There’s a First for Everything

Matt running in Guatemala

Matt en route to running around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.

What’s an ultramarathon in Guatemala without a few “firsts?” Already, I’d like to forget and never repeat some of the first-time experiences from this race, yet there are a few keepers in there that were pleasant surprises.

On Saturday morning, Matt and I rode the 4 hour bus ride from Xela, where our friends were staying, to Guatemala City. Luckily, two of our friends were also running the race in the city, so strength in numbers for logistics, and the fact that our friend Jessica is fluent in Spanish, really made the day a whole lot easier. Guatemala City is a huge city, with different zones to partition it, and I was very nervous about taking the bus, getting a taxi to the race expo at a local mall, finding the race packet pickup, and then getting a ride to our hostel. Thankfully it all went off without a hitch, as all three things were relatively close to each other, and I never felt unsafe.

As for logistics of the races, one of the main reasons I switched from the 25k to the 50k was because it was just easier logistically. While the two races finished in the same place, San Carlos University, they started at two different times, 4am and 6am, in two different locations. Throw in the fact that we’re traveling in a foreign city with little knowledge of the area, and it just made sense for us to run the same race (and God forbid Matt run the shorter of the races offered). I also heard that very few women were signed up for the 50k, and I knew there was decent prize money, so I took a leap and hoped my legs were up for the distance. So far here in Guatemala, I’ve been running for the past 3 weeks, but only 5-7 miles at a time, and twice ran about 10-12 miles.

As for the race, it was exciting from the get-go. We were most concerned with getting a ride to the start, as it was on the outskirts of the city, on a main road, across from a Shell gas station…at 4am on a Sunday. Lucky for us, one of the guys at the hostel was going surfing at 4am, and said he had no problem dropping us off around 3:30 on his way out of town. It was all seeming to work out too easily, and then this morning at 3:30, our ride was nowhere to be found, and he lives in the hostel. We were about to skype a taxi to come pick us up, but our ride showed up, saying he was ready to leave. But after waiting for him to blend a fruit smoothie, pack up his things, wait for another friend, it was 3:43 and we still hadn’t left for the race. We were sitting in his car while he was getting his friend, thinking, “We’re not going to make it. Now what?” We left just a couple of minutes later and he sped through the city, dropping us off at the start at 3:55am. Five minutes to spare to use the one bathroom in the Shell gas station across the street, slap on a glowing wristband, listen to the Guatemalan national anthem, and start the race. Not our ideal race start by any means.

Part of our rushed start, and I’m thinking many runners will know exactly what I mean by this, caused me to not have my pre-race poops. Oftentimes before a race, and each morning for that matter, my body cleans house, getting rid of any extra weight or discomfort before beginning a run. Well today, my body would not oblige, and I got nothing out. I had no choice but to start the race knowing I’d have to hit a gas station at some point, or hope for a porta-john along the course. It was wishful thinking considering public restrooms are few and far between, and a porta-john, oftentimes the clean version of a public restroom, depending on when you hit it, is even more rare.

At 10k, I started feeling my stomach bubble and churn; something was on the move in there, and I didn’t know how to stop it. If anything, all the liquids and bananas I was consuming, were just helping push it all through. At 20k, I almost pooped my pants mid-stride and had to direct my entire focus on moving forward without pooping. After 20k, we rounded a bend, and I noticed there was an embankment off the side of the road, just up a small hill. I scurried up the hill, hopped over the embankment, squatted down behind the wall for cover, and barely pulled my pants down before pooping on the ground. For squeamish readers, you may want to stop here. Since I didn’t have any paper, and I didn’t want to chance using the dead leaves and grass, I used the inside of my long sleeve shirt to wipe. I hadn’t been wearing the shirt, as I had over-dressed, and was down to a short-sleeve. I delicately folded up the shirt and tucked it into the back of my tights, hoping I wasn’t leaving a trace of poop smell everywhere I went. It was the first time ever, on any run or race, that I’ve had to poop somewhere on the ground, and certainly the first time ever that I’ve used a shirt to wipe my butt. Definitely one for the books.

