I heard the noise and saw the dust cloud before I realised what it was. Then the first rider shot past me whooping, hollering and waving his hat in the air like a scene from a bad 1970s Western. Another charged back towards me in pursuit of a young calf that was trying to run uphill. There in front of me, blocking the narrow trail I was supposed to be running down, were more cowboys and a herd of 60-odd cattle.
Trampled by a herd of cattle or impaled on the horns of a bull never makes good reading in an obituary, so I settled in behind the dust cloud and jogged my way through the next two miles. As excuses go for a poor race performance, a bunch of cowboys is certainly different, but then the same is true about running in Cuba.
It's a colourful and contradictory country, where vintage American cars compete for road space with Ladas, where you can get a Mojito in every bar but find it hard to eat a decent meal, and where taxi drivers and tour guides are better paid than teachers and doctors. Those contradictions extend to sport. Baseball and boxing are national obsessions, but the idea of running is so far off the radar that a morning jog along Havana's Malecon seafront can still turn heads. In a country where the American trade embargo has made food rationing a reality of daily life, the idea of running for fitness or weight-loss is incomprehensible.
That's one of the main reasons why former London Marathon winner and running tour operator Mike Gratton wanted to create an event in Cuba. The Caribbean's largest island remains one of the few holiday destinations largely untouched by the growth of running tourism. The fact that it also has a rich history, beautiful beaches and January temperatures of 30°C is a bonus.
At least it seems that way when you first step foot in Havana. The warm sunshine cooled by a light breeze from the sea is the perfect antidote to the dark days of mid-winter Britain. A few days later, when you're wiping sweat from your eyes as you stagger up a nasty hill, you might feel differently. It is the contrary nature of running holidays that the conditions you hope for when you're lying on the beach are those you dread when the running starts. That is doubly so with the Cuban Trail Marathon, where the heat is only half the battle – the bigger test is the mountains of the Sierra Maestra.
These mountains – on the south-east corner of the island, an hour's flying time from Havana and a five-hour bus journey from the regional airport at Holguin – are the scene of this 10-day Cuban running adventure. The trip attracts a wide range of runners and their non-running partners and friends. Among them were a fell-running couple from Bolton who were back this year for a second time, a Carlisle-based GP who was running her first marathon, and a group of club mates from Bearbrook Joggers in Aylesbury.
Far removed from the tourist-focused world that Havana is fast becoming, the Sierra Maestra offers a completely different but probably more authentic view of Cuba. It's a place where the horse rivals the car as a means of private transport, where hamlets of wooden houses back on to sugar-cane fields, and where the warm waters of the Caribbean meet a wilder, more weather-beaten coastline. More importantly, this is the part of the country that is inextricably linked to the Cuban Revolution.
Fidel Castro was born in Birán, a town just north of the Sierra Maestra, and it was in these mountains that, in December 1956, he and his band of rebel soldiers took refuge and set up his revolutionary headquarters. From there he orchestrated the guerrilla campaign that would eventually overthrow the hated Batista government and reshape modern Cuba. The mountains and the local towns are still peppered with monuments celebrating the event.
Running a marathon (or in my case a half) in the same mountains could be said to require something of the same spirit, particularly this year – the 50th anniversary of the revolution. There's pain and hardship, and periods along the way when you question whether you have the resilience to complete the task, but with perseverance you can expect a triumphant arrival at the finish line. You'll have plenty of local support on the way too, with some villagers passing you water, bananas and sugar cane at the aid stations while others stand outside their houses to cheer you on.
The Race Is On
This is the third year the race has been run, and while the local men (to date none of the local women have taken the challenge) were originally enticed to take part by the promise of free entry and kit, now they want to run it. It is still a small race, with 50 or so runners, but it punches well above its weight.
The marathon and half followed the same Q-shaped route. The tail of the Q consisted of two fast, flat road miles that led to the dirt jeep trail and the climb into the mountains.
That climb, which rises 450m inside 4K, was the kind of slope that would convince a Tour de France cyclist to get off and push. Pride comes before logic when you try to run up something so steep. Somehow you tell yourself that running is better than walking, even though those walking behind you seem to be maintaining the gap with far less effort than you. Once you start to walk – and everyone walks at some point on the climb – it's hard to make your legs move again, even when the slope reaches its peak. Well, it was in my case.
Even the restorative powers of a sugar cane couldn't help me produce much more than a tired jog down the hill. By the time I ran into the cowboys I was glad of the rest.
Fell runner Andy Staveley won the marathon for the second year running in 4:54:28. The Cubans dominated the half; although many were quicker than previous years, none managed to break two hours.
This is an event that offers a unique access into a part of Cuba that few tourists will ever see, and where the experience counts for far more than hours, minutes and seconds. I'd like to forget my time, but
I won't forget the cowboys.