Post Race: Media Maratón Correcaminos 2015 (Costa Rica)

Most people – Americans mostly – have a hard time fathoming that addresses don’t exist in Costa Rica.

It’s true. The traditional concept of addresses that most people understand and learn at a very young age – a unit number, building name, street name, city and zip code – does not exist there. This singular realization drops more jaws and raises infinitely more eyebrows than the awe-inspiring fact that the country has 5% of the world’s biodiversity in spite of having only 0.03% of the surface. Or that the country abolished its army in 1949. Or that over a quarter of its land is protected national parks and sanctuaries.

Those astounding figures seem to pale against the incredulous notion that if you want to mail something by post, you have to literally write out long-form descriptors of where the letter is going. In other words, instead of writing “123 Main Street” on an envelope, you would pen “400 meters west of the Santo Domingo Supermarket, House with Green Fence.” On the surface, this sounds insane (and some news outlets have written hilarious articles on the topic). But think about it: before the awesome power of GPS was breathed into our phones, the average address wouldn’t really get you anywhere unless you already had a detailed understanding of an area.

Without the omniscient power of Google Maps, “5170 Forest Avenue, Eugene, OR 97405” wouldn’t mean anything to you. Sure, it’s a place in Oregon, but without a map or an atlas, you’ll have some trouble finding it. But remember what it was like when your parents had to drive you to your friend’s house for the first time? The conversation they had, where they mapped out where each road was and shared common knowledge of major landmarks, is exactly what the addresses are still like in Costa Rica. So, in a way, an address is just a code that you have to decipher. Costa Ricans just choose to write out the answer and if you want to know where anything is, just ask the post office.

So, it is with reverence for my native country’s silly quirk that I will describe the 2015 Media Maratón Correcaminos experience.

From la Plaza de Deportes in Tres Ríos, 6.4 km west, towards Curridabat.

Km 0: Over three thousand runners line up in Tres Ríos

Zero-k: Over three thousand runners line up in Tres Ríos

Although the race begins at 6 am, it’s already very bright in Cartago. The sun typically rises even before 5 am in the Central Valley’s damp and chilly morning, which means the cool air won’t last for much longer. Though the temperature is perfect for me, I can see most everyone else in thin jackets and tights, some even shivering as the humid chill slithers into the eager crowd’s bright orange race shirts. I can’t help but smirk – many of these runners don’t know true cold.

A few minutes after 6, the race hasn’t started yet, which prompts many runners to begin whistling and taunting the organizers. In the US, runners merely glance at their watches with the occasional eyeroll or scoff. Here, it was a party, replete with yells of “demole!” I fondly remember this part of the race from the last time I ran it three years ago because it is a humorous showcase of the Costa Rican culture of pura vida. Not longer after, we are released into the curved roads of Tres Ríos, beginning our 21-kilometer journey to the heart of San José.

5k: The first four miles feature a lot of elevation loss

5k: The first four miles feature a lot of elevation loss

The first four miles are all downhill. There are a few spectators out, lining the chipped sidewalks, but for the most part it’s a sleepy morning punctuated by the bright orange rush of runners. I scream through those opening miles at a 10k pace, lunging past dogs barking in small front yards, knowing that it’s going to get much tougher in a half hour. We will head west for almost the entire race, which means the brisk winds at our back won’t provide much of a cooling effect. My shirt clings to my chest; I can already tell it’s going to be a sweaty day.

6.5k: Curri is in the distance, with most of the downhill behind me

6.5k: Curri is in the distance, with most of the downhill behind me

I pass the first aid station during a particularly steep descent and grab a boli. Instead of water cups, races in Costa Rica tend to have sealed plastic bags full of water about the size of a small baton. Although they’re not the most environmentally friendly feature of the race, they are convenient for runners who want to hydrate, but not at that particular point. It takes some getting used to – especially since you are very likely to spill most of it into your nose the first time you try to bite into one.

