Monday, August 6, 2018

Race Report: Maraton Aguascalientes

I happened upon the Maraton Aguascalientes on accident, just surfing through the ahotu Marathons: International Running Calendar and finding a nicely designed race website, albeit all in Spanish.  After doing a bit of research on the city of Aguascalientes, located some 300 miles northwest of Mexico City, and finding it to be one of the fastest growing cities in Mexico, as well as being an exceptionally safe city as far as Mexico is concerned, I decided to look into how to make this trip work.  Eventually, I lucked out in finding a $408 roundtrip fare from JFK via Mexico City that included the JFK - MEX leg on a brand new Boeing Dreamliner 787-9.  I found a decent looking Airbnb a short walk away from the expo and race start, and registered for the race.  When race weekend came, I left work a little early to head to JFK for my 2:30pm flight to Mexico City on Aeromexico.

Enjoying Aeromexico's Clase Premier!
A few weeks earlier, I put a minimum bid in of $150 to be upgraded on the flight to Clase Premier, Aeromexico's Business Class, and the day before my flight, I got an email notifying me that my upgrade was accepted!  Thrillingly, I would be sitting in seat 1A for the 5 hour flight down in the barely one year old aircraft!  It was quite a comfortable flight; the meal was alright - but I was glad to have been able to experience the higher level class on a brand new plane!

Upon arrival at Terminal 2 of Mexico City International Airport, we were met with a time consuming immigration process, passing through the immigration hall where only two employees were working the foreign passports area; despite being in the front of the plane, there were tons of people in line, and the line just kept on getting longer.  Luckily I didn't have a connecting flight that night, as I opted to do a stopover in Mexico City and take a morning flight out to Aguascalientes, but others could have potentially missed theirs with how long it was taking.  After 45 minutes, I was finally through and found my way over to the other terminal via landside train, eventually finding my accommodations - a capsule hotel located on the airport grounds - and checked in, to leave my bags in my own assigned locker. The Hotel iZzzleep in Terminal 1 is hidden away, but for $40 a night, I had a place to rest my head for my quick one night stopover.

The Zócalo in Mexico City
It was late, but I was hungry!  I was able to grab an Uber nearby to take me into the historic center of Mexico City, and got to eat at the restaurant "Azul Historico," recommended to me by friends, not far the Zócalo, Mexico City's main square. After a delicious dinner consisting of various dishes from different regions across Mexico, I spent the rest of the evening exploring along the pedestrian walk on Avenida Francisco I. Madero, and past the Alameda Central Park. Eventually, I got an Uber to take me back to the airport to sleep for the night. It was... an interesting night of sleep. Despite being given earplugs at check-in to combat noise I could still hear (somewhat faintly) people  moving around outside my “pod" as well as some light street traffic on the other side of the thin wall of the room.  Also, the thin memory foam layer we slept on wasn’t the greatest— but at least I didn’t have to worry about Mexico City’s notorious traffic getting to the airport in the morning!

Arriving in Aguascalientes!
I gave myself an early 7am wakeup call the next morning, so I could freshen up and then travel over to the other terminal for my flight on Aeromexico to Aguascalientes. After some light breakfast in the Aeromexico lounge, I headed to my gate for the quick hour long flight out to Aguascalientes.  Upon landing, we exited the plane onto the tarmac upon arrival.  The airport is TINY.  Literally, I can walk into the terminal building, and continue on about 30 feet later to the exit toward the street.  I'm able to get a taxi cab to take me into town and through my broken Spanish, have him take me directly to the location of the marathon expo, located at the old locomotive workshop, the "Salón de Locomotoras."

