Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Corriendo en México -- Maratón Ciudad de México Race Report

I think everyone who knows me knows that I am a little obsessed with Mexico. Maybe it started when I lived in San Diego and made the association between Mexico and legal underage drinking, or maybe it was because Mexico is a big part of the desert Southwest that I love (or, to be more accurate, the desert Southwest that I love used to be a part of Mexico), or maybe it's because Mexico has a gritty authenticity about it that is appealing when compared to the U.S. and Europe. For whatever reason, everything to do with Mexico is very interesting to me. So I always knew that I would do the Mexico City marathon some day. My original plan was to combine the marathon with a week of Spanish immersion school, but when I made that plan I didn't know I was going to change jobs and lose much of my vacation time. I decided that Mexico City for a weekend was better than possibly Mexico City never. It's not really that far away, and it's not very expensive to fly there, so I made up my mind and signed up.

I speak enough Spanish to communicate, although my vocabulary is limited and my ability to conjugate verbs is questionable, so I knew I could get by on my own if I had to. Luckily I didn't have to. I have a friend in Mexico City, Gerardo, who was my interpreter in last September's international class at Leader. He is one of the coolest people I know, and he pretty much gave up his whole weekend to help me get around and show me the city. It's a good thing he did, because the only thing I really did to prepare for this trip was find an Airbnb in a safe tourist area that was walking distance from the marathon start line. Things I didn't do that I would do next time include talking to Verizon and finding a way to use my phone in Mexico, and learning something about Mexican money. As it was, I could use my phone only occasionally, sometimes when I got a wifi connection and sometimes randomly when I shouldn't have had any service at all. And when I arrived in Mexico and went to take cash out of an ATM, I had no idea how pesos compared to dollars. In my head, 1800 pesos could have been $20 or $1800 or $5000. I just randomly chose 1800 pesos to withdraw because it was the middle selection in a row of choices on the ATM screen, like where $100 would be on a U.S. ATM. (And as it turned out, that was almost exactly what it was -- $94.)

Gerardo picked me up at the airport and drove me to the Expo, which wasn't that far but took us forever to get to because of traffic. Let me say here that I love how people drive in Mexico City. A lot of roads don't have lane lines, so there might be two lanes, or three, or four, it just depends on how much room there is and how many cars are on the road. Drivers sort of make their own lanes. Rolling through stop signs seems to be totally okay, as I saw it happen at almost every stop sign even when there were cops around. Every driver seems to be a distracted driver, with sudden veers, unsignaled turns, and jamming on the brakes for no obvious reason all being very common. Pedestrians cross through moving traffic whenever they want, and cars and people just somehow avoid each other. Drivers honk their horns even though surely they know it has no effect whatsoever on whatever has made the cars in front of them stop. It's not uncivilized exactly, just casually sloppy, exactly how I would like to drive if it weren't for traffic laws and cops in the U.S.

The expo was huge. It might have even been the biggest expo I've ever been to. It felt like we walked a mile between the entrance to the sports venue where it was held and the place where I finally picked up my number. It was packed, too -- shoulder-to-shoulder people the whole way. I ate a couple of snacks including the driest protein bar I have ever tasted. It tasted like a piece of cardboard and was the same consistency. Other than the size of the expo, this was exactly like an expo at any large marathon I've ever done.

We spent the rest of the day driving, walking around, and eating. We ate at a vegan restaurant that would not have been out of place in any trendy, urban neighborhood in the U.S., and I had black bean tacos and a giant bowl of oats, chia seeds, and fruit. All of the food was excellent. It started raining after that and we drove around looking at monuments. There are a lot of grand, impressive monuments in Mexico City, a lot of them right in the middle of giant traffic circles. I was glad I was with someone who knew the stories behind them and could tell me what they were.

