by John Robson
The signpost in the center of town was simple enough: Monte Alban -10. That's 10, as in 10 kilometers, a perfect running distance, I thought. With no further ado, the decision was made and I was moving toward the ancient Zapotec ruins which loom high above the regional capitol of Oaxaca. No map. No water. No concept of what I was about to undertake. And certainly no idea that I was embarking on an adventure that more than a decade later still ranks as one of the most profoundly inspiring runs I've ever done.
That run to Monte Alban symbolizes my approach to running in Mexico. I don't go to Mexico to run; I run because I'm in Mexico and running is something I do as a part of normal life, at home or on the road. In Mexico, running is a chance to revel in heat and humidity, to get covered in the fine orange dust of rocky roads and to experience on a visceral level a myriad of cultures I'll never truly comprehend.
So in Mexico, I don't bother with a heart rate monitor, the watch stays a watch and doesn't go to "chrono" mode and all ambition goes on the back burner. Running becomes, as it should, an educational and experiential passage and not mere training.
Please, don't mistake this for cosmic consciousness spiritual mumbo-jumbo. I don't claim to channel Carlos Casteneda or any of his peyote-inspired brujos. It's just that nearly 20 years of frequent visits has taught me that the greatest benefit of running in Mexico is just to revel in the moment, to enjoy running in its purest, simplest form. Do that, and the odds are that you'll appreciate Mexico more and you'll return home refreshed and ready to submit once again to the pressures of intervals and racing.
Adventure Runners Rejoice
When I think back over my runs in Mexico, the one word that stands out is adventure. The country is loaded with terrain that calls out to trail runners and adventure racers. When the muddy, rutted roads and stifling heat strongly suggest that rest is in order, squadrons of mosquitoes just daring you to stop often countermand that suggestion. When the sand on the beach just couldn't get any deeper, a wave washes through, and it does. When the mountain you're climbing just has to end, well, you know the drill - you round a corner and the grade increases, right up to the sky.
If your idea of fun is a flat, fast 5K in 60 degree temperatures, Mexico may not be your destination of choice. But if you're ready to dig a little deeper and get a little tougher - while having a ton of fun - come along to some of the places where I've had the pleasure of running.
Running Into History
The trek to Monte Alban, though it's more than a decade in the rear-view mirror, still symbolizes for me what travel running is all about. We had bounced in over the mountains from Puerto Escondido the previous evening and, with my wife still firmly welded to the sheets, I decided a first-light trot was in order. Though I had vague notions of making my way to the ruins of Monte Alban, I had no clue of the route or the distance.
Spying the aforementioned signpost was the catalyst; I simply followed the road in front of me and kept moving. Nearing the outskirts of town, I flanked the vast grounds of Oaxaca's famed Indian market, just then showing the first signs of life as processions of diminutive villagers claimed prime stalls and arranged their bounty of local produce, textiles, necessities of daily life for the locals and handicrafts for the tourists. My visit to the market would have to wait for later in the day. For now, I attempted to follow the road most likely to lead to an ancient civilization. After something that felt like less than five kilometers, the road turned up-sharply up.
Okay, I thought, decision time. Turn around now and I've still put in a respectable run of probably five miles. A hot breakfast would be ample reward for my early labor. Or I could head up this looming mountain and gamble that a) I could make it and b) it did in fact lead to Monte Alban.
Not much of a decision at all. I didn't even slow down (much) as the road went up and up. Oh, there were points when it began to seem ludicrous, when the next pitch was even steeper and longer than the last, but the more I ran, the more I wanted to run. The payoff was far better than expected.
At the entrance gate, a sign informed that opening time for the site was still an hour off, but that in no way impeded my progress. Slowing to a half-walk, half-jog, I made my way up the trail until I was confronted with the astonishing plateau that the Zapotecs had leveled for this shrine nearly 700 hundred years before the birth of Christ.
To my right rose the pyramid inelegantly called the North Platform; at the far end of the Great Plaza was the larger, more magnificent South Platform. In a scene far too sappy for a Rocky movie, I found myself running once again, loping across the Great Plaza and floating straight up the South Platform. Incredible. More than 1,000 feet below, three valleys converged beneath my feet in a misty green 270-degree panorama bathed in a soft and comforting light by the rising sun.
Turning around, the remaining 90-degree sliver hosted this most mysterious and spectacular ruin - the Great Plaza, the Ball Court, the very center of an ancient city that had once been home to 25,000 but for the moment was my private dominion. I can't honestly tell you that I experienced a life-changing epiphany, but I WAS moved and knew instinctively that my life as a runner would contain few peaks to rival this moment.
