Sunday, December 03, 2000

TR Panama & Costa Rica

11/24 – 12/3/00

Unfortunately this report has been delayed for almost two weeks because of too many things to do and not enough time. Yeah! Yeah! I know, I’m retired and have lots of time. But instead of going into hundreds of excuses it might be best that I use the time to get on with the job!

Even before we returned from the UK I had researched the availability and scheduling of marathons in continental North America because I figured that it would be easier to travel to countries in North America than Europe once we returned. I also had a secret or hidden agenda/goal to complete a marathon in every country in continental North America.
I quickly discovered that there were only three countries that had marathons that I had not run –Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala. Fortunately Panama and Costa Rica had fall marathons that were scheduled one week apart which meant that I could complete both in one trip. Getting this far had been easy but now the quest became a very difficult challenge.

In retrospect and to simplify the process for fellow runners who might want to run these countries/marathons all the roadblocks that I encountered were strictly due to the problem that I could not communicate in Spanish! When I tried to find more information and register for the marathons I constantly ran into brick walls (or as I later found out –communication walls!).
Luckily I started with Panama and eventually one of the members of the race committee who understood English responded to my emails and we began a chain of correspondence and to form a friendship. My new friend, Armando, was also running the marathon and he helped me register for the race. He also provided me with information on the race and travel/tourist tips for Panama and even booked a hotel for us.
At the same time I was trying to accomplish the identical tasks with the Costa Rica marathon but I got absolutely nowhere. Armando put me in contact with a running friend in Costa Rica who ran interference for me and managed all the logistics for me locally –race entry, hotel booking, etc. I could never have accomplished the simple(?) task of setting up the trip and registering for the marathons without the help of these two new wonderful friends.
So a tip to fellow runners –do all communications for both races in Spanish if you want to be successful and save a lot of frustration!

I now had confirmed dates and entries for both marathons and it was time to set up the side trips and itineraries to visit these countries. We decided to fly direct to Panama City and return from San Jose, Costa Rica. How we would get from Panama City to San Jose was left open –“play it by ear when we get there”!
As soon as we arrived at our hotel in Panama I called Armando and he picked both Nicole and I up at the hotel to take us to a press conference for the race. There we met several of the club members, the Mayor of Panama as well as the elite runners who had come from Kenya, the Czech Republic, Columbia and Cuba. Armando had some fun with them by introducing me as ‘the Great White Hope’! I continued the charade with the Kenyans who kept asking me what my race strategy was. I replied that I liked to hang back and kick at the end and that I had never lost a race that came down to a final kick! I just didn’t inform them that I did that at an 8-minute pace rather the 5-minute pace they would run. But I finally relieved their concern and advised them that my goal was 3:45, NOT the 2:20 they were aiming for! The local club treated us to a pasta dinner and drinks and were very friendly and hospitable.

The following day we did a ½ day tour of Panama City. The tour started in the ruins of Old Panama. This site was established by the Spaniards over 300 years ago and includes the ruins of a mission that was burned by the English pirate, Henry Morgan. As he was searching for gold he massacred most of the priests and burned the mission to the ground as he sang ”There’ll be a hot time in the Old Town Tonight”! Fortunately the priests disguised the gold altar by covering it in mud and Morgan thought it was worthless. That gold altar now resides in a church that was built in the Casco Viejo or Old Compound where the city was relocated to 273 years ago. This section of the city reminds one very much of New Orleans with its narrow streets and decorative iron balconies. Unfortunately they have only begun to renovate this area and most of it is in disrepair and is mainly slums.
In the past twenty years the city has grown and modernized into a section called Punta Paitilla. This area is completely modern with glass skyscrapers, etc and when viewed from across Panama Bay the skyline looks like Miami! The banks, international hotels, restaurants and bars are located in this area. I was pleasantly surprised at how modern and affluent Panama is compared to the other Central American countries! We stayed in a new, 5-star hotel in Paitilla for $69 per day including breakfast so Panama is still a tourist bargain. A good dinner for two with wine, tip, etc costs about $30!
The last stop on the tour was the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal. The French started the canal in 1880 under Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, but had to give up after 20 years due to malaria and financial problems. In 1904 the US bought the properties and equipment from the French and an American doctor discovered a cure for malaria so the Canal was finished in 1914. It is quite impressive but I had a bit of a problem as a US taxpayer when we passed the $BILLIONS of US military bases and administrative buildings that were handed over to Panama. The Panamanian government is now selling the US military houses to the citizens. And they are some of the best houses in the city!

After our city tour was completed we decided to venture out and visit the interesting sections in more detail on our own. By this time we had already discovered (surprisingly) that very few people in Panama speak or understand English. Once we left the hotel we had to speak Spanish to communicate. There is a public transportation system but they advise tourists not to use it! The bus system uses school buses purchased from the US and painted in wild psychedelic colors or scenes and are affectionately called ‘red devils’. We chose to follow the advice and took taxis but not one taxi driver could understand English! But they were cheap –you can go anywhere in the city for about $3. One driver interpreted our request incorrectly and dropped us off in the middle of a local market area. Immediately a little old lady approached us and with a few key words and gestures told us it was not safe for us there so we retreated quickly to the safety of Paitilla. But I do want to emphasize that at no time during our visit did we feel threatened or unsafe. On the contrary, we found the Panamanians to be very friendly and hospitable!

