San Andrés is a Colombian coral island in the Caribbean Sea which has historical ties with Britain, but politically has been a part of Colombia since 1822. It is the largest of three biodiverse islands in the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina where the official languages are Spanish, English and Creole.
Holidayers to the island tend to spend their time bathing in crystalline waters, whizzing around in golf carts and drinking duty-free alcohol, though the island is also known for its spectacular diving. Although the island’s year-round warm temperatures and relatively humid climate doesn’t immediately make one think of running, a British friend of mine alerted me to the event and the idea of running the 32.5km lap of a beautiful Caribbean island appealed to me instantly. The idea of relaxing on the islands afterwards certainly helped. After a quick search for flights online, I was confirmed to run as a two-man team in the Island Trotters’ debut in the event, the 7th “Vuelta de la Isla”. This was less than a fortnight before the event and we did what we could to get fit before the run. We finished the lap in a respectable 3hrs 6 minutes and finished in 36th and 37th respectively. It was a fantastic experience and I resolved to come back the following year as part of a larger group, and had ambitions of threatening the podium.
I arrived to the start line in 2016 with the three friends I’d convinced to run with the Trotters’ second running of the race with jangling nerves and under-prepared legs and we arrived to see an enthusiastic crowd of 700 or so bright-green-shirted runners gathered at the start line. In typical Colombian fashion, everyone was smiling as they gamely followed the warm-up routine, before we were treated to a 5am rendition of the full three verses of the Colombian national anthem.
We went through some basic stretches and gobbled down our energy gels and ‘bocadillos’, though I agreed with Tommy as he said “I’m not too bothered with stretching as I think that running 32km in this heat might warm me up well enough, to be honest”. At just after 5:10am, watches beeped, runners’ playlists started and the hum of rubber on stone began as we weaved our way along the beachfront between benches, palm trees and remnants of the Saturday night in ‘El Centro’. As we left the island’s main town, we passed confused palm trees silhouetted by a full moon behind them and onlookers who’d not been to sleep yet and looked a little as if they were searching for their own silhouettes. We had more or less found some rhythm as the fastest of the 5km runners reached their halfway point and turned back to tussle for the first fastest category runner on the island. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel a small pang of envy at the thought that they might make it back to bed before sunrise.
The sun did begin to rise at just after 6am, shortly after I had had bid goodbye to my first ever pacemaker; “You’re the only one of us that’s got a chance to get on the podium, so I thought I’d try to get you going”, said Harry. That sentiment would turn out to be wildly optimistic, but I felt good as thoughts of slumber left me quickly and I passed the 5k marker with only the Caribbean sea for company. The morning light meant we could see how our bright green contingent wound its way along the sea past the secluded hotels and seafront ‘Coco Loco’ shacks, which wouldn’t normally see passers-by for another 8 or so hours. I made friends with a short, portly runner from Bogotá we knocked off a quick 5km at a good pace. He was pleased to hear that we shared a name, and I was pleased to hear that he was aiming for the same time as I was; sub-2:30. I had knocked off over a third of the distance in under an hour and was pleased to see that this year with the morning being so clear, I would see the sun rise from the flat sea as I passed Morgan’s Cave and arced round the South point of the island.
Whilst I had learned that my new friend had polished off five Club Colombia beers the previous evening, I had learned that I wouldn’t be able to run at the pace I had hoped for rest of the race. A slight headwind welcomed me to the second half and as my legs started to ask my brain why I hadn’t trained with some slightly more conventional mileage plans in the previous weeks, I somewhat guiltily tucked in behind a group of runners from Cali and my brain decided that I probably wasn’t going to be able to share wind-buffering responsibility.
“Just make sure you enjoy it” had been the mantra I had trotted out as team-captain elect to my friends, who were each taking on their longest-ever distances and whose training ahead of the race had been even less ideal than mine, but I found myself repeating this in my head. Although my legs ached and ached some more, and I my run became a Clifford Young shuffle (Google his running story if you’re not familiar with it), I was thoroughly enjoying it. I was now passing islanders who popped heads out of traditional Caribbean houses and offered a pretty equal mix of “Good Morning” and “Buenos Días”, and even got my first “not far to go now”. Having run the race a year before, I knew this to be a white lie, but the views were still stunning and I juuust about kept running. Several island-lappers I’d passed before now passed me, and I hoped that my friends weren’t cursing me bringing them to the Caribbean for the event; “I thought you were all going there for ruM!”, one amigo of ours had said.
Our bright green dots had become much more sparse by now as I reached the stunning Rocky Cay at around 7am and I knew that now I was slowly getting closer to the finish. I would later learn that this was the time the defending champion finished as he improved by his time by 33 seconds. His wife would also win the women’s race after running her lap a full 15 minutes faster and the couple didn’t help my claim that this years’ conditions were harder than last. I shuffled, stretched and ached through the final kilometres as we weaved away from the sea for the first time in the race and welcomed a brief, cooling shower. I passed the little old lady’s front porch where we had scoffed the finest carimañolas on the island and the sea flanked me again and the town came back into view and I resolved not to pause and stretch any more. I had already failed with other promises which my brain had made on no more runners passing me, but my legs meant that I couldn’t keep them. I knew now that the claims of “you’re nearly there” were almost true now and I did manage to keep one closing couple from passing me. I heard the crowd cheering and ambled towards them. I heard them pick up, saw a bright green blur pass my right shoulder and for the first time in the day, felt the benefits of my overtraining as I jolted back past him as I passed the line, feeling like I was running the pace of a Beijing Olympics Usain Bolt.
The feeling then of sitting down after crossing the line and a couple of high-fives was amazing. Wow. I thought I heard someone say 2:56 but I wasn't interested in my time at all at that moment. Volunteers gave me Gatorade, cereal bars, water, bananas, and more water. My girlfriend gave me congratulatory kisses and my 10-15km companion (which seemed like a lifetime ago, even though it was only now approaching 8am) gave me a cold, crisp Club Colombia beer. I moved myself to the beach to lie down a little while whilst I waited for my friends, who arrived a little while after, and I could see each of the emotions I'd just experienced on their sweaty, red, faces. We wadded the short distance to the sea, sharing our stories as they mixed with involuntary groans of what conveyed pain, relief, and most of all, satisfaction.
I really can’t recommend running the island of San Andrés enough.. Hopefully you’ll be one of my companions running along the sea next year!