Cuba Libre!

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Wardian Che

We spent a week exploring Cuba on foot, running some of the country’s historic trails and immersing ourselves with local runners. We weren’t there to make a political statement—we were there to interact with runners, donate shoes and help organize races for kids. Amid a socialist system and economic limitations, we discovered beauty, hope, pride and joy in a land that’s destined for change.

By Brian Metzler • Photos/Video by Steve Godwin

I was about 15 minutes into an easy run on a warm and humid evening in Santiago de Cuba when the peculiarity of what I was doing struck me.

I’m an American running free in Cuba.

It was an odd, and somewhat novel thought, given that the easy run was just meant to be a simple, 45-minute shake-out jaunt aimed at loosening my legs a bit. But since it’s still difficult for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba—let alone roam entirely free while running the streets of the country’s second-largest city—it turned a very ordinary run into a rather special moment.

It was the first day of a weeklong running immersion in Cuba for me and fellow runners and friends Michael Sandrock, Steve Godwin and Michael Wardian. We were all weary and a bit out of it after waking up at 4:30 a.m. to check in for our charter flight that morning from Miami, not to mention trying to reacquaint ourselves with speaking español.

As the others napped, got organized in our hotel or relaxed with a fresh glass of guava juice, I decided to head out for a run. As I strode over rolling hills along Calle Santa Lucia on the way to Santiago Bay, I passed through block after block of densely packed row homes, all painted in bright hues of red, blue, green and golden yellow. Kids played futbol in the streets, adults relaxed comfortably on porches and a couple of barking dogs nipped at my heels.

As I built up a sweat while finding my rhythm on the rough concrete streets, it occurred to me that I could have been running through any neighborhood in any city in the world and experienced similar sights and sounds.

But what kept me firmly rooted in the present and excited for the days to come were the syncopated beats of Afro-Cuban jazz wafting out of every home, shop and corner pub and, of course, the fact that I had to dodge classic, late 1950s American cars at almost every intersection.

Cultural Exchange

Until recently, visiting Cuba was a tricky endeavor for Americans. What made our legal and fully authorized eight-day running odyssey possible—and really our intent of going in the first place—was that it would be part of a cultural exchange that would help bring dozens of donated running shoes to share with children and young runners via the Boulder, Colo., nonprofit One World Running.

The organization was started in 1986 by Sandrock after his experience running a marathon in Cameroon, where he ran alongside a local runner wearing a broken pair of plastic sandals.

“One of the straps was broken and his foot was getting bloody from the irritation,” Sandrock recalled later that evening in Santiago as we sipped mojitos from the restaurant deck of the 100-year-old colonial-style Hotel Casa Granda. “I had a nice, modern pair of running shoes and he still outran me to the finish, even with his bad sandals. When I saw him after the race, I was compelled to give him my shoes. I knew I could get another pair, but he wasn’t in a position to ever be able to afford to buy running shoes.”

Sandrock first visited Cuba in the early 1990s to interview Olympic track greats Alberto Juantorena and Ana Fidelia Quirot for his superlative 1996 book, “Running with the Legends.” It was during one of his original trips to Cuba, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, that he again realized the potential impact of sharing used shoes with fellow runners if he took the time to collect them in the U.S.—namely sharing the ability to experience the freedom and passion of running.

“I gave this young barefoot runner some shoes and I can still remember the look on his face,” Sandrock told us. “He didn’t know whether to hug me or laugh or smile. He put the shoes on and sprinted down the track and started doing cartwheels in the infield. He was so happy. That showed me the value of a pair of shoes. We can’t even imagine what that’s like because it’s so easy for us to buy shoes. That pair of shoes changed his life.”

Over the past 30 years, Sandrock has tirelessly helped One World Running collect and distribute more than 250,000 pairs of shoes to children and aspiring young runners in Cuba, Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Senegal, Tanzania, Mexico and the U.S. The nonprofit is headed up by Ana Weir, a Boulder nurse who brought her medical background and experience living in Latin America to help the organization grow. The shoes are washed and either shipped directly to coaches or hand carried on trips like ours to make sure they reach the intended recipients.

Under that context, we transported about 120 pairs of donated shoes in large duffel bags on our flight from Miami to Santiago de Cuba, an old-world city with considerable history and gritty charm. It was founded in 1515 by Spanish conquistador Diego Velazquez de Cuellar and served as Cuba’s colonial capital for most of the 16th century. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes kick-started Cuba’s push for independence from Spain here in 1868, and it was also the site of the Battle of San Juan Hill, where Teddy Roosevelt led the U.S. Army’s Rough Riders and Buffalo Soldiers to a key victory during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

In more modern times, it has been known as a key center for shipping, commerce and transportation, the birthplace of Desi Arnaz and the home of many popular jazz musicians, as well as the launching-off point for the Cuban Revolution. Some of the first battles occurred in and around the city in the mid-1950s, including the infamous attack of the Moncada Barracks by a small band of rebels led by Fidel Castro.