The next day, Sunday, was M-day! The marathon started at 5am to permit the race to be completed before the hottest part of the day. At least that was the theory! It was the most brutal marathon, weather-wise that I have ever run. The temperature at 5am was in the mid-70s and humidity was 90%+. By 10K, my feet were sloshing in my shoes due to the sweat that had dripped into them –I knew even at that point that it would be a tough day! The first half of the course was scenic as we passed through Casco Viejo and along a causeway that offered terrific views of the Pacific Ocean as the sun came up. But by the time I passed the half-marathon point around 7am the temperature had passed 80 degrees and the humidity and course started to climb as we ran along the Canal. The course then returned through the city and traffic control was terrible or non-existent. So now I am fighting excessive heat and exhaustion while trying to prevent cars from running over me! Another interesting thing I noted was that my heart rate was between 85 to 90% of Max throughout the entire race. This is 10 to 15 beats per minute faster than normal which I attributed solely to the extra work placed on the heart to keep my body cooled? But Damn! – I must have a good ticker to keep working at that level?
Thankfully the race had water at every 1K so I could drink lots and pour even more over my head and I eventually crossed the finish line in 3:48! After collapsing on a park bench for 10 minutes I was finally able to get up and walk back to the hotel.

After a quick shower Nicole and I went out for some lunch and when we returned there was a message waiting for me from Armando. I had finished in 3rd place in the Senior Division and had won a cash award of $100! Armando came and collected me at the hotel for a celebration party at his home. The winners of the race and other elite runners were there plus most of the directors of the running club. Never having won money before, I didn’t know what to do or how it would affect my amateur status, so I donated the money to the running club! I had a wonderful time at the party and again was very gratified by the sincere friendship and hospitality offered by the Panamanians.

But now it was time to move on to Costa Rica. After checking with a few local travel agents Nicole and I decided that instead of flying from Panama City to San Jose, we would take a bus up the Pan American highway. We had traveled from San Jose to Managua, Nicaragua on a previous trip so figured that we might as well see the southern part of the highway. And we would see a lot more of Panama and Costa Rica by bus! It is a 17-hour trip by bus so we decided to break it up into two days. The first day we left Panama City, crossed the ‘Bridge of the Americas’ that connects South and North America and headed north through countless miles of rain forests. The highway is mainly inland although we did follow the Pacific Coast for some time in the Province of Cocle. We passed through a few beach resorts and some fellow travelers told us that the beach resorts in Panama were very nice. Our stopover for the first day was at David, the provincial capital of Chiriqui, the westernmost province of Panama. David is located very close to the border of Costa Rica and is at the base of el Volcan de Baru (elevation 11,450 ft). Our new Panamanian friends had recommended that we stay in Boquete, a small mountain resort on the volcano. But that was another hour of bus ride each way so we decided to stay in David. Fortunately the best hotel in town was also the nicest and only modern building. You definitely knew you were in a 3rd world country! We went for a stroll and quickly realized that the locals were not used to seeing gringos as we noticed several curious looks. Of course we stood out like neon signs with our fair skin and shorts and tennis shoes (that American uniform again!). But the locals were very friendly and courteous as we requested assistance in finding the post office. Again at no time did we feel unsafe!

The next morning we were off again for Costa Rica and within an hour were at the border. What an intimidating experience that is if you are not familiar with it! Fortunately we had been through the process at the Costa Rica/Nicaragua border a few years ago where we had the assistance of a private guide. However this time we had to do it all on our own and not one person on either side of the border including the bus driver spoke English!

It goes like this: stop at customs/immigration in Panama –take all your baggage into customs where they hand search every piece of baggage. If they find no drugs, etc and you are not arrested –put your baggage back on the bus and proceed to immigration (no directions or signs to tell you any of this). Get passport stamped with exit stamp. Bus has now left for Costa Rica. Walk across border into Costa Rica –look for Immigration and get passport stamped with entry stamp. Now find bus and remove baggage again. Put baggage on table at customs for another hand search and drug-sniffing dogs. If not arrested put baggage back on bus and get ready to leave!
Two hours later all the passengers were loaded and ready to depart for San Jose!

The 6-hour ride from the border to San Jose was much more exciting than the drive through Panama as we crossed two mountain ranges –lots of narrow, winding mountain roads through rain forests. Finally we arrived in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. It is a dump! It was a dump when we visited two years ago and it is still a dump! Unfortunately we had to overnight in San Jose to wait for the morning bus to Jaco Beach. Jaco Beach is the closest beach to San Jose, only 90 miles west over another mountain range and through several rain forests and coffee plantations. I expected it to be larger and more developed. Instead it is a small laid-back resort village with only a few large hotels. We stayed at a Best Western resort on the beach ($68/day) that was the nicest resort on the beach.

