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.

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Bonus: Costa Rica (2013 Cerros de Escazú 21k)

(foreground) Pa, Ma, Me, (background) Challenge

(foreground) Pa, Ma, Me, (background) Challenge

In the last two months I’ve been putting in some time on the trails to prepare for the two ultramarathons I intend to finish this summer.  Once a week I leave the hard pavement of Chicago’s lake front path for the more secluded dirt paths of the Palos Forest Reserve in hopes of strengthening my legs in ways that repetitive road running can’t.  But though it’s genuinely trail running that I’ve been doing, I haven’t exactly made it a difficult experience.  Sure, there is more elevation and some rocks and roots to dodge, but the trails I’ve chosen haven’t been very technical.  It’s partly my fault because I haven’t really sought out other options.  Despite this, my limited experience with trails has helped me become a stronger runner, not just in how much punishment my legs can take, but in how much confidence I have that I can finish these daunting races.

So when I found myself in Costa Rica for a close friend’s wedding, I decided to try and hit up the local trail running circuit and bolster my trail résumé with an international event.  I found one called Cerros de Escazú which had 21km (half marathon) and 10k race options.  I signed up for the half and convinced Chori, another friend of mine from high school, to sign up for the 10k.

Packet Pickup / Race Start in San Antonio de Escazú

Packet Pickup / Race Start in San Antonio de Escazú

It soon became clear that we had signed up for a famously difficult race.  That was apparent in the race title, which means “Mountains of Escazú.”  San José, the capital of Costa Rica, was built in the middle of a valley and while some of the surrounding mountains appear to rise gradually from the ground, those that overlook Escazú rise dramatically and tower over the city.  I knew all of this when I signed up but assumed that the race would take place around the base of the mountain.  I was expecting a few climbs, soft mountain dirt and at least a little technical hopscotch.

I was very, very mistaken.

0414_cerrosdeescazu 08Everyone else, family and friends alike, seemed to be aware of just how awful it was going to be.  My sister cautioned me that it had pretty much everything I couldn’t simulate in the last 6 months: elevation, mountains and the tropical climate.  There had also been an unusual heat wave going through San José and it wasn’t going to stop for a small race of just a few hundred people.  Family members who lived in Escazú gave me concerned looks just when I told them where it started.  But as I ate a delicious pasta meal with everyone the night before, I talked about the next day’s challenge with enough sangfroid to calm a 90-pound linebacker.  Because if we’re being honest, I get a definite rush of excitement and pride when people tell me what I’m about to do is nuts.  I knew the race would be tough – that’s why I picked it over a flat 10k happening a few miles away.  But I also knew I would finish it, come what may.

Of course, it wouldn’t be easy.

I was at the starting area in San Antonio de Escazú with my parents about an hour before the start of the race.  While Escazú has for a long time been the more posh area of San José, with designer stores and plenty of US restaurant franchises, the town plaza in San Antonio was nothing like that.  Packet pickup was in front of the local church on a soccer pitch, which was surrounded by a wall that had been carved with images of carretas, campesinos and bueyes, hallmarks of the small country’s rich cultural heritage.  Locals gathered around small pulperías, música charanga echoed out of restaurants, the clamor of the city (bulla) far below.

Chori and I at the start

Chori and I at the start

With my bib pinned to my shorts and a Camelbak slung over my shoulders, it was almost time to go.  My uncle Randy had showed up at the starting line with his two adorable daughters and quickly mapped out what the course was like.  The event’s Facebook page had a rudimentary diagram of the route but I didn’t delve too much into it.  But Randy found out, probably from a seasoned veteran, and quickly pointed to a nearby peak.

“That’s where you’re going now, and then you go to that one,” he said, pointing from one peak to the next with a sinister grin.  I, on the other hand, had more of a nervous smile as I stared at the rising earth before me.

“I’m putting this on airplane mode so you don’t waste the battery,” Randy said as he stuffed a phone in the Camelbak.  “Take a picture at the point where you lose all energy (fundirse) so the geo-tracking can mark it.”

I knew he was only half joking.  You couldn’t stare up at the cerros without a lot of concern.  The night before I had predicted a three-hour finish, taking into account the trail, the altitude and potential heat.  But I hadn’t counted on the race course going, to put it scientifically, balls to the wall.  The organizers weren’t kidding around – we were going straight up and for a long time.  Chori had read somewhere that it was the toughest race in the country after Chirripó, which would be the North American equivalent of Mt. McKinley.

