Sunday, October 10, 2010

TR - Guatemala

9/30 – 10/04/10

Sun, Oct 3/10
Amatitlan, Guatemala
Maya Marathon
Marathon # 336 – Country # 106

While I am on a roll I figure I should finish part 2 of the past two weeks of travel/adventure.

I left Ghana on Mon for the long flight home – and thankfully had the same great seat close to a bathroom. I arrived home in FL and had 2 days to repack, pick up the Sports Manager who had stayed on the West Coast for 1 month with the kids and our precious new granddaughter Mira, get in a few 10-mile training runs and head off to the next race in Guatemala.

I had been looking for a marathon in Guatemala for the past 3 years and finally established contact with some local runners in 2008 who confirmed that there is only one marathon in Guatemala – the Maya Maraton that is held on the 1st weekend of Oct. each year in Amatitlan. Since I had a conflict in 2009 I committed to run the race in 2010 and didn’t want to break that commitment because of some minor health issues! There is a website for the race but it is difficult to find and has limited information (in Spanish). Without the support and assistance of local runners it would be difficult to participate in this race.

One of the nice things about travel to Central America is that the flights are short and there is only a few hours time difference. I arrived in Guatemala City at 8 pm and still had time to arrange for a city tour the next morning. Since it was not high season there was no demand for tours and I was provided with a private driver/guide. He misunderstood the request and instead of a tour of GC he took me to Antigua – about 40 miles west of GC. I wasn’t disappointed! The Antigua tour was more expensive than the city tour I paid for and it was much more interesting! On the drive through GC and along the highway to Antigua I noticed with much surprise how clean the streets and roads were? No litter – no garbage – no filth like most cities and countries in C. America? I expressed my surprise to the guide who explained that the mayors of both cities strictly enforced rules against litter/garbage. My kudos to them – the cities and roads are neat and clean!

I really liked Antigua. Antigua was founded in 1543 as the capital and once was the largest city in Central America. The city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773 and the capital was moved to GC. However some residents stayed behind to rebuild the city and many of the old buildings have been restored. The original cobblestone streets are quaint (but Hell to drive on) and many of the original buildings have been restored and upgraded to boutique hotels, upscale restaurants, shops and bars. There are several ‘live-in’ schools teaching Spanish. We visited a few of the major tourist sites such as the Iglesia Y Convento De La Merced with its’ beautifully restored architecture and Central Park with the famous fountain restored in 1936 to the original version built in 1738. Central Park is bonded on the East side by the Catedral de Santiago (1542), on the South by the Captain-Generals’ Palace (1558) and the North by the City Hall (1743). My guide took me to a silver factory where I was able to buy both of my typical souvenirs – a teaspoon and silver charm- in the same place! I was disappointed that I had to leave Antigua so soon – I could easily spend/enjoy 2 to 3 days in that beautiful city!

The next day I did take the city tour of GC. It was a disappointment – not much to see or do in GC for a tourist. We visited some museums in Zona 13 and then drove around Zona 10 (Zona Viva) that is the affluent section of GC. Western hotels, upscale shops, restaurants, bars and modern shopping malls are located in this zone – and also the Embassies and many affluent residential areas. We drove through one gated community that looked like any subdivision back home except for the bars on the doors and windows and electrified barb wire on the walls and roofs of the homes? I noticed many runners/walkers and bikers in this community and a local runner later confirmed that this is the area where most runners train because it is safe and there is little traffic! We continued to Zona 1 which is the old section of the city to visit a few old churches and Central Park that is bounded on the East by the Catedral Metropolitana and the North by the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura. Few of the buildings have been restored or maintained and are not in good shape? We finished the city tour with a drive through the slums in the North end of the city. GC is built in a huge bowl surrounded by volcanoes. Most of the slums are built on steep hills on the sides of the volcanoes. They have great views – but no water/plumbing and are destroyed frequently by earthquakes and landslides!

