On the first or second weekend of December, I often travel to some tropical destination to run a marathon. By this time of year, winter has started, and I’m getting tired of freezing my butt off at races in continental United States. Three weeks ago, for example, I struggled with cold wind chills at the Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa.
This year, my tropical getaway was in Belize, where I ran the End of the World Marathon. Long before the era of European colonization, Belize was part of the Mayan Empire. As you may recall, the Mayan calendar only went through December of 2012, causing some to wonder (usually tongue in cheek) if the ancient Mayans knew something we didn’t. The End of the World Marathon was originally held in 2012, during the closing days of the Mayan calendar. It was organized as a one-time event, but since the world didn’t actually end, it became an annual event.
The race is held on the Placencia Peninsula, starting and finishing in Placencia Village. This was once a quiet fishing village, but now it’s a popular tourist destination with beautiful beaches.
Thursday, December 6
Delta has daily flights from Atlanta to Belize City, but it’s a morning flight. Even if I took the first flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta, it would be a tight connection. Instead, I flew to Atlanta in the evening and spent the night in an airport hotel.
Friday, December 7
Friday morning, I returned to the airport for my connecting flight to Belize City. From there, it’s about 140 miles by car to Placencia Village. I could have rented a car and driven the rest of the way, but I didn’t know how well the roads were maintained, and I would have needed to drive through some high crime areas. If I was with a group, I might have driven, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing the four hour drive by myself.
There’s a small airstrip on the Placencia Peninsula, and there are two regional airlines that fly there from Belize City. One is Maya Island Air, and the other is Tropic Air. After reading reviews of both airlines, I noticed that passengers of Tropic Air who arrived early for their flights were routinely put on earlier flights. I booked my flight with Tropic Air and gave myself a nice long connection time, knowing that I might not have to wait that long.
After clearing customs in Belize City, I checked in for my flight on Tropic Air. Sure enough, they put me on the next flight, even though the flight I booked would have been an hour and a half later. It was the smallest plane I’ve been on for a commercial flight. I was one of only 10 passengers.
The flight took only 30 minutes, even though we made a stop at the airstrip in Dangriga before continuing to the Placencia airstrip. On the second leg of the flight, I got good views of the Placencia peninsula.
I stayed at Sea View Suites, which was at the south end of the village. This hotel was close to where the marathon started and finished. It also had air conditioning, which was essential. Even in December, Belize is hot and humid.
Before gaining its independence in 1981, Belize was a British colony called British Honduras. English is the official language, but Spanish and Belizean Creole are also commonly spoken. The Belize dollar is pegged to the US dollar at an exchange rate of 2:1. Some of the local businesses only accept cash, but US currency is widely accepted. If you need change, however, you’ll most likely get it in Belize dollars.
There’s a drivable road going all the way to the south end of the peninsula, but there’s also a sidewalk that’s considered to be a main street. Prior to 1984, the Placencia Sidewalk was the only road through the village. Some tourist literature still touts it as the “Guinness Record Holder of the Narrowest Main Street in the World.”
Sea View Suites was located near the south end of the sidewalk. It was also accessible by a narrow dirt road. I was able to take a taxi there from the airport. After getting settled in, I walked down to the Municipal Pier.
Then I walked the length of the Placencia Sidewalk. I learned where stores and restaurants were, and also saw some gift shops, local artwork, and beaches.
When I reached the northern end of the sidewalk, I made my way over to Placencia Road and walked back to the hotel. Now I had a good idea of where everything was in the village. I made a stop at a bar called the Pickled Parrot and got to know the owner. He took one look at me and knew I was there for the marathon.
I spent the rest of the afternoon at one of the nearby beaches. The temperature was in the 80s, but it felt pleasant, not hot. It helped that there was some cloud cover.
Later, I had dinner at Rick’s Café. More than one local business owner told me they had the best pizza in the village. I found the pizza to be just OK, but I met a nice couple who moved to Belize from England 11 years ago.
In general, everyone I met was friendly. Most were people who moved here after retiring. I also met several tourists who had been here several times before. I only a few other people who were visiting Placencia for the first time.