Me embarqué, I thought.  Definitely more than I could confidently chew.

0414_cerrosdeescazu 13

The race started surprisingly on time.  A bright orange arch had been inflated over the street and a crowd had gathered underneath.  The announcer fired off a few last-minute warnings and directives before sounding the horn.  The first few strides were on asphalt as we left the main city center.  Randy was at the start and took a video of the field.  Less than two minutes into the race, we were going uphill.  Not just gradually uphill, but straight up, feel your shoes on your toes uphill.  I told Chori I’d run with him until the 10k turnaround so up we went together, the sun beating down on our backs, sweat already dripping onto the black road below.

Laugh at how much taller I am than everyone else:

“Falta muuuucho!” a revelrous runner yelled from behind us.  At the time, I couldn’t tell if what he said was a question (“Is there a lot left?”) or a statement (“There’s a lot left!”).  It was the worst time to hear such a comment because the race was already difficult, with absolutely nothing behind us and all of it still to come.  To add to the challenge, we had started at 4,000 feet, the air already feeling slightly thinner than Chicago’s sea-level oxygen.  We were plodding upwards on our toes to the tune of a 14-minute mile, many runners already walking.  Some were even walking as fast as I was running.  For those first two miles I contemplated taking a walk break but soon learned that doing so, for an ineffable reason that I’m sure has a simple physiological explanation, was more fatiguing than running.

Still climbing, Chori on the left in the blue shirt

Still climbing, Chori on the left in the blue shirt

I eventually had to take a break, so I walked to the side of the road and took a few pictures.  My shirt was almost completely soaked in sweat by then.  We had passed an aid station where volunteers had tins full of bolis, plastic water pouches whose corners you bite to open.  Every race I’ve done in Costa Rica has them and last year’s Miami Half Marathon implemented them to much acclaim from its Latin American contingent.  They’re useful because they’re much easier to carry without spillage than cups and much easier for the volunteers to transport.

The road soon turned to dry dirt and rocks, but the slope stayed the same.  Every new turn meant another climb, another dashed hope that we had somehow miraculously made it to the top.  My visor was soaked, dripping with every footfall, sweat sliding off my elbows with every thrust of my arms.  Although the heat was tolerable, there were many stretches where we couldn’t hide from the sun.  I was using my calves like they had never been used before and my forefoot was getting far too comfortable with being the only part touching the ground.

Por dicha he estado practicando en esa cuesta por mi choza,” Chori said as he strode onward.  Despite being a lifelong athlete, he too was struggling to avoid the dreaded uphill walk.

Finally flattens out, but the rest of the climb looms ahead.

Finally flattens out, but the rest of the climb looms ahead.

Around mile 3, at long last, it seemed like we had found a brief respite.  The course flattened out and even dipped downward a bit.  We had reached the top of a ridge connecting the different peaks and on both sides were majestic views of Costa Rica.  To my right were endless mountains draped in jungle, to my left the entirety of San José.  This is what it was like to look left and right:

0414_cerrosdeescazu 250414_cerrosdeescazu 17

After taking a few pictures, I noticed that the 10k “escape” route was ahead, so I waited for Chori and said goodbye.  He turned downhill and I continued onward into a single-track trail that was barely wide enough for one person.  I was alternating between looking up and down because while I was trying to avoid roots and rocks, I had to also be mindful of branches.  I was the tallest person at the race so I’d be facing more obstacles than anyone else.

Just before the 10k "escape"

Just before the 10k “escape”

0414_cerrosdeescazu 24I was keeping a constant 14-minute pace, wondering whether I’d be able to maintain it as we continued climbing.  It wasn’t long before I’d get my answer.  Around mile 4, the path reached the edge of a dropoff, with nothing but barbed wire stopping a potential fall.  Though everyone slowed down at this vertiginous section, all runners became walkers upon reaching a canyon-like hiking trail carved straight into the mountain as if by a giant axe.  The ground was a damp, orange dirt, with ground leaves adding to the instability.  My hands were given the unusual task of doing something during a race as I had to hoist myself up numerous times with tree trunks and exposed roots.  I could go no faster than the person directly ahead of me, whose shoes were at my eye level.

Up and up we continued, the jungle getting thicker, the air thinner and my heartbeat pounding in my head.  We weren’t moving fast at all, but even if we wanted to speed up, there was no room to pass.

