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Marathons and running in Cuba
The Marabana is Havana's marathon, held annually on the third Sunday of November for over 20 years. It is the culmination of a week-long festival celebrating athletics. Cubans run for free, buses are provided to bring people from throughout the island to Havana to participate. The route follows the Malecon Seawall and provides a complete tour of the city's landmarks, including political sights and once-posh hotels and casinos. Despite the terrific scenery it's tough going: hilly, with tropical temperatures and high humidity contributing to the difficulty. Details are low-tech - no fancy timing chips or mats - but there are a multitude of volunteers handing out orange slices, water and good wishes. There's no expo with vendors selling all the latest running gear and gizmos either, but the awards ceremony is a wonderful step back in time. It's held in a gymnasium dedicated to Kid Chocolate, a Cuban boxer who attained legendary status for his success in the ring during the 1930's.
Some of the Cubans run the race barefoot, others in all types of badly tattered footware. Many foreigners give their shoes to the Cuban runners after they cross the finish line. Medallions, however, are given to all participants at registration. Sometimes it's more about the journey than the destination.
Among the events included in Marabana are 59 open championships that include participants such as Elite runners, Masters, Handicapped (blind, deaf and wheelchairs) and runners with Special Educational needs in distances of: marathon of 42 Km, Middle marathon of 21 Km, 15 kilometers & 10 kilometers.
The key Marabana activities are
- Registration and Medical examination (wed-Sat prior to the race)
- On Saturday, participate in the Maracuba - a running event including as many people as possible (1,000,000+), followed by a familiarisation of the route for the Marabana and a marathon meal.
- The Marabana on the Sunday. Record time: Men 2:13:37, Women - 2:43:29
One competitor writes: " The experience of a lifetime. 2002. A windy, rainy day, waves crashing over the Malecon seawall. A cornucopia of runners, mainly Cuban but also from many other countries. The wheelchairs started first. The Cuban chairs were homemade, some hardly serviceable. In a beautiful act of reaching out across the sea of political bullshit, an American gave (not loaned) his chair to a Cuban athlete. This gesture marked the atmosphere of the entire race. I ran with Cubans in every possible attire, including some with no shoes, but united by their love of running (most winning finishers were Cuban). Many went out of their way to extend friendship and generosity to me and other foreigners. Race organizers were low on technical gadgets (the finishers clock was not waterproof and had to be moved inside) but high on competent race direction. There were hundreds of volunteers managing the course and handing out endless supplies of cut oranges (so much more refreshing than packets of chemicals) and little plastic sacks of water (which you could bite a corner off and easily drink while running!). One ill-dressed woman I ran next to was cradling her water sack. In my limited Spanish, I tried to tell her she should drink it, not save it. She thought I wanted it and tried to give it to me! Late in the race, my husband ran alongside a struggling Cuban man and tried to encourage him. The man reached out and grabbed his hand for comfort and they ran holding hands for a quite a while until the runner recovered his spirits and, with a smile and nod of his head, took off on his own. After the race, most foreigners took off their running shoes and pressed them upon their Cuban counterparts, whose shoes were in dreadful condition. I've never had so many tears in my eyes during a race. It was the human-ness of it all that was so overwhelming. The Cubans didn't have much in the way of material goods, but dammit, they were good runners and won nearly every race category. As far as the course is concerned, it was a spectacular run through old Havana and along the seawall. Spectators were enthusiastic, but don't look for huge crowds. There is no expo--everything is simple and focussed on the race. Make sure you go to the awards ceremony, particularly if you have ever decried the commercialization of athletics. It's held in a gym dedicated to Boy Chocolate, a famous Cuban boxer, and decorated with the flags of nations, including the U.S. --prizes are very modest but the spirit is wonderful. Foreigners pay to enter the race; it's free for Cubans and the government provides bus transportation for them from their towns. The marathon is part of a week-long celebration of athletics for the population, with events taking place all over the island. If you go, venture out and see the country--Havana's great but it's only a tiny part of Cuba. We hope to go back." - A. R 2002