Tuesday, December 23, 2008

TR - Taiwan

TRIP REPORT
TAIWAN
12/17 – 12/22/08

Race Results:
Taipei Marathon
Taipei, Taiwan
Sun, Dec 21/08
Marathon # 313 – Country # 98
3:56:57

Country # 98 – EIGHT down – TWO to go!

This marathon turned out to be a difficult one to get to and run! The difficulty/frustration started three years ago when I first scheduled it into my race calendar. That year I couldn’t get the necessary information and details from the web site or race director to finalize my travel plans? Last year the web site improved and I had actually booked my flights, etc. but had to postpone them at the last minute when the Sports Manager needed unexpected surgery to replace her hip. I just rescheduled my travel plans to 2008. However in early summer a friend informed me that the race organization had changed the date? Sure enough – he was correct. I was concerned and upset because the race is usually just before Christmas and travel is expensive and difficult to book for that time of year to Taiwan. Surprisingly I was able to reschedule my flights – but I was forced to book 1st Class seats using award miles. This turned out to be a blessing in the end!

The change in date also helped my goal in a big way because later in the year I confirmed that the Puerto Rico Marathon was scheduled for Dec 14 which allowed me to schedule both races into my calendar. It made for a tough travel schedule but I could run both races in 2008!

Unfortunately on the return flight from Puerto Rico I caught a cold bug. At first I thought it was only a minor sore throat but as I made my way across the Pacific on the 30-hr flights to Taiwan it blossomed into a severe head cold and congestion. I was glad that I had the 1st Class seats so I could sleep on that long journey. When I arrived in Taiwan at midnight Thu I was not feeling well - a raging headache and stuffed-up sinus. I woke early the next day, found the location for race registration and picked up my race packet. I was pleased that the race director had accommodated my request for Bib # 98! My next stop was a pharmacy where the pharmacist spoke some English and gave me some strange Chinese medicines and herbs to combat the cold. I desperately wanted to keep the congestion from moving into my chest! I then visited Taipei 101- the world’s (current) tallest building – to get a panoramic view of the city and learn the layout and directions of the major landmarks. By the time I came down I was feeling so sick that I returned to the hotel, took the medicine and immediately crashed! I woke groggily about 5 hours later and managed to eat a light dinner before crashing for another 12 hours!

I had booked a morning tour of the city so forced myself out of bed to tour the few major tourist sites:
The Palace National Museum (has more Chinese artifacts that the Chinese Museum in Beijing); the Martyr’s Shrine, Chiang Kai -Shek Memorial Hall; the Presidential Building; and the Chung Fu Temple. After the tour it was more medicine and crash immediately? Best damn sleeping tonic I ever had?
Six hours later I woke and contemplated my next move? I was very sick and groggy and considered just crawling under the covers and skipping dinner. But I remembered when I did that in Shanghai last year and suffered one of my worst races. So I forced myself to crawl out of bed to eat a pasta dinner. And then back into bed with more medicine and crashed for another 10 hours. When I woke at 5 am I did not want to get out of bed – I felt like SHIT! Thankfully the congestion had not moved deep into my chest and I could breathe. Besides I really didn’t have an option – I had to run and finish the marathon no matter how painful or how long it took!

I walked over to the start/finish line at City Hall. The weather was nice – temps in the low 60s. I was disappointed that I was not healthy so that I could make a strong attempt to run a fast time. The start area was a zoo – 3,000 runners in the marathon; 8,000 in the Half and another 16,000 in a 9 Km fun run – and we all started together! I had to climb over a fence to squeeze in with a pack of runners about 20 ft from the start line. The race started at 7 am. The course was so packed that we couldn’t veer or pass for the first 5 Km. There were supposed to be distance markers every Km but I missed the first five because of the crowds. Finally I saw the 6 Km marker – 32:16. The pack was moving me along faster than expected so I decided to stay with them. The first 15 Km of the course was through the city and past many of the tourist sites so it was enjoyable. At 16 Km the course entered an elevated freeway and stayed there for the next 23 KM – not very scenic or interesting! However the city had closed all the roads along the course so we didn’t have to worry about traffic or suck up exhaust fumes – much better than most Asian races!

At 17 Km (1:31:22) the lead pack of runners from Kenya (big prize money in the race) blew past us in the opposite direction – 28 Km for them! That meant we had an 11Km out-and-back loop on the elevated hwy. Fortunately the Half marathoners turned at 18 km and we finally had room to run and it was easier to get water at the stations. I passed the Half in 1:55:15 – faster than expected but the temps were increasing rapidly and I knew the 2nd Half would be slower. Around 25 Km my pack started to fade and surprisingly I still felt OK so I decided to push ahead and started to pass many runners succumbing to the heat. As we approached the exit off the freeway near 29 Km we had to dodge slower Half marathoners leaving the freeway and continue for another 10 Km loop on the elevated freeway. I don’t remember much after that because the wheels started to fall off? I passed 32Km in 2:57:16 but I was struggling and my splits had slowed to 6:00/Km (9:30/mile). I calculated that if I could hold a 6 min/Km pace I could finish under 4 hours! That became my sole goal/purpose in life (other than finishing ALIVE)! But my splits continued to slow so I summoned up Maddog! As expected he was able to focus so strongly that we blocked out the entire world – the lack of energy - the pain - and lowered the pace back to sub-6s! All I remember is reaching the exit off the freeway at 39 Km (3:38:59). Only then was I confident that a sub 4-hr finish was in the bag!

We left the elevated freeway and entered a long tunnel. We exited the tunnel at 41 Km (3:50:25). I had no idea where I was and just focused on following the runners ahead and pushing the pace for the final Km to get the ordeal over with! I crossed the finish line in 3:56:59. They must have made an announcement as I crossed the finish line because several local runners approached and asked if I would join them for photos. Of course I was obliged/pleased to do so and I got to meet and talk to a lot of nice people!

After collecting my warm-up bag I tried to confirm my official time and place but was disappointed that the results were still not available (the race used chips and electronic timing?).While waiting I met a Canuck in my AG (one of 10 Caucasians in the race) who finished in 3:45. We both gave up and left without any results! So I didn’t place 1st – and I didn’t expect to with my slow time. I am still disappointed that the results have not yet been posted on the NET!

As I walked back to the hotel along a route and streets that I had become familiar with I was surprised to see runners finishing the race? Then I passed Km marker 41! Unbelievable! It was on a street corner close to my hotel where I had eaten meals at a British Pub. I couldn’t believe that I had been so focused and so out-of-it at that point of the race that I didn’t even recognize where I was? And people wonder why I don’t respond when they wave and cheer for me along a course?

After a long hot shower I actually felt alive – the best I felt since arriving in Taiwan. I went for a stroll to find some hot/greasy food that my body craves after a race. By the time I ate my health was going downhill – FAST! I realized that the ‘false’ good feeling had been the result of residual endorphins and adrenaline from the race! It was back to the hotel – take more strange Chinese medicine and crash.
I can’t remember the last time I slept so many hours in so few days?

Fortunately I did feel better the next morning when it was time to leave for the airport. However that ‘better’ feeling faded away as I made the long 30-hr journey back home. Once again I was glad that I had booked 1st class seats. The trip would have been pure HELL back in coach! By the time I arrived home at midnight on Mon the cold had reached its peak. It was an ugly night with hot/cold sweats and vivid hallucinations that would be the envy of any LSD junkie!

We were supposed to leave for the West Coast on Wed to visit our kids but there are bad snow storms in WA/OR so we delayed our departure till Fri. Hopefully by then I will be healthy and ready to get back on a plane?

As I said in my field report the summary of this race was ‘Disappointment’! Disappointment that I had not been healthy because I believe I could have run a fast time (low 3:40s) on that course and weather. And disappointment that I did not get to see much of Taipei or Taiwan. But I am glad that it is over. And I am glad that this long/difficult/challenging quest is almost over! I can finally see the end of the tunnel.

I have three weeks to rest and get healthy for the next marathon/adventure where I will tie the World record in Israel.

Stay tuned!

Footnote: another disappointment - official time 3:56:57 and 13th place in AG!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

TR Puerto Rico

TRIP REPORT
PUERTO RICO
12/13 - 12/15/08

Race Results
La Guadalupe Marathon
Ponce. Puerto Rico
Sun, Dec 14/08
Marathon # 312 – Country # 97
3:53:38 – 1 AG

Country # 97 – SEVEN down – THREE to go!

I had been trying (unsuccessfully) for the past few years to find a marathon in PR? My luck/search finally changed when I ran the St Croix Marathon on New Year’s Day. The race director was certain that there was a marathon in PR and agreed to use his contacts in the IAAF to find out where and when. It took him five months and a lot of work but eventually he did provide me with a contact in PR who I called immediately! Success! I was quickly routed to the race director who was also the Secretary of Sports and Recreation for the Municipality of Ponce. There is no advertising for the race – it is not listed in any race calendars – and there is no website! But there is a marathon (usually in Dec) and Nelson promised to call me in Sept when the date was confirmed.

I was nervous about the race because I plugged it into my race/marathon schedule to get me to 100 countries so it was important that it take place! Thankfully Nelson called me in Sept to confirm a date of Dec 14/08 and gave me some general info on hotels in the area. I booked my flights and continued my quest. As the date drew near I emailed Nelson to confirm the race was still on? Yes it was!

I flew into San Juan on Sat morning, rented a car and drove to the other side of the island. Ponce is located on the south side of PR on the Caribbean Sea. It quickly became apparent that this area is not a tourist destination and I was thankful that I had only booked a weekend trip! The only information I had on the race was the location and time of registration. As I said there is no information available on the Net? I found my hotel which fortunately was only a few miles from registration and the start/finish of the race in La Guancha Recreational Area. That was pure luck!!!

I found La Gauncha and registration and finally many of my questions were answered. The Marathon La Guadalupe is the only marathon in PR. It is organized and sponsored by the Municipality of Ponce. I was shocked to learn there was no entry fee and each runner received a race bib, T-shirt, finisher’s medal and certificate. After the race a breakfast was served and there were cash awards for the top 10 runners in both male/female! Now I understood why this marathon is a closely guarded secret! The city prefers to keep the marathon a ‘local’ event and does not advertise or encourage foreign participation since the taxpayers are paying the bill! However they were very courteous and hospitable to me – but then I was no threat to win prize money! There are no Age Group awards and it is not a fancy event but it is well organized and managed.

There was no formal information provided at registration – no course map, no race sheet, etc. I was required to pass a mandatory physical/medical check before they gave me my race bib - #97! Fortunately the race volunteers spoke some English and I was able to get the specific info I needed to show up at 4am for the start. I couldn’t find an Italian restaurant in Ponce so was forced to eat my pasta dinner at a Pizza hut – it was OK and cheap!

