Havana, November 15, 2015
It is dark outside, 5:30am. Wishful thinking that I could simply sleep in and let the Havana marathon wait another year. I have, after, all been signed in various times over the years and never quite made it. Unfortunately, I have a pick-up arranged and the phone wakes me from my slumber to let me know that the car is waiting outside—around the corner, to be precise. We pick up a couple more people (Elena, Rob). I only ever see them drinking so how serious can this be after all?
The start of the race (is a marathon really a race for a middle-aged plodder?) is at the Capitolio. It is an impressive building that gives some legitimacy to the typical Cuban casualness outside. Numbers are pinned onto shirts. The more enthusiastic push forward to get in the front of the pack. I am in no rush: my training schedule fell off a cliff some months ago, replaced by an acceleration of drinking and late nights. Even my associates are now looking professional, limbering up, stretching, rubbing oils and potions, drinking energy drinks. I guess that a pre-race cigarette would not be de rigueur.
We are into the countdown: 10, 9, 8…and the race begins. As I say to my kids, ‘Hup 2, 3, 4’. It is a gentle start down the wide Prado Avenue (hints of Barcelona’s Prado but only the faintest hint) down onto the Malecón.
There is sufficient space now to accelerate past people. We rush past a family with two six-year-olds in tow, cruise past the man with one leg on crutches and then are locked into a bitter battle to get past some members of the female Cuban walking team. Onwards along the gorgeous ocean boulevard. There is a loud cheer for an Italian’s call of nature into the sea and another one for the same Cuban walking team—“Oye, linda, ¿qué vas a hacer más tarde?”—from the Cuban lads.
Stepping up the pace now, the fading colonial facades rush by. Well, crawl by would be a better description. The first water break, cheap plastic bags of water and squash, the 5 km mark. So far, so good. Bystanders start asking for the squash bags.
This must be the only marathon in the world where the runners give refreshments to the spectators. The sun is starting to come up; it is going to be a long morning. At the end of the Malecón, we go around the 1830 Restaurant and I see my running partner, Michaela, accelerate away into the blue yonder. We tack back into the city and up one of the few (and pretty moderate) climbs up 10th Street heading to the Charles Chaplin cinema.
Around me are a motley collection of runners. It is difficult not to be depressed with my own running abilities when I am running alongside people who seem more like they are running for a bus than finely honed athletes. It is Cuba, so perhaps I should not be too surprised that running gear is a little basic.
At the 10 km mark, a flush of satisfaction rushes through me as many people wrap up their participation with a 20-meter sprint. I am in for the long haul(ish). We are running down 26th Avenue. This is a much less attractive part of the city. Vedado into Nuevo Vedado past the seriously downbeat city zoo. Little old ladies shout out for agua/jugo. Bags go flying in their direction—I don’t look. I am still annoyed that the guy with holes in his shoes who keeps stopping, always manages to get back ahead of me. He looks like he might be a rubbish collector on a regular round.
Down to the Ciudad Deportiva (a sports complex with a large indoor stadium which hosts volleyball, basketball, boxing events, etc.) situated alongside a busy roundabout. The traffic has not really been stopped as much as temporarily paused as we go by. It makes me feel guilty as the line of cars waits for us to struggle across. And around the associated sports fields of the sports complex.
This now feels like the back of beyond. A distinct lack of glamour. I am cheered up though as I pass a friend who justifies his crawl by a requirement to keep his girlfriend company who is walking now. The 15 km mark goes by; I wonder how far it is that we really have to go. I am committed to a half marathon, which means there can’t be so much more left.
I still haven’t collapsed and that must be a good sign although my shirt has come off much to the outrage of Cuban officials. We are coming up a slow climb to Plaza de la Revolución—that great barren expanse in the heart of the city that hosts the annual Labour Day parade into which a million people regularly pack. Not now, I am with a steady stream of runners, nothing more.
And now it is the home stretch through the rundown commercial district of Central Havana. Past the downbeat Carlos III shopping mall and back towards the Capitolio, which is present in the distance. A somewhat surprising burst of speed now has me passing people left and right. The other runners appear a little bemused now by the charging, puffing elephant roaring up behind them into the final 2 kilometres. This is feeling better.
Shirt back on to cross the finish line, down to the last 100 meters and ultimate triumph is mine as I thunder past Michaela, my original running partner. She is devastated. A forlorn scream of “No!” is left behind as the finish line approaches. I guess that I was her one-legged guy. After all, if the middle-aged fat bloke beats me, what is left?
I look anxiously for my kids to cheer me onto the line. Nothing. Still, 2 hrs and 12 minutes have passed and I have finished for the day. Funnelled into a cold building, we are awarded gold medals and a little gift bag. Out into the bright sunshine to see the finish of the marathon proper. These guys are serious runners who have been around the course twice in only a few minutes more than it took me to go around once. And the tall lithe Cuban runner crosses the finish line easily with a bounce in his step. Other runners start round for their second lap—I do not envy them. Traffic has now resumed and a second lap looks like a lesson in masochism as the sun beats down.
I have a few missed calls from my wife—I guess she was not so convinced I would finish and was waiting to rescue me on a breakdown call. I am out of here, straight to my physio to inspect the damage.
Thanks to LaHabana.com for this article.