The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Running

Americans Can Now Legally Run Cuba's Havana Marathon

For many people, running and travel go hand-in-hand. Sure, hometown marathons are fun, but what better excuse to see the world than to sign up for an event in an exotic locale? Now, runners looking for a fall race have a new option that will appeal to serious athletes and travel junkies alike: For the first time since the race’s inception in 1987, U.S. citizens will be able to travel legally to Cuba to participate in the 2014 Marabana Havana Marathon or Half Marathon on November 16.

Government-imposed travel restrictions have kept most Americans out of Cuba for most of the past 50 years. Even after regulations were relaxed in 2011, people traveling from the United States must do so with licensed tour companies via chartered flights, and their visits must be educational and cultural in nature—no sunbathing, exploring without a guide, or participating in Cuba's adventure-sport offerings like rafting, cycling, and scuba diving. (Americans traveling through other countries can get around these rules, but risk getting caught in Customs and answering to the U.S. government when they return home.)

Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, wanted to change that. His New York-based company has had great success providing tours under its existing "people-to-people" license, but—as a runner himself—Popper knew the Havana Marathon could offer visitors a unique and valuable perspective on the country and its people. "Runners typically share a bond right away, even if they don't speak the same language," Popper says. "We thought this would be a great way to get Americans side by side, literally, with Cubans and have a really meaningful interaction."

It took several years and a pilot attempt to start a marathon under the company's people-to-people license, but Popper finally got his plan up and running with the approval of a brand-new amateur sports license, the first of its kind awarded to an American tour company. Under this license, Insight Cuba can take 156 race participants to Cuba—with options for four-day or eight-day excursions ranging from $2,495 to $4,395 per person—and he expects these slots to sell out quickly.

Popper hopes that this new license will also open up travel to Cuba for other fitness-related opportunities. "Provided the marathon is a success, a logical next step would be in the area of biking—this is something we will certainly explore," he says, although he adds that when dealing with government-sanctioned travel, "nothing is ever guaranteed."

Cuba isn't the only country using amateur sports to strengthen international ties, either. This year was also the first time that North Korea's Pyongyang Marathon, held in April, was open to non-professional athletes from other countries. For visitors who are otherwise required to have structured itineraries and constant supervision, the opportunity to essentially sightsee for 26 miles (albeit, on a specific course and surrounded by other runners) was unprecedented.

This may be an attempt by the North Korean government to increase tourism and bring new sources of revenue to the cash-strapped country, says Maria Toyoda, associate dean for global initiatives at Villanova University. It's also likely a political message, meant for both domestic and international consumption. "I'm sure it was televised, and that there was a lot of coverage given to the fact that this was a prestige event that drew athletes from all over the world," she says. "By showcasing foreigners that stand out among Korean athletes, they're hoping to project a positive image of the country."

The tour company Experience North Korea is already taking reservations its 2015 marathon package; they also offer a Pyongyang Golf Experience, as well. And while these may be the only formerly forbidden countries offering up marathon slots, others are opening their doors to other types of adventure travelers, as well: A quick Internet search shows plenty of opportunities for backpacking, skiing, and mountain biking in Iran, for example, or camping and scuba diving in Myanmar.

Of course, there are always risks when participating in physically demanding activities, and there are always dangers when traveling in unfamiliar countries; doing both together, then, requires careful preparation and, sometimes, a leap of faith. But speaking about the Havana Marathon specifically, Popper says it's one of the safest and most well organized events he's ever seen. And he believes that allowing Americans greater access to this type of travel will make for more rewarding, mutually beneficial experiences for everyone involved—locals and adventure tourists alike.

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The Gadgets You Need for Your Next Run

Garmin 620 watch

Plenty of watches track pace and distance. The 620 ($400) also does advanced analytics such as cadence, ground-contact time, and VO2 max. All the data is sifted to give you recovery estimates and race-time predictions on the easy-to-read screen. 

LG HRM headphones

By measuring blood-flow signals from the auricle of the ear, LG’s HRM headphones not only track your heart rate but also estimate your VO2 max, and all the data is sent via Bluetooth to your iPhone or Android device. The audio is good, too. Available this spring.

Spree headband

The Spree ($300) measures your body temperature: that means it can alert you when you’re fully warmed up and, more important, tell you when you’re overheating. The headband also tracks heart rate and calories burned and records your route via GPS and an Android or iOS app.

