Executive Summary: Official chip time 1:59: 39. 1,299/2,688 OA. 269/1,024 women. Time according to Garmin: 1:58:37.
Background: I am spending 8 weeks in Costa Rica this summer chaperoning high school exchange students, who are placed all over the country with different families. I saw this race online when I was planning the trip, and decided that it would be a great experience running a race in another country. I have been here 3 weeks so far, which was actually a nice amount of time for me to adjust to running here, with both higher elevation and humidity than I am used to back in Oregon (although neither is too extreme here in San Jose where I am staying).
I am also 4 weeks into training for my first full marathon, which is coming up in October. So although I had goals for this race, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my marathon training for the sake of a HM. I moved a few miles around this week (ending up 4 miles short), and swapped my Thursday marathon pace run for easy miles instead, but other than that I just stuck to my marathon plan and figured I’d just show up on race day and give it whatever I had.
That said, my PR is currently 1:55:02, and I feel like I’m in as good or better shape than when I set that last fall, so of course it was on my mind that I’d like to break that if possible. But I didn’t know anything about the course, so I really didn’t have too much riding on it.
A bigger deal was that I had a hard time this spring with the mental aspect of racing and keeping my focus once the going got tough. I was also dealing with what I think was plantar fasciitis for several months that finally seems to have gotten better, so I know that affected my running this past spring.
Pre-race: I went to the expo on Friday and talked to the 1:55 pacer. That was my first chance to find out about the course. He said that it was downhill for the first 10K, then there were rolling hills for the rest of the race. As a result, he planned to bank about a minute over the first 10K so that he could take it a bit slower up the hills.
Race morning was a challenge! I don’t have a car here, and live about halfway between the start line and the finish line. I could have taken a city bus to the finish line (two buses, actually), and then a shuttle to the start. Instead, I took the easy way out and decided to call a cab. I had gone down to the taxi stand the day before to figure out about how much it would cost, and got a quote of about $14. Totally worth it for the lack of hassle. But then I got back to my house, and my host family insisted that I was getting ripped off, and went to ask a neighbor who is a taxi driver what he would charge, and got a quote of about $10 and his phone number. Start time was 6:00, so I was hoping to leave about 4:30 to arrive at the start by 5:00.
I would also be carrying everything I needed with me, since I wasn’t sure if I could trust the bag check and didn’t necessarily want to deal with figuring it out in any case. So I brought cab fare, bus fare home, and a little extra cash, my ID, my phone, my keys, and since I was already packing everything else, two gels and two bottles of water on my fuel belt. They did have aid stations every 2.5k, but honestly I prefer to drink a sip at a time rather than trying to throw water at my head at an aid station.
When I got up, I called the neighbor cab guy, but he didn’t answer. So I ended up just calling the regular cab company, and got charged about $13. I told my host family $12 when the asked later, because I knew they would be on my case that I didn’t bitch at the guy for driving too slowly (to run up the meter). I knew that he was, and I knew why, but again, was sort of willing to accept that at 5 in the morning, especially since it meant that I would get to the race safely.
I got to the starting area, paid the cabbie, got lots of heavy coins as change (ugh!), and tried to orient myself. There weren’t any signs, but one of the shuttles had just come in, so I sort of merged myself into that group and found my way to the porta-potties. At least they had porta-potties! 10 whole bathrooms for 2700 runners. That might be generous for here, though, considering that public restrooms are few and far between.
TMI alert- This is the first race that I haven’t been so nervous that I’ve had to use the bathroom a hundred million times before the start. In fact, it was so early that I didn’t even have to go, although I tried anyway. When you don’t gotta go, you just don’t gotta go.
I ran about a mile to warm up. It was about 70 degrees with a dewpoint in the mid-60s, but it was overcast. It was supposed to rain a bit by the time I finished, which I was looking forward to a lot more than the heavy, about to rain feeling in the air! I passed a guy with a walker with a “21k ¡Sí Se Puede!” sign who was warming up.
Then I went back to the potty line for one last try. No dice. I popped two Imodium and headed for the start.
By now the race was starting and the starting chute was completely full. There were equally as many people milling about in the street behind there, or in the bathrooms, or wherever, because there were a lot more runners than there was room for at the start. There was supposed to be 4 seeded corrals, and then a 5th unseeded one behind that, but that hadn’t happened. Plus all of the pace groups seemed to be clustered really close together, so there was no way to get in at all.
I inched my way up the chute until I got completely stuck behind the 2:00 pace group. So that’s where I started. I saw the 1:55 group get to the start and take off like they had been shot out of a cannon, and that’s the last time I saw those guys today.
First 5K: Busy, busy busy. It was really crowded, so at first I just worked on finding a comfortable pace and getting past people as I could.
The thing about roads here in the San Jose area is that I don’t think anything is ever flat. One block might go up, and the next one back down. It’s not even that hilly, really, it’s just that they just put roads over whatever terrain happened to be there, I think, without leveling anything. You also have to be really careful on the pavement, and especially on the sidewalks, because there are all kinds of little variations and things to watch out for.
