Marathon 5/7: South America, Rio De Janiero, Brazil – July 2014

Despite hearing numerous stories of how wonderful South America is, it has taken me 32 years to travel to any country further south than Panama (within the Americas).

During my planning for my South American Marathon, it occurred to me that the 2014 World Cup was happening only a few weeks before the Rio marathon. Once I realized this opportunity, there was no question as to which marathon I should run in South America.

My tentative plan was to fly into Rio, watch the world cup final, before making a circular trip, around South America, through Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay before arriving back in Rio for the marathon on the 27th July.  I knew tickets for the final would be hard to find, but even if there was a small chance I knew I should take the opportunity. If I failed to find a ticket I could still experience the full atmosphere of the greatest sporting event in the world, in Brazil, the home of football.

Hotels were expensive, but I managed to find an apartment on AirBandB overlooking the Maracana stadium where the final would be held. I thought to myself that even if I couldn’t find tickets I could always buy a pair of binoculars (or telescope) and watch the game from the balcony of the apartment (as it turns out that wouldn’t be possible!)

Brazil reminded me of Thailand, the hustle and bustle coupled with a sense of community, coupled with the grittiness and disparity of rich and poor.

IMG_7920I slept a little on the plane from North Carolina but the vibe and excitement of Brazil playing Holland for 3rd and 4th place was enough to wake me up more than any coffee could. I thought the perfect place to watch this match would be Copacabana beach, the iconic meeting place for Brazilians. Huge crowds gathered on the beach from all over the world. So many different nations were coming together for something bigger than themselves.

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The atmosphere was electric, fueled by passions and the entrepreneurial Brazilians who were creating makeshift bars on the beach, throwing together some amazing Caipirinha cocktails (the national drink of Brazil) with the flair and skill of any high end bar man.

IMG_7980The following day I decided to take the opportunity to see some of the iconic sites of Brazil including Christ the Redeemer. I thought to myself that  as it was the day of the World Cup, everyone would be focused on that . How wrong I was!  The ride up the mountain to see this iconic structure was breath taking, turn after turn the views would become more and more panoramic  and extraordinary until we reached the top and saw a stunning vista of mountains, beaches and blue, blue skies, with Christ the Redeemer looking over this amazing city.

After meeting some fellow solo travelers, Rodriguez from Chile and Paul from Holland, and sharing a fews beers overlooking the beautiful city of Rio, we had the spontaneous idea to go for a traditional Brazilian meal. I had heard stories of Brazilian restaurants, where waiters come round with large cuts of fine BBQ meats, cutting off as much as you could eat and I was eager to see what it was like for myself.  The meal did not disappoint.

As over a million Argentines fans had come to town to watch their team play tickets to the final were between $4000-$5000, and from the way the beach was the night before, if the atmosphere was that intense for a game for 3rd and 4th place, the final would be phenomenal, so we decided to head to the beach to watch the game on the big screen there.

After making an international cocktail of friends from countries including Japan, Malaysia, India, America, Brazil, Australia and Germany, we shared stories over Caipirinha’s, as we watched the game. The beach was a surge of bodies. Some people were climbing up and sitting on goal posts to get a better view and despite  being  precariously close to collapsing, no one seemed to worry. Towards the end of the game, after Germany scored it felt like a stampede of people leaving the beach as the Argentineans realized that their dreams were coming to an end.

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After the game, one of the guys who had rented an apartment right on the beach, invited us back to enjoy the amazing views and to finish the day with a few more drinks. As we walked back we saw one huge Argeitnian man barge past, knocking past one of the guys in our group , in a confrontational manner. Luckily our friend didn’t antagonize the guy but a few feet down the road, a Brazilian man who encounter the same barge stopped. Within a second the Argentine giant threw off his shirt and hit the guy square in the face. Emotions running high are no excuse for such actions and it was a sad end to a wonderful day.

