How Ironman’s Founders Finally Created Their Dream Race – In Panama

Ironman pioneer John Collins found the place to put on the triathlon of his original dreams: in the geographical treasure cache of the storied waters and tropical rainforests of Portobelo, Panama.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

This story originally appeared in the August 1999 issue of Triathlete Magazine.

“The good news is that they are paving the roads,” Collins wrote in an e-mail distributed to entrants. “The bad news is that they are paving the roads.”

A majority of the participants who got that e-mail assembled on the western shore of the Isla Grande in the Panamanian village of Juan Gallego. They were originally drawn by a simple, black-and-white flyer that had been distributed in Panama, the country that hinges two continents together and whose isthmus links the planet’s two mightiest oceans. The upper portion of the flyer offered a standard textual description of the course, registration times and procedures.

The rest of the flyer read:

Swim through clear waters where Columbus anchored!

Bike along the coast where Spanish soldiers fought English pirates for gold of a new world!

Run through tropical forest and ancient fortifications!

But the eye-catcher, ink jet-printed at the bottom of the page, was a bold caption that revealed not only the nature of the race, but hinted at the primary individual behind the race: CORAL!!!  COWS!!!  CANNONS!!!

Another clue to the identity of the tireless, sparkle-eyed perpetrator of the Portobelo Triathlon was the the five dollar entry fee. Five bucks, t-shirt included: the same donation John Collins received from the 15 intrepid athletes he persuaded to attempt the crazy experiment he called “Ironman,” on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, in 1978.

And now an international assortment of triathletes, my gringo self included, stand on the beach facing a jumble of wooden canoes and their crews, whose collective job is to steer us away from a coral reef hidden within the emerald waters and safely toward the mainland beach. Christopher Columbus, during his final New World voyage in 1502, anchored his ship in this bay to take on desperately needed provisions. Nearly 500 years later, skimming into sight from across the center of the bay, we see Collins, piloting the Abernathy, his trusty motorboat. He arrives and climbs ashore to make announcements.

We gather around him, Panamanians and a sprinkling of internationals representing a full spectrum of skin colors. Collins greets us, then asks his associate Roberto Carretero to translate his English pre-race instructions for the Spanish-speaking crowd. Following a two-sentence, to-the-point explanation of what to look for in navigating ourselves across the Bay, Collins turns to his translator and gives him the nod. Wearing black bike shorts and smoked goggles secured over his eyes, Carretero begins a long monologue in rapid-fire Spanish. He takes thrice the time it took Collins to tell us to “keep the yellow buoys to your left”, and twice during the “translation” the Spanish-speaking contingent breaks into hearty laughter. Carretero finishes and looks through his goggles back at Collins, signaling his task’s completion with a Cheshire grin. Collins looks at the crowd and pauses, and then back at the grinning Carretero, and everyone breaks out laughing once more.

Minutes later Collins gets back in the Abernathy and motors 150 yards away from shore. He pulls out a pistol loaded with a .22 caliber round and fires it into the water. The 2nd annual Portobelo Triathlon field, singing and laughing, and scrambles into the bay.

John Collins. Father of the Ironman Triathlon and the most recent inductee into the Ironman Hall of Fame. Twenty-plus years after competing among the original field of 15 on Oahu, what is he up to? One clue we may or may not have noticed is the fact that, when Collins crossed the finish line in his return to the Hawaii Ironman this past fall, he waved a USA flag in his right hand and a Panamanian flag in his left.

What’s the father of the Ironman doing in Panama?

“Judy and I were going to stay here for four days,” explains Collins on the evening before the race, as we cross Portobelo Bay on our way to the Isle Grande, “and that was 6 years ago.” The couple’s stay, which they’ve since decided will be a permanent one, was drawn out by the lure of the raw beauty of the area, a tropical magic unspoiled by the machines of tourism and development. There’s a Panamanian saying that in Costa Rica 20 tourists try to see one quetzal, while in Panama one person tries to see 20 of these same tropical birds.

It’s dark now and storm clouds have lumbered into the sky. A light rain begins to fall. When he sees the shadows of approaching vessels in the distance, the retired Navy Commander picks up his flashlight and aims the beam into an empty Chlorox bottle above his head, an effectively improvised night beacon. To our right is a silhouette of thick rainforest rushing down from hillsides and halted only by the Caribbean-fed waters of the bay. Collins can spill paragraphs of history and geographical points of interest about nearly every object in sight. If we continued east around the bend, he details, we would eventually run into the San Blas Archipiélago, home to the Kuna Indians, who will let you take their picture for a dollar.

