Thursday, August 29, 2019

Race Report: Maratón Internacional de Panamá

Panama had been on my radar for awhile.  I'm always on the lookout for international races to put on my schedule for Thanksgiving weekend, where I can spend a good four days in a location thanks to my work schedule giving me both Thanksgiving Day and the Day after Thanksgiving, a Thursday and Friday, as holidays to contribute to a long weekend.  In previous years, I've spent Thanksgiving weekend doing races in Curaçao, Italy, and Japan; so this year's Panama edition felt like perfect fit!  I had just come off of a huge weekend, hitting my 50 states marathon and national anthem milestone in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and ended up scheduling a midweek half marathon at the Thanksgiving Day Half Marathon in Atlanta, planning my itinerary to take the direct flight from Atlanta to Panama City that Thursday evening.

Flying into Panama City (PTY)
Our flight arrived in Panama City a little after 10PM, and after a short line in immigration, I headed out to the arrivals hall, where I logged onto the airport's WiFi and managed to get an uber to pick me up to take me into the city.  Almost immediately, I'm enveloped into a veil of humidity.  Compared to the weather in Atlanta, it's stifling. It took a little while, but the Uber finally made it, and I was on my way into Panama City, a 16 mile trip from the airport in the city of Tocumen, but because of traffic (due to construction on a new metro line) and a security checkpoint on the highway (the policia randomly stopped my driver to look at his license and my passport), the trip took nearly an hour. I finally arrived at my hotel, the Hotel Casa Panamá, located right at the edge of Panama City's Casco Viejo.  It was past midnight when I finally arrived, but I checked in and was able to rest in a nice, air conditioned room. Despite the nightclub music pounding only a couple floors above me, I dove into a restful sleep after a long day.

A perfect Panamanian breakfast
I woke up early the next morning ready for breakfast, and my research had me heading to Cafe Coca Cola, Panama's oldest still-operating diner, dating back to 1906.  Located on the border between the neighborhoods of Casco Viejo and Santa Ana, and just a short walk from my hotel, this was a perfect place to jumpstart a day of touring Panama City’s historic district. My breakfast consisted of bistec con salsa y tortilla, hojaldres (fried dough, a Panamanian breakfast treat), and a cafe con leche.  And the best part... no need to change money into local currency here... while the balboa is pegged 1:1, there are no printed Panamanian banknotes; since 1904, the US dollar has been used as legal tender! Even change works out the same, though they do have a one balboa coin; it's all used interchangeably with US coins and banknotes. Smaller change is in 1 and 5 centésimos; 1/2, 1/4, and 1/10 balboas; and pennies/dimes/nickels/quarters.

Strolling through a street market
After breakfast, I began my own walking tour of Casco Viejo, also known as Casco Antiguo, which is the historic district of Panama City. Completed and settled in 1673, it was built following the near-total destruction of the original Panamá city, Panamá Viejo in 1671, when the latter was attacked by pirates. It was built on a peninsula completely isolated by the sea and a defensive system of walls, and today preserves the first institutions and Spanish colonial buildings of the city. It sits at a stark contrast from the rest of the chaotic metropolis that makes the city known as the "Dubai of Latin America." Using some travel websites, in particular's Casco Viejo guide, I made my way around the easily walkable neighborhood, enjoying many sites, which I've highlighted below. But the best part was actually being able to just get lost among the nooks and crannies of this fascinating area, walking through a street market or neighborhood plaza, while Christmas decorations were beginning to be put up; popping into a church to gawk at the beautiful interiors; and admiring the vivid street art and murals that seemed to be EVERYWHERE.

