Sunday, December 20, 2015

Running the Marabana Havana Marathon

Runners of the Maracuba  head south through Havana Viejo, Old Havana. The Maracuba 3K is run on the day before the marathon as a benefit for kids.
           By the time the Havana Marathon starts I already know I’m too weak from travel upsets and sleeplessness to actually run 26.2 miles, that this will be something different. I’ll just jog, if I can, forget competing and try to earn no more than the finisher’s medal and tee.
            It is 8:00 a.m., Sunday, November 15, 2015 and the marathon starts now, whether I’m ready or not. Soon we’re trotting beside Paseo del Prado, setting out to run two 13.1-mile loops through the city of Havana. The old dreaded mystery skulks ahead.
            This trip is billed as a person-to-person educational exchange, licensed by the Department of the Treasury. The owner of Insight Cuba, a tour company, successfully sold the idea that runners instantly connect with other runners no matter where they hail from. Accordingly, Treasury gave the company license to take 150 American marathoners to Cuba for the Marabana Havana Marathon. This is the second year for such a tour. The word Marabana is a mere mash-up of the two words “marathon” and “Habana.”
            What do you see when you run 13.1 miles twice through Havana? Streets full of the old ‘50s-era American cars—the ’55-model Fords, Chevys and Oldsmobiles. We’ve all seen those pictures. Somehow they keep the 60-year-old heaps running. Their 6-Volt lights glow yellow at night. Repair of the streets on which they travel can be a problem. A raw ditch is dug into the left lane of the one-way street in front of my hotel. Not even so much as a traffic cone warns motorist. You can see a pile of dirt, can’t you?
Gran Teatro, Grand Theater, the home of the Cuban National Ballet, shows an ornate exterior.
            What you don’t see in Havana is perhaps more telling than what you do see. The U.S. embargo froze Havana in the year 1961. It’s like going back in time to then. What you didn’t see in the U.S. then, you don’t see in Havana now: the golden arches, Colonel Sanders, Starbucks, Holiday Inn, Japanese cars… People walk on the street without talking on cell phones. No billboards mar the view.
            Fidel Castro, whatever else he may be, was a strong personality, given to two-hour speeches. One expects a cult of personality surrounding him. It’s not apparent. Even though the marathon starts in front of the national capitol building, I never see a single picture or statue of Fidel or his brother Raul, the current president. In fact Havana’s José Martí International Airport is named not after Fidel but after the poet Martí—he was also a freedom fighter in the war of independence from Spain. Name an airport after a poet rather than a politician. Maybe we can learn from that.
            My trip started in Cookeville on Friday, November 13—Friday the Thirteenth—with a wakeup time of 3:00 a.m. I had to catch an early Miami flight out of Nashville. I needed to hit Miami before 11:00 a.m., for a program in the 4th-floor Auditorium. That program turned out to be lessons in Cuban dance. This was, after all, an educational trip and runners were obliged to follow the program agenda. Above all, though, I didn’t want to miss the charter flight out of Miami for Havana.
So, yeah, I meant to be prompt. But I needed not worry. The charter flight developed mechanical problems and didn’t leave Miami until after ten that night.
L to R, the author, John Litzenberger, Lynda Wacht and Laura Caille sit outside at a bar in Havana.
I met three strangers on this trip. We became fast friends, a foursome. Runners connect. Lynda Wacht, 46, Littleton, Colorado, and I were both trying to find the place to pick up our charter flight ticket. We teamed up, like two Tributes in the Hunger Games. “I’m not leaving you,” I said. Later we encountered Laura, 47, Houston, Texas. She was standing in the concourse showing runners which tunnel to descend to get to the charter flight gate, just volunteering her help. While Lynda and I were chatting with her, John Litzenberger, 54, Seattle, walked up. We became a foursome. These three were much younger than I am, yet they deigned friendship with the 75-year-old old timer.
The three were extraordinary. If there is such a thing as a Ph.D. in Adventure, these three had each earned one. Lynda and John had completed Ironman races. Lynda had finished the Escape from Alcatraz swim. John had run the Rwanda and Jerusalem Marathons. Laura had trekked Mongolia. Amazing. But, then, what kind of people would you expect on a trip such as this?
We wandered the Miami airport, killing time, waiting for the charter flight, wondering would we ever get started toward Cuba? It was thus we ambled in front of a TV showing breaking news of the two terrorist attacks in Paris on this day. We stood watching in horror, speaking in hushed tones. The unspeakable tragedy lowered a pall around us. Finally, I said, “We need to get away from this.” Unable to do anything else, we walked away.
When we finally reached Havana, it was midnight. There was a problem getting through customs. Our luggage was delayed. Actually, I had no luggage, except for a small carry-on backpack. I travel light. My pack weighed eleven pounds; five of those pounds were food. When I pulled out my bag of vittles and started sharing, grateful Laura christened my little bag the “Magic Pack.”
I had no luggage to wait for. Nonetheless, I waited in the airport with my buds. Lynda and I stretched out on the tile floor. John made our picture. After an hour, luggage arrived.
Finally I reached my room on the fourth floor of the Plaza Hotel. It was not much larger than a walk-in closet. One dim lamp fought the gloom. I needed a flashlight to find anything in the Magic Pack. No hot water. No cold water either—except occasionally. One shouldn’t drink it anyway. What do you want, a bath? I hit the sack at 2:30 a.m. after being on the go for nearly 24 hours.
