Monday, October 13, 2008

TR Nicaragua - Part 2

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.

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

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

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!