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!

Bonus: San José, Costa Rica (Media Marathon Internacional 2011)

La Sabana, San José, Costa Rica

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this in a previous race report, but I’m Costa Rican.  I wasn’t born there, nor have I spent the majority of my life there.  But when asked “what” I am, either in conversation or on standardized testing, I identify myself as Costa Rican.  Both my parents were born and raised there and it is home to my entire family with only a small handful of exceptions.  I personally only spent my high-school years there, but those four years, combined with a lifetime of tico values have been enough to forever ally my cultural pride with the country.

When I started running about three years ago, all of my races were in Chicago.  Eventually, I started racing in other states, starting originally in the Midwest and then moving out to Florida and the East Coast.  The thought of running in Costa Rica was definitely on my mind but there were always several obstacles to overcome.  To elaborate on the challenge, let’s look at some of the greats.  2009 ING New York Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi and 2005 Chicago Marathon champion Deena Kastor both spend the majority of the year training at altitude in Mammoth Lakes, California.  This allows their body to adjust to the challenging terrain, strengthening their blood’s ability to carry oxygen to their muscles and thus achieving a competitive advantage at lower altitudes, such as New York and Chicago.  Similarly, marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe trains in the altitude and heat of New Mexico and races more comfortably in cooler climates.

El nuevo Estadio Nacional

When I signed up for the 2011 Marathon Internacional Costa Rica, I was basically taking the opposite approach.  Not only is Chicago virtually at sea level and laughably flat, but it’s chilly in March.  San José is none of these things.  It’s very hilly, nestled at around 4,000 feet and can be baking in March.  So, given all of these variables, there was no way I would ever feel comfortable with my level of training before the race.  That wasn’t my only problem, but we’ll get to that later.

Under normal circumstances, I might have abstained from running this race.  It was in the middle of a typically hot month and didn’t quite fit in with my marathon training schedule.  However, the country was putting together the marathon as part of the inauguration ceremonies for a swanky new stadium in the heart of downtown San José.  The events would include soccer games, concerts, and four different races, all of which ended on the stadium track.  Given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, my decision was practically made for me.  My friend Gabriel, who was with me in Austin last February, had purchased a stack of tickets to Saturday’s inaugural game against China, who basically built the stadium as a gift to Costa Rica.  Though the game began at 8 PM, we found our seats an hour early and bore witness to a few Chinese dance numbers in addition to some pretty spectacular fireworks.

After that, we were treated to a definitively lackluster game that would have been a victory were it not for the last-minute Chinese goal to tie the score at 2-2.  I suppose it could have been worse, but Gabriel was understandably unhappy.

This picture was taken while we were winning

The festivities continued the next day with the marathon, marathon relay, half marathon, 8K and 4K races.  Now, if you’re someone who has a decent number of races under your belt and you’re faced with booking flights for said event, it would be sensible and logical to assume that it would be held in the morning.  If you have a job to go to on Monday, then a 5:35 PM departure time would allow you to race, relax, shower, eat and maybe even get an afternoon nap before having to head to the airport.

But all of that foresight goes to hell when the organizers set the start time for 2 PM.

The reasons for this counterintuitive schedule were many and the true one lost in the babble.  I was planning on running a slow race, given the challenging conditions.  Instead, I was now being forced to run under 1:55 to even have a shot at making my flight in time without showering.  For the first time, my finishing time would have real consequences.  I tried to change my flight but faced with fees up to $500, I decided, screw the system.  I will find a way to finish that race and board my flight come hell or high water.  Or maybe I’d just complain loudly enough at the ticketing counter and get put on the next day’s flight.  Or [insert miracle here].

That miracle would come in the shape of Mr. Gabriel Golcher.  His house was perfectly located not far from the finish line and he graciously offered it as a base of operations.  But while one problem was solved, more obstacles appeared.  One hour before the race started I learned that the half marathon was starting after the marathon.  The organizers were stealing precious minutes from me but since this delay wasn’t jeopardizing anyone else’s flight plans, the complaints from the field were few.  And yet, 2 PM arrives and the race announcer still hasn’t made up his mind as to which runners start first.  Every thirty seconds he fires out a new lineup, but ultimately defers to the race organizers who yes, put the half marathoners last.  Around 2:05 PM, the former president of Costa Rica and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias waved the checkered flag for the several thousand strong that were out to tackle at least 21.1 kilometers.

