San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

How I accidentally dominated San José’s half-marathon

Last Sunday, my wife and I ran the Costa Rican International Half-Marathon in San José, and it was a great opportunity to stretch our legs in a different country. We have run many races in the U.S., and we are accustomed to the rituals of this massive athletic event. We were extremely grateful that the marathon even existed, as we’ve missed our running community back home.

That said, the Costa Rican Marathon is an imperfect race, and despite a lot of great qualities, we were a little taken aback by its flaws. In the spirit of positive criticism, here were some quirks from our own experience:

They lost our paperwork

When we reached the National Stadium on Saturday morning, we waited in a short line to pick up our race packets. When we reached the window, the two representatives hummed and hawed and disappeared. We watched for 15 minutes as other racers picked up their plastic tote bags and scampered off. When our materials finally arrived, they simply announced our names, gave no explanation or apology, and called the next person.

Light on goodies

Okay, I admit to being spoiled, but race bags are usually packed with cool stuff – sport beans and booklets and coupons to athletic stores. Before a U.S. race, all you have to do is open your bag (which is usually a drawstring model that you can use over and over), and the water bottles and bumper stickers pour out. But our bags contained only our bibs, a photocopied map, a “chip” to record our passage and a can of tuna fish. On the plus side, the complementary marathon T-shirt is a nice addition to our arsenal. My wife doesn’t like tuna, so my two cans made for a very robust sandwich.

General confusion

Admittedly, my wife and I speak only intermediate Spanish, so we may have missed some cues. But generally we didn’t know where to go or what to do unless we asked someone. The website had scant information, and the map was basic. We spent some extra time wandering around the stadium, looking for the starting line.

Late start

Almost every U.S. marathon starts at the crack of dawn, so that runners take advantage of the cooler air. The Costa Rican marathon started at 1 p.m. I assume there was a logical reason for this, and when you’re organizing three different races involving thousands of people in the heart of a major city, you’re free to start whenever you damn well please. But 1 p.m. is startlingly late – the hottest, muggiest point in the day, not to mention the threat of afternoon downpour. (No rain, I’m happy to report).

No music

I don’t blame the people of San José for not caring about the marathon, and I’m grateful that some folks came out to cheer us on. But we were dismayed to find a lack of music. Back in the States, marathon routes are packed with live bands, dancers, buskers and even bagpipers. Stereos throb with rhythm-heavy 80s music. I would have loved a queue of local bands waiting for us. I mean, seriously: What could possibly be more upbeat than Latin music?

Dodging traffic

The main problem with starting so late is that the city keeps operating, even on a Sunday, and you’d be amazed how many people don’t care that a marathon is in progress. Second Avenue was a mess of cars and motorcycles, and pedestrians kept strolling across the marathon route, as if the thousands of runners were a mere inconvenience. Races always annoy people, and I get that, and some people have to cut across. But in my four previous races, I have never had to dodge a motorcycle.

Boring route

Truth be told, creating a marathon route is both a creative art and a precise science, especially when you have to use the complex geography of an urban center. Given San José’s hills and oblong shape, I was impressed that the route was so intelligently designed. The only problem was, it took the runners (well, most of them anyway) in circles. There’s nothing more discouraging that seeing the same landscape scroll past multiple times, because you feel like you’re making no forward progress. It’s like you’re trapped in a Hanna-Barbara cartoon.

Uh… What happened?

When I reached the finish at the National Stadium, I felt tired but strong, and I jogged into the superstructure with energy to spare. I asked a volunteer in Spanish, “Is this the route?” I pointed to my yellow bib and added, “Half-marathon?” He nodded enthusiastically. When I passed two security guards, I asked them as well. They ushered me forward. I reached the rear entrance, and two more volunteers assured me that this was the route. I quickened my pace as I reached the stadium’s track, sprinting the long oval. This is the best aspect of the Costa Rican International Marathon – finishing in such a colossal, open-air building, the home of La Sele. I flew across the finish line to the sound of cheers.

When I caught my breath, I turned around and saw my time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. I couldn’t believe it. I had cut my best time by a half-hour. I shrieked with joy. I whipped out my cell phone and texted my wife, who is a much faster runner than I am. “Are you done yet?” I texted. Then I received the unpleasant reply: “No. Three miles to go.”

Here’s what happened: The half-marathon route is supposed to continue, past the stadium and around La Sabana park. In other words, you have to run half the racecourse a second time. Same streets. Same right turns. Same long, miserable, uphill battle from the U.S. Embassy to Sabana Norte. Only then was I supposed to enter the stadium and cross the finish line.

But I had crossed already, and my chip had been recorded. My “time” was now part of the permanent record. A race that should have taken me nearly three hours took less than two, all because of a misunderstanding. When I looked at the photocopied map, I saw no indication that we should run that section twice.

I was crestfallen, because I’m not that kind of athlete. I accepted my complementary medal only to document the occasion, but I didn’t feel like I’d earned it. When I traced my route on Gmaps Pedometer, I calculated a nine-mile circuit. Not bad, especially given how little I’d trained. But not a half-marathon, either.

On the bright side, I got to watch the marathon winner, Hillary Kipchirchir, stroll casually across the finish line, a sight so elegant and enviable that I couldn’t help but buck up. I also got to watch my wife finish, and instead of making her wait another half-hour, I shared my water bottle and we limped our way to a taxi.

“I’m not entirely impressed,” she said. “But I’m glad we did it.”

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