Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Rio de Janeiro Marathon

The Rio de Janeiro Marathon is a great way to see a great city. It includes parts that some visitors may never otherwise visit, and the marathon route certainly takes in roads of the city that would be suicide for a pedestrian on any other day.

The marathon begins in the far east of Rio, at Praia do Pontal, the edge of the city before the nature reserves of Prainha and Grumari. From there, the route takes you all along the Atlantic shoreline of Rio, with just a few tunnels  to pound through between the different beaches until the Finish Line at Flamengo. There are also the Half Marathon and the Family Run participants, with a total of around 10,000 runners in all on the middle Sunday in July.

There may have been less though. With some classic Brazilian organisation, the Family Run changed date with only five days to go. Perhaps closing these roads on two separate days was deemed too sophisticated an undertaking, as it certainly wasn’t done properly that one time either.

The Start Line especially was a Triumph of Brazilian Organisation, with the starting gate sending runners away from the city for the first 1.5km, around the corner at Praia da Macumba and back along the very same stretch, separated by barriers in the middle of the road. This gives a wonderful close-up view of the elite athletes, a little group of little East Africans and assorted other runners, all sprinting for the line as though the Starting Gate were the end of the race, not just something that they would soon pass under once more with another 40km remaining.

The barriers separating the two sides disappear well before the start line, and this being Brazil, half the runners arrived after the 7.30am starting gun. This means that the Rio Marathon could well be the only marathon in the world where some people start the race with the genuine danger of being run over by potential winners. You can’t say that about many sporting events!

I was actually passed by somebody running far too fast to be anywhere near me, so I guessed that he must have been a local lad with local time-keeping. This was somewhere along the Praia da Reserva section, closed to traffic, and nice and peaceful, with only waves for company. Entering Barra da Tijuca, this changed quite quickly, and really makes me wonder about Rio’s ability to organise a whole Olympics. With two lanes on each side of the road, and parking spaces between them too, you would think that the obvious answer would be to close one half for the marathon runners only, and split the other half into one lane each way. It would only be necessary for a couple of early Sunday morning hours until all the runners had passed.

Brazil doesn’t like the obvious solution. The beach side was split in half, with cones and tape to separate thousands of runners from hundreds of passing Carioca drivers, some trying find parking spaces for their day at the beach, others blasting their horns behind at being delayed for ten seconds. You all know how it is. Again, the Rio Marathon must be the only one where there is a genuine danger of being run over while actually on the course, by an aggressive driver deciding to cut through the cones instead of letting somebody park in peace. The shouts of porra and filha da p... filled the fresh morning air.

Still, the best part was yet to come. The buses still pass down that lane too of course, and one stopped ahead of me. Three bewildered passengers descended just in front, trapped between tape and bus, and with a road full of runners right in front of their eyes. They were trying to edge into the middle of the race, having nowhere else to go, trouble in front and behind, coitados. It was like an Alpine stage of the Tour de France if it had far more cyclists than spectators. I ran past laughing and resolved to stick to the beira-mar side of the lane.

The tunnels through Pedra da Gavea to Sao Conrado, and the exciting Elevado do JoĆ” were all great fun. Only runners, some shouting through the tunnels, a lovely breeze over the turquoise sea, and a classical music and laser disco for company. I didn’t expect that.

Av. Niemeyer, the road that hugs the hillside around the coast to Leblon, was also good fun, especially for the long-boarder who was using the open half for some quality long skating down the hill. Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana are the parts where things begin to hurt a little, the run becomes a trudge, and there are more people crossing to the beach than running as the field spreads out. Lots of people clapping, lots of encouragement, which really does help immensely at that stage. Except the well-meaning Carioca shouting ‘Vamos Argentino’ at me outside the Copacabana Palace. Why do some Brazilians think that all foreigners must be Argentinean? Or perhaps from the USA once they know that you speak English. The best mullet in the world couldn’t make me look Argentinean.

The final tunnels through to Botafogo and one more curve before the very welcome Finish Line in the shadow of Sugar Loaf, and a medal given under the gaze of Cristo. Wonderful.

A great place to end a great race. The only thing left to do was to relax in the shade of a tree and watch the medal ceremonies. Some more great organisational comedy, as the winner of the Women’s Marathon, Kum Ok Kim, had to suffer the ignominy of having no national anthem of North Korea to accompany her flag. No doubt somebody at this point was running around record shops in Rio, desperately trying to find a National Anthems CD, or to download one as quickly as possible. Ms Kim had to return later, alone, to hear her country’s anthem. Now bearing in mind that only 16 ladies finished in under 3 hours, you would think that the field of possible winners was limited enough to be prepared for the eventuality of one of the foreign winners requiring an anthem... Or perhaps to have a stock of them all.

As with all Big City marathons, the Rio de Janeiro Marathon should showcase the best sights of the city, and this beach-side run is definitely as good as anything in the world. I’ll go again in 2012, maybe take things a bit more seriously this time. I’ve got a Personal Best to beat now in the Rio de Janeiro Marathon. If I beat it by an hour and a half or more, I expect to be standing proudly on the Winner’s Podium saluting the flag as they play the national anthem of Argentina.