That said, the start was in Tres Rios, which is uphill from San Jose. But the starting line itself was downhill from the main road, so we started off running uphill until we turned on to the main road. Then, just like the pacer had said, it was downhill from there. There were what seemed like quite a few twists and turns along the way.
One side of the road was closed for the race, the other side open, and they did a good job of stopping traffic for the runners. I had to slow down once at an intersection, but never had to stop, which isn’t bad for running in congested downtown. Since there are so many city buses, though, the stopped traffic filled the air with diesel fumes.
I was doing pretty well getting past people, until I got up to the 2:00 pace group. There were a ton of people in the group, and I realized that if I waited for an opening, I might not find it until we crossed the finish line. So I gunned it, jumped the curb, and ran around the group in the gravel until I got past. Then it was smoother sailing! The 1:55 group was nowhere in sight.
I decided to just follow the pacer’s general plan myself. I wanted to hit the 10K mark around 54 minutes, so was aiming for a 27 minute 5K split. It was hard to rein in my pace on the downhills, though!
Water stations are different here. They give out little plastic baggies with water in them. You have to bite them open or pop them to get water out. And if somebody drops one, you could step on it and splash everybody around you! I skipped the water stations and just took a sip from my water every time I finished a mile. It’s humid enough here that I have been needing to drink when I run, and I have found it’s better to start sipping early than to get behind and try to catch up.
Mile 1: 8:40
Mile 2: 8:26
Mile 3: 8:38
I hit the 5K mat at about 26:30 on my watch, but my official chip time according to the race is 27:43. I think that they maybe had the race start time or something listed incorrectly. Probably somebody’s clock was wrong. For example, at my house there are 4 clocks, all of them show a different time, and none of them are correct. This also means that my automated “finish line photo” based on what time I crossed the finish is of completely different people.
Second 5K: Easy as pie. Mostly I was just cruising down the downhill, but trying not to run my entire race in the first half. There was a nasty little hill in mile 4, though. And, like I said, block to block you might get a surprise uphill before it went down again. I saw the first person drop to a walk going up that hill at the 4 mile marker.
I passed the “sí se puede” guy jogging with his walker around mile 4. There were a ton of people shouting out encouragement to him. I am wondering if he started with the wheelchairs.
Right before the 10k mat, I began to realize that I was NOT going to be able to make it to the finish before the poo monster caught me. This was a problem because there hadn’t been any toilets at the aid stations, and there really aren’t public bathrooms down here. The few stores that might have had them, like fast food, weren’t open on Sunday mornings anyway.
Mile 4: 8:37
Mile 5: 9:02 (the hill)
Mile 6: 8:42
I crossed the 10k mat at about 54:30 on my Garmin, so pretty close to plan.
Third 5k: The going gets tough
First things first. I spotted a panadería that was open, and ducked inside. I asked if they had a bathroom (most don’t I was prepared to beg), and they told me it was occupied. I was committed now, since I had stopped, and there wasn’t anywhere else around, so I just stood there. The guy repeated himself. It’s occupied. I played dumb and nodded again, but didn’t leave. Then the kid who had been in the bathroom came out, and they did let me go in the back and use the bathroom. I was so thankful!
I came out, and the 2:00 pace group had passed me again, and was a ways down the road. I moved my watch screen to show current pace so that I wouldn’t be tempted to sprint to catch up to where I felt like I should be. I closed ground on them, but could see that it would take me a while to catch them. Once I got to 7 miles, I moved it back to the “lap pace” screen.
I’m no longer really closing on the 2:00 group, and briefly considered quitting. I am not going to make 1:55 today, that’s for sure. I pushed that thought aside, and just kept going.
This is about where the uphill started, and it was tough. I didn’t know the course at all to know how steep or how far it would be. Was it just back uphill to the finish? Or was the top right around the corner? I didn’t know, and there were enough corners that it was hard to tell. Plus we were running through Curridabat and Zapote, two places that I have not visited since we got here.
There was one particular uphill that was really challenging. We turned on to some sort of pedestrian walkway, and it was “paved” with these little round rocks that were really hard to run on. Parts of it were concrete pavers instead, but those were sometimes over on the left, and sometimes over on the right. Then, somebody’s family jumped into the race to run for a bit with her. They were the zigzaggiest family that I have ever met, even with the bad footing. They were always right in my way, no matter what side I was on. I finally managed to get past them, and was so happy that I had.
Towards the end of this stretch is when I had sort of an epiphany. Racing doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It doesn’t matter if I’m 3 minutes, or 5 minutes, or whatever off of a number that I pulled out of thin air when I was planning for today’s race (without knowing anything about the course). But it does matter if I am continuing to try my best and challenge myself the whole way through, rather than letting myself slow to a jog and not really trying just because I’m not going to PR.
