By Peter Benoit
When I heard there was to be a marathon held on San Cristobal, Galápagos I did some research and came up with this little tidy bit of information, “People get lost and die on the inhabited islands of the Galápagos every year simply by wandering off when they are at the beach or in the forest. When they don’t return to their hotel or home, after some days it is first determined that they didn’t leave the islands, eventually search parties go out and occasionally they find a body. The death is attributed to “dehydration and foolishness.”
The Galápagos Islands are six hundred miles off the coast of a third world nation most famous for bananas. I imagined the first-time organizers of this marathon being far beyond their depth, not marking the route well and hundreds of runners lost in the desolate lava fields of coastal Galápagos. I had to attend, simply had to.
Most people and sponsors perhaps wisely avoid the first year of a running event, the theory being, let them work their bugs out on someone else’s time. There is however a plus side to witnessing the birth of a running event. Years later when you return, seeing the improvements and changes you can think with justifiable pride that your participation in that first year led to the success of the event as indeed it did if the event still exists.
Surviving First Year Marathons Is A Thankless Job
Normally the organizers are so busy… They have never done this before, are at their wits end, are so embarrassed that they don’t really know what the hell they are doing and they don’t have time to talk with you at that particular moment. They really don’t.
I have found the trick to enjoying the first year of a running event is to arrive without expectations, assume there won’t be bathrooms, aid stations, that the course may not be marked well, that you will basically have to look out for yourself, and may end up getting lost. I look at it as an adventure, as an opportunity to earn some stories to tell about ineptitude and my level-headed ability to enjoy a race in spite of it.
The course description of the Come To Galápagos Marathon was accompanied by photos and warned of giant tortoises possibly crossing the course and sea lions lounging in the sections that ran along the coast. It sounded like a “story-rich marathon”.
Over the years I have found myself at many tables in many countries registering for races, filling out forms on a clipboard, but never with a two-hundred pound sea lion at my feet, eyeing me with her head cocked to one side with what I imagined were love-soaked eyes as I signed the waiver and picked up my “chip” and “bib”. That is my first story of the Come To Galápagos Marathon.
The Spaghetti Dinner
There was the traditional spaghetti dinner on the night before the race. This one was held on the naval base in San Cristobal. There were admirals, captains and lieutenants of the Ecuadorian navy all in dress whites, all wanting to shake the hands of all the runners. There were uniformed kids (soldiers) opening and closing doors for us, uniformed waiters filling our glasses with fresh picked and squeezed orange juice, a troupe of grade school kids did a post dinner Quichua (Incan) dance performance, the mayor of San Cristobal, the governor of the state of Galápagos, the “senator” which represented Galápagos in the National Assembly, the head of the Red Cross, the head of the civil defense, the head of the fire department, directors of the Charles Darwin Foundation and Galápagos National Park and Ecuadorian TV personalities were all present.
I saw the race director, somewhat disheveled, arrive as the dance performance ended. The last time I had seen him was two hours before. I had watched him from the bus which was giving us a tour of the race course. He was out personally posting all the race signs and kilometer markings, no small task as the Come To Galápagos Marathon is actually three races together, a 10K, half marathon and the marathon. I saw him sending people this way and that, jabbering away in Spanish below palm trees as the sun was setting on the sea just to the side of a distant island.
At the spaghetti dinner he explained the route again, the color coding of the three races, again 10K, half marathon and marathon, corresponding colored arrows on the courses, the places where we might be tempted to go wrong, how to check our backpack at the start so it would be there when we arrived at the finish, the buses that would take us up to the start, how to drop off our windbreaker at the aid stations if we choose to start the race with one. When he was finished he said good night in the style of where he lives, “We’ll see you in our dreams.”