My tour of the city was over except for brief walks near my hotel in Zona 10. Since the city was so neat and clean emergency pit stops were not possible but thankfully there were many modern fast-food restaurants in the area. As convenient as they were there unfortunately were still a few wee accidents and I concluded it is difficult to travel with health issues like I was suffering!

On Sat evening Fernando and his lovely wife Thatiana met me to deliver my race packet- including
Bib # 106 – and invited me to join them for a great pasta dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant to discuss final logistics for the race. Fernando had arranged for another runner, Raul, to pick me up and drive me to the race. He warned me about some tough hills in the 1st and last 10 Km of the race.

Sun was ‘M’ day. Raul picked me up promptly at 5:15 am for the 30 minute drive south to Amatitlan. The race was scheduled to start at 7am. The race started and finished at La Parque las Ninfas on the shores of Lake Amatitlan. I noticed on the drive to Amatitlan that this region of Guatemala did not have the same ‘litter’ rules – there was litter/garbage everywhere like I expected to see?
Amatitlan is located at an elevation of 4,000 ft and is warmer than GC. There were about 800 runners – 300 in the marathon and 500 in the Half. Both races started in La Parque Las Ninfas at the same time. The race was delayed by 45 minutes to allow runners to pick up race packets (1st time they allowed pick- up the day of the race?) During the delay I met two other ‘gringos’ – a young man from Toronto who was working in Honduras and a runner from St Pete, FL. Maddog was also busy fulfilling requests for poses for photos since his participation and running accomplishments had been pre-announced in a press release and website. I enjoyed these requests because I got to meet a lot of local runners who were very friendly and nice!

I was a wee bit worried about the weather because of the delay but we were lucky. The skies were cloudy and overcast and the temps were only in the low 70s (10 degrees cooler than normal) – and stayed that way throughout the race. Thus the only things I had to worry about were the 4,000 ft elevation and the hills? I was not in good shape or trained for either!
The race started at 7:45 am and the first 5 Km looped through the cobblestone streets of Amatitlan. The houses were blocks of buildings that concerned me if I had to make an emergency pit stop? Luckily I made it though the city and out to the western side of Lake Amatitlan where there was lots of vegetation to hide behind before I was forced to make my 1st pit stop. We reached the series of three nasty BAHs (Bad Ass Hills) around 8Km. Fernando had not lied about those hills but I soon learned that he had forgotten to mention the rest of the course that followed the west shore of Lake Amatitlan was a continuous series of rolling hills! There were more hills than there were flat sections along that lake! I was definitely not in shape or prepared for a hilly course at 4,000 ft! And the course was a narrow two-lane road that had not been closed to traffic so we had to share the road with cars and buses. Many times I found myself stuck between two buses sucking up diesel fumes. I decided to stay with a group of local runners at all times believing that there was more safety in numbers. I was a wee bit surprised when I calculated that I was running a sub-10 min pace. My plan was to run 5 Km and then walk for a few minutes. I quickly realized that fatigue was no longer a factor – in fact the limiting factor became the ache/pain in my feet? After a few miles both feet would start to ache/pain so badly that I would have to stop or walk for a few minutes to give the pain a chance to subside? I (nor the docs) have any idea what is causing this problem – for now I just have to live with it and adapt!

Fortunately it worked out that water stops were located every 5Km or less and I used them as an excuse to walk so I avoided reaching a point where my feet hurt so much that I would have to stop. There were distance markers located every 5Km and most were accurate for the 1st half. I passed the Half in 2:10:10 but I figured the 2nd half would not be that fast because of the hills! Then I noticed that the 25Km and 30Km markers were both located within 5Km of the Half so I knew any markers in the 2nd Half would be useless. That was confirmed when I passed 35Km in 3:00:18. If that marker was accurate I would finish under 4 hrs – or - the last 7 km was going to be very lonnnnnnnggggggg? I believe we reached the series of BAHs near the true 35Km and there wasn’t any consideration of running them. I convinced Maddog that it would be better for my feet to walk up the hills and run down them! When I reached a distance marker at 40Km in 4:09:54 I knew it wasn’t accurate but I started to wonder if I could break 4:30. I had no idea what the real distance was to the finish line but I decided to ignore the foot pain and go for it. I was happy when I finally saw La Parque las Ninfas and crossed the finish line in 4:25:36!

