Fidel and Pedro

The time that I spent in Venezuela in 1978-81, resulted in a seismic change in my direction in life: the geography of the country; the people, the friends that I made, with some of whom I am still in contact, the challenge of learning the language, the food, the music, the wonderful climate.  I could go on and on, and usually do.

And of course, it was in Caracas, where I was introduced to competitive running, inspired by Herbert Robertson, about whom I have previously written (see  But there were two others, who greatly contributed to my modest success as a long-distance runner – Fidel Rotondaro and Pedro Penzini.

I first met Fidel while training in the Parque del Este.  He was the enthusiastic organizer of local races and runners under the name ‘Club Ataka’.  I happily accepted to join with his group and often, after a race or long training run, he would invite us to his house for a beer or three.

Fidel was an economist by discipline, but in those days, he had a charter business, with his own 6-seater turbo-prop, stationed at the city airport, just across from where I worked, at Maraven, the oil company.  He used to transport wealthy businessmen and tourists, both within Venezuela and internationally. Twice he invited several of us to accompany him, in his plane, to races in Florida.  And when there, we stayed at his house in Fort Lauderdale.

Fidel was not just hospitable to his friends, he sponsored and subsidized two young talented local runners, poor guys with few resources.

Once, Fidel arranged a race in Canaima, in Eastern Venezuela, with a group of runners from Caracas and Indians from a local football club.  We set off in three small planes and one by one we landed in a field by the river Orinoco.  The landing strip was quite short, and twice we overshot the field and took off again, to avoid ending up in the water.  From there we took a canoe to an island in the river, where Fidel, or perhaps one of his friends, had a large open-sided dwelling.  We had a huge bar-b-cue and slept the night in hammocks.  It was idyllic.  The next day we had a short flight to Canaima.  By air, was the only means of getting to Cainama; there were no roads.

The 15 km race was run over dirt tracks, out and back, through beautiful countryside, with no shade.  It was quite hot and the last stage was along the airport runway, when my legs moved, but everything else seemed to be stationary.  After, we took some canoes on the lagoon and passed behind one of the waterfalls.  I will never forget the experience.

The landing strip at Canaima, with the lagoon and the waterfalls in the background (photo from internet)

Pedro was not with us that weekend.  He was a chemist, at that time working in the pharmaceutical industry.  He was an enthusiastic advocate of healthy living and wrote a weekly column for a national paper, under the heading ‘Correr es Vivir‘ – (To run is to live).  He wrote a book on the subject, in the early days of mass running, when Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar and Greta Waitz were every runner’s heroes.  I will never forget one of his weekly columns entitled – ‘Escupir o no escupir‘, ‘To spit or not to spit’.  It was about the effects of the loss of fluid during a long race, and I never did know whether he was being serious or just ‘tongue-in-cheek’.

Correr es vivir
Photo from internet

When I returned from the Cleveland marathon in May 1980, having attained a Boston qualifying time of under 2:50, Pedro wrote a very flattering article about me for El Nacional.  I remember that I was wearing my all black running shorts and singlet (John Walker, the 1500 m runner of New Zealand, was one of my heroes in that era), while the photographer took shot after shot of me running past him.  I don’t know what happened to my copy of the article.

El médico Pedro Penzini Fleury
A formally dressed Pedro, complete with microphone (photo from internet

But life moved on, and so did I.  For twenty years, Pedro continued to write his weekly ‘Correr es Vivir‘, on running, sports and healthy living.  He had a daily program on radio and later on television, and became a well-known personality.  But despite his clean-living life-style, he fell ill and died in 2010, at the age of 74.

Pedro Penzini Fleury 1
A race in memory of Pedro was run in 2010 (photo from internet)

Fidel has never stopped running.  He is the only Venezuelan, and one of the few of any nationality, that have completed a marathon in all seven continents.  And yes, that includes Antarctica.  He has had a serious illness and a debilitating Achilles tear, but went on to compete successfully at international level in a plethora of Ironman triathlons.  He is now 76, living between Isla Margarita and Miami, and still competing.

