In order to get from Ribeirao Preto, where we’d been staying with Bill’s Brazilian family, to Rio de Janeiro for the race, we took a “sleeping bus” on Tuesday night. The ride was twelve hours. Unfortunately, Bill and I could not both get sleeping berths. At my insistence, Bill took the bed and I took the upright seat on the upper deck. Why I would make such a magnanimous sacrifice? I can assure you it was completely selfish. If I don’t sleep well on any given night, I’m tired the next day, maybe a little labored in my physical movements and certainly prone to cry more easily than usual. But if Bill does not sleep, his face goes dark and the world becomes his victimizer. He changes from the reasonable man I adore into a threatened rattle snake snapping at every real or imagined enemy (I write this description with his full approval, by the way, and his admission that he deserves it).
It is in my best interest to help Bill get the sleep he needs. I am, one might even say, co-dependent on Bill’s sleep. That is why, after saying goodbye to Ana Rosa, Carlos, Mai, Jussara, Luiz and finally, Dimas, Bill snuggled into his cushioned pull-out easy chair with the fluffy blanket and pillow provided by the bus company in an enclosed heated room while I shifted stiffly in a vinyl chair up above, freezing and watching the hours tick by.
As expected, it was a tough night for me (but still better than the alternative). As soon as we reunited the next day, I was sure to let Bill know that my misery trumped his. Never was I so glad to arrive somewhere as I was to get to the bus station in Rio. A stationary restroom and a cup of thick Brazilian coffee went a long way toward refreshing me before we found our way to the hostel we’d reserved (Botofogo Easy Hostel).
We rested up for an hour or so, but not being ones to let the soles of our shoes grow cold, we soon got down to business exploring the city. From the chaotic avenue that ran perpendicular to the side-street our hostel was on we could see the Christ the Redeemer statue situated atop Corcovado Mountain in one direction and Sugar Loaf in the other. We were in the most beautiful city on earth!
Our most important task, of course, was to find our way to the race expo and pick up our packets. Tired as we were, we located Rio’s convention center, a large, bland cement building that took up two city blocks. We entered it and were greeted by a fitness fair where every kind of exercise equipment imaginable was being displayed and demonstrated to race participants as they wandered around looking for Registration. It took us nearly twenty minutes to discover that all foreign participants had a special registration area where young, energetic volunteers in bright orange jerseys were getting the chance to practice their various language skills. A cheerful young woman greeted Bill and me and walked us through the packet pick-up process with rapid and perfect English.
I’d almost forgotten why we were in Brazil by this point. For a week and a half, we’d been living with Bill’s Brazilian family in comfort, touring and visiting and eating and totally ignoring the other purpose of our trip. But the race expo was evidence that an event with more than 5000 participants was about to take place in this city. Our numbers, chips and race shirts were my personal evidence that in a few days, I’d have to run 42 K. I hoped I could do it. While I was in better health than before my last race in South Africa, Bill and I were both coming into this marathon somewhat compromised.
Let me lay out a few of the conditions under which we would stand at the starting line of our sixth continental Marathon on Sunday:
- We’d been eating dinner at 11pm all week with Bill’s wonderful Brazilian family. Each day lunch had been served at about 5:00, appetizers at 9:00 and dinner after that. Bill and I had done our best to keep up with our hosts in these late-night extravaganzas.
- We were both incredibly constipated due to this total disruption of our digestive routines.
- We’d been drinking plenty of good Argentinean and Chilean wines every night.
- We had walked at least 100 miles in our explorations of Sao Paulo, Ribeirao Preto, and Rio de Janeiro.
- I had several mosquito bites around my ankles, and Bill had a deep gash in his left shin that he’d gotten by banging it against a bed frame at one of the places we’d stayed.
- The young people staying at the hostel, while delightful and interesting, kept us awake with their talking in the common area until at least 4am each morning (and in case they’re reading this: We love you anyhow).
We’d do our best, but we had concerns.
During the next days before the race, we met and developed a special relationship with two guys who were staying at our hostel: Kevin from California and Omar from Mexico. Kevin was finishing the very quest Bill and I were on; he was in Rio to complete his seventh marathon on his seventh continent. We understood the time and expense and passion he had put into his dream and we both felt proud to have the opportunity to be part of his completion and celebration. He’d made the trek to Brazil alone, but we wanted to be sure he’d get properly toasted after crossing this finish line. Omar’s participation in this race was just as significant. He was in training for what would be his first marathon in Mexico City and had come to Brazil NOT to finish the Rio Marathon. His plan was to run 22 miles with the pack and then drop out, but when Kevin, Bill and I heard about his training regimen over the past months, we knew Omar could easily finish this race and encouraged him to think about going all the way.
Omar spent an entire day considering our exhortations and came back to the hostel the evening before the race with the announcement that he would run the full marathon on two conditions. One was that he would do it slowly (four hours, he said). The other was that we were all sworn to secrecy (sorry Omar!). He wanted his family to be able to celebrate the Mexico City Marathon with him as if it were his first.
Together we were “Team Rio!”
