#Rio2016 Day 2: Olympics Marathon Dreams Come True

I booked my travel schedule for the Rio Olympics with an eye toward the event I most wanted to experience in person: the Marathon. I had enough enthusiasm (and vocal cheering) for this event that a German spectator said to me: you can run for a small country in the next Olympics! There are only two small problems with realizing this idea: 1) The Olympics has the highest standards in the world. No one slower than 2 hours and 45 minutes (6 minutes and 17 seconds per mile, for 26.2 miles) is allowed to run the Marathon, even if you’re from a tropical island nation smaller than Connecticut. My best time in the Boston Marathon is about 45 minutes slower than the Olympic standard. 2) I’d have to somehow get citizenship in a small country which is not the United States or China, and which does not already have 3 other athletes who can run faster.

Theoretical ideas aside, I knew that being able to experience the Olympics Marathon as an in-person fan would already be a dream come true. Rio 2016 provides me with the perfect timing and opportunity. I’m in a period in my life when I have the flexibility and resources to travel independently. Yes, the news may be reporting scary-sounding updates about Zika, crime in Rio, and so on. I’ve assessed the risks, and have concluded that living in San Francisco can get pretty frightening too. (Last week, a man was shot dead in a touristy area in SF while playing Pokemon Go, for no apparent reason.) We can’t let unpredictable circumstances deter us too much. And clearly, athletes who have qualified for the Olympics would most likely decide to go to Rio. I think I’ve qualified as a Marathon fan, and so took up on this year’s opportunity!

Rio de Janeiro International Airport at Galeão, 2016

Getting to the Starting Line

My fears about the trip grew stronger as I got closer to the trip’s starting point. Maybe it’s because I’m not always on time to things, but my mind suddenly grasped the fact that my flight was scheduled to land in a totally unfamiliar city (Rio) at 6:35 am on the same day as the event I most wanted to see. The event had a ticketed starting time of 9 am at a location (Sambódromo) without fast public transportation from the airport! Sure, it may be a bit like the “Amazing Race” TV show, but I wondered why the heck I didn’t give myself more buffer room. Sambódromo is the same venue that hosts the crowded Rio Carnaval every year. I had visions of huge crowds without any opportunity for me to see anything, because I would be there too late. People could be lining up for the race before my flight even lands! There could be huge traffic from the airport that would make me completely miss the start of the race! Plus, what do I do with my carry-on backpack? There was a chance that security would not allow me to bring it into the venue. Where could I store it?

Very fortunately, crucial timing pieces fell in my favor. My flight from Panama City landed at Rio’s Galeão airport earlier than scheduled. The plane touched ground by 6 am. The airport felt very modern and streamlined, and was decked out for the Olympics (hello, Usain Bolt in a wall ad!). By 7 am, I had cleared customs, made use of the ATM, got Internet working on my iPhone (thanks T-Mobile for actually getting outside-the-U.S. roaming to work correctly this time :)), and walked 20 minutes from the airport terminal so I could legally call UberX. (Only higher-priced and non-trackable taxis are officially allowed at the airport, and I enjoy walking when I can.) At 7:06 am, Fábio in his nicely-maintained Peugeot found my GPS location and started driving. Fábio expressed surprise that I had actually walked outside the airport. He initially assumed that I was still at a terminal. (Apparently, people can sidestep the airport rules by faking their pickup location, and then messaging their actual terminal location to the Uber driver. My UberX ended up about 1/3 the cost of a comparable taxi from the airport, < $10.)

At 8 am, I was at the starting area of the world’s fastest marathon! Security scanned my backpack, and very kindly decided that they were not going to search it. My concerns about dense crowds turned out to be unfounded. I could easily get to the front of the low-priced (< $15), standing-room-only section that offered a view of the starting line. To get closer to the action, I would have had to be media or a VIP guest, or be running in the event. :)

My first morning in Rio. Left: Sunrise walk outside airport (~6:45 am). Right-Top: Arrival to starting area (clock reads 7:59:05 am). Right-Bottom: National police and photographer truck gets ready (clock reads 8:35:27 am).

Where Are All the Runners?