A young runner holds a sign explaining Maracuba, Proyecto Niños, Project Children.
I was up early next morning, sticking with the program. First a group picture in a park, then a 3K warmup race called the Maracuba. It toured Havana Viejo, Old Havana. I couldn’t take a shower afterwards because, you, know, water. So I just sponged off. Laura tells me she has water but her toilet doesn’t work. We all have our hardships. To be fair, the hotel is undergoing renovation.
Artists display and sell their work along the beautiful Paseo del Prado, a walk bordering Havana Viejo, Old Havana.
Our little foursome met in the lobby and set out to explore the town, stopping at El Floridita, a bar where Hemingway hung out. A girl band was playing Rumba. The place was full of tourists. Nobody goes there anymore. We left without even buying a drink.
We strolled Paseo del Prado, a beautiful walkway, chatting with artists and gazing at the work on display and in progress. We had no cell service or internet service now, but while we’d still been in Miami a friend in Spain sent me a message on Facebook suggesting a restaurant called Astrusiano. It was just off Paseo. Our group was enthusiastic about finding it. It turned out to be a white tablecloth joint with hefty servings of tasty food, a good find. I ordered Chuletas, pork chops, and when my plate came it included three. The four amigos loved the place. I felt like a hero for having inside info from Spain. John and Laura drank Bucanero, a passable local beer. Lynda had wine. Water for me. I was still serious about running the marathon next day.
Lynda Wacht stands ready to run in front of the national capitol. The dome on the building is modeled after the U.S. capitol building.
Ha! That was yesterday. Now I find myself actually running in that marathon, and I know better. I trot north beside Paseo. After three miles or so, the course delivers us to Malecón, a four-lane road curving along the north seashore. The sea is angry, crashing hard on the rocks below, splashing over the seawall and sprinkling the road we run on. It’s a hot day and the sprinkle is good. On my second pass along here I watch a runner in black tee and shorts jog over to the wall. She stands immobile and spread-eagled, facing the angry sea like a virginal offering. The waves wash over her sweat-drenched body.
Later she catches up to me.
“I let the waves cool me off,” she says with a sheepish grin.
“Yes, I saw,” I say.
Here now is the turnaround, a hand-painted sign says. Wait! It’s only for those running the 10K. Marathoners and half-marathoners are supposed to continue straight ahead. Somehow, I figure that out, but many don’t realize it. Laura meant to run the marathon but she turned. Soon she arrived back at the capitol, where we started. James Hill, Austin, Texas, a world-class age grouper my age, made the same mistake.
Police presence was strong throughout race activities.
Runners will ask, “How was the support?” Well, this: aid stations were plentiful and well stocked about two miles apart. But I only saw one ambulance on the course, a good reason why I was careful. I didn’t want to need medical help in a developing country. A scare in Morocco once has left me wary. At the start, there were only two portable toilets for thousands of people. There are no toilets on the course, which fact forces me to improvise a couple of times. Policía look on. Trees help.
The old cars spew unfiltered exhaust as they pass. The streets turn the soles on my sneakers ash gray—from the pollution, I suppose. I smell sewer gas frequently. In 1961, which is the year where I am today, the U.S. didn’t have the EPA either.
About 5K from the finish line my idyll shatters. I’m struck by panic. If I continue my casual trudge, I’ll go over five hours. Five hours is the cutoff for an official finish. Or it may only be the cutoff for traffic control. I’m not sure. There is too much to read and remember. Come all the way here and not get an official finish. What a failure.
I suddenly have to accelerate and go. Go hard! If I have any energy left in my ravaged body I’ve got to find it now. So, I go hard.
I don’t have the precise time; I accidentally stopped my chronograph. Don’t know if I can make it, if there’s time, but I keep trying. A hundred yards from the finish line, James Hill suddenly joins me. I still don’t know. He would’ve beat me if he’d actually run the marathon instead of making the 10K turnaround. He’s doing a friendly honor, bringing me in.
I cross the line glancing at the race clock. Just over five hours. But I still don’t know my chip time, since I started back in the pack. It’s a close call. I chat with Lynda, who was barely ahead of me, and with James Hill. No volunteer hands me any water. There is no water.
It’s over. I should drink something. But there’s nothing. I walk away and head to the hotel. Later, I’ll find my finishing time: 4:59:13. So, I beat the five-hour barrier. Somehow the only two other men in my over-70 age group managed to run even slower than I did. So, I can claim an age-group win. They are both younger than I am, too. That makes me the oldest finisher in this marathon. I get the prize for being not yet dead.
My fear was bogus. Turns out, five hours was not the cutoff for an official finish; it’s only the cutoff of traffic control.
After drinking some bottled water at the hotel, I discover that I still have no running water, hot or cold. I don’t think Hemingway did it this way. I find my buddy John from Seattle sitting at a table in the hotel bar. He’s drinking Bucanero and talking up a couple women. I smell like a mule. His room is on the second floor, two stories lower than mine. He has water pressure. He hands me his room key and says welcome, go take a shower. That shower in John’s room is the best award I’ll get for finishing the Havana Marathon.