The beginning was fun.  Most races bunch up a bit around the start corral before everyone takes off at their race pace.  However, the space was a bit tight and people were squeezing in very close to each other, as if at a concert.  You couldn’t go any faster than the person in front of you and everyone was bouncing up and down to the tune of the start music.  It would have been easy to complain but this party atmosphere was too infectious (but didn’t last long).  It thinned out about a minute into the race as runners head east on Avenida las Americas on the north side of La Sabana, a large recreational park in the middle of San José.

Avenida las Americas

The weather was harsh.  Even waiting behind the start line, I could feel the heat on my shoulders.  As we entered el Paseo Colón and later Avenida Segunda, shade was scarce.  Though it was tough to ignore the heat, I still managed to absorb the race’s early stages and point out the logistical hiccups (which some might affectionately call “local idiosyncrasies”).  For example, when the race zigzags from Paseo Colón to Avenida Segunda, many racers cut the corner.  However, the leader of the race was already on his way back and faced many racers running right at him.  Many spectators were also ignoring “typical” racing etiquette and were crossing the street in large groups and at pedestrian paces.  None of this bothered me; it just served to fondly illustrate Costa Rica’s nascent running culture.

Once back at the perimeter of La Sabana around mile 4, giant clouds rolled over the city and blocked the sun for the rest of the day.  From there it would be a 2-mile gradual downhill to the American Embassy.  The streets were packed with spectators and in some areas, such as the beginning of the stretch down Pavas, they narrowed the course to only two shoulder widths.  Water stations were eagerly handing out bolis, plastic pouches full of water that you tear open with your teeth and inevitably spray all over yourself and neighbors.  The combination of great crowd support with the downhill slope made it easy to keep up a fast pace during this stretch.

The top of the Rohrmoser climb

But what goes down must come up.  The course eventually veers north toward el Boulevard de Rohrmoser, taking runners all the way back to the start of the course for the second circuit.  Interrupted only once by a bridge, it is a constant uphill flanked by beautiful homes and divided by equally scenic trees.  The top of the hill marks the end of mile 8 and the beginning of the second, shorter loop.  After the long slog up the boulevard, I was panting and in no mood to speed up.  However, once back on the downhill towards Pavas, I was back at my regular stride.  Once again, the crowds were out in full force, keeping runners confident and facing forward.  During this second loop I noticed that several water stations were completely tapped, which made me very grateful that I had brought a water bottle.

It should go without saying that the second climb up el boulevard Rohrmoser was easier the first time around.  I stopped to walk just before turning the corner to take a swig of lukewarm water before attempting the last climb of the day.  I kept my sight slightly downward, staring at the pavement or at the feet of the person in front of me.  I didn’t want to see how much more of the hill I had left and instead focused on moving my feet forward.  I had carried the race with an 8:30 pace up until this point, but the two remaining miles would push it back to the 8:40’s, right as the course enters the new Estadio Nacional for the last 0.1 miles.  Running on the track was pretty spectacular.  Not only was it a remarkably soft surface, but it was great to see the panoramic views of the arched design with many supporters cheering for their friends and family.

Finishing in 1:54:13, I grabbed my medal (which was actually more of a trophy) and continued running.  I had to dash out of the stadium, out of La Sabana and cut across the race course to make it to Gabriel’s house, where my parents were waiting to take me to the airport.  It was 4:00 PM and my flight was leaving in 90 minutes.  Since I had everything already laid out in its place, I ran in, bagged my clothes, showered and left within ten minutes.  With my dad behind the wheel, we made it to the airport in about fifteen minutes, just under the cutoff for international flights.  I must confess – though I was happy to run in Costa Rica and very proud of my finishing time given the circumstances, I was most thrilled about making my flight.  It’s not that I wanted to leave Costa Rica, because that’s never the case.  It was more about making sure all the meticulous planning, house-borrowing and hair-raising drive hadn’t all gone to waste.

Though this race got me no closer to completing my goal of running in all fifty states, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.  I certainly can’t speak for the majority of the field, but I personally had a great time despite the flaws and subpar organization.  It’s the 15th edition of the Marathon Internacional, but it has never been this large, which goes a little way to explain the event’s faults.  However, I’m glad I made it out to San José and into the stadium with 9,000 other ticos for what was, for better or worse, an unforgettable race.

Safely at the gate

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