Monday, September 16, 2019

Race Report: Marathon Bahamas

MLK Weekend is a very popular weekend for January marathons, with many options for runners - between Louisiana (Baton Rouge), Houston, Arizona (Phoenix), Key West, and international races in Bermuda and Bahamas just to name a few.  Having done some of those races already, and my focus for this year shifting toward international races, I decided to head to the Bahamas for my first race of the year.  I convinced my friend Stacey, who I met when running the Petra Desert Marathon, to come out and do the race with me - she had run this race before, five years prior.  With our flights booked and accommodations set at an Airbnb within walking distance of both the start and finish line, we were set to toe the line on the 20th of January, 2019.

My journey down to the Bahamas began on Friday, as I opted to stop into Atlanta for an overnight and arrive into Nassau on Saturday morning, rather than take the direct flight from New York, since the timing of the JFK-NAS flight was not conducive to my work schedule, taking off in the early afternoon.  I arranged to stay at the apartment of my friend Winnie's on Friday night, having used her place as a stopover already on two other occasions only a few months earlier in November 2018: on my 50th state weekend coming back from Tulsa and taking an early morning flight back to New York, and then a few days later passing through Atlanta on my way to Panama.  I was up at 5am the next morning in order to get myself out the door and in an Uber to the airport for my 8:30am flight.

After a slight delay due to some issues with checked luggage not scanning in correctly with all the boarded passengers on the flight, we were off to the southeast to the Bahamas.  We landed nearly an hour late, and being near the front of the plane, I was through immigration and customs pretty quickly before the onslaught of morning arrivals from other flights began to show up. I was out the door, dodging taxi drivers trying to get a fare from me as I was a man on a mission: find my way to the Shell station about 10 minutes outside the airport grounds, as there was a local jitney bus serving the main road just outside the airport taking people to downtown Nassau for a mere $2.50.  Taxis would cost WAY more, and I'm an expert budget traveler.

Mmmm... cracked conch!
Just as I arrive at the gas station, the recognizable bus #12 arrives and picks me up, and I take the 40 minute scenic route around the perimeter of the island, eventually disembarking at the Fish Fry at Arawak Cay.  Now that it was after 12pm, I was hungry for some lunch, and had a bit of time to kill since my Airbnb wouldn't be ready for another few hours. I notified my host Sonia that I had arrived, and if an early check-in was available, I'd take it.  I ended up at a friendly outdoor space called “Sumptin Good,” where I grab a bottle of the local Kalik beer and immediately partake in some traditional Bahamian cuisine, in the form of "cracked conch" for lunch. It was quite delicious - cracked conch is very much like fried calamari, but the conch meat is tougher than squid and has a stronger flavor.

Posing with our bibs at the expo
Around 2PM, I got a message from Sonia that the apartment was ready an hour early, so I found my way over to my accommodations for the weekend only a short 15 minute walk away. I settled in for a little bit, waiting for Stacey to arrive, having taken a taxi from the airport.  Once she dropped her things off, we headed back down to Bay Street to catch a bus in front of the Rubis Gas Station, headed toward the Baha Mar Resort and Cable Beach to where the expo was located at the MeliĆ” Nassau Beach Resort.  The buses heading westward were packed to the gills, and we were having to bring down the fold down seats along the aisle of the 32-seat capacity vehicles. After spending a short bit of time at the expo and running into a friend of a friend, Kevin (who also ran Panama a couple months earlier), we headed back out to get dinner back at the Fish Fry.  Thankfully, we were able to get on buses going in both directions with little trouble.

A humongous conch salad.
Dinner was delicious, with both Stacey and I indulging in the massive tropical conch salad, a flavorful and massive ceviche concoction featuring the tasty meat with various fruits and vegetables, with just enough of a spicy kick to keep your senses alert.  I washed it down with a Bahama Papa, a stronger twist on the signature Bahamian rum and fruit juice cocktail, the Bahama Mama.  We called it an early night because of our 6:00am start time for the race the next morning.

Race morning startline
After a decent night's sleep, Stacey and I were up by 4:30am, and out the door by 5:15 to make our way to the start. The forecast for the morning all week called for scattered thunderstorms and showers, so we were surprised to wake up to a dry street, and what seemed to be a few light clouds in the sky - nothing like what we were expecting. We did a light jog up toward Bay Street before walking the rest of the way to the start line at Junkanoo Beach, altogether just 1.3 miles away from our Airbnb. We got there with about half an hour to spare, as runners began to assemble on the closed off Bay Street just past the Courtyard Marriott.  After the Bahamian national anthem was sung (which, by the way, they had an instrumental track start it off which they faded out, which I didn't think was all that necessary - it would've helped to keep the singing in tune!), we counted down and soon, we were off and running to the race's "theme song," starting the 10th edition of the Marathon Bahamas.

