Why not run in Cuba? MaraBana Marathon (Cuba)

Havana, Cuba

Just like that Fidel vanished a mere few days after my visit. After my entry into his Socialist created heaven. As if he waited for me to get there, see his paradise and tell about it.

Now I won´t be talking much more about this dictator it was just an odd coincidence that he died right after I told my mom to take a photo in Revolution Plaza with his face in the background because someday it would be historical. She didn´t want to take the photo really because she was not a fan (obviously) but still she smiled for the camera. Let alone did she know it would be historical that same week and a few hours after their flight out! Crazy stuff!

My trip to Cuba was planned around their most popular road race, yes, I went to run, of course! Marabana (in Case you don´t see it right away…Marathon and Habana put together), it’s the local marathon which also offers a 10km and 21km race (3rd Sunday in November). I opted for 21km in prep for my 70.3 race that was 2 weeks later. I did not know hardly anything before I arrived about the race. Only once I arrived did I learn that it boasts about 6000 participants (among the 3 distances), some 2300 are local, and some how I did not know that the marathon was a loop course…aka my 21km repeated, I also did not know that it was so international…some 113 different countries participate. In 2016 the largest number came from the US, Germany, and Canada, this being the first year that the US made that ranking, and you sure did tell as you saw so many US runners on race day (not overbearing amounts but I as American did notice and was like damn I am not the only one, I mean it is the perfect excuse to get to know Cuba, right?!?). This was made possible by the recent change in US regulations that allow US citizens to go to Cuba alone if they comply with one of 12 reasons….Sports is one of them…so like a good runner I signed myself up! I was not going to miss this opportunity…well and flying from abroad helps, as you can just get the visa at the airport gate before boarding for $30 instead of giving a reason and actually applying like one needs to do if travelling from the US.

All this information made Marabana extra special, I was blown away by the fact that 113 countries participate, making it one of the most international races I have ever ran. This in addition to being in such an untouchable and distinct place, the whole race and experience in Cuba in general was an eye opener and oh so amazing.

I knew about this race for maybe a year or so, nothing like my other races with a story behind them, right? Wrong this whole trip is a story in itself as you will quickly see! Any way I signed up 2 months prior. I also invited my parents since they had mentioned several times they were interested in going and eventually they too were in on the plan. My trip was short, 3 days, not a holiday, while they planned to stay around 10 days.

I landed late at night, still with the envisioned arrival of taking a classic car into La Habana from there, which in reality at this hour there were none so I managed a regular taxi but first I had to change money, a long slow line outside the airport. You can only change money in Cuba, so everyone was in line. I knew it was best to take Euros but I decided to take US Dollars anyway and suffer the 10% exchange rate increase for those 3 days. The visa I purchased at the airline gate in Bogota upon leaving, in a last minute rush because for some reason they said in Panama (my layover) I wouldn´t be able to get the visa, so not true…buu as I had to lose more money to do the exchange as I only had USD by this point and they wanted Colombian pesos…bummer…but either way the visa cost somewhere between 25-30 USD. The visa is important to have before arriving, my mom for example failed this task and paid at the airport in Cuba a $90 visa (my parents flew thru Mexico, they did not do the US visa process either)…ups…not to mention she somehow got stuck in the airport 1 night in Mexico due to some ticketing issues…all alone because my dad did have his tickets worked out and some how he did manage a Cuba visa before leaving (lucky him). I really wanted a Cuba stamp in the passport upon arriving but they don´t stamp – at least not US passports.

Since my parents arrived before me I got lucky as they already had a place to stay and would be waiting for me even though I would arrive late (We had not seen each other since June but would see each other a month later for Christmas). They had reserved a place through Airbnb, the better way to book in Cuba, since money doesn´t all go to the government and it actually helps local Cubans earn money. The other option I recommend is a live-in; staying at someone’s house – renting a room…there are so many options once you get on the ground. I might even suggest a few days Airbnb and then do the live in only because internet is not easily available as my dad found out rather quickly (he planned to work like any other trip) therefore helping families out is limited on Airbnb since Internet in general has only been available for Cubans for a bit over a year and it is patchy…yup.