Palacio Bolivar, all decked out.
I made my way along the Avenida Eloy Alfaro eastward, up until a gate blocked my way, but then I realized behind that gate was El Palacio de las Garzas, the governmental office and residence of the President of Panama. So, I instead moved inland to the next main street closest to the shore, Avenida B, making my way toward the end of the peninsula. On my way there, I passed the Iglesia San Felipe de Neri, an unassuming Catholic church tucked among the facades of the narrow street. The church was restored in 2014, and houses a massive nativity scene that used to be set up in a local family's garage that everyone in the city would visit.  The family decided to donate it to the church, and it’s now on display year round. However, it’s a little bit hidden; after entering the church, it's behind the large wooden doors located on the back wall, and down a couple stairs to a side room takes you to the breathtakingly MASSIVE nativity scene.  Nearby is the Plaza Bolivar (named after the South American revolutionary hero, instrumental in leading revolutions against the Spanish empire all over the Americas), home to one of the largest and most ornate churches in the neighborhood, the Iglesia San Francisco de Asis, with its beautiful and towering bell tower; and the Palacio Bolivar, a beautiful recently restored building - formerly a Franciscan convent, but now housing Panama's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A nativity scene on steroids.
Panama City from Plaza de Francia
I continued out east toward the end of the peninsula, past the Teatro Nacional (unfortunately undergoing renovation at the time), as the road curved down toward its southernmost tip, making my way to Plaza de Francia, the original main square of the walled city and a plaza paying homage to the French role in the construction of the Panama Canal.  Getting there, I strolled up the seaside Paseo las Bovedas, a canopied walkway with local artisans selling their Panama hats, molas, and other artistic goods in stalls along the side.  We were met with views of the bay and the Cinta Costera, the ring road surrounding Casco Viejo (a place I'd later be very familiar with, as several early miles of Sunday's race course was on it.)

Arco Chato
Another site in Casco Viejo that I saw was the Arco Chato, the remains of the Iglesia Santo Domingo that was built by Dominican friars. Burnt down in 1756, all that remained of the church was its recessed brick arch, which supported the choir. It has been a popular tourist attraction since the 19th century, despite being located among ruins. The arch remained standing until 2003, when it collapsed unexpectedly. The current arch is a reconstruction lined with its original bricks.

The golden altar at Iglesia San Jose
I got to check out a few other buildings in Casco Viejo along the way, including the Catedral Basílica Santa Maria la Antigua de Panamá (the episcopal see of the Archdiocese of Panama); the Iglesia La Merced (one of Panama’s oldest structures, dating back to circa 1680); the Tiger’s Hand Bulwark (a small section of Panama City’s land-based defensive wall); and the golden altar at Iglesia San Jose (said to have been rescued from Captain Morgan’s pirate attack on the city in 1671)

An exhibit at the Panama Canal Museum
I spent a large chunk of my afternoon at the Museo del Canal Interoceanico de Panama (Panama Canal Museum). This is one of two canal museums in Panama City; the other, located at Miraflores Locks on the canal themselves, is not as comprehensive as this one. This museum was very informative; I spent two hours taking in the history of this fascinating and impressive man-made waterway, utilizing an audio tour guide in English that can be purchased for an additional $3 (on top of the $10 entry fee.)  I found myself quite hungry afterwards, and found a small cevicheria called Red Ocean, where I ordered an octopus ceviche - incredibly fresh, and an amazing dish I devoured in minutes.  I haven’t had pulpo this good since going to Las Galeras, Dominican Republic five years prior... and to wash it down with a glass of Balboa beer?  Heaven. 
The best octopus ceviche I've ever had!
Pedro Mandinga Rum bar!
Before the afternoon winded down, I found my way over to a storefront where I found a travel agent who could help me book a tour for the next day. After going through all the different itineraries, I found one that really interested me - a day tour where I would actually get into a boat on the canal, stop by islands populated by monkeys, and also visit an authentic Indian village. After all, I had all day Saturday, too, to enjoy! With that set up, I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Pedro Mandinga Rum Bar, enjoying a few signature house cocktails, made with various styles of their artisanal rums.

Passing the marquee letters
on my evening run to packet pickup
With the sun going down, and the end of the day approaching, I decided to head to the packet pickup, which would be closing up for its first day that evening.  I decided to get some miles in, testing myself out in this humidity, by running the roughly three miles from my hotel to the Hotel Plaza Paitilla Inn.  As the sun began to set, I went on an an easy jog along the Cinta Costera, part of the course for the marathon - it wasn't terribly hot, but LORD... the humidity!  The packet pickup was very no frills, and I was in and out fairly quickly.

