at the races Race Review: Havana Half Marathon

Race Review: Havana Half Marathon


I am a lifelong runner. My first race was the Chasquis 20km Run in Edmonton in 1981. Since then, I have completed over 125 races, including 23 marathons in 10 countries. 

I love the race experience. Laying out the race gear, an important ritual the night before. The nervous tension before the race. The characters you encounter during the journey. Exploring cities, like no other tourist, because you are so ‘close to the pavement.’ As I enter my fifth decade of running, I still love the goal setting and achievements (attaining the Abbott World marathon Majors six-star medal in London in 2021), but it is the unusual, quirky, often challenging experiences in our sport that keep me wanting more. 

In a twisted sort of way, my ‘weather badges of honour’ include the Boston Marathon in 2018, in the worst weather conditions in 85 years. The Ottawa Winterman Half Marathon in minus 35C and the Niagara 50km Ultra in sweltering 32C conditions with low/no water stations near the end.

Well, I thought my extreme running experiences were pretty much behind me. Until the Havana Cuba Half Marathon November 19th—a couple weeks ago. 

Not only was the weather hot (25C), but humidity was off the charts during the race (95 percent). As a result, for the first time EVER, I had to walk several parts of the race. As the sun came up, the humidity/ heat was unbearable and by the halfway mark I was in survival shuffle mode wondering if I would finish. Fortunately, a few of us international runners (Mexicans, Argentinians and Brazilians) hung together for the last 8K or so to gut it out to the finish.

It seems the Cubans conduct races on their own terms. There were some other peculiarities that emerged from the Havana race experience worth noting: 

It was common for Cuban folks in the race to run with their dogs at their sides. Dogs everywhere. In fact, I had a nice little stray mutt keep me company for the last third of the race. I think he was worried about me.

Race start times don’t seem to matter. Several of us shared a taxi van to go to the starting line for a 6:30am start only to find when we got there that the gun had already gone off and the race started at 6am! So, for the first time EVER, I missed the start of a race and chased the sweeper truck and ambulance for the first 15 minutes of the race. 

Now, after 125 races, I know what it is like to be a lonely ‘back of the packer.’

The first runner I passed in the darkness was an artist with portable easel strapped to his neck, with all his brushes & paints working on a picture while running!

Havana is a UNESCO world heritage site. Beautiful buildings everywhere, but sadly it’s decaying badly and falling down around itself, with abandoned buildings everywhere. Still, there are many interesting monuments and communist landmarks that make for a unique running experience like no other. The race starts and ends very close to Revolution Square with murals of Castro and Che Guevara looming nearby.

Also memorable on the course is the famous Malecon, the broad esplanade, roadway and seawall that stretches for 8KM along the coast. Several times during the race, I watched giant waves splash over the seawall soaking runners ahead of me. When do you ever chance getting hit by a rogue wave in a marathon anywhere but Havana!

Race volunteers were not all volunteers, they were mostly soldiers marshalling at every street corner and they did a great job: saying ‘Ola’ (hi) to all the runners. 

The racecourse fuel stations were well attended and stocked (thank goodness). The Cubans also did a great job providing water and ‘sip sacs’ of juice at regular intervals. With the humidity, it didn’t help much as it was like running in a sauna bath. I couldn’t imagine doing a second lap of the course as the marathoners had to do.

Nice medals and T-shirts were given out, but you must get in line early as they ran out near the end. Havana is a unique ‘destination race’ with ‘only in Cuba’ experiences which make for a great ‘change up’ vs all other races. 

Run Havana! But be ready for some unexpected, interesting occurrences you will remember forever. For more information, see Havana Half Marathon.