You actually see people near wifi zones in the city all gathered to use the internet. At night you see many groups like this, we found several groups at night near a hotel all on their phones. Speaking with a local he told me the computer you see in the group is a local hacker selling wifi from the free wifi, so interesting. The free wifi is sold because in order to even use the wifi you need to buy a card, with a code, available in various denominations and for various amounts of time. Aka wifi is free when you find a spot offering but either way you can not access it unless you have purchased this card. Shop around because the price of these cards vary. I didn’t even bother with it, break from social media, yes please! Also something interesting I noticed is with Internet being so new to Cubans that they actually prefer to use it before going out at night to meet others. They actually go to these spots to chat with guys and girls on Facebook messenger instead of meeting up with them or simply heading out to party and meeting people there (or talking to those at the wifi spot).

Also important to know before going is that although Americans can go to Cuba if they comply with 1 of 12 reasons their credit cards still are not accepted, not at the bank nor at restaurants (there is only 1 bank, government owned and run). Something my parents did not know and found out 2 days in when they were low on money. So upon arrival, having not seen them in months we stayed up and chatted a bit and sure enough this problem quickly came about. I thought everyone knew this, so wrong. Turns out neither my mom nor my dad travel with much cash and so their reality was they had maybe $300 usd, not exchanged, between the two of them. Their first question for me was how much cash did you bring?! Luckily for them, in Panama I took out $500 USD (Panama uses USD in case you did not know) instead of the estimated 300 USD I expected to spend on just myself. So lucky! Now being as they were staying longer this money I had I would be leaving for them….turning the whole trip into a budget trip and without a beach trip or my desired Trinidad stop…so I will be going back again…looks like in February (another sport event and well I loved Cuba so much I must go back and explore more!). As I found out later, that cash I left just barely got them through the trip but they did manage a beach day trip and some duty free items (a very different duty free, not your usual same stuff every airport duty free zone purchases, I highly enjoyed that change). Lesson learned for all bring cash, Euros preferred.

Back to my trip…
My first actual day in Cuba was relaxing, before anyone awoke I watched the classic cars pass on the street, the buses, regular cars and people too. I probably would have run to explore but I did not since I was actually sick. Once the parents were up we tried the bank with my card, but really my foreign cards are useless, the Colombian one had no money (end of month I had spent it all) and the Panamanian one only works in certain atms..thus confirming, what we had in cash was all we had. FYI, in case this happens to you, Western Union is available, but remember wifi and even long distance calls are nothing easy from Cuba. After we headed to pick up my race kit in Hotel Melia, turns out it was fairly close by so we all walked over. On the way we admired the architecture of the mansions (homes) on Avenida Prado. The hotel was located on the Malecon (main street along the ocean) and has a nice local art gallery and as I later read, the largest pool in the country (I did check it out, It was nice!) On the second floor of the hotel in a tiny room was the beloved race expo…something similar to what I had experienced in Panama a few years back. You entered a hallway on the way to the room and saw race branding, a few items for photos no more. What stood out to me was that it was an Adidas sponsored race and well the cute female race mascot. Inside the room you checked-in, got your race number and then a plastic bag with pins, poster and race information (2 pieces of paper)…be careful not to forget this since it was unorganized and I almost left without this part and I did want the information. Ta da that was all to the expo…oh and a kid trying to sell a pedometer just outside the room….I declined as I had a watch and wanted to run with the Nike Running App (NRC) to see if it worked there. (It did work, super cool!)

After packet pick up Dad tried again the internet with no avail then we managed to move on, walking the malecon until everyone was over it. We made it to a historic plaza next to what looked like an abandoned football/soccer field where some kids were playing baseball and caught a cab…yeah my first classic car ride!!! We headed into the historic center. The taxi dropped us off close to the capital building and we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets getting to know La Habana. Mom was looking for the Hemingway bar, Floridita off Obispo and Av. Belgica (we stopped several times while I was in town, mainly for the bathroom, never a drink) while dad and I were just taking it all in and being distracted. Who knows how we manage to stick together, each of us is always into their own thing…ha ha but one thing was certain, we were hungry so we looked for that asap.