Ready, Set, Go
The course began below a giant wind turbine at one of the highest elevations of the island. We were told there were amazing views of three sides of the island from there. We had views and the experience of the interior of a cloud. Clouds are wet and misty and a very agreeable running environment, not a very agreeable environment to spend time waiting to run. The wind turbine propellers far overhead made a constant whooshing sound within the cloud. We were to start the race at 7:00 but were ready to go at 6:40. The race director was ready to send us early when he received a call that the electricity in the town/at the finish had gone down so the “chips” would not function. They were working on an emergency generator at the course’s end that had also failed. Rather than keep us waiting for a fix that may or may not be coming, the race director sent us off at 7:00 for which everyone was grateful. The electricity was restored shortly after our departure and the chips were adjusted according to a stand by watch the chip company (Cronopro) had which turned out to be, according to my watch, less than twenty seconds off.
When I asked the director why he had made the choice to send the runners rather than wait a few minutes longer he said, “Our first concern is for the care and experience of our runners. Very few runners came here to “win” this race and fewer still once they’ve been on this course for a short while will be very interested in their times. The vast majority came to enjoy it and to them I owe my allegiance.” This was his first experience as a race director, but I had to hand it to him, he was thinking on his feet.
The aid stations were spaced two and a half kilometers apart for the first twenty-five kilometers, one and a half for the final kilometers. I was impressed. They all were trying hard.
The navy manned the aid stations. Kids in white uniforms handed out plastic bags of water or Gatorade. It took me a few aid stations to get the hang of it, but (excepting a camel) I have never experienced a more efficient way to drink water while running. There were wet sponges, bananas and orange slices available at the later aid stations. We had been instructed just to throw sponges, bags or fruit directly onto the road, “please not into the bushes” as a team was following the runners from the highlands down into town and the easier it was for them to find the discarded items the better. I have never seen aid station attendants so enthusiastic, so… proud is the word that comes to mind of what they were doing, proud to give me a bag of water.
It is mostly a rural course and for most of the race it was just me and the course and the green country. The race course descended from the highlands and as it did, when I got below the clouds came views of the distant green islands sitting on a blue sea and the small town below where the race ended. Occasionally there were farmers at the gates to their farms with their children and their leashed dogs, donkeys and horses. The families cheered, banged cow bells and shouted Spanish encouragements as I passed. There was one family with a leashed pig the size of a washing machine.
The Wonder of Man
I’m a slow runner and for much of the race the only other runner I saw was a seventy-five-year-old Ecuadorian man who spoke less English than I had Spanish. He would pass me, then I would pass him a half hour later, then he would pass me again, both of us shouting words of encouragement to each other in our languages.
At one point I saw him just ahead of me passing a family of farmers cheering and suddenly around him appeared a pink cloud which floated to the ground at his feet. As I approached the same spot I saw the cloud lying in the road and heard the family cheering me and then I passed through my own cloud of flower petals.
A few meters before I passed the 42K marker of my Come To Galápagos Marathon journey I was joined by five, waist-high kids “Finish Escorts”, the idea was to make the final few hundred meters easier and they did. I forgot how tired I was completely, think I even picked up my pace a little. The kids escorted me into the soccer stadium and around the track to the finish line where a grand stand of what appeared to my marathon-muddled mind 10,000 locals cheering and applauding me as I crossed the finish line. In my post-race stupor, I hammed it up, throwing kisses to the crowd which responded with more cheers and applause. Goosebumps lifted my exhaustion and the crusted sweat salt on my face was washed with two little rivulets that ran from the corners of my eyes down my cheeks… I often cry at the end of a marathon for reasons you all understand, but this was different than anything I had experienced before.
In an intimate moment days later, I spoke with our Galápagos National Park guide about my experience and this little wisp of kid, child of parents who were Galápagos National Park guides themselves smiled and said, “You showed people who are used to living among the wonders of the natural world the wonder of man. Do you not believe there were some of them crying too?”
A part of me was lost and did die running the Come To Galápagos Marathon. It is a part of me I’m happy to do without.
Only in the Galápagos can tortoises fly!