Thursday, March 03, 2005

Trip report -Trinidad

2/23 – 3/2/05

Photos may be viewed at

Where to start - for this trip almost immediately became the ‘trip that was destined not to happen’. Why? The first reason was that I began planning for the trip last Oct and as soon as I had booked and prepaid our air and hotel I tried to register on line for the marathon and encountered problems. So I contacted the race committee and a few days later was informed that the website was being redesigned and by the way “the marathon was postponed from Jan 16 to Feb 27/05”! I had only decided to run the marathon because it was scheduled for mid-Jan in the Caribbean and that is a good time not to be in FL because the weather can be iffy (i.e. a 50/50 chance of a cold front from TundraLand).
The airline and hotel would not refund my payment but they were kind enough to let me reschedule the trip without any fee so I was locked into the trip and the new date.

And as most of my readers know my plans and ‘running’ life only went downhill from that point. I ran three marathons in Nov on a sore right foot that caused an additional injury to my left knee as I changed my gait and stride to compensate for the foot injury. I was forced to rest both injuries during Dec.and finally in Jan learned that the foot injury was actually a stress fracture. It was healing with rest but not the knee and Xrays and a MRI showed no problem with the knee? So for the whole month of Jan I was forced to cross train at the YMCA while the orthoped tried to figure out what was wrong with my knee. Although I had to cancel three marathons scheduled (and paid for) in Dec and Jan I was still planning/hoping that I could recover and be ready for the marathon in Trinidad. Finally I exhausted all non-surgical medical options on the knee and decided to proceed with arthroscopic surgery on the left knee on Feb 3/05. Fortunately my cross training program had included several exercises to strengthen my legs and knee and the surgery went well. The orthoped found and cut out a tear in the meniscus. Four days after surgery the bandages were removed and I walked three miles. Within a week I had built the daily walk up to ten miles. I had not yet given up on Trinidad even though the orthoped advised (warned) me not to run for 4 to 6 weeks after the surgery! I needed some kind of reward for all the suffering and pain I had endured with that frustrating knee injury. One of my biggest disappointments was not being able to keep my streak going for the Tampa marathon that was run three days after the surgery.

In week two after the surgery I was vacationing in the Rocky Mountains. Instead of skiing with my kids as planned I walked 7 to10 miles in the mountains each day. When the knee became sore I went back to the gym and pool to cross train. Finally two weeks after surgery I decided to test the knee by walking and jogging 10 miles. It was successful – no problem or pain with the knee. So the next day – exactly one week before the Trinidad marathon I walked and jogged a ‘test’ Half marathon without any problems with the knee. But I wanted one more test before making my final decision about Trinidad. On Tue – the day before we left for Trinidad I asked my buddy Frank from Siesta Key to join me for another test Half marathon. I knew Frank would understand and support my decision whatever it was. Why? If you will recall Frank is one of my friends that ran Boston with me in 2004. He was the one who ran Boston after having stents placed in his main arteries. A few months after Boston he had quadruple bypass surgery and three months later he was running again! He is now training seriously to run Boston again this year - and beat his time from 2004! As Frank and I walked and jogged the Half with all our injuries and scars we discussed how all our family, friends and even doctors think many of our actions are extreme (some use the word ‘nuts’). We concluded/agreed that the rest of the world is crazy and we are the only two sane people left. And it is nice to run with the only other person in the world who is sane and can give you ‘sane’ advice and support!

Thus with another successful test run completed and the support of the only other sane person in the world I made my decision – I would indeed run the Trinidad Marathon!
And finally the actual trip report can begin!

Since we had a very early (6:30 am) flight out of Tampa on Wed. my sports manager and I decided to drive into Tampa Tue evening and stay at an airport hotel. This would allow us to get a few extra hours of sleep and the hotel let us park one week for free so the hotel only cost a few bucks more than regular parking. Worked out very well!

We arrived in Port of Spain, Trinidad mid afternoon and were met by a driver and car to take us to our apartment. I had rented a 2 BR apartment because Trinidad has only a few modern, international hotels and they are very expensive - $150 to $200/day vs $65 for an apartment? By pure luck (or should I say skill) our apartment was located in a very convenient and upscale location. It was close to the US and UK embassies and only a half block from Queen’s Park. Queen’s Park – called the Savannah by the Trinis (what the locals call themselves) is a large 200-acre park on the northern edge of Port of Spain between the city and the North Coastal Mountains. There are several soccer/cricket/sports fields and a 2-½ mile jogging path around the park. All the Trinis run and play sports in the Savannah.