At 76, Fidel is still looking good (photo from internet)

As I sit here tonight in Cape Town, with my head filled to overflowing with warm memories of nearly 40 years ago, I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to have known Fidel and Pedro.

Each, in their own way, enriched my life, and that I will never forget.


Perú, 1977

It was in the very early 1970s that I read ‘Papillon’, the alleged memoirs of Henri Charrière, the French convict, who escaped from Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guinea, and who ended up, years later, in Caracas.  I once went to his restaurant in Baruta, just outside Caracas, but by then he had died.

In his memoirs, he wrote of his experiences in escaping from the notorious prison on a raft built of coconut shells, eventually landing on the Guajira Peninsula on the coast of Colombia.  There, for some time, he lived with two Indian women.  Whether factual or not, the account had no small part in my desire to travel and to experience something of Central and South America.

In 1976, I travelled across the Pacific on a Greek passenger ship, from Sydney to Panamá, via Auckland and Paapete (Tahiti), and eventually on bus, country by country, through the plethora of Central American countries, to the US, eventually ending up living by the beach at Marina del Rey in Los Angeles.  There I was able to rebuild my savings by working at odd jobs, mostly dirty tasks that were uninteresting to the local unemployed.

But the great consumer society held little attraction for me, and a few months later I headed back south, intent on going as far as my meagre savings would allow.  In those days, local bus travel was relatively inexpensive and basic accommodation was easy to find.

When I reached Panamá, I was unaware that the roads ended there, and that there were none south through the Darien Peninsula; there was, and still is, a 160 km gap in the 48,000 km Pan-American highway, that runs from northern Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina.  The only way of crossing from Panamá to Colombia was by plane, or by boat, east along the Caribbean coast, or south along the Pacific.  I flew to Medellín and from there continued on by local buses, hopping from place to place through Colombia and Ecuador to Perú.  Early Christmas day found me on a bus heading south from Lima.

With its colonial walls built from white volcanic stone, I found Arequipa to be a most impressive city, especially in the Convent of Santa Catalina.  And in Puno and Lake Titicaca, at 3827 m, with its floating islands and colourful Indian culture, I felt as if I was in a completely different world.  But sadly, my funds were running low, and as much as I wanted to continue into Bolivia, I had to turn back north.

Arequipa,with Misti in the background
One of the floating islands off Puno

Unfortunately, the next morning my funds became more depleted.  As I was boarding the train to Cuzco, I became involved in a scuffle between some men trying to leave the train and as others trying to board.  It was eventually resolved, but fifteen minutes later, I realized that the money that I had had in my pocket was no longer there.  I had been robbed.  Fortunately, I had money in a dirty sock in my bag and some more in the sole of my shoes, about enough to get me back to California.

I loved Cuzco and I would have stayed there much longer if I could.  The Inca history, with the Spanish culture imposed upon it, I found most fascinating.  During my first morning there, I went to a bookshop to thumb through a local history book – I could not afford to buy it.  I overheard an elder American tourist asking if they had any postcards of sexy women.  I was all ears, for the man looked as if he would have had apoplexy if an attractive woman passed within 100 m of him.  It turned out that he was referring to the ruins of Sacsahuaman, a fortress just outside Cuzco.

The next day I went there and what an impressive monument it turned out to be, with its massive walls built with huge multi-sided stones, all fitting together as in a jig-saw puzzle, so tightly fitting that a thin knife could not be inserted between them.


Few people go to Cuzco without also taking the day-trip to Machu Picchu, and I was no exception.  The train was heavily fortified, with many armed soldiers.  Once there, I ignored the buses that traveled the zig-zag road to the ridge, but climbed up the old Inca trail.  After wandering the impressive ruins, I tried to climb up to the peak that overlooks Machu Picchu, but a heavy thunderstorm cut it short, otherwise I could have easily slipped and slipped on the greasy stones and ended up in the Urubamba River a long way below.