It was on the city hall balcony overlooking the vibrant Céspedes Park city square in Santiago that Castro proclaimed victory for his revolution on Jan. 1, 1959. While sitting across the same square inside Hotel Casa Granda’s cafe, we gathered our bearings for the days ahead, sipping cold beverages and studying a map of the Sierra Maestra mountain range, which rises abruptly at the city’s western horizon line.

Over the next three days, we planned to explore Turquino National Park on foot by running and hiking over the summit of Pico Turquino, the highest mountain in Cuba at 6,476 feet above sea level. It’s deep inside the Sierra Maestra mountains—where the Castro brothers and Argentine doctor and Marxist theorist Che Guevara organized a guerrilla rebellion in 1956, known as the 26th of July Movement, that would eventually lead to the revolution that overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

Trail Revolution

Early the next morning, the drivers we hired arrived in late-1990s Chinese-made sedans to take us to the north entrance of the national park. As we drove away from the city, the surroundings, local economy and living conditions quickly turned rural and rustic. The preponderance of modern buses, small imported cars and vintage American sedans and trucks quickly gave way to horse-drawn carriages, rickety carts pulled by donkeys and human-powered bicycle taxis. While Santiago offered hints of progress in a somewhat modern city setting, life in the remote communities seemed simple and decidedly more primitive.

Billboards proclaiming the success of the revolution were ever-present along the two-lane road through the countryside, often with an inspiring quote from Fidel Castro or a statement reinforcing the benefits of Cuba’s socialist society. As a tourist, the signs were read as blatant propaganda, as if to justify, for better or for worse, all that Cuba had struggled to become and continues to struggle to be. To locals, though, the messages must have long ago faded into the fabric of everyday life.

“Continuaremos a nuestro ritmo el proceso de transformaciones en la sociedad de Cubana,” proclaimed one billboard. (“We continue our pace in the process of transforming Cuban society.”)

“No hay revolucion sin audacia,” proclaimed another. (“There is no revolution without audacity.”)

Another sign, accompanied by a picture of Fidel, simply said, “Gracias por tu ejempla.” (“Thank you for your example.”)

Our driver stopped a couple of times on the way to the park, once at a roadside coffee stand for a steaming hot cup of what was perhaps the richest and most potent café negro we’d ever had, and another time at an open-air carniceria for a tasty pulled pork sandwich that a butcher thoughtfully and skillfully carved for us as we waited.

When we finally arrived at the park, we convinced our driver to let us out at the entrance so we could run up the ridiculously steep 5K paved road that led to the trailhead. He shook his head and chuckled in disbelief, telling us that none of the other touristas he’d delivered to the park had ever attempted to tackle the road on foot. But we were runners and, having spent several hours in the car, we were ready to get out and move our legs.

Still, we found his skepticism to be entirely justified as our moderate initial pace quickly slowed to a grinding shuffle as the incline approached 30 percent grade numerous times on the way up the mountain. The temperature and humidity rose with every kilometer we clicked off, but when we finally reached the top at a spot called Alto de Naranjo—where we were met by equally skeptical German hikers who had gotten shuttled up the road and yet another sign proclaiming the success of the revolution—we were stoked to find a small fruit stand, where a local resident had a table of freshly picked coconuts, bananas, oranges and mangos.

After drinking the water from freshly cut coconuts as an energy boost, we ran 6K on the rolling contours of densely forested singletrack trails to the historic Comandancia de la Plata—Fidel Castro’s long-ago rebel camp that served as the birthplace of the revolution. We were awestruck by the site, which included numerous well-preserved, rudimentary wooden cabins where, in 1958, Castro and his guerrilla army plotted their quest to free Cuba from the corrupt Batista regime.

The trails leading to the camp, especially to the most remote Casa de Fidel cabin, were scenic and sublime but also technical, arduous and oftentimes barely runnable. No doubt consistent foot travel over those trails could have hardened rebel soldiers back in the day, just as they might strengthen aspiring trail runners or fatigue undertrained tourists in modern times.

That night we stayed at La Platica, a remote community with two modest bunkhouses and a dining area for tourists planning to make the multiday assault on Pico Turquino. For a fee of about $12 apiece, we had more creature comforts than we expected—cold-water showers with clean towels, basic but comfortable bunks, and a well-rounded dinner of rice, beans, pork, boiled potatoes, fresh bread and even cold cervezas.

Jose Marti new

The next morning after a breakfast of eggs, toast and fruit, we set off toward the mountaintop, a grueling 3,500-foot climb over 8K on an increasingly steep trail that varied between being remarkably runnable and extremely challenging to negotiate at a power hiking pace. We were captivated at the lush vegetation and scenery that only grew more vast the higher we went. We stopped a few times to take photos and shoot video footage, each time marveling in the notion that we were running remote trails of Cuba’s highest mountain range.

