The Buenos Aires Marathon: ¡Córranlo!
Tuesday, October 13th, 2009
Morgan, the kids and I arrived in Buenos Aires last Tuesday and spent the first five days learning our way around, struggling with Spanish, and adjusting to lunch at 3 p.m. and dinner at 10. (You can read about our travels on our other blog.) We also found ourselves preparing for a marathon, since the Buenos Aires Marathon was Sunday, October 11.
Morgan and I approached the race day with few expectations and no goals beyond wanting to finish and see the city. Morgan broke his toe about six weeks ago and didn’t run a step for more than a month, so he was happy to do any running again. He opted for the half marathon (21K). As for me, my weekly mileage took a nosedive about a month ago. I’ve slowed so much that when I tried to “sprint” the other day, I sped up only to my regular marathon pace.
Normally I take extra care during a pre-marathon week to eat healthy, cut out alcohol, stay off my feet and go on short runs just to loosen up and practice pacing. Not last week! We walked around the city until our feet ached, and we ate steak and empanadas daily, washed down with vino tinto and cerveza. To compensate for the gastronomic indulgence and to regulate our whacked-out systems, we took turns venturing out on a few solo runs that were on balance more stressful than stress relieving — constantly stopping at lights, dodging taxis that play chicken with pedestrians, and trying not to trip on all the chunks of broken sidewalks. Now and then, in the back of my mind, I’d think, I’m running a marathon Sunday? For real? ¡Ay, caramba — lo que sea! (“whatever!“)
¿Correré 42K? ¡No me digas tonterias!
I’m going to run 42K? Don’t talk nonsense! Given the circumstances, the marathon became “a running joke” between Morgan and me as the week progressed. Then the prospect turned truly absurd the night before when a torrential electrical storm struck the city and lasted past bedtime.
When we first noticed nonstop flashing light and heard loud noise outside our balcony, we assumed a public works truck with a rotating flood light had parked outside and was conducting construction work. Then monsoon-like rain and wind began whipping the windows, and we realized the lights and noises actually were lightening and thunder. Sheets of rain came down in waves, lightening flashed like a demonic strobe and thunder boomed like the sickening rumble before an earthquake. Suddenly, the sound of people shouting and horns honking punctuated the wailing storm, and a chorus of screaming stretched out for many minutes. (We found out later that people were shouting because Argentina was winning a soccer match over Peru.) Convinced the power would fail and mayhem was just outside the door, I donned my headlamp and paced the apartment while trying to keep a smile on my face for the kids’ sake. Morgan reasonably concluded there’s nothing we could do but go to bed, and he promptly fell asleep shortly after 10. (So typical!) But the kids and I were so amped up and alarmed by the storm that I crawled into bed with them (they’ve been sharing a queen-size bed). I held them both, wishing them dulces sueños and telling them to think of the storm as a really cool fireworks show, and they finally fell asleep while I remained wide awake and on alert. I eventually took an Ambien close to midnight, set the alarm for 5 a.m., and thought, “I’m getting up in five hours to run a marathon? Lo que sea …”
Morning dawned auspiciously with the sound of birdsong. The storm had passed, though the sky was overcast and humid. We got up and got ready without a hitch. I put on my trail shoes (the only ones I packed) and a lightweight pack filled with essentials such as extra clothes, toilet paper, phone, money and food, in case I got separated from Morgan and thoroughly lost (a likely scenario). All in all, I felt rather weighed down. Así es la vida — that’s life.
We didn’t feel guilty leaving the kids because a babysitter was all set to show up (she came to us highly recommended and we had met her a few nights before and trusted her completely), and the kids were well briefed about the morning plan. Fortified by coffee and rejoicing at the calm sky, we headed out to take a cab to the start.
Catching a cab at 6:20 a.m. in Buenos Aires proved dicey. Not many cabs were out at that hour, and none of the ones we saw had their “libre” sign lit because they were full of all-night revelers heading home. In fact, the streets were surprisingly crowded because so many people had spent the night celebrating the soccer victory, and everyone wanted a cab home. At last we maneuvered to get in front of others and hail one, which got us to the starting area at around 6:45 — plenty of time for the 7:30 a.m. start.
A la largada, ¡nos disfrutamos mucho! Estamos listos …
At the start, we had a great time. We were ready. The crowd’s enthusiasm was infectious.
I’m not sure how many people were there (I can’t find the fact on the website), but I think it was around 15,000. The majority wore the light blue Adidas singlet given out at the race expo, with their name printed on the back; consequently, I stuck out in pink, which was good insofar as Morgan could spot me at the finish (we agreed upon a spot where he could hang out after the half marathon and meet me at the end). We heard constant shouts of Chile! Chile! as the Chileans recognized one another by Chilean flags or logos on their shirts and wished each other suerte, similar to how Canadians always bond enthusiastically at American marathons.