Needless to say I was very pleased with both my time and performance considering the course and my health. If I can get healthy again I am confident that I can get my finish time back below 4 hrs quickly!
Raul and I waited around the finish area for another 30 minutes and more photo requests and then drove back to GC. After a hot shower I felt much better than I did one week earlier in Ghana and was able to enjoy some beer and greasy food while watching football in the sports bar at the hotel. After a great steak dinner and early bed I was ready to head back home to FL.

I am back and since I had such a bad time with diarrhea in Guatemala I decided to advance my appointment with the GI doc to discuss the current status of my health. He agrees that the UC could/should not be causing that level of problem (after 6 weeks on meds) and believes that there must be one (or more) causes lurking in the old bod. Bottom line is he doesn’t know but he wants to be aggressive in looking. Thus I am scheduled for another scope on Mon - both ends this time to see if they can determine where and what the problem is? In the meantime he is guessing that the GI infection (C-diff) may have come back in spite of two recent tests that were negative and has started me back on that super drug ($50/pill) specially designed to kill C-diff. I am already noticing some improvement in the diarrhea so maybe that is the problem? However I am really tired of being treated like a druggie. I have got to get off all these damn drugs! In the short term I am prepared to do/try anything to find and resolve the problems. But if I don’t get some concrete answers in the next few weeks I am going to start exploring 2nd and 3rd opinions!

And finally – are you sitting down because I don’t want y’all to hurt yourself when you faint? I am sticking to my vow that my primary focus is to find the problems and restore my health as close as possible to 100%. I have no plans for travel or marathons in the foreseeable future! None! Nada!
I even took the past week off from running and training! None.! Nada! However I did break down and run an easy 10 miles on Sun. it felt good! I have decided to resume running/training until a doc tells me that running is not good for my health. But no races!

Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 09, 2010

TR - Ghana

9/21 -9/28/10

Sun, Sept 26/10
Accra, Ghana
Accra International Marathon
Marathon #335 – Country # 105
4:56:05 – 1 AG

Where to begin? It seems so long since I ran this race that my memory is foggy – or is that Old Age?
It is a good thing I make a photo record of these trips so I can refer to the photos to write a report!

I had to go back and check my last race report – Paraguay- to remember where to begin.
Things did not go well after the last race/trip. After a long, frustrating month of waiting for appointments, tests and results (medical care is not as easily available in the mountains as it is in FL)
I was finally diagnosed with UC (Ulcerative Colitis). That was not good news and not readily accepted by Maddog! By then the symptoms – fatigue, stomach cramps and diarrhea had worsened and I was having difficulty training. The GI doc started me on an aggressive treatment program with steroids and a 5-ASA anti-inflammatory. The drugs and/or the disease introduced a new symptom/problem – aches and pains in all the muscles and joints in my legs. I tried to keep running/training for Pike’s Peak Marathon
(carrying a roll of toilet paper for the frequent pit stops required for the diarrhea) but I couldn’t run farther than ½ mile before I would become totally fatigued. I tried to overcome that limitation and then my knees and feet would hurt so badly after running a mile that I would have to stop and rest or walk to reduce the pain. Reluctantly I had to withdraw from Pike’s Peak and another marathon in CO. By early Oct I had built my daily run/walk up to 10 miles but it was difficult at the high elevation (9,000 ft) because my iron levels and red blood cell count was so low.

I had a final meeting with the GI doc before leaving CO and he advised that it was OK to travel to Ghana and run the marathon if I felt I could do it? I visited our son in WA and our precious new granddaughter, Mira in Portland, OR for one week before returning to CO and immediately noticed a big difference on my daily 10-mile runs – I could breathe at sea level and run up to two miles before fatigue set in. My confidence in running (and finishing) the Ghana Marathon improved significantly! I returned home to FL a few days before leaving for Ghana and visited a GI doc here for follow up. He was disappointed and concerned that the meds were not working and had not forced the UC into remission. I was still suffering from chronic diarrhea and leg pains? His opinion conflicted with the CO doc. He thought the leg pains might be a side effect of the drugs so he switched the 5-ASA med and also added an antibiotic in case there was a nasty bug/bacteria in my GI tract?