I finally managed to get ahold of my friends Seth and Kevin not long afterward, and we decided to meet up for dinner that night, heading to Marzola Parrilla Argentina back in Casco Viejo.  It was good company and nice to connect with people I knew before the evening was out.  We ended up back at Pedro Mandinga for a nightcap, before I headed back to my hotel since I had an early morning alarm to prepare for my tour.

Expensive, but delicious coffee!
Saturday morning, I was up bright and early, slathered up in sunscreen and insect repellent to prepare for a day on a boat along the Chagres River and Lake Gatun (and in turn, part of the Panama Canal) during the heart of rainy season.  I met up with the tour group at Cafe Unido at the American Trade Hotel, located a short distance away from my hotel. The hotel itself is a masterful 1917 building, evoking the grandeur of early 20th century neo-classical style.  While waiting for the shuttle to pick us up, I decided to purchase a cup of coffee - and not just any normal coffee. Panama Geisha is known as the most expensive coffee in the world, sometimes sold for as much as $600 per pound from the family owned plantation Hacienda la Esmeralda in the town of Boquete. It is a smooth, silky, fruity, aromatic, and tea-like coffee, with a fantastic flavor and chocolate like undertone, unlike anything else I’ve ever tasted.  It cost me $9, but it was so worth it... a Brooklyn coffee shop has these same beans and sells a cup for twice the price! Soon the shuttle was ready to take us on our adventure.

Entering Soberania National Park
We drove out of Panama City (passing the Senafront specialized Panamanian border guards that seem to be EVERYWHERE along the country’s major roadways) to the town of Gamboa in Soberania National Park, located along the Chagres River, the large river that feeds into the Panama Canal. The shuttle takes us to a boatdock, where we board a speedboat to take us about eight miles upriver toward Lake Gatun, to sail by islands populated by monkeys, birds, and other wildlife.  I started this  trip with a little bit of a letdown, though; while getting into the speedboat, I managed to bump my knee, and over the course of the day, a little bruise started to form just below my kneecap.  Sitting in the boat didn't help either, and I had a bit of a tiny dull pain, but it seemed like I could walk and jog on it - hopefully it wouldn't jeopardize my race the next morning!
Speedboat down the canal between North and South America

The trip out on the speedboat was pretty exciting - we finally made it out to Lake Gatun, where our guide told us how to spot the three types of monkeys that inhabited these islands: white faced capuchins, tamarinds, and howler monkeys - the latter we could hear quite prominently whenever we revved our motorboat's engine. We also spotted a juvenile crocodile and iguana, as well as many different types of birds.

Wounaan children dancing
On our way back from the islands, we stopped by the village of San Antonio Wounaan, the home of a population of about fifty indigenous Wounaan people. Descended from tribes that originally populated their homeland in the Chocó region of Colombia and the Darien region of Panama, the Wounaan relocated to this area to train US and other foreign military in jungle survival skills, when the area was within the US-administered Panama Canal Zone. When it was returned to Panama in the 1970s, the Wounaan returned back to their homelands in the east; but in more recent years they came back, as the Panamanian government recognized their contributions to the tourism industry, providing a snapshot into the lives of indigenous cultures in the modern era. With a few modern infrastructure additions (like solar panels for electricity and gas powered stoves) just to make life a little easier, they continue their way of life pretty close to their old traditions. Here, we learned more about their community history, art, music and dance, and took a short hike along the trails through the rainforest to learn more about the native plants and how they were used.