Aguascalientes lies in the mountainous Bajio region in central Mexico. A rich silver-mining area in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Bajio saw an explosion of fabulous wealth for the time, and the cities there grew to be large and spectacular. By the 19th century, though, the silver lodes were emptied, and the cities became depopulated. They retain their amazing architecture and traditions, however, making them a joy to visit.  Aguascalientes was the largest of those cities, and also at one time was the largest hub in all of Mexico's rail system.  Because of this, it also held the largest workshop and warehouse complex in all Latin America. In fact, the first locomotive completely manufactured in Mexico was made here in Aguascalientes. Over the years, the city transformed from a rural economy to an emergent industrial economy. The factories supplied rails, rail parts, and the locomotive trains themselves to the whole of Mexico and Central America.

Passing by a Nissan factory
Nowadays, the city has experienced some of the most rapid commercial and industrial development of any city in Mexico during the twenty years. Many large international companies now have factories here, although the colonial center has been well preserved. Several important companies such as Jatco, Coca-Cola, Flextronics, Texas Instruments, Donaldson, and Calsonic Kansei, make Aguascalientes their home, and the automobile manufacturing industry has also taken center stage in the city's economy, the major company being Japanese car maker, Nissan.  On the 40 minute trip from the airport to the city center, we passed two humongous Nissan manufacturing plants, including the most important one outside of Japan, alongside the main road.  Most of the Nissan Sentras and Versas for the Americas are made here in Aguascalientes.  In fact, 70% of Japan’s investment in Mexico is in this city. It should be no surprise then that there’s a significant Japanese population within the city, and a number of Japanese-Mexicans.

The expo in the old train workshop
The cab driver dropped me off at the Parque La Maestranza, in front of the site of the "Salón de Locomotoras," Aguascalientes' old 19th century train workshop, the site of the race's expo.  The massive space was quite beautiful, with extensive trusswork supporting its high ceilings.  A few booths zigzagged through the length of the station, with the packet pickup at the end.  However, just like the website and registration for the race, everything was in Spanish.  There wasn't really even a method to the order of how to go about going into the lines. Luckily, someone led me through the process, which started with filling out a waiver, before picking up our bib and t-shirt.  A very funny observation once I received my bib: somehow, my cell phone number ended up being written on my bib - when I registered for the race on the entirely-in-Spanish website, I’m pretty sure I got “nombre” and “número” mixed up! This expo was a little different than any other I've gone through; after picking up our bib and t-shirt, everyone had to undergo ONSITE medical testing before being allowed to leave the building - they measured our height, weight, blood sugar level (!), pulse, and blood pressure! Of course, I passed, despite higher sugar levels because of my breakfast (and coffee) that morning. Before leaving, I did pick up a couple additional official race merchandise items - a t-shirt and a hat, both in a beautiful shade of purple with the calaveras skull adorning both.

Taken post race; but look at
my race bib!
Because it was still rather early (around noon), and my Airbnb would not be ready to have me until 2, I decided to walk into town.  It was a rather warm morning, but it was nice observing the street come alive on a Saturday morning, and see some of the beautiful colonial architecture, such as the Templo de San Antonio de Padua, as I walked down the Avenida Francisco I. Madero, known locally as "El Madero."  I walked about a mile into town and had lunch at a restaurant along the main strip that had some nice ambiance, everything decked out in white.  A model train ran on a track that went all the way around the perimeter of the restaurant.  After my meal, as I spoke in broken Spanish with my waitress, I had an exchange with her that truly shown how terrible my knowledge of Spanish was. My waitress told me, “espero que disfrutes Aguascalientes!” meaning, “I hope you enjoy Aguascalientes!” In my stupidity, I thought she was asking me what my favorite fruit is. I respond... “si. Me gusta maracuya.” or “Yes. I like passionfruit.”  She looked at me questionably... and I left quickly from the restaurant.  LOL!

The National Museum of Death!
Afterward, I grabbed an Uber to take me to my Airbnb to drop off my bags (now that it was ready, and the host was there to let me in), before heading back out into town to check out some of the important sites in the city.  My Airbnb was in a neighborhood just northeast of the startline area for the race, in the gated Nueva Alameda townhouse complex, complete with manned guardhouse, so I felt pretty safe staying there for the one night I would be in town. My first stop was the Museo Nacional de la Muerte, the "National Museum of Death." The museum is actually very informative (despite being completely in Spanish), seeking to show the iconography of death and funerary art in the historical development of Mexico and its traditional and colorful manifestations of death, such as "papel picado" and sugar skulls.