I made sure I was at the registration/finish area by 4 am because I still didn’t know much about the race? Luckily I met another runner from a Running Club in San Juan who spoke good English and he decided to adopt and help me? He was very kind and translated what was going on. Of course everything was in Spanish since I was the only English-speaking runner in the race! My new friend informed me that I was supposed to pick up my race T-shirt before the race and then busses would transport the runners to the start line about 1 Km from the finish line? He explained that the course was a 7-Km section of the highway from downtown Ponce to La Guancha. The city closed both sides of the hwy for 7 Km and we ran back and forth three times and finished near La Guancha Boardwalk.

I met several more runners from the San Juan Running Club as we waited for the start. There were about 200 runners in the race including the national male/female champions! The weather was hot as expected with temps in the mid 70s (F) at the 5 am start in the dark. My new friend was a waiter in San Juan and had not run a marathon for about five years but was confident that he could break 4 hrs? I told him that would probably be a challenge for me because of the heat and I had been suffering from leg cramps the past few weeks and did not want to risk an injury! I decided to go out at a 9-min/mile pace and see what happened?

As we started the race I recognized the course because I had driven that highway a few times. My friend pointed out that there were four overpasses or ‘hills’ on the 7-Km section which meant we would get to run each overpass/hill a total of six times! Oh Goody! The first and highest hill was around 2 Km.
We passed 5Km in 27:51. By then I was wishing I could lose my new friend. As kind as he was – he wouldn’t shut up – he was driving me nuts! At that point we caught up to a female runner from his Club and he introduced us. Carmen was in my Age Group – 63 years old – and running a smooth/easy sub 9-min pace –very impressive! In fact she decided to stay with us and at many times took the lead and we struggled to keep up with her! We passed 10 Km in 54:47 – ahead of pace. My legs felt OK so I figured I could stay with these two new friends? We passed 15 Km in 1:21:52 and Carmen pulled us through the Half in 1:55:23. Damn – that was fast for that heat. But the sun had just come up and I figured we would not be able to hold that pace through the 2nd Half?

As we headed back toward La Guancha on the 2nd leg of the 2nd loop my new friend started to struggle around 24 Km and told me that he needed to stop talking (oh Joy!) and focus on his pace. The winner lapped us at 25 Km and Carmen and I found ourselves alone? When I made the turn at 28 Km (2:33:32) Carmen started to fade and fall behind. I continued to push the pace by myself and passed 32Km in 2:56:09 and when I made the final turn around 34 Km (3:07:33) I noticed that Carmen had fallen about 1 Km behind. I was confident that a sub 4-hr marathon was in the bag and continued to hold the pace. I started to pass many runners who had succumbed to the heat and were walking/jogging. The reward of a sub 4-hr finish was enough incentive to keep the old legs churning although they began to tighten. I was pleased when I reached La Gauncha at 41Km (3:47:12) and turned into the park for the final 1 Km. I crossed the finish line in 3:53:38. My friend was waiting at the finish line to cheer me across – he had dropped out at 28 Km with leg cramps.

It felt good to finish a race under 4 hrs again! I waited around for the award ceremony but skipped the breakfast – I can’t eat for hours after racing! I believe I won my AG but must wait for the race director to confirm my place since they don’t track Age Groups in this race. They only give cash awards to the top 10 in each gender! I took some photos of the La Gauncha area – it is one of the nicer areas of Ponce. Then I returned to the hotel for a long hot shower to soothe/relax the legs and set out to visit the old historic section of the city. It wasn’t a long walking tour – a Cathedral, Park and a few museums. Most of the shops and restaurants were closed for Sunday? So I retreated back to the El Tuque area where my hotel was located to enjoy a great seafood dinner and sunset in a nice restaurant overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

I decided to leave early Mon morning to alleviate any concern about traffic delays back to San Juan – and if I arrived early I would have time to explore Old San Juan. That plan worked out well and I enjoyed a nice 2-hr stroll through Old San Juan and took some photos to share with my readers.

It was a quick trip – a good race and now I have one day to repack and leave for Taiwan. I am surprised that I found time to write a quick trip report. It will reduce my burden when I return from Taiwan.

Stay tuned!

Friday, November 28, 2008

TR - Suriname

TRIP REPORT
SURINAME
11/19 – 11/24/08

Race Results
Suriname Srefidensi Marathon
Paramaribo, Suriname
Sat, Nov 22/08
Marathon # 311 – Country #96
4:02:16 - 1 AG


Country # 96 – SIX Down – Four to go!

This marathon and country came to my attention and plans when a friend from the Netherlands ran it a few years ago. The first question from many readers is “Where is Suriname”? It is the former Dutch Guiana and is located on the NE coast of South America between British Guyana and French Guiana and bordered on the South by Brazil. It is not easy to get to! After much research I decided to route through Trinidad & Tobago because the connections were easier and cheaper. The next problem was getting information and registered for the race. There is no website or info on the Net but I finally managed to contact a Captain in the Suriname Army who was organizing the race. The race is organized and managed by the Army!

I was on my way and all went well until I arrived in Trinidad and tried to board the connecting flight for Suriname. The airline refused to allow me on the flight because I had no visa! Visa? Somehow it never occurred to me (after all my travels) to check for a visa since most countries in SA do not require one or it can be purchased at the airport if needed. But not Suriname! I had to scramble and develop a Plan B on the fly because it was not acceptable NOT to get to Suriname and run the marathon. All my plans and arrangements were in place to run Country #100 and Suriname had to be # 96!

I checked with Information at the airport to confirm that there was a Suriname Embassy in Port of Spain. It was closed for the day so I would have to spend the night in POS and go to the embassy early. I managed to book a hotel near the Embassy and tackle the next hurdle. Trinidad and POS had been experiencing rain for the past week and the city was suffering from floods and landslides. It took 3 hours for a taxi to drive me 20Kms to the hotel because of the horrendous traffic jams due to streets closed and flooded! I was waiting at the door for the Embassy to open at 8 am. And I was worried because the notice on the door read ” You must apply for a Visa at least one week prior to departure”! I had bad visions of returning home to the US without running country # 96! However I talked to the head honcho, explained the problem and the fact that I had worked with Capt. Klein of the Suriname Army to help with the marathon and had provided free publicity for the race on my website. Thankfully they processed my Visa in 2 hrs and I was ready (and legal) to continue on to Suriname.

It was another 3-hr drive to the airport and a long wait over many Trini beers waiting for the late night flight. I finally arrived in Suriname at 1 am – and 1 day late. The airport was built by the Americans during WWII to protect the bauxite mines that were the main source of aluminum for the war effort so the airport was built near the mines and miles from the capital city of Paramaribo. I finally arrived at the hotel at 2 am and had to wake at 7 am to take a boat tour on the Suriname River. Suriname has a population of 500,000 – half live in Paramaribo with the next biggest city having a population of 8,000!
27% of the people are East Indian, 18% Creole, 15% Amerindians, 15 % Javanese and Chinese and 25% others. Many of the small villages are still inhabited by descendants of the original workers who were slaves or indentured workers from India, China, Philippines, etc. The boat cruised down the Suriname River towards the Atlantic and made a stop at New Amsterdam. The local story is that the Dutch traded New York for New Amsterdam (if so the Brits got the better of that deal). We toured Fort Amsterdam, built to protect the colony and plantations before continuing the cruise to the Commewijne River. We cruised up the Commewijne River where we visited the Frederiksdorp Plantation for lunch and stopped at Margrita and Rust & Werk – small settlements still inhabited by descendants of the original plantation workers. The only access to these villages is by boat and there are no roads in the villages. And no A/C – and the heat is unbearable! (See photos on website).This is the typical tour in Suriname – mostly Eco tours where you cruise on rivers and visit rain forests and Amerindians and sleep in tents in mosquito-infested forests! Not my cup of tea!

On Fri I needed to meet Capt. Klein to get more info on the race so I was not able to take any organized tours. Instead I did a self-guided walking tour of Paramaribo to take photos to share with my readers. I visited the historic section of the city – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I toured the Presidential Palace, Fort Zeelandia, the Waterkant and Independence Square where the race would start/finish. Then I passed a Synagogue and Mosque side –by-side that is indicative of how well the multi-cultural society gets along! I quickly learned that the heat (and sun) was unbearable between 11 am and 4 pm!

I had called Capt. Klein to learn that the marathon started at 5:30 pm on Sat and there was a pasta party on Fri night where more race details would be provided. There was a Dutch Army team staying at the same hotel and I was invited to join them to be picked up by an army bus. There were 3 runners and a coach and all spoke English which was a big help. Dutch is the official language of Suriname but most people in the capital speak English. However the presentation at the pasta party was completely in Dutch so I had to find a few volunteers to learn the specific details I needed for the race! My only complaint about the marathon was that there was NO information before, during or after the race - in English – and that led to a few problems for me! Another complaint was that I had requested Bib # 96 and they did not reserve it for me – although they reserved special bib #s for other racers that were presented during the party?

Sat was M- Day! But the race started at 5:30 pm so I had a whole day to kill? I knew that the city would close down on Sun so I did my final souvenir shopping on Sat morning and stayed in my A/C room for the afternoon. A thunderstorm began at 4 pm that was good/bad news:
Good News: The rain lowered the temps from the low 90s to the mid 80s for the start of the race
Bad News: The rain increased the humidity into the 80s (%) and the temps didn’t drop much after dark.

Fortunately I arrived at the start line around 5 pm because the Dutch coach grabbed me and informed me that I had to weigh in. Nobody informed me of that requirement at the pasta party and I had specifically asked if I needed to be at the start line early? Because of the extreme heat and humidity the weight of every runner was taken before and after the race. If a runner lost too much weight (i.e. fluids) he would be taken to the medical tent for IVs at the end of the race! I was going to make sure that didn’t happen! There was a formal starting ceremony with the Minister of Sports and other dignitaries in attendance. There were about 40 runners in the marathon, 60 in the relay and 80 runners in the Half.
As I was waiting on the start line I met two Old Farts/competitors in my Age Group – one from Barbados and one from Suriname. The Barbados runner stated that he hoped to finish under 4 hrs! I didn’t think that was reasonable (for me) with the heat but I decided that I would try to stay close to him? The race started on time and I passed 1km in 5:03! Way too fast for the heat & humidity! I tried to slow down but passed both AG competitors by the time I reached 3Km in 15:22. Surprisingly/happily there were distance markers every Km which really helped to monitor/control my pace and there were water stations every 3 Km. I drank one bottle of water (500ml) and poured one over my head/body at every station starting at 3 Km – I wanted to make sure hydration didn’t become a problem! I finally managed to settle into a smooth/easy pace by the time I passed 5 Km in 27:06 and 10Km in 53:22. I had been following a group of four young runners who were running a wee bit faster than I wanted to run but it was easier to let them pull me through the course. I was disappointed when they turned off near 11 Km for the Half and I found myself all alone! It had already turned dark and there were no runners in front of me! I ran the next 14 Km alone! Fortunately the course was well-managed with lots of volunteers and police. The roads were closed to traffic and there volunteers at every intersection. The temps didn’t seem to drop much with darkness and without anyone to push me there wasn’t much incentive to hurt so I eased off the pace. And without any runners to follow I had to focus on following the course in the dark which meant I couldn’t let the endorphins lull me into la-la land! I could read my splits but not total time in the dark which didn’t help much. As I approached the Half I could see runners coming in the opposite direction on the far side of the boulevard but I had no idea where the turn-around was or how far they were ahead of me? I reached the Half and stopped under a street light to read my watch – 1:57:28! I was surprised that my time was that fast?