In the evening, the village got quiet. Food and beverage stands that were open in the afternoon closed up in the evening. The shops were also closed, and there were fewer people on the sidewalk. The exceptions were the beach bars. A few of them had music and were busy well into the evening.
Saturday, December 8
Saturday morning, I went for a run. It was sunny, so it felt hotter than it did on Friday. After about a mile of running, I was sweating like crazy. It was the first time I noticed the humidity. I ran about four miles at a pace that was just under 10 minutes per mile. That pace should have felt leisurely, but I was already tired. That gave me a good idea what the race would be like. There was no point in trying for another sub four hour finish. That kind of pace would be unrealistic in this climate.
There are several tourism businesses in the villages that can help you book day trips for diving, sailing, or exploring nearby wildlife sanctuaries. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a full day. I needed to pick up my race packet in the afternoon, and it didn’t want to risk going someplace by plane or boat and not getting back in time. Instead, I spent most of the day just hanging out at the bars and beaches and talking to people. Placencia is a nice place to just hang out and relax. One of my favorite hangouts was the Pickled Parrot, where their lunch special was coconut shrimp over rice.
Later in the afternoon, I walked to the Turtle Inn to pick up my race packet. It was almost two miles, and by the time I got there I was drenched in sweat. When I got back to my room, I had to rest and drink about a pint of water.
Besides water, I was also hydrating with fruit smoothies, which you could buy at stands throughout the village.
By 5:00, the sun was getting low in the sky. I was amazed by how much cooler it felt. The temperature was still in the 80s, but not having direct sunlight really makes a difference. I walked out to the municipal pier to watch the sunset.
After dinner, I tried to get to sleep as early as I could, knowing I would need to get up early.
Sunday, December 9
Sunday was race day. The race started at 5:30 AM next to a football field that was only a short walk from my hotel. Sunrise wasn’t until 6:10. I had to walk to the start in the dark, but there were more than enough lights.
When I left the hotel, it was 78 degrees, but the humidity made it feel warmer. We wouldn’t have direct sunlight in the early miles, but I worried about later.
Just before the race, I met a fellow Marathon Globetrotter from Germany, who was doing his 95th country. His name was Dieter.
As the race started, several runners started at what seemed like a fast pace. I went out at a more relaxed pace. It was still dark, but there were enough street lights in the village to see the road clearly.
As I got out of Placencia Village, there were fewer lights. Above me, I could see the sky beginning to lighten, but at street level, it was still somewhat dark.
The aid stations were handing out water in sealed plastic bags. I’ve seen that at other races in this region. You tear a hole into the bag with your teeth and squeeze the water into your mouth. Early on, the aid stations were about a mile apart. After a few miles, I started to see them more frequently. Most aid stations just had water, but some had Powerade. I drank the Powerade wherever I saw it.
At three miles, I was tempted to take a walking break. I knew I would probably need to take walking breaks eventually, but I kept running for another mile.
By the time I reached the four mile mark, there was plenty of light. I looked at my watch for the first time. I was surprised to see than my average pace was faster than 10 minutes per mile. I finally took my first walking break.
Besides Placencia, we also ran through the villages of Seine Bight and Maya Beach. I entered Seine Bight somewhere between four and five miles.
There was a half marathon that started at the same time as the marathon, but they started at the other end of the peninsula. I was about five miles into the race when I saw the leaders of the half marathon running toward me. Over the next few miles, there was a steady stream of half marathoner going the other direction. The marathon field was getting spread out by now, so I couldn’t always see the next runner ahead of me.
I saw a sign that read, “Entering infection zone.” At first I didn’t know what to make of that. Then I saw I was coming to an aid station that had a zombie apocalypse theme. All the volunteers had zombie make-up and bloody-stained shirts. There was a contest for the best aid station, and this one was the winner.
I was planning to take short walking breaks at each remaining mile, but the walking break I took at four miles rejuvenated me so much that I ran continuously for the next few miles.
The aid stations were now only about a half mile apart. I had been drinking at every aid station, but I had to start skipping some of them. I was already feeling bloated.
One of the aid stations had a cooling station where you could get sprayed from above with water. I didn’t want to get my shoes wet, so I went around it.