Templo de San Antonio de Padua, observed on my first walk into town
The Mexican flag waving over the Palacio de Gobierno (City Hall) in the Plaza de la Patria
Sugar skulls, sugar everything! Its Dia de los Muertos time!
With the marquee letters in the plaza
Afterward, I decided to enjoy the main square in the center of town, the Plaza de la Patria.  The plaza is the center of the city’s life and has witnessed historic changes in Aguascalientes. At one end of the plaza is the Exedra, a monument erected in 1808 in honor of King Charles IV of Spain. There seemed to be a big kids' festival happening that day, as the plaza was brimming with activity, especially in front of a stage set up in front of the Exedra statue.  I people-watched here for a short while (as well as to rest my feet!), also taking a selfie with life-sized marquee block letters set up in the middle of the square, spelling out "AGUASCALIENTES," much like the "I Amsterdam" branding popular in Amsterdam and the "Curaçao" signs I saw in Willemstad back in 2015. At the other end of the plaza is the 18th century Catedral Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, also known as Aguascalientes Cathedral, the main Catholic cathedral of the city. Like the several other beautiful cathedrals and churches in Aguascalientes' historic city center, it is considered one of the most emblematic symbols of the city, and one of the most beautiful in all of Mexico.  A wedding happened to be happening inside the cathedral, but I popped in to enjoy the interior of this majestic cathedral, staying in the back of the sanctuary to not bother the ceremony.

The Posada Museum
I walked about half a mile to a small museum south of the city center into Barrio del Encino, the oldest part of Aguascalientes City.  Here, I visited the Museo José Guadalupe Posada, a museum devoted to works of Mexican political printmaker and engraver Jose Guadalupe Posada. Opened in 1972 and housed in the former cloisters and priest residence of the adjacent 18th century Templo del Señor del Encino, the museum gives visitors the opportunity to examine the great detail put into the etchings on the original lead and zinc signed printed plates by Posada, who was born in Aguascalientes.  Posada's work has influenced many Latin American artists and cartoonists from its content as social commentary of the time - among his famous works was La Catrina, a female skeleton donning a hat that has become an icon of Dia de la Muerte.  Besides the plates with which he created his graphic images from printing the broadsides, the small collection also features a display of antique engraving equipment. Next door was the church, the Templo del Señor del Encino, which seemed to have a quinceañera blessing happening!  Crashing a wedding and a quinceañera in the same day? Crazy.

With the original "La Catrina" stamp, enlarged and on display.
A Zombie walk down El Madero!
As the day began to come to a close, I headed back downtown encountering a street festival which I was assumed was connected with Dia de la Muerte, with musical performances and street vendors selling food among other items.  People were also assembling down El Madero, as Aguascalientes' Zombie Walk was also happening, featuring cars decorated in the macabre, and many people dressed in zombie costumes, to celebrate the holiday.  I walked up the street past the crowds to grab dinner at Quinto Barrio, a gastronomic "food hall" type space with several different restaurants serving different types of cuisines.  I ended up getting some Pulpo a la Gallega from Joserra Gachupinfud, which despite being a Spanish rather than Mexican dish, was my choice because I can't ever pass up some grilled octopus - and it definitely did not disappoint!  I then took an Uber to head back to my Airbnb to sleep off the crazy amount of sightseeing I did that day.