With regret, I left Cuzco on a ramshackle old bus, destination Lima.  I was the only ‘gringo’ on the bus, but I had the consolation of a seat beside a beautiful young Indian girl.  Unfortunately, she spoke little Spanish and I spoke even less. All day we seemed to be descending into a valley with a steep ascent on the other side.  The bus coughed and wheezed and seemed to be on its last legs.  It was dark when progress ground to a halt.  For a while we all sat and waited, while the driver fiddled with the engine.  Eventually, one by one, we all descended to stretch our legs and empty our bladders.  The sky was clear and the stars were crystal clear, but it was very cold.

I was wearing only shorts and shirt and I was not prepared for cold.  But the lovely little Indian girl offered to share her blanket with me, and I gratefully accepted.  I eventually understood that she was a maid in a house near Lima and that she was returning from a short holiday with her family in Cuzco.

As the night wore on and the bus remained stationary, the occupants slept, and the driver and his assistant continued to fiddle with the engine.  It was more comfortable if I put my arm around the girl, and she soon slept with my other arm around her waist. Eventually at some time in the night, the engine roared into life and we jolted and jerked our way closer to Lima.  And we kissed in the dense night light.

The morning came too soon; I felt as if I could have spent the rest of my life with my arms wrapped around that little Indian girl, but it was not to be.  Her destination arrived, she descended, we kissed a long time and she walked away.  She never looked back.  As she turned a corner, I wanted to run after her, but my courage failed me.  I climbed back on board the bus.

I have often wondered if Henri Charrière ever had the same regret when he left the Indian sisters on the Colombian coast.


Caracas, 1978

Until I moved to Caracas in 1978, I had never lived anywhere within easy access to mountains.

The landscape around where I grew up on the north coast of Ulster, could be described as ‘gently undulating’, and it would be an exaggeration to describe the ‘mountains’ in the north of Ireland as anything more than ‘cuddly little hills’.

Likewise, Toronto and London are as vertically challenged as a slightly creased table cloth.  There are small mountains inland from Sydney, but they are at least a two-hour drive away.  On a rare day, clear of smog, from Los Angeles, with binoculars one can sometimes see the Rockies, but again a long drive.  And Lagos is on the vast delta of the river Niger.

So, on that morning in November 1978, when I was shown to my new office on the seventh floor of Maraven, in Caracas, and I looked across the adjacent city airport and saw that massive green wall rising from the northern suburbs, I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to be there.

Pico Oriental (2640 m), with the city aitport in the foreground (from internet)


The mountain at which I was looking, was the western end of El Parque Nacional El Ávila, that stretches for 80 km along the north coast, and is about 16 km wide.  The highest point is Pico Naiguatá at 2765 m, with Caracas at about 1000 m.

For quite a while, the mountains were ever present in my mind, but by necessity they were in the background; I was busy settling in, getting my bearings, coping with the challenges of a new job, and above all, wrestling with the Spanish language.

But eventually the urge to climb that mountain and walk along the ridge was irresistible.  I asked around the office, but nobody seemed to have ever climbed the mountain, nor did they seem to know anything about the access paths.

It was my new friend and eventually my constant companion, Ivonne, who inquired at an information office somewhere in the city, and obtained some documentation.  So, one Saturday morning we set off to climb Pico Oriental.

There was nothing technically challenging about the climb; it was like going up steep stairs for 2-3 hours.  And it was a very warm day.  But the views from the top were incredible, with Caracas on one side, and the Caribbean far below on the other.  And we could see planes flying below, and landing at the city airport, and on the other side, at the international airport of Maiquetía.

Over the next year on several weekends, we explored most of the paths on the mountain, accompanied by various permutations of Ivonne’s younger sisters – Maureen, Vilma and Dayra, and two of our colleagues from Maraven – Aiden Lehane and Laín Burgos-Lovece.

We went along the ridge as far as the Humbolt Hotel, at 2015 m, then deserted and decayed.  It had been built in 1956, with a cable car climbing from Caracas in the valley and then down the other side to Macuto, at the coast.  It was shut down in the early 1970’s, due to operational and technical issues with the cable car system.  It was reopened in the late 1980’s as a School of Tourism.

