On Being a Marathon Runner in Cuba

By Ronal Quiñones

Alain Centelles tells us what it’s like to be a marathon runner in Cuba.

HAVANA TIMES — The loneliness of the long distance runner is one of the harshest. This what we read in Alan Sillitoe’s story, but it is also a reality the millions of people around the planet who undertake this noble activity face every day, in an unequivocal show of strength, will and limitless endurance.

Those who do this as a sport or pastime must not only have the needed physical preparation but also a strong psychological disposition, needed to withstand the loneliness of the race and the high energy demands of the effort.

Havana Times decided to approach one of these noble-hearted and committed individuals whose sole purpose is personal improvement, not a medal at a sporting event or monetary gain.

His name is Alain Centelles and, at 5’11”, he could well have become a basketball, baseball or volleyball player, but he was far more drawn to this business of running for miles and miles after a dream. As is often the case with Cubans, he practiced all manner of sports in his youth but put everything else aside when he decided his thing was to run.

Alain Centelles: This is a very hot country and you have to be a bit crazy to do this, I think. You have to really want to do it and be willing to accept sacrifices. Even in the early hours of the morning, in winter, one ends up covered in sweat and losing pounds. But those of us who enjoy this have a sense of the sacrifice and the effort needed to achieve, and not necessarily in material terms.

Everyone knows many things are lacking here, and I’m not sure if this is another way of escaping reality, of feeling strong despite lacking important things. I don’t know how to explain it too well.

Monotony is also your enemy, which is why you need to learn to be content with just yourself. It’s boring having to go past the same place four times, so you can imagine what it’s like to train at a park, on a track that’s barely a kilometer long. You have to be ready to confront any sort of circumstance. Sometimes, the mind is even more important than the body. You have to be mature and motivated.

You should also wear different shoes depending on whether you’re running on a track, a road or concrete. To make things less boring, I try to change things around often, but I always wear the same type of shoes, and I shouldn’t.

HT: Marabana is Cuba’s most popular marathon. Have you participated in that marathon?

Alain Centelles: I haven’t missed one for several years now. Marabana is a fairly demanding marathon. You compete against very experienced high-performance athletes, which is why I focus primarily on making it to the end line. If I can do it in a time in keeping with my abilities, so much the better. The organization of the race is excellent and that’s something that motivates you, because, at other marathons held down here, sometimes you can run for miles and there’s no water or people to cheer you on.

HT: How have your lesions been treating you?

AC: People who do this have to be on the alert. As soon as you feel any discomfort, you have to treat it as soon as possible, even if it’s nothing serious. The ideal thing is to have at least two massage sessions after running several miles every week, but, when you’re an aficionado, the most you can aspire to is placing a fair amount of ice on the lesion and getting plenty of sleep. You have to be a bit hard-headed and persistent to run in marathons.

HT: What does a runner think about after going at it for many miles?

AC: I would imagine every person has a different answer for that. While running under Cuba’s infernal sun, when my feet are torn up and I’m just dying to stop, I look at my watch and assess the situation. If there’s relatively little distance left (10 kilometers, say), I set my mind racing and I continue at full throttle. If there’s a lot left, I may start walking, but I never stop. A short time later, I again want to run, particularly if I see many people running past me. You get very tired and start thinking you could fall over, which would be fatal. Remember what happened to the Brazilian Vanderlei de Lima at the Olympic Games in Athens (2004). A guy cut him off when he had the lead and made him lose his balance. Even though he had the lead, he couldn’t prevent others from getting ahead.

HT: What should regular people do to prepare for a marathon?

AC: First of all, they shouldn’t take the decision lightly, because a marathon is a serious thing. To begin with, no one’s first race should be a marathon. They should run many tracks and then participate in mini-marathons of 5 to 10 kilometers. Any of these races requires good preparation, depending on a person’s physical condition and age. It is a highly demanding effort and I don’t believe it’s for everyone. At any rate, I like to think that nothing is impossible in this life, particularly if we set our minds to it. You can find happiness when you take your abilities to the limit.

The most important thing is to find your own rhythm. As some doctors have explained to me, the human body begins to produce certain chemical substances, and if you don’t manage to control that, it could affect you mentally. You need to adjust your pace and then you can run and run without stopping, and even enjoy the view, the people you see along the way, etc. Your mind fuses with your body in such a way that, even if every one of your bones are hurting, you don’t feel it. Your mind is a blank, as though you were levitating, and inertia takes you the finish line.

Personal effort is very important in life. You don’t need to run marathons for that, you just need the ability to overcome difficulties, the strength to fight for your dreams. In this sense, sports are very valuable to me. You can’t have a healthy mind in a sick body.

We all have a calling, something we like to do, something we’re good at, but, many a time, we think we can’t achieve certain things because we have no confidence in our abilities, or because we think we won’t be able to support ourselves. To reach one’s goals, one has to dare to follow one’s intuitions. It’s not a question of quitting your job, it’s a question of not letting it stop you.

HT: Are you fit to run marathons?

AC: Look, high-performance athletes have trainers and masseuses and, almost everywhere else in the world, they also have nutritionists, biomechanics experts, physical therapists and psychologists. Those of us who do this out of pure love don’t think about those kinds of things, to say nothing of the training, footwear and the food you need.

Without a doubt, to be a marathon runner in Cuba, you really have to love it.