Early morning start!
The next morning was the race!  Waking up kind of early, I got myself dressed and out the door alongside the other Airbnb guest who was in the adjacent room, Alma, and her boyfriend, both from Irapuato in the neighboring state of Guanajuato, around 2 1/2 hours drive away.  We walked together to the startline, me leading the way as I had staked out the route to get to the start the day before, a roughly 20 minute walk.  The morning was a balmy 46º, but knowing that would change quickly when the sun decided to make itself known!  Crowds began to assemble, and there was a palpable excitement in the air. As we waited for the race to begin, announcements were made in Spanish, but for the first time all weekend, I heard some English over the loudspeakers! The cute startline featured life-size caricatures of calaveras on either side of the gate, and before the gun, we were treated to a federal police helicopter flyover, a Mexican police band, the singing of the Mexican national anthem, and mariachi!

A post shared by Maratón Aguascalientes (@maratonags) on

A post shared by Adrian Soria (@adriansoriabejar) on

The fun start line
Soon, we were off, heading north along the wide Avenida Manuel Gomez Morìn/Avenida Ferrocarril. From the start, I knew I needed to take it easy, as I was going to be taking bigger breaths with the elevation being over 6,000 feet.  But I felt good, and I clocked a 9:23 first mile, as we made our way through the gates of Aguascalientes' old railroad repair shops of the now defunct Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México, the country's state-owned railroad company. The route took us to a turnaround point north at around the 1.5 mile mark, as we saw the faster runners coming down the avenue and back toward the start area.  We all would pass the start and the Estacion del Ferrocaril, but those running the 5K would make a turn back toward the finish line (near the start area) to complete their 3.1 mile route; of course, the rest of us had much further to go.

Heading into the old railroad repair shops (Official photo by Maratón Aguascalientes)
Running through the old railroad repair shop grounds
Running back along Avenida Manuel Gonzalez Morin
Calaveras along the course!
The route then wound its way along some quiet backstreets and to the majestic La Alameda, an elegant thoroughfare built in the late nineteenth century to link the east of the city to the historic center. The avenue was recently refurbished in order to provide a functional public space for the local population and a tourist route with recreational infrastructure. We eventually found our way along Avenida Heroico Colegio Militar, completing another out-and-back section that took us around a parking lot behind the Museo Espacio, a modern art museum; and the rear of the old railroad repair shops. We also passed by CRIT, a vibrant looking building that I later learned housed a foundation that supports children with disabilities, cancer, and autism.  Eventually, we made our way back to La Alameda near the start area, where signs overhead indicated the route for the 21km and 42km course straight ahead; and the 10km course turned right toward the finish line. We were about to head  into the historic town center, to run through the main commercial streets I had walked along the day before, now some 6 miles into the race.