I would be less than honest if I didn't admit that virtually all of my visits to Mexico have been inspired by surfing, not running. I've never made the pilgrimage to the Sierra Madres to run with the Tarahumara Indians, but I have been the beneficiary of a relatively new movement by a handful of Mexican or American entrepreneurs to cater to the tastes of the terminally hyperactive.
When I visited Costa Azul Adventure Resort some six years ago, it was just pioneering an effort to combine mountain biking, kayaking, snorkeling, surfing and a few other delights into one laid-back location. In many ways, it was among my worst sojourns ever, a victim of suffocating heat and an utter lack of waves. The Costa Azul brochures claim that its location 30 miles north of Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific Coast affords cooler temperatures than surrounding areas, so we must have caught their heat wave of the century.
With no waves and no air conditioning, the two sanctuaries became the swim-up bar at the pool and the jungle trails surrounding the resort. On the theory that if you're going to be hot, you might as well be exercising, I took off into the steep, steamy lowland hills and ran till my sweat turned into rivers. It was hot, it was humid, but it was a lot of fun winding through the verdant jungle, dodging mosquitoes and seeing just how far I could go before I just had to turn around.
More recent reports indicate that Costa Azul has continued its development (and added air conditioning to some units), becoming a first-rate spot to lose yourself in a whirlwind of daily activity. There's a variety of housing options ranging from casitas, condos and suites all the way up to a three-bedroom house with a private pool. You can spy humpback and gray whales, fish for wahoo, tuna and marlin and go for horseback rides on the beach. In short, it's got everything for hard-core runners AND their families.
Playa Kandahar Surf Club is another somewhat remote outpost that invites the athletically inclined. Located a 45 minute drive north of the Ixtapa/Zihuatenejo International Airport in the state of Guerrero, Playa Kandahar was built by a pair of California surfers and features amenities appreciated by surfers and runners alike. Knowing that surfers like to hit the water at first light, the resident manager rises well before the sun to spread out a complimentary breakfast of freshly cut fruit, energy packed pastries, juices and hot coffee and tea. Be advised that first light is also the best time for a run, as summertime temperatures quickly hit 90 degrees, with winter not far behind at 85.
The bungalows at Playa Kandahar, eight in all, are large and airy, with cross-ventilation and fans keeping it cool. There are two roads in, both dicey at best, particularly in the summer rainy season. What is somewhat problematic for cars makes for great running, though. The rocky, rutted direct road from Mexico's Pacific Coast Highway makes one long extended climb from the main road over a small coastal mountain before dropping down to the beach. The indirect route is paved to the coast at Troncones and then devolves into a long, picturesque and often flooded dirt road along the beach to Playa Kandahar.
The direct route illustrates my principle guidelines for running in Mexico: 1) measure your routes by time, not distance; 2) do out-and-backs, not loops and 3) do something less than half your intended time on the way out, then decide if you want to continue past the starting point to hit your target time.
For example, my first run at Playa Kandahar came late in the afternoon after a full morning of surf, a cerveza-aided lunch and a welcome siesta. Figuring on a 40-minute run, I ran six or seven minutes along the flats before turning up the mountain road. At 18 minutes, I paused to take in the Pacific vista before heading back down toward the coast. With an assist from gravity, the return trip took only 16 minutes, for a total of 34, at which point I was so hot and dehydrated that I had zero interest in grinding out another six minutes just to hit my goal. Running in Mexico should be more about a satisfying experience than about being a slave to training regimens.
The beach road from Kandahar to Troncones is an excellent venue for what I call touristic running, sort of like intervals without the intense effort. You run a little, walk a little, sightsee a little. After a good stretch, a cantina or new hotel catches your eye or the wafting smell of an undiscovered restaurant invites closer scrutiny. Check out a surf break or the fishermen hauling in their catch, spend a moment appreciating a local basketball game or soccer match. The workout becomes secondary to exploration, but it's a workout nonetheless.
Runs at Playa Kandahar end with a ritual visit to what must be the world's greatest outdoor shower. Located poolside, the shower features a massive head with high volume water flow. The pipe is located just below the surface of the sand, which means you get about a minute of extremely warm water with the intensity of a tropical downpour. Kick off your shoes, immerse yourself in the shower and then fall into the warm pool. Aahhh, nirvana!