The experience wondering around was the usual exploratory but there was something else I quickly noticed. I was confronted often more than not with a friendly and curious Cuban. Normally I try to avoid talking to strangers but here it was as if no one was a stranger, everyone wanted to talk with everyone, everyone was equally curious. My first experience was inside one of the government run grocery stores, the most basic store you will ever see, a few items of need and with just a few in number available. I wanted to see what they sold, sadly not much and sadly all rationed. Locals could purchase some extras but usually were out of cash not able to do so. In my first store an old lady standing next to me asked me if I had 0.75 CUC as she needed milk and was short. Milk was 1.75 CUC, I scoured my pocket and my dad his, we gave 0.25 cents extra and her face lit up, that little extra went a long way it seemed, she was so happy and thankful. An interesting, sad experience that opened your eyes to what is going on around you in Cuba. Milk is one of the foods that are rationed, they get 2 containers (they have various options, powder – evaporated and condensed – I never saw real milk, pretty sure it hardly exists) per person (I believe weekly). This ration on milk being an adult seems silly that it would be such a burden, as I hardly drink it but relative to kids, milk is something highly important for growth and that is where milk becomes of high demand and sadly hardly available in Cuba. Things like this kept happening daily here, whether it was a brother and sister who wanted to celebrate their birthday with a bit of rum, I helped, or a cute guy who wanted to converse over a beer that I had to invite, i fell for it, or other more serious matters. The effort was minimum on my part I felt but the people were just naturally so open and as foreigners we were too learn and hear from them.

I forgot to mention that there are two currencies, one for locals (CUP) and one for foreigners (CUC), the lower price usually being for foreigners since the local currency was 25.00 to the 1.00 CUC. but things were cheap for them. I did get some local CUP on the trip, on accident from taxis, since you should always have small bills when taking them otherwise you end up with CUP which they have more of and unfortunately you may never spend if they give you it. The CUC is pegged to the US dollar so that was easy to convert.

In Cuba if you don´t open your eyes while you visit you are really missing the cruel life Socialism has left its people and are just another visitor going through the motions of a trip anywhere else in the world. I remember later on my first night wanting cereal for breakfast, my go to on race day, we asked the Airbnb host, he mentioned a store but also was unsure if we would be able to find some, I had not seen any in all the stores I had entered that day. I ventured off with my mom to look. Luckily at the store they had it, one brand of cereal, nothing cheap, and apparently nothing too sought after in Cuba…makes sense regarding the milk and money issues. On the way back I spoke with my mom while eating some of it, sugar filled and yummy, usually not what I would have chosen, but only option in Cuba, so be it. In conversation I realized she had not noticed as much as me (of course it helps I speak Spanish) the sad situation in Cuba. She was going about the trip with eyes closed, a typical tourist on vacation going through the motions (I am sure more often than not this is the case and will be the case for tourists).. This socialist society yes she saw it but no it had not been for her so apparent of shocking the burdens or impact it had locally, she failed to analyze what she saw and have an opinion. Now I didn´t see everything obviously but I was analyzing my experiences there and each moment I found out more the more I became shocked by what I saw/heard. Putting it together, one bank company in the whole country, one telephone company, a grocery store full of hardly anything, rations on food, housing being passed down through the generations (if you only had one house and 3 siblings, who got the house?, and what if it was dilapidated, who had money to fix it?), police visiting businesses daily to collect money made (for the government), etc. Something very Latin that I hardly saw in Cuba which I though was weird were businesses run from private houses or street vendors (because first few could afford to do it and second the government wouldn´t allow it and controlled everything). If you think about it this hinders growth, creativity and so, so, much more. Despite all of this it seemed the people were proud to be Cubans and were happy in general but when you did ask them about it all, they were just ready to move on.

Finally race day!!!
I had many doubts for race day, living and racing in Latin countries I knew races/events tend to start late, lack hydration, and/or be disorganized and poorly marked (not all but it is something in my head before I race down here). Well Cuba surprised me, we left on time and I personally was not prepared for the on time start (being too latin myself), hydration was there, water / flavored water and an orange or grape juice were options along the course but maybe not enough for 42k (every time I took a sip of the water I was surprised and it took me a second to adjust since the majority I grabbed were flavored water and I was not used to this flavor or option but it did it´s job and I adjusted after the first sip every time I took one), from what I could tell the route was marked (maybe not well but streets were blocked, roads had km marked on them, etc), and well it seemed organized enough for the 6000 participants but there was major room to improve where distances transitioned.