I slept badly because I wasn't sure exactly where the start line was. I knew I had to leave my building and turn right, then walk until the road ended at the Zócalo, but since I hadn't actually seen the start line the night before, I was paranoid about screwing something up, so I left earlier than I needed to. The temperature was perfect for a marathon, 58 degrees with a predicted high of 67. Skies were overcast, but it wasn't raining anymore. It felt strange but undeniably pleasant to breathe air that wasn't humid. The elevation of Mexico City is 7300' (I thought it was 5000' when I signed up for this marathon, and only found out a few days ago that I was off by over 2000'), so it definitely didn't feel like Florida. I wasn't overly worried about the elevation. Throughout my running life, I have found that there is generally a positive correlation between difficulty with elevation and amount of time spent worrying about difficulty with elevation. Personally, I prefer to not think about it.

I didn't need to worry at all about not finding the start line. With over 30,000 runners registered, there was a steady flow of runners from the moment I stepped out of my building. I walked around like a tourist, staring at all the old, grand buildings. This has to be one of the most fabulous marathon start lines in the world.

I did run into a couple of small complications, and the first one was that there was a corral system. I shouldn't have been surprised -- with the size of this race, how could there not be? -- but I was. I had not read anything about the corrals on the website, but then I'm not really in the habit of reading race websites. Most U.S. marathons that I sign up for flood my inbox with emails containing race information, so I have gotten used to sitting back and letting race information come to me, not seeking it out. I realized for the first time that there was a blue square on my bib, and that each corral had a color. I kept walking and walking further and further back from the start line and saw that the blue corral was way in the back. I must have predicted a really slow finish time when I registered, even though I couldn't remember predicting a finish time at all. As I listened to the race announcer, I thought I heard him say that the blue corral was starting at 7:45. I hoped I just misunderstood since the official race start was at 6:45, and when I told Gerardo when to meet me at the finish, I picked the time based on a 6:45 start. Since I couldn't use my phone, I had no way of telling him my start time was an hour later than I thought it was. Oh well. In situations where you can't do anything, it's better to just accept it and move on.

The other complication was that when I went to get into my corral, the guard said "Brazeleta?" I just stared at him blankly. He pointed at his wrist and then at the other runners entering the corral. Every one of them had a blue bracelet. I was mystified. The guy that gave me my number hadn't said anything about a bracelet. And I know it wasn't in the envelope my bib was in because I had upended that one and dumped out all the safety pins, then looked in it again to make sure it was empty. I have never had to have a bracelet in any other marathon unless I was using race transportation or there was a beer tent at the finish. I told him I didn't have it. He waved me on into the corral. I still do not know what the purpose of the bracelet was, but apparently it wasn't critical because I did get an official finish time.

I stood in the corral for over an hour while the wheelchair racers started, then the elites, then, one by one, the faster corrals. Finally the runners in my corral were allowed to start walking towards the start line. I was cold by now, and glad I had, for once, brought a throwaway long-sleeved shirt. (So long, Pocatello Marathon shirt.) The race announcer counted down, the gun went off, and we were released!

This is a very, very beautiful course. It is one of the best courses I have ever been on. Here is the video, in case anyone familiar with Mexico City is curious. The course is mostly flat except for a couple of bridges (thank goodness, with the elevation), and, almost without exception, is nearly all on beautiful streets that really show off the city to its best advantage. Two things I noticed right away. 1) The course was extremely congested with runners. I expect to have to do a lot of weaving around other runners the first couple miles, but this one never let up all through the race, even in the last few miles. I'm sure I could have finished at least 15 minutes faster if not for the amount of time I spent looking for a way around other runners and turning sideways to squeeze through very small spaces. If I ever do this race again, I will definitely predict a faster finish time so I can be in an earlier corral. 2) The crowd support is unbelievable. It's like Boston or NYC -- wall-to-wall spectators almost everywhere, yelling, "Sí se puede!" and "Venga!" the whole way. I had the thought several times that if I were going to throw up, it would be hard to find a place to do it without hitting a spectator.