And I was pleasantly surprised when I reached a turn-around point at 23 KM (2:08:08). That meant that there were runners about 1 Km ahead of me – finally some motivation to hurt and push the pace! And for extra and more serious motivation the Old Fart from Barbados was only about ½ Km behind me! Clearly he had been following me and keeping me in sight! I decided to dig deep, push the pace and pull in the runners ahead of me. That strategy should also take care of the competitor chasing me? I caught the first runner at 25 Km (2:19:28) and started pulling in many more over the next 15 Km. However when I passed 30 Km (2:42:21) I could feel my energy waning and my legs started to tighten? I figured it had to be the heat – I was drinking water like crazy and still hadn’t made a pit stop? When I reached 32 Km I stopped under a street light to check my time – 3:00:00! I would have to finish the final 10Km in 1 hour to break 4 hrs! I dug deep again and tried to push the pace but my legs started to tighten up and I eased off! I caught a young runner at 35Km (3:19:02) and encouraged him to stay with me to the finish line. Surprisingly he responded and ran with me. He was from French Guiana and I immediately seized the opportunity to ask about marathons in that country. He informed me that there are two marathons and gave me the website for his running club. Then he asked/demanded that I be quiet to save energy so he could be sure to pull me across the finish line. Sure- right! I dug deep and pushed the pace in response and by the time I passed 38 Km he had mysteriously disappeared?

When I reached the final water station at 39 Km I stopped to check my time. It was actually 3:43:11 but my old eyes misread it to be 3:45 in the dim light? I would have to run a 5 min/Km pace for the final
3 Km and I didn’t think that was possible. But I wouldn’t know unless I tried so I dug as deep as I could and lowered the hammer. All went well for about 1 Km and then both legs started to tighten and warning signals were going off to indicate that they were both close to cramping! I didn’t want to risk a serious cramp or injury just to break 4 hours so I wisely backed off the pace and continued jogging. When I reached 41 Km near Independence Square I tried to pick up the pace again in response to the cheers from the spectators but again my legs sent warning bells that they were close to cramping and I wisely jogged across the finish line in 4:02:16.

I was escorted directly to the weigh station where I learned that I had lost 1.5 Kg (3.5 lbs) in spite of drinking gallons/liters of water during the race. Fortunately it was within safety limits and I didn’t need any IVs. Since I had no idea what the Age Groups were or if there were any awards I decided to go back to the hotel for a long hot shower. I returned about one hour later and was grabbed by the coach of the Dutch team who explained that I had just missed the awards for my age group and had won 1st place! He accompanied me to the podium and helped me collect the 1st place trophy for Men 55+ and an envelope. I was shocked when I opened it and found $200 (US) cash! Well I had plenty of extra money to buy Suriname beers to celebrate! When I finished a (very) late dinner and beers at 2 am they were still drinking/partying at the outdoor cafes and in the streets?

On Sundays the country and city closes down. There are no tours, no shops open, etc. I tried to relax around the hotel pool with a beer but Maddog could only stand inactivity for about 30 minutes and then we explored another section of the Historic city and took more photos to share with my readers. I enjoyed a seafood dinner at a nice restaurant overlooking the Suriname River - a local fish called ‘bang bang’ – OK but not great! Since I had an early (6am) flight the hotel shuttle left for the airport at 2:30am!

I am back home and catching up on sleep after all those early mornings! I have three weeks to rest and prepare for the final two marathons/adventures before the end of the year. Fortunately the next trip will be a quick/easy direct flight to Puerto Rico. I think I can see a light at the end of the tunnel?

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

TR - Tunisia - Part 2

TRIP REPORT
TUNISIA
10/25 – 11/5/08
Part 2

Now where were we? Oh yes! It was Sat and Race Day in the Sahara Desert!

The races were scheduled to start at 8am so we were bussed out into the desert near Nefta to a location close to a highway where the final 10Km (that we had driven a few days before) began. The weather was nice- sunny and in the high 50s (F) around 8 am – and no siroccos! I expected the marathon to start at 8am but instead they ran a few fun races for the kids. I was concerned about the delay and missing the cool morning temps but it was fun to watch the kids participate with their parents and all the runners cheering them on. The marathon/half/10K finally started at 8:45am.

Although there were water stations every 2.5 Km I wore a water belt for two reasons:
1) For safety (I wanted a supply of water with me at all times)
2) To carry a new, small compact camera I had bought with the intention to take photos along the course (if the race wasn’t competitive)
There were two loops/courses – a 10Km loop and a half-marathon loop. We all ran the same course to the 4.5Km mark where the 10Km runners turned left for the shorter loop. I let the 10Km runners surge ahead and lead the way. Jean Jacques had warned me that the course was difficult and not to expect to finish under 5 hours! From what I had seen of the course I agreed and figured 5 hours was a reasonable goal?

The course had been laid out with Quads that had left a track across the desert that was also marked with blue plastic bags. At first everyone ran in the tracks made by the Quads thinking that they had compacted the sand and made an easier path? I soon learned that it was easier to run off the tracks on the virgin desert. The desert had a thin crust on the surface. The Quads had broken through the crust and the tracks were soft and deep! However if I ran on the hard crust the footing was much better and faster! As we reached the turn-off point at 4.5Km for the 10K runners I thought I might be lonely until four runners passed me and continued on the half-marathon course. There were two females and two male runners and one male looked like he was in my Age Group? They were running just a wee bit faster than me so I decided to drop in behind and follow them. A pattern quickly emerged. I would catch up to them at each water station where everyone would stop to drink water and leave the cup at the station (environmental rules). It would take them about 30 secs to drink their water and take off again and build up another short lead on me. I also stopped at each water station even though I was carrying a full bottle of water – don’t know why? When we reached a water stop at 9.5Km (52:15) we turned into the desert towards the Chott el-Gharsa. The next 5 Kms of the course crossed a series of small sand dunes – called ‘dunettes’. That was tough running! The dunettes were only 1 to 3m high but were continuous – like running a washboard! It was difficult to maintain any kind of rhythm and I soon found myself falling farther behind the group of four in front of me. After a few Km they had increased their lead to about 250m and although I could see 10 Km across the desert I had difficulty finding them in the dunettes. I needed to close the lead and pushed the pace! I passed both females in the next 2 Km and the young male runner as we approached a water station at 14.5Km (1:26:16). Only the ‘old fart’ remained ahead of me and when he saw me closing the lead he pushed his pace and increased his lead again. At that point the course left the dunettes and ran across the Chott el-Gharsa. On this section of the course it was easier and faster to stay in the Quad tracks since they had compacted the soft lake surface. We reached the next water stop at 17 Km (1:36:47) where the course left the Chott and started into a series of huge BASDs (Bad Ass Sand Dunes)! They were the same ones we had surfed a few days before and ranged from 10 to 20m in height! I wasn’t sure how to run/tackle those BASDs? I tried to run in the Quad tracks like the old fart ahead of me. Disaster! I quickly sank up to my knees in sand! I moved out of the tracks and looked for an unused (virgin) route up the BASDs. I learned that if I stayed on the crust and landed ‘softly’ and moved my feet quickly they would barely sink into the sand and I was able to climb those BASDs quickly and easily! Descending was trickier because gravity and momentum caused the foot plant to be heavier and it was necessary to turn my feet over faster to prevent them from sinking into the sand once I broke through the crust. Using this desert strategy I caught up to the old fart at the top of the final BASD! He responded by taking off like a scared rabbit?

He had a slight advantage – he knew I was running the marathon but I wasn’t sure if he was and I didn’t want to waste energy trying to pass a half-marathon runner. I decided to follow him to the (Half) finish line (21Km) and if he was running the marathon I would need a better strategy than just chasing him? I decided in the 2nd half I would start using my water bottle and skip the water stations which would save me several minutes. I followed the old fart into the water station at the half finish line in 2:03:03! Damn – that was a lot faster than I thought possible for that course! And I finally got a look at his Bib #2 – that meant he was running the marathon! I skipped the water station and continued through the finish line to begin the 10Km loop. I wasn’t surprised when he charged by me around 22 Km. This SOB was not going to give up! I decided to run a smooth easy pace, drink water from my bottle every 15 minutes and follow this worthy competitor through the first section of the 10Km loop. It was easier to follow him than trying to follow the Quad tracks and spot the blue course markers. Once we returned to the Chott and the BASDs I could take the lead. When he reached the first water station on the 10Km loop he made his first mistake – he skipped the water stop because I was too close? Hydration would be important by the end of the race! When we reached the next water station at 25.5 Km (2:31:40) he was forced to stop for water and I passed him. This was the point where the 10Km loop turned into the desert and started into the dunettes for the second time. I was happy when he came charging by me again to take the lead through the dunettes because it was easier to follow him than to follow the course. When we left the dunettes and started across the Chott for the second time he made his second mistake. He ran a tangent or short-cut across the Chott! Initially I followed him but quickly realized the surface was too soft and required a lot of energy/effort to run and moved back to the Quad tracks. I ran farther but expended less energy. When we left the Chott and started up the BASDS for the final time he had increased his lead to 250m but I used my proven desert strategy and looked for virgin routes up and down the BASDs. I caught him again at the top of the final BASD. I expected him to take off again but this time he ran with me for the next 1 Km back to start/32Km point?

I was going to ask him what age group he was in so we could determine if it would be necessary to kill each other over the final 10Km but then I thought to myself “No I don’t want to know. He has pushed me through this course faster than I thought possible and he is hurting me – but he isn’t killing me! If I find out we are in different age groups I will probably slow down!” I decided it was better if I believed he was in my age group and I had to beat his ass! We reached the water stop at 32Km in 3:11:11. We both stopped for water but he gained a logistical advantage when there were no bottles of water readily available to refill my water bottle. By the time I refilled my bottle and looked up he had established a lead of 250m! He had thrown the gauntlet down! It was clear that he was not going to quit and it was going to be an ugly/painful pissing match for the final 10Km!

I was not concerned for two reasons:
1) We had driven the final 10Km a few days before and I knew it was a 4X4 track used by all the tour groups to drive back into Nefta. It was firm and compact and that section of the course would be more like a road race – my preference and strength!
2) The final 10Km would come down to guts and willingness to accept pain! I had all the confidence in the world in Maddog’s willpower and ability to accept pain.

