Marabana Havana Marathon 2014: A different tour of Havana

It’s 6:55am and we are all lined up in front of the Capitolio, temperature at 25C and humidity hitting 80%. I look at Amir and Tim all hyped up and I try to pretend I am not nervous… How am I gonna get through 42km in this heat and humidity? How did I get myself into this?

It was October 2013, the day after finishing Dublin City Marathon, and I was awake in the middle of the night, not being able to sleep from the pains in my legs. My good friend Amir (the cause of all this) had seen all my photos and heard all my stories. “Well done brother” he said, “I would love to get myself into running but I cannot motivate myself”. “Amir, you need to find the right race to aim for…” I replied. “Marabana 2014, Havana Marathon, on the day before the Partagas Festival. You will be there anyway, how good is that?”.

Fast forward a year and a bit into 2014 and myself, Amir Saarony and Tim Miller are standing on the coral, excited and slightly worried. While I opted for the full marathon of 42k, Amir and Tim where a bit more sensible and chose the 10k.

7am -ish, the gun goes and the 3 of us start running on the Prado, towards the Malecon. The atmosphere is good, the 5.000 runners fill the streets of Havana with energy, while the by-standers are shaking their heads in disbelief. A little bypass beside the Maximiliano Gomez monument and we are in the Malecon, in familiar territory for a long and flat 4 mile stretch.

The Malecon is all closed and all runners are running in the middle of the wide road to avoid the sea water poodles on the edge. I am feeling the heat already and I am sweating more than I would have wanted to, but the sight of the first water station in the distance is a relief. As I get to the water station and I put my hand out, a smiling Cuban girl hands me a bag of some sort of liquid; I look at it thinking, “what am I to do with this?”. “Aqua natural?” I ask a guy beside me who is shaking his head while ripping the bag apart with his teeth. Natural or not natural, that’s all that was there and I wasn’t gonna be picky!

We continue on the Malecon passing by the Antonio Maceo park, the National and the Special Interest building, and then the 10k runners do a U turn to head back to the start/finish line. The field thins considerably as we are heading past the Melia Cohiba and down to the Torreon de la Chorrera, where we do a U turn heading toward Calle 12.

On Calle 12 there is a surprise waiting for us, a long and steep hill! While we hit the 10k mark and take a left on Calle 23, there are more rolling hills ahead of us. There are more people on the streets, most of them minding their own business, except some of some kids who decide to give me a race! The water stations are frequent and now include bags of water in different colours. I get 3 bags in every station, one to drink, one to shower with and another one to have half way to the next water station.

After a long stretch of 2 miles of rolling hills on Calle 26, we get to a busy intersection in front of the national stadium. The route follows a busy dual carriageway, which we have to share with the normal Sunday traffic, around the large block and back to the same intersection on to Independence Avenue, again on familiar territory.

It is getting warmer and I feel more tired than I should be at this stage of the race. There is very little support from the crowds, which only gets noticeable at every water station, where little kids follow you asking for the bags of coloured water.

A relatively flat couple of miles and we are running past the revolution square and right to Carlos III avenue that will bring us back into central Havana. The half marathoners are getting excited, knowing their finish line is near and I am getting worried, knowing I have to do this all over again! Getting closer to the finish line the bypassing crows get bigger and so does the traffic. Cars in Cuba wouldn’t be the most environmentally friendly and the smell of fumes comes to make things a little bit harder!

Avenida Reina is the last stretch of the first lap and where the “international” support started getting more noticeable. A left turn back on the Prado and the finish line is right ahead. Big waves, hugs and kisses from most runners and I am trying to figure out if any of these runners will keep going… Running under the finish chute and everyone around me has finished their race; I can only see a girl running 50 yards ahead of me. This will be a lonely 13 miles on the second lap!

I am starting to struggle and I am looking forward to getting back to the Malecon to see some familiar ground and get the sea breeze to cool me down. I follow the lead of the runner in front of me and I can see the Malecon. “Great”, I think; “if I can keep running to the end of the Malecon on Mile 18, I can then break to a walk.” But as I turn into the Malecon I am up for a nasty surprise. The road is totally empty, I can just about see 3 runners ahead, it feels a lot warmer and there is no sea breeze or any shade to hide under. The desperation starts kicking in, I am overheating and at mile 15 I decide to take my first short walking break.

Passing runners try to encourage me to keep going, but my legs are refusing to. I keep walking past the Antonio Maceo park and another struggling runner breaks his run beside me. “Are you in trouble?” he asks. “I am” I reply, “this is too hot for me”. “Listen…”, he says, “I am struggling too, so lets struggle together. We need to keep moving if we want to make the 5 hour cut off time limit”. Ralf is a 46 year old, 12 time marathoner, who decided it would be a great idea to run a marathon while on holidays in Cuba, and I am sure he is regrets this as much as me at the moment!

Running a kilometre and walking a kilometre for a while gets us out of the Malecon and back into the city, where we have to tackle the hills again, but at least there is some shade. The roads have opened for traffic and a policeman on every crossroads stops it to let us through. The water stations now provide bottles of water and the bags of coloured water that the kids thankfully take off our hands. On the same walk/run pace we make it around the stadium, onto independence square and we are confident again we will make it to the finish line on time.

The last few miles are now more enjoyable, knowing we have made it around. It is getting hotter but we are getting closer. In every kilometre marker we get some encouragement from the Cubans, who show us with their hands how many kilometres there are left. The traffic in the city is getting larger and the fumes are getting more and more annoying. Before we know it we are back on the Avenida Reina and running again, high-fiveing pedestrians, cyclists and drivers who we are sharing the road with. A familiar left turn into the Prado and we can finally see the chute again… What a relief!

Being Cuba, there is no such thing as goodie bags or food at the end of the race. Even the medals were handed out the day before, along with the T-Shirts. We manage to find ourselves a few bottles of water to hydrate ourselves, but all I am thinking about is my recovery mojitos and cigars in the patio of Hotel Nacional! My time? 4 hours 45 minutes, by far my slowest marathon, but definitely the most demanding and most memorable to date.

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