The Buenos Aires Marathon: Run and Fall In Love with Argentina’s Capital

Planning a fall marathon? Why not make it a Southern Hemisphere spring marathon? Think big, go far: Think Buenos Aires and go for it!

Morgan and I ran the BA Marathon in 2009, and it remains one of my all-time favorite city marathons—a glorious tour of Argentina’s diverse capital. The 2011 Buenos Aires marathon is October 9. You can visit the official website or check out these marathon tour companies for info and package deals: Ahotu and Amazing Running Tours. (I can’t personally recommend any tour operators since we traveled and registered for the marathon on our own. You can find my recommendations and reflections on Buenos Aires travel if you search the Argentina category of our family travel blog.)

Here’s my race report from 2009:

Morgan, the kids and I arrived in Buenos Aires last Tuesday and spent the first five days learning our way around, struggling with Spanish, and adjusting to lunch at 3 p.m. and dinner at 10. We approached the race day with few expectations and no goals beyond wanting to finish and see the city.

Normally I take extra care during a pre-marathon week to eat healthy, cut out alcohol, stay off my feet, and go on short runs just to loosen up and practice pacing. Not last week! We walked around the city until our feet ached, and we ate steak and empanadas daily, washed down with vino tinto and cerveza. To compensate for the gastronomic indulgence and to regulate our whacked-out systems, we took turns venturing out on a few solo runs that were on balance more stressful than stress relieving—constantly stopping at lights, dodging taxis that play chicken with pedestrians, and trying not to trip on all the chunks of broken sidewalks. Now and then, in the back of my mind, I’d think, I’m running a marathon Sunday? For real? ¡Ay, caramba — lo que sea! (“whatever!”)

Given the circumstances, the marathon became “a running joke” between Morgan and me as the week progressed.

Overloaded with gear for the Buenos Aires marathon, I took the elevator from our apartment.

Morning dawned auspiciously with the sound of birdsong. A nighttime storm that knocked out power had passed, though the sky was overcast and humid. I put on my trail shoes (the only ones I packed) and a lightweight pack filled with essentials such as extra clothes, toilet paper, phone, money and food, in case I got separated from Morgan and thoroughly lost (a likely scenario). All in all, I felt rather weighed down. Así es la vida — that’s life.

We didn’t feel guilty leaving the kids because a babysitter was all set to show up (she came to us highly recommended and we had met her a few nights before and trusted her completely), and the kids were well briefed about the morning plan. Fortified by coffee and rejoicing at the calm sky, we headed out to catch a cab. We arrived at the starting area at around 6:45 — plenty of time for the 7:30 a.m. start.

The crowd’s enthusiasm was infectious. I’m not sure how many people were there, but I think it was around 15,000. The majority wore the light blue Adidas singlet given out at the race expo, with their name printed on the back; consequently, I stuck out in pink, which was good insofar as Morgan could spot me at the finish. (Morgan ran the half rather than full marathon, and we agreed upon a spot where he could hang out after the half marathon and meet me at the end.) We heard constant shouts of Chile! Chile! as the Chileans recognized one another by Chilean flags or logos on their shirts and wished each other suerte, similar to how Canadians always bond enthusiastically at American marathons.

Morgan and me at the start ("la largada").

The start was well organized, and we found our way to the “sweat drop,” where Morgan deposited his bag of stuff. Best of all, my fears of being one of only a relatively few women in the crowd were totally unfounded; there were nearly as many women as men, and all the men seemed respectful and friendly. Only the bathrooms reflected inequality. Rather than being unisex, they were marked “caballeros” and “damas,” with a ratio of about 10 for men to every one for women. The women actually waited to use the ones marked “damas,” but for once I didn’t care about offending custom and ducked into a men’s one to get to the starting line on time.

We joined the throng at the start midway toward the back, jammed together as tightly as in any big-city marathon, and clapped in unison with the mass during the countdown. We finally started to move at 7:30 sharp—but it took more than three minutes to reach the starting line and several minutes more to have enough room to really run. I knew that a lot of energy can be wasted in the opening miles by zig-zagging to dodge the others, so I took it easy, waited for the crowd to thin out and tried not to care that my pace averaged about 9:45 minutes per mile in the first 5K.

Los corredores take off! This shot shows typical Buenos Aires architecture: apartment buildings with balconies and businesses on the first floor.

The course, which is virtually flat, begins and ends at the lovely Parque 3 de Febrero in the Palermo neighborhood, this city’s version of Central Park. The 42K winds through the bustling city center, south through soulful La Boca, up past the redeveloped Puerto Madero, and then back near the waterfront and onto main boulevards that return to Palermo and the park. The half-marathon 21K eliminates the southern half and, according to Morgan, makes an amusing detour on a freeway and through a toll plaza.