And off I went to Ghana. I was concerned about the antibiotic making the diarrhea worse and that turned out to be the case. It was a good thing my seat on the 10-hr flight to Ghana was next to a bathroom! After a long overnight flight I arrived in Ghana early afternoon and was met at the airport by a race volunteer. Seth drove me to race HQ to meet the Race Director, Anna and a few race officials. They were all very kind and hospitable – but special kudos to Anna who is such a sweet and dynamic person. Without her this race would never happen or be successful! They had reserved Bib #105 for me.

Later Seth drove me to the Central Bus Station to catch a bus to Cape Coast. It was supposed to be a 2-hr bus ride but turned out to be 4 hrs because of the horrendous traffic in Accra. I don’t know how I made it on that bus for 4 hrs w/o messing my pants but I still had clean pants when I arrived in Cape Coast at 10 pm? Maybe because I hadn’t eaten for about 8 hrs?
I met a young man from Austria on the bus who was staying at the same cheap hotel ($25/night – clean, TV and AC) and we were starving so Andy and I shared a taxi to the only restaurant still open and enjoyed a great dinner and a pleasant conversation.

The following day I explored Cape Coast on foot. Touring presented a BIG problem – I couldn’t be more than 30 feet or 30 secs from a toilet! And there are no public toilets in Ghana! I quickly realized that 80% of the population live in slums that have no electricity and no water/plumbing. Thus the locals did their daily duties wherever and whenever needed. That made things much easier for me. In one instance I was squatting beside a wall when a local woman joined me. We tried to start a conversation but she didn’t speak English so the conversation was short! Cape Coast (founded in the 15th Century) is a small city and can be explored easily on foot. I toured the downtown and market and then toured the Cape Coast Castle – the main reason for visiting Cape Coast. Cape Coast Castle, a World Heritage Site, was first built in 1653. After it was captured by Britain in 1665 it was expanded, fortified and used to ship slaves to Europe and NA. A guided tour takes visitors through the castle and into the various slave dungeons and of course through the infamous ‘Door of No Return’. It is very depressing and one leaves upset that human beings could/can be so cruel and mean!

The next day I visited the nearby village of Elmina and St George’s Castle. Built in 1482 by the Portuguese it is the oldest extant colonial building in sub-Sahara Africa. It was captured by the Dutch in 1637 and used to ship slaves to SA and the Caribbean. The layout and story are similar to Cape Coast Castle – and also depressing!
Elmina has reverted to a fishing port and there are lots of colorful pirogues in the port. The two days spent on the Cape Coast were interesting and enjoyable but it was time to return to Accra. I had made good friends with a local taxi driver who offered to drive me to my hotel on the south (far) side of the city for a ridiculous fee of $40 (about 140 Km). I think he regretted that offer when it took us 4 hrs to reach the hotel (2 hrs to Accra and another 2 hrs through the horrendous city traffic to the hotel!).

Anna had suggested staying at the Royal Palm Beach Resort – a 5-star resort- on the beach south of the city and close to the finish line. I arranged for a private driver/guide to tour me around Accra the next day. It is a big city with almost no infrastructure and traffic is ALWAYS horrendous! Although Ghana is supposed to have oil and oil money it is not evident that any is being spent on infrastructure or the people? There are very few modern buildings, the only affluent section of the city is called the Cantonments where the Embassies are located and most of the expats and government ministers live in that area. Most of the people live in slums with no water/plumbing, etc. My guide, Justice, drove me around the few interesting sites to see in Accra – James Town, the old part of Ghana with the Lighthouse and Fort James (now a prison). I tried to visit the slums along the beach in James Town but the smell/stench was so bad that I had to leave after a few minutes! We visited Independence Square (also known as Black Star Square) and the Nkrumah Mausoleum before enjoying lunch in Osu – a small upscale section of the city with restaurants and bars.

