Competitor.com’s Mario Fraioli gives an inside look at the growing running community in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica isn’t a country that’s known for its distance running prowess, but that doesn’t mean its people aren’t passionate about the sport.
Two weeks ago I was in San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital city, where for the first time since I began coaching their lone male Olympic marathoner, Cesar Lizano, I had the opportunity to experience the Costa Rican running community for myself firsthand.
It was an experience I’ll not soon forget.
My Tuesday morning started early at La Sabana, a sprawling park in central San Jose where most of the runners in the city converge each morning to run before the blazing sun and high humidity make any sort of outdoor activity undesirable. I joined Alex Reyes, a friend of Cesar’s who was making his final preparations for the Flying Pig Marathon that weekend (n.b. he finished in 3:07:02), for a 45-minute romp around the park amongst the masses of moving people. I ran in wide-eyed amazement as I observed various groups of runners warming up, stretching and doing form drills before embarking on their respective workouts.
It was barely 6 AM and there were literally hundreds of runners taking over la Sabana. It was quite the sight to see, particularly in a small country inhabited by only 4.5 or so million people. For comparison’s sake, on any given morning near where I live San Diego – one of the most active areas in the United States – if I see a couple dozen people running on the roads or trail, it’s a good day.
Of course, running hasn’t always been so insanely popular in this beautiful Central American country. It’s only been over the past few years that the sport has gained traction in this still soccer-mad nation. Olympic-level athletes such as Cesar and Gabriela Trana, who will represent Costa Rica in the women’s Olympic Marathon on August 5 in London, serve as larger-than-life role models who help give visibility to the competitive side of the sport while promoting the benefits of leading an active lifestyle.
“People have seen the benefits of running for health are very good,” Cesar explained to me. “Athletics has become a healthy lifestyle for Costa Ricans.”
Popular websites such as Pasion Por Correr (Passion For Running) have not only helped stir up interest in competitive running in Costa Rica, but also have encouraged everyday people, regardless of their ability level, to adopt an active lifestyle.
Pasion Por Correr’s goal is “to inform range of topics in the field of athletics in Costa Rica as well as health issues, events, etc. Aimed at amateurs, intermediate and professional.”
Races of various distances can now be found throughout Costa Rica, and these events serve as a stage for the rising stars of the sport to showcase their skills while also giving the average runner a goal worth training for on the weekend. The number of races, along with the number of people participating in them, is growing at a rapid rate. Costa Rica, much like the United States in recent years, is experiencing a running boom of its own.
“[Running] was almost never news in Costa Rica. TV stations are (now) covering races and showing the highlights in the news sections, there are more sponsors than ever, and the number of races continue growing year after year,” says Federico Ledezma, agent for Gabriela Trana and a huge supporter of the Costa Rican running community. “Finally, younger people follow a trend, a fashion, what the others do, and in this case running is that trend, that fashion. It’s also a very approachable sport. People know that one just needs to put on a pair of running shoes and begin running, not like other sports where one has to have some kind of talent to practice. Anyone can run.”
Ledezma also says that when top athletes such as Cesar and Gabriela compete well internationally, it catches the interest of a growing base of fans that admire them and are inspired by their accomplishments. The Costa Rican press also takes notice, and tends to report on the top athletes’ every move, from race results to injuries to coaching changes and even when they’re returning home from a major competition or a training camp.
I can personally vouch for this sort of attention and admiration. Two Tuesdays ago, when I arrived at the track to supervise Cesar’s workout, nearly every media outlet in Costa Rica was in attendance, along with a photographer and a reporter from a newly formed Costa Rican running magazine, as well as dozens of fans, who took advantage of the labor day holiday to watch their national hero perform his workout.
“No one can say a bad thing about them,” Ledezma says about Cesar and Gabriela. “They are both very focused people, polite, both with college degrees, and always open to talk to anyone about anything. People are aware of the sacrifices they have made in order to be where they are now. People admire that, too.”
It was a special moment to watch Cesar’s fans rally around him, as well as to see the attention the press gives to their national athletes, who serve as a source of pride for the people of this small country, as well as noble spokespersons for the further development and promotion of the sport amongst the general population. As an outsider, it’s an honor for me not only to be guiding Costa Rica’s lone Olympic marathoner, but more so to be sharing in the incredible passion the Costa Rican people have for the sport of running.