With my time in South America, only short, I flew out the next day to the Brazilian side of Iguazu. I had seen photos of the waterfalls of Iguzau, and I still remember the first time I saw one. I asked myself:  ‘Is this image real of has it been computer generated?’ It looked so unreal.

The anticipation of seeing this magnificent giant in real life was quite the expectation, and normally when I have such high expectations, they fail to live up to the high standards that I have for them.

We often use the word awesome too frivolously, someone buying us a coffee is “awesome”, the weather is awesome, a parking spot opened up…..”awesome”. However, in reality, something that ‘inspires awe’ is a real rarity and and this ‘awe-inflation’ has caused us to become disconnected from something that is described as such.  With this being said, I can truly say that Iguazu falls, took my breathe away, it was that immense. The only way that I can describe it is to compare it to a cross between the Grand Canyon, and  Niagara falls.

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After 2 days on the Brazilian side of the falls, I crossed over  to the Argentinean side. Most people say that the Brazilian side is more beautiful, with it’s  panoramic views. Maybe it was the crisp blue skies and the wonderful weather, but I actually preferred the Argentinean side, which gives you an opportunity to not only see panoramic views of the falls, but also the chance to get up close on some amazing trails that overlooked the phenomenal falls.  I watched the falls for hours with the spray of the waterfall hitting me in the face, it was a magical day.

From the Argentinian side of the falls, I flew to Buenos Aires. My AirBandB host, kindly picked me up at the airport, and proceeded to give me a tour of the city by night. It was interesting to see this locals tour of Buenos Aires. We visited a few tourist spots including La Boca, which seemed magical and a little creepy with no tourists walking the normally busy streets. It was very eye opening to see this different side of the city. We drove through some poor and industrials areas, and along the river on a road that was disused and not meant for cars . When we stopped at the football stadium of Boca Juniors, we  wondered around the streets to get a feel of what this stadium must be like when the throng of fans are watching a game.

We finally arrived at my hosts lovely apartment at around midnight. She asked if I was hungry, and never one to turn down pizza, I eagerly nodded my head. We opened a bottle of beer and as we talked I learned all about the politics, problems and situation in Argentina. Not only was my host kind enough to buy pizza, but the following day they prepared a marvelous breakfast, with freshly squeezed orange juice and as I was out of clothes, she kindly offered to wash them for me. I highly recommend using Air B and B if you want to experience a destination with the advice and insight of a local.

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Buenos Aires was a very interesting city, one I could see myself making many trips back to. It has a colonial feel, with a number of interesting buildings and wonderful markets. There was a mix of bohemian and modern elements to the city, together with it’s scultpures and international feel, it made it feel like a very livable city. The highlight of my trip was staying at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, which was converted from a palance into a hotel. The service, style and overall experience at the hotel was phenomenal, especially since the room was free after applying for the Hyatt Credit card which gave me 2 free nights at this otherwise $700 a night hotel.

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From Buenos Aires, I took the ferry to Colonia in Uruguay. Colonia is one of the oldest cities in South America. With it’s cobbled stoned roads and vintage cars in the streets, it’s a location that is perfect to visit for a couple of days from Buenos Aires. After spending two relaxing days in this town I took the bus to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay where I spent another couple of days exploring.

After hearing that Montevideo was meant to be one of the most liveable cities, I was a little disappointed with what I found. The central area where I was staying closed early with very little going on. Maybe it was my inadvertent comparison to Rio and Buenos Aires that caused  this to happen, regardless, I didn’t have a bad time, just not as good as I was expecting. Visiting the museum of Flight 1972 was the highlight of  my stay in Montevideo. The museum is a tribute to the Uruguayan rugby team whose flight crashed  en Route to Chile in perilous conditions on the Andes mountains. The owner of the museum gave me a tour of the exhibits which told a remarkable story of perseverance in the face of adversity and the importance of staying optimistic, one of the key factors that kept the survivors alive. From MonteVideo I flew back to Rio where I would run the marathon

The Rio Marathon

Unable to find an Italian restaurant to load up on carbs, the night before the marathon, I resorted to a german hotdog, fries and 3 beers. This wasn’t the healthiest of meals, however it satisfied a craving and it actually may have turned out to be my secret weapon (thought I wouldn’t advise you using the same strategy!).