The start was well organized and we found our way to the “sweat drop,” where Morgan deposited his bag of stuff, without a problem. Best of all, my fears of being one of only a relatively few women in the crowd were totally unfounded; there were nearly as many women as men, and all the men seemed respectful and friendly. Only the bathrooms reflected inequality. Rather than being unisex, they were marked “caballeros” and “damas,” with a ratio of about 10 for men to every one for women. The women actually waited to use the ones marked “damas,” but for once I didn’t care about offending custom and ducked into a men’s one to get to the starting line on time.
We joined the throng at the start midway toward the back, jammed together as tightly as in any big-city marathon, and clapped in unison with the mass during the countdown. We finally started to move at 7:30 sharp — but it took more than three minutes to reach the starting line and several minutes more to have enough room to really run. I knew that a lot of energy can be wasted in the opening miles by zig-zagging to dodge the others, so I took it easy, waited for the crowd to thin out and tried not to care that my pace averaged about 9:45 minutes per mile in the first 5K.
The course, which is virtually flat, begins and ends at the lovely Parque 3 de Febrero in the Palermo neighborhood, this city’s version of Central Park. The 42K winds through the bustling city center, south through soulful La Boca, up past the redeveloped Puerto Madero, and then back near the waterfront and onto main boulevards that return to Palermo and the park. The half-marathon 21K eliminates the southern half and, according to Morgan, makes an amusing detour on a freeway and through a toll plaza.
By the time we reached the streets of Recoleta, about five miles into the race, I could finally stride out and maintain a rhythm. I kept looking around at the people and up at the apartmentment buildings, which are dappled green from gardens on balconies, and felt profoundly happy and eager to run the distance in order to get the full city tour.
All the signs on the stores — so much vocabulario to take in — and all the conversations overheard among nearby runners diverted my attention from the task of running, but when I glanced at my watch I realized I was maintaining around an 8-minute pace, which felt fine. Running was almost an afterthought to the sightseeing. I slowed to watch tango dancers on a stage at one corner and slowed again each time a monument came into view. I walked through each water stop to make sure I was drinking enough, and I thanked the volunteers, all of whom sounded like honking geese because agua-agua-agua comes out like wah-wah-wah. (The water was bottled, so I didn’t have qualms about drinking it, but it was such a shame to see thousands of plastic bottles discarded, even though they allegedly are being recycled.)
Out of all the marathons I’ve run (I’m not sure how many, but over 25 at this point), it’s difficult to recall one that felt so stimulating to the senses. Running the first half felt pure and simple — and so fun to follow the streets without having to dodge traffic or fear getting lost. I hit the halfway point at 1:48 and set my first and only time goal for the race: to run the second half faster and finish under 3:36. Morgan, meanwhile, was finishing the half marathon in about 1:58.
Shrek, really? The only attempt I made to speak to other runners came midway through when I spotted a shirt with the name Shrek on the back. I said hello to the middle-aged guy and asked if it’s really his name. Claro que sí, he replied (yes, of course).
En serio? Cómo la pelicula? (Seriously? Like the movie?) Sí, he repeated, grinning broadly.
Even if I could converse easily in Spanish (which I can’t), I would have kept quiet in the second half because the reality dawned that I was in fact running a marathon, and marathons never get easy. Feet grew sore, muscles stiffened, but no significant problems cropped up. I had to work to maintain a pace between 7:45 and 8 minutes, and I considered slowing to an easy run until I recalled my goal for a negative split. A saying on someone’s T-shirt inspired me, because I wanted to be able to say it, too: Alcanzé la meta, disfruté el camino (I reached the goal, and I enjoyed the way).
The runners around me grew quiet, too. No matter what the city or language, big-city marathons always come down to thousands of people quietly toughing it out in unison over the last stretch of the course. It was oddly relaxing, almost comforting, to be there. In a place so unfamiliar, I was accomplishing something very familiar. Morgan voiced my sentiments afterward when he also reported feeling unusually peaceful and happy during the run. “When you’re dealing with so many things in a foreign city that are unfamiliar and difficult, it’s really nice to do something where everyone’s doing the same thing and I know how to do it and don’t need to speak to enjoy it,” he said.
Morgan was there waiting at our predetermined spot in the final stretch and snapped a couple of pics of me:
All along the course, the Adidas logo and slogan were printed everywhere: “Porque cada corredor es differente” (Because each runner is different). The more I saw the slogan and thought about it, however, the more I felt the significance of the opposite: Because each runner is similar. Runners are more alike than different, and because of that, running is an ideal bridge over what divides us.
I crossed the finish in 3:32 and thought about how in one morning and over 42K, thanks to running, I had come a lot closer to feeling like a porteña, a person who calls Buenos Aires home.
Alcanzé la meta, disfruté el camino.