Ron Hill's Blog on his participation in the Panama City International Marathon
99TH COUNTRY OF COMPETITION - PANAMA
I had hoped that the last two countries of competition, taking me to 100, would be Afghanistan and Iraq where a race with some of our forces would provide them with a diversion from the dangerous job they are doing out there. I nearly got there but at the last minute the MOD were notified by the commanders in Kandahar were not willing to take the risk of having me run at altitude, in high temperatures and probably wearing body armour and a helmet. Maybe they were scared of an almost 70 year old beating a lot of people! But that left me with a major problem of finding two other countries at short notice. Discovering a marathon, 1/2 marathon and marathon relay in Panama, September 7th, I made contact with Allen Jones, via their website, and he said he was sure he could find me a place on one of the marathon relay teams. Last minute fares to Panama City are not cheap and it cost us almost £1000 apiece to get there. The journey was long. Manchester to Edinburgh, to Newark, New Jersey, to Tocumen International Airport, Panama City. We were supposed to arrive at 21:51 but with a 4 hour delay in Newark it was 1:45 am when we arrived. I didn't expect anyone to meet us at that hour but Sjef (pronounced “chef “) van Eijs, a member of Panama Hash House Harriers was waiting. What a relief. He took us swiftly to the Hotel Costa Inn, downtown, where in tiny, grubby room 316, we finally got to bed at 8:30 am UK time. I'd run 2 miles before 5:30 the previous morning before leaving, so the Streak was still intact. We upgraded our room next day. We had been to Panama City before, in 2001, landing on the day of 9/11, on route from a 1/2 marathon in Medellin, Colombia, to a 10K in the Cayman Islands. We were stuck there for four days before getting the first flight out to Miami, then on to Grand Cayman after an overnight stay arriving for " To Hell and Back " 10K the day before the race. I remembered how difficult the running was with heat, humidity and traffic; hence the choice of a relay leg over the 1/2 marathon. The Costa Inn was nearer to the coast and much easier for running from a traffic point of view. My 3 1/2 mile morning run took me down Calle 38 to Avenida Balboa then right, along the sea front to Casco Viega and back again. That run took my LIFETIME TOTAL to 243,000 KM., with the next morning's run seeing me through 151,000 MILES. The day before the race Sjef picked us up and took us to a local, temperance, cafe where we met Bob McIntosh, founder of the Panama Hash, along with the rest of the Hash teams, and collected our numbers and race shirts. We dined on grilled chicken, rice and lentils. On race day we didn't go to the 5:00 am start. Sjef and Bob were both doing first legs of the relay, and after finishing collected us at the hotel with Bob driving us to the 6 to 7 leg changeover for Sjef to prepare for his second stint of the day before handing over to me for the final leg. As I warmed up at my changeover it began to rain. Sjef came down a hill and as he handed me the baton a thunder storm erupted. Soon the water on the road was 10cm deep and streams were crossing the route. My shoes were soaked and heavy. The storm abated after about 2K but it was difficult avoiding the floods for the rest of the way. No-one passed me and I managed to overtake a few runners strung out along Avenida Balboa. I felt shattered and found the last section tough; uphill and inland for about 1K before the thankful finish in the huge car park of the Multicentre Pacific. My time for the 6K plus leg was about 33 1/2 minutes.
Taking over from Sjef for the final leg of the race
Our team was " LOS ABUELOS ( GRANDFATHERS ) 1 HASH and we finished 26th out of 55, 4th in the Grand Masters Masculine category, with a time of 3:49:15. There were several Hash teams all running in the memory of a female Hasher shot dead in the crossfire between police and bank robbers who had taken her hostage. After the weather became sunny and warm and we hung around chatting and drinking beer. All the Panamanians were standing in the shade! Later Sjef took us with Bob to one of their favourite restaurants, the Napoli, near Casco Viejo, where we ate clams in wine sauce mopped up with garlic bread, then pizza, washed down with Sangria and finally a warm brandy.
Hash post race celebrations
We did not plan this trip very well and spent another day in Panama City and I ran with the Hash in the evening, around the Allbrook area, which was fun. About 2 1/2 miles actual running, much of it off the beaten track, followed by beers and barbecued chicken with potato salad. The next morning we took a taxi to the Allbrook Bus Terminal and bought tickets to the town of Chitre in Herrera Province. My guide indicated that there were buses to several towns in that area and I was looking for a base so that I didn't have to handle my large heavy bag which was awkward with my healing broken left arm. The fare for the 4 hour journey was $7.50 each, about £4! Our prebooked hotel was only about 1K, and $1.50, from the bus station. What a gem the hotel Hong Kong was. We got a first floor room overlooking the swimming pool and across the road was a big Super 99 where we could buy cold beers and all the provision we needed. The town centre was 2K away. We had booked seven nights at $70 a night and when we added a three night extension we got that for $62 a night, about £31. May had a swim whilst I sat in the hot sun by the pool. In the evening we walked into town and ate inexpensively at the Cafe Chiquito. May had 1/2 chicken and chips and I had prawn chow mien. There was a surprisingly large Chinese element in the town. The only slight drawback to the Chiquito was that it did not serve beer or any other alcoholic drinks. But the iced water was free. The minibus back to the hotel was 25c apiece.
Chitre - Cafe Chiquito
Chitre - Super 99 Hotel
We enjoyed our stay and I think we saw only two other tourists the whole time. I ran 3 miles, out and back every morning with some speedwork in preparation for my 100th country. Mainly the weather was excellent with just a couple of tropical storms; it was the rainy season! We visited Playa Aguillo, more of a nature reserve than a beach, with the sea far away over a marshy foreshore. A couple of times we got a minibus to Playa Monagre and nearby Playa Rompio and walked from one to the other along the beach watching the frigate birds soaring and flocks of buzzards scavenging. There were always buzzards circling in the sky even in the towns. One feature of these places was the hangar like "Refrescos" with just a few tables scattered widely and loud Latin American music playing. On a visit to the town of Las Tablas we found little to interest us, having discovered that the craft market shown on the town map did not exist. Heading back for the minibus we called into a Refresco for a cold beer. There were only four sets of customers in the huge place. One guy sat at the bar with six large empty bottles in front of him. A group of five men chatting and laughing loudly whose large empties were filling two crates. A couple at the far edge of the place and another couple, not far away from us, with about sixteen bottles on their table! Everyone seemed happy and peaceful and no-one was falling down drunk.
The minibuses came in all shapes and sizes, were cheap and seemed to be privately owned. Often they got crowded, but a delightful feature was that when anyone got on the bus they said, "Buena" and all the other passengers chorused back, "Buena!" Very soon we were doing it too. The stay had been great and the running too. We returned from Chitre by bus to spend one night near the airport, after a scary ride in a decrepit ”taxi" during which we skidded on a wet bend and almost hit the concrete central barrier. Our flight back on Saturday 23rd was via Miami and Newark then direct into Manchester.
Refresco, Las Tablas Buzzards at the beach Refresco, Monagre