After the carb filled meal, I prepared everything I needed the next day for my run. After making this mistake a few times, I’ve come to realise that it is one of the smartest things that you can do, so that you can clear your mind of all those small items on your mental to do list that you need to get ready for a race ( I still managed to forget to cut my toe nails, but fortunately I didn’t get an blisters).

I went to bed at 8pm, possibly due to all the carbsI had consumed at dinner, I was  able to get to sleep quite quickly. I set my alarm for 4am but was woken  by the night porter who I had asked to order a taxi for me the night before. Apparently he was unable to do so,  however I had a few back up plans in place to get to the start of the marathon on time.

As I left the guest house, into the dark streets of Santa Teresa of Rio De Janeiro,  the light rain cooled  my face as the glow from the street lights shone down, it felt eerily like Christmas eve.  I wondered what this day would have in store for me. Unlike previous marathon, I no longer had that  feeling of nervousness as to whether I would be able to complete the 26.2 miles. After finishing a marathon in the blistering heat of Sri Lanka, I knew I had enough mental fortitude to push myself, the only reason I would not complete the run, was if injury stopped me or if I was unable to get to the starting line.

As I descended the steps  to the main street, I could see that despite it being close to 5am, the streets were still buzzing with people from their Saturday night partying. As I flagged down a taxi, I thought to myself how all these people were going to be asleep in bed as I would be running 26.2 miles.

I arrived at the location where the busses were transporting people to the start of the race. It was well organised, with many busses and volunteers directing people on where to go. Despite all the volunteers, I did almost make one mistake which could have ruined my day.

There were different busses for the full marathon and the half marathon. “Half Marathon” in Portuguese is “Meia Maratona”, so when I heard the volunteers saying “Meia Maratona” all I heard was “marathon” and thought I was heading in the right direction for the bus. Luckily I started talking to a women in the line, and it came up in the conversation that I was in the wrong line. She kindly directed me to the busses across the street that were going 13.1 miles further down the coast to the start of the full marathon. As I walked to the bus, I thought to myself, imagine if I had not started talking to this women, or if she didn’t bother to help me. I could have easily got on the wrong bus and quite possibly missed the start of the marathon. The kindness of strangers and the gratitude that I often feel for them is something that I try to never forget.

The atmosphere was really starting to come alive, as we arrived at the start line. Load music was playing, and people were running around trying to keep themselves warm from the early morning breeze and drizzle. I walked over to the nearby beach, trying to remain fully in the moment, I watched as two surfers ran into the water. As I ate my breakfast of a day old croissant, yogurt and apple juice, I watched how they waited for the perfect moment trying to catch the ride of their life, something that they would no doubt remember forever. Today I was about to catch a wave myself, a wave of 30,000 people who were about to run a marathon through the streets of Rio.

As I made my way to the starting line, I could feel the electricity starting to build. The Brazilian national anthem was sung, people clapped and the fog horn was sounded. We were off!

The sea of people started slowly but a pounding rhythm soon started. We dashed around lampposts, and tried to avoid big puddles. I dodged people and weaved in and out of groups who were running together. I love the start of a race, everyone is in a jovial mood, expectations are high and there is always interesting people to spot. As we passed the first sign indicating that we had ran a kilometer, we all cheered, it was only a short cheer, as we realised what this meant, another 41.2 kilometers until we finished.