A stroll through the rainforest
With the day winding down, we made our way back to Gamboa dock and reboarded the shuttles.  We were starving by then, so as part of our tour, we stopped at the former Fort Clayton US army base, now a government-sponsored cluster of academic organizations, technology companies and non-governmental organizations known as Ciudad del Saber.  We were driving along a roadway that was right next to the canal, and got to pass by some cruise ships going through the canal, which was quite exciting.  At Ciudad del Saber, I enjoyed my meal at the food court they brought us to - a delicious pollo asado with patacones; followed by my first raspao, a Panamanian sno-cone with strawberries and sweetened condensed milk!
I got back to Panama City, getting my bag from the hotel as I was switching to the Marriott in the Financial District for the night before the race, which was closer to the start/finish, and rested for a bit before heading out again later that evening; this time, I had gotten in touch with my friend Devesh, who I first met when I ran the Berlin Marathon in 2016. Since then, we've managed to be in the same city for marathons a couple of other times, including in Rio de Janeiro over the summer. We agreed to meet up at an Italian restaurant called La Vespa located close to both of our hotels, which happened to be ranked #2 on TripAdvisor. The meal was great, but then again, I wasn't too hungry, since lunch was so late in the day. We called it an early evening because the race start was so early the next morning.
Devesh, Seth, and I pre-race
The startline
At 3:30am I was awake, since the race start was only an hour later.  I got dressed quick and was out the door to jog to the Miramar parking lot for the startline.  People trickled in gradually over time, and soon, some 200 of us take off at 4:30am in the stiflingly hot 73º weather with 85% humidity - the sun still well over an hour away from rising. From the parking lot, we headed westward along Avenida Balboa. Lit only by the lights of the skyscrapers surrounding us, I follow a pretty consistent 9 minute/1 minute run walk as we make our way toward Casco Viejo, past the Vasco Nunez de Balboa statue but ultimately making our way toward the Cinta Costera viaduct that encircles Casco Viejo. My first mile is at a casual 9 1/2 minute pace. 1.5 miles in past the smells of the city's Mercado de Mariscos (Fish Market), and we veer slightly left making our way onto the the 1.55 mile long Cinta Costera viaduct.  The viaduct was a land reclamation project that was completed in 2009 as the third phase of a coastal beltway project designed to improve traffic flow through Panama City. It was nice and flat, but was virtually devoid of anything other than us runners.  I maintained a pretty decent speed, continuing my intervals and putting in a 9:21 second mile and 9:46 third mile, as the course made its way back to land.
Heading south along Avenida Balboa
Cinta Costera at 5am.
Running past Maracana Stadium
3.5 miles in, and we were back on land, running along the part of the Cinta Costera south of the neighborhood of El Chorrillo, one of the poorest in all of Panama City.  We were safely away from any potential danger walking through the neighborhood at that hour, but it was eerily quiet as we ran along the empty highway out toward our turnaround point.  I managed a 9:47 fourth mile as we continued west, reaching the turnaround point just past Maracana Stadium, a 5,500 seat football stadium home for Liga Panameña de Fútbol teams Chorrillo F.C. and Club Deportivo Plaza Amador.  It was roughly the 4.5 mile mark when we headed back where we came, all the way back toward the city along the lonely Cinta Costera viaduct. In the distance, the lights of the skyscrapers in the city gleamed; at 5:30 in the morning, the sun still wasn't up yet, and in fact it would be closer to 6 when the faintest bit of morning light began to appear in the east.
Cinta Costera, with the faint lights of Panama City's skyscrapers in the background
Heading north on Avenida Balboa
Miles 5 and 6 both hovered around the 10 minute mark, followed by an 11 minute mile at the 7th mile; the high humidity started to affect me, and with it as early as it was, who knew what the remaining miles under the Central American sun were going to do to me.  We were back on land, hugging the coast as we made our way back toward the Miramar, weaving around the fish market that was starting to buzz with activity at 5:45am. We began to follow the Avenida Balboa's eastbound lanes, surprisingly closed off for us runners during the race.  It definitely wasn't like this in Costa Rica back in July! I managed a 9:48 mile for mile 8, but wouldn't return anywhere near that speed for the rest of the race.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa Statue on Avenida Balboa
Going up a ramp on the Paitilla viaduct
There was much more activity the closer we got to the Miramar parking lot, since the half marathon was due to start at 6am. It was great to hear cheers from passersby and those runners about to start their race.  I passed the parking lot JUST before they started, making my way out toward Paitilla, as the half marathoners began a shorter out and back along the route I had just run on. My 9th mile registered at a 10:45, and then we were directed to our first real significant hill of the race - an upward ramp along Avenida Balboa to the Paitilla viaduct. With the sun having risen, the iconic F&F Tower, the spectacular twisted spiral of a building that defines the Panama City skyline, stood proudly right in front of us.
F&F Tower at sunrise.
Looking back onto the Financial District from the Paitilla viaduct
Sun rising over Panama Bay
Our terrain twisted a bit as well, as not sooner were we climbing up, that we were ramping back down toward Via Israel, following this road out and around the Multiplaza Pacific Mall, one of a chain of shopping malls spread throughout Central and South America, eventually reaching the Atlapa Convention Center. Mile 10 was an 11 minute mile, followed by a slightly faster 10 1/2 minute mile 11, though now we were back on highway offramps, as the course took us to the Via Cincuentenario (named in 1953 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of independence from Colombia), a road with some slight rolling hills, that took us past the suburban residential neighborhood of Coco del Mar.  The race leader of the marathon ran past us speeding down the street in the other direction, blazingly fast. Noone was behind him.
Past the Atlapa Convention Center (Miss Universe was held here in 1986!)
Running down the Via Cincuentenario
Welcome to Panama Viejo
We'd eventually reach the old city of Panama Viejo, as well as the archaeological ruins in an unassuming looking park to our right, as well as the halfway point of our race. I had slowed down enough to hit a 10:54 mile 12 and 10:42 mile 13, which translated to me reaching the 13.1 mile mark at approximately 2:14 and change.  It was VERY hot now, and I knew I still had a lot of running ahead of me. By then, more of the faster runners of the marathon were now barreling back along the same road as me, but coming from the other direction.  The heat was intense, and the times they were putting down, easily in the sub 3-hour range, were impressive.

