Running in Cuba

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The tap on my shoulder came about 20 minutes into my first run along the Malecón, Havana’s seawall. “Maratón? Maratón?” Was I training for a marathon? The question came from a runner in his early 20s, wearing shorts and a racing singlet.

My new Cuban friend’s name, I learned, was Andrés Carrión González, and he told me he was training for the half-marathon held in Havana each November. His best time in the half, he said, was 1 hour 10 minutes; did I think he would do well? I told him, in my halting Spanish, that I thought he’d do very well.

He slowed his pace so we could run and talk about marathons and training, and we ran together for about a mile before I had to turn back so I could return to my hotel in time for a group excursion. Andrés was midway through a 10-mile run and continued west.

Running on vacation has always been a way for me to explore places I might not otherwise get a chance to see. This was especially true on a whirlwind tour of Cuba, sponsored by Vanderbilt University, which I took with my family and 28 other Americans this month. We were ferried from site to site by bus and many activities were planned. Big things are about to happen in Cuba, a place with a complex history, but I felt a bit removed from it all until I struck out in my running shoes.

The Malecón is many things: physical buffer against the erosive force of the water, fisherman’s paradise, couples’ rendezvous spot. It’s also a popular place for runners. For eight unbroken kilometers (five miles), you can run on a stretch of sidewalk bounded on one side by the water of Havana Bay, which extends out to the point where the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean meet.

The concrete is harsh on the feet and in disrepair in a few spots, but there is no trash anywhere — Havana’s streets are spotless. On the other side of the highway abutting the path are beautiful pastel buildings in various stages of decay. Traffic is light, with a mix of Cuba’s famed pre-embargo 1950s American cars, newer Soviet-era hatchbacks and big, shiny tour buses.

I run alone often and in many kinds of places, urban, suburban and rural, but I have never felt safer as a female solo runner than I did in Havana. No catcalling, no staring.

The east end of the Malecón, the first section of the seawall completed at the turn of the 20th century, ends at a cruise port where, it was recently announced, Carnival Corporation will dock ships on trips out of Miami for the first time in more than 50 years beginning in May. Running back west, to my right was Morro Castle, a fort built in 1589 to guard the harbor against foreign invasions. Past the fortress the water opens up and anglers stake their spots along the seawall.

I ran most of the mornings I was in Havana, and on one of my runs, a storm was brewing on the water and the waves occasionally washed up and over the wall, providing a cooling spray. I saw many other runners; some were obviously tourists like myself, easily distinguished from the natives by our neon clothes, headphones dangling from our ears. More than a few Habaneros were returning from a late night out, high heels in hand, ties undone.

My tour group traveled to central and eastern Cuba for two days, a chance to see more rural parts of the country. We spent two nights in Sancti Spíritus, one of the oldest European settlements in Cuba, with mostly low-slung buildings surrounded by farmland. Runners here were scarce. On my one run there, I started by running around the square our hotel sat on but quickly grew bored going in circles, so branched off onto one of the narrow, cobblestoned streets leading through the town.

One street took me by a cigar factory, where I could hear the chatter of workers filtering out through the open windows. Another took me by a bakery, where the smells nearly derailed me, and to a monument commemorating the site where the railroad first came through town in 1902. Roosters, dogs and a few cats mingled with uniformed students on the sidewalks; cars, mopeds, bikes and the occasional horse and buggy passed us in the street.

Back in Havana for two more days, I ran both mornings on the Malecón, heading a bit farther west each time, away from Morro Castle and toward Central Havana. On my last day there, I had just returned to the Parque Central when I ran into Andrés standing outside, waiting for his friend to accompany him on a run. We chatted a bit more. He admired my sneakers, brand-new Nikes that I’d bought for the trip because they were more lightweight than my usual pair. He told me that in Cuba you cannot buy new running shoes, that they simply are not available.

I looked down at his feet. The soles of his shoes were worn flat, the seams frayed and threadbare, the color faded to a dull gray. He told me he hoped that running shoes would become more available as the United States and Cuba improve relations. I told him that I hope so, too.


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