From POPS Curridabat, 1 km south until you reach Multi Plaza del Este and Zapote

0705_correcaminos 07Curridabat is a neighborhood of San José that I used to cross often to see friends. It was also briefly where I would go to the dentist, so I have deep feelings about the area that stir my subconscious in occasionally unpleasant ways. But today, it is the site of the first flat stretch of running, along with the first climb. The sun has just burnt through the morning cloud cover and I can feel it singeing my neck. I’m already dripping sweat with every step and with the wind as an escort, I don’t feel any of it evaporating.

Once at the top, runners turn south and descend towards the least scenic part of the race. Most of the next three miles cut through urban commercial strips and highways, which are complete eyesores when compared to the majestic cerros de Escazú squeezing out of the Earth in the distance. The course makes up for these grey tones with another three miles of a nearly constant downhill grade. Thick clouds crawl over the mountains to the northeast and I immediately feel strong again.

After you pass la Clínica Santa Rita, go through la Asamblea Legislativa and around el Parque Nacional to reach Avenida Primera.

14k: Running through la Asamblea Legislativa in the heart of San José

14k: Running through la Asamblea Legislativa in the heart of San José

My confidence is tested as the course slowly bends upward. We are in the heart of San José, staring at a gradual uphill that passes many cultural landmarks. Were this not the most grueling part of the race, I would stop to enjoy the palm trees lining the plaza of the historic Asamblea Legislativa or the Museo Nacional. Everyone around me, despite having far more experience with the heat, altitude and humidity, is also gassed. I keep yo-yoing with many runners around me as I stop to take pictures. A group of percussionists plays at the edge of the Parque Nacional and their punchy, tribal rhythms drive me forward.

15k: Paseo Colón points a straight line toward La Sabana and the finish line

15k: Paseo Colón points a straight line toward La Sabana and the finish line

Once on Avenida Primera, it’s almost a straight line toward la Sabana, where the race ends. The road is not only ever so imperceptibly downhill, but it is as uneven as lumpy mashed potatoes. Each step is a surprise and I find myself raising my sunglasses to keep a very close eye on the asphalt to avoid rolling an ankle. Block after block of concrete buildings pass as if on a conveyor belt until we reach el Hospital Nacional de Niños in the historic Paseo Colón. I reach the four lane road, which during December is an explosion of festive lights, and feel the pull of the finish line.

Upon reaching the end of Paseo Colón, go once around La Sabana metropolitan park.

17k: Runners round La Sabana, with el Museo de Arte being the first landmark.

17k: Runners round La Sabana, with el Museo de Arte being the first landmark.

La Sabana is like San José’s Central Park, a large, sylvan park in the middle of a bustling city. I am greeted by the Museo de Arte Costarricense, a Spanish-style landmark that used to be the country’s main airport. The 2.5-mile perimeter features a gym, a track, pools, a lagoon, various running paths, baseball diamonds and soccer pitches. Inaugurated in 2011 and located in the northwest corner is el Estadio Nacional, which looks like a combination of clamshell and Stegosaurus. As I round the stadium around 19.3 kilometers, I face east for the first time in the race and feel the wind push against me like a river. Everyone around me hits a wall as we try and wade through the current. With just over a kilometer left, crowds emerge on the street and the edge of the park becomes a party. Once back at el Museo de Arte, I follow the runners ahead of me into the park itself.

Deliver medal to exhausted runner with Bib 188.

20k: Not even el Estadio Nacional could hold the winds back

20k: Not even el Estadio Nacional could hold the winds back

The final stretch is tricky because the road is a sort of cobblestone path, which makes sprinting a risky feat. I unleash my last energy stores and skip toward the finish line almost on my toes, stopping the clock at 1:34:37. I look like I opted for a detour into La Sabana’s lagoon, my feet squishing in my shoes with every step. But in spite of the humidity and altitude, I managed a significant improvement from three years ago. Just a few strides away from the finish line, I wolf down my post-race gallo pinto and fruit before walking back to the finish line to see my friends finish. José improves his PR at his second half marathon by a few minutes and Gabriel reaches the finish line of the longest footrace he’s ever completed. If I keep converting my friends to the sport, I’ll soon have a real following.

