La Maraton Correcaminos

by Keith Olson

This past July I found myself in San Jose, Costa Rica, for the La Maraton Correcaminos races, which were advertised as a full marathon, a half marathon and a 10K. After struggling with the registration process due to my limited Spanish abilities, barely able to order at a Taco Bell drive-thru, the race director finally stepped in to assist even though the registration period had passed and the race was full. However, having a “gringo” in his race was apparently appealing to him and he made an exception and let me register. Additionally, in the true spirit of hospitality of the Costa Rican people, he informed me that he would have my race packet with my bib and shirt delivered to my hotel, as I would be arriving about 10 p.m. the night before the race.  

I was staying at the Hilton, which was adjacent to the National Stadium where the race would finish (more on that later). My suite overlooked the stadium and as night fell, I was excited to race in the morning. Having raced in many different countries with many fun and interesting stories, I had never raced in Costa Rica. Actually, I had never been to Costa Rica before either.  

The marathon, half marathon and 10K all finished at the stadium, according to the race website. The marathon began at 5 a.m., the half at 6:30 and the 10K at 8:30, which I was not thrilled with, given the heat and humidity. With the roads all closed and no efficient way to get to the start, my plan was to simply run the course backwards until I reached the 10K starting line. I woke up excited on race day morning and went to open the curtains. The weather was clear and already sunny, and I soon began seeing some of the leaders of the half marathon flying past the stadium, some on the sidewalk, others in the street. The stadium was bare. Okay … apparently the finish line is not in the stadium as I thought. As I watched from my balcony, I noticed cars getting on the course, as well as a public bus or two, so I knew what I was in for.  

I donned my racing singlet and put on my racing flats and took one final leak, as I had been hydrating a lot and often, concerned about the weather as well as my recent kidney surgery on June 3. I was ready and I was off. Within a few steps of my hotel, I began a slow jog to the start, and a fast downpouring of sweat.  

About 10 minutes into my jog, my mind was thinking about both the amount of sweat I was dripping as well as the donkey that had just crossed in front of me. Racers from the half marathon were coming at me in bewilderment as to why this obviously non-local guy was running in the opposite direction as if he was a salmon. As I reached about what would be the halfway point of the 10K, I was in the center of town with the local markets, crowds of onlookers and shoppers, hookers slowly heading back home from a night’s work, food carts and children kicking soccer balls in the street, not to mention vehicles zooming through intersections where there was not a course marshal or armed policeman directing traffic.  

It was a good tour of the course in reverse, as well as allowing me to grab water at the water stations, with the only deviation from the course due to a necessary pee stop – the first of which had to be rapidly abandoned due to a policeman who appeared out of nowhere. But my pretend stretching worked and he sent me on my way … still holding it!  

I arrived at the starting area about 12 minutes before the start time, and the other 2,500 runners were already packed into the single-lane starting area. After a few quick strides, I forced my way into the first corral saying “Canada, Canada” so I wouldn’t be deemed the “ugly American.” The race, now with one runner more than its limit, was about to begin and I set my watch. Oh crap, I had forgotten my GPS watch and there would no mile markers, only kilometer markers. Oh well, looks like my mathematics degree from the U. of I. would finally come in handy as I would need to calculate my kilometer splits into minutes per mile. The countdown began … diez … nueve … ocho … and finally to … tres!! The runners took off early as the only non-Spanish-speaking runner in the entire event was waiting for the word “uno.”  

As I have learned in other races in developing or Third World countries, pacing is silly and it’s not how well you finish, but how fast you can run the first quarter of a mile before you are totally exhausted and then struggle the remainder of the race. At about the 1K mark I began passing people, both those in the marathon, the clowns that sprinted the beginning of the 10K and those struggling in the half marathon. The course was hilly with some brick and cobblestone at times. Often I would see a few motorbikes “pacing” one of the marathon runners, and on the wider streets a car would pull up alongside a runner, handing him or her some fruit or just offering encouragement by way of blasting some obnoxious Latino rap music. The water stations were efficient and the water was handed out in sealed plastic tubes about the size of a banana. You bite and puncture the tube and then after 30 percent of it sprayed all over, you would down the remaining 70 percent, then toss the plastic, trying not to have it land on a taxi that was buzzing by you, all pissed off that many roads were blocked with us silly runners.  

At the supposed 7K mark with all of the hills now completed, we approached the park where the stadium was. I had figured out that we would lap the park one time, then enter the park on a paved path to the finish line and post-race expo area. With major congestion now at this intersection and the crowds five deep, yet encroaching onto the course, I was still weaving in and out of marathon runners. Then suddenly about 10 yards in front of me, fists started flying. Two runners began fighting and some guy from the crowd jumped onto the course to join the fight and throw some punches. I flew past without having an errant left hook connect and I was in the clear. I was caught by a teenage kid, and while we couldn’t communicate, we somehow still managed to communicate the way runners do. We encouraged each other and I learned he was 17 years old. I hung on to him as long as I could, but I was like a soggy three-day old burrito and he pulled away from me over the last 1K. But I had noticed that he was wearing a GPS watch, and at the finish area he showed me that my 43:05 finishing time for the 6.77-mile 10K race was worthy of a thumbsup.  

Choosing between veering left into the expo or heading straight ahead and cutting through the park back to my hotel, the choice was obvious. Hotel, here I come! Having now run about 14 miles in the heat, humidity and hills, and with planned zip lining in the rainforest scheduled for later that day, the decision made was the correct one. During the mile or so slow jog back to my hotel, I was asked three times for my race bib. Each time I simply smiled or ignored them as if I didn’t understand Spanish (wait … I don’t!), and as I learned as I was approaching my hotel from a bystander who spoke English, the request for my bib was so these people could enter the expo area and pillage the free food and goodies.  

I ended up second in the 50-59 age division. Each age division had prize money for first place. I instead learned two days later from the race director, who emailed me asking me why I didn’t pick up my award at the expo. I hadn’t known nor really cared, but I replied, asking him what the award was, since he mentioned he could have it sent over to the Hilton. My award: A free medical exam at some local Clinica Medica in San Jose. I was able to determine that it said “x-ray extra cost.” I graciously declined the award and suggested that he give it to some other runner that might be in need of it.  

Would I return to Costa Rica? Definitely.  

This race report originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of In Passing.