“Di qué, yo pensé que esto era una carrera?!” the runner in front of me said, prompting a few laughs from those ahead of him.  Not long after, he would yell “Falta muuuucho!” and I realized it was the same person from the first mile.  He didn’t sound or look tired, but like everyone else, kept a slow pace as he marched with the rest of us like ants up the trail.  It was around this point that I started getting worried about missing my flight.  I had to be at the airport in three hours.  Would I have enough time to finish, go home and shower?  Miles were now taking upwards of twenty minutes to complete and I still had more than halfway to go.  If I could just make it to the top …

Google Earth Rendering of the Top of the Cerros de Escazú 21k

Google Earth Rendering of the Top of the Cerros de Escazú 21k.  Toward the top, the jungle really was as thick as it looks.

Sí, efectivamente falta muuuuucho.

Sí, efectivamente falta muuuuucho.

The top of the climb did eventually arrive, but I do not remember it.  I suppose I was expecting a simple, rounded peak, over which I’d run with my arms thrown above me and eventually descend.  But instead, the trail simply stopped climbing and soon I was leaning back, pounding the dirt with my quads, using my hands to swing around trees and stop myself from going too fast.  It was here that I saw how much experience these runners had with downhill running.  For though we were hiking in single file uphill at the same pace, I very quickly lost those ahead of me as the ground dropped.

And somehow, I wasn’t going fast.  I could hear the rapid fire of my feet hitting the dirt, the split second of panic while airborne, quickly searching for the next rock to avoid without going off trail.  The world was passing by me one obstacle at a time, but my pace was still registering in the twenties.  It took me a few minutes to realize the steepness of the slope was responsible for my slow pace.  I couldn’t run consistently downhill, opting instead for a series of short bursts as I’d face each individual obstacle.  I was using my arms more than I had ever used them during a race, pushing branches out of the way, bracing my fall against trunks and slapping mosquitoes off my skin.  The dirt path quickly became another dirt half pipe, which had me running from wall to wall as if on a swing.  It was fun at times, but I was a little concerned.  I was already feeling a pinch in my quads with every step and I didn’t dare imagine what shade of purple my toenails were adopting.

The start of the downhill

The start of the downhill

The thick jungle soon changed into what looked like pines, the dry dirt below almost from another climate.  There was no longer a discrete path to take, but a general wooded area with large rocks and lumps of earth making a smooth descent almost impossible.  The trees in this section looked like their lowest branches had been sawed off, leaving four inch spikes right where my hands would have gone to stop a fall or during a break.  It definitely felt like I was in a video game and I was facing continuously more difficult levels.

Soon after, the course became considerably less precipitous.  But this convenience was countered by the large rocks that made up its surface.  I couldn’t run or even walk without considering every single step I was taking.  I would miss the flat side of a rock and accidentally dig a sharp point into the ball of my foot, a quick stab of pain preceding a loud curse.  More than one false step caused my ankles to roll inward slightly.  I was very relieved when the path once again became soft dirt, only to see it start climbing again.  I clipped a root and fell three large, booming steps forward before catching myself.  On the downhill, my left foot slipped from beneath me on a patch of loose dirt and I threw my hands behind me to stay upright.  Besides those quick incidents, I stayed upright for the remainder of the race.

0414_cerrosdeescazu 28Down and down I continued, each step increasing the acid building up in my quads and the ache in my foot.  We had spilled out of the jungle and into what looked like empty lots covered in overgrown grass.  After sliding down a few slopes, we made it back to black asphalt.  The road felt tough on my feet after 10 or so miles of dirt, grass and mud.  Though downhill, I couldn’t go much faster than a 9-minute pace.  Locals were out, walking on the street, most likely on their way to Sunday mass.  I passed several dogs who barely noticed I was there.  I kept rotating my visor to protect me from wherever the sun was, the only movement I made for the next three miles besides move my feet and bite into water pouches.

I took my phone out and called my parents, telling them I was probably about thirty minutes away from the finish line and that I would love some sort of electrolyte drink at the finish.  Ten minutes later I ran into a volunteer who told me to turn left, up a tiny hill, “y de ahí, seiscientos metros.”

0414_cerrosdeescazu 29Great, I thought.  Six hundred meters and then what?