Hotel Humbold at 2015 m


Kaare & Lonny Plesner (Danish friends), with the author and Ivonne Garban, in 1979

Ivonne somehow obtained a faded copy of a document that gave the history of the ascent of Naiguatá, so one weekend we set off from Petare, in the eastern suburbs of Caracas.

The front page of an old 8-page document about Pico de Naiguatá


And a map showing some of the possible ascents to Naiguatá


Once more there was nothing technical about the climb, it was just long, and in the valley, the weather was hot that day.  And once again the views were stunning.

View of Naiguatá from the western ridge
Anfiteatro Pico Naiguata, Fila Maestra y Pico Oriental
Looking west from Naiguatá, with Caracas on the left, and the Caribbean on the right


Although there were several paths up the south side of Ávila, I never found one descending from the ridge on the north side, down to the Caribbean.  The north side was reputed to be a naturalist’s paradise, with many different species of flora and fauna.

There was no road along the coast for the length of the park.  The road ended at a beach club on the western end of the park, and just outside Higuerote on the eastern end.  In between, there was about 50 km of a rough track, only suitable for a 4-wheel drive.

One day I decided that I was going to run and walk the 50 km. Ivonne drove me to Higuerote, and I started out just after the sunrise.  We agreed to meet at the other end at 18:00, around sunset.

As crazy as it may seem today, I took nothing with me: no pack, no food, no water.  I had just my running gear.  And of course there were no mobile phones in those days.

But the distance for me, was a little more than that of a marathon, of which I had already done several.  And a few weeks earlier I had run and walked 80 km in training in Caracas, so I was not in awe of the distance.

The going was rough in parts, particularly in the middle third, and it was hot and very humid in the sun.  I drank from streams and surprisingly, I found several banana plants, with ripe fruit, possible descended from a long-vanished subsistence plot.

I had no concept of distance covered, but I had calculated on it taking no more than ten hours.  When ten hours had elapsed and there was still no sign of civilisation, I started to feel a little uneasy, especially when it looked like it would not be long until the sun set.  I began to regret the time had spent on those idyllic breaks that I had taken, sitting on the beach, or cooling my feet in the streams.

It was quite dark when I finally emerged from the bushes to find myself in the car park of the club at Naiguata.  And there was Ivonne with one of her sisters, patiently waiting for me in my car.

Mission accomplished.

Since Caracas, I have had several opportunities to live close to mountains, and I have never lost my fascination for them.

But my memories of Ávila stand out above all others.

Herbert Robinson

Although I could never claim to have been talented at any sport, I have always loved football, cricket and squash.  But my passion has always been rugby – the social life and the comradeship were almost as important to me as the game.  In my native Ireland, in Canada, Australia, England and Nigeria, I played them all.  Sport dominated my social calendar for as long as I could remember.

When I arrived in Caracas in late 1978, to take up my new position with Maraven, the oil company – it used to belong to Shell, nobody seemed to have heard of any of my sporting interests being played locally.  I was taken to the office of Herbert Robinson.  I was told that if anybody knew about sports, it would be Herbert.

Formerly from Trinidad, Herbert was an ex-sprinter, who had represented Venezuela in international competitions.  And he still looked the part – lean and muscular.  He was not able to help me with my preferred sports – they probably did not exist in that era in Caracas, but suggested that I go with him that weekend to an oil industry 10km cross-county race.  I protested that I had never competed in a race of any distance, but he insisted that I looked fit and that I would enjoy the experience.  I acquiesced.

So that Sunday I turned up at the Parque del Este and, to my surprise, won the race by several minutes.  Soon after Herbert entered me in a public race, in which I came third and again soon after, with the same result.  I was hooked and in the next 25 years I competed in more than 350 races in several countries, although only very rarely finishing in one of the top positions.

After I moved on from Caracas, I lost touch with Herbert.  But I will be eternally grateful for his guidance and support.  And who knows, perhaps our paths will once more cross.

But almost certainly never again in a race.

Herbert Robinson, Iris, Jorge Herrera, Ivonne Garban and Len Blackwood