William G. McArthur, 11/17-11/21, 2011
(also see the video report)
On August 18, I received the following email from a running friend:
Hi Fellow Runners,
One of my greatest desires has been to travel to Cuba and run the Havana Marathon. This year it will be held on November 20, along with a half marathon. With the recent easing of US travel restrictions, it is now possible for US citizens to travel legally to Cuba under a group license for cultural, religious, and athletic functions.
A travel agent specializing in arranging US tour groups to Cuba tells me that a tour can be arranged for the Havana Marathon, if we can assemble a group of 10 or more. I am attempting to put together such a group. If interested, please contact me.
I responded that, although my training schedule wouldn't permit me to run the full marathon, I would be interested in running the half marathon and making the trip. Herb persisted over the ensuing weeks and caused Insight Cuba to put a Havana Marathon package on its website. My wife Cathy and I have wanted to travel to Cuba for several years, so we decided to go.
Wednesday, November 16
My wife Cathy and I left after lunch and drove to the Airport Marriott Courtyard in Miami. We arranged to leave our car in the parking lot while we were away and spent the rest of the afternoon sitting poolside at the hotel. We ate dinner in the Cane Grill at the neighboring Marriott Hotel. We set cell phone alarms and left a wake-up call.
Thursday, November 17
I got up at 4:00 AM and brewed a cup of tea and ate a Clif Bar for breakfast. We caught the 4:50 AM shuttle to the airport and had a long trek to find the Insight Cuba table on the lower level of Concourse J. We met Herb, Carol, and Jim, the other members of our small group of travelers. There were other Insight Cuba trips leaving on the same Delta charter plane. After checking in and passing through security, we five sat in a restaurant and had light breakfasts - I ate strawberries and drank a chai latte from Starbucks. Our plane left at 9:00 AM and took about 45 minutes to reach Cuba, a very short flight that cost us each $544 for the round trip.
We had quite a lot of undirected activity to get through the airport and change money into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) before meeting our tour guide Cal and getting onto our small bus. When Insight Cuba created the marathon tour, it attracted a diverse group of 21 adventurers that we met on the bus (except for one of the two runner/journalists that joined us later). We arrived at our hotel, Melia Cohiba, and were greeted with Mojitos. Our room, 525, was large and had a great sea view. After a brief time of settling in, we met in the lobby and headed out for a full day of activities.
We started with a walking tour of Old Town Havana (pics: 1,2,3,4), which reminded us of our visits to cities in Spain. Many of the buildings were constructed of coral, as we saw in Vera Cruz, Mexico. When we approached a Franciscan Church, I saw a statue that looked familiar. We had seen a statue just like it in Palma de Majorca in 2003. We ate lunch at a roof-top restaurant with a beautiful view. I enjoyed my best meal in Cuba with this first one. Our group had a chance to get to know each other and swap tales of derring-do.
We moved on to Revolution Square and its imposing buildings (pics: 1,2,3) and old cars (pics: 1,2). After our tour, we returned to the hotel to relax a bit. We went to dinner at the La Divina Pastora Restaurant (video) overlooking the entrance to the Havana harbor and its imposing fortress and lighthouse. After dinner, we attended the Cannon Blast Ceremony (video) at the fortress.
Friday, November 18
I got up early, as usual. We went to the huge breakfast buffet at 7:00 AM. After breakfast, we explored the hotel a bit (pics: 1,2,3,4). The first stop on our itinerary was a visit to ICAP headquarters in the Friendship House (pics: 1,2,3). We met with a couple of ICAP officials who explained how Cuba was trying to improve relations with the USA. Next, we visited the Sports University, an interesting combination of teaching and training elite athletes and educating Physical Education teachers. We were given a presentation of the curriculum by various school officials. Afterward, we were shown some of the indoor and outdoor facilities on campus.
We had lunch back at the Friendship House. After lunch, we traveled to the Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation facility (pics: 1,2,3). We were impressed by the expertise, enthusiasm, and sincerity of the doctors and other staff and by their dire need for renovation of their crumbling quarters and outdated equipment.
Our next stop was to complete our registration for the Marabana events for Sunday (5K, 10K, 15K, half marathon, marathon). The start, finish, and registration areas were across from the capitol building. We met several Cuban runners, all of whom were friendly. We ate dinner at the hotel buffet.
Saturday, November 19
I walked down to the Malecon to get some photos (pics: 1,2,3). I got my race shirt ready before breakfast and wondered how many others had their birth year as their bib number. After breakfast, we met with Cal and our driver Alejandro in the lobby. We drove back to the capitol for Maracuba, the "people's marathon" celebrated as a 3K frolic by over a million Cubans in every province. We were honored to be able to be involved in this special event (pics: 1,2,3,4) (video). I walked with Cathy for a mile and then jogged the rest of the way and a bit afterward as well to total 30 minutes of jogging. I was approached by a man named Fernando who spoke pretty good English. He explained that he was a retired mathematics teacher who used to run until he injured his knee. He asked if I would donate my racing shoes to his son following the half marathon the next day. I told him that if he located me after the race I would give him my shoes. I had given an older pair of racing shoes to Vivian, a member of our group of Cuban heritage, to give away to a runner. After the event, we went to the bowels of a baseball stadium for a "typical marathon lunch" of pasta, meat sauce, and cheese with bags of a sweet drink. Cal got me a plain dish of pasta with red sauce which was pretty good. We returned to the hotel for a short time and then reloaded the bus and headed downtown for a drive through the half marathon course, the first loop of two for the marathon. We had a police escort which allowed us to bypass traffic and red lights. Another bus was in front of us as we drove along. As we drove along, I could see that we knew many of the areas along the route from our visits on the previous two days. I also noticed five hills of varying steepness and length. I guess it's natural that the route appeared long. We had some free time for organizing gear when we returned to the hotel. We ate dinner at the hotel buffet again. I set two cell phone alarms and left a wake-up call for 4:00 AM.