But as I came to the top of that tiny bump, I saw the orange finish arch in the distance.  I called my parents again and told them I was wrong, that I was about to finish.  Suddenly I was capable of actually running again, as if the last three hours had done nothing to my system.  Block by block, intersection by intersection, I approached the finish line, the announcer’s voice becoming louder than my breathing.  Just a block away, I heard her call my name, telling the crowd I was from Chicago and that I was about to finish as an ambassador to the event.

Three hours and seven minutes had passed since I had started the toughest race of my life.  My dad was just beyond the finish line with a bag full of different flavors of Gatorade.  I took one and finished it in about five ambrosial gulps.  It was a mistake to go into this race without a salty beverage, but in no time I was back to feeling normal.  Two hours later, I would be at the airport, waiting for my flight back to the United States, my third Costa Rican race and a kitchen sink weekend under my belt.

Google Earth Rendering of the Cerros de Escazú 21k

Google Earth Rendering of the Cerros de Escazú 21k

Pa helps out at the finish, the mountains sneering in the background

Pa helps out at the finish, the mountains sneering in the background

Though the race was a bit shy of a half marathon, it made up for the shortage with its 7,700 feet of altitude change.  And yes, I had fun.  I wouldn’t do this kind of event regularly, I might not even do it again if I were to find myself in Costa Rica on this same weekend next year.  But I’m very glad I did it.  If the one-of-a-kind scenic views of the Central Valley weren’t alone worth the climb, then surely the primal romp through the jungle sealed the deal.  This race pushed me outside of my comfort zone, slapped me in the face, pushed me in the dirt and asked me who was in charge.  Despite that rude awakening, I managed to reach the finish line in one piece.

As I write this, my legs are extremely sore.  This wouldn’t be an issue were it not for the Garmin Marathon this Saturday and the recent Boston Marathon incident still very fresh in my mind.  It will be interesting running one of the first possible marathons after such a tragedy with tired legs and a still troubled mind.  But as runners, we must keep running forward.  Here goes nothing …

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!

Preview: Summer Altitude Challenge 2012

Over the last six months I’ve run several races, most of them fast, and all of them at or near sea level.  As a resident of Chicago, I don’t have many options when it comes to running at altitude or even up hills.  The entire city is as flat as flat gets, with only the tiniest slopes providing hill-like challenges.  Honestly, I’m alright with that.  I appreciate a nice flat, fast course.  Every time I finish a race with a fast time, it boosts my confidence and gives me a reason to continue training at high exertion levels.  Plus, it validates all of my training efforts in simple minutes and seconds.

Last year, I switched things up several times.  I started by running my first international half marathon in San José, Costa Rica.  It was near the end of their dry season, at 2 PM, and at around 3,800 feet.  It was challenging, among my slowest half marathons, but I loved it.  A month later, I ran a half in Fort Collins, Colorado, which topped out at almost 5,700 feet before descending to around 5,000.  It was a lot cooler in the Rockies than Costa Rica, so my time was marginally faster.  But the thin air and the hills got to me and by the second mile I was feeling gassed.

This year, I’m going to once again throw in some altitude races, but this time we’re reaching new heights.  Because I don’t have the opportunity to run or even exist at these altitudes, each new race will be a challenge.  Additionally, each race has a higher altitude profile than the one before it (the funny thing is, I didn’t plan all of these myself and they just happened to line up that way).

1.)    Four Thousand Feet

The first race is the Media Maratón Correcaminos in San José, Costa Rica.  Much earlier this year, my fiancée Stephanie and I decided to organize a trip with her parents to get to know my extended family and the country they call home.  We picked the dates to make the most of the Fourth of July holiday.  My racing compulsion kicked in eventually and I decided to check and see if there were any races there we could do, especially since Steve (my future father-in-law) was a big racer not too long ago and is looking to make a comeback.  Lo and behold, one of the country’s biggest races was happening that Sunday, July 8.  Once again, I did not pick the weekend because of the race; I promise you all it was the other way around.  No one believes me, but well, there it is.

The race is a point-to-point that begins in Tres Ríos and finishes in La Sabana.  This should be neat because there are very few true straight lines in San José (as any foreigner in the passenger seat will attest) so the course should prove very labyrinthine.  Steve will be running the 10k and will therefore be receiving a running tour of the capital.  It’s not much to look at until the end, but he said he’s doing it mostly for the shirt.