Unfortunately, the splendor and excitement amid the lush vegetation and stunning views led us to a wrong turn, and instead of veering to the south to reach the trail that would take us to the high camp, we inadvertently veered north and wound up right back where we started at La Platica. As devastating as it was at the moment we figured it out, we found comic relief in our gringo tourist mistake. With no other alternative but to go back up, we resorted to our trail running discipline to dig deep and tackle another 3,500-foot ascent to a small cabin just below the peak. We arrived just as a storm rolled over the mountains and, after a small meal of rice, potatoes and tea, fell asleep to the sound of rain vigorously pelting the corrugated metal roof.

We arose before sunrise the next morning and after a very steep and strenuous 5K hike, reached the top of Pico Turquino. At the top, we were greeted by a solemn statue of revered 19th century Cuban writer and philosopher José Martí, who, amid all of the change and struggle Cuba has faced, is still admired as the country’s preeminent national hero and its original champion of independence, reason and universal truth.

“Scarce as the mountains are the men who look down from them and feel their nation, or their humanity, move inside them.” That quote, written in Spanish, was engraved on a plaque below the bronze bust of Martí that was placed on the peak in 1953 to mark the centenary of his birth.

It’s appropriate that Martí sits atop Pico Turquino, given that it has long served as a symbol of the country’s yearning for independence from Spain. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a 19th century Cuban sugar plantation owner, referred to the mountain’s majesty during a historic speech in 1868 when he freed his slaves and declared Cuba’s independence.

In the mid-1950s, young Cuban geographer Antonio Nunez Jimenez published an essay called “This is the Sierra Maestra,” and referred to the rugged mountain range as the most remote and rugged place in Cuba. He described how the people were mostly poor, uneducated, illiterate and lacking any sense of what was happening in the modern world, and yet, although from various backgrounds—indigenous, African, European—they possessed a common sense of strength and community. And so it was, with a solidarity forged by the Sierra Maestra mountains, that the Cuban Revolution took hold in the shadows of Pico Turquino.

“Happiness exists on earth, and it is won through prudent exercise of reason, knowledge of the harmony of the universe, and constant practice of generosity,” Marti once wrote.

Still revered by the Cuban people, the Sierra Maestra mountains are largely unchanged from the 1950s. Although political ideology was not discussed, the local residents we encountered—including our hearty guides—seemed to live each day with a sense of purpose and genuineness. Aside from electricity generated from a modern stream-fed generator, life remains basic for those who live deep within this rugged place.

We certainly had our struggles as we traversed through the mountains—torrential rain storms, a wrong turn and a touch of stomach illness—but we also found a certain harmony in this rugged and desperate land and appreciated the context of these mountains—and the privilege to visit this long-forbidden land—as Cuba, once again, struggles to right itself.

After requisite snacks, photos and high-fives of solidarity and respect, it was all downhill from there—a beautiful but demanding 11K descent down to the Caribbean Sea. The trails had taken their toll on our legs and that led to growing mental fatigue. But seeing the water below was inspiring and it helped us methodically wind our way over the adjacent Pico Cuba (4,941 feet) and down the sometimes slippery trails in time for lunch at the national park’s entrance along Cuba’s southernmost shoreline. Before our two-hour trip back to Santiago, our driver took us to a spectacular and vacant beach (aside from a wandering wild pig) for a refreshing post-run dip in the sea.

“Like stones rolling down hills, fair ideas reach their objectives despite all obstacles and barriers. It may be possible to speed or hinder them, but impossible to stop them,” Marti said.

That night, as we ate dinner at the rooftop restaurant of the Hotel Casa Granda, we raised a toast to the adventures and camaraderie we shared, recognizing the rarity of our opportunity while marveling in the history of the place and, oh, the fact that we had covered more than 48K—much longer than a marathon—on the challenging yet pristine trails over the previous three days.

“The natural, unspoiled beauty was amazing, and the trails were legit,” said Wardian, one of the world’s most prolific marathoners and ultrarunners who has run in more than 30 countries. “That was a very hard—and extremely fun—three days out on the trails that I’ll never forget.”

Group Cuba

Universal Language

The next morning, we rose early and, after a shakeout run through Santiago, loaded our gear and large duffel bags of donated running shoes into our taxi—a royal blue 1957 Chevy station wagon in near-mint condition—and began a four-hour drive to the small seaside town of Baracoa along Cuba’s remote southeastern coast.

Our driver, 20-year-old Antonio, was agreeable to making a few stops at our request along the way, if only because it gave him more time to make out with his girlfriend, who had come along for the ride. Seeing two young lovers snuggled up in the front seat of a classic 1950s Detroit-made muscle car was a scene straight out of Americana, even if completely out of context in present-day Cuba.