Let the pissing match begin!

I lowered the hammer and began the chase. My heart monitor started beeping wildly to warn me that it had exceeded 90% Max. I ignored it and continued to push the pace. But each time I would close the lead to 100m that SOB would respond and push harder! He had earned my respect but Maddog was pissed and even more motivated to bury his ass! We dug deeper and pushed harder and ignored the frantic beeps of my heart monitor (now at 95% Max) and were rewarded when we noticed that the old fart started to fade around 34Km! At 34.5Km he made his final – and fatal - mistake! He skipped the water station! It was now Noon and the sun was getting hot - hydration would be critical over the final 7Km. Sure enough he soon faded - the lead closed and I passed him around 36Km. I was sure that he would try to respond and stay with me so I accelerated when I blew by him to discourage any response. I never let up or looked back for fear he would consider it a weakness!
When I passed the water station at 36.6Km (3:42:34) I hoped that he would be wise and desperate enough to stop for water? I continued to push the pace and did not look back until Jean Jacques came by in a Quad. I stopped to refill my water bottle and stole a glance back. I had a lead of 250m but the old fart was still coming after me. Jean J informed me that I had about 3 Km to the finish line and I was in fifth place. I now had a full water bottle and a good lead for the final push. When I reached the Palmeraie and made a left turn at 40Km I stole another glance over my shoulder – my lead had increased to 500m. I knew I had him! I looked at my watch – just over 4 hours. Damn - if I could hold a fast pace I could finish under 4:15?

The final 2Km through the Palmeraie were on a firm service road shaded by palm trees so I allowed myself to slow just a wee bit to ease the pain level and quiet my heart monitor! When I reached the end of the Palmeraie and started up a short steep hill into Nefta I could see a course marker indicating a sharp left turn and it read “Arrivee a 100 m”. I glanced at my watch – 4:12. I decided to sprint up the hill and the final 100m. All was going well until I reached the top of the hill and changed my momentum to make the hard turn. My right hamstring cramped and locked up! I tried to ignore it and limp across the finish line but the cramp/pain was so severe I was forced to stop 50m before the finish line to stretch and massage the leg for one minute to ease the pain enough to limp/drag the leg across the finish line at the Hotel Caravanserail in 4:13:27!

Needless to say I was happy – ecstatic – with my race. That was one of my best and most satisfying race performances in a long time! I had finished 5th Overall and my time of 4:13 qualified for Boston. In fact I was the only runner in the marathon (including the Tunisian who won in 3:37) that finished that tough desert course with a BQ time!

I walked/limped around the finish area to wait for my friend/competitor to finish in 4:18. I finally asked him his age? SHIT – only 52! But I didn’t care and I thanked him for pushing me to a fast finish. I am not sure he shared my appreciation? We both waited for the winning female to finish in 4:37 before we enjoyed a log hot shower and a nice BBQ lunch at the hotel – washed down with a few COLD Tunisian beers of course! After lunch all runners were bussed back to our hotel in Tozeur to rest and prepare for the awards ceremony and post-race party on Sat evening.

Sat evening started with an awards ceremony that was well organized and began with awards presented to the kids for the fun run. Since I did not finish in the top three I had to be satisfied with an award for winning my AG. It was a lovely ceramic plate hand-made by a local artisan. I like those kinds of awards. Following the ceremony we enjoyed a great post-race dinner and party with champagne/beer/wine and dancing. It was my farewell dinner with my new friends.

On Sun morning we were bussed back out to the Jebel en-Nebeg Range near Degache for a short hike into a canyon. The tour staff had driven 4X4s into the canyon and set up a stereo/PA system so we could listen to classical music in the canyon (with amazing acoustics) while sipping champagne for a final toast to friends and a great week! I had to pack and leave for the airport after the hike since I was flying back to Tunis. I had decided that if I was going all the way to Tunisia I might as well visit Tunis for a few days?
The main tour group left Mon so I figured I would be alone on the flight to Tunis but the winner of the marathon – a doctor from Tunis was also on my flight so we enjoyed a long discussion about the race and marathons. I now have a good contact in Tunisia for future info on Tunisia and N. Africa.

I arrived at my hotel in Ville Nouvelle in time for a late dinner. I ate nothing but seafood for the 3 days I was in Tunis – a whole grilled fish with a bottle of wine cost less than $20 – and I was sick of buffet food! Tunis is the capital of Tunisia with a population of 2 Million. What a difference from Tozeur. The traffic and streets were so busy there was no way I could run. I decided my legs deserved a few days to rest!

Tunis dates back to the 8th Century BC when the Phoenicians founded the city of Carthage on Byrsa Hill. At the end of the 3rd Punic War in 146 BC the Romans destroyed Carthage and built the 3rd largest Roman city outside of Italy on top of the ruins. In the 4th and 5th centuries Carthage was ruled by the Vandals (Vikings) and the Byzantines before being captured by the Arabs in 695 AD. The Arabs destroyed the Roman city and used the building materials to build a new city in Tunis in an area called the Medina. In the 19th Century the colonizing French built Ville Nouvelle (new town). Medina is now a listed Unesco World heritage site.

On Mon I walked through the Port de France into the Medina and followed the advice of my guide book and wandered aimlessly among the Souks (markets) and back alleys of the old city. I visited the Zaytouna (Great) Mosque, the Place de la Kasbah and other tourist sites during my walking tour. I was not worried about getting lost because I could always ask for directions to the Mosque or the Port de France! After many hours of wandering and getting lost I finally had enough harassment by the souvenir hawkers and scam artists and decided to retreat back to Ville Nouvelle to visit the few tourist sites in that section of the city. Ave Habib Bourguiba – the main boulevard- is lined with shops, bars and cafes. Most of the bars and cafes have outdoor patios on the Ave. It seemed strange to watch the locals sipping coffee and water at the outdoor patios. A strange Islamic law forbade alcohol outside. It was permissible to drink a beer inside the cafĂ© but everyone smoked and the bars were not pleasant to sit in!

I was supposed to meet up with a German friend (travel agent) who was escorting some clients to the Sahara Desert but somehow we mixed up our dates and never did connect? However he had kindly arranged for a private English-speaking guide to tour me around the sites outside of Tunis on Tue. The guide picked me up at 9am and we drove directly to Byrsa Hill in Carthage. We visited the Antonine Baths, the La Marsa Cisterns and the Musee de Carthage. The Roman ruins were a disappointment (for reasons given above) especially when I have seen very well preserved Roman ruins in other parts of Africa and the Middle East! The modern suburbs of Carthage built around the ruins are now an exclusive residential area for ambassadors and the wealthy of Tunisia. The location and views are spectacular - just like they have been for thousands of years!

From Carthage we drove to Sidi Bou Said, another suburb located on the coast. All the buildings are painted white and blue (by law) and it is very picturesque with stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea and Carthage! Because of the setting it is home to many artists and poets.

We concluded the tour with a visit to the Bardo Museum. It is housed in one of Tunisia’s finest palaces – the former residence of the Husseinite beys - built in the 12th century and refurbished in the 17th century. The palace is magnificent itself with Moorish tiles on the walls and artwork and sculptured ceilings and it contains the largest collection of Roman and Byzantine mosaics in the world! I am not much of a museum person but I was awed by all the magnificent mosaics – many looked like the day they had been made. There were also exhibits of Phoenician and Roman antiquities. And the oldest exhibit I had ever seen – a religious monument that was supposedly 40,000 years old!

After a hard and exciting day of tours I returned to the bars/cafes of Ave Habib Bourguiba to relax and enjoy a few COLD Tunisian beers- and a delicious seafood dinner! It was time to go home!

I am back home with only a few weeks to train for the next marathon/adventure in South America!

Stay tuned!

Monday, November 10, 2008

TR - Tunisia Part 1

TRIP REPORT
TUNISIA
10/25 – 11/5/08
Part 1

Race Results
Defis Du Chott
Nefta (Sahara Desert), Tunisia
Sat, Nov 1/08
Marathon #310 – Country #95
4:13:27 - 5 OA – 1 AG

Country # 95 – FIVE down – FIVE to go!

Although this trip and marathon turned out very well, planning and booking the trip was one of the worst nightmares I ever experienced in all my travels! When I was planning my final schedule to break the world record I needed a marathon in late Oct/early Nov and there were only two options available – Tunisia and Kenya. Kenya never responded to my emails so Tunisia became the only option. I located a tour agency in Paris that was organizing a tour and marathon in the Sahara Desert. I contacted them and quickly negotiated a package to join a French tour/running group in Tunisia. And then the nightmare began! The tour operator insisted on payment before making any arrangements (reasonable) but demanded payment in cash! Attempts to wire the funds and send a bank draft both failed (and cost me more than $100 in service fees) – and the agency’s (arrogant and uncaring) attitude was “not my problem – no money – no trip!” I desperately searched for an alternative trip/marathon rather than risk losing more money trying to send money to the uncaring and unprofessional agency and fortunately I found another tour agency in Paris offering a similar marathon package in the Sahara Desert at the same time? I contacted that agency and they worked hard to develop a tour package around the flights I had already booked to Tunisia and accepted payment via credit card. The staff of Hypervacances were professional and a pleasure to work with. The reason I tell this story is to warn all my readers to avoid an agency called ‘Association Carthago’ and the owner Azdine Ben Yacoub unless you want to risk losing your money and suffer a similar nightmare in service!

After I solved my nightmare I was able to relax and go on to planning other marathons/countries until it came close to trip time and I had to train for a marathon in the desert. Fortunately I had run a previous marathon in the Sahara Desert (see Archives March 01 - Algeria) and knew what to expect. Thus when I returned from the marathon in Nicaragua in early Oct I trained for two weeks on the beaches on Longboat Key to get my legs and ankles accustomed to running in the soft/uneven sand. I also confirmed quickly that my trail shoes offered the best support for running on sand. I was ready!

My modified tour package had me arriving in Tozeur in Southern Tunisia one day before the main group arrived from France. Philippe, the tour operator, picked me up at the airport. He spoke very limited English so we communicated in French! He informed me that one of his staff spoke good English and would arrive on Mon evening with the main group. Since Mon was a ‘free’ day for me I woke early and enjoyed an easy 10-mile running tour of Tozeur and the Palmeraie. Tozeur (35,000) like all towns in Southern Tunisia is located on an oasis and has the 2nd largest Palmeraie in the country with 250,000 date palms. The dates were being harvested while we were there. By the end of the run I was familiar with the layout of the town and the main roads through the Palmeraie and later that day explored more of the town on foot. By the time the main group arrived I was ready to move out of our 3-star hotel – the TV and A/C didn’t work? When I complained the manager explained that the wind had damaged the Satellite system (and he wasn’t optimistic or concerned that it would be fixed soon?) and they had turned the A/C off for the winter? The TV I was willing to live without because it meant I would get no political/election BS from the USA for one week but the A/C was a bigger issue. It was still hot during the day and the rooms had no windows to open to let cool air in at night! I was hoping that the main group would also be upset but neither of these problems got fixed during our week-long stay?

