January 28, 2015 14 Comments
Vamos por el chifrijo! … Mae, dejastes tirado a tu compa! … Hay que ganarse los frijoles molidos!
Every time I passed a Costa Rican runner, I’d blurt out some random tico chatter, usually about food. At first, they’d respond and even ask me a question or two. Towards the end, they’d simply smile and continue punching the air in front of them, battling the demons of pain and fatigue.
But though I was getting tired, demanding more of each lungful and feeling the harsh shock of pavement shoot through my legs and into my hips, I was giddy on the inside. I hadn’t run farther than ten miles in the last three months and was far from peak condition. Despite this deterioration, I was still committed to running the Miami Half Marathon for the fourth time, and there I was, cruising through the city at mile 12, feeling grateful that I wasn’t wincing with every forward leap.
If you’ve been following my running adventures for more than three years, then you’re probably tired of my Miami posts. In fact, you probably didn’t even make it to this sentence without groaning, wondering why I can’t seem to avoid running this race year after year. Miami is ostentatious, the traffic is often unbearable and the heat can be the worst if you don’t count Rick Scott, Marco Rubio or the state’s relentless push to disenfranchise minority voters.
But goddamn if the yearly Miami Marathon and Half Marathon isn’t one of my all-time favorite races.
There’s two levels to Miami’s allure. The first is purely physical and will appeal to pretty much anyone. The course, organization and production are all reflective of the city itself: beautiful, over the top, and infused with an indelible Latin flare that makes you want to dance. There’s no denying the sound of thousands of jaws dropping as they crest the MacArthur Causeway to see purple cruise ships resting quietly on the ocean. Fast forward a few miles and you’re zooming north on Ocean Drive past restaurants and classic hotels. If you keep going, you’ll wind up returning to the mainland on the Venetian Causeway, where many bridges connect the thin islands that play host to some of the most gorgeous homes you’ll ever see.
Along the way, aid stations are packed with friendly volunteers, eager spectators and every single Latin American flag coloring your periphery. Turquoise and terra cotta high-rise condos watch haughtily from the beachfront, reflecting the morning sun, and every manner of Spanish is heard from the sidewalk: vamos, vamos! … Dele, ya casi! … Eso campeones! …
But what really keeps me returning is that every year I’ve managed to use the race as a backdrop to strengthen my friendships. I didn’t know my cousin was a diehard runner until she earned her first medal under urban palm trees. The next year I visited a good college friend and met her husband, catching up on years of growing up. Otter joined in 2012 and lived through a race experience better left unwritten, yet somehow fondly remembered. Last year I ran an emotional race with my in-laws and raised money in memory of my uncle, taken too soon from us by brain cancer.
And this year I finally managed to run a half marathon with a friend from high school. Though I’ve been lacing up for over six years now, it has mostly been interpreted as lunacy by my Costa Rican friends. I’ve been totally fine with that, and have taken every single usted está enfermo as a compliment and point of pride. But this year, my buddy José signed up for the half, either inspired by personal initiative or to silence the nagging voice of his good friend Solera, who had been pestering him for years to run the distance. Back in high school, he was hands down the most athletic of my friends, having been a lifelong fútbol player. Over the years, he had run several races from 5 to 10ks, including the backbreaking Cerros de Escazú trail run from 2013. And though I had been joined by my friends Javier, Gabriel and Ricardo on the race circuit, they’d never run 13.1 miles.
“You’d better run under two hours,” I told José as we logged a short run along the Rickenbacker Causeway. “I don’t want to hear that it was easy or that you finished relaxed. Kill yourself out there.”
“No way, dude,” he chortled, knowing I was only half kidding. “I’m going to take it easy and enjoy myself.” He has a history of running races for fun, oblivious of his time, crossing the finish line happy and ready to eat. But I decided to egg him on a bit and light the competitive fires that he harnesses when he works, plays fut or dukes it out on Smash Brothers.
“That’s actually smart,” I said, picking up the pace. “You’ll definitely want to run another one if you have fun. But honestly, if you wanted to, you could run under two hours easily.”
Two days later, I was standing by the American Airlines Arena, listening to the music booming off the speakers of the starting line, doing something I never thought I would do in Miami. I was shivering. The hordes of runners around me were joining the frenetic dance, especially the Latin Americans. Truth be told, it was merely 53 degrees, a temperature also known as Running Perfection of Elysian Proportions, Climate Divine and Let’s Kill This Bitch. But if you asked any of the thousands of Caribbean, Central and South Americans shaking in their corrals, for this party in the city, someone forgot to turn the heat on.
Normally I would have been ecstatic – 53 degrees, a flat half marathon and homemade meatballs in my stomach? This course wouldn’t stand a chance. But after last year’s injury (and this is the last time I will mention it, I swear), I slid far from my fighting condition. So I figured, screw it, let’s do a fitness test. Let’s run this thing without checking the Garmin.
As I reached the finish line, I picked up the pace, passing runners who began their sprint too early. I crossed the familiar orange and blue finish line for the fifth time. I stopped my Garmin and looked at it for the first time all day and saw 1:34:36, a Miami course record by almost six minutes. Not too bad.
After grabbing my post-race goodies, I found a patch of sunlit grass by the charity tents. I sat down and happily munched on a cookie while drinking a protein shake and waiting for José to finish. Regardless of what his finishing time was, I really just wanted him to enjoy the experience. I knew that nothing today would necessarily inspire him to embrace the sport like I have. It’s been a long time since I came to terms with the rarity of my passion (though the blogging community does make me question whether we’re truly a rare bunch). But if he at least had fun, maybe he could join me elsewhere and add himself to my select cadre of running friends.
I saw him emerge from the crowds, slightly dazed with a wan smile and his arms drooping at his side. I went to congratulate him on his first half marathon and for killing expectations by running a 1:54 debut. He was definitely tired, blistered and spent, but most importantly, he was happy. We spent the next hour or so talking about the race, what he thought about it, funny or interesting moments that happened between start and finish. He sounded like a kid after his first roller coaster, detailing every loop and corkscrew. Perhaps I could convince him to run others, I thought.
“Dude, I realized that this is an excellent reason to travel and visit new places,” he said, with that curious timbre of someone realizing something meaningful and profound. “But I don’t think I’ll ever run the full thing ever.”
I’ve heard that before. Maybe I’ll see him join the ward sooner than I thought.