“From Kona to the Kuna,” Collins quips. 

As quiet and peaceful a coast as Portobelo appears be be today, between the 15th and 17th centuries Portebelo served as a seaport for the Central American-Transatlantic treasure route, where ships picked up valuable cargo that had been muletrained from the Pacific port of Panama city. Word got out and Portobelo evolved into a cache for kings and a jackpot for pirates. Battlements raised to protect the town ached for sleep as the harbor became a target favored by the violent likes of Sir Francis Drake, William Parker and Henry Morgan. By the 18th century, the area had become so dangerous that treasure ships from Peru decided it wasn’t worth it, and would sail for Cape Horn on their way to Europe, bypassing the Panamanian shortcut. The ensuing decline of Panama’s fortunes precipitated its being annexed as a province of Columbia.

It was in 1846 that the United States, its eyes on the isthmus, bartered a treaty with Columbia allowing the emerging world power to build a railway and move troops into the area. Starting in 1903, with a revolutionary junta supported by the USA to free Panama, the famous canal treaty has been rewritten numerous times due to friction between the two countries. At the end of this year, control of the canal will be in the hands of Panama, and vacated army barracks show that the withdrawal of the U.S. military is already well in progress. The way John Collins sees the future here, Panama has yet to be discovered by the world of multisport adventurers, and he and his friends in Portobelo are dedicated toward that end. “I’d hate to see Portobelo turned into a tourist trap, and I’d hate to see it destroyed by development,” he says. But Collins definitely wants to share what he’s been privileged to enjoy, and also to help out the local economy, but in a way that minimally affects the beauty and culture of the town. As in the Portobelo Triathlon.

After Collins drops me off at a dock, he motors away to complete preparations for tomorrow morning’s race. “We still have to finish up the trophies,” he says. “In 1978 I was working on the trophies the night before the Ironman. So some things never change.”  Under a roof of protection at the Club Turqueza, I meet Raul Bocanegra, a U.S. Army sergeant serving in a Panama-based Special Forces unit who’s here to do the race. As we talk, the light rain turns into a hard, churning downpour. “Raul,” I say. “John is out in the middle of all that.”

“Go Navy!” says the green beret.

A Kona do-over, starring Bicycle Andy and a herd of cows

It’s hard to connect John Collins and this race with the Hawaii Ironman of the present. The race that underwent drastic quantitative growth and qualitative transformation through the ’80s and ’90s has left a certain quarter of longtime Ironman aficionados disillusioned by the commercialization that its success has entailed. There is also the growing objection that the race field is now made up almost entirely of elite athletes, and that the spirit of the early years, which emphasized finishing the race and being able to laugh about it later, has been trampled underfoot by the herd of achievers who orient their lives around Kona. Certain triathlon pundits whose experience reaches well back into the ‘80s have spoken remorsefully about the 1998 rendition, voicing intangibles about the “feeling” being gone, swept out by the mania and the money.

There is a good feeling here, and it resonates from the Portobelo environment, the residents, and Collins himself. As Collins shows me the planned route from the swim exit to the transition area (9 bamboo poles lashed to palm trees), we walk through thick wet grass along a wire fence. As Collins explains the logistics of the transition’s design, we approach a bored gray horse hitched to a fence by a piece of rope. The horse looks at Collins. “Hello horse,” Collins interrupts himself, speaking the greeting in the same instructional voice, and continues on. He proudly points out the blue barrel that will be filled with fresh water, the dirt trail that leads to the road, a hilltop upon which sits the foundation of the house he and Judy are building. He’s able to put this race on thanks to the efforts of his neighbors and his friends here in Portobelo, not unlike a group putting on a weekend fair in a small town. It’s all very old school, very grassroots, and I don’t know if Collins could stage a race any other way. In a story published in the Panama News, Collins articulated his philosophy of making triathlon accessible for “the average guy”, and expressed his desire to make the Portobelo Triathlon accessible to local and international competitors alike.