When the main group arrived Mon evening I was relieved to meet Jean Marie who did speak good English so I could learn more details about the itinerary. On Tue we would visit the desert in 4X4s and he asked me to join him in his 4X4. For the first few days I stuck close to Jean M because few members of the tour group seemed to speak English? My French is OK for basic conversation but not good enough to understand lots of details! On Tue morning our 4X4 caravan headed out into the Chott (Salt Lake) el-Gharsa. There are two large Salt Lakes – Chott el-Gharsa and Chott el-Jerid near Tozeur covering
5,000 sq KM. The caravan stopped along Chott el-Gharsa so that we could ride Quads (ATVs) on the salt beds. The next stop was Ong Jemal (Neck of the Camel) – a rock formation that looks like a camel that overlooks Chott el-Gharsa and lots of sand dunes. Close to Ong Jemal is Mos Espa – a very well preserved Star Wars film set. After enjoying Star Wars we headed into some massive sand dunes to surf the dunes in our 4X4s. That was a lot of fun but some of the 4X4s were driven by race staff whom were not experienced in the desert and we spent a lot of time digging and pulling 4X4s out of sand dunes! There is a technique to surfing sand dunes that I learned from Bedouin drivers in the UAE a few years ago and the French drivers did not know it!

After enjoying lunch at a Bedouin camp we participated in camel races. That was lots of fun and served as a good way for the group to meet and bond. A few people even started talking to the ‘ugly’ American – in French and English! Jean M informed me that some of the dunes we had been surfing were on the marathon course and on the way back to the hotel we drove the final 10Km of the marathon course into Nefta – another Oasis town. During happy hour I met a few couples/families from the French Riviera (Nice and Cannes) who invited me to join them for dinner. We became good friends during the week and invited each other to visit our homes.

On Wed we loaded into the 4X4s again for another trip into the Sahara Desert - only this time Philippe changed all the groups to force people to meet others in the group. We drove along a causeway that separates the Chott el-Jerid and provides a spectacular view of the Chott and salt piles that look like snowfields. We stopped at the small oasis village of Bechri where winds had sculpted the sand into rugged and magnificent natural shapes and sculptures. Then we continued south through Kebili into the Southern Sahara to Es-Saiba where we encountered a sirocco – a sandstorm! The Bedouin call it “la neige de sable” – “the snow of sand”! I sucked in enough sand to coat my lungs with a permanent sand filter and will not have to worry about digestion for awhile! I prayed that the weather was better on race day! We quickly left Saiba to drive to Douz – the gateway to the Southern Sahara and the Grand Erg Oriental – the largest sand sea in the Sahara. Douz has the largest Palmeraie in the country with 500,000 palm trees. We ate lunch in Douz but the sirocco was also blowing there and we ingested lots of sand along with our food! After returning to the hotel it took me 30 minutes to wash sand out of every orifice in my body!

Thu was a ‘free’ day for the group so I decided to make one final easy 7-mile training run through the Palmeraie before spending the rest of the day walking around Tozeur to take photos to share with my readers. Tozeur is famous for its amazing traditional brickwork that is unique to that area of Tunisia. I spent a few hours touring and taking photos in Ouled-el-Hadef (the old quarter) where the brickwork and doors are spectacular! (See photos). Since most meals were included in the tour package I figured lunch on my free day was the best opportunity to enjoy a Camel steak. It was delicious – better than any buffet meal I ate at the hotel! After lunch I finished my walk/tour with a visit to the Belvedere Rocks – an outcrop of rocks with the head of Abdulkacem Chebbi (a famous Tunisian poet) carved into one end. Steps carved into the rocks provide a spectacular view of sunsets over the Palmeraie and the Tozeur golf course.

On Thu evening the rest of the tour group arrived – mainly hard-core runners who signed up just for the races! I was eager to find out how many more runners had arrived and how many were running the marathon. Most of the guests in the initial tour group were not runners and had joined the tour to play in the desert. I had not met one person running the marathon? When I picked up my race bib (#95!) Jean M informed me that there were a total of 115 runners – 12 in the marathon- 30 in the Half and 70+ runners in the 10Km.

Fri was another group activity – a hike into the Jebel en-Nebeg Mountain Range near the Algerian border. It sounded interesting so I decided to participate even though it was the day before the race.
We arrived in Chebika at the foot of the mountains at 10 am – it was cold and raining? We started off in a canyon below the ruins of old Chebika and past a spring-fed stream and brilliant blue pools. Then we started to climb into the mountains. After crossing two ranges I started to wonder if I had made a wise decision? The views were awesome but it was not an easy hike – and much longer than I expected?
Finally (3 hours later) we could see our destination in a canyon in the distance – Tamerza – and started our descent into a magnificent canyon. It reminded me a lot of the SIQ in Petra, Jordan. At the end of the canyon we emerged into the oasis at Tamerza with the green Palmeraie and a waterfall – a very contrasting and spectacular view! We enjoyed lunch in Tamerza while being entertained by some locals jamming with drums and flutes. A fun time – only hope it didn’t mess up my legs too badly?

There was a pre-race meeting on Fri evening (in French) followed by a pasta dinner. I got together with Jean Jacques whom laid out the marathon course to clarify some specific details that I needed to prepare for the race. I was ready!

Sat was Race day! However I will leave the exciting details of the race for Part 2 and let you rest up for the excitement!

Stay tuned!

A quick side note. During my stay in Tozeur I noticed many signs advertising the ‘other’ marathon. The Tozeur Trail Marathon was also being run on Sat and it started at the Ong Jemal – close to where the Defis Du Chott started? Yes – there were two marathons being run on the same day by different organizers! The ‘other’ race was of course the event that I tried unsuccessfully to register for. The Defis du Chott has been held for 15 consecutive years – the ‘other’ race is only three years old and the race operator is trying to put the older/established race out of business. Good luck with his arrogant attitude!

Monday, October 13, 2008

TR Nicaragua - Part 2

TRIP REPORT
NICARAGUA
10/02 – 10/10/08
Part 2

Now where did we leave off? Oh yes – I was getting ready to leave Matagalpa and drive to Southwestern Nicaragua. I knew the way back to Managua but was concerned about driving through the capital city of 1.5 Million people with no street signs and no road/directional signs.

When I arrived back to the NE suburbs of Managua the fun began – no signs and no directions. I managed to find my way downtown and then had to stop twice for directions. It surprised me that nobody spoke English including the bell hop at the Hilton hotel but they did give me directions (in Spanish) to the main road leading south out of the city to Granada and I arrived in Granada in time for lunch. I parked the car near the main city park, Parque Colon, and walked. Since Granada and the Pacific Coast are the main tourist areas of Nicaragua I was expecting to find a better tourist infrastructure and people who spoke English? I was disappointed! There was neither. The only person in Granada who spoke English was the desk clerk at the hotel – a small, luxury boutique hotel for $45/night a few blocks from Parque Colon. Granada didn’t seem to have the same charm and atmosphere that I remembered from 20 years ago when we toured the city in a horse carriage? Nevertheless I toured the city on foot and took some photos for my readers. And I did find one craft/souvenir shop where I was able to buy some postcards. After a hot and humid afternoon of walking I was ready for a cool beer and a good dinner. I found a very nice restaurant that served a local freshwater bass from Lake Nicaragua. It was delicious and cost $20 including a bottle of wine!

The next morning I ran down Calle La Calzeda to the Centro Turistico along Lake Nicaragua for a pleasant 10Km run without any traffic. After breakfast I headed off to the Pacific Coast. I initially got lost trying to leave the city but soon found the Pan American Hwy heading to Costa Rica. As I drove through Rivas – the gateway to the South – I considered a detour to the ferry terminal at San Jorge to take a ferry over to Isla de Ometepe – the largest island in the world in a freshwater lake (Nicaragua). Its name is derived from the Nahuati words ‘ome’ meaning one and ‘tepeti’ meaning hill or mountain – the place of two mountains. There are two volcanoes – Volcan Cocepcion (1610m), still active and Volcan Maderas (1395m) that can be hiked but the weather was overcast/rain and I couldn’t see either volcano so I drove on to San Juan del Sur on the Pacific Coast.

San Juan del Sur is a small seaside village located on San Juan Bay with the San Juan River flowing through the town. There are several luxury condos and communities built around/near San Juan for gringos! San Juan Bay has several small but excellent seafood restaurants located right on the beach. I liked the town immediately and booked a beautiful luxury hotel overlooking the Bay. I decided to stay for 2 nights and use San Juan as a base. If I wanted to visit Isla de Ometepe I could do it from there.
It didn’t take long to explore the entire town on foot and discover much to my surprise that nobody spoke English? There were a few craft/souvenir shops and I managed to buy most of the things I needed - and then I was bored already! I checked out the restaurants along the Bay and later enjoyed a delicious sea bass and a bottle of wine for less than $20!
The next morning I decided to run an easy 10Km. However the road along the Bay was only 1Km and after running every street in town I still hadn’t run 3Km? I was forced to run on the only road leading into/out of town. The locals (Nicas) looked at me like I was crazy? I noticed during my run that there was a huge discrepancy between the typical Nica hacienda and the typical Gringo hacienda? (See photos). I have to believe there is a huge problem with security/crime?

After my run and breakfast I was bored again? I didn’t want to drive anywhere because I wasn’t all that comfortable driving in Nicaragua so I forced myself to rest and relax on the beach (tough work for a Maddog) until it was ‘Miller’ time. Then I visited the restaurants for another great seafood dinner and wine. On my last morning I skipped the roads in town for running and just headed straight out the hwy for 5Km and returned to the funny looks of the Nicas?

Then it was time to drive back towards Managua. As I drove towards Rivas I luckily got a glimpse of the volcanoes on Isla de Ometepe and stopped for some photos.I figured it might be easier to stay in Masaya – the “Cradle of Nicaraguan Culture’ that is the regional capital of the Meseta Central and home to the national ‘artesania (handicraft) market - rather than trying to stay in Managua. I arrived in Masaya in time for lunch and parked near the artesania market. As I was shopping for the few final souvenirs I needed I lucked in and met a retired expat from Florida who was living in Masaya (the only person I met who spoke English?). We had a long conversation. He gave me directions to the ‘best’ hotel in town and told me that I was either very brave –or foolish – to drive in Nicaragua. He sold his car one year after moving there because it was too dangerous to drive! However he did inform me that it was possible to use back roads to bypass Managua and get directly to the airport. He gave me excellent directions. Since there were no street signs directions were based on landmarks i.e. turn right at ABC restaurant and continue to XYZ factory and turn left, etc.