Running through downtown Nassau
Under cover of the morning darkness, we headed east along Bay Street, curving our way down to Marlborough Street as we ran past the sprawling British Colonial Hilton Nassau, site of the original old fort of Nassau from 1697 until its demolition in 1897.  The grand colonial building that the hotel occupies, considered the "Grand Dame of all Nassau hotels," was originally opened in 1924 and was used as a filing location for the James Bond film Never Say Never Again in 1983. We curved back up to a completely desolate Bay Street, lit only by street lamps and the odd Christmas street decor still up nearly a month after the holiday - in fact, we even ran past a massive Christmas tree and bleachers still set up from the Junkanoo Parade on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas.)

Crossing the Poitier Bridge
Eventually, we began to run outside of the main downtown district heading directly toward the Sir Sidney Poitier Bridge, one of two bridges that connects the main island of New Providence to Paradise Island, over Nassau Harbour. Only named after the renowned Oscar-winning Bahamian actor in 2012, the bridge to the west was constructed in 1998, opening to three lanes of vehicular traffic in a northerly direction. This bridge is 1,930 feet long, rising to 70 feet at its highest point above sea level, to allow for ships to pass underneath.  By the time we got to the foot of the bridge, we were already 1.5 miles into the race, and the climb was quite strenuous.  Of course, I took advantage of the downhill, as we made our way past the toll booths as we officially stepped foot onto Paradise Island, also clocking in our second mile of the race.

About to cross the other bridge
But our time on the resort island was short lived, as we found ourselves taking a quick turn around along Paradise Beach Drive (where conveniently, an aid station was located) before making our way back over the other bridge, simply referred to as the East Paradise Island Bridge, back to New Providence Island.  Shorter than the Poitier Bridge, the eastern bridge spans only 1,560 feet long and has only two lanes, with vehicular traffic heading southward, and also has a crest of 70 feet over the water below. It is the older of the two bridges, having been opened to traffic in 1967 - its construction was funded by Resorts International, the forerunner to today's Atlantis resorts, though both bridges are owned by the Bahamian government.

What a gorgeous sunrise
After heading back downhill at the end of the bridge's span, we continued eastward, watching the sun begin the paint the sky a pink and orange hue, as we passed the original marina for Nassau Harbour (and home to many of the massive yachts that cruise around the island) then reached Montagu Beach, home to a historic fort that guarded the eastern entrance to Nassau Harbour.  Now 3.5 miles into the race, we reached our easternmost point of the race, before taking Village Road to curve westward along Shirley Street as we made our way back toward the downtown.

Along the way, we passed a few aid stations manned by volunteers playing the Marathon Bahamas theme song on repeat - after awhile, it got to be ingrained into our heads! We also passed the early morning church crew, cheering runners on as we passed their congregations before Sunday morning sermons were to begin. As we continued westward, we got to parts of Nassau most tourists don't get to see - in fact, the area south of the street we were on was considered one of the poorest neighborhoods in Nassau, known as "Over the Hill." We stayed right on the boundary, and could see some of the neglect in the surrounding buildings; however, it was still pretty early in the morning - local police was out at the major intersections, ensuring runners' safety as a few cars needed to cross the route during gaps of runners.
 Running by some volunteers playing the marathon theme song!

Pastels of Downtown Nassau
We got back to downtown Nassau, passing by many colonial buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, decked out in beachy pastel colors, such as the Nassau Public Library, a former 18th century jail (in a pretty shade of pink) converted to the city's public library; St. Andrew's Presbyterian Kirk, a grand church built in 1810 and is the second oldest church building on the island; and as we curved up onto Duke Street for a few blocks, Government House, the stately 1801 residence of the British Governor General with a 1930's neoclassical facade painted pink & white.

Curving toward St. Andrew's Kirk
The course veered downhill along Cumberland Street for a couple blocks, as we returned to Marlborough Street, where we had passed the British Colonial Hilton.  We were now 10K into the race, and I clocked a respectable 1:03 - especially considering the amount of walking I did traversing the two bridges over Nassau Harbour.  This boded well for me as we began our westward journey along Bay Street, with a good ten miles of running to go before the turn around that would take us back along the shore to the finish.