I realized that this was a challenging course. Not challenging like some of the adventure trail races back in Oregon. Not challenging like some of the races that feature one or two killer hills. But challenging in a way that every little part has its own particular difficulty to overcome. The downhill at the start is easy, but also presents a pacing and effort challenge. You know you have to start ahead of pace, but judge how hard to push. Plus of course you have to do an inventory of quads, knees, and running form as you go.
The hills were just another part of the challenge. They were there on purpose, to push you to overcome them. Not with a PR, but by not admitting defeat. By meeting them head on and giving it all you have to give. Success today would not be measured by a number. Success today would be measured by pushing through. By holding tough and not taking the easy way out. And, I realized that I was up for the challenge.
Mile 7: 10:40 (with pit stop)
Mile 8: 8:54
Mile 9: 9:39 (OMG hill)
The 15K split time was ugly, and I knew it. But I had new determination and was going to do my best to make up ground, depending on what the course still had to throw at me.
The next challenge was the street surface as we got closer to downtown. I had to remind myself to keep a better eye on the pavement because it was more irregular than it had been out in the ‘burbs. But coming into downtown at last felt really good!
We came in from the east, and were running west towards the finish at Parque La Sabana, which is on the west end of downtown. I knew we had to do a loop of the park, which is big enough that the national stadium is inside of it, before the finish.
Finally the statue at the edge of the park came into sight! And the next challenge from the course- you can just about see the finish, and there is still a ways to go! I saw the 1:40 pace group heading in. They did have a bunch of drummers and people out shouting out encouragement. But one thing about Latin America is how direct everybody is about the way that they refer to people. For example, one of the spectators called out what would basically translate to “Good job, fat boy” to a guy behind me. And it was really meant to be a nice thing to say, to keep him going. I couldn’t help but turn around to see how “fat” you had to be to get called out that way while running much farther than the guy on the sidelines could probably run. “El gordito” was maybe 200 lbs, hardly the “fatty” that the comment would imply.
The fumes from all of the buses was really getting to me, but I pushed past it and kept going. I had slowly been reeling in the 2:00 group and finally got to the point where I needed to surge to charge past them, since they were a pretty big group still.
We turned the corner of the park, and I hit my stride! I was running faster than I had been since the early miles, and was feeling good again- finally! I suspected that I was probably on a gradual downhill, although to my eye it looked pretty flat. Still, I was feeling fresher and faster than I had been just a mile before. I was passing a lot of people, too. I started thinking that this was probably where my marathon training was paying off.
One of my water bottles fell off my belt. People called out to let me know, but I said don’t worry about it, let it go. It’s not that I was (that) worried about the 10 seconds or so it would take to stop and pick it up. It was that I finally had some good forward momentum and I just did not want to lose that feeling. The belt itself would have been worth going back for. The bottle? I decided it wasn’t.
But then a guy called out that he had my bottle. He had gone back for it, picked it up, and then surged up to catch up with me. I thanked him, and then he fell back off pace. He was willing to run faster for me, to give me my water bottle, than he was for his own self. And that was at mile 11 of a half marathon. I don’t remember anything about who he was, but he is awesome. And another example of just how nice everybody is down here.
Mile 10: 8:46
Mile 11: 9:06
Mile 12: 8:29
Now I realize that we were on a downhill going past the park, because we are around the other side, and are clearly on a slight uphill. But man is it tough! I push. It’s hard work, but I give it what I have left. I smile for the TV cameras and the big screen as we go past. I am still passing people. I’ve slowed down, but they’ve slowed more.
We are coming back around to the park entrance, and this time I will be on the other side of the divider and heading for the finish. I step on the gas. Everybody around me is out of gas, and I am running. I am happy. I am going to finish strong.
Mile 13: 9:35
Last 0.19: 8:00 pace
: I think I broke through the last bit of the mental barrier that I had about racing this spring. My time doesn’t matter. My ability to sustain race effort over time does, and that is what I am developing through training. I do think that this is the most challenging race course that I have run, and I am proud of how I did, considering. Could I have changed things up here and there, or maybe pushed harder on the uphills? Probably. But all in all, I think I ran a good race.
Here is the elevation map. I know it looks like it might be easy, just judging by the slope of the line, but I assure you that it isn’t! The race website goes on and on about the course designer, and I think I get it. This was designed to push you! And check out how much fun that last mile is.
I am also really happy to report that my knees and quads didn’t so much as make a peep of a complaint about all of those downhill pavement miles. I am really thankful for that.
Finally, as I was heading home, I saw that sí se puede dude had finished. His time was 2:55:35. Not bad for a guy who clearly struggles to walk unassisted!
I would definitely recommend this race to anybody who is headed down to the area. It’s not a lovely run along the beach like so many destination races are. And while I am sure we passed many interesting features in San Jose, I didn’t really notice them. But if you want a little push as a runner, to see what you can do, this could be just the thing.