The race was supposed to begin at 9:30 am. My fellow spectators and I started becoming more mindful as the time drew near, and got increasingly nervous and confused about where all the runners were. It felt like counting down to New Year’s Eve in Times Square, but with amazing weather (this “winter” day in Rio rivaled the best weather in California).

We saw Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg doing warmup laps on the race course in front of us. I yelled “USA”, and their names. They waved at me! We also saw two other runners from Japan and Swiss doing warmups in the same area. But where was everyone else?

Watching those Olympic marathoners warming up outside made me realize that they don’t *look* very fast. Maybe they were jogging 10 minutes a mile during warmups, but I tend to think that it’s because the standard perception of an endurance athlete is deceptive. None of these people look like Usain Bolt in their physiology or running style. Yet, all of them can outlast Usain over long distances. To achieve the endurance, they end up not looking like they are sprinting. They also have not-overtly-muscular, lightweight, and sometimes short bodies that can make them look weak (to the untrained eye). Perceptions can be wrong!

Sudden Appearance and Disappearance

The clock read 9:20 am. We still could not see any Olympic athletes for a race slated to start in 10 minutes. What’s going on? Are they delaying the race? I shut off my photo-taking devices to conserve energy. The flights didn’t give me a chance to keep battery life going strong, and my devices were dying on me (even though I carried backup batteries). My laptop already died, the iPhone fell next. I was depending on an older Samsung phone to capture this once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Between 9:25 and 9:30 am, ALL the runners suddenly appeared within our sightline, and I desperately began to start my Samsung phone. If it took 2 minutes to boot up, it might be too late! I’ve never thought a phone’s boot-up sequence could feel so slow.

Within minutes, the race started on time. 157 super elite marathoners flashed by us. I could not even pick out faces. But the feeling was sheer exhilaration. These folks get ready fast! I witnessed this moment!

2-Minute video capturing the anticipation and exhilaration (as best I could do with a phone camera).

Carnaval, Marathon Style

The fastest marathons still take more than 2 hours. The runners had fled. Should I go for a nap? Try to witness the race from a different city location? Well, I had made plans with a fellow spectator to meet back in 2 hours, and didn’t want to risk exiting the venue with my big backpack (and having security troubles later with less lenient guards).

Soon enough, creative distractions arrived. They were going to have carnaval-style entertainment on the running route! I didn’t know much about carnaval, but the costumes and dancing I saw today were hilarious and well done. The music was fun and lively. Great job, Rio!

A carnival parade at a Marathon? Why not?! As long as they clear out of the streets before the Olympians come back. :P

It was also possible to watch this carnaval while also keeping tabs on the marathon race via TV screens. I grabbed some Matte Leão (an iced tea, the most local-sounding drink I could find) and stationed myself in a shaded idea to rest and re-energize. Many of the spectators prepared well, bringing in flags from their countries. It almost felt like the entire world was there in one place! Cheers to the Olympic spirit!

Pop quiz on country flags! Answers from left to right: Colombia, India, and Cambodia. And a woman trying to set up her phone (modern problems).

Leaders and Chasers

157 marathoners from 80 countries started running in one large group. Gradually, over the course of 26.2 miles (42 km), smaller groups formed. There was the lead pack, the chaser packs, and many lone wolves who kept moving along at superhuman pace. There would also be one group of runners who are unable to finish the race (e.g. due to injury), and who we would never see run past us toward the finish line (same as the starting line).

With 6.2 miles (10 km) remaining in the race, I started to perk up and pay more attention to the leaders and chasers. At this kind of endurance event, any of the elite participants can be a leader at earlier miles. These can make for good photo ops (e.g. an American runner *looks* like she’s winning the marathon :)). However, the runners who remain ahead of the pack with 20+ miles already traversed have real chances of earning a medal. It was awesome to see and feel the intensity of the athletes leading the pack as the miles and kilometers ticked upwards, especially since we knew that soon enough, they would be passing the exact spot where we were standing and would be realizing *their* Olympic dreams. It was great to see that Team USA runners were not too far behind, they were still in the race! These moments and feelings are exactly why I traveled to Rio this month!