Leave it to me to defy all safeguards and find a way to swim right on top of the coral. I know now where Columbus didn’t drop anchor. When the coral appears inches beneath me, I raise my head from the water and see at least three volunteers who are desperately waving me back in their direction. I obey their signals and finish the 1,200-meter swim unscathed and in my familiar place among the field’s stragglers — my sister and brother flailers — as we return to terra firma. I jog up a concrete ramp and into the bamboo transition, wondering where the horse had gone, and climb on my mountain bike for the 20-mile bike ride.

Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty Images

After three miles of pedaling, I manage to catch up to Panamanian Judy Malphus, a 14-year-old triathlete and the youngest competitor in the individual competition for the second year in a row. I greet her with what is my entire repertoire of Spanish (about a breath’s worth), and she greets me back, smiling sweetly and speaking perfect English. Oh, well. The undulating dirt road weaves through the burgeoning forest, which is dotted with the small subsistence farms and families sitting on porches or alongside the road, watching the race and waving hello. Six miles into the ride we begin to hit short, steep and rutty climbs, wet mud from last night’s rain splashing everywhere. The road is alive here. How many times in my life have I heard the old teaser, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” without ever having seen a chicken cross the road? In the last hour I’ve seen three. I’ve also swerved around dogs and cows. Translucent orange crabs grapple the gravel. Mrs. T’s Chicago this isn’t.

One who started with us has, as I understand it, elected not to be with us at this point. Bicycle Andy, he’s been dubbed. A French fellow, Andy had plagued Collins by continually begging permission to do only the first and last legs of the triathlon. “He didn’t want to do the bike,” Collins says. “I told him, ‘If you don’t want to do the bike, why don’t you be on a relay team?’ Then you can swim and run and let someone else do the bike.” For whatever reason, Bicycle Andy found this option distasteful. “He asked me again,” said Collins, “and I told him that if he wanted to swim the swim course and run the run course, he could do that, but I wouldn’t take his registration or his five dollars, and he wouldn’t be an official contestant in the race. I told him, ‘Just please don’t wear a number or go through our finish line areas. Just don’t mess up our timing system, and we’ll be O.K.’”

Bicycle Andy accepted this arrangement. He appeared at the race start in a sleeveless wetsuit with letters  magic-markered on his arm in calligraphy style. Obediently eschewing numbers, it read “ANDY”. Presumably, the world would not be denied knowing that it was indeed he, Bicycle Andy, executing the solo swim-run effort. Not a no-name, and not a member of any relay team. Bicycle Andy, individual to the end, was making his triathlon statement.

“Events like this,” Collins would say later, shaking his head, “always attract people like Bicycle Andy. In the early years of the Ironman, Cowman was the same way. When I explained to him that he had to sign his real name to the waiver, he wouldn’t do it at first. He wanted to sign it ‘Cowman’. I asked him if that was his legal name and he said that it wasn’t, and I told him, ‘Then you’re not going to enter the race.’ He finally signed it with his legal name (which has since been legally changed to Cowman A-Mooh-Hah). But then he had to go out and panhandle up enough change to enter.”

“Events like this.” Exactly. Events like this also attract the inspiring likes of Rogelio Gaviria, a local 38-year-old triathlete riding a borrowed bike fitted with Speedplay clipless pedals, which are nice, but they aren’t exactly designed for the reef shoes he wears. He is undeterred, even though it will take him more than two and a half hours to complete the bike segment.

Collins has placed the second transition within the ruins of Fort Santiago, one of several battlements constructed to protect Portobelo from hostile invasions during the Spanish colonial days. Musket ports and brass cannons still cleave to their original spots in walls made of reef-rock and cut stone. The treasure town had been targeted first by English pirate Sir Francis Drake, who’d led a raid in 1573 that would inflame the greed of other sea pirates working the treasure ship trail, and an era of pillage and invasion would engulf the town, and the harbor would fill with sunken ships.

Here in 1999, we’re running up grassy slopes and out of the compound and westward on the main road, no pirates as far as the eye can see. Six miles, the flyer says, and quite frankly, it’s refreshingly easy. We pass small restaurants and outdoor taverns. Ads for Atlas beer are wallpapered everywhere. Brewed in Panama, Atlas is the current favorite of Collins. “It’s alcohol content is less than three percent,” shared the inveterate factoid monger. “That’s less than what was legal during Prohibition.”