Sunday morning came early. We’d barely fallen asleep at 4am as the hostel quieted down when our alarm sounded at 4:30. At 5:15, Team Rio jammed itself into a taxi and made its way from our little purple hostel to the finish line at the Flamengo Beach. We couldn’t see the ocean water in the dark. We couldn’t even hear the waves of the tide over the engines of the busses that waited to take us to the starting line 26.2 miles away in the town of Recreio, but we knew they were there.
This was a point-to-point Marathon, my favorite kind because it makes you feel like you’ve gone somewhere. You don’t end up where you started, though of course in this case we would because we boarded the bus at the finish and rode to the start. Easy come… easy go. I guess.
At the park near the starting line in Recreio, we watched the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean. As we stretched and munched on granola bars, local fishermen pushed their boats over the surf and people in wetsuits with large colorfully illustrated boards swam into the sea to try and catch a wave to ride in.
My three men and I snapped pictures of the sky and rocky coast line as the colors shifted over the water from blue-grey to green to red and orange and finally back to a deeper blue. There were clouds, but not many, and there was a perfect, gentle, warm breeze coming from the South. Winter in Brazil didn’t hurt my feelings; that’s for sure.
I waited for fifteen minutes to use the toilet, but the line was moving slowly. I finally gave up when I heard the call to get ready for the start. I had to hope to find a portable toilet on the course at some point early in the race (I didn’t). We crowded into the starting chute. No one seemed to be seeding him or herself by pace, so Omar, Kevin, Bill and I all stood together as we waited for the horn. Once it rang out at 8:30, I bid goodbye to the fellas as they ran ahead and concentrated on finding my pace.
My body felt heavy (I supposed it was heavier than when I’d left home two weeks earlier), but I had good energy and I was excited to be running on continent number six!! Who in my life would have ever imagined this for me? I set my stopwatch so I could measure my progress, but even at the first three kilometer marker I could see my pace was sluggish. This Marathon was not going to be about a personal record for me. That was fine. I wasn’t feeling like competing, anyway, even with myself. I gazed out to the East where the sun was low in the sky. This race had plenty to offer besides a fast course. For this runner, it would be entirely about the views I’d take in over the next several hours.
How many ways are there to describe the Ocean? Cobalt. Foamy. Wild. Speckled in light. Violent. Lonely. Container of life. Overwhelming. Demanding. Emerald. Serene. Secure. Full. Spilling over. Salty. Grey. Angry. Complicated. Filling the hole in the heart of the world. Vast.
The ocean seemed to encompass me as I ran next to it. Sometimes in front of me, sometimes behind, always to my right, it wrapped itself around the coast of Brazil and around my attention as I puttered away. Only to the left, to the West, could I not see water. That’s because it wasn’t my ocean, not the Pacific Ocean that seeps through the Strait of Juan de Fuca into the Bay that I can see from my front yard. This was another ocean that I didn’t know very well, one that lived on the other side of my country and alongside this country where I was a stranger in awe of how big the world is and how little I’d seen of it even though I’d put my feet on the soil of six continents.
The course was flat as it wound its way beside the coastline. I watched almost the way one watches a film as the terrain at the water’s edge became rocks and cliffs, then sand and palm trees. Beach after beach rolled by at my slow pace. From Recreio to the Barra da Tijuca shoreline, the Quebra-Mar, Sao Conrado, and Leblon beaches, the sun shone on the rose, blond and peach-colored sand. Every few blocks during the early and later stretches of the course, refreshment stands sold fresh coconut milk and cold beers. As the hours progressed, each beach I passed grew more populated with patrons than the last.
My legs were strong if elephantine in their performance. I’ve run enough races by now, though, to know that all I needed to do was pick them up and move them forward. I didn’t worry that I wasn’t “feeling” as light as I sometimes feel. I only needed to enjoy the journey at whatever pace my legs would carry me.
The day warmed. I saw a sign at a bank claiming it was 23 degrees (75 degrees Fahrenheit) at about mile nineteen. As the heat rose, so did the humidity. Sweat dribbled down my face from under my hat. My inner thighs chafed (once again, I forgot to “Vaseline” a very key area). And the roof of my mouth became sore. I speculate the latter was from the smog. Brazil is totally self-sufficient in its energy sources and one of these sources is ethanol alcohol made from sugar cane. The millions of cars on Rio’s roads run on a combination of ethanol and regular gasoline. My hunch is that the way ethanol burns creates a kind of pollution I’m not adapted to and it irritated me. But it’s just a theory (anyone know the facts?). Shortly after I noted the temperature, I got my first glimpse of Sugar Loaf. Sugar Loaf, or Pao d’Acucar, as they say in Portuguese, watches over the Rio coastline from the top of its 1,299 feet of granite and quartz. It beamed in the sunlight, smiled at me and reassured me that the end was not so far away. Next I was running along Ipanema.
The roads were closed to vehicle traffic for the weekend and this beach, even in the winter, was a Mecca for ill-fitting thong bikinis and circles of young people keeping soccer balls in the air. I continued to follow the orange cones that indicated the course, grateful for the aid stations faithfully placed every three or four kilometers along the route. My bladder was beginning to complain, but I couldn’t see an easy way to relieve it, so I ignored the feeling of fullness for the moment.
