Heat, Hills, and Humidity - El Maraton San Blas

During a recent semester studying abroad in Germany, I received an email from my old high school teammate Paul Rollet, asking if I was interested in doing a half marathon in Puerto Rico in February.  He said it would all be paid for, but that he needed to know ASAP.  About 30 seconds later, my response went out—an unequivocal yes.  I’m not yet a good enough runner to be receiving regular invitations to races around the world.  As such, I figured I’d better take the opportunity when presented, school or no school (I am currently finishing up my last semester in law school).  I googled “Puerto Rico half marathon February” to figure out that this was the Medio Maratón San Blas, a historical and apparently quite difficult half marathon.  After a brief series of phone calls in January with my contact to the race, I finally was able to secure my plane ticket, though my name for the ticket and the race was entered as Mathew Alan Flaheney (an alternate personality which I embraced on the trip, as I was announced as “Mathew Alan Flaheney” multiple times and signed my meal ticket and race entry form as such).
My fellow traveler was Brian Runyon, a 2003 Ball State graduate, 4:06 miler, and business teacher at Schaumburg High School near Chicago.  Communicating via text, I knew we’d be arriving at O’Hare at about the same time on the Thursday afternoon of our flight.  He wasn’t hard to pick out of the hundred or so people in the security line—tall, lanky, shaggy hair, and wearing an Adidas track jacket, looking vaguely like Ryan Hall.  “Brian?”  “Yeah, hey man, how’s it going?”  At our gate, we exchanged the usual information of runners meeting for the first time: college, PRs, favorite race distance (Brian’s a miler, I’m a marathoner), current training, etc. 
Things were gratefully simple upon arrival in San Juan, as we quickly found a man with a “Maratón San Blas” badge ready to drive us to wherever it was we’d be staying.  There were four other runners waiting in the van: two Peruvians; a friendly Moroccan named Mohamed who trains in Albuquerque; and a Kenyan named Patrick Nthiwa, sleeping in the back seat.  In three days time, Patrick would take down James Kwambai, the second-fastest* marathoner on the planet, in the most difficult footrace I have ever run.  But more on that later. 
It was 11:45 p.m. by the time we got to the Albergue Olimpico training center where we would be staying for the next four days.  We all quickly received our room assignments and were told that the door would be unlocked for us, but that other runners would already be asleep inside.  Brian and I went in the “second door on the left, second level” as instructed, stumbled into a hot, dark room, accidentally woke some groggy athletes, scrambled onto some top bunks, and fell asleep.  Early the next morning, several of our roommates were giving us odd looks, like we were intruding into their space (they didn’t seem to speak English, and Brian’s and my Spanish is embarrassingly bad).  By the afternoon, we had figured out why.  This was the Puerto Rican team’s quarters, and apparently a semi-permanent home to them—weeks’ worth of clothes hanging, coffee machines plugged in, etc.  Turns out we were first door on the left, second level. 
We met our new roommates a short time later: a talkative Bolivian-American named Jhonny, who had run in the ’84 Olympic Marathon for Bolivia; a laidback Brazilian-American named Ednaldo; and Ridouane Harroufi, another Albuquerque-based Moroccan, who I've personally witnessed win the Steamboat Classic the last two years in a row.  The other runners there for the race were mostly from around the Americas and Africa.  There were about ten Kenyans, accompanied by their famed Italian coach, Gabriele Rosa.  I couldn’t help but be in awe of Rosa as well as James Kwambai, whom I recognized immediately from having watched his marathons in Rotterdam and Berlin.  I’ve met a number of Kenyan distance runners in the past, but man, were these guys skinny.  They made my post-holidays diet plans seem more of an imperative. 
Days at the training center were pretty simple.  Run, eat, lay around, run, eat, lay around some more . . . or in my case, write a paper that was due on Monday.  There were a few other groups of athletes staying at the training center (badminton and volleyball players, swimmers), plus one other group, with which us skinny distance runners contrasted sharply—the cast of the Puerto Rican reality TV show, Transformación Total.  This is basically an equivalent to The Biggest Loser show in the U.S., but without the demeaning title. 