Sunday, November 20
I awoke at 3:45 AM and went downstairs to the 24 hour bar in the hotel lobby. I was amazed at the crowd of late night drinkers in the bar and early morning check-outs in the lobby. I ordered a black coffee and ate 3 rolls from the past night's dinner while I drank the coffee. I brought a cafe con leche back to the room for Cathy. I mixed four 8 ounce bottles of Heed and a bottle of Recoverite and got my gear packed up in my duathlon backpack. We went down to the lobby to leave about 5:45 AM for the capitol. When we arrived at the start area, we checked-in: me for the half marathon and Cathy for the 5K. Many in our group posed with a few others including a Korean who asked if we were the official USA team (of course, we said yes). I also posed with the Castro brothers (not the revolutionaries, but members of our team who were running their first marathons) and the veteran marathoner Udon. I was wearing my rainbow New Balance 890s that I had only worn previously in the Detroit half marathon. I felt that Nicki, my coach, had prepared me properly, especially with the 34 miles of running that she had me do on the decks of the Carnival Victory the previous week as it cruised the southern Caribbean. The only things I wasn't prepared for were the hills and the polluted air due to the many old vehicles in Havana. I knew I would run a decent race, but not a PR (1:52). My race report is recorded in my blog. I finished the race in 2:02; meanwhile, Cathy finished the 5K, in which she ran and walked, in 0:44. Fernando found me and received his shoes with only 26.2 miles on them. Cathy and I both received our finisher medals. We also have T-shirts (pics: 1,2,3,4). Herb, Carol, Cathy, Jim, and I decided to walk the four miles back to the hotel. As we walked along the Malecon, we were passed by a marathoner who had an easel strapped to him with a painting that he was working on as he ran. We passed the 5K finish line as we got nearer to our hotel. After showers, a bunch of happy runners and walkers met for lunch at the hotel buffet. Many of us spent the afternoon at the pool. I swam for a while to loosen my legs and lay in the sun until almost dark. Our group had its farewell dinner at La Torre Restaurant atop a building not far from our hotel. The night view was spectacular. A lot of the younger members of our group headed out for the evening after dinner, but Cathy and I opted for a good night's sleep.
Monday, November 21
I awoke early and started to organize and pack our stuff. We went down to breakfast, checked-out, and then took a walk along the Malecon (pics: 1,2,3,4). When we got back, we boarded the bus for a visit to the Museum of the Revolution (pics: 1,2,3,4). Our last stop was for shopping in the old city, in a big warehouse across from the Franciscan Church aforementioned. As I was ready to board the bus for the airport, I spotted a car that, except for color shade, was similar to that in which Cathy and I had dated.
The reality of the end of the trip started to stir in us as the bus headed for the airport. We had an easier time checking-in than arriving, and soon we were gathered at tables near a lunch counter that had ham, cheese, and ham & cheese sandwiches. It was rather hilarious for me to try to get an "empty" sandwich of just bread. I bought a cheese sandwich and donated my cheese to the Thai marathoner Udon. We bought a couple of books and managed to get American cash for the last of our Cuban money. Before too long, our plane pulled up outside the door and we boarded in a manner that reminded me of "Casablanca" somehow. After 45 minutes in the air, we were back in Miami. We managed to get our bags and catch the Marriott shuttle back to our car. We decided to eat dinner back at the Cane Grill and then drive home, where we arrived at around 10:30 PM. We installed our main memory jogger in our Florida room.
- Cuba is a beautiful Caribbean Island with wonderful Spanish architecture; it reminded us of Puerto Rico, but on a much bigger and richer scale.
- The Cuban people are suffering greatly from the USA boycott. It's not part of some consistent foreign policy, else we would be boycotting Germany, Japan, and China.
- It would be great to visit Cuba in a cruise ship. Unfortunately, if a cruise ship, of any company, lands in a Cuban port, it cannot land in an American port (including Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands) for 6 months. There is a huge cruising public that would benefit from the ability to land in Cuban ports, so why not?
- The Cuban people are friendly, smart (illiteracy at 2%), and evidently in great shape.
- It seems that practically every country in the world has diplomatic relations with Cuba except for the one that doesn't have a red mark in it in this photo.
- Herb Townsend wrote a report on the trip for the Runners Gazette.
- Brian Metzler published an article on the trip for Running Times.
- I replaced my rainbow running shoes.
- James Castro's photos feature old cars, the beach, and nightlife as well as the Havana scenery.
- This is a report from an American that was also at the race.
- I was just behind a couple of British blokes as we neared Revolution Square (on their 1st loop of 2). I tried to catch them, but couldn't. Here is a report from a charity they're involved in for Cuban kids.
- Naples Daily News featured a letter from me as their "letter of the day"
- Richard Ferry posted his photos on Snapfish.
- Jenny Hadfield posted her beautiful video on her Runners World blog.