I parked the car at the ‘best’ hotel – at least was clean, had A/C and TV and most importantly 24 hr security - and spent the afternoon doing a walking tour of the city. It is not a pretty city! There are few hotels and few restaurants! But there was a special festival being held that evening at the artesania market and I enjoyed watching traditional dancers from Panama and Nicaragua performing. The hotel had warned me not to walk around after 9pm but it was only 3 blocks back to the hotel so I risked it and walked fast. I had no problems! When I arrived back at the hotel the staff advised me to move the car into the hotel lot –“it was not safe on the streets”. I let the staff move it and I wisely never left the hotel again until I was ready to drive to the airport!

My expat friend had provided excellent directions and I drove directly to the airport using back roads and bypassing Managua without getting lost! I was happy to turn the car back in and ready to go home!

So to summarize some comments:

Q50 Ultra
The race was very well organized. The race director and staff were friendly and supportive and gladly accommodated my request to add a marathon to the race. The course was well marked and the race was well supported.

Nicaragua
I am not in any rush to go back! The Nicas are friendly but there is lots of poverty and filth throughout the country. Real estate, hotels, meals, etc. are cheap but there is no tourist or even normal infrastructure. You need to be adventurous and flexible to visit or live there. Do not drive!


I am happy to be back home although the heat and humidity in FL right now are as bad as Nicaragua.
I have to start preparing for my next race where the geographical and environmental conditions will be completely opposite to this trip - my next marathon/adventure in three weeks is in the Sahara Desert!


Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

TR Nicaragua - Part 1

TRIP REPORT
NICARAGUA
10/2 – 10/10/08
Part 1

Race Results
Q50 Finca Las Nubes Ultra & Trail Marathon
Matagalpa, Nicaragua
Sun, Oct 5/08
Marathon #309 – Country #94
4:52:34

Country #94 – FOUR down - SIX to go!

A few readers have already asked me where Nicaragua is so first a geography lesson: Nicaragua is located in Central America. It stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea and is bordered on the South by Costa Rica and the North by Honduras. With only 5.5 Million people it is the least densely populated country in Central America. When one mentions Nicaragua many people immediately conjure up visions and memories of the civil war in the 1970/80s between the Sandinistas and the Contras and believe it is still unsafe. The war ended in 1987 and the country has been at peace since and has one of the lowest crimes rates in Central America. The people (called Nicas) are very friendly and Nicaragua is being marketed as the next ‘undiscovered’ tourist and retirement haven. I will comment and summarize on that claim for those that may be interested.

Many parts of Nicaragua have been set aside as Nature Preserves and indeed are beautiful. However there is a lot of poverty and filth all over the country – there is no tourist infrastructure and very little/poor normal infrastructure. It is dangerous to drive in Nicaragua because of poor roads and there may be animals (cows/horses/dogs) lying in the roads! There are always pedestrians and bikes on the roads and cars/trucks stop in the middle of the roads/hwys to let people off or if they break down! There are no street signs in the cities/towns and very few road/directional signs on the roads/hwys!
Very few people speak English. Yes! Real estate and cost of living is low and much cheaper than neighboring Costa Rica (that has been discovered) but my advice is that only people that are adventurous and adaptable should consider visiting or retiring there!

Now on to the marathon story.

I had been looking for a marathon in Nicaragua for the past few years. In 2007 a friend from Panama informed me of an Ultra marathon in Nicaragua. I contacted the race director and learned that the race was being held on the same date as a marathon I had scheduled for Ecuador so I put it on my schedule for 2008. When I contacted Cesar, the race director this year he informed me that the race was a 50M/80K Ultra and a two-person relay of 40K each. He gladly agreed to accommodate my request to add a marathon distance to the race. I told him that I would be willing to also run the 1st leg of the relay for any runner looking for a relay mate? He hooked me up with a friend of his in San Antonio, TX and we agreed to run the relay race in addition to my running a marathon!

I had visited Nicaragua about 20 years ago with my family on a one-day excursion to Granada from Costa Rica but this time I wanted to explore more of the country so I booked a one-week trip. I felt brave and booked a rental car for the week so I could do a self-drive tour? After the race I would just drive (fly) by the seat of my pants – little did I realize how true that would be? After some last minute details from Cesar I was ready. Unfortunately my relay partner (and roommate) had to cancel at the last minute due to work problems.

I had planned to meet up with my roommate in Managua a few days before the race and drive the 130Km to Matagalpa the next day because we were warned by Ale (a member of the race staff who provided invaluable assistance) NOT to drive at night! So the following morning (Fri) I set off on my own to drive to Matagalpa in the Northern Highlands. Luckily I had purchased a detailed road map of Nicaragua at the Information desk at the airport because I quicklylearned that there were no street signs in the city and no road or directional signs on the highways? I literally had to use the map, a good sense of direction and ‘the seat of my pants’ to drive/find my way to Matagalpa! There were also a few good guesses involved when I reached junctions and roundabouts but miraculously I reached Sabaco – and the 1st directional sign to Matagalpa – 100Km later? When I reached Matagalpa I parked the car near the Central Park (Parque Morazan) and explored the city on foot and hoped to find a tourist office? I soon realized there was no tourist infrastructure in Matagalpa – no information center – and only one souvenir shop in a city of 105,000 – I couldn’t even find a postcard? Matagalpa is the main city in the coffee region located in the Northern Highlands of Nicaragua. The city is surrounded by mountains. I quickly discovered that nobody spoke English as I asked for directions to the hotel and an Italian restaurant mentioned in my guide book. I soon became quite proficient at asking and understanding directions in Spanish and I found both. The host hotel was the best hotel in town – located in the mountains about 200m above the city with great views. A luxury hotel that cost $35/night! As I was checking in I met Cesar and a few other runners.

Cesar informed me that there were about 100 runners from 6 different countries. – about 20 in the Ultra and 20 in the Relay - Maddog was the only person running the marathon and the rest were running an 11Km Fun run. I was hoping to meet runners from Honduras and El Salvador to get info on marathons there but there were none. However I did meet two runners from Colombia who informed me about a marathon in Colombia in Nov. I have been trying for years to find a marathon in Colombia?
There was a mandatory race meeting scheduled for Sat afternoon and until then we were on our own. On Sat morning I decided to drive to Jinotega - a former Sandinista stronghold located in the Cordillera Dariense – a mountain range in the Northern Highlands. Jinotega, known as ‘the City of Mists’ is located in high-altitude forests that hid the Sandinistas during the civil war. The drive over the Cordillera Dariense was scenic and exciting – potholes big enough to swallow a car – cows on the roads – and a large transport truck broken down in the middle of a curve? However the city was a big disappointment. I don’t think it has seen a new building or a coat of paint since the start of the civil war??? I stayed only long enough for a brief walk to take some photos to share with my readers.

On the drive back to Matagalpa I stopped at Selva Negro – a coffee finca founded by German immigrants in the 1880s and still managed by their descendants. I visited the museum and enjoyed a nice lunch. Later that day I attended the race meeting to pick up my race package (including Bib # 94) and listen to the final race instructions. The entire meeting was conducted in Spanish since there were only a few runners that did not speak Spanish. I was able to gleam most of the important information from the discussion and Ale helped translate details about the race and course! The course consisted of two different loops of 40Km starting and finishing at the same point on a coffee finca. About 10Km of the 1st loop were paved roads and the rest were dirt roads and trails through coffee fincas (farms). There would be some minor stream crossings and a crossing of a major stream in the 1st loop. The race director was concerned about the major stream because it had been raining steadily in Nicaragua for the past few weeks! If it was too dangerous the loop would be shortened? I was glad I had brought my trail shoes as advised! There were water stations located every 10Km so it was necessary to carry water during the race!

Sun morning was “M’ –day! We had to leave the hotel at 4:45am to drive to Finca Santa Emilia located in the Cordillera Dariense. I wasn’t sure how we would get there – I wanted to drive my own car but didn’t know the directions? It worked out OK since another Yank, Kevin, from LA volunteered to drive and we followed a convoy of runners to the finca. It was very hot and humid for the 6am start and it was overcast which was good! I followed the two Colombia runners who were running the Ultra. They hoped to finish under 9 hrs so if I stayed with them I might finish the marathon in 4 ½ hrs? I quickly realized that the course didn’t seem to match the elevation profile that had been posted on the website? It dropped for the 1st Km out of the finca but then started to climb on dirt trails or roads used to service the coffee plants. It started to drizzle about 30 minutes into the race. That meant 100% humidity but at least it kept the temps cooler! Since my water bottle held ½ L I decided to drink half (¼ L) every 20 minutes and refill my bottle at every stop. We reached the 1st water station at 10Km in 1:03:29. Shortly after the water stop we left the finca and turned on to a paved road. The ‘Fun runners’ left us at that point to return to the finish line. Now that I was on my favorite surface – pavement- I surged by the Colombians. The paved road dropped steeply for a few Km and then climbed steeply for about 3 Km before we turned and looped back to the 16Km mark where we left the paved road and started climbing a very steep dirt trail. The Colombians re-passed me on that steep BAH (Bad Ass Hill) and soon I was forced to power walk – my legs just couldn’t churn up that BAH. Somehow I managed to stay close to them until we reached the 2nd water stop at 20Km (2:10:58). But after I filled my water bottle I couldn’t stay with them because the trail continued to climb steeply and relentlessly for 3 Km and they soon left me behind. From that point on I ran the rest of the race by myself except when I met runners coming in the opposite direction! Fortunately the course was well marked and I never had any problems finding my way. There were a few minor stream crossings where I foolishly tried to keep my feet dry? Around 23 Km I reached the major stream crossing. The race director had strung a rope across the river and established a safety rule that runners had to hold the rope while crossing the river. The water was only knee deep but fast and I gladly obeyed the race rule because I did not want to leave my body floating down some river in Nicaragua!

After the river crossing I soon met a bunch of runners – including the Colombians - on the return that gave me hope that I was close to the end of the relentless climb and torture? Finally I reached the turn-around and hauled ass back down that BAH including the river crossing in the hope I might be able to catch some of the runners ahead of me? I arrived back at the water stop – 20/30Km – at 3:25:17. I quickly filled my water bottle and took off again to take advantage of another 3 Km of descent back to the paved road. Around 32Km I came across a local runner collapsed on the trail? I stopped to check if he was OK? He was not! He was disoriented and puking! I figured he was suffering from severe dehydration and gave him some water. Luckily Cesar came by a few minutes later and I handed the runner over to his care. They took him back to the finish line and medical tent for IVs. I continued a fast pace until I reached the paved road around 35Km. As I turned on to the road the sun broke through the clouds and the heat index soared – along with my heart rate! I tried to run the steep ascent up the road/BAH but my legs refused to move? My body started to shut down! I recognized the symptoms and realized that I was also suffering from dehydration. The ¼ L of water every 20 minutes had not been enough – I was losing twice that amount!