Things started to pick up a bit on Saturday, as we went to a press conference in Coamo in the early afternoon.  The race organizers were proud of the race’s multicultural dimension, with 24 countries represented.  Brian’s and my place among such elite company was beginning to make sense—we were the Estados Unidos contingent.  The seven or so senior organizers all spoke a few words about the race from their seats on stage—the depth and diversity of the field, the race’s history, the difficulty of the course.  They were accompanied by a young Puerto Rican beauty queen whom I took to be Miss Coamo (she would accompany all of the official race festivities).  The thirty or so runners in our “elite” group were announced by country of origin before all of the reporters made a bee-line for Kwambai, last year’s winner.  Meanwhile, the rest of us got complimentary bags, the drawstring kind commonly handed out at races.  These types of bags are usually stuffed with a tee-shirt, a few pens, and a dozen coupons or advertisements.  Our bags however, had two items: a 12-pack of oatmeal cream pies and a bag of dinner rolls, compliments of race sponsor Pan Pepín. 
Saturday night was more entertaining yet.  We were headed to the pre-race festival in Coamo, which was taking place in a large stadium filled with fair-type vendors selling food and beer.  For the twenty mile drive to the stadium, we had our usual police escort (in fact, we even had a police escort for the quarter mile drive down the hill from the dorms to a catered dinner Friday night).  This time, we needed it, as traffic was a mess.  Between the police and a manic, horn-happy bus driver, we made it in no time.  There were probably a few thousand people attending the festival, which featured several top Latin singers, a presentation of the athletes, a flag raising ceremony, an Olympic-style torch lighting, fireworks, and plenty of dancing.  Each country’s athletes were paraded across stage and up through the stands to the flagpoles ringing the top of the stadium for the raising of las banderas.  Brian and I were guided by a local high school student named Giselle, who spoke almost as little English as we did Spanish.  We found ways to roughly communicate, Giselle asking if we were on Facebook and expressing her distaste for one of the singers on stage.  I explained which runner Kwambai was and that he was “numero dos en todo tiempo en el maratón.”  She told us she would cheer for us the next day (among the reported 250,000 spectators) as we parted ways for a snack of plantains and the bus ride back to our dorms. 
The race on Sunday didn’t take place until 4:30 p.m.  Apparently, running in the early morning is actually worse on runners, as the humidity is higher then and it is still quite hot.  However, I couldn’t help but question this logic as we lined up a few kilometers outside of Coamo in 90 degree heat and 70 percent humidity under a blazing Caribbean sun.  Brian and I lined up about three people deep at the start, and about 15 seconds before the gun went off, I noticed that Kwambai was standing over my left shoulder.  We made sure to quickly shuffle him to the front.  It was a good thing, as I heard the lead pack went out in 2:30 for the first kilometer.  That’s 4:02 mile pace, and honestly, I could believe it, as the course was fairly downhill, and those guys took off like crazy. 
            I kept a more modest 5:20 pace through the relatively-downhill first 5 kilometers.  Even this turned out to be a little aggressive however.  There were a number of significant uphills from 5k to 11k, and my legs started to get heavy with fatigue as my pace slowed slightly.  The heat certainly wasn’t helping matters.  But the real challenge was only beginning, as the course starts a long climb around 11k, culminating somewhere just short of 14k.  I had to have been running 7:30 miles up this hill at best.  It was incredibly difficult, but amazingly, no one passed me on it. 
            As I crested the top of the hill, a runner from the Dominican Republic, whom I had met briefly in the previous few days, shot by me.  He looked at me for a split second, stuck a thumb pointing backward over his shoulder and said, “Women!”  Though I hadn’t been passed on the massive climb, the women’s leaders had nevertheless been steadily gaining ground.  We flew down the hill, and I knew my legs would be paying the price in the last few kilometers.  The descent took us through 16 kilometers. 
