San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Running a Marathon On a Whim

I knew it was a mistake the moment I handed the cashier my money. I had run marathons before, but none without the recommended four months of training and none without planning at least eight weeks ahead of time for the inevitable pain.

Yet, there I was, three days before race day, on an upper floor of a department store in San José filling out a registration form. Something about the lure of the challenge – or the guilt of sitting this one out – kept me from leaning over the counter to snatch my money back.

So Sunday morning, along with 300 other runners, I lined up at the start line next to La Sabana Park, at the west end of San José, and waited for the sound of the whistle.

Marathons are nothing new to me. I grew up in the United States in Boston, Massachusetts – the marathon capital of the world – and every third Monday of every April my family would find an open space halfway down the Boston Marathon course where we would watch the runners go by. As a child, I would count the runners as they struggled by, hoping that one day I would be among their ranks. (I am sure they were probably thinking the opposite.)

I got my chance as a 21 year old living in Washington, D.C. After four months of training on icy park paths and waking up well before my apartment mates, I crossed the finish line of a marathon in nearby Virginia with a time that would qualify me for the Boston race.

I ran a few more marathons, but never had I stood at the start line – as I did last Sunday in Costa Rica – knowing that the longest distance I had run to prepare for the event was a mere six miles. Surprisingly, I wasn’t really nervous and, as the whistle sounded, I followed the other runners around the corner of La Sabana Park and up Paseo Colón toward the NationalMuseum, on the other end of San José.

I had heard from friends that last year’s marathon was ugly and disorganized, with runners fighting buses and trucks for road space. The start time was shifted last year, causing runner consternation, and the route passed through some less-than-desirable neighborhoods.

But this year was different.

With the support of dozens of sponsors and top members of President Oscar Arias’ cabinet, the race unfolded almost flawlessly. Of course, there’s some work that has to be done before the marathon makes it on the international books (such as offering online registration, chip timing and mile markers), but this year’s run wasn’t bad.

For a regular Central Valley runner, a morning free from traffic, smog and uneven sidewalks was something to savor. When else can you run up the middle of Avenida 2 and enjoy four traffic lanes all to yourself? Or when can you trot along the center line of a usually busy San José street with your head down?

I felt a sense of power as I passed through intersections and saw police officers holding traffic back just for me. (Sorry to all those stuck behind the wheel that day.) And it felt great to have pedestrians on the sidewalk cheering us along.

Twenty-six miles and more than four hours later, I crossed the finish line of the Costa Rica Marathon. My only regret? It’s Monday morning, and I’m having trouble getting out of bed.

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