Talking triathlon’s social significance with Philippine triathlon pioneers Fred Uytengsu and Greg Banzon

By Eric Nicole Salta | Photos by Tristan Tamayo (Ivan Carapiet) and courtesy of Sunrise Events Inc. and Century Tuna

To make sense of the triathlon boom in the Philippines, the limited 1,000 slots in the highly anticipated Ironman Philippines on June 3, 2018 sold out in mere hours on the morning of August 1. 

Heralded as the premier long-distance race for its enduring history, global appeal, and test of human limits, the first Ironman in the Philippines offers a chance to bring the community together, unite more Filipinos for a shared sporting experience, and put forward new ways to view the sport’s future viability.

“Over the years, the clamor for the race has really built up. That’s why we were pleasantly surprised with the amount of buzz it generated, so it’s time to put up an Ironman event,” says Greg Banzon, vice president and general manager of Century Pacific Food Inc.

Triathlon has seen immense growth since its local inception in 2009 and it only made sense to solidify the movement with an Ironman, marking a bullet right next to the Philippines as an increasing presence on the global triathlon calendar

“In my heart, this is really one limited edition event. It seems like the right time. Now we have the critical mass of local triathletes who are willing and able to do a full distance race. Having said that, if there is appetite and demand, we’ll take a look at it,” adds Sunrise Events Inc’s Fred Uytengsu.

Triathlon has seen immense growth since its local inception in 2009 and it only made sense to solidify the movement with an Ironman, marking a bullet right next to the Philippines as an increasing presence on the global triathlon calendar. And it’s never been the right time until now, marking the 10th anniversary of the first Ironman 70.3 race held in Camarines Sur and, intentionally or not, challenging the boundaries and versatility of Filipino triathletes on home soil.

Sunrise Events Inc.’s Fred Uytengsu

“For every race to be successful, we need to have a large local contingent,” says Uytengsu. “We send hundreds of Filipinos to full distance races all around the world (from Melbourne and Barcelona to Arizona) and we were going to send some to Austria had we not announced this race.”

“Having been involved in these races every year, I see so many new faces and ask how long have you been involved in this, and they say one or two years. That’s evidence to me that the sport has grown exponentially,” Uytengsu says.

In many ways, it’s this kind of passion and drive from Uytengsu and Banzon, both experienced triathletes and central figures in the pursuit of an active and healthy lifestyle, that has triggered triathlon’s steady rise to the upper echelons of Filipino sports

Evidence was also apparent at the New World Makati Hotel’s assembly hall where Sunrise Events hosted a registration party, utilizing every part of the massive event space with scenes of triathletes—elder statesmen, new kids on the block, age-groupers, coaches, accidental athletes—turning their attention from breakfast to each other, conversing and dissolving into the excitement, and up onto the stage filled with banners and streamers celebrating the promise of the first—and hopefully not last—Ironman Philippines in 2018.

Vice president and general manager of Century Pacific Food Inc. Greg Banzon

“One of the biggest thrills and satisfactions of completing an Ironman aside from the personal feeling of accomplishment and achievement is being able to share that moment,” says Banzon.

In many ways, it’s this kind of passion and drive from Uytengsu and Banzon, both experienced triathletes and central figures in the pursuit of an active and healthy lifestyle, that has triggered triathlon’s steady rise to the upper echelons of Filipino sports.

The pros dash off to a fast start at this year’s Century Tuna Ironman 70.3 in Subic, the site of Ironman Philippines 2018

“The Philippines is capable of hosting world-class events if you pay attention to detail, if you work hard, and have great partners,” explains Uytengsu. “We’re also trying to give people opportunities once you’ve accepted a healthy lifestyle. One by itself does not work, so you can eat well but if you don’t exercise that’s not going to help. You can exercise but if you don’t put in the right food in your body then you’re not doing the right thing.”

“I remember waiting for my car in Shangri-La and the bellman said ‘Sir, see you in Cebu.’ And I said ‘Why, are you transferring to work there?’ And he’s like ‘No sir, I’m racing.’ And I shook my head because that’s amazing”

What Uytengsu and Banzon illustrate beautifully in their partnership is the way they take the triathlon lifestyle and move it outside its partitions to create a product that is more inspiring and accessible for a larger audience. As Uytengsu explains, “It’s like a field of dreams. Build it and they will come, so we built the race and they showed up. Five hundred at the beginning then 1,000, 1,500, and then 2,000. We created a safe, world-class opportunity for people to challenge themselves.”

“I remember waiting for my car in Shangri-La and the bellman said ‘Sir, see you in Cebu.’ And I said ‘Why, are you transferring to work there?’ And he’s like ‘No sir, I’m racing.’ And I shook my head because that’s amazing,” adds Uytengsu. “Because I know it’s expensive for him to do something like that. We see people from different socio-economic categories participate and that’s the way we’ve looked at the evolution of this sport.”

Ironman Philippines

Ivan Carapiet at last year’s Cobra Ironman 70.3 Asia-Pacific Championship

Though the full distance race is currently capped at 1,000 entries (mostly to ensure safety and address logistical concerns) and the possibility of folding one of the 70.3 races next year looms, the fact that it is going to be held in Subic is a loud statement on propping up what the future of Philippine triathlon might look. “We have a pretty simple checklist when we look at staging a race. First, do we have the infrastructure? Second, we want access to a good swim area. Third is hotel logistics. Do we have enough space? And finally the fourth component is having a supportive municipality that will help with safety and community support, and I feel we have all those in Subic,” says Uytengsu.

“That’s where triathlon is born,” adds Banzon. “Subic provides a good vibe and accessibility, and a lot of the families and friends would want to be able to witness this,  and to do it there provides triathletes some familiarity with the terrain. They’ll just have to figure out how to manage it and their energy throughout the course.”