7 visible runners with less than 10 km (< 6 miles) left in the race. Team USA’s Shalane Flanagan is still in the running for a Top 3 medal at this point (running just to the right of the motorcycle).

The Winning Finish

With 2 km left to go, it became clear that the 3 contenders for the Gold Medal would whittle down to only one winner. Sometimes in Marathons, there’s a battle for the top spot even in the final home stretch (where we were situated). This was not to be one of these races. Soon, the helicopter camera lens could no longer see a #2 runner. Soon, the #1 runner would be arriving where we were, and would be quickly leaving us in the dust as she made her way to the finish line.

The TV screens started reflecting scenes that became super familiar to the spectators in my area, because we were immersed in the same scene. Cheering grew louder. I was getting my remaining functional device (a small tablet) ready to capture the finishing moment. I wondered how my fresh legs would compare to Kenya’s Jemima Sumgong, the world’s #1 runner, at the conclusion of her marathon. I decided to run with it. There was enough space for me to “race” her from behind the standing-room crowds, for about 0.25 miles toward the direction of the finish line. It would be a once-in-a-never chance to see how long I could keep up with Jemima. Other runners and bikers had been captured on TV doing the same thing earlier in the race course, so it seemed like a safe thing to do.

We spotted Jemima running in front of us, and I began to run too. Even with me going at full speed, I expected Jemima to immediately run past my visual range. But she didn’t. I was pleasantly surprised to still be able to see her running on the official course, while I tried my best to move along on the side course. She was still faster than me, but it wasn’t as if she zoomed like a rocket to the other side of the planet. She’s human, after all. This moment gave me some perspective that we could all do much more than we think, if only we would dedicate ourselves to our top goals. Heck, I basically ran *with* the Olympic Gold Medalist in Rio! Now we can go conquer the world. ;)

I ran to the end of the standing-room only area, and stopped. Jemima continued her strong forward momentum toward the finishing ribbon, breaking it with well-deserved gusto. And in that moment, she became the first female runner from Kenya to win the Gold Medal in the Olympics Marathon. Congratulations Jemima Sumgong!

Left: Jemima Sumgong takes the lead with about 2 km (1.25 miles) left in the race. Right: Me pretending to run “with” her.

Parade of Nations

Though my impression was otherwise, the #2 finisher actually only 9 seconds behind the #1 finisher. But those 9 seconds at a fast pace do cover some distance. Similarly, it seemed to take much longer (another 27 seconds) for the #3 finisher to arrive. While I was still catching my breath at the end of the standing-room area, I saw the first American runner, Shalane Flanagan, arrive at the finish line to take the #6 spot. Within minutes, as I tried to work my tablet camera, the Top 10 spots were all accounted for, and the Gold Medalist winner had done 2 victories laps to our area. In a rare victory for Team USA, all 3 athletes finished the marathon in the Top 10. This could not be said of any other country this year. To put things into perspective: Team Kenya and Ethiopia both had one runner who did not finish. Team Kenya got the #1 finisher spot, and also the #86 spot. (See PDF of full results.)

I walked back to the standing-room area with the best view of the TV screens, and decided that I would continue to watch and cheer every runner who finishes the race. No matter which spot, this is the frickin’ Olympics! It felt like an honor to even be in the same location as these people — much less to finish the race, even if it’s in the last spot (aka, still Top 150 in the World).

It was fun to try to guess the countries of the athletes that passed by. Cuba and Phillippines were both represented, and had their country names written on the back of their racing shorts. Other countries were harder to decipher. The TV screens showed us clips of amusing happenings in the finishing area. 2 North Korean twins finished the race together (and they were fast, taking #10 and #11). 2 German twins also finished the race together (at #81 and #82). 3 Estonian identical triplets didn’t all finish the race (only 2 did), but they gathered together for fun photos and sychronized dancing to entertain the crowd. Another Korean finished — but wait, is that North or South Korea? South Korea was #70, followed by another North Korean runner at #71. Wow, the North Korean twins did quite well in this race, despite vastly different economic and political circumstances. In athletics, only the performance really matters, and every other geopolitical issue fades into the background.

