Race Team member Scott Bennett recently had the opportunity to race in Cuba. He raced in this historical marathon on November 15, 2015. Scott finished the race 11th overall, 2nd in his age group, and was the first American to cross the line with a time of 3:12! Read on to hear him recount his experience of racing in Cuba.
"So there I was... at mile ten of the marathon in a full tilt 100 meter sprint. My compatriots were muttering in Spanish under their breath as we found another gear. Just ahead, a police officer stepped into the road in an attempt to block our progress with his arms spread wide and blasting into a whistle. We neared the intersection and I saw the gate's slowing descend warning of the oncoming train. Digging deep we pushed on, disregarding the police officer and ducking under the lowering boom. We skirted just in front of the cumbersome engine and subsequent overloaded passenger cars. Catching our breath and returning to race pace, my racing partner smiled and using what little English he knew, looked at me and said with an accent as thick as Havana exhaust, "Very close!"
Welcome to Cuba.
This was not a Rock 'N Roll race. There were no pace groups, no bands, no cheerleaders, no colors, foam, bubbles, or mud. This was a road race. Like they used be. A starting line, a course, a clock, and a finish line. Throw in some tough conditions just for good measure. This was not a celebratory run like most western races these days. The celebrating would happen later, after the suffering, not during. Nothing about this was supposed to be easy. Of course it wasn't completely barbaric. There were a dozen or so port-a-johns at the common start/finish area for the 10,000 or so runners. There were no corrals, no first aid stations, and no jumbo-trons. At 6:45AM runners of all shapes and sizes and conditions lined up in the 80 degree/86% humidity weather to test themselves against the clock. The race on Havana's roads would be a demonstration of personal pride, of grit, and fortitude. Besides the episode with the train at mile ten, many of the roads would remain partially open during the race adding to the danger and excitement. Some Cubans waiting at bus stops or sitting on front steps would clap politely or yell encouragement in Spanish, but most only made the type of eye contact reserved for embarrassing spectacle.
Two loops around the city and the temperature only climbed. Water stops were comprised of card tables with eight ounce plastic bags of mildly warm water. The premise was that you bit a corner of the plastic off, spit it out, and sucked the water out of the pouch. By the start of the second loop I had figured it out and was taking water from every table.
At mile 14 I had a real gut-check. I can usually run through self-doubt and difficulty knowing it is just an aspect of racing through pain. But this one was palpable. I slowed to a walk. I stepped onto the side walk, turned around and started making my way back to the hotel. Other racers went past me, looking on me with sympathy and understanding. I sat on a curb and looked at the long stretch of the Malecón extending the five mile length of Havana's coast. I don't know how long I had been sitting on that broken curb, weighing the consequences of slinking back to my hotel, when a barefoot old man ambled past. His expression was rare in that it was obvious that he was suffering, but in his grimace, there was joy too. He gave me a head-nod and continued on. I said some curse words (a lot of curse words actually) and staggered back to my feet. I started walking, then shuffling, then jogging and somewhere a mile down the road I started racing again.
The break cost me a little over three minutes and a top ten finish. And I wouldn't live up to the pre-race expectations I set for myself.
So what? I did my best to enjoy the suffering.
While I passed a few runners again, it was mile 23 when I really started to see slower half-marathoners and dying marathoners. At the finish I came through the makeshift chute and was given a knock-off version of Coke and ONE bottle of water. There were no medics and no photographers, no announcers, or finishing medals (those where already in our pre-race packets). I made my way back to the hotel and tried to start my recovery, but the hotel would not have water again until about 4PM. Welcome to Cuba.
You would think that half a century of economic and political oppression from both Cuban and U.S. governments would leave the Cuban people leading a dejected and unhappy existence, and yet upon arriving in Havana you would be hard pressed to find any evidence to support that claim. In my brief time in Havana, I found a refreshingly vibrant and creative culture. This was more apparent in the use of 1950’s and 1960’s American automobiles on Havana’s streets. Running on makeshift parts from China and the former Soviet Union, most cars have maintained an almost immaculate body, free of rust and scratches, evidence of the deep pride the owners take in their throwback automobiles. The pride and creativity that keeps those cars on the road also extends to the arts. Both visual and musical arts were evident in all aspects of public life and displayed the results painstaking practice. I felt like I was shortchanging both the fantastic museums and street artists whose work seemed to beg for an appreciative audience.
The people I interacted with took such an enormous sense of self-respect in both their appearance and also in their substance. Most Cubans demonstrated a genuine desire to extend their best in making me feel welcome in their shops, cafes, and even their personal lives. I was continually humbled by the altruistic nature of almost every encounter. In all my travels, I have never overcome a language barrier so easily. Eager faces in all parts of the city seemed to greet me with the same expression: “Look! Look what we can do even in the face of politics, corruption, and embargoes. Here is our best. We are proud that you chose to stop and talk to us, to visit us, to acknowledge us. Tell us about where you are from!”
And for my entire stay, each interaction reminded me of the humanness of face-to-face exchanges. In a place where the internet is still scarce and heavily regulated, Wi-Fi is practically non-existent. When even cellphones are considered luxury items that the majority people cannot afford, people invest in the relationships that surround them. There were no "likes" or "up-votes" or "re-tweets," to support your identity. The pride Cubans take in their work and how they treat others is their social currency. In Havana there is still a confirmation of the deep intrinsic value and dignity in sharing and community building.
If you can't tell, I like Cubans. I think this is why. Their affability and self-sacrificing nature remind me so much of our running community. Runners too are proud and determined to give their best in the face of adverse conditions. Running is a sport that is creative with what’s at-hand and it is an optimistic expression of the human condition. Runners are welcoming and curious and altruistic in nature. My travels to Cuba were both eye-opening and horizon expanding and yet, they still felt a little bit like Wednesday nights at East Nasty."