Passing the lovely pink Government House
Running westward on Bay Street
It was now a little past 7am, so the city was definitely beginning to wake up. We made our way past our startline, already disassembled, now passing Junkanoo Beach and the Fish Fry at Arawak Cay, which was devoid of people because of the early hour. I ran past the street our Airbnb was on and the Rubi's, continuing on as I took note of notable sights I'd seen while riding in the buses along this route on already three separate occasions the previous day. The top finishers of the half marathon came barreling down the other lane of the street, as I enviously watched them get closer to being done with their race, while I still had just under twenty miles to go. We ran past Saunders Beach, reaching the first of several roundabouts that dot Bay Street west of downtown Nassau, then hugged the coastline as the massive Baha Mar Resort came into view.  We made our way around the semicircular part of the route with five roundabouts that surrounds the resort (noting that the design of Bay Street around Baha Mar adds roughly an extra half mile to what would be normally 3/4 of a mile.)  The half marathoners had their turnaround back to the finish line at the 10 mile mark, and we still had a good six miles until ours.
Seeing Baha Mar from afar
Runners coming back our way!
At around mile 11, we reached the roads closest to Cable Beach, one of the most popular beaches on the island. To our left was mostly commercial developments, to our right (and toward the beach) were some multimillion dollar resorts, villas, and residences. I played a bit of leapfrog at this point with two guys wearing the Swedish blue and gold crown symbol on their matching shirt and shorts outfits (who I witnessed getting interviewed by local TV at the beginning of the race) and a runner from DC, having recognized the flag of the district on his back-turned hat. A mile later, we ran past Sandyport Marina Village, Sandyport Beach and the Sandyport Beach Resort. The whole area is a masterplanned "community" built in a single distinctive architectural style on a pedestrian scale. We ran over the Sandyport Bridge and its Venice-like lagoon and canal.

Sandyport Bridge
By then, the heat was starting to get to me, and I had slowed down enough that I was needing to walk quite a bit.  I reached the halfway point as we passed Sandyport in 2:19:25 - a bit slower than I expected, but considering the rising temps, not surprising.  We got to run alongside a nice stretch of unobstructed beach, passing by Caves Village at mile 14, a commercial district named after the nearby limestone caves near the shore that were the original home of the Lucayans, the inhabitants of the Bahamas from the 10th century up until the arrival of the colonialists.

Compass Point
Somewhere before mile 15, I saw Stacey running up on the other side of the road toward me, roughly a half hour in front of me.  I yelled out to her that I expected a 5:20 finish, as I continued on, making my way past the Compass Point Beach Resort and its colorful mosaic signage out front.  An aid station with local Bahamian women sporting pink tutus and dancing to some R&B tunes was to my left, and I told them I'd come and have a little dance party with them on my way back.  The final stretch before the turn around was a slight downhill after the mile 16 mark, but unfortunately, we had to compete with some slow moving cars who were in our running lane - in fact, from here til the end o the race it began to be very apparent that us slower runners would have to deal with impatient drivers who just wanted to get Bay Street back to normal, and we would have to alternate between the left and right sides of the street as we ran toward the finish.
Finally made the turnaround!
Passing through Baha Mar Resort
I kept my word and joined in on a little dance party with the pink tutu aid station, then continued on in my slow slog to the finish line.  For a while I kept a few runners who I was leapfrogging with in my sights - including a pair of ladies also in pink tutus, and a gentleman wearing tights - in my opinion, a bit too warm for this tropical weather!  Only a few other runners passed me on the return trip back along Bay Street, and for the most part, I think they were relay runners, so they had fresher legs.  It got particularly tough for me as the sun beat down passing Cable Beach and the Baha Mar Resort on the return, the always tough miles 20-23 of the race.  With the clock passing the 5 hour mark as I approached the mile 25 mark near Saunders Beach, I knew the 5:20 finish might actually turn into a reality.
The Office of the Bahamian Prime Minster
Baha Mar behind me
Heading right back into downtown Nassau
Customary 25 mile mark shot!
I made my way past St. Alban's Drive, and pushed myself with a mile left in the race to try to run as much possible to the finish.  The Fish Fry, already showing signs of life, and the beach came into view, and the sounds of Caribbean music coming from the finish line were being carried and amplified in the clear air.  I passed another runner nearing the finish who began to cramp up terribly and ended up needing some assistance in massaging his cramps out, as I made the final turn into the Junkanoo Beach parking lot.  I approached the finish line, seeing Stacey and Kevin cheer me in across the finish mat in 5:19:30, just as I had predicted.  I sluggishly accepted my race medal, while haphazardly trying to get past the Junkanoo style parade that was blocking access to my much deserved beer, which I beelined toward.  I then found some shade and sat in a lawn chair for awhile while Stacey and Kevin eventually found me.
Finish line parade!

