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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Conquering the Streets of San José: A Runner’s Journey in Costa Rica

Don’t get hit by a car, I think, pulling on my shoes.

I step through the gate and start to jog down the street, giving a wide berth to the neighbor’s fence. Don’t piss off the dog. The black-and-white mongrel paces behind its bars, but it doesn’t snarl or bark. Good dog.

I rejoin the sidewalk. Don’t slip on the moss. The soles of my shoes twist against the slickened pavement, but they stick. Don’t twist an ankle. Just three more weeks. You can do it.

Such mantras echo in my head as I veer onto a busy street, cut through a gas station, and narrowly avoid a gaping black hole in the pavement: Don’t fall down the hole. Don’t step in the dog feces. Don’t kick the discarded glass bottle. Don’t slam into the guachiman in the sombrero. Don’t get run over by a reversing taxi. Don’t lose your footing in the overgrown grass…

This is running in the Central Valley – a pinball machine of odd intersections, massive hills, mad traffic and sidewalks that look shattered by a divine hammer. You can do almost any kind of outdoor sport in Costa Rica, from zip-lines to parasailing, but if you want to run long distances in San José, good luck.

For my wife and me, though, running is non-negotiable. Wherever we go, whatever the circumstances, we find a way to hit the asphalt. Because of our work, we have to live in the San José area, so like it or not, the city is our only playground. And as a half-marathon looms Dec. 1, we have miles to go before we sleep.

With my long torso and short legs, I am not a natural runner, and after four half-marathons, I’m still slower than most retirees. Obese men and middle-school girls routinely cross the finish line before I do. One woman once beat me pushing a baby carriage. Even the weirdoes in unwieldy costumes generally pass me by. This has never bothered me, because 13.1 miles is still 13.1 miles, and for a non-athlete with a zest for lying on the couch, just finishing fills me with joy. (And shin splints).

My wife is a different story. After a half-dozen full marathons, she usually doesn’t trifle with “halfs.” Running the whole 26.2 miles required a lot of training. Back in Pittsburgh, she could spend hours running through the city’s vast urban parks. The terrain was hilly, the green space was generous, and the streets produced a labyrinth of ever-changing routes.

Then we moved to Costa Rica, and we hit a wall.

“I almost fell in a hole today,” Kylan said, ripping the headphones out of her iPod. “I looked down, and it was just there. A hole. In the pavement. Like three feet deep.”

“I can’t believe you tried to run in Alajuela,” I said. “I can barely walk here.”

When we first arrived in Costa Rica, we spent about two weeks in Alajuela, and our exercise regimen drew to a halt. Downtown Alajuela is pleasant in many ways, and the streets can feel homey and communal. But navigating the narrow sidewalks is like sprinting across a balance beam. The curbs are dangerously high; the gutters are cut as deep as irrigation trenches. Stop signs are unpredictably placed, and you’re forced to pause at every street corner and watch for speeding cars. People are everywhere – crowding the walkways, stepping in and out of doors, lining up to board buses – and the bustling throngs leave only inches of space. City parks like General Guardia Plaza are beautiful public squares, filled with venerable trees and mingling citizens, but they’re terrible for runners; you can barely jog one lap before having to dodge a shoe-shiner or a nun.

When we moved closer to San José, we avoided the city altogether. The nation’s capital is just as claustrophobic as Alajuela and twice as fast-paced. Even long pedestrian walkways like Fourth Avenue are far too busy to accommodate a decent run.

“How about La Sabana?” people say. “Have you tried there?”

How about La Sabana? San José’s largest urban park is one of the most beautiful stretches in the city, and thousands of people congregate here to play soccer, ride horses, and run its racetrack. Formerly a park (1600s), then an airport (1930), then a park again (1960s), La Sabana provides runners with a web of roads and trails, which crisscross 72 hectares of grass and trees.

La Sabana has it all: the National Stadium, a manmade pond, ball fields, light woods, grassy mounds and even the Museum of Costa Rican Art. Spend more than a minute in La Sabana, and you are bound to see runners bobbing past.

When we first ran in La Sabana, we felt liberated. The space isn’t big, but you can easily gain some miles by running the perimeter, and there’s a Powerade-sponsored running course that snakes through the park. Granted, La Sabana is surrounded on all sides by four-lane highways, and the noise and fumes constantly besiege you.

Once you’ve run every trail in the park, your only option is to do it again. After a while, I started running to La Sabana as well. The streets were still perilous, but at least I could finish my route in an ample slice of nature. 