Passing the Estacion del Ferrocaril (Official photo by Maratón Aguascalientes)
Near Museo Espacio, the rear of the railroad shops
The split before running into town
Running through town on El Madero
We took a slight right turn onto Calle 28 de Agosto, bringing us to El Madero, which we would run on a nice steady downhill through the center of town, past the Plaza de la Patria and Aguascalientes Cathedral. We then began to follow the street as it led us westward toward the Jardin de San Marcos (San Marcos Garden), a beloved landmark of the city because of it being the historic center of the Feria Nacional de San Marcos or the San Marcos Fair, the largest festival held in Mexico, which takes place from the middle of April to the beginning of May.  The fair is single-handedly the biggest tourist draw for the city, attracting almost 7 million visitors to Aguascalientes every year.  Nowadays, it has greatly expanded to cover a huge area of exposition spaces, bullrings, nightclubs, theaters, performance stages, theme parks, hotels, convention centers, and other attractions all around the center of the city.
Running past the iconic Aguascalientes Cathedral
Running past the Templo de San Marcos
Running past the San Marcos Garden
The road narrowed as we passed the north edge of the garden and its tall shade trees, bounded by its neo-Classic balustrade of pink stone on Calle Jesús F. Contreras.  We ran past the imposing Templo de San Marcos, an eyecatching Baroque-inspired church with asymmetrical towers at the far western end of the garden, with its facade covered in scaffolding as it was in the process of being restored; we following the road as it curved slightly onto Calle Alfonso Esparza Oteo onto Calle Talamantes, then following Calle Aquiles Elorduy and its quiet Sunday morning streetscape as we reached a right turn onto the wide Avenida de la Convención de 1914, which encircles the old colonial core and forms the first of three ring roads that form the urban layout of the city.  We were now about 8.5 miles into the race, now in the more modern parts of the city, where the views were much more urban and commercial feeling. We followed the wide roadway northward; a turnaround point for the half marathoners was at the 14K mark of the race, but the full marathoners continued on, with runners starting to disperse ourselves far apart from each other.  Much of the next 14 miles of the race would feel very monotonous and replete with commercial, and rather uninteresting views.
A blah, commercial view, much of miles 8.5-22 of the race
A somewhat different view on Colosio
After the road curved northeastward, we turned left onto the Avenida Universidad just before the 10 mile mark.  We ran a half mile up the wide road before turning right onto the Avenida Canal Interceptor, where we first began a series of out-and-back sections of course.  We ran down a divided highway with a thin manicured median strip, serving as nice interestingly-thought out park spaces (some even with modern looking playground equipment) that actually had a few folks cheering for runners as we ran past. The avenue curved northeastward, but our course diverted us onto a smaller side street also nicely manicured with a median park strip, Calle Ebano, as we ran to the turnaround point at the Boulevard A Zacatecas. We headed back to the intersection at Avenida Universidad, then followed the road northward, past the Universidad Autonoma de Aguascalientes and the Avenida Aguascalientes ring road (the second ring road) about 1.75 miles to a triangular park called the Plaza de la Juventud, where we followed the curve of the road toward the Boulevard Luis Donaldo Colosio (known locally simply as "Colosio"), one of the city's more contemporary and upscale commercial corridors, for another out-and-back section, this time a tad bit longer, as we ran again to the Boulevard A Zacatecas, before turning right back to head back to the Plaza de la Juventud.  This road had a nicely manicured median strip as well, but had these tall and stately ornamental Italian cypress trees, resembling a Mediterranean look one would find in Europe, instead of central Mexico.

Passing a colorful building on
the blah section of the course
We veered northward to the northernmost point of the race, yet another turnaround point along Calle Graneros, before we ran back southward along the Avenida Universidad, dealing with more of the mind-numbingly boring section of the course that we had been running since mile 8.5. Along the way, I saw the final runner, making his way up the other direction some six or seven miles behind me at probably just the halfway point of the race, in a rather recognizable outfit and proceeding forward with a noticeable disability, as he was using crutches.  I'd later find out that 57-year old Oaxaca native Carlos Braulio Gonzalez Garcia, better known as "Speedy Gonzalez," makes his way to races all over Mexico, running in an outfit with a sarape (Mexican blanket), huaraches (sandals), oversized sombrero and bandana.  Despite a disability where his left leg is shorter than his right, he participates in these races to show that even someone like him can still do this rather difficult task, wearing a sign around his neck that says: "Que en familia unida hagamos deporte, con hábitos saludables y valores universales, para ser más sanos, prósperos y positivos, felices," which roughly translates into "A united family is active, with good habits, and universal core values in order to be healthy, prosperous, positive and happy." (special thanks to my friend Sean Patrick for translating this properly for me!)  He would later be the final finisher of the race, coming in about 9.5 minutes before the time limit for the marathon -- a video by Maraton Aguascalientes below shows his valiant run across the finish line!
More calaveras decorations!  The city loves its Dia de los Muertos symbols!
The underpass under the city's bullring
Once more, we reached Avenida Canal Interceptor, this time veering west, and making our way past more narrow median-turned-strip parks, reaching a turnaround point at Avenida Fundicion. With only 10K left in the race, I was making good time to run this high-elevation but mostly flat course in under five hours, a feat I wasn't so sure I was going to be able to accomplish! I reached the intersection with Avenida Universidad for the last time, veering south, as we retraced our steps back toward the Barrio de San Marcos area where we first turned to reach the wide Avenida de la Convención de 1914, bypassing our turn point and heading down to the Avenida Lic. Adolfo Lopez Mateos, doubling as the Mexican Federal Highway 70 that connects Aguascalientes with Calvillo 50 km to the west and San Louis Potosi 160 km to the east.  We descended down to the sunken road as we began to ran eastward with only 5K left in the race, briefly passing through a 1/2 mile long underpass under the ExpoPlaza Mall complex adjacent to the Plaza de Toros Monumental de Aguascalientes, the city's main bullring that doubles as a 16,000 seat stadium for both bullfighting and concerts. It was a somewhat dark and damp tunnel that gave us a little different view for a short period of time, and while it was deserted as I ran through here (surprisingly, it was closed to traffic!), it was quite peaceful, only hearing the sound of crickets chirping.