21.1k: La meta!

21.1k: La meta!

In recent years, Costa Rica has made some real efforts at instituting a system of addresses. The concern is real: in emergencies, it’s much easier to say three quick words (“123 Main Street”) than guide an ambulance or a squad car to your exact location. The untold amounts of undelivered parcels also add up to lost business, missed opportunities and an overall lack of efficiency. However, if you ask the average tico/a, you’ll find that they’re perfectly happy with how they get around, even if it means referring to landmarks or businesses that no longer exist.

You might laugh at the notion of saying “By the old higuerón tree” but it’s not too far from referring to the Willis Tower as the Sears Tower or saying “Comiskey Park” when today it’s US Cellular Field. In both cases, you’re finding common cultural and historical ground to map out a city, tapping into your brain’s ability to translate a 2D concept into the real world, which is increasingly becoming a rare talent as more people rely on smart phones.

(left to right): Me, José, Gabriel

(left to right): Me, José, Gabriel

Directions in Costa Rica are a charming vestige of the past, much like record players and encyclopedias. They remind us of a time when places had a greater sense of community and gathering. Music was localized, as record players didn’t exist in cars or phones. Encyclopedias and libraries weren’t crammed into every digital machine and required travel and intent. An address was a journey, a sort of mini-puzzle that involved active listening, perception and awareness. Reaching your destination felt rewarding because navigating a byzantine grid of unnamed streets could actually challenge you.

So it’s nice to know some echoes of bygone times still exist, often resistant to change. They may not be very helpful or logical in today’s fast-paced society, but they provide opportunities to see the world around us, engage with people and remember a time when we couldn’t know every answer with a casual swipe of a finger.

These days, if something isn’t on Google Maps, it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist. But if you ask around and want to explore, you’ll soon find your way.

Bonus: Costa Rica (Media Maratón Correcaminos 2012)

1. Thunderstorms and Showers

Ah, vacation.

I ran my first Costa Rican half marathon over a year ago.  Given my experience with large races in the US and knowing how things generally are in Costa Rica (tranquilo, pura vida), I managed my expectations.  Although I finished without any problems, managed to get on my flight back to Chicago and had a pretty fun time, the race was, according to many other runners, a huge disaster. Since the event had been going on for fifteen years, I was pretty surprised at how chaotic the whole thing was.  Information was inconsistent and tough to find, the start time was unknown even five minutes before the gun was supposed to go off, aid stations ran out of water and the course wasn’t well-marked.  You’d think that this many iterations would be enough to sand down any rough edges.  I blame the running boom of the last six years for it.  Perhaps the organizers had gotten used to a few hundred runners and didn’t have the logistical know-how or manpower to put together an 8,000-person event.

So you’d think that I’d be a little apprehensive about running another race in San José.  But you’d be wrong.  I had heard from fellow runners that there was another large, albeit younger race called the Media Maratón Correcaminos, and that it was a much, much better event.  It was also happening the same weekend as my first trip to Costa Rica with the future in-laws, a fortuitous convergence that I insist was completely coincidental.  No, really, as impossible as it is to believe, I did not plan the trip around the race.  It just, magically happened that way (por pura guava).

(left to right): Steve, Janine, Jan, Steph, me, Mama, Nicky (nice purse, boy)

Later in the spring, I would start putting together my summer race schedule, and this half marathon in Costa Rica became the first of several races that would constitute my Summer Altitude Challenge.  At roughly 4,000 feet, it would be the first stepping stone towards much higher elevations.  But first, I had the chance to drive Steph’s sister and parents around Costa Rica for the first time.  Through both careful planning and a nice dose of luck, they got what I would consider a genuine Costa Rican experience.  They got to scuba dive with hundreds of tropical fish, behold the vast canyons of the Poás volcano, walk underneath and alongside the Paz Waterfalls and eat  a wide array of foods, which included ceviche, gallo pinto, granizados, pejibayes, patacones, cajetas, bizcochos, picadillo de chayote, and chicarrones.  But in addition to the sights and foods, they also got rolling blackouts, torrential downpour, cattle in the middle of the street and gridlock traffic in Barrio México.  You give and you take.

