certainly not be wetsuit-legal, plus that’s kind of warm for a 70.3. Jon has given me a pretty solid hydration plan and we’ve talked extensively about my race pace strategy so I think I’ll be good to go.
  • Packing has been interesting because I assume that I will not be able to get anything locally except for bottled water and fresh food. Everything from bike parts and tools to race nutrition to clean underwear (and toilet paper!) has to go with me, or I have to do without it. This has raised my packing anxiety to a previously unknown level.
  • I’m traveling with a group of 5 other local triathletes, and we’ve got an Airbnb with a housekeeper. We’ve also been able to book a driver/guide. This is going to be important because none of us have been there before and we have a fairly complex set of logistical problems to solve– getting 6 people, plus their bikes and gear, from point A to point B, thence point C, then back to B, several times, then back to A is going to be non-trivial. Having local guidance will be extremely useful.
  • There’s a ton of stuff to see and do in Havana– it’s a city of over 2 million people. Anything I have time for will be a bonus.
  • Cuba has very, very limited Internet access. Simple tasks (like sending one of my fellow travelers a message to ask where we’re meeting for lunch) will be impractical at best. We’ve all got paper maps, as well as offline copies of city maps on our phones. I posted the other day about my proposed email/blogging rig, and I’m confident it will work, but you may not be hearing much from me over the next several days.

I’ll be posting a full race report sometime between the end of the race and the end of March. Stay tuned!

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