Punta Cana - Dominican Republic - 2007
A couple of races and a walk in the woods...
I started this blog as a way of sharing my experiences of running, cycling and trekking, together with the spiritual dimension of sport and the ideal of Self-Transcendence. Lately it seems to have become something of a diary of my struggles to recover from injury! Fortunately, the recovery seems to be going well right now, and this continued on my trip to the Dominican Republic (Dec 07).
As usual, the course in Punta Cana was put together by Rupantar with help from Tarit and others. The hotel complex where were staying included a golf resort, and the car-free lanes around its perimeter were perfect for an out-and-back race (provided you avoided the pot holes). Lining up at the start, I wasn't sure where to place myself, having only managed 6.30 miling in Cambridge. I bravely went for the second row, and after Rupantar started us off I was blessed with a quick getaway and soon found myself in a loose pack pretty near the front. Ahead I could see Amalendu going off fast together with "Juicy" (Gyula, our best marathon runner, a sub-2.30 man) and Chris from Switzerland (better known for ultradistance than one-milers).
Colm from Ireland and the tall Marichi were just in front of me. There was light, swirling rain on the cool breeze that morning, making conditions near perfect for those of us just off the plane from a northern european winter. The pack around me began to fall away, and I realised I had gone off at a quite ambitious pace. The course twisted around alongside the fairways, with coconut palms both sides, perfectly flat - the only challenge was to avoid the pot holes and puddles (which obviously concealed more potholes of unknown size) and avoid tripping over the odd fallen coconut or palm frond. Sooner than expected I saw runners heading back towards me - surely the turnaround couldn't be this soon? But it was, and I made the turn in around 2.50. Surprised to be running at that pace (though only a couple of years ago that was my two mile race pace) I managed to keep my foot on the gas for the second half, aware that with less than half a mile to go I could double the rate of my breathing - something I can only sustain for a couple of minutes. This helped me keep the pace up and I even managed to edge past Marichi when we were half way back.
Of course, I was at full stretch when the line came into view and only able to sustain rather than accelarate, so it's no surprise that a pack of younger guys caught me on the line with their stronger finish. Marichi came past, and Robert, though I just managed to keep ahead of Martin from Graz to hang on to 7th place. With a finish time of 5.42 I was more than happy - one mile is a good distance for me - and more importantly there was no knee pain during the race and only a little soreness afterwards.
This was the first race I have done on one of our international "Christmas Trips" where Sri Chinmoy was not present either during the race or for the awards. I suppose we had all been wondering things could be joyful like they used to be, without his inspirational and uplifting presence, but there were certainly smiles all round at the end. As usual we had our moment of meditation at the start, great support from the onlookers for every runner from the winner to the last one home, and even one of Sri Chinmoy's "race prayers" read out to inspire us. Sri Chinmoy always taught us to "Run and Smile, Smile and Run", and thats exactly what we did.
Mmm - I really wasn't sure what shape I was in on the morning of this race. I'd had no bad reaction from the last race three days earlier so I felt confident to go out and try for the magical twelve minutes (well, it's a significant benchmark for me, and other runners of my modest standard, of which there were quite a few on this occasion!). It followed the same course and had the same start time as the one miler, but of courses with two full laps instead of one. We had our customary few seconds of silence at the start and I focussed as much on the idea of not overdoing it on my dodgy knee as I did on running a good time.
From the start I went out hard, but aware that I had to hold something back for the last half mile. I found myself tucked in a few yards behind the leading pack, with Colm from Ireland and Nivedak from Italy just ahead. Out front, Juicy, Amalendu and Swiss Chris were widening the gap as we dodged the potholes and hugged the inside track on each bend. It was warmer, less breezy and more muggy than before and by the time I reached the first turnaround I was soaked. I glanced down at the watch - two fifty six - that meant I would have to keep up that pace all the way to break twelve minutes and I doubted I would make it.
On the way back I got a lot of encouragement from seeing the rest of the runners streaming by on the way out, and managed to keep my rhythm and not lose ground on the guys just up ahead. The time on the digital clock at the start line (also the half way point) was more encouraging - about five fifty something. That meant I was on schedule for twelve minutes and would have to go for it! I told myself it might be a while before I was in this position again, with a sub-six first mile behind me, so I kept working hard in that third half mile. Now, in a two mile race, that third quarter is the key. We all start fast, overexcited, and keeping it up for the rest of the first mile is not too hard. Also, the last half may be torture physically but you know in your heart that you can give up all the energy in your body in that last push. Transcendence or disappointment depends, to my mind, on that third half mile. Here endeth the lesson, back to the race....
I had planned to let my breathing quicken just for the last leg, as I can usually only sustain that "anaerobic" intensity for a short time, but I felt myself slowing and had to start breathing fast before the last turn. That meant I was struggling in the last few hundred yards, but when I saw the finish I managed to put on a surge and overtake the two guys in front. It was intense, but I was rewarded with a time of 11.51 and a pleasing sixth place.
Republica Dominicana - Parc Nacional Del Este
I was only in this lovely island country for a week, and I was there for the program