When I got to eight miles, I finally took another walking break. This one didn’t rejuvenate me like the first one, but I forced myself to resume running.
The next village was Maya Beach. They had an aid station with a horse racing theme. This one came in second in the voting. They had coconut water, which really hit the spot. The walking break didn’t rejuvenate me, but the coconut water did.
By now, I could see the sun occasionally shining through the trees, but it was still at a low angle. I couldn’t feel the heat of the sun yet.
I went back to running continuously. I tentatively planned to take another walking break at 12 miles. I knew I would eventually need walking breaks more frequently, but I was waiting for the second half of the race.
At about 11 miles, I saw the leaders of the marathon on their way back from the turnaround. Then I started counting the runners ahead of me.
There were numerous speed bumps along Placencia Road, but the worst thing was a set of “rumble strips” about a mile and a half before the turnaround. They were actually steel pipes laid across the road. They were two inches in diameter, and they were space about a foot apart. It took nimble footwork to step between them without tripping on one.
By the time I reached 12 miles, the insides of my shoes were wet with sweat, and I could feel one of my insoles skipping forward in my shoe. That can happen when moisture gets between the insoles and my orthotics. I knew transitions between running and walking can make it worse, so I skipped my planned walking break at 12 miles. I looked at my watch for only the second time in the race. I was still ahead of a 10 minutes per mile pace.
By the time I reached the turnaround, I counted 22 runners ahead of me. I wondered if I would pass a few of them as people started walking in the second half. The first 14 runners were going much faster and all looked strong. The next two were the second and third place women. They didn’t look as strong as the runners ahead of them, but I assumed they would compete for awards, so they weren’t likely to slack off in the second half.
That made 16 runners who I assumed I could never catch. The other six weren’t that far ahead of me, and a few were beginning to take walking breaks.
I had been feeling the sun on me for at least two miles, but it wasn’t until after the turnaround that it started to feel hot. It would only get worse as the sun climbed higher in the sky. The air temperature was only about five degrees warmer, but the sun made it feel much hotter.
I didn’t know if this race had age group awards, but if they did, I might have a realistic chance of winning one. I didn’t expect to be in this position. My training hasn’t been that good since the middle of the year, and I’ve gained some weight. I wasn’t properly conditioned for this type of weather. Finally, I still had symptoms of a lingering cold. I just wasn’t at full strength.
Over the next mile, I passed three runners. Now I was in the top 20. I tried to maintain my effort in spite of the heat. It didn’t seem smart, but my competitive nature had kicked in. I wanted an age group award.
In the second half of the race, I saw mile markers for the half marathon, but there weren’t any for the marathon. If I was trying to run a specific pace, that would have bothered me. Instead, I just wanted to know about how many miles I had left. For that purpose, the half marathon signs were enough.
Just after crossing the “rumble strips” again, I passed another runner. I commented that the most difficult part of the course was now behind us. That doesn’t mean that the most difficult part of the race was behind us. The heat of the sun was going to get much worse.
Two miles into the second half, I started walking briefly while I drank some water. Since I had already made the transition from running to walking, I kept walking for another minute or two. I did that again each time I needed to walk while drinking.
One by one, I saw other runners ahead of me and worked hard to reel them in. Before long, there were only 16 more runners ahead of me. I couldn’t see any of them.
Walking breaks serve two purposes. They help you manage your pace, and they’re an opportunity to dissipate excess heat. It didn’t seem like they were working to dissipate the heat. When I took at walking break, I never seemed to cool down. There were no clouds and no breeze. I was baking in the sun, and there was nothing to cool me off.
I passed another runner. This had to be one of the runners who I assumed I would never catch. I wasn’t the only one who was suffering in the heat.
As I entered Maya Beach again, I realized I was getting near the aid station with coconut water. I drank coconut water again, but I wasn’t disappointed with how little was in the cup.
As I was walking through the aid station, I caught up to a runner who was walking off a cramp. Now I had passed two of the runners who I assumed I would never catch.
I started taking walking breaks at every aid station. That worked out to about two walking breaks per mile.