Costa Rica isn’t known for its runners, and while there are innumerable Tico athletes, marathons aren’t their cultural strong suit. Since Costa Rica first participated in the Olympics in 1936, athletes have won medals only for swimming. Yes, nearly every breathing Costa Rican can play soccer, and the game requires a lot of running, but long-distance races are a totally different game.

Kylan searched for running groups online, but only one group wrote her back. They were based in Heredia, and they regularly gathered at 5 a.m.

“Wow,” Kylan said, sighing at her computer. “I just don’t know if I can do that.”

It wasn’t just waking up early – it was taking multiple buses before dawn. We don’t own a car, and we didn’t appreciate the irony of riding a motor vehicle across the city just so we could exercise.

I considered joining the Hash House Harriers, an international “beer and running club” with a local chapter. I had known some “hashers” back in Pittsburgh, and although the group is as well known for its aggressive alcohol consumption as its cross-country jogging, I figured I might meet some kindred spirits. The chapters in San José and Escazú sounded like a great time, but after some consideration – and no response to my emails –I decided that knocking back cervezas was probably not the best training program. Maybe after the race, I thought.

So we had to train alone, or sporadically with friends. We haven’t spent much time in Costa Rica, and although we have a healthy number of friends, none of them are taking on a 21K race. The race is wholly mysterious to us: We don’t have a map, we don’t know the route, and no Marathon Costa Rica veterans have foretold what we’ll be facing. Will there be serious hills? How packed will the corrals be?

Luckily, we can expect about 3,500 athletes to share our pain. 

One idle Sunday, I decided to run up a mountain.

“There’s no reason to live in Costa Rica if you don’t leave the city,” expats always tell me. The statement is a little trite, but there’s truth to it: Costa Rica is famous for its volcanoes and waterfalls, not its high rises and traffic jams, so residents should enjoy the outdoors where they can.

I pass these mountains every day. In the morning, they are folded green massifs against a baby-blue sky. By noon, their rounded peaks are subsumed in clouds. Within hours, they have disappeared in sheets of rain and overcast. Ever since I first saw this venerable range, I yearned to explore it.

So I seized the moment. No time to waste, I thought, flying out the door.

Madcap streets aside, Costa Rica is a land of rain and early darkness, and these impediments can’t be helped. No matter what the season, the sun will set by 6 p.m., and ill-timed downpours can waste precious daylight.

Sometimes Kylan and I see a bright sun through the windows; we decide to run; we change into our running gear; and by the time we’ve filled our water bottles, a storm breaks over the neighborhood. Restless with coffee, we wait for the monsoon to wane, but then dusk falls, and our time is up.

On that Sunday, though, I ran down the main avenue, then turned onto an unfamiliar street. As I headed up a steep incline, rounding strange corners and passing yowling dogs, the traffic thinned, and the streets felt quieter and more relaxed. I paced through an old neighborhood, passing hordes of finely dressed families, just as church bells clanged in a nearby steeple. I continued to climb, trading nods with men on the sidewalk, zigzagging across the streets when sidewalks abruptly ended, and waving to drivers who stopped and ushered me across. I even passed other runners – mostly older men wearing Spandex and angular sunglasses.

Beneath a fierce sun, my body was so driven by adrenaline that I didn’t even think to look back. The town’s streets merged into a single road, which meandered higher and higher. On one treacherous stretch, I watched a mountain biker fly past, his face taut with concentration; behind him, a pair of laborers watched from a construction site and shook their heads.

The mountains grew larger, more textured, but they never seemed to come any closer. That’s the thing about mountains – they’re always farther than you think they are. But I loved their massive ridges, the carpets of trees, the meadows that patched their bases. The road crumbled at the sides and abandoned its dividing lines.

Now and again a car drove toward me and swerved to give me room. Some people walked in the road, eyeing me curiously. If there weren’t many runners in San José, there certainly weren’t many up here.

Finally, after a brutal tract of road, I stopped. My chest throbbed. Then I turned around and blinked away beads of sweat. The Central Valley sprawled before me, a vast white floor of urban development, framed by the teal highlands beyond. I had escaped the city, risen above its tapered streets and corrugated rooftops. Instead of winding down and hopping a bus, I could take in this vista and rejoice.

In the end, my distance wasn’t impressive, only five or so miles, according to Google Maps. The digital map couldn’t calculate elevation, so I had no gain to brag about. I didn’t realize for some time that San José stands at 3,800 feet above sea level, significantly higher than Pittsburgh, and the thinner air should be an impediment.

How far up had I gone? It didn’t matter. In a month, I would run my first half-marathon outside the U.S., and hopefully one of many. After conquering the mountain – or at least barreling up its shoulder – I felt ready for a 21K.

Vamos, I thought, back in my kitchen as I guzzled water. Let’s do this thing.

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