In general, I loved this race. It started in front of the capitol building, my parents lined up a bit further down from the startline and with so many runners, me not prepared to go, we almost missed each other but I did find them and wave (they also saw me). Many local runners were on a mission to run fast, I started with that feeling but slowed down to take it in (my slow), find my parents, etc. This was the best plan until the 5km mark where 10km runners turned around and headed back to the finish leaving marathon and half with more room and lots to see. After leaving the center of town we made our way to the Malecon and I tell you it was amazingly beautiful running along it, the clouds and ocean at sunrise were special and the large mass of runners you could see ahead was pretty darn cool too. The best one could do in this race is wear something representing your country or saying who you are because people were from everywhere and as runners we accept all. I was personally happy I choose to run with my Boston Tee that I had made with GO T GO on the back. At the 5km mark I took things a bit more serious since it became easier to move (still lots of people). The race continued along the Malecon for a few more km then went inland. We passed the Hotel Melia and into new territory 😀 that was hilly. We passed the Zoo, the Sports Complex and then turned to make our way back to the center along the way passing Revolution Plaza. In the end I managed nearly negative splits every mile (where you run faster every mile) which I am pretty sure in a 21k that is a first for me since I usually have a steady pace. I finished 1:39:27, my fastest in awhile, quite pleased with the time (plus i had stopped to try to help a dehydrated cuban with no avail – he appeared at the finish on a stretcher soon after me)! At the finish runners of 21k were ushered into a tiny hallway to exit and pick up race medal and hydration while those of 42k continued on for another round on the loop. This part was confusing I think because as a runner you want to stop there, look, rest, congratulate others who ran with you, etc and being not separate exits it slowed down those who continued and took away part of this comradery among runners. It also confused my parents who were waiting after the finish…sad since this was tecnically my dad´s first time watching me officially race and he missed the whole finish….I looked for them as I went in to the finish area but it wasn´t until after I got my medal that I found them and they saw me….guess dad will have to try again (my mom having seen me race several times understood the concept but never convinced dad to move – oops).

I enjoyed every minute of the race, noticing the culture around the race, what locals wore, how fast they were, who lined the streets, viewed it from their window/balcony (a very typical Cuban thing as my parents had noticed), volunteers, the traffic at the blocked intersections, etc. Something interesting to see for me was what locals wore since I imagine they can´t really afford to invest in running shoes. I saw many converse style shoes, some had running shoes, some had extremely worn out running shoes and clothes were a mix of everything but also generally pretty worn out. Basically they use whatever they have. My shoes, I had chosen with the intent of giving them away afterwards. This I actually did do but I believe it is also a business for some so be wary as you can be easily tricked (tip for next time). I found a guy after with Nike skateboarding shoes who had run 21k in them and I was about to ask his size when another guy swooped in with way worse shoes he´d run with and I was quickly convinced that he needed them more. Only later did I realize through photos my family took that he had a bag full of shoes collected from runners like me. Either way I am happy, he will make money selling them at least. Another cool experience were the people from NYC I met, we randomly shared a cab ride in the Am (something hard to find at 5:30 in the morning – I actually made the cab stop for them because why not they were runners, I was a runner, and we were headed to the same spot) and saw each other after the race. After running we chatted about the experience. Turns out they run with NRC (same group I created in Bogota :D) in NYC and were in a huge group of runners from a local Run Crew called Bridge Runners (with t-shirts specially made for the trip – LOS Bridge Runners – ha ha loved the local twist!). Very cool to run into people with the same passion and same connection through Nike, plus they were just cool people in general.

Something that occurred to me after the race which I never figured out is how do Cuban’s sign up or who decides who races each year? Being Socialist I imagine you apply to be chosen to run as I can’t imagine they pay. Also I somehow missed it but later learned (like this week) that the day before the race there is Maracuba a run iniciative for the whole country to get moving, from kids to adults, and it is a highly participated event country wide…definitely not missing it next time.

After the race I changed and we spent a good portion of the am and early afternoon wandering the city more, dad trying to get internet again then us heading home so I could shower and change into proper clothes. I always try to rest but I just couldn´t so my mom and I headed to Revolution Plaza which we found out was a 15 minutes walk from the house we were at so again to Avenida Paseo this time away from the water to explore. I actually saw the plaza on my run, tried to take photos but failed, so I was glad to go back properly and see what was going on there. Lots of tourist buses came and went, lots of classic cars came and went, then we came, rested and went home. To top off the day that evening we walked down our street towards town because my parents wanted me to see the Nacional Hotel (they had visited before I arrived and enjoyed their visit), the old fort used for the Bay of Pigs and later converted into the largest government run hotel. It was night time and I was not all too impressed. I did enjoy the many areas to lounge and the elegant entry with palms and classic cars, very 1950s…it is probably great for a mojito at sunset though. After eating dinner dad wandered back home, probably to try internet again, while I still wanted to explore so mom and I headed into the center. Our ride, an old couple posing as a taxi, they sweetly chuckled as we got in probably a previous dialogue like this ¨honey a few extra bucks, let´s see if it works, it did!¨, so cute and we went along with it (pretty sure mom did not notice). We had them drop us off by the cathedral, a cathedral I didn’t even know existed as we had failed to discover it until this point lol….it was a beautiful, charming area actually and there were plenty of people roaming about. I liked it so much the next day I dragged everyone there again so I could see it in day light and well so Dad didn´t miss the famous area of La Habana. That night Mom and I didn´t stop at the cathedral but wandered a bit farther before calling it a night. We ended up taking a bike taxi to Buenavista Social Club (we could have walked it was super close to the other plaza, Plaza Vieja) but decided against walking and well the show we didn´t attend since it was kind of pricey for us tourists with no cash on their trip….next time I guess (Famous Cuban band and night club). Our last stop that night was a nice art deco style hotel to use the bathroom and then we sat on a bench in a wifi zone hanging out and letting me chatting with locals using internet for a bit.

