My first 7K(-ish) in Mexico
Trip Start Jul 29, 2012
21Trip End Aug 01, 2013
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One morning last month, my run took me by, and through, the Parque Colosio, our local city park. The park houses outdoor volleyball courts, a hilly, 630 meter dirt path, a dirt soccer field, playground equipment, exercise equipment, a covered pavilion, a baseball field, and other recreation activities such as four square and hop-scotch. The baseball field is the one I’ve seen a man mow with a weed whacker. The dirt path is my nearby option for "interval" training. The playground equipment is of the genre eradicated from playgrounds in the States over twenty years ago – steep metal slides, teeter totters, and the kind of spinning platform that spits kids off when it gets going fast. Instead of wood chips or rubber shavings on the ground to cushion one's fall, it's all hard dirt.
I forwent the opportunity to join the free “Zumba” class at the pavilion, opting to save the techno-aerobic line dancing for a different morning. On the way out of the park, I noticed a large banner advertising a running race on Sunday, September 23 … the first sign of a running scene I had seen in Oaxaca – a 7 kilometer road race.
I returned to the park with my camera two days later, took a photo of the banner, and began trying to figure out how to sign up. The race didn’t have any web presence, much less online registration, so I asked Leah to call to find out details. A week later, I drove twenty minutes to the prep school that was hosting the race. My limited Spanish got me by the guard and into the inner sphere of the school, where I stumbled through the registration process. I plunked down my US$7.50 registration fee and provided my name, address, phone number, age category, and Leah’s phone number as an emergency contact. That was it. I was surprised that I didn’t need to provide a birthdate to validate my age category. With a feeling of accomplishment, I took my receipt and tri-fold brochure back to the car and tried to discern what I could of the race details … a course map, race times, awards. Did I see what I think I saw? Cash prizes of US$90, $75, and $60 for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place masters runners? Wow. I suddenly felt pressure.
Before hitting the sack, I laid out my things for the morning. In the States, I have a handful of singlets, shorts, and shoes to choose from. Here, I have one singlet and one pair of race shorts, so there was no decision to be made. I brought three pairs of running shoes to Oaxaca – trainers, trail shoes, and cross country flats - none of which were right for this race. I opted for my trail shoes.
In the morning, I downed a banana at 7am and drank some Gatorade. We arrived at the race at 8am and recognized a familiar energy about. Runners were beginning their pre-race warm-up routines, kids lined up for their short races (Micah and Zola wished they could run, but they were too young), and an announcer was getting everyone fired up over a LOUDspeaker. Mexicans take their sound systems very seriously.
Butterflies in my stomach – after all, I was representing not only the Big Sky Distance Project, but all of the United States – I began my warm-up thirty minutes before race time. After a stop in the bathroom (I’m glad I had brought my own toilet paper, as the bathroom had none), I headed to the starting line five minutes before 9am. Glancing around, I saw many fast-looking runners, and I sensed them sizing me up. I figured I could line up near the front, so I slid into the second row of runners and waited for the gun to go off. To my right about ten feet was a Kenyan runner wearing a Oaxacan team singlet. We made eye contact and he gave me a nod and flashed a peace symbol that seemed to recognize our common bond as non-Mexican-born runners.
Well, the “starting line” turned out to be more of a general concept than a specific starting point. Over the next few minutes runners proceeded to step in front of the runners who had lined up on the starting line. By the time the gun went off, I was about seven rows deep and followed runners of all shapes, sizes, genders, and ages. Leah told me later that I stood many inches above the other runners around me. The field went out fast. It felt chaotic. After the first 400 meters, I think I was probably in 100th place in the field of 600 runners. Little by little, I worked my way up so that I was in touch with the guys I suspected were also masters runners. At 2 km, I think I may have been in 50th place. Beginning the second 3.5 km lap, I may have picked up another ten to twenty places. I lost some of those places when I stopped to re-tie my shoe, which had worked its way out of a double-knot - the shoe laces on my trail shoes have never been great.
From that point on, not much changed. I plugged along with a couple of younger runners. The aid stations gave out disposable plastic water bottles, rather than cups of water. I opted not to take any water, but in a cool show of sportsmanship, one of the guys I was battling with took a swig of water and offered me the rest. I graciously declined his offer, and reflected on what a heart-warming gesture it had been.
Nearing the finish line, I recognized the orange building on the corner and began my kick up a gradual incline. It turned out to be the wrong orange building. I had begun my kick too early and was pretty pooped. So I ramped back and let the young guys catch back up … and then pass me when we came to the next orange building on the corner. With the finish line in sight, I heard the crowd come to life, glanced over my shoulder, and saw a guy turning on his jets to reel me in. I responded with what I had left in my tank and just managed to hold him off. I didn’t need to speak Spanish in order to shake hands and give congratulations to the runners who had finished near me.
Now for the results. Er … um … well … there were no official results. Nothing posted. No post-race email. No website to check. I don’t know where I placed, but when the third place masters runner went up to receive his prize, I recognized him as the guy about ten seconds ahead of me. So, I assume I was fourth among masters runners, just out of the money. The overall winner was the lone Kenyan in the field.
If it hadn’t been for my own watch telling me how slowly I had run, I may have felt okay about my race. But, suddenly, I felt like a poser … like the equivalent of a ski bunny in running shorts. I felt like I hadn’t been able to “bring the noise”, and was therefore just a skinny, tall-ish white dude in an official-looking singlet and short shorts.
It turns out that the “exactly” 3.5km loops were akin to the 4pm “en punto” start time for the pre-race meeting and the rough approximation of a starting line. It wasn’t until a few days later, when I responded to my friend Matt’s inquiry about my race that I took the time to map the route on gmap-pedometer.com and discovered that the course was indeed closer to 7.5km than 7km. I had run slower than I had hoped, but not as slow as I had first calculated. It’s funny how something like that can play with a runner’s head. Now, I feel content with my effort. And I have a medal, a hat, a t-shirt, and the official race photo, which Leah bought for $2.30 after the race, to commemorate it.
After the awards ceremony, we took the kids to a nearby park. Leah and I sat on a bench and watched them play. At one point, Leah said, “Kids, five more minutes.” I turned to her and said, ”Where do we need to be?” She thought about it and responded, “Nowhere, I guess. Okay kids, keep playing.” I drove the car to a car wash I had spied during the race (Micah and Zola love using the word "spy"). The owner told me it would be done in an hour, washed inside and out by hand, and would cost about $3.50. So, Leah, Micah, Zola, and I found a quaint backyard eating place (“restaurant” doesn’t quite seem to fit), had a great lunch of memolas, quesadillas, and soup, and enjoyed our drive home in our freshly cleaned car (Jimmy and Gary, you’d be impressed by their workmanship!). On the way home, Leah said she’d sized up her competition and figured that she would have placed high, not because she's fast but because there were few masters women participating (Leah's words, not mine). She commented that Mexican masters women definitely didn't benefit from Title IX. I hope I’ll get to write about Leah’s first Oaxaca race in the not-too-distant future. We’ll keep running around, looking for banners.
--- I’ll write a more general entry about our experience running in Oaxaca in a blog to come.---