I had asked Anna about a pasta dinner and she arranged an invitation to dinner at the private residence of an Embassy employee in the Cantonments. Several of the US Embassy employees and some teachers from the American School in Accra were running the Marathon and Half. I met a lot of very nice people and got a great insight into how our Embassy employees live (and cope) in foreign countries. It was a very enjoyable evening!

Sun was ‘M’ Day. The race was scheduled to start at 5:30am because of the heat and traffic. It was a point-to-point course that started in Prampram (south of the city) and finished on Labadi Beach close to the hotel. Anna had arranged for a driver to pick me up at 4:30 am. At 4:50 am – no driver and I was getting anxious. I called Anna. She assured me that a driver would arrive and the race would not start w/o me! A driver finally arrived at 5:15 am! I and about eight other runners arrived at the start line at 6:30 am. The race started at 6:35am! It was sunny and hot!

I was concerned about directions and markers on the course. I wasn’t really concerned about the many pit stops I would probably have to make since I could stop and go wherever needed (I only had to make two?). There were only 50 runners in the marathon and another 250 in the Half that started at the Half marathon point and a later time. I didn’t know what to expect from the old bod? I planned on running about two miles and then walking for a few minutes. That turned out to be my typical pattern for the race. Fatigue, thankfully, never seemed to be a limiting factor. Either there was a water stop and I decided to walk through most of them or my feet would become so sore after a few miles that I was forced to stop and walk to reduce the pain? There was lots of water along the course but the distance markers were not accurate. They seemed to be short in the first half and I reached the Half in 2:15:22. I hoped that the course was not short? The first Half of the course was mostly on the shoulder of a Motorway but there was not much traffic at that time. Traffic control was good and there were volunteers or police at all points where turns were required. Much of the 2nd half was along the Ocean until we reached a small village around 35Km. I had passed a 32Km marker in 3:36:25 but had no faith in the accuracy. That final 10Km was the longest 10Km I ever ran – and one of the worst! Much of it was along a narrow two-lane road through the village with horrendous traffic. On some sections we were forced to run on a sidewalk crowded with shoppers and pedestrians. I had to walk much of it to avoid running someone over! On the sections with a dirt shoulder we had to be careful of buses/taxis/tro-tros pulling into the shoulder and we were constantly sucking up diesel fumes! I never thought I would make it to the turn-off down to the beach? I was almost 5 hrs into the race – it was hot- I was burning up even though I had lathered sun block all over my body. Finally I saw Anna jump out of a support car and she handed me a bottle of water. I pleaded “how much farther to the finish line”? Happily she replied “Only another 600m to the turn-off”! I glanced at my watch – I could still break 5 hrs! I pushed as hard as possible to reach that turn-off and scramble down to the finish line on Labadi Beach in 4:56:05!

I was very happy with my finish time considering the course, the heat, my health conditions and training! I think the Ghana people like to party because nobody was in much of a hurry to hold the award ceremony, etc. They hadn’t given out the finisher’s medal at the finish line and I wanted that! I stuck around for more than one hour but I was tired and burning up in the sun so I finally gave up and walked back to my hotel.

After a cool shower and a relaxing massage at the hotel spa I was so exhausted that I laid down for a nap before dinner. I woke up at 11 pm – too late for dinner- so crawled back into bed and slept a total of 13 hrs! I was a bit disappointed that I had not received a finisher’s medal but as I was eating breakfast before heading to the airport Anna showed up to give me my medal and some other gifts. Like I said the race could not be successful w/o her untiring efforts and positive attitude!

As I made the long flight home I was buoyed by the knowledge and confidence that I could indeed run the next race scheduled for Guatemala one week later. I was hoping that my diarrhea problem would lessen since I would finish the steroids and antibiotic before that race? Only time would tell?

Stay tuned!