The next day was my last. My parents had to move to another house, one they had my brother reserve for them on Airbnb since they were not able to do so using the Internet there. The whole process was a big ordeal as Dad had to call my brother, hope he answered then go back later and call to check to see what he reserved for them. We had obviously looked for places while walking around, there were tons to choose from but in the end the best was Airbnb so they could save the money I left them for the next 5 days instead of using a good chunk of it on housing…it was the best plan But if you have money don’t be scared to seek a place when you arrive there are plenty. We spent the morning walking to this new area, again through neat neighborhoods with amazing trees. This owner did not speak English so part of the check-in was asking the important questions for them before their Spanish speaker/translator left town. They get by without me translating but it just makes it easier on them knowing the details up front instead of trying to figure it out later or learning the hard way.

My trip ended with one last stroll through the historic center for coconut ice cream I had seen the first day and couldn’t get out of my head, a rushed lunch to go, and a search for a taxi that took quite a bit of walking…in the end I arrived for the flight but as usual late and worried In the end I even had time to buy some small gifts.

Overall I loved my experience in Cuba, however short it was and yes I will be back. The race was one of the best I´ve ever experienced being so international, beautiful and culturally different than any other race I´ve been to, not to mention challenging. I loved the weather at this time, always with a breeze making running superb in La Habana. Even if you don´t go for the race, their are plenty of areas to run, large streets with parks in the middle. The Malecon is a favorite for running, so don´t miss it…breeze and waves breaking over it giving you a nice splash (how could you not want to run there)! I never saw locals running there (only tourists), though they must. The people are super friendly, it was pretty darn safe, and their is a curiosity in the air that I have never felt any where else I have traveled that leaves you begging for more and more.

La Habana is literally a walk into past times, from the cars, the run down but beautiful buildings and houses, the way of looking at the world (or lack of knowing about the world but curiosity to meet it), the pride they show for their Socialist country and their reactions to a recent access to Internet.

I highly recommend a visit to Cuba but I really worry that when more Americans do venture here they will literally miss the point of not just seeing but analyzing and questioning what Socialist government rule has done and how it has affected locals and instead only see Cuba as an amazing and beautiful place to visit. They will not come with this idea to help or to understand but rather abuse and leave. I asked taxi drivers if many American´s have come and for majority they have never met any, something as a traveler you don´t hear in many places and something nice to hear for once. We all know this is changing now so don´t wait any longer if you want to know the Cuba before America came to take over…especially with Trump coming into office (I am sure he see´s the island as a business investment not a political issue). DO GO TO CUBA WITH OPEN EYES AND THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE EXPERIENCING, Please.

One thing I do recommend on a visit is to bring old clothes (for warm weather), toiletries, candy or food items you think are probably there – really aren’t (I saw snickers and Halls), toys for kids or anything basic and give it away when you go. You would be surprised what is lacking and how something like that goes a long way. I nearly always do this when travelling to poor countries or in this case in Cuba. It is little and it all helps the reward is simple, an unforgettable smile. One of my favorites on this trip was some local candy from Colombia I brought and gave away. I thought “oh they will have it (traditional coconut and caramel sweets)”, they did not, and every time I gave it out it was to someone who was not smiling, usually at work and their reaction was an instant and huge smile on their face. For something so tiny and simple it literally changed their mood and hopefully their day. Don´t think twice, bring anything and choose wisely who you give it to.

A smile is worth a thousand words.

Another trip to Cuba for bikepacking and triathlon

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