Five minutes to seven in the morning, Liloan was just an ordinary, picturesque seaside town.
But with the resonating bang of a race gun, it became something else.
On its third year, the Vaseline Xterra Off-Road Series held last week drew 430 participants across 17 countries for its full triathlon alone—a far cry from the hundred who joined the event two years ago.
In the end, winners brought home not only honors and memories of a tropical summer and an even warmer and effusive welcome, but medals handcrafted by the town’s outstanding artisans from indigenous materials sourced from Cebu province. The premier triathlon may also have found a home.
The Sea Front beach resort was witness to roughly 400 bodies jockeying for position. Within seconds, the Camotes Sea was studded with swim caps—and from that point on, it was a battleground.
“You know what, you’re all very lucky,” said Xterra race director Dave Nicholas in the race briefing the night before. “You’re all able to race with your friends while seeing the beauty of this country.”
Set in the backdrop of rural Liloan, Cebu, Xterra’s full triathlon course stretches a total of 47 kilometers.
Come 9:30 a.m., the race already saw a winner—Australian Ben Allen.
Seeing no other race shirt in front of him, Allen pulled off a dominant showing, emerging off the waters first with a swim split of 16:53, finishing at 2:37:40.
“I had a target on my back to defend,” Allen warmly told reporters after trumping eventual second placer, South African Dan Hugo who clocked in at 2:38:31 and Briton Sam Gardner, who registered 2:48:19 for third.
Allen, who was touring across 13 countries with fellow triathlete and girlfriend Jacqui Slack, added, “It’s just an amazing feeling to walk away as champion for another year.”
Meanwhile, Scotland’s Leslie Paterson dominated the distaff side, even surpassing eventual Men’s Pro third placer Sam Gardner. She logged an overall time of 2:45:41, nosing out last year’s champ Renata Bucher and Daz Parker who finished second and third with 3:00:03 and 3:17:03, respectively.
Slack finished fourth in the women’s Pro with 3:55:21.
In the men’s Filipino Elite category, Joseph Miller surged to the top spot with 3:05:51, while Alexandra Ganzon clinched women’s first with 4:15:03.
Trying to surprise regular participants, Dave Nicholas noted changes from last year’s racecourse. And boy, did it catch athletes off guard.
“It’s the hardest course I’ve ever had,” said Paterson.
“The course was grueling. It was up and down, like a roller coaster,” agreed Allen. “You don’t really have time to rest.”
“Tough” may be an understatement for the course, since participants were tasked to snake through the roads of Liloan’s sleepy barrios, while dealing with the unforgiving heat of the summer sun.
The morning recorded a sweltering 31°C paired with 84 percent humidity.
The course also featured a punishing combination of steep ascents and sloped descents intensified by sharp and narrow turns, through occasional potholes and merciless traffic.
Despite the trying conditions, the participants drew comfort from the townsfolk who cheered them on.
Racers may have worn their game face from the get-go, slicing through corners and traversing rough terrain, but they always took time to wave to the admiring crowds.
Barangay Jubay resident Ryan Tolo said it was fun to watch the event, and that the neighborhood woke up early because it doesn’t happen everyday.
The full triathlon required participants to swim 1.5 kilometers, ride their bikes for 35 km and ply another 10 by foot. The “lite” version, on the other hand, was highlighted by a 500-meter swim, a 20-km bike ride and 5-km trail run.
Alaska CEO and event co-organizer Wilfred Uytengsu Jr., who also saw action in the 50-54 age category, said the race was as arduous as it was exciting, adding that the weather made the course extra challenging.
“The pavements were hot as ovens, and this made the ordeal extra tougher,” Uytengsu said.
“The heat just goes through your shoes,” TV host Paolo Abrera added.
“I had to adapt to the heat and humidity because I know the heat here plays a really important factor in having a good race,” said Allen.
“If I were to describe the race, it would be like watching three top-rated television shows,” said Uytengsu. “The swim part would be ‘UFC’ since everyone was just jostling for the lead. The bike part would be ‘Fear Factor’ due to the course’s unexpected challenges and the run part would be ‘The Walking Dead,’ because that’s how the participants felt like,” cracked Uytengsu.
Noteworthy celebrity sightings included Sen. Pia Cayetano, herself a dedicated athlete, and last year’s Xterra Maui World Championships delegate and rising actor Matteo Guiddicelli.
Guiddicelli notched top honors in the men’s 20-24 after registering a record 3:50:25.
At the finish line, Mayor Vincent “Duke” Frasco personally handed the athletes their Liloan oyster-inspired medals.
Neil Felipp San Pedro said indigenous materials from his native Cebu were his inspiration in designing the medals.
“The medals are made of Liloan oyster shells that are rough and rugged—just like the course,” he said. “Inside is the succulent flesh, symbolic of the triumphant effort of the athletes.”
Post-race, a totally different facet of the event unfolded. After an intense morning stretch, athletes were treated to a beachside, Cebu-style feast of local appetizers, grilled seafood and meat, fresh fruits and the not-to-be-missed, world-famous Cebu lechon.
And while other athletes were busy having event cosponsor LBC take care of their bikes, some headed to the massage booths put up by David’s Salon and hydration stalls of Alaska and Gatorade.
In the evening, the awarding ceremonies were held at the Cebu International Convention Center.
Among the winners were 41 athletes who will fly the national flag at the Xterra World Championships that will culminate in Maui, Hawaii.
The podium finishers received $2,200, $1,700 and $1,200.
The night turned out to be a cultural showcase of Cebu’s own talents. Foreign athletes raved to the local festive tunes alongside organizers and other winners.
Bumping into Allen once again, the Aussie said he was stoked for the next leg of the race series to be held in Saipan and Guam.
“I’ll try to carry the momentum,” he said, raring to notch the Pacific Triple Crown once again—a grand-slamming feat that he pulled off last year.
Asked about training and touring with Slack, Allen said: “It just makes training, well, everything, a lot easier.”
The next day featured yet another thrilling challenge—distance running in trail form where TV personality Rovilson Fernandez and “Boys Night Out” hosts Sam YG, Slick Rick and Tony Toni saw action.
On the last day of the weekend, Allen, Paterson and the other victors weren’t the only winners.
“Xterra has found a home here in Liloan,” said Mayor Frasco. “It’s not only during Xterra when triathletes come here and train. It’s starting to be a year-round thing now.
“In terms of lifestyle and the youth in Liloan, the triathlon has already rubbed off on them. A lot of them have their own bikes now,” he added. “It’s a refreshing change from basketball, which is what we were all accustomed to. Clearly, we have better chances in competing for we run and we swim fast.”
“Sixteen years ago, it was just a dream,” Nicholas said, citing the success of the triathlon series. “Now, we’re in 200 countries around the world, except Antarctica.
“In the past, whenever people hear that we were going to hold Xterra in Liloan, people would say, ‘Oh, you mean Cobra Ironman?’” said Frasco. “That’s no longer the case today.”