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Kenyan runner James Kipkemboi couldn’t stifle his laugh: “My record time in a half marathon is 1.02.46 and you are aiming for a time less than 2 hours and 20 minutes?”
“Yes, although I feel I must explain to you,” I said, “that I will be running this 21km course with two things in mind, firstly to see if I can in fact do strenuous exercise at this altitude and secondly my wife’s father has done it at 50 plus years so there are no excuses.”
He looked at me long and hard to see if I was joking, and convinced I was not, with a warming humility wished me all the best on this my first ever half marathon.
I would be leaving the warmth and security of my Candelaria apartment in the heart of Bogotá’s historic colonial district and wander down the hill four short blocks to the Plaza de Bolivar on a Sunday morning to undergo what I figured would be little less than a torturous undertaking.
The professional athletes at the press conference were discussing their two weeks of acclimatisation here in the lofty climes of Bogota. 2600 meters above sea level is no joke, just ask the professional soccer players from Argentina or Brazil who have to travel here for international tournaments. They are given a matter of days to adjust to the thin oxygen and hate every minute.
Sunday came around and my nerves settled somewhat when I saw people of all ages and sizes lining up in the Plaza de Bolivar, stretching off and warming up using the statue of the great Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar as a support to extend their hamstrings, or using the convenient portaloos set up in the shadows of the opulent Palacio de Narino Presidential Palace and the austere Cathedral.
The Bogota half marathon has a brief history and in 2012 is only the thirteenth edition of the event. It has been growing from year to year and has been drawing a strong cadre of runners from the region, mainly Peruvians and Ecuadorians as well as from the ubiquitous powerhouses of Kenya and Ethiopia.
Colombia has something to offer for the visitor and the athlete and her citizens are desperate to translate their hospitality and passion into favourable impressions overseas.
It is incredible how the city comes together for this and really any type of activity. There is a strong solidarity amongst Colombians which is to be expected given the nature of the country and what they are up against as a society.
While roughly 14,500 signed up for the 21km, a further 29,000 entered a 10km alternative and yet it also feels as if the majority of the city’s 8 million people are out here today lining the roads routinely jammed with traffic and diesel belching buses.
The sun blazing down on the back of my neck and scorching my pale gringo flesh I was ruing the decision to not cut the first corner and transfer to the 10km event, but before I knew it I was being buoyed along by the bobbing hordes running alongside.
“Viva Colombia, todos son campeones,” came from one individual and any feelings of lethargy that had crept up around km 6 quickly disappeared. Not far ahead ran a headless costume, “Running for peace” written on his back.
Before I knew it I had covered 11km and given the heat and the absence of any shade I was incredibly grateful for the car salesman who had set up his hosepipe in his forecourt and showered us as we ran past.
It was around the 18km mark that the pain set in and my lack of distance running fitness really started to show. I was finding the environs of warehouses and parking lots less than thrilling as we had now moved from residential areas filled with excitable children and families enjoying their Sunday morning, to stretches of open road on the Calle 100, running alongside the aforementioned buses and in the wake of a vile smelling city river. I found myself yearning for the next motorway overpass that would offer some respite from the sun.
My head dipped, my knee ached and I began to walk. I was not alone. Others around me seemed to be in a similar state. We were together in this yet there was no conversation.
I looked up to see an elderly gentleman alight from a bus. His words fell on leaden legs.
“Animate amigo, faltan solamente 3km.”
Chin up friend, just 3km left.
And then, there it was, the roundabout that would feed us into the lungs of the Simon Bolivar Park. I had covered the distance. It wasn’t so bad after all. The crowds were there in force, there was a feeling of elation and achievement and now all thoughts of the previous 3km were banished as I started to reflect on how much I had enjoyed myself. I even entertained ideas of my training regime for next year’s event in order to cut some 40 minutes off my final time of 2 hours and 18 minutes position 2191 out of 14,500. Not bad for a beginner. I had beaten my proposed time and was thrilled.
(I ran this in 2007. I am still weighing up to run it for a second time in 2012. Will my knees hold out? For more information about how to sign up, where to pay and everything else please read: www.mediamaratondebogota.com)