I knew I was in trouble and had no choice but to change my priority from time to “finishing ALIVE” and going on to the next marathon/country! I would walk the final 5Km if necessary. Thankfully there was lots of support along the course - especially on that final section of paved road. Support vehicles passed by very often so I flagged down one and asked for water. I filled my water bottle since I had given most of it to the collapsed runner and also got two bottles of water – one in me and one on me to cool my old bod down! I tried to run again but my old bod refused so I walked most of the next 1 Km. Then I flagged down another support vehicle and repeated the process – 1 bottle of water in me and 1 on me! By then I started to feel a wee bit better and tried running again but all I could manage was a cycle of ‘1 min run - 1 min walk’ because the course was still climbing a steep BAH! After another 1 Km Cesar stopped and gave me more water and some good news. I had only 1 Km more to the relay point/finish line at 40Km! That news got the juices flowing and I managed to start running again (term used loosely) and soon I turned off that miserable/torturous/relentless BAH into the finca. My brain and cognitive capabilities also started to work again and I recognized that I had turned into the entrance of the finca so I knew the route back to the relay point. Unfortunately it was up a short/Steep BAH and Maddog was not willing to let anyone see him walking across the relay point so we ‘ran’ up that BAH and across the relay point (40Km) in 4:37:55.

I stopped for more water and to listen to Ale explain the logistics they had prepared for me to complete a marathon. I was to continue through the relay point and run the first 1.1Km of the 2nd (40Km) loop. There would be a boy scout at that point to tell me to turn around and return to the finish line. As an added safety precaution a local runner who had completed the ‘fun run’ had volunteered to accompany me on the final 2.2 Km loop! As we started off I immediately recognized that this was a “Bad News –Good News” situation. The Bad News was that the first 1.1Km of that 2nd loop was all uphill! Since I had a ‘buddy’ running the loop with me and a support vehicle in front taking photos Maddog insisted on ‘running’ that BAH! Fortunately with the brief rest and more water I was feeling much better and was able to suck it up and run most of that 1.1 Km (needed a few short walks/rests). But I was soooooooooooo happy to finally see that boy scout and the turn-around point! And the Good news was actually DOUBLE Good News: the first part was that the BAH continued to climb relentlessly – I couldn’t see the top – and I didn’t care because I didn’t have to run that 2nd loop! In fact if I had tried to run that 2nd loop my old bod would be buried somewhere on that finca! It was confirmation of my very wise past and present decision to “never, NEVER run an Ultra”! The 2nd part of the Good News was that the final 1.1Km of the marathon was all DOWNHILL!

Maddog could smell the finish line and decided that we should run a ‘fast’ pace to cross the finish line in 4:52:34. After lots of congratulations and a few photos Ale commented “You look good for just having finished a tough marathon”. I replied “Well I certainly have you and other people fooled – because I feel like SHIT”! It took about 10 minutes and copious amounts of water in and on the old bod before I felt like I might live. As I was walking around to help my old bod recover Kevin appeared to inform me that he had to drop out at 30Km because of the humidity and dehydration. I was sorry that he couldn’t finish but it was more good news for me since he was driving back to the hotel and offered me a drive. We figured a good hot shower and a few cold beers would make us feel better and we could come back for the awards ceremony at 5 pm.

However it started to rain shortly after we got back and it rained all afternoon (I was so glad that I was not on that 2nd loop) and we decided not to drive back to the awards ceremony. And the following morning I left very early because I wasn’t sure how long it would take to drive to Granada so I never got to say goodbye to the race staff and the other runners.

My plan was to explore the southern part of Nicaragua – Granada and the Pacific Coast – which meant I would have to drive through Managua and I wasn’t looking forward to that. But I will leave the tourist report of Nicaragua for Part 2 of this story.

Stay tuned!

Monday, September 15, 2008

TR -Bhutan- Part 2

TRIP REPORT
BHUTAN
8/31 –9/11/08
Part 2

Now where were we? Oh yes – we had arrived in Thimphu and were eager to meet the other groups of ’guest’ runners. After checking into the hotel and enjoying a morning tea break Khandu informed us that the rest of the day was free until we joined up with the other guests at 3 pm for a bus tour of the marathon course. He asked if he could drive us anywhere. We all agreed that we would like a short drive/tour around Thimphu to get the layout of the city.

As we started our drive around the city Khandu suggested that we drive out to the Motithang Takin Preserve to see Bhutan’s national animal – the Takin that is a cross between a goat and a cow. This became a contentious/sore point for me. One of my chief complaints with the tour and tour agency was the lack of a formal itinerary and lack of information. Because I was expecting a short tour of the city I did not bring my camera. Thankfully Corinna brought her camera and promised to send me some photos of the Takins! After seeing the Takins we drove back into the city and went to the only Italian restaurant in Bhutan for lunch. I ordered a pizza with lots of pepperoni and meat – my 2nd best meal in Bhutan! Thimphu is very small and compact so the tour was short and I decided to go shopping for souvenirs. I had seen a unique Bhutanese musical instrument in the shops in Paro but decided to wait till Thimphu where I expected there would be better selections and prices. Much to my surprise and chagrin I could not find the instruments in Thimphu? I returned to the hotel to meet the other guest runners including an old running friend and fellow Country Club member, Andy, who was also adding another country to his list. Andy and I had just met recently when we ran the Estes Park Marathon - ’the Highest Paved Marathon in the World’. We were curious how this marathon course would compare to Estes Park?

There were 15 guest runners –13 running the marathon and 2 running the Half and 3 spouses who were not running. We loaded onto a bus and began our tour of the course.
Again I didn’t bring a camera because I believed it to be strictly a drive/tour of the course? The course started in downtown Thimphu near the National Stadium (elev. 2320m/7650ft) and climbed gently along the right bank of the Wang Chhu (river). At 7 Km it crossed the Dechencholing Bridge to the left bank (2384m/7867ft) and at 7.9Km the two courses (marathon & Half) diverged. The marathon course began to climb the 1st BAH (Bad Ass Hill) to 2508m/8276ft past some water towers where it turned north and entered a pine forest where there were a series of short BAHs until it reached the Begana Bridge (2510m/8283ft) at 15Km. The course then climbed another BAH through oak forests to a turnaround point near the Cheri Goemba (monastery) at 17.9Km and 2583m/8524ft. We stopped at the monastery for a photo op – except for Maddog who had no camera! The course then looped back over the Begana Bridge and past a large gold-painted petroglyph of Chenrisig on a rock beside the road (again no camera for a photo!).
The course continued to retrace the route back to the BAH at the water tower and down to the bridge at Dechencholing where it rejoined the Half marathon course. It then turned into an army base and passed the Queen Mother’s Palace as it climbed up into the mountains overlooking Thimphu from the west. At 32Km the course climbed the final BAH – 5Km long and reached an elevation of 2480m/8200ft before descending back into the city and the finish line. As the bus chugged/strained up that final BAH I commented to the group that “this hill will be an ‘absolute bitch’ tomorrow”! Andy and I and agreed that the course looked much tougher than Estes Park because of the number of BAHs. I finished Estes Park in 4:13 but felt I was in much better shape for this race so my target remained 4 hrs but I expected to finish between 4:00 and 4:15?

The itinerary called for a pasta dinner and party that evening but again there was a serious lack of information. I had learned my lesson and carried a camera but they neglected to advise us that the party would be held outside? It was cold at 7pm and most runners had not dressed properly so it was difficult to enjoy the wonderful dancers and singers who entertained us with traditional songs and dances. Luckily we moved inside for the pre-race dinner and another nasty surprise! The pasta and rice were served COLD! Now I do admit that I am set/rigid in my pre-race diet requirements. I always-always- eat HOT spaghetti bolognaise and will not deviate from this proven routine! I hate COLD food so I refused to eat any of the pasta dinner. I wanted to leave and go back to the Italian restaurant for ‘real’ food but didn’t want to be rude. So instead I returned to the hotel hungry and ate a power bar for my pre-race dinner and hoped that the huge pizza I ate for lunch would carry me through the race?

Since I was not in a good mood at that point I informed my roommate that if he woke me up (again) in the middle of the night (3am) chomping or nibbling on a power bar I would change his nickname from ‘MadMonk’ to ‘Chipmunk’! Either he got the message or ran out of power bars and I got a full night’s sleep before the race!

The races started at 6:30am but Khandu drove us to the start line at 5:30 so we could enjoy the opening ceremony – a traditional Marchhang ceremony to invoke the deities for the protection and good luck of all runners. Khandu became our ‘de facto’ Sports Manager and promised to follow us around the course so I gave him my back-up camera to take photos along the course. In addition to the 15 ‘guest’ runners there were more than 100 local runners. The races were treated as two separate events. There was no doubt that the locals would kick our butts. The locals did not pay an entry fee (most would not enter if they had to pay) and were eligible for cash awards equivalent to two months salary (paid from the $300 entry fee charged to the guest runners). There were no awards for guests! All we got for our $300 was a race T-shirt and a finisher’s medal and certificate! And the results were kept separate.

The weather was nice at the start- cloudy and temps in the low 50sF. The race started on time and the locals took off like rockets. Also one guest runner took off very fast – a young male runner from Norway? I let him go figuring that the hills and elevation would soon slow him down? I ran with some local and guest runners for the first 7Km. After I crossed the Dechencholing Bridge a young German runner passed me and I decided to let him go also but to keep him in sight. As we started climbing the 1st BAH I was determined to run the entire hill. However as we approached the top of the BAH near the water towers my legs were churning madly but they felt like they were moving in ’slow motion’? I figured I could power walk faster and easier than I was supposedly running!
I was correct but I was also concerned that I was setting a bad precedent very early in the race? We turned on to the side road and entered the pine forest. As I crossed the Benang Bridge over the Wang Chhu at 15Km I met the three local leaders of the race. That meant they had a 6Km lead on me at that point and I knew I would not see them again! I started the climb up the BAH to the turnaround point at Cheri Goemba and was disappointed that I had to start power walking again? As I approached the turn point I met the young Norwegian and then the German runner and timed my split to the turn point. I calculated that the Norwegian had a 6 min lead and the German about 4 minutes. I remembered the distance at that point (17.9Km/11m) and was not concerned because I figured/hoped the hills and elevation would slow them down? The return leg down the BAH and back to the bridge was easy and I was able to haul ass! However once I crossed the bridge I was faced again with the series of short BAHs. The gold – painted petroglyph took my mind off the BAHs and pain for a few minutes and soon I reached a water station – the only station that knew what the distance was – 23.3Km. I looked at my watch – 2:05! A sub 4-hr finish was not looking good because the 2nd Half had a lot of BAHs and elevation change? But I kept on pushing the pace. A few minutes later I heard a loud noise/commotion and a tribe of 20/30 monkeys clamored out of the forest and crossed the road in front of me. I didn’t want to threaten their territory so I stopped immediately and retreated while they crossed the road. A few minutes later I met the MadMonk coming in the opposite direction and hoped that he would have an opportunity to see the monkeys. (He did).