2.)    Six Thousand Feet

Two weeks later on Saturday, July 21, I will be toeing the line at the inaugural Idaho Falls Half Marathon.  This race is yet another point to point that starts at 6,000 feet and in six miles descends to around 4,800, where it remains flat until the end.  I will be looking to breathe in as much air as possible in the little time I will spend there before starting the race.  It will also most likely be the first race that I run with a hydration backpack, the reason for which is to avoid dehydration.

But that much is obvious.  Everyone wants to avoid dehydration, even those who aren’t runners.  So why the extra precaution?  Why not run every race with a Camelbak if that’s the concern?  Well, there’s a bigger reason.  A while ago, when I set off to run at least 13.1 miles in every state, I realized that I didn’t necessarily have to do it in 50 trips.  I could offset some of the costs by doubling-up once I developed enough of an endurance base.  I thought, maybe this year I’d be able to pull it off.

There’s a pretty useful, albeit slow-loading tool hosted by Running in the USA that shows back-to-back races within driving distance of each other.  After scanning some dates, I first found the Idaho Falls Half Marathon and a few hours away by car, the Madison Montana Marathon in the Gravelly Mountains.

3.)    Nine Thousand Feet

“Run Yourself Ragged” reads the top banner of this race’s website, followed by a proud “Highest Road Marathon in America!”  The race organizer of the Madison Marathon claims to have extensively researched this and has yet to find a road race higher elsewhere.  Many trail races breach 10,000 feet, but you’d be hard pressed to find a paved road race that high.  But for some reason, I was overcome with a sense of adventure, and it consumed me enough to commit to both races.  It’s only a little insane, name because I’ve never done any running higher than 6,000 feet.  But I convinced myself that the Idaho Falls race will somehow prepare me to run this one, despite the fact that I’ll have put 13.1 miles on my legs leading up to it.  I’ll just call it a warm-up run.

And that’s why I’m planning on running the Idaho race with a hydration pack.

The Montana race’s website, though, has a great way of getting you to forget the daunting altitude challenges.  In its gallery, it has many pictures of the course, which are undeniably breathtaking.  It’s very difficult to not get caught up in the majesty of Montana’s rugged mountain landscapes while flipping through each new shot.  If ever I doubted my decision, a few minutes perusing through these pictures would instantly re-energize me.  There’s a downside to this, in that there are definitely bears (BEARS!) in the area and they’ve been spotted more than once near the course.

But even after committing to both races, there were still moments of trepidation, where I would question whether I’d be able to finish Montana.  In fact, as I write this, I still believe there’s a chance that I’d have to walk the course.  What truly tipped the scales and made it happen was an unlikely email from a friend.

I first met Jay Zeschin in college when he pledged my fraternity.  I quickly learned that he was no ordinary guy.  Not only did his music tastes practically invent the word “esoteric,” but he turned out to be a wizard on skis .  Several years and ski trips later, he became an ultrarunner by finishing the Sageburner 50k in 2011, and a mere two months later, the Leadville Silver Rush 50-Mile Run.  When he told me he wanted to run the Leadville 100 Trail Run this summer, I told him he was certifiably insane.  When he asked me to be part of his pace and gear crew, I signed up.

I guess that makes me crazy too.

4.)    Nine Thousand (+) Feet

The Leadville Trail 100 is a beast of a race.  Held every year in Leadville, Colorado, it’s considered one of the toughest foot races out there.  As if running 100 miles nonstop weren’t enough of a challenge, the race’s lowest point is over 9,200 feet, with runners breaching 12,600 feet over Hope Pass twice.  The idea that someone would have the stones to commit to something so far beyond the realm of sanity is truly mind-boggling.  So when someone decides to do it and then asks you to be part of a privileged group of people, whose purpose is to keep them going, you throw everything down and give a resounding “Absolutely I will.”

And it’s not until after you’ve had your moment of pride that you realize, $#!& this is going to be tough.

I can only hope that my three races at progressively rising altitudes will help me out in pacing Mr. Zeschin through the ups and downs of Leadville.  I’m sure he’s bringing with him more seasoned ultrarunners, so I might get lucky and receive a less grueling part of the course.  I’m not banking on that, so I’ll definitely be doing lots of stair climbing and hill workouts in between now and then.  With this race, my summer race series and altitude challenge ends, making way for the fall, where I hope to return to sea level and courses as flat as ironing boards.