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As the kilometer signs started to pass every 5 minutes or so, I felt like I was going at a good speed. When I looked at my GPS watch I realised that I was actually running a bit too fast. I don’t usually try and beat my previous times when I run, I realise that I am getting older and I would rather enjoy the run and the scenery and be in the moment, than worry about beating one of my previous records. I had not trained to run a certain time, I just trained at a pace that felt good for me, not too hard and not too easy, but today I was going fast and every attempt that I made to slow down, didn’t seem to change my pace. I actually thought that something was wrong with my GPS.

As I was comfortable at the speed I was going, I said to myself, that I would continue going at this speed until the next road sign, then I would slow down if I felt like it. Each road sign I would pass, I would feel just as charged. As I got to mile 10, I realised that if I kept this pace up until the half marathon mark, I could run a time of around 4 hours even if I slowed down for the second half.

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As I passed the halfway point, my pace still remained constant . However, at mile 16  I realised that I was starting to slow. This was to be expected considering the pace that I was running at. From this point on, things started to become exponentially harder. I started to feel the shuddering threat of a cramp every few minutes. I started breaking down each mile into half mile chunks and reminding myself that I had signed up for this race and I would enjoy it, even if I was in pain at this very moment.

With each half mile that past, I felt my pace slowing. Luckily, we were now entering the popular beach areas of Ipanema (as in the song ‘The girl from Ipanema”) before heading on to the famous Copacabana beach front. I knew there would be a good crowd of people along these beaches and it was exactly what I needed to help me push through these painful last miles.

I remember the last 2 miles being the hardest, I knew I just had to hang in there for another 15/20 minutes. As I ran, I thought about the museum in Montevideo, and the perseverance and fortitude that the survivors from Flight 1972 had shown. This inspired me to keep going. Each step was now painful and a real effort but I thought that if I could just keep moving I might be on track to beat my first and fastest marathon time, a prospect that I wouldn’t normally care about, but now felt so close and within my reach.

With just one kilometer to the finish line, I starting counting every 1/10 of a mile as an accomplishment. As I rounded the corner and headed down the home stretch with people on either side cheering, my leg seized up and a sharp, painful cramp hit my thigh. With just 0.2 miles to go, I stopped in my tracks, holding on to the barrier, separating the runners from the  crowd. I can’t understand Portuguese, but I knew what the people were trying to say to me “Keep going!” “You are so close”. A medic came over and asked if I needed help, which I declined. After a few seconds, the sharp pain subsided, and I hobbled the last 0.2 miles, pushed on by the encouragement of the marvelous crowd.

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With all the excitement, I had forgotten to look at my watch to check my time. After the pain of the cramp, the time on my watch was quite the ointment to allow me forget about the discomfort, my time:

3 hours and 47 minutes and 58 seconds.

I had run 45 minutes faster than my  last marathon, and I had beaten my fastest marathon  by over 11 minutes, something I never thought that I would be able to do.

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As I collected my medal I sat down on the cold hard road, allowing my body to rest after the arduous 4 hours I put it through. As I allowed my body to rest my legs started to spasm and sharp, painful cramps really started to hit me. It was an emotional roller coaster ride, from pain, to pleasure to more pain. Some kind runners came to help me as they could see (and hear) my groans. It took me a second to tell them that I couldn’t speak Portuguese, but never the less, as runners, we understood the universal language of cramps.The kind samaritans lifted my legs to stretch them out out which helped a great deal. Despite the assistance  the cramps continued for 30 minutes and I needed the help of 4 people to get me back on my feet.

After walking to find a taxi to my guest house in pouring rain, the hotel owner came running to greet me at the gate, with an umbrella and a happy smile declaring “the champion has returned”, it was good to be back,  I could shower, get some food and recover from my what my body went through.

I had completed my 5th marathon. Only two more to complete my goal of running a marathon on every continent. This marathon taught me that just because we get older and convention says that you should run slower or be less able, it doesn’t mean that convention applies to you. I feel like I am the fittest I have ever been in my life. I don’t expect to get better with age, but I am also not shutting myself off to the prospect.

 

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