Soon I reached the main road and the top of the BAH at the water towers. I was looking forward to that BAH this time – a 2Km steep descent! I hauled ass hoping that I might close within sight of the youngsters ahead of me. However when I reached the water station where the course rejoined the Half (26.9Km) there was no sign of the youngsters. I realized I would not catch them unless they crashed on the final BAH? I began the climb in to the mountains west of the city and enjoyed some nice views of Thimphu (when I wasn’t grimacing with pain). And finally I reached the section of the course I was dreading – the final BAH that climbed steeply/relentlessly for 5km! It did not take long for my prediction to come true! After 1 Km of climbing/running my legs again felt like they were moving in super slow motion? That BAH was an ‘Absolute Bitch”! I developed a strategy to walk 30 secs/run 2 min and managed to maintain that cycle except for a few very steep sections where it became walk 30 secs/run 30 secs! I was becoming concerned that I might not finish under 4:30 with all the walking that I had to do?

I reached a water station near the top of the BAH. No water! That didn’t upset me as much as the fact that the volunteer had no idea what the distance was or how far it was to the finish line! I needed to know how far it was to the finish line so I could determine how hard I needed to push the pace? I decided to push the pace to the top of that BAH/Absolute Bitch! When I finally crested that BAH a support car came by and gave me a bottle of water. I asked “How far to the finish line”? The answer was useless – “30 minutes”! 30 minutes for whom? I looked at my watch – it was just under 4 hours! If he was correct I would be lucky to finish under 4:30? Maddog screamed at me “That is not acceptable”! I agreed and we decided that I had to push the pace – all out- to the finish line. If I crashed at least I would go down in flames trying! I figured it was 4 or 5Km to the finish line – and all downhill. I hauled ass and soon was pleasantly surprised/rewarded when I made a sharp turn at a large Stupa. I remembered that Stupa was approximately 1 mile from the finish line. I looked at my watch – about 4:05! I was then confident that I could finish under 4:15 and qualify for Boston. That final mile was a very steep downhill so I stretched out my stride and used gravity to fly down that hill. I reached the bottom of that BAH and downtown Thimphu at 4:10 and could see the finish line on the other side of the Wang Chhu! I looked at the bridge. The sidewalk was crowded with pedestrians that would impede my path/speed and there was no traffic control on the bridge. I decided to take a chance and charged down the middle of the traffic lane forcing and trusting cars to avoid me? I made it across the bridge safely and begged the old bod to give me one final jolt of adrenalin so I could sprint up the final, short/steep hill to cross the finish line in 4:13:23!

The youngsters were waiting at the finish line. The Norwegian had finished in 4:01 and the German in 4:08. I was not disappointed – they were half my age and I had finished in 3rd place (among the guest runners). And it turned out that I was the only runner (including the locals) who finished that tough course with a BQ time! I was pleased! I waited at the finish line for the first guest female to finish (from Hong Kong) in 4:33. Then I decided I might as well walk back to the hotel for a long hot shower since the MM would not finish for another two hours. After a much-needed shower I met several of my fellow runners in the hotel lobby. Everyone agreed with my course assessment – it was tough and that last BAH was an ’Absolute Bitch’. Andy and I agreed that it was much tougher than Estes Park but the strange coincidence was that I finished in the exact same time as Estes Park and Andy finished exactly one hour behind me – the same as Estes Park?

Most runners were going to lunch at the hotel but I can’t eat after a race so I walked back to the finish line to wait for the MadMonk. The race director had assigned two teenagers to accompany the MM through the 2nd half and he was in constant contact with the volunteers. When the MM reached the Stupa near the finish I walked backwards on the course to escort him to the finish line. He finished in 6:53:26. He was a very tired puppy – but he had survived! He was the last guest to finish but NOT the last runner. A local couple, Japanese expats living in Bhutan, finished 5 minutes later. The race director, Penjo, called all guests to reassemble at the finish area for the awards ceremony. The cash awards were presented to the local winners and all the guests received a finisher’s medal and certificate.

Everyone returned to the hotel. While MM enjoyed a hot shower Penjo asked Andy and I to meet with him to provide feedback and comments to improve the race. We were glad to do so over a few well-deserved beers. Penjo indicated that he planned to hold two marathons next year. One in the Spring in the Punakha Valley where the elevation is lower and the course would be flatter and then probably repeat the same marathon and course that we ran in the Fall? By that time I was starving since I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hrs. I asked Penjo to perform a miracle and find me a Yak steak. He tried valiantly and called more than a dozen restaurants in Thimphu – but alas no Yak steaks to be had? So he drove me to the Italian restaurant where the owner/chef cooked us a BIG pork chop with potatoes. The BEST meal I ate in Bhutan!

After that great meal I visited several more handicraft shops in the hopes of finding my musical instruments but no luck. I wasn’t concerned since we would return to Paro and I could buy them there. I did find all the other souvenirs I needed so most of my shopping was done. Later that evening Andy’s group invited us to go to the Italian restaurant for dinner. I thought that was a great idea but the rest of my group wanted to go to a small local restaurant for ‘typical’ Bhutanese food- read “veggie’. I don’t know why I agreed because I refused to eat any veggie crap and ordered a dish of chicken with chili peppers. It was spicy but tasty but I really wished I had gone back to the Italian restaurant for ‘real’ food!

The following day most of the groups parted ways and continued on their different tours. We were scheduled to drive to the Punakha Valley. Although it was only 76 Km it was a 3 –hr drive because it was necessary to drive over a pass at Docha Lu (3140m/10,362ft) and then descend to Punakha (1250m/4125ft). We made a short stop at Simtokha to take photos of the Simtokha Dzong built in 1629. Then we began the long drive that was tough on Khandu and scary for his guests! The road is paved but is a narrow, single lane and it can be a scary challenge when you meet another vehicle! Both cars must swerve on to the shoulder and there are no guardrails to prevent a car from plummeting 3000+feet off the sides of the mountains! However in a few hours we safely reached Docha Lu where there was a large array of prayer flags and a collection of 108 chortens built in 2005 to commemorate the loss of life caused by the flushing out of Assamese militants in Southern Bhutan. As usual the chortens were shrouded in rain clouds. A few hours later we had descended safely to Punakha valley and checked into a hotel in Wangdue. Due to the low elevation of Punakha Valley and the warm climate the valley is very fertile and provides two crops of rice and tropical fruit such as oranges and bananas. The scenery was spectacular with terraced rice fields climbing up the sides of the mountains.

After a short rest and lunch we drove up the valley to visit the Punakha Dzong, one of Bhutan’s most impressive dzongs. It sits at the confluence of the Mo Chhu (Mother River) and Pho Chhu (Father River). Punakha was the capital of Bhutan for more than 300 years so the dzong was the seat of government power. After visiting the dzong we were scheduled to visit a monastery that required a short hike. However Corinna was suffering from a sprained ankle and could barely walk and the MM was still exhausted from the marathon so we rebelled and told Khandu that we would take photos from the road! We decided to head back to the hotel to rest, use the Internet and drink beer!

The following morning MD and MM wanted to do a short run so we left the hotel at 6am and headed south on the highway. About 2 Km from the hotel we reached a police checkpoint. MD stopped and explained that he was jogging and wanted to run another 5 km past the checkpoint? The guard looked at him like he was crazy and said, ”OK, have a good day sir”! After turning around I met many kids walking to school. They were very friendly and curious wanting to know where I was from, etc. I really enjoyed talking to the kids! After breakfast we were scheduled to visit our last dzong – the Wangdue Phrodrang Dzong on the edge of Wangdue at the confluence of the Punak Tsang Chhu and the Dang Chhu. But first we asked Khandu to drive us to the Wangdue Elementary School where we would donate our final school supplies. We arrived as the morning assembly was being dismissed and got to talk to a lot of the students. Then we found the principal who gladly accepted our gifts. Needless to say we felt quite pleased/happy with ourselves when we left the school. Then it was on to the dzong. The Wangdue Dzong was built in 1638 and was the most authentic dzong we visited. Most of the architecture and buildings were original. Also we arrived at an opportune time. There were many local Buddhist laymen practicing dances for an upcoming festival in the courtyard and we were invited into a building to watch Bhutanese women rehearsing songs and dances for the festival. And then we were invited into the temple to watch some student Monks performing a ceremony and lastly invited into a classroom where students were being taught.

That was the best visit of a dzong – either because of the above activities or maybe because it was the LAST? By then we were completely dzong’d and temple’d out!
So we headed back to Thimpu and the long scary ride over Docha Lu pass. We arrived in Thimphu in time for lunch – you guessed it – another veggie lunch! However by then I had resolved that I did not want to see or eat any more rice or green veggies for at least 3 months! I refused to eat any more veggies! Instead I ordered a big plate of French Fries – hot, greasy chips made from scratch with fresh potatoes. They were wonderful! The 3rd best meal I ate in Bhutan!

We then continued our drive/journey back to Paro. When we reached Paro I insisted that Khandu drive us to a few handicraft shops so I could buy my musical instruments. I can’t tell you what they were because they are Xmas gifts for our kids and they (hopefully) read these reports. But they will make a great addition to their collection of unique musical instruments from around the world. I also insisted on one more stop – to buy a birthday cake! After we checked into the same hotel Corinna enjoyed a hot stone bath while MD and MM enjoyed a Thai massage before dinner. Then I went to the bar to gorge myself on peanuts and Bhutanese beer knowing that it would be unlikely that I could/would eat any (veggie) dinner! But I did enjoy the birthday cake after we sung Happy Birthday to celebrate Khandu’s 28th birthday!

The next morning I believe Khandu was happy to be finished with his babysitting duties as he dropped us off at the Paro airport for our flights to Bangkok. Since MD and MM had an early flight home the next day we booked a hotel near the airport. Unfortunately it was located in a local/industrial area and the only decent restaurant was at the hotel- a Seafood restaurant. I was really looking forward to a BIG beefsteak but had to enjoy a nice seafood dinner instead. The following morning we started our 32-hr journey home. I arrived in a snowstorm late Thu night! Didn’t sleep much because of jetlag but when I did get up I realized that winter is on its way to the High Country! The Aspens are turning golden and the mountaintops have a fresh dusting of snow – both are signs that it is time to leave Colorado!

We will stay for one more week to close up the house and pack for the long drive to Florida. We must be back in FL by the end of Sept because I plan to leave from FL for my next marathon/adventure in Nicaragua in early Oct!

Stay tuned!