The Glorieta del Quijote
After emerging out of the tunnel, we continued eastward as we passed through a more commercial corridor, but more aesthetically like the colonial area only a few blocks away. We rounded the Glorieta del Quijote, a cool statue and fountain featuring mythical figure Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza, with 1.5 miles left in the course, as we made our last uphill climb along the highway to the last turnaround marker at the intersection with the Mexican Federal Highway 45.  We then followed the side road past the sports complex and Estadio Victoria (home of Liga MX football team Club Necaxa), as we followed the curve of the road back to the Avenida Ferrocarril, and the finish line finally in sight.  I crossed in a fantastic 4:50:11, my second fastest international marathon after a 4:46:31 in Canada only 5.5 months earlier, and considering that the entire course was well over 6,000 feet in elevation... I was VERY happy.  I got my headstand photo taken at the nearby La Maestranza statue (in its namesake park), a statue that illustrates the history of the railroad in Aguascalientes. The name "La Maestranza" is thanks to the teachers who learned to work in the railway workshops, starting as newbies, teaching the new ones and becoming teachers; repeating the cycle for more than 100 years.

2 kilometers left!
Beautiful street art just before the finish, embodying Aguascalientes!
Crossing the finish line in style! (Official photo by Maratón Aguascalientes)
Victory Headstand in front of La Maestranza
Post race nutrition, Mexico style!
I enjoyed a delicious and truly Mexican way of replenishing my nutrition after the race... with tacos!  The race also had a fun memento that every finisher was able to get in addition to their medal and a finisher shirt: a handmade skull statuette!  I then began my long slog back toward my Airbnb to get showered and cleaned up, before checking out with my bags and heading back into town for a proper meal: since there’s a big Japanese presence in this city, I thought why not try out the best sushi place in town for my post race late lunch... and it definitely did not disappoint! I had a chicken fried rice bowl (Tazon de pollo y verduras) and the Incubo Roll - salmon, cheese, and a surimi wrapper— with Mexican picante soy sauce, and a local beer, Victoria!

Oh what a sunset!
I bided my time at the restaurant, as I had a bit of time before my scheduled evening flight to Mexico City, so I worked on uploading my photos with the restaurant's WiFi while I charged my phone, then called for an Uber to take me to the airport for the 45 minute drive out of the city. I ended up working on my Spanish with him as he took me down to the airport, as the beautiful sun set over the horizon.  I reached the airport with ample time, enough to be able to even use the no-frills small Priority Pass lounge located in the small two-gate terminal house.  The flight to Mexico City was quick, and I even ended up sitting next to a gentleman who worked the timing for the race, as I exchanged stories of other races I've run up to that date.  My connection in Mexico City was pretty quick, and I boarded my "redeye" (if you could call it that- it was a 4 1/2 hour flight!) back to JFK making it back by roughly 6 AM, then headed to the office for yet another full work day post race!  It was a successful weekend all in all, finishing another country - my 8th - and posting my 10th fastest marathon time to date! I was sad to spend such a short amount of time in this wonderful city, but it's so true that this city is known for being tierra de la gente buena, or "land of good people." Aguascalientes, you have my heart!

No comments:

Post a Comment