The clock continued ticking, and we wondered how many more runners would file in before the Olympic standard 2 hour 45 min mark, the 3 hour mark, the 3 hour 15 min mark, and so on. I wanted to try to make every runner that passed us feel like they just accomplished something awesome, because they did. Even if they were having a bad day (relative to their expectations), they were about to finish the Olympic Marathon!!! The last finisher of the day made herself known, with many security motorcycles honking behind her. It might have been a bit of struggle to continue running, instead of hopping onto a motorbike. Someone in the crowd handed the runner a flag of her country, Cambodia. She proudly wrapped it around her shoulders as she continued moving forward. This last runner earned the #133 spot in the Olympics with a time of 3:20:20, over 8 minutes faster than my personal best at the 2016 Boston Marathon. But let’s not deceive ourselves. This is not a recreational marathon for regular people. This is the Olympics, with no other comparable event. This entire event was wrapped up in 4 hours, including the Victory Ceremony that began after the last runner crossed the finishing line. Amazing!!!

Top: Looking toward the finishing area during the event’s conclusion. The whole thing took less than 4 hours! Bottom: Identical triplets from Estonia express their joy. One got the #97 spot, another the #114 spot, and another did not finish. But to be able to represent their country in the Olympics was surely a joyous moment their family would never forget.

Lost and Found

By the time the Olympics Marathon wrapped up, all my electronic devices were out of commission. Luckily, I had the foresight to write down my hostel’s address with old-fashioned paper and pen before my digital devices died. A bit less luckily, in my bid to run with the Gold Medalist from Kenya, I felt my Team USA jacket drop to the ground from my waist — and ignored it so I could keep running. I looked around several times, including at the official lost & found, but wasn’t able to find the jacket. Oh well, getting a replacement would be possible.

An upside of this post-race scavenger hunt was that I ran into some athletes wearing Team Kenya gear who were there to support the marathoners! They were also looking to chat with an English-speaking volunteer, to find the bus to return to the Olympic Village. I was able to chat with them in English, but couldn’t actually help them. One of the athletes proudly shared that he was a Track & Field athlete and this was his first international competition. How incredible, I thought, to be at the Olympics for your first international competition! And somehow you were able to learn English really well, when you weren’t busy being a world-class athlete. I told the athletes that if they could not find the bus soon, it might be faster for them to run back to the Olympic Village. They didn’t seem particularly amused at this comment, but also took it in good humor and moved forward to find their bus.

Recovery Time

No longer under time pressure, I slowly made my way toward my personal version of the Olympic Village, a hostel located near Maracanã Stadium (the site of the Opening & Closing Ceremonies). I learned how to take the Rio subway/metro, which was very nice and well-maintained. I hopped into an official taxi at Maracanã Stadium, and was driven by a very nice native Rio resident who spoke impressive English with little accent. He alerted me to a recent taxi robbery with “USA Swimmers”, and helped confirm that the hostel address was legitimate, and in an overall safe neighborhood. While I was in the taxi, two folks on foot stopped us to talk to the driver. Thankfully, they were just asking for directions, nothing nefarious.

The Graja Hostel I found via Orbitz has been very nice so far, and at an amazing value with very helpful English-speaking managers. It is 2 blocks away from a park where kids happily play, and also conveniences like inexpensive restaurants and grocery stores. The neighborhood is geared toward locals, not tourists. I will definitely be playing tourist in Rio, but for now, it feels great to stay at an area that feels like a regular home (or rather, a college dorm community, since I planned to travel like a college student on this trip).

If you’re wondering whether most Rio locals speak English, the answer is no. My elementary Spanish has been surprisingly helpful so far (e.g. to answer questions from a security guard who saw that I was poking around electrical outlets to try to charge my dead phones). When in doubt, try another language to avoid jail time. :) Even though I’m useless with Portuguese, the locals do seem willing to help me understand things e.g. by miming and writing things down. One helpfully corrected my pronunciation when I totally butchered the name of one of their famous locations. Google Translate is an option, but not without a working phone, and oftentimes it’s too slow and/or cannot correctly decipher written Portuguese words from camera images.

More about Rio tomorrow!

Fun ad at the airport to use Google Translate. In practice, the technology has noticeable limits.