This was an-out-back course, so everything should have looked familiar in the second half. The villages looked familiar, but the long sections in between didn’t have any landmarks that I recognized.
When I got back to the cooling station, I decided to run through it. The water was warm. It did nothing to cool me off. It just rinsed salty sweat into my eyes.
In addition to all the aid stations, there were also volunteers riding around on golf carts, asking me if I needed water or Powerade. This is a small race, but it was amazingly well-supported.
I passed another cooling station. There was so much water pouring down that I would have got my shoes soaking wet. I went around it, but reached out my hand to feel the water. It was nice and cool. Oh, well.
With four miles to go, I was really suffering. I could only run for a minute or two at a time. Then I would walk for at least two minutes. The next two miles were the toughest psychologically, because I still didn’t recognize any landmarks. I knew it would get easier when I passed the airstrip.
At times, I was tempted to dig deep and force myself to keep running in spite of my fatigue. Then I reminded myself that things could get much worse. I was hot and tired, but I wasn’t experiencing any symptoms of heat stress. I wanted to keep it that way, so I kept taking walking breaks.
The water and Powerade at the aid stations was usually warm. It wasn’t appetizing, but I forced myself to drink it. As I reached the airstrip, a young girl offered me a cup of Powerade. She had filled it with ice cubes. She immediately became my favorite race volunteer!
As I did more and more walking, I wondered if I would eventually get passed by one of the runners behind me. I sometimes thought I heard footsteps, but nobody ever passed me. There’s a sharp bend in the road where it goes around one end of the airstrip. That gave me an opportunity to look back. There were no other runners in sight.
Shortly after passing the airstrip, I saw the sign for an Italian restaurant. This was where I turned around on the run I did on Saturday. A few minutes later, I passed the Turtle Inn. Now everything looked familiar. I had been up and down this section of road more than once.
After the Turtle Inn, the road curved to the right. The sun was on my left. I could feel my left arm and shoulder heating up in the sun. Before the race, I did a pretty thorough job of applying sunscreen. I wondered how well it was holding up, as much as I was sweating.
As I reached the last major turn, I had 1.1 miles to go. It was clear that I would break 4:40, but I had doubts about breaking 4:35. I would need to run most of it.
I couldn’t run the whole way, but I think I did more running in that mile. Now that I was back in Placencia Village, every building was familiar.
With just a few blocks to go, a man pulled alongside me in a car. He stayed right alongside me and shouted out encouragement. As I reached the last small bend in the road, he told me I was about to see the banner over the finish line. Then I saw it. The end was near.
I ran the rest of the way. I even managed to pick up my pace. I finished in 4:34:42. I eventually learned I placed 16th overall and 12th among the men. I must have miscounted the runners ahead of me. Shortly after I finished, I heard them call out the name of the next approaching runner. He was closer than I thought.
I like the finisher medals. They have a design depicting Mayan ruins.
After finishing, I was about to walk back to the hotel. Then I saw all the runners gathered under canopies about a block past the finish line.
They had an impressive amount of post-race food for such a small race. They had baked goods made by local schoolchildren. This race is a fundraiser for scholarships for Belizean children. It’s well-supported by all the communities along the peninsula.
I didn’t feel like eating anything right away, but I eventually forced myself to eat a banana and drink a bottle of warm Powerade.
As I made my way under the canopies, I saw two tables covered with trophies. They had awards for the top three finishers in each 10-year age group. With only 11 men ahead of me, I knew I must have placed in my age group.
I sat down in the shade and rested my legs. Soon, Dieter finished. I talked with him and two other runners until the awards ceremony began. They started with the half marathon awards. The trophies for the youngest age groups were awarded first, so I had to wait a long time before they got to my age group. I took first in my age group. Dieter also won his age group. I suffered badly in this race, but it was worth the effort.
By the time I got back to the hotel and got cleaned up, I was getting thirsty again. I went to a nearby beach café to reward myself with a pina colada. I also had some lobster fritters to tide me over until dinner.
Later, I went to a post-race party at the Tipsy Tuna. There, Dieter and I had dinner and celebrated our results.
Distance: 26.2 miles
Average Pace: 10:29
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 363