Unpredictable Spring Leads to Costa Rica Win

Like so many other Americans, I did some traveling for last weekend’s 4th of July holiday.  The destination, however, was decidedly un-American: Costa Rica.  I was making my first trip to the small, Central American country thanks to an invitation to compete in the Correcaminos Half Marathon.  So I boarded a plane in Eugene on Thursday and traveled to Los Angeles, onto Dallas, before reaching San Jose, Costa Rica – nothing says I am ready to race like a full day of travel!

The cliffs notes version of this story is that I won the race by 25-seconds, crossing the finish line in 1:05:41 (the full recap is below).  For a whole heckuva lot of reasons, this win was incredibly rewarding:

  • First international race and win.
  • The race was contested in hot, humid conditions at 1300m altitude; none of which I felt prepared for.
  • I don’t speak Spanish and that made the normal tasks difficult, especially on race morning.
  • It’s been an up and down Spring, as I worked through some right foot soreness, and so I really didn’t know how fit I was.

The pesky tib posterior tendon!

The past few months have been unlike anything I have ever experienced in my running career.  For the first time in 18 years of running, I was actually “injured”.  Shortly after the Houston Marathon, I started to develop some tightness, stiffness, soreness on the inside of my right foot.  I hoped that running would loosen it up some but it never really got better.  I was able to run on it, but I just felt like I couldn’t push off and my pop wasn’t there.  After the USA 15k Championships in March, I decided to take a week off to see if those tendons and ligaments would calm down.  The time off definitely helped, but there was still some lingering pain on the bottom of my foot – similar to plantar fasciitis.  Again, I could run through this and things were not necessarily getting worse, but they weren’t exactly getting better either.

I used some races in May – Cap City Half Marathon, Eugene Marathon, Rhody Run 12k - to try and race myself back into shape.  I got better workouts competing in these races than I would have just doing tempo runs out along Lorane Highway and I was able to maintain some pretty good fitness.

The Spring roller coaster continued as late May arrived and so to did the Eugene grass pollen season.  That immediately sent me indoors to the treadmill.  Added to that was the removal of two upper wisdom teeth in early June and another missed week of training.  I probably took more days of in the 12 weeks between March 15 and June 8th than I have missed in the past 3-4 years combined.  It was incredibly frustrating, but taking the time off in June when I had my teeth pulled was ultimately when my foot pain began to dissipate.  It’s been good and improving since then.  Still, all of the sporadic training left me a little worried for last week’s half marathon.

Commence Costa Rica race recap…

After a long day of flying, I arrived in Costa Rica on Thursday evening.  I had done almost no research on Costa Rica prior to leaving, so I was blindly traveling to this foreign country and had little in the way of expectations.  One of the race organizers, Dinia Valenzuela, picked me up from the airport and dropped me off at the hotel.  She spoke English and so to did the hotel staff member who checked me in, which was encouraging because my Spanish vocabulary is very limited.  I went to bed on Thursday night thinking I had Costa Rica all figured out.

IMG_4865I woke to a different reality on Friday morning.  Some of the other elite athletes were meeting for a run, so I decided to join them.  There were two Colombians, a Venezuelan, a Panamanian, and two Mexicans.  One of the Mexican athletes, my roommate Pedro, spoke English, but his English was just slightly better than my Spanish.  We all introduced ourselves and then jogged over to the park for our training run.  It was such an incredibly unique and interesting experience to run alongside them for an hour, listening to them talk and laugh, and have absolutely no clue what they were talking about.  Every once and a while I would recognize a word or phrase and could add a laugh or nod, but for the most part I was incapable of communicating with them.

I hoped to be able to get out of San Jose and explore Costa Rica a bit, but I quickly realized on Friday that because of my limited Spanish speaking abilities, it was best for me to just lounge around the hotel until race morning.  They were pretty typical pre-race hotel days: resting and eating, with a stop at the expo.  The other athletes always made sure to include me in their meals and with each passing meal/day we got better at communicating through broken Spanglish and body language.  By the end of the weekend, my charades game was on point!

We had a 4am wake up call on race morning so that we could catch the bus out to the start line.  I owe another thank you to Dinia and Christopher Monge for helping me navigate my way to the start line; again, when you don’t speak the language, it’s easy to board the wrong bus and end up at the wrong place!  I rode out to the start line with a bus full of pacers.  Unlike in the US where everyone pretty much keeps to themselves, there were lively discussions taking place, which provided great energy and enthusiasm on board.  We were also driving towards a beautiful sunrise over one of Costa Rica’s many volcanoes.  I was getting excited to race!