Morgan took this shot of the half-marathoners on a stretch of highway.

By the time we reached the streets of Recoleta, about five miles into the race, I could finally stride out and maintain a rhythm. I kept looking around at the people and up at the apartment buildings, which are dappled green from gardens on balconies, and felt profoundly happy and eager to run the distance in order to get the full city tour.

This is the building in the Recoleta neighborhood where we rented an apartment for two weeks. The marathon runs through Recoleta.

All the signs on the stores—so much vocabulario to take in—and all the conversations overheard among nearby runners diverted my attention from the task of running, but when I glanced at my watch I realized I was maintaining around an 8-minute pace, which felt fine. Running was almost an afterthought to the sightseeing. I slowed to watch tango dancers on a stage at one corner and slowed again each time a monument came into view. I walked through each water stop to make sure I was drinking enough, and I thanked the volunteers, all of whom sounded like honking geese because agua-agua-agua comes out like wah-wah-wah. (The water was bottled, so I didn’t have qualms about drinking it, but it was such a shame to see thousands of plastic bottles discarded, even though they allegedly are being recycled.)

The scene outside the grand Alvear Palace Hotel. The course also ran through gritty industrial parts of town.

Out of all the marathons I’ve run, it’s difficult to recall one that felt so stimulating to the senses. I hit the halfway point at 1:48 and set my first and only time goal for the race: to run the second half faster and finish under 3:36. Morgan, meanwhile, was finishing the half marathon in about 1:58.

The only attempt I made to speak to other runners came midway through when I spotted a shirt with the name Shrek on the back. I said hello to the middle-aged guy and asked if it’s really his name. Claro que sí, he replied (yes, of course).

En serio? Cómo la pelicula? (Seriously? Like the movie?) Sí, he repeated, grinning broadly.

Even if I could converse easily in Spanish (which I can’t), I would have kept quiet in the second half because the reality dawned that I was in fact running a marathon, and marathons never get easy. Feet grew sore, muscles stiffened, but no significant problems cropped up. I had to work to maintain a pace between 7:45 and 8 minutes, and I considered slowing to an easy run until I recalled my goal for a negative split. A saying on someone’s T-shirt inspired me, because I wanted to be able to say it, too: Alcanzé la meta, disfruté el camino (I reached the goal, and I enjoyed the way).

The runners around me grew quiet, too. No matter what the city or language, big-city marathons always come down to thousands of people quietly toughing it out in unison over the last stretch of the course. It was oddly relaxing, almost comforting, to be there. In a place so unfamiliar, I was accomplishing something very familiar. Morgan voiced my sentiments afterward when he also reported feeling unusually peaceful and happy during the run. “When you’re dealing with so many things in a foreign city that are unfamiliar and difficult, it’s really nice to do something where everyone’s doing the same thing and I know how to do it and don’t need to speak to enjoy it,” he said.

Morgan was there waiting at our predetermined spot in the final stretch and snapped a couple of pics of me:

Just kidding. This is the woman who won.

Here I come, la chica rosada!

All along the course, the Adidas logo and slogan were printed everywhere: “Porque cada corredor es differente” (Because each runner is different). The more I saw the slogan and thought about it, however, the more I felt the significance of the opposite: Because each runner is similar. Runners are more alike than different, and because of that, running is an ideal bridge over what divides us.

I crossed the finish in 3:32 and thought about how in one morning and over 42K, thanks to running, I had come a lot closer to feeling like a porteña, a person who calls Buenos Aires home.

Alcanzé la meta, disfruté el camino.

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3 Responses to The Buenos Aires Marathon: Run and Fall In Love with Argentina’s Capital

  1. Ernesto June 5, 2011 at 7:35 am #

    It is always a treat to read your experiences and reactions to the multiple places you have been in our globe. When I read you, I also travel to those distant places that only exist in my imagination.

    Thank for sharing !!


  2. Elaine April 17, 2013 at 8:16 am #

    Great post! I loved reading this. So far,

    I’ve run only one marathon a different continent (Barcelona) but my husband and my daugther comes with as well.

    I am looking to run this fall but have some questions about the registration process: did you just register online? If so, did you run into any issues doing so? Also, about the medical certificate: I read something about having needing an affadavit if it’s not in Spanish? Did you do this? THANKS so much!

    • Sarah Lavender Smith April 17, 2013 at 3:02 pm #

      Hi Elaine,
      I honestly don’t recall but if memory serves me right, we registered online. I don’t think it was too difficult to figure out. I don’t remember anything about needing a med certificate. Good luck!

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