By Conor Sanchez
Going for a run elicits some funny looks around here. People on the street often stop themselves mid-conversation and do a full 180 degree turn just to watch me pass by. I wish I could say it’s because of my dizzying speed, but the confused expression on their faces says something more to the effect of, “Is that guy nuts?”
Later in the day, people come up to me and say, “Hey, I saw you running this morning…why?”
“But…you’re already thin. Why exercise?”
Safe to say that running is not very common in rural Nicaragua. If people do run, it’s on the soccer field or at the central park, where a few rare breeds wake up at 4:00 am to do laps. Even then, it’s really just seen as a weight losing technique with some people going so far as wearing a winter coat and a trash bag around their body to make them sweat more. The idea of long-distance running as sport is simply absurd.
Sometime in October, I decided to register for an ultramarathon called Fuego y Agua on the island of Ometepe. The race is on February 6. It mostly attracts foreigners, all of whom are apparently crazy enough to voluntarily run up and a down an active volcano, not once but twice. There are three categories: a 25k, 50k, and 100k. I’m doing the 50k, which is about 30 miles. This distance raises eyebrows in the United States, so you can imagine how perplexed my neighbors were to see me running sometimes twice in one day. “Va a desaparecer, Conor,” my neighbor would always tell me.
My biggest challenge was finding a route that would give me the mileage I needed. Since I don’t like running alongside fuming truck loads of cattle or other precious cargo, I was left to choose between a handful of dirt paths that take you south of the city, deeper into the humid jungle. One of those paths goes to a town called Los Angeles and, beyond that, a town called San Francisco. Believe it or not, they bear little to no resemblance to the ones in California.
A typical run goes a little like this: I start out by jogging due west of my house. As I pass through the center of town, I inevitably see a few people I know (my landlord, my students, the cyber cafe dudes, the lady who owns the best comedor in town, etc.). After about a mile the paved road ends and without fail two little girls playing outside chase me until their mom starts yelling at them to come back. The entire way, people simply stare at me like an extraterrestrial who was just plopped down onto earth.
After another mile, the houses and settlements start to dissappear. Huge fields of cattle come into view. I share the road with motorbikes, horses, and herds of cows (which makes me feel like I’m in a much slower version of the running of the bulls in Spain). The noises of the jungle get a little louder, including insects and the occasional howler monkey, which is made all the more discombobulating when the sounds of pigs squealing and cows mooing join in. At a couple of points throughout the run, I pass by a clearing that looks out over what appears to be pristine rainforest, which, I’m not gonna lie, is pretty awesome.
In the U.S., when I go from a run, I sweat a lot. Half my shirt gets soaked. The back of my head especially gets a little damp. Here in the rainforest, I don’t know if I can call what I do so much as “sweating” as it is “becoming a new source of water for the forest’s plants and animals.” After about four miles, I feel myself become a tributary to the rainforest’s many rivers and lakes, replenishing the land with the water I continuously drink to prevent dehydration. Thankfully the race is on an island with a much less humid environment than my region of the country.
To break up the run, I often make a pit stop at my counterpart’s house, who lives out in Los Angeles. I just drop by to say hello, not wanting to intrude, but being quite possibly the nicest people in the world, they always insist on feeding me a huge greasy tortilla-like thing called an arepa along with a cup of coffee (which you’d think might slow me down, but actually ends up revitalizing me a ton especially after running 12 miles).
One day, as I was running home, I noticed someone running directly behind me. I glanced over my shoulder thinking maybe he was imitating me for kicks, but then I noticed he had headphones in his ears and was dressed in workout gear. I was shocked. I’d never seen someone running out there before. I let him catch up and we started chatting about running. We exchanged numbers and promised to go running sometime together. I never heard from him again.
This will be one of the most difficult physical and mental challenges I’ve faced in my adult life. So why am I running this race? The short answer is that I love running. I might not say that during the run itself, but the sense of accomplishment I feel afterwards is worth the discomfort.
There’s also the sense of adventure. You miss a lot when you travel by bus or car. Traveling by foot allows you see and experience things in a way you might not get to otherwise.