After two miles of paved road, a volunteer motions us to make a left turn onto a dirt road. The terrain is flat and spotted with puddles. A boy on horseback with a dark blue bandana tied around his neck is following me. I give him a wide birth, and he pulls alongside me, but does not pass. He’s looking at me point-blank, sizing me up. Could he be a race official? It wouldn’t be surprising. Or an agent of protection. One hundred dollars of the race budget went into the pocket of a local landowner for the service of “keeping the cows off the road”. Sure enough, when a herd of cattle led by an anxious bull appears up the road the boy makes a series of long, high-pitched sounds, and instantly the entire herd moves in unison to the right of the road, opening a five-yard swath to run through.

If you ever need to clear away cows, screech. It really works.

When competitor U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colleen Milligan found herself running straight into a herd, the bulls started moving straight for her. She backpedaled and screamed. The bulls only picked it up. She backpedaled faster and boosted the scream up an octave. Hitting higher and higher notes with each scream, she nailed a sound that shocked the bull, as they not only stopped their aggressive movement, they leaped back in fear. Milligan found The-Pitch-That-Stops-The-Cows.

The dirt road portion of the run ends after a mile. A cadre of volunteers motions us left with dubious words of encouragement. “Just one more hill,” they say. Running alone with no one in my sight, I cross through a creek, cursing lightly as my feet are soaked in a flash. Little do I realize how fond a memory that will become.

The half-mile stretch connecting the dirt road and a broad valley floor is marshland. Every third step poses fresh problems concerning how to deal with knee-high mud thick enough to suck a running shoe off a foot. Yellow paper plates tacked to foliage mark our route. A turkey vulture perches himself on a fence and watches me. When Collins pointed out a threesome of these lanky birds to me yesterday, he referred to them as the Portobelo Air Force. “As long as your moving,” Collins said, “you’re not food.”

I resign myself to the goal of making it through the marsh with both shoes on my feet, which means walking like an ankle-weighted ostrich. Finally, the course gets back to solid ground, by which time I’ve been caught by Julian Johanson. Johanson, a lean and amiable Englishman, is an engineer living and working in Panama City. Instinctively, we strike up a friendly alliance against the forthcoming hill climb. An expansive, fertile valley has greeted us. The course markers guide us gradually up a series of steep, grassy slopes. We run in bits and pieces, but for the most part we walk and chat, and talk of our individual adventures through the marsh.

Cresting the hill, we look back. A fog bank hovers along the rim of the surrounding mountains, and our view of the valley and the surrounding rainforest brings our race to a full stop. We can see forever. “In a way, we could be in Switzerland,” says Johanson.

The world changes as we begin our descent down the north slope of the hill. A jungle of black palms and banana trees collapses on either side of us, and the narrow trail plummets downward over unmercifully slick mud. “How do think John measured this?” I ask Julian.

“How do you think he found it?” he replies.

However he found it, he wasn’t the first. The story has it that the most infamous pirate of the late 1600’s, Englishmen Henry Morgan, led a multinational band of pirates in a sneak attack on Portobelo, using this same route as a backdoor entry into the town on a dark July night in 1668. How they navigated this route at night, torches or no torches, is a puzzle. If it weren’t for the imbedded rocks, one would be tempted to grab a banana leaf and slide down the thing.

The biggest puzzle left at the end of this day — because no one can find him to answer it — is how Bicycle Andy handled the quagmire. The eccentric Frenchman was encountered on the rugged climb of the run course by Milligan and fellow competitor Tim Cameron shortly after Milligan. The pair spotted a competitor up ahead shortly after scaring some cows and quickly reeled him in. Because Bicycle Andy, the man who refused to ride the bike leg, was carrying a mountain bike over his shoulder on the run! “We hiked along with him for awhile,” reported Milligan, “but he was just too slow.”

The story of Bicycle Andy’s hill climb spreads quickly among the race finishers, elevating him to legendary status. As the remaining triathletes join the post-race fun by running through the tunnel into Fort Santiago, children from the town, dressed in ceremonial clothing, dance to the rythms of drums and clapping. As results are tallied, Collins organizes the awards: engraved machetes that have been prepared the night before.

When a young girl accepts a machete for a parent, Collins hands it to her with some hesitation. “Be careful with this,” he instructs. Watching her walk down the ramp with the weapon, Collins quips, “Be careful when you walk with scissors; be careful when you walk with machetes.”