I felt generally good for most of the race. I didn't have any injuries, I wasn't too hot, I was enjoying the scenery, and the huge amount of food I ate the night before didn't seem to be having any adverse effect on my stomach. There were plenty of aid stations, and they alternated between Gatorade and water. The Gatorade was served in cups and the water was served in little sealed plastic bags. The bags were the ideal size for stuffing into my sports bra in case I wanted one later, and were also ideal for spraying myself down if I got hot: just open the bag and squeeze it, and voila, my own personal fountain. Also, I discovered that I prefer kilometers to miles. Yes, there are more of them, but they go by so quickly. Practically as soon as I passed one marker, I could start looking for the next one in the distance. And it's much easier for me to think of eight 5k's (plus a little extra) than to think of a full marathon.

The last few miles were a straight shot up Insurgentes. Spectators were everywhere, screaming encouragement and offering food and drinks. I ate some of just about everything I could get my hands on -- mango, watermelon, beer, a handful of little curly brown fried things that looked like chicharrones but curlier, a little baggie (think poop bag) of candy-flavored orange liquid tied in a knot. I figured it was too late in the race for what I ate to affect my stomach, and spectators got really excited when runners took what they were offering. The finish line was in Estadio Olímpico Universitario, where the 1968 Summer Olympics was held. It was an epic finish. We ran down into a tunnel and then out of the tunnel onto a track, and then around the track to the finish line. Even on the home stretch, the track was crowded. I finished with a time of 4:26, about typical for my last several marathons. I simultaneously would love to be under 4 hours again, and don't really care if I ever am or not. The only food at the finish line was bananas. Someone also gave me a bottle of the nastiest Gatorade I have ever tasted -- strawberry. I took a few swallows of it, thinking I needed to get my electrolytes replenished since my skin was powdered with salt like it used to be in Arizona, and that tiny bit of Gatorade almost made me throw up everything else I had just eaten. I threw away the bottle and decided my electrolytes would just have to replenish themselves.

I spent my last few hours in Mexico visiting the Blue House -- I may be bored by art, but Frida Kahlo was such an interesting person that even her art is interesting -- eating, and walking around an indigenous market and eating more. I ate vegan nachos, vegan lasagna, some kind of fermented corn drink that tasted like yogurt, and greasy street tacos with beans and potatoes. I changed into clean clothes but didn't make it into the shower until after 10 p.m. I was not going to waste my precious few remaining hours in Mexico by taking a shower!

My flight out Sunday morning wasn't till noon, so I got to sleep in till 7, a total luxury. My trip to the airport was mostly uneventful other than that my Uber didn't work -- it insisted my payment method was invalid, and wouldn't let me add another one -- so I had to take an expensive hotel taxi from the Hilton. (Even an expensive taxi was only about $15 -- try getting to any U.S. airport via taxi for that price!) The driver spoke about as much English as I speak Spanish, so we talked the whole time, in both languages. I asked him if he drove a lot of American tourists. He said no, and that he thought Americans think Mexico City is dangerous. I agree, based on the reactions I got when I told people I was going. Here's what I think: Mexico City is NOT dangerous in the parts I was in, or at least no more dangerous than any other big city. There are police everywhere. I didn't visit any bad neighborhoods, but I wouldn't visit those neighborhoods in an American city either. The parts of Mexico City I saw, which were admittedly only tiny parts of the city, and only the nicest parts, looked completely modern. Even if I didn't speak any Spanish, I still would have felt safe there. I hope no one lets fear keep them away from a place as incredible and impressive and interesting as Mexico City! I'm glad I got to go, and feel like I made the most of my very short trip there. Am I still planning on going there for a week of language school? Um, yes. Duh. As soon as I bank a little more vacation time, I will be back there the first chance I get.

In the meantime, I may or may not have typed this question into Google: "How many Mexican states have marathons?"

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