Rio de Janeiro Marathon
May 29, 2016
This race was a late addition to my 2016 plan, due largely because some running clubs don’t consider Rapa Nui to be proper South America; I’m glad I did, though, not least because of the needed bounce it gave me following my Shotover Moonlight disappointment.
Arriving in Rio de Janeiro after an overnight flight from Houston, I have just enough time to decompress, throw on my running gear, and join the rest of the Marathon Tours group for an afternoon “warm-up” run along the Ipanema promenade. It’s a holiday in Brazil, so the street in front of the hotel is closed off and crammed with bathers, walkers, strollers, vendors, skateboards, surfboards, diners, bicycles, children, parents, umbrellas, all milling about chaotically like atoms in a cup of warm tea. It’s look sharp and every runner for herself as we dive and dodge to avoid collision! The more ambitious runners head northwards to Copacabana, but I settle for 3 sleep-lagged miles up and down the beach.
Friday and Saturday are for sightseeing. I pass on the hang gliding, not wanting to risk an injury right before a marathon, but I’m reminded this was something I really wanted to do when I was a teenager and not old enough. Well, if I had a “bucket list”, that just went back on it. Saturday night I join a small group going out to Anna’s, a terrific Italian place not far from the hotel, to load up on pasta.
Sunday morning arrives dark and early, since it’s an hour’s ride to the start line. Our tour guide has awesomely arranged for the hotel to provide us a grab-and-go breakfast well before normal hours, and the lobby that’s been haunted by Louis Vuitton models (no, really) all weekend is now filled with colorful runners.
The sun is rising as our private bus drops us off at Praça do Pontal park. I have to say this is my first race where I’ve seen surfboards wander through the staging area! This being a small field of around 8,000, it’s easy to find a spot to cheer on the elites as they tear off half an hour before the rest of us. Then I take a photo for a Brazilian lady posing putting on her lipstick in front of the starting arch. You go sassy lady!
At last we’re off, flanked by a camera drone, and heading southward for a quick loop before heading back north towards Rio. Suddenly there are cobblestones and people holding signs reading ciudad! and something else in Portuguese that probably refers to this half-block of mini-bollards the pack finds itself mincing its way through.
Most of the race course follows the coast road that runs between the high-rise hotels and the beach, with occasional jogs inland. The first four miles, though, are undeveloped, with the sea to the right and a lagoon to the left, and a fresh morning breeze ameliorating the effects of the sun, already beating though still low in the sky. Every now and then a food shack passes on the right, not yet open for business. Surprisingly for smaller marathon, it takes a long time for the field to start spreading out, and there’s a lot of elbow bumping and general jostling. (I later saw on Facebook where one of the official buses got lost on the way to the start, so some of the crowding could have been latecomers filtering up through the pack.)
About six miles in we hit the first hotel strip and suddenly I’m running alongside a city bus, and it’s a toss-up as to which one of us will win as a typical Brazilian traffic jam is in progress. Then I’m through the first “built-up” stretch, up a freeway ramp and then it’s a climb to the blessed cool of the first tunnel, where it’s apparently tradition for runners to scream at the top of their lungs. A few miles on, in the next tunnel, Beethoven is blasting. We emerge on a cliffside high above the surging ocean and descend to the next stretch of beach.
From here on in the heat is in earnest, climbing to nearly 80 (F) by the finish. There seem to be more water stations than I remember from the course map, and the volunteers are fairly aggressive about passing them out, or maybe I just look like hell in the second half. Water is provided in foil-sealed cups, and sports drink in bags that must be ripped open with the teeth. It takes be several before I get the hang of getting most of the drink in me, rather than on me.
At some point in here I had to go looking for a safety pin as my bib blew out one of its holes and was left dangling lopsided from my bib holder. Note to self: learn to say “safety pin” in the local language before a marathon. One of the volunteers does provide me with a pen, which I use to punch a new hole in the bib that I can thread onto the holder and be on my way.
Past the hotel at Ipanema, on to Copacabana and the final stretch of beach. It’s very hot and surreal in these last miles; there’s tents, and a guy playing a grand piano, and pedestrians criss-crossing the course – I narrowly miss bowling into a man and his baby daughter idly turning figure-eights on a bicycle – and the only food station on the route. Oranges, IIRC, and what look like pita crackers. Just before the final tunnel and still a few miles from the finish, a knot of runners line the course, offering high fives and words of encouragement.
Around the beach to the peninsula and the green park and cheering runners and it’s a Xeno’s arrow kind of finish, the finish line always just around the corner, but eventually I cross it, melting and salty. I collect my medal, fruit, and water, happy that I remembered to pack sandals in my drop bag, and join the rest of the group at the Marathon Tours flag.
5:26:43, not my best time, but not my worst either.
Some final notes
For all the zika scare, I didn’t see a single mosquito the entire week, either in Rio or in Iguazu after the race. There was a 24-hour stomach bug going around the hotel that caused some runners to drop their distance, and others had problems with the heat, so your basic stuff that happens.
Although the expo has a separate packet pickup for foreigners, it’s really a local event; most of the pre-race materials are in Portuguese only, and one of the two official photography sites only accepts Brazilian-style addresses.
Contrary to what I heard at the time, there’s really no overlap between this course and the 2016 Olympic Marathon course. The Olympic course is a three-lap loop that has its turnaround in the same green park where the Rio Marathon finishes.