Before describing any more of the city and Island a brief history lesson is necessary to understand much of what I will tell you. Christopher Columbus discovered Trinidad in 1498. The inhabitants were aboriginals called the Caribs and Arawaks. The islands changed hands many times among the colonial super powers – Spain, England and
France. Slavery was abolished by the British in 1834 and indentured labor was brought in from India and China to replace the slaves. There are very large communities of Chinese and Indians and much of the culture and food on the Island is derived from these two ethnic groups. The islands of Trinidad and Tobago became independent in 1962 and a Republic in 1976.

The islands were once part of the South American continent (Venezuela) and are only seven miles from Venezuela. Trinidad was lucky and got a small share of nature’s oil and gas that is common in Venezuela. Tobago has none. Oil drives the economy of Trinidad and there is virtually no tourist infrastructure. Tobago survives on tourism.
Port of Spain is the largest city in Trinidad – 350,000 of the 1.3 million inhabitants of the two islands. The city burned down in the late 1800s and was rebuilt in the early 1900s so most of the ‘old’ buildings are 100 years old. Because the city is wedged in between the Gulf of Paria and the North Mountains it is very compact and densely populated. The streets are old and narrow and there is not much room for cars and traffic that is horrendous (and driving on the wrong side of the road to boot). All the homes and buildings are surrounded by 8-ft walls topped with barbed wire and all doors and windows are covered by iron bars (just like Jamaica and Venezuela). There is obviously a serious crime problem – yet we never felt unsafe or threatened at any time? Trinidad is definitely not a tourist destination!

After we checked into our apartment we decided to scout out the neighborhood (called Newtown). Because of all the embassies in the area there were several upscale restaurants including a few American chains – Tony Roma’s, TGI Friday and Trotters- an English Pub! We found a local supermarket to stock the apartment with snack food and Caribbean beer and retreated to our air-conditioned apartment to escape the afternoon sun and temps in the mid 90s!

The following morning we decided explore Port of Spain on foot. There is a bus/taxi transport system in the city but no information on where it goes or how to use it so we decided our feet would be the best transport system. There is a downtown commercial area called “Downtown’ on the map. It was only a mile from our apartment. It is pretty dirty and the shops are pretty ratty but we were able to find the typical souvenirs (postcards and a silver teaspoon) easily and quickly. We passed several old churches and buildings that looked interesting but had no idea what they were? Luckily we stumbled across a tourist office and were able to collect some maps, brochures and a list of tourist guides. They were even able to give me a contact number for the marathon. Up to that time all I was able to get from the website was the starting time and place. I wasn’t even sure if the race was still on? After lunch we retreated back to the apartment and A/C – you cannot walk around Trinidad in the afternoon sun/heat unless you are a Trini!

Back at the apartment I called a few tourist guides and finally located a guide that had a car and offered us a tour of the city and North Coast for a reasonable price. I also made contact with the main sponsor of the marathon – Colonial Life Insurance Corporation – hence the name of the marathon – CLICO Marathon! The rep informed me that I could pick up my race package at the corporate HQ the next day and get more info on the race.
Things were looking up! After a few cold Carib beers it was time to look for a restaurant. But the only restaurants we could find other than the expensive, upscale restaurants were a Pizza joint, several Chinese joints and fast food joints called ‘Rotis”? We selected a Chinese restaurant and enjoyed a great dinner for about $40TT ($7 US).

On Fri morning our tour guide, Derik picked us up at our apartment and started our morning tour. As we drove around the city he pointed out many of the buildings we had walked by and explained their history. He also explained the history of the country and city and provided much-needed information about how to find things in the city and what the local culture and politics were. Some things finally made much more sense? For instance the main meal for the Trinis is lunch and many of them eat a big meal in local fast food restaurants. Most of the restaurants are Chinese or Indian. The Chinese food is similar to what we find in the US but has a Creole flair added. However the Indian food is called ‘roti’ and is mostly fast food. There are very few Indian restaurants as we know them? Very few Trinis eat a big dinner and they don’t eat out at restaurants for dinner so many of the restaurants are closed in the evenings. As Derik was providing this explanation on food he stopped at a roadside cart that served ‘Doubles’. It is a local food derived from Indian culture. A type of dough/bread called ‘bara’ made from flour and split peas is deep fried. Then they add curried channa (chickpeas) and hominy and some hot chutney and spices. Since the bread is small they always serve two – hence doubles! Doubles is a very common breakfast or morning snack for Trinis. We declined to eat one because it didn’t comply with Maddog’s travel rules – “never eat food from a street vendor/cart’.