Seeing the Avenida Balboa skyline
We continued for another kilometer further north, passing by the Puente del Rey, a 1617 landmark within Panama Viejo that may be the oldest standing bridge in the western hemisphere, eventually reaching a point where we turned right to begin the 3.5 mile long horseshoe shaped out-and-back around Costa del Este.  This mixed-use residential neighborhood, one of the largest real estate developments in Panama City, had its own distinct skyline, a 310-hectare area with several skyscrapers containing condominiums, office parks, commercial parks, and the like.  We ran along Avenida Centenario, named in 2003 in honor of the 100 year anniversary of the Panamanian Republic, looping around to the Avenida Paseo del Mar to our turnaround point on the southwestern corner of the neighborhood along the Malecón.  We could see the distinct skyline of the Avenida Balboa from here. By then we were 28 kilometers in, or roughly just over 17 miles.  On my way along the out-and-back, I spotted Seth and Devesh, who were both having struggles of their own in the heat and humidity.

Running through Costa del Este
Though my speed had vanished, and I was hovering in the 11+ minute mile range, I chugged along as the clock went past 7:30, signaling my third hour on the course. I was in the single digits now in terms of mileage, but I knew as the day grew on and the sun got higher in the sky, that my speed would eventually take a nosedive. I returned back to the place where we had turned onto Avenida Centenario, now at the 20 mile mark, but this time, we turned right taking a quick out-and-back to a turnaround point to the furthest north part of the race in the neighborhood of Chanis on Via Cincuentenario.  We were then routed back along the roads we came through earlier, all the way back into the city center.

So inspiring to watch him!
Though I was suffering through these rapidly increasing temperatures, I encountered two runners at roughly my 22.5 mile mark, who were completing the half marathon.  I was 4 hours into my race, and they were about 2 1/2 hours in.  By that point, we were all about 6 kilometers from finishing our respective races, but one of them was clearly working harder than all of us who were out on the course at that moment.  He was running with crutches, as he only had one leg- his left was amputed below the knee, and he was out there doing the same as all of us able-bodied runners.  It was quite remarkable, and I had to yell out to him to express my astonishment and respect as I passed him -- "¡qué increíble!"