The last 5.1 kilometers are a blur.  I remember thinking, “How on earth am I going to make it through another three miles?”  The group of three lead women passed me and kept on rolling.  I was just trying to maintain some sort of mental contact with the Puerto Rican runner 100 meters in front of me.  From 17k to 18k, two more women passed me, Carolina Tabares from Colombia and Workitu Ayanu from Ethiopia.  I tried to convince myself that the 2.1 kilometers remaining was really just like running a hard mile as I picked up my pace.  I was ultimately able to pass both women and the Puerto Rican man I had been chasing.  However, I timed my “kick” (or whatever I had left in me by this point) poorly, as I really started to make my final push before I could see the finish line.  As it turned out, I still had about 800 meters remaining. 
The final stretch of the course tours the warning track of a baseball stadium before shooting down the first baseline to the finish.  These last 300 meters were pure gasping, form-failing hell.  I was able to hold off Carolina by two seconds, but I paid for it.  Collapsing and then stumbling to the medical tent, my head was spinning.  As race volunteers were asking repeatedly if I was OK, I couldn’t help thinking of a scene from John L. Parker’s Once A Runner, after protagonist Quenton Cassidy has suffered through a particularly brutal finish in a cross country race.  Cassidy’s teammate responds to the same question, “Sure hell, he’s all right, he’s just run himself a race is all.”  In the end, I finished 32nd in 1:16:18.  When Brian came through a few minutes later, he looked as bad as I felt.
Up front, Patrick Nthiwa gradually pulled away from James Kwambai over the last few kilometers, posting a very impressive time of 1:02:50.  When you see times like 1:02 for the leaders, it’s hard to appreciate how hard the course really is.  But these are guys who routinely run 58 or 59 minutes for “normal” half marathons.  The course record of 1:02:10 was set by Philip Tarus of Kenya in 1999.  Former marathon world record holder Khalid Kannouchi has won the race four times, with a best of 1:03:29.  Four-time Olympic gold medalist Lasse Virren won in 1974 with a 1:06:17.  Bill Rodgers lost a tough battle to the incredible Henry Rono in 1978, 1:04:46 to 1:04:55.
The atmosphere during the race was wonderful.  This race is an event.  People camp out the night before to have a good spot to watch, something I can scarcely imagine in the United States.  In what I deemed a fitting contrast to the U.S.—as it was Super Bowl Sunday back home—people tailgate all day long.  For a footrace.  Nearly the entire course is lined with spectators.  I’m reminded of pictures of the Boston Marathon from the seventies, where the leaders are essentially running through a tunnel of spectators, maybe three or four feet wide.  People are grilling out, drinking beer, and cheering like crazy.  The cheer most often heard is “Vamos!  Vamos!  Vamos!”  However, Brian and I got a few . . . more interesting comments.  I heard “papi” and “papito” a lot, “lindo” and “Americano!”  I even heard “blanco” a few times.  But the one word I heard even more than “vamos” was “gringo.”  “Ayyy GRINGO! Vamos!” echoed through my head throughout the race.    
That evening, in addition to the usual post-race dead legs, I had a headache and felt like someone had just punched me in the stomach.  My misery notwithstanding, we had a nice post-race dinner during the presentation of awards and prize money before finally making our way back to the training center.  The following morning Brian and I enjoyed one last run in warm weather before heading back to San Juan and on to Chicago. 
I left Puerto Rico with new friends, a newfound respect for heat and hills, and a renewed hunger to train my butt off, even in a Midwest winter.  But mostly, I left having had a lot of plain fun.  If only every race could be such a wonderful experience. 

* Technically speaking, Kwambai’s time of 2:04:27 in the 2009 Rotterdam Marathon ranks third on the all-time list, as he was edged by fellow Kenyan Duncan Kibet, who also ran 2:04:27.  But I’m willing to call them both second best all-time.