By this time I could also feel the predictable ache in my legs and back and shoulders, but I still felt stalwart, solid in my ability to finish with the joy in my heart I’d started with. There would be no crying here in Rio as there had been in South Africa, but nonetheless, my pain was intensifying as I approached Copacabana Beach. I could have used some encouragement. I don’t know if the onlookers along the pedestrian trail that paralleled the beach had more enthusiasm for runners at the front of the pack, but at more than four hours into the race, I was left to myself. Sun-bathers on the beach and families out for their Sunday walk were totally indifferent to me and the other stragglers at the tail of the pack. Just about when I was nearly dying to hear someone shout some words of support, a female American voice come from somewhere saying, “Come on! Not far to go! Good job!” I tried to find the woman with the voice, but never spotted her.
Once or twice more, someone applauded as I passed them, but for the most part, it seemed the folks in Rio were fairly unimpressed by my pain and my efforts.
Finally, I reached Flamengo Beach, where I had caught the bus about eight hours earlier. There was the finish line, a speck in the distance. A large park at the edge of the beach had been commandeered as a recovery center and was peppered with temporary tents and port-o-potties (thank heavens!). Here, fans and runners lined the fence and cheered as I approached. Relieved to be among supporters, I looked for Bill’s face in the crowd and couldn’t see him, but I was a half kilometer from the actual finish line yet. As I drew closer to the finish banner and still couldn’t find him, I wondered what to do. I’d never come over a marathon finish line without him there to greet me, and for a moment I thought maybe I should pull over and let other runners pass until I could spot him. But then I heard him calling my name and followed the sound until I could make him out amidst the mass of faces.
Bill was balancing on a stone fence post to elevate himself above the crowd and, as usual, he had his camera in hand. I waved and felt a sharp pain in my shoulder and neck with the movement. I’d been on the course for five hours, thirty minutes and twenty-three seconds. All the muscles in my body were stiff and spent.
I crossed the line and heard the beep of the chip registry under my feet as I slowed to a walk. Closing my eyes I gave a silent thanks to my body for doing what I’d asked it to do even though I hadn’t been very kind to it on this trip. Unfortunately, closing my eyes caused me to lose my balance for a moment. I snapped my eyes open to find my equilibrium and as I did I saw Omar standing directly in front of me.
A Mexican Flag was tied around his neck and flowed down his back. His arms were open wide to take me in and bring me back into balance. “Great job!” he said. Omar had finished his very first marathon in 3:46 and then had waited for nearly two hours for me to cross the line. I was touched.
Volunteers were standing on the sidelines with bundles of medals. To get mine, all I had to do was get my chip from my shoe and trade it in. I bent to reach down toward my feet but my body revolted with surges of searing pain in my lower back. Omar shook his head at me and lifted my shoulders to return me to an upright position. Then he, tired and sore as he must have been after his first marathon, knelt and unlaced my shoe, removed my timing ship and retied my shoe before walking me to the edge of the crowd where I traded the chip in for my medal.
Bill came around front of the ruckus to meet us and once I was finally out of the finish area, Omar handed me off to Bill and headed back to the hostel to get a shower and get ready for our celebration later that night. Kevin was already there with a friend who had flown in from the States at the last minute to support him. We would follow them just as soon as I had relieved my bladder (there were no lines at the toilets now), stretched and recovered enough to move again.
Sitting on the grass in an enclosed area, I straightened out each of my legs and leaned into the best stretch I could manage, and I reflected. Had I really just completed not only my sixth continent but my third continent in this very year? I’d never even done more than two marathons in a single year before 2009.
“We’re crazy!” I said to Bill.
“No kidding,” he agreed.
Bill had finished his race in 4:12, not one of his better performances. As we hobbled back to the hostel he told me he felt the humidity and the effects of our eating and walking over the past weeks, too. I must say he looked pretty ragged and worn.
But there is no rest for the weary in our world! After showering and imbibing with a beer or two, we settled in front of the television with other hostel guests to watch the final championship game of the Confederation Cup football (soccer) tournament that was happening in South Africa. The USA and Brazil were competing against one another. The USA, Mexico, Brazil and Holland were represented in the living room with us. We chose sides and shouted our way through the game.
For our part, Bill and I cheered for the American team, but we both secretly hoped that Brazil would win because we had plans that evening that could be affected if Brazil lost. We were planning on attending a football match at Maracana Stadium between two of Rio’s most popular teams. Maracana is one of the world’s largest football venues. It holds 85,000 fans. And the Brazilians can be very testy if their teams don’t win. We didn’t want Brazil to have reason to be angry with us before we got the chance to experience a football match at the famous stadium.
Fortunately, Brazil was happy that night and we got our sore butts off the sofa and made our way on the subway to Maracana with a small group from the hostel.
After the football match we finally celebrated with a buffet dinner at a Brazilian barbeque restaurant! I’m told the meat was very tasty (I stuck with salad and bread).
Most importantly, we toasted each other. We toasted Kevin for finishing SEVEN!!! We toasted Omar for number ONE!!! And we toasted ourselves for SIX AND COUNTING!!! Whew.