Mio Link heart-rate band

The streamlined Link wristband ($100), with a heart-rate monitor built right in, pairs via Bluetooth or ANT+ to beam workout data to a range of fitness apps and devices. You can also set a heart-rate zone to dial in your training efficiency.

Polar V800 watch

The V800 ($400) features lap counting, speed and distance tracking via integrated GPS, and a waterproof heart-rate monitor. But it also functions as an activity tracker even when you’re not training, so you know how well you’re recovering.

Wahoo Fitness Tickr Run chest strap

There are plenty of chest straps that track your heart rate. But only the Tickr ($80) has a built-in accelerometer that, when paired with an iOS app, can monitor the bounce in your stride and coach you to a smoother, more efficient run.

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The Man Who Brought Running to Boulder

In 1970, Boulder, Colorado, was the only town above 5,000 feet in the United States that had a permanent indoor track. That alone was reason enough for Frank Shorter to pack his bags. “I could do interval training all year round,” says Shorter, who had just graduated from Yale and was training for the 1972 Olympic marathon. “That’s why I moved there. I didn’t know it had 300 days a year of sunshine and was the best place in the world to live.”

At that time, the running community was just beginning to understand the benefits of training at altitude. And at 5,400 feet above sea level, Boulder seemed optimal. “I was the first athlete to intentionally move here to train," says Shorter, who coached himself and went on to win gold in Munich. “I had a pretty good idea of how to go down to sea level from altitude and race—what the adjustment periods were.” 

Since then, the Boulder running scene has boomed. “I would go to the indoor track in 1970, and there would be the University of Colorado track and cross-country team in there, and then about four other people—that was it,” Shorter says. “But, over time, more and more people began to realize it worked.”

When Shorter started several retail businesses in town, he made a practice of hiring recent college graduates who were also runners (among them Stan Mavis and Herb Lindsay). “It was a whole community of people who came out to run,” he says. “We created an environment here that was very inclusive.” 

And that inclusivity extends beyond running. After all, what is Boulder without triathletes? Well, Shorter can be thanked for bringing them to town, too. He attended his first Ironman World Championship in 1982. “And guess who told the triathletes about Boulder?" he asks. “Me. Other people found that, for them, Boulder was just right, too. Sort of a Goldilocks thing.”

Local race director Cliff Bosley agrees. "Frank picking Boulder at the time he did popularized altitude running; it really created an influx of runners—and all endurance athletes—who came, and still come, to Boulder."

Shorter maintains that it's not only the athletes, but people of all stripes who thrive in Boulder. “People think the granola-crunchers control what’s going on, but that isn’t the case,” he says. “It’s a city where no one subculture dominates. And by subculture, I mean the university, the business community, and the sports scene.” If you want to excel in your field, Shorter argues, you’ll find support in Boulder.

And he would know. In the late ’70s, Shorter suggested to Steve Bosley, president of the Bank of Boulder (and Cliff's father), that a 10K road race might do well in their town. On May 27, 1979, 2,700 runners, including Shorter, completed the inaugural Bolder Boulder, making it one of the largest first-time races in the state.

"When the race was started, a lot of the early credibility happened as a result of the fact that guys like Ric Rojas and Frank Shorter agreed to run," says race director Bosley. "And so right from the beginning, having world-class athletes was, and continues to be, a part of the Bolder Boulder."

In 1981, the University of Colorado agreed to have the race finish at its Folsom Field Stadium; by 1983, the field had grown large enough to warrant a wave start. In 2011, a record 54,554 runners registered, making it the third-largest 10K in the country. 

Shorter thinks many participants use the race as an excuse for a reunion of sorts. “They come because they have relatives here, or they went to school here, or they have friends here; it’s truly something that people plan for the whole year,” he says. “The experience is being here and doing it with people you know, even for the people who come from out of state.”

This year’s Bolder Boulder takes place on Monday, May 26. Shorter will be the official starter, which requires a different type of endurance than running. He'll have to fire the starting gun 94 times—once for each wave. Thankfully, he's been training at altitude.

Need to Know About Boulder:

  • Population: 101,808
  • 43 miles from the Denver airport.
  • Boulder has made several of Outside’s Best Towns lists, most recently in 2012 and 2011

Frank Shorter is the commentator for the Boston Marathon. Read about his experience during the 2013 bombings.

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