Up and down the highway ramps
The last 5K of the race were along the roadway past the Atlapa Convention Center one more time, the hilly ramps up and down through the Paitilla viaduct, and finally, the vibrant skyline coming closer into view.  I recorded some slow 13 minute miles as we inched our way to to the finish line.  The last mile put us back onto the Avenida Balboa, and we were encouraged back to the Miramar parking lot by spectators who stuck around for us "back of the pack" marathoners.  I sped up a little bit, confident with my finish... I was going to go under 5 hours!

Victory Headstand!
I crossed the finish in 4:44:34, a time that seemed to come out of nowhere, considering the temperature reached 85° by the time I crossed the finish line at 10:15am. The “feels like” temperature was a whopping... 103°. Stunningly, this time (at the time) became my 5th fastest marathon, and my fastest foreign soil marathon ever, displacing the Amsterdam Marathon time of 4:45:32 I had only ran five weeks prior! It was also the fastest of the 31 marathons I'd run in 2018 thus far.  However, eight marathons since the month of August were all within ten minutes of a 4:45... consistency seemed to be my thing!  Exhausted, I found some shade and stayed under there for awhile to get my body temperature back to normal.  I got my headstand photo taken with the skyline behind me, before retiring back to the Marriott for a much needed shower.

Panamanian food at El Cangrejo!
After my shower, I checked out of the hotel and left my bags with the front desk, then headed off to Panama City’s “restaurant row” on Via Argentina in the neighborhood of El Cangrejo for a well-deserved meal.  I was super excited to try some authentic Panamanian cuisine at Restaurante El Trapiche, which came highly recommended on TripAdvisor.  I dined on sancocho (chicken soup with ñame/yam with culantro and yuca), ropa vieja (shredded beef with vegetables), arroz con pollo, tamal de olla (Panamanian style tamale with chicken cooked with cornmeal/mais nuevo and vegetables), yuca frita, caramiñola (a yuca and beef empanada), patacón, almojábano (corn fritter), and chicharron - all washed down with Panama beer!  A ton of food... for only $13!  After eating my fill, I still had room for dessert, so I waddled across the street to Churrería Manolo for a delectable churro relleno filled with dulce de leche and a refreshing batido de fresa (strawberry shake) to wash it all down.
Welcome to the Panama Canal!
Freighters at Miraflores Locks (a 15 minute time elapse video condensed into 52 seconds)
With a whole afternoon still to be able to enjoy, I got back in touch with Devesh, and we shared an Uber out to the Miraflores Locks to go see the canal and its operations firsthand.  It was very interesting to watch the ships traverse the Panama Canal as they (at this point of the day) made their way toward the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic.  Massive freighters would be lowered to the appropriate water level, the whole process taking roughly 15-20 minutes.  We made it in time to be some of the last visitors to the locks before the visitors' center closed, and took an Uber back to Casco Viejo, where we had dinner at a Peruvian restaurants, followed by some drinks on the roofdeck of a CasaCasco, popular bar with 360° views of the old city.
Devesh and I with our cocktails overlooking Casco Viejo
Bling and a memento to bring home!
I headed back to the Marriott to retrieve my bags, then called an Uber for a ride back to Tocumen to catch my flight that night home to the US.  I wanted to maximize my time in Panama, so I managed to find a flight that left at the ungodly hour of 3:20am Monday morning, headed to Fort Lauderdale, on Spirit Airlines.  Spirit does not have a great reputation especially with travel domestically in the US, but I researched this particular flight and it seemed to depart on time regularly without any incidents.  I slept the entire 2 1/2 hour flight up to Florida, arriving about 20 minutes early and clearing immigration pretty quickly since it was 6am and no other flights were coming through at that hour!  And to think, I was worried about delays and needing to switch terminals, as my flight back to New York JFK would be less than two hours after landing.  I got to New York by 10am and was in my office ready for a full day of work by 11.  Another country was complete, and one more marathon was in my sight before closing out a fantastic 2018.

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