We liked Jaco Beach. We had arrived a few weeks before high season and there were very few tourists so the locals were extremely friendly (everyone spoke English) and desperate for dollars. A great lobster dinner for two with wine, etc cost us $30! Jaco even had an Internet café where we went every day to catch up on our emails and Wall Street news. The only negative was the weather –boy was it hot and humid! I tried running one afternoon to simulate expected race conditions and I thought I would die just on a 5-mile training run! It was worse than Panama!
Because we had been to Costa Rica before and had done tours to the volcanoes, rain forests, white water rafting, etc., we decided just to relax and enjoy the beach.
But as usual I got bored and decided to do a ‘canopy tour’. What is a canopy tour? There are two varieties based on the same theme which is to build platforms at the top of the trees in a rain forest (the canopy) and provide a means of traveling between them. The sissy version provides suspension bridges to walk between the platforms. The macho version provides wire cables and ‘Tarzan-type’ swings between the platforms. Guess which one I chose?

Two guides assist you in this adventure. One goes ahead to assist you at the receiving platform and the other guide assists you in connecting your gear –similar to rock climbing gear- to a pulley that is placed on the cable. You then shove off and fly across the canopy on the wire cable like a bat out of hell towards the next platform. How do you stop before you crash into the platform/tree? Good question! You place your hand, wrapped in a leather glove on the cable BEHIND the pulley and friction slows you down! The platforms are placed further apart as you progress into the tour and gain experience. And there is one Tarzan swing where you swing on a rope between platforms. The last platform was the longest-about 500 feet. I was the first to cross because I had agreed to take pictures of the others. Well, it was raining so hard (remember it’s a rain forest) when I came flying across the cable that I could not see the guide or hear him shout the order to ‘Brake’. As a result I came flying into the platform too fast but the guide placed his body between me and the tree to cushion the impact. The others did the same thing and he saved every one of them. This was definitely an exhilarating experience and I strongly recommend it to anyone who is not afraid of heights or speed! And as a bonus you do get to see bird and animal life at the top of the rain forest.

But now it was time to return to the dump er. San Jose and run the marathon. Our friend had booked us into a small B&B close to the National Stadium where the marathon started and finished. This B&B was located in a very nice affluent section of the city but the first thing we noticed was that every house had concrete and/or iron fences completely surrounding the property and topped with coiled barbed wire. The bigger and more affluent houses also had a guard hut built at the gate or in the front yard that was manned 24 hours per day with an armed guard. It felt like you were walking around a prison but the walls were definitely built to keep people OUT! Our host told us that we were safe to walk around the neighborhood but we did not venture too far.

Saturday was M-day but this race had a new twist. It started at 2 pm, in the heat of the day, and finished in the dark –at least for those of us who ran longer than 3 hours. I had been concerned about the heat and humidity after Panama but had forgotten that San Jose is located in the mountains at an average elevation of 2500 feet, which meant it was cooler and drier than Jaco. Luckily it was overcast with a few rain showers on race day that kept the temperatures in the low 70s at race start. However the course was very hilly which negated the positive weather. I was pleased with the race logistics and course management for the first 3 hours as they had closed down all the roads and controlled traffic very well. When I had passed through the first half at a pace under 8 minutes/mile and still felt good I became confident that I would finish in a great time. But at 30 Km and approximately three hours into the race ‘everything went to hell in a hand basket’!

I was still running strong and felt good but something was wrong? At my calculated pace I should have been near the 35 Km mark? Had they screwed up the distance markers? And I had wondered why all the local runners were wearing reflective patches on their clothes? I quickly found out as they opened up the roads to traffic that whizzed by us at 50 mph in pitch dark since the sun had set! I tried to stay close to other runners with the patches but kept passing people while trying to look behind me for cars. At 3:33 into the race I expected to see the Stadium but instead I crossed the 40 Km mark! I was totally disgusted, dismayed and deflated at that point! I would have quit except I had no idea where I was so decided the best strategy was to continue following the course to the end. The traffic got very bad for the last 2 Km and I literally had to weave my way in, out and around buses, trucks, etc on a major boulevard in the dark! But finally I could see the stadium. I ran into the stadium, did a final loop around the track and crossed the finish line in 3:45 –totally disgusted with this race! I collected my finisher’s medal and left immediately – never to go back!

After a quick, hot shower Nicole and I walked to a nearby restaurant for a great steak dinner but then retreated to the safety of our B&B to await our flight home the next day.

In summary, both Panama and Costa Rica are very nice countries to visit. The beaches, volcanoes/mountains and rain forests are the highlights of the countries and you should spend most of your time in these areas. The cities deserve very little time –a ½ day or day in each capital is enough. The people are very friendly and hospitable.
As for the marathons, they are not yet of the caliber that we expect. Besides the brutal weather, the courses and traffic control are terrible. These races are not for novices. If you are an experienced runner trying to notch up countries or races, OK- otherwise pass until they get better organized!

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