The Mexican Runners' Diet - Fresh, Fresh, Fresh
Our first meal at Playa Kandahar came at the end of a typical travel day, the flight from Miami to Mexico City, the transfer to Ixtapa/Zihuatenejo, the struggle to pick up the tiny rental car and stuff it with family, surfboards, bicycle and luggage and the somewhat treacherous drive to the resort. At our late afternoon arrival, the kitchen looked understandably deserted, but with a little effort we found someone and managed to place an order. After a cold cerveza (or two), we were presented with plates covered with freshly-made tortillas heaped with fresh fish and fresh salsa. So delicious, the mind still reels - and so good for you, you could eat all day, every day and be better off for it.
Very happily, that was quite typical of the fare in Mexico. One day at a nearby surf break called Saladita, we gorged on lobster at an open-air cucina, two or three tails each, rice, beans and salad, about $10 per person. The next day, once again surfing Saladita, I had promised my wife I would return to Playa Kandahar to join her for lunch. But you know how it is, spend three hours in the surf and you've just got to put a little something in the tank, so I ordered some beans just to tide me over. Turned out to be probably the best meal I had the whole time I was in Mexico. They brought out a bowl of what appeared to be stewed red beans and a pile of fresh tortillas. Ladle a scoop of beans onto a tortilla, roll it up and dig in. So delicious that even today I can't imagine how something so simple and unadorned could be so flavorful. Needless to say, after four or five of those bad boys, I wasn't the most enthusiastic lunch companion, though I generously offered to drink a few cheerful cervezas while my wife dined.
Escondido Has It All
From a runner's standpoint, the zenith of Mexican cuisine is found at the fishing village/surf mecca of Puerto Escondido. 200 miles south of Acapulco, at a safe remove from Mexican government-sponsored mega resorts like Huatulco, Ixtapa, Acapulco or Puerto Vallarta, Puerto Escondido has enjoyed relatively slow growth fueled by its global reputation as a surfing hot spot and the relatively low prices - for everything - that attract Euro travelers on the economy plan.
Our Puerto Escondido headquarters are the lovely Hotel Santa Fe, which grew from New Mexico-based antiques dealer Robin Cleaver's original plan to open a vegetarian restaurant so he would have a place to eat on his frequent buying forays into the region. Once you have a place to eat, you need a place to sleep, so over the years the Santa Fe has grown into a romantic hotel, still centered on a beautiful open-air vegetarian and seafood restaurant with a prime view of the surfing break at the Mexican Pipeline.
In addition to the veggie food of the Santa Fe, Puerto Escondido offers super breakfasts and fresh-baked delights at the combined El Cafecito Cafe and Carmen's Bakery; the all-important super thin freshly rolled lasagna noodles at Mario's Pizzaland; and a myriad of excellent seafood restaurants.
There is a variety of running options in Puerto Escondido as well. If pavement is your thing, you can run along Mex 200 (aka The Pacific National Highway) and enjoy a mix of long flats and rolling hills. If you like beach running (and who doesn't?), it's about three miles down Zicatela Beach to the point; at either end of the run you'll be mesmerized by surfers going head-to-head with world class waves.
To throw in trail activity, you can work your way up the hill toward the lighthouse, then search out the trails to the hidden beach at Puerto Angelito. Later, bring your family back to Angelito for a pleasant afternoon of snorkeling, fresh seafood and the cold beverages of your choice.
One other major benefit of Puerto Escondido comes on the massage table. With the Pacific surf taking a daily toll on visiting surfers, a nice little cottage industry of massage therapists has taken root. When I wound up so battered that mere walking was in question, I followed the highest recommendations to the Bungalows Acuario and the healing hands of an ex-pat American. Two minutes into the treatment I asked him how much yoga he did-the man fairly vibrated with subdued energy. At a very reasonable $25 per session, he had me back in the water for a final go-out before it was time to head back to the states. A true miracle worker.
Mexico City - Not!
Fully cognizant of the fact that some of the greatest running performances in Olympic history took place in Mexico City, I've still never quite been able to bring myself to run there. Why? Take a look when you fly into the place. When you mix the mile-high plus altitude with some of the planet's nastiest air pollution, you'll realize you're doing your body a favor by sticking to sightseeing.
That said, I also can't resist bounding up the Pyramid of the Sun on day trips to the pre-Aztec, pre-Toltec ruins of Teotihuacan. Just 32 miles from Mexico City, this is a must-see, if not a must-run, and will challenge you with quad-busting effort before the reward of a magnificent view.
This pretty much sums up running in Mexico. You wind up putting in a lot of effort, but the rewards - for the body and mind - last a lifetime.
Costa Azul Adventure Resort
Hotel Santa Fe