Once we stopped at a fruit stand to drink more fresh coconut water and to pick up a large bunch of bananas for the equivalent of about $1. Later we convinced Antonio to stop at the new overlook platform at the north end of Guantanamo Bay, which gave us gringos a chance to get a unique and rather juxtaposing view of the U.S. military base off in the distance.

Once again, billboards proclaiming the virtues of the Cuban Revolution were everywhere along the bucolic roads.

“No descuidaremos la obra de la revolucion,” read one sign with the face of Fidel. (“We do not neglect the work of the revolution.”)

“El socialisimo es lo mas noble y lo mas justo,” said another near Baracoa. (“Socialism is the most noble and the most just.”)

It was hard not to notice the unintended irony of the messages in contrast to sometimes primitive and crumbling conditions in many aspects of Cuban life. Yet despite the oppressive situation and lack of most of the accouterments found in the U.S., Europe and many Latin American countries, most of the people we encountered seemed upbeat, happy and full of life.

Many things we take for granted—for example, well-stocked grocery stores, credit cards and freedom of the press—don’t exist in Cuba. Instead, citizens rely heavily on rationed handouts of eggs and bread, an average salaries of $30 per month and news delivered from state-run media outlets. Keep in mind, education and healthcare are provided free to Cuban citizens, most food is sold just above cost and gasoline and electricity are highly subsidized by the government.

Things are slowly changing in Cuba; private property ownership, limited-access Internet cards and cell phone service have all increased in the past few years. For the most part, though, Cuban people have next to nothing and yet they don’t miss what they don’t have. It’s the simple joy of daily life—running, salsa dancing, jazz music, restoring vintage cars, kids, etc.—that make things as good as possible amid the despair and challenging conditions.

“Despite the despair and hard conditions, people were passionate,” Wardian recalled after the trip. “You could feel a sense of ambition, that people were really trying to achieve and be productive and learn and make things as good as possible. There was a sense of hope and pride and joy in everyday life, and that was incredibly touching and very inspiring to me.”

No one we encountered in Cuba was more inspiring than Arnaldo Campos, a 43-year-old former national-class marathoner with a 2:31 PR. He twice competed internationally for Cuba, once in Spain and another time in the Soviet Union, and also won the Havana Half Marathon a couple of times. Now a schoolteacher and competitive masters runner, he continues to share his passion, coaching both a performance-oriented group of local runners and a low-key women’s group.

Baracoa doesn’t have a track to run on, but there are plenty of trails. Most often, the locals run laps around the inside of the town’s once-proud but now-crumbling baseball stadium. Like a lot of situations in Cuba, the people are resourceful and find a way to make do.

When we shared some of the donated shoes with Campos’ group, the joy among the runners was palpable and bordered on tear-jerking joy—for all of us.

“Anyone can run and experience the same things I have experienced,” Campos said in Spanish from the bleachers of the stadium after a morning run with his training group. “You don’t have to be fast. You just have to be willing to go out every day and do it. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind, and that’s good for everyone.”

Bound Running

Sandrock and Campos have shared a bond connected by that universal language of running for more than 20 years, but it goes way beyond One World Running’s many visits to bring shoes and running clothes.

Six years ago, Campos, Sandrock and Weir started the 28K La Farola race on the mountain road that spills into town as a way to help celebrate the 500th anniversary of the village and promote fitness and passion for running among the locals. In recent years, top runners have come from all over Cuba for the race and, thanks to One World Running, every entrant receives a free pair of donated shoes. (This year’s race will be held on July 10, and many of the shoes we brought down are being stored for that event.)

During our three-day stay in Baracoa, we ran with Campos on some of his favorite routes, helped organize kids track and field competitions in conjunction with several schools, had a few meals and beers together and shared stories about running, families and life. Politics never came up, except to acknowledge that tourism will increase considerably when the U.S. economic embargo is eventually withdrawn.

After our all-too-brief visit to Baracoa, we returned to Santiago and flew back to Miami the next day. Once stateside, and for weeks to come, we all missed Cuba and the people we met. We were left with the understanding that politics, government, language and money can separate people, but running is one of the things that brings people together.

“It starts by sharing a bond with running and shoes, but many times, especially with Campos and the people in Baracoa, it develops into much deeper, lasting friendships,” Sandrock said. “That’s what running is all about, and that’s why I still enjoy it. We’re all one world and everything is connected. Everyone is connected to each other and you can really feel that through running and the people you run with, and that’s why it’s so satisfying.”

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Text: Brian Metzler
Photography: Steve Godwin
Video: Steve Godwin
Design: Ryan Wood
Editing: Mario Fraioli, Adam Elder, Emily Polachek

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