Cooling off on Junkanoo Beach
I needed the cool down and removed my shoes and socks, enjoying the feeling of the sand beneath my feet. I eventually moved down toward the water, enjoying the company of my friends, and watching other runners continue to come into the finish line. The wind had picked up near the water considerably, and some of the tents and metal barricades even got blown over - thankfully no one was hurt! Sadly, I did get sand in my beer :( The announcers began to give out awards for marathoners and both Stacey and Kevin ended up receiving age group awards! However, the timing systems seemed to have some issues, which was a bit disappointing, especially later finding out that Stacey's time was actually enough for a better placement in the race; even finding out my finish time was a bit delayed.
Victory Headstand!
Amazing seafood at the Fish Fry!
Eventually, Stacey and I walked back to our Airbnb, making a quick stop at the Fish Fry to indulge in some tasty daquiris.  While we were freshening up after the race, the clouds rolled in and a thunderstorm drenched the island.  Looking outside, the winds were so strong, the palm trees were being whipped around as if we were in a hurricane! It would be another couple hours before we would be able to leave the apartment, so we took a nap - but when we got outside, super hungry with the Fish Fry being our ultimate destination, we were greeted with gigantic puddles that were obviously the result of Nassau's drainage system not being able to keep up with the deluge. We eventually made it to the Fish Fry, enjoying delicious grilled and fried fish dishes as we watched some American football (AFC and NFC championships), then retired back to the Airbnb to sleep our satiated bellies off.

Discovering Fort Charlotte
We slept in a bit in the morning as we had received word the prior day that our reservations with Powerboat Adventures to see the famous swimming pigs of Exuma was cancelled due to mechanical issues with the boat.  Instead, we decided to head into town and take in other sights of Nassau - first, we headed to Fort Charlotte, a British-colonial era fort built on a hill over-looking Nassau Harbour.  It was constructed in the late 18th century by British colonial governor Lord Dunmore after the end of the American Revolutionary war, and has never been used in battle.  Parts of the fort constitute the highest point on the entire island, and on a clear day one can see a 360 degree view of the entirety of New Providence Island.

About to enjoy some local rum!
With the smell of the delicious food from the Fish Fry wafting up the hill, we decided to walk into town for lunch, and found ourselves at a local 24 hour take-away place called Imperial's, directly across the street from the British Colonial Hilton Nassau. The extensive menu has lots of fried food, but we wanted to try something a little different we wouldn't find at the Fish Fry; we both enjoyed Bahamian style lobster rolls (I didn't even know the Bahamas had a lobster industry!), both with a bottle of local beer, before taking a short walk to the nearby John Watling's Distillery, where we took a quick complimentary tour of the Buena Vista Estate, and sampled several of its namesake rum.  We were nicely sloshed before finding our way over to Bahama Barrels, a new winery located amongst the buildings that make up the historic Graycliff Hotel.  Though not a wine producing country, Bahama Barrels bottles wines blended from grapes from both Italy and Argentina, and unsurprisingly Stacey and I partook in a tasting, poured by the lively Samantha.
Rum tasting!
More drunkenness ensues...

Memento purchased!
Properly sloshed, we made our way back down to Bay Street, passing by all the high end and boutique shops, instead making a beeline to the world famous Straw Market, home to handmade Bahamian crafts, gifts, souvenirs, and items such as hand-woven straw hats, bags, mats, dolls, conch shell jewelry, and wood carvings—and all available at very reasonable prices, especially if able to barter the price down!  Here, I was able to purchase my race memento, a hand carved wooden sealife sculpture - I probably could've haggled the price down even more, but I was happy with it!
 
Queens at the Queens Staircase
We also headed to the Queen's Staircase, a set of 65 steps carved out of solid limestone rock by 600 slaves between 1793 and 1794, in order to provide a direct route from Fort Fincastle, a battery protecting the entrance to Nassau Harbor to the central part of Nassau. It was named in honor of Queen Victoria, who had signed a declaration abolishing slavery on her ascension to the throne. Though the staircase is a major landmark in Nassau, the centerpiece of a beautiful grotto with palm trees and tropical flowers next to a water feature, it apparently wasn't the safest area for us, clearly tourists, to be walking around. Despite that, we made it through unscathed.
65 steps down.  And we've had a bit to drink. Good idea?
Before making our way back to the Fish Fry for dinner (as we were starving), we stopped one more time for a couple more drinks at the divey Crew Pub, a bar just off of Bay Street frequented by locals and cruise ship clientele alike.  We made a final walk through the Straw Market as shops were closing up, then made our way back to Fish Fry for our last meal of the trip.  It took an hour, and we were starving, but the food was delicious - me with chicken, Stacey with lobster.

Our imbibements throughout Sunday put us down quickly that night, which was fine since early the next morning, Stacey headed out at 8am for the airport using a car service we arranged with our Airbnb host.  I lazed around for a little while before getting my stuff together and heading out the door back to Bay Street in order to catch the local bus back to the airport.  Budget traveler and adventurer, through and through!

The airport was a bit of a madhouse, but I made it through security fairly quickly and had enough time to sit in the Graycliff Lounge, using my Priority Pass access.  Though not one of the ritziest lounges, I at least had access to getting some food before getting on my flight.  My complimentary upgrade into First Class cleared just before boarding my flight, and we were back direct to JFK that afternoon. I arrived back in the cold January weather of the northeast, kind of sad to be away from the 60+ degree warmth we experienced in the Caribbean, but glad to have checked another country off the list!

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