As for the course support, about every 5k there was a small table of water, Gatorade-like drinks, orange slices, and bananas. While it wasn’t on the scale of fully-supported, like some ultras in the US, it still sufficed, the volunteers were incredibly nice, and we had bought gu at the expo the day before, so our nutrition worked out just fine. The best part about it was that water was in bags. Yes, small plastic bags that held about 2 cups of water. I would just tear of a corner with my teeth, hold the bag to my mouth, and squeeze. Brilliant! Oftentimes, I end up getting half the water in my nose or all over my body when it’s in a regular cup, but I was able to drink a ton of water, really easily, and able to carry it for quite a while without spilling it. The bags of water are quite possibly one of my favorite aspects of all the races I’ve ever run.

The course was…interesting. It was the first time in a race that I had any and all of the following three fears while out on the course: getting completely lost, being bothered by people or dogs, and getting hit by cars and buses. The first 25k was all in the dark, with only the 50k runners, so not only was it hard to see where we were running, there were only so many people out on the course to follow. There was supposed to be a volunteer at every turn, but we all know what to think of the phrase “supposed to be”, and there wasn’t. There were signs, but they were difficult to see in the dark. Oftentimes I couldn’t see runners ahead or behind me, and at two different points I saw runners going to wrong way against the posted signs. I even met up with other 50k runners at an intersection, thinking, “Where in the world did you come from, if we’re supposed to be on the same course?” Needless to say, I paid close attention to the course, knowing a wrong turn would be a disaster in so many ways.

Another product of the darkness and unknown terrain was the fear of people and dogs milling about on the street. I’m sure I was safe and just paranoid, but when runners and volunteers were nowhere in sight, suddenly the race felt insignificant and completely pointless to the people whistling and the darks barking at me. The only great thing about the 4am start was that so few cars were on the road, that it made it much easier for road crossings and general comfort running on the road. Surprisingly, the course wasn’t coned off, no lanes were closed, and it was us fending for ourselves against the cars.

Which leads me to my last fear on the course: cars and buses. The second half of the race was an out and back section on a main road that spread 6 lanes across, only this time I was with all the 25k runners as well. Thank goodness for more people, as we were able to take over a lane and hold our position firmly with so many of us running together. As time went on, people spread out, and the cars and buses started taking back the road. A three-car car accident happened right behind our two friends that ran the 25k, and we all had a few close calls with the buses and their exhaust systems. I’m thinking emissions tests don’t matter here in Guatemala, because some of those buses blow out a black could of smoke, so thick that a person is engulfed in the smoke and covered from view. We all did our best to avoid them. I was glad to finish by 8:30am, before too many more cars and buses entered the streets.

Perhaps my favorite “first” of the race was placing and winning money! I finished third among the women, and won 1000 Quetzales, which is about $125. Before leaving, I was paid in cash, got my picture taken on the podium with the other winners, and had a smile that just wouldn’t go away. It was a win worth the crazy early start, the confusing course, and the crowded streets, not to mention all the pain my legs went through the last half.

All together, I’m happy I risked the longer race. My legs aren’t happy, but they’ve been much worse after a race like this, so I’m happy considering how bad it could be. And considering the elevation at around 5500 feet, and the hills in the second half of the course, I can look back on this race and be really happy with it, despite the experiences I’d prefer to never repeat. And last, but not least, I had to keep practicing my Spanish! If I wanted to speak to anyone, whether at the race expo, during the race, or after the race, it was all in Spanish. After finishing the race, the first place woman found me because she thought I placed second, and I had a legit conversation with her and the fourth place finisher. I had to pinch myself afterwards because it’s not every day I run a 50k, in Guatemala City, and can actually talk about the race afterwards in Spanish. It was a very cool day that even included a post-race splurge of Little Ceasar’s Pizza with Matt at the local mall. Ultrarunning and pizza – sometimes it doesn’t get any better, and it really doesn’t have to.

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