While Steph attended a bridal shower that my mom had punctiliously organized Saturday afternoon, I went to the Hotel Tryp Sabana with Steve for the Correcaminos Expo.  Though not very big (the whole thing was two small salons with a hallway uniting them), it was a very impressive operation.  Upon entering the expo, I was greeted by a friendly volunteer who told me where to go for everything.  Bibs and chips were picked up quickly, shirts were distributed easily and efficiently, and the vendors were eager to help.  I could tell that the people who were putting this thing together understood the race experience and wanted to deliver a top-notch event.  After nabbing a few freebies, we made our way back home, where we would end up being two of about four men in a room full of semi-inebriated women.

2. The Race

A point-to-point running tour of San José

The Start Line. You wouldn’t guess it were it not for the throngs of orange.

I was up at 4 and went to wake up my brother, Nicky.  It’s not the easiest thing to do, but he rallied himself up and kindly drove Steve and me to our respective starting lines.  Since I was running the half marathon, I would start all the way up un Tres Ríos, where it was cool and breezy.  Steve would start the 10k in Zapote, near el Colegio de Abogados.  I arrived an hour before the start and found about twenty people littered across an empty street.  The only sign that I was in the right place were the runners wearing the official, blinding orange race shirts.  It wasn’t until about thirty minutes before the event was to start that they finished installing the timing mats and inflated the start banner.  I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised when the event started on time – though that didn’t stop the field from whistling jokingly (chiflar) when 6:30 arrived.

Ready to run

The first mile was the most dangerous.  In most races, you have to deal with little personal space as you navigate your way forward and find your pace.  However, in this race you also had to deal with potholes and jagged sidewalks.  Once past the first mile, clocked at just under 8 minutes, the field was spread far enough that I no longer had to worry about rolling an ankle or drawing blood.  The next three miles were a delightful downhill through Pinares and eventually Curridabat, where I passed many runners, including one dressed up as el Chapulín Colorado.  I was paying close attention to my breathing at this point, noting how much the altitude was affecting my perceived exertion.  The downhill was throwing it all off, because I knocked out those miles at a sub-7:00 pace.  I knew that once the course would flatten out, I’d slow down considerably.  Would it have been smarter to reel it in earlier and deliberately slow myself down despite the inviting downward slope?  Maybe.  But running fast is too much fun to pass up.  Dele, dele!

The Finish Line in La Sabana, 9.1 miles away

As I slammed on the gas, I kept looking around me and seeing hundreds of runners with “Costa Rica” on their racing singlets, or “Ticos” emblazoned elsewhere on their running gear.  It’s pretty rare to see a Costa Rican anywhere outside of Costa Rica, so I subconsciously wanted to go up to everyone and represent (Vamos Ticos!) like I usually do at any other race when I see la tricolor.  Except here, pretty much everyone was Costa Rican.  It was a warm moment of communion when I figured that every other Costa Rican runner I’ve seen in a US race, be it Chicago, Miami or New York City, might be running today, here, with me.

The course flattened shortly after that and my pace slowed down to a more sustainable speed.  I passed the second aid station and grabbed a plastic water-filled pouch (boli) and a Gatorade.  Curridabat is much denser than Tres Ríos, so it wasn’t until this point that I realized that the city did not stop for the race.  Though there weren’t cars in the middle of the course, there were definitely people blaring on their horns (infelices), hoping to cross the stream of runners blocking their path.  I waved to them and smiled at their futility, which didn’t help the horn situation.  A few strides later, I reached the first uphill at the Mitsubishi dealership in Curri.  After running spritely fast for 4 miles, it was the first real test of the race.  Prior to this ascent, I felt like I was killing it on a flat course, hungry for a PR.  But at the top of this hill I was reminded that, downhill or not, this wouldn’t be an easy race.