The bus made it to the start line about 45-minutes prior to the race start time.  Now, this is where being someone who just goes with the flow is actually beneficial.  I usually begin my warmup an hour prior to the start of a race.  We arrived 45 minutes before; no big deal.  Now I need to find out where I can check my bag so that I can pick it up at the finish line.  Want to do that?  Join the other 3,000 people trying to do the same thing.  It was chaos, ha! Once I got my bag loaded into a truck we had about 30 minutes before the start of the race.  Time to warmup for a few miles.  As the warmup began, I realized that I needed to go to the bathroom, but I can’t just duck into the bushes because, you know, #2.  So I make my way back to the start area, but every porta-john line is about 30 people deep, so it becomes clear that this race will be run on a full tank – if you know what I mean.

8,000 on the start line.

8,000 on the start line.

After doing some drills in a nearby park, I decided to make my way to the start line.  Because the entire street was full of ready-to-start runners, I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it the start line by trying to squeeze my way through all of the corrals, so I decided to run around the block and that way.  The problem with this plan was that the road was blocked off with security from that side, so when I tried to enter, they wouldn’t let me through.  Another problem, the security guard was speaking to me in Spanish and I was trying to tell him in English that I was an elite and needed to be at the front.  Luckily, the race director saw this conversation, came over and spoke with the guard and – boom! – I was through to the start line.  The craziest 45-minute pre-race, ever!

When the race finally began, the pack of runners covered about 100m before making a hard left-hand turn.  I rounded the corner and immediately ran into spectators who had not moved out of the street before the start of the race.  Talk about a crazy start!  I lost about 10-15 seconds on the lead runners right from the get-go.  Since we still had 13 miles to run, there wasn’t any reason to go chasing after them right away, especially given the altitude.  My experience with running at altitude is pretty limited, but I know enough to realize once you go into oxygen debt, getting out of it is pretty difficult.

With the race underway, I began to slowly close the gap on the leaders.  Usually in races here in the States I know about my competition prior to the race and will have an idea of who might be capable of running what.  This wasn’t the case here.  I knew the Colombian Juan Carlos Cardona Rios had been to 3 Olympic Games and had a marathon PB of 2:12.  I knew that Pedro Mora (Venezuela) had been to the London Olympics.  But everyone else was a mystery to me.  Honestly, it was kind of fun to run a race like this.  It felt like high school again: I want to beat you, but don’t know exactly what the strategy should be, so I’m just going to try and be faster than you.

Muy Caliente!

Muy Caliente!

Once I caught back up to the main pack around the 5-mile mark, I decided to settle in until we got through the halfway point.  By the time we reached 8 miles, it was down to just me and Pedro Espinoza Perez (Mexico).  I was able to open up a gap on him just before 15k and basically ran the last 6k hard enough to keep a cushion between us.  I’m really glad that he didn’t make a late charge because I think it would have been difficult to change gears once I passed 18k – that’s when I started to feel some of that Costa Rican heat and humidity.

The end result was a very rewarding win.  These last few months have been tough and it just felt so good to be back out there competing and running with a bit of an edge.  I was curious as to what my time equates to at sea level and found this helpful chart; I wasn’t as out of shape I thought.  The weekend also gave me a greater appreciation for the road racing system that we have in America and will cause me to show more empathy towards foreign runners who come to race here in the US without much knowledge of the English language.  I want to thank the Costa Rican running community for being so welcoming and providing such a great cultural experience.  I hope this isn’t the last time I race in Costa Rica, but I know that I will come back to visit again regardless.

Back to the training grind.

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Comments (3)

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    Federico Ledezma

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    Good job Craig. It looks like a once in a lifetime experience.

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    Gustavo Alvarez

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    Craig. Great experience in every sense. Welcome to Costa Rica! Jaja. You forgot to mention the problem we had with your last name. Leon without your English pronunciation will stay as a very Latin last name. So every time we had to deal with Journalist and the rest of the people who will find very natural to call you Craig León ( lion in Spanish). You left a very good impression, so we hope to have you back soon! Regards, Gustavo Alvarez

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    Brian List

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    I have raced in Mexico and Argentina while traveling there for work and found your experience really enjoyable. Great race in the altitude. I’m excited for your Team USA race!

    Reply

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