A Guatemalan "half marathon" (October 2010)

(The below describes Jed's recent experience running Medio-Maratón Los Altos, a half-marathon in our hometown of Xela, Guatemala)

As a general rule, I think that when there is a half-marathon in the town that you live in and it costs $6 to enter that you sort of have to give it a shot, even if you're only partially in shape.

Some may think "that sounds like a fun adventure" while others may be saying "that sounds like it is going to end in disaster". Well, both groups are partially correct though many would probably tip into the latter camp when hearing that Xela is at 8,500 feet above sea level and extremely hilly. But what resulted from the application of this rule was a (mostly) fun and uniquely Guatemalan experience. In fact, in many ways Medio-Maraton Los Altos is a good microcosm of life in Guatemala.

The race was slated to begin at 8am and while I had pre-registered for the event (but only after three visits the local toilet supply store where the registration booth was located), a friend had not. So we thought we should arrive a few minutes earlier than we normally would so that she could register. She suggested we arrive at 7:15am, I said I thought that 7:30am would be fine, we comprised and arrived at the start (located at a Texaco gas station outside of town) just after 7:20am. By 7:25am she was registered. Then we waited for the race to start as the delivery vans of the race sponsors blasted music from their rooftop bullhorns (anyone who has ever been to Latin America is familiar with these ubiquitous "mobile units" that drive through the streets blasting messages about such irresistable products as concrete blocks). And we waited....

Around 8:05am an announcement was made from one of the sponsor trucks, but we couldn't hear it as the other sponsor truck continued to blast music at top volume. Ten minutes later another announcement was made that we could actually hear (only because it happened to be at the closer of the two sponsor trucks not because the other truck turned down its music while the announcement was being made). The organizers informed us that "some people called from the highway and asked us to wait for them to start the race". So we waited (at this point Meg was already waiting at the rendezvous point we'd arranged at mile 3 of the course and wondering where all the runners were). Then at 8:30am the Guatemalan runners started to warm up (in hindsight we probably should have been suspicious about the race's start time when at 7:55am no one had started doing any warmups).

Finally at 8:45am, the organizers (and at this point I'd already started to use that term loosely) directed people to line up on the starting line. A few minutes later, the women runners started (not sure why they decided that the 25 women runners needed a separate start). Then, finally, the 200 or so male runners took to the course.

At this point, it became clear that the late start was not an aberration on the part of the race "organizers" but standard operating procedure (at this point it became clear that "organizers" wasn't the correct word to describe them). First, there were no course markings whatsoever (no signs, no race marshals pointing the way, nothing). While this was potentially very problematic (I pictured myself getting lost and ending up many miles outside of town), it worked out fine (for me) in the end as luckily I was running at a similar enough pace to others that there was always someone just in front of me leading the way.

Second, the race course was not closed. In fact, there was nothing to warn cars that there was a road race or any type of safety precautions at all. For most of the course this wasn't much of a problem since traffic was light on this Sunday morning. However, towards the end of the course as we neared downtown traffic started to pick up. This was most annoying when the race course intersected with a major bus route:

Finally, the good news is that I managed to finish the race in 1 hour and 24 minutes. For those of you that know anything about running, you'll note that is a world class time (just over 6 minute miles for 13 miles). This might make you suspicious about the actual length of the course- with good cause. In fact, by my estimation the "half-marathon" was at most 10 miles (making for a more reasonable 8 minute miles).

I first became suspicious about the length of the race when I met Meg for the final time on the route. She encouraged me by saying that I was almost there, but one look at my watch convinced me that I was most assuredly not almost done with 13 miles. At this point, I had two thoughts: either this course isn't a full length half-marathon or we are about to run about 25 laps around the central park (where the finish line was). To be honest, I wasn't sure which option I preferred; while I wanted the satisfaction of completing a half-marathon, I was also pretty tired by this time and wasn't looking forward to 3-4 more miles.

There are several possible explanations for why Medio Maraton Los Altos was only 10 miles. Perhaps the race "organizers":
a. didn't bother to measure the course and just estimated (very poorly) the length of the route
b. measured the length of the course but did so incorrectly (perhaps by counting paces?)
c. correctly measured the length of the original course but then changed the route at the last minute (for example at one point we ran a slightly different way because there was a parade ahead)

Another possible answer is that given the lack of any actual course markings or race marshals that one of the early runners decided to take a short cut and everyone in turn just followed (almost like a giant running version of the game telephone).

With its grand aspirations, its delayed timing, its overall lack of organization, and its attitude of fun, care-free adventure, the half-marathon presents an analogy for life in Guatemala. Though I did read a few days later that the winners of the race were complaining that they had yet to receive their prize money from the "organizers" (perhaps also indicative of Guatemala).

As our landlord said when I told her of the 10-mile-half-marathon, "well, here in Guatemala one word can mean many things and people use words to mean whatever they want." Next month there is another half-marathon here, we'll see how long this one is...

(At the "finish" line)