After Derik enjoyed his Doubles we continued our tour through the North Coastal Mountains to Maracas Beach on the North Coast. The nicest beaches in Trinidad are located on the North Coast facing the Caribbean Sea. The Gulf of Paria on the west and the Columbus Channel on the south are full of silt from the rivers of Trinidad and Venezuela and are brown and dirty. The beaches on the East Coast along the Atlantic Ocean are supposed to be OK but are rocky and the water/waves are much rougher. Maracus beach is supposed to be the nicest beach in Trinidad. It was very pretty and the water is clear and calm. But the beach is remote and isolated and there is only one small hotel/resort on the beach. I would go stir-crazy in one day! We arrived at the beach around noon so we were able to enjoy a typical Trini treat/lunch – ‘shark and bake’. They deep fry pieces of fresh shark and wrap them in a piece of fried leavened bread (bake). It was delicious! The sports manager declined because everything was fried?

Before Derik dropped us off at the apartment we hired him for another tour on Mon to take us along the west coast to the south end of the island. I had considered renting a car and doing our own tour but after a morning of driving on bad roads, horrendous traffic and total lack of any directional signs I wisely decided that we were safer to let a Trini drive and tour us around the island! When we returned to the city we decided to walk downtown to the CLICO office to pick up my race package.

Although the website was very poor and offered little information I must say that the volunteers of CLICO made up for that issue with their hospitality and exuberance. They had lost my online registration so I had to register again but for a $25 entry fee foreign runners were given a polo race shirt and a finisher’s medal. We were also offered a tour of the course on Sat morning and a taxi to pick us up at our hotel to take us to the start line. (Race directors in the US – take note!) While we were waiting around at CLICO I met a few fellow runners – from Seattle, Houston, Germany, Poland and Martinique.

After returning to the apartment and enjoying a few more Caribs (hey – I don’t normally drink beer two days before a race but I knew that I couldn’t take this race seriously) it was time for dinner. Normally I would eat Chinese food two nights before a race but since we had eaten Chinese on Thu night we decided to try Trini food at a well-known Trini restaurant that only served local food. I tried ‘spicy pork’. It was similar to ‘pepper pot’ a popular dish in Guyana.

On Sat morning I woke early to do a short run around the Savannah. I had done a lot of walking the past few days in Trinidad but had not run since the test Half on Tue. I was running around the Savannah by 7am along with hundreds of Trinis trying to beat the morning sun. All went well so I was feeling very confident that I could finish the marathon on Sun.
The bus tour of the course started at 10 am and took about the same amount of time that we expected to run the course because of the horrendous traffic. Our tour guide was a lovely young Trini named Vanessa who had run the marathon a few times. The course started in Chaguanas about 20 miles south of Port of Spain. It was fairly flat with some rolling hills and finished at the Oval (a Cricket Stadium) in Woodbrook – about 1 mile from our apartment. Everyone was very concerned about the roads, the traffic and the heat. Unfortunately all turned out to be legitimate concerns. After the course tour I retreated to the apartment and A/C – no way I was going outside in the afternoon sun!

Finally Sat night – time for carbo/pasta loading! There was no pasta party. And there are no Italian restaurants in Trinidad. Well I lie a wee bit. There were two but both were upscale and very expensive. So we walked around and found a Pizza Hut where I ordered spaghetti for $20TT ($3 US).

Sun was M- day! The marathon started at 5:30am so a bus picked me and a few other foreign runners up starting at 3:30 am and delivered us to the start line at 5am. Five hundred runners started the marathon. There was prize money offered by CLICO for both the open and national divisions so there were elite runners from a few countries. The race started in the dark to escape the sun and heat (the temps were only in the high 70s at the start). I attempted to walk and jog before the start to loosen up the knee but I still walked at the start and found myself in very last place when I reached the one-mile mark in 13:05 – and proud of it! I had stuck to my strategy to start slow and walk. With the heat and humidity my knee had loosened up and I jogged the 2nd mile in 9:15 and passed the back of the pack. Too fast! The knee felt OK but I did not have that much confidence in it. I figured that I needed to walk at least one minute each and every mile and try to average a 10-minute pace. I settled into a 10-minute pace by mile 4. By then the residents were lined up along the course shouting their usual (Caribbean) cheers – ‘Go Pappy”; “Good job Grandpa”! Miles 8 to 10 ran through a cane field and I was still passing runners. I reached mile 10 in 1:41:13 and the knee still felt OK.