Shortly afterward, the course leaves the main road and towards Zapote through dense neighborhoods on lumpy asphalt.  I remember passing where the KyS Microbrewery used to be, which brought back fond memories.  Once back on a main road, the race continues its downhill grade past Multi Plaza del Este and el Registro Público.  This stretch of race had very little shade, so it was the beginning of what I would call “the breakdown.”  Between miles 7.4 and 8.7 we’d be running mostly uphill, past la avenida central and el parque nacional.  That last part was the toughest and most humbling.  I could feel the lactic acid building up in my quads and calves as I ran up that cobblestone path, watching as more experienced runners climbed it with little complaint.  But once around the park, we got back to flat lands.  I remember thinking at this point that the 10k wasn’t as downhill as I had promised Steve.  Oops (mal rai, sorri mop).

Steve on his way to the finish line

My mile splits at this point were floundering in the 8s.  I wasn’t dying quite yet, but there would be no more fast splits.  We spent about a mile on la avenida primera, which was mostly downhill and the least scenic part of the race.  There were bars open with patrons inside and cars eager to cross each new intersection.  Fortunately, they weren’t running us over out of sheer courtesy as not every intersection was manned by volunteers.  It was also at this point that the 10k leaders shot past me at high speeds.  Shortly after, we zigzagged onto el Paseo Colón, the verdant greens of La Sabana in the distance.

There were many spectators lining the streets now, all shouting encouragingly.  Every time I would stop to drink water, I’d hear from spectators and runners alike, Dale, dale, ya casi!  I don’t know if it’s a bias, but I felt a lot more solidarity from everyone plodding around me than at other races.  These cries got much louder as I reached the large urban park with both sides of the road firing emphatic shouts of Pongale!

“That park,” Steve would later say to me at the end of the race, “was much bigger than I remembered.”

Finishers.

Very true.  In your head, you think, “Simple.  Just one loop around la Sabana and I’m home free.”  But its perimeter is about 2.2 miles at the end of a half marathon.  While it may be flat, my legs were beat.  I was at that point in the race where you struggle just to keep your head up.  As I passed el ICE, I heard someone yell Vamos Danny! and turned to see my cousin Mau curled under a tree.  Though I looked confident in the picture he took of me, I was actually feeling pathetic and quite done (hecho leña).  But there was just one more corner to turn before entering the park and its thick tree cover.  Once inside, it was impossible to keep the same pace amid the roar of crowds and the peripheral flash of green.  Walls of spectators lined the course leading into the finish line, making me forget for thirty seconds that I was exhausted.  I kicked forward and gazelle’d my way toward the blue banner at a 5:40 pace, crossing the finish line in 1:40:57 and heaving my way to refreshment.

3. Downhill Course, Uphill Future

I threw down some water and went back to the finish chute to see if I could spot my friends, some of whom had never run a 10k before.  One by one I yelled at them as they made that final turn into the park.  A few, like Chori, smirked and kept their regular pace, finishing effortlessly, almost insouciantly.  Others, like Gabriel (who was probably roasting alive in a Real Madrid jersey), kicked into overdrive and scorched across the finish line.  My shouts caught the attention of one of my high school classmates, Chepe, who was just a few people down the barricades.  He was the only person in my class who was taller than me, and at 6’7”, by a considerable amount.  Though he was there to see his girlfriend finish, he was gracious enough to stay and get a shot of Steve as he crossed the finish line.

Medalla Media Maratón Correcaminos 2012

I really liked this race.  It was the experience I was hoping to have with the disastrous Marathon Internacional and even pleased Steve, who has been running for much longer than me.  The Expo was fluid and easy to navigate, it started on time, each kilometer was marked with a visible sign, aid stations were staffed with eager volunteers and the post-race finish area was flush with ebullient (and sweaty) runners.  As a pleasing garnish, we were able to drive out of the event without encountering any traffic.  We spent the rest of the day at la finca in La Garita, where the Snyders got to meet every single person in my extended family.

All in all, both the trip and the race were complete successes.  I would change nothing about the vacation, except perhaps extending it by a month.  But bigger challenges await in that month, so I’m back to training, hoping that I can strengthen my legs enough for the altitude double in just under ten days.  Vamos!

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