However by then the traffic had started to increase and become a problem. There was good traffic control at major intersections but we had to share the narrow roads and be very wary as we ran with the traffic along major roads. I reached the Half in 2:12:18 on a busy road in San Juan. By then the sun was up and the temps were starting to rise and there was no shade! My knee, legs and body felt OK but I was now entering virgin territory? I had not run longer than 13 miles in the past three months. I could only hope that the cross training in the pool had helped to maintain some level of aerobic conditioning? By mile 18 we were approaching Downtown – it was very hot – no shade and the traffic was really bad. I started catching and passing a lot of runners. Mile 20 – the center of Downtown – time 3:21:28. The course turned west so that the morning sun was beating directly down at our backs. I thought I was being broiled. I walked and applied some more sun block to my back and shoulders. I still felt OK but my body was overheating in spite of the fact that I had been dumping water over my head and neck every mile. I calculated that I had 68 minutes to finish the last 10K and beat a time of 4:30. I needed to average 11-minute miles! Just at that moment Vanessa jumped on to the course and ran with me for about ½ mile and then encouraged me to continue on. Strange how the pace on that mile slowed to 12 minutes? I reached mile 23 in 3:55:06 where the course looped back into the sun and to the finish line. I had 35 minutes to finish the last 5K but I didn’t care because I was burning up. I decided that time wasn’t important - I needed to walk at least twice in each mile if I wanted to finish and survive! Mile 25 – 4:17:11. My legs were now tight and sore but I didn’t believe that I could afford to walk anymore so I dug deep and forced the old legs and tired, hot old bod to keep shuffling until I crossed the finish line in 4:29:37.
I had done it! Marathon #238 and country #71!

But there was no time to celebrate – I had to get my body temp down! The temps were 90+F and my body temp was 100+ F! I found some cold water and ice that I applied liberally to my face and neck to reduce my body temp. Then I applied the ice pack to my knee for about five minutes. Only then did I find my sports manager and take the usual finish line photos. Finally we hobbled/limped the mile back to the apartment since my quads had tightened up. Obviously my old bod was not in marathon condition!
After a nice cold shower and a few Carib beers we decided to splurge and walked over to the English Pub for a Sunday ‘carvers’ brunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. I deserved a great meal and beer to celebrate running/finishing a marathon only three weeks after knee surgery!

On Mon morning Derik picked us up again to drive south to the 2nd largest city in Trinidad, San Fernando where he stopped for some more Trini treats. These snacks (some called phulouri and pelou) were made of fried bread (what else) with various vegetables such as eggplant, etc wrapped into the bread before it was fried. Again we declined. Then we continued our journey to Pitch Lake that is a lake of pitch or asphalt covering about 200 acres. It is the only pitch lake in the world. The pitch is natural asphalt about 250 feet deep that constantly replenishes itself. Trinidad mines the asphalt for export to be used for asphalt roads and other petroleum based products. It is possible to walk out on the lake but you must be accompanied by an experienced local guide. The hot sun bakes a crust on certain areas of the pitch. As long as you walk on those areas and keep in constant motion you will not sink into the hot, deep pitch – never to be seen again! We followed a guide across the lake. That proves a point I have always made – “marathon runners are not mere mortals and can walk across a lake”.

After our successful walk across a lake we toured along the coast of the Gulf of Paria to enjoy some of the various sights. For lunch we stopped in San Fernando to experience/taste ‘roti’. What is roti? Remember I said its roots were Indian. Derik took us to a small restaurant and introduced us to ‘Mama’ the owner and cook. Mama took us into the kitchen and showed us how roti is prepared. She takes a dough made of flour and crushed split peas and kneads it into a shape similar to a large tortilla. She then fries this bread (called dhalpouri) just like a tortilla is fried. When the dhalpouri is fried she adds boiled chickpeas and potatoes as the standard ingredients and then you order other ingredients such as meat or vegetables to be added. Then the bread is wrapped around everything and you eat it like a big burrito. It was actually very delicious.

After our roti we continued our drive along the coast back to port of Spain. Other than a few interesting sights such as ‘The Temple in the Sea’ (a Hindu temple) that part of Trinidad is very boring and ugly since it contains most of the industries and refineries. Certainly not a tourist area.

So to bring this longer-than-expected report to an end the summary is:
Trinidad is not a tourist destination. I believe that Tobago is but we never had time to visit.
The CLICO Marathon does not get high marks. The volunteers get high marks but the course, traffic and heat get very low marks. There are better marathons and countries to enjoy in the Caribbean.

But the good news is that I finished – the knee is OK and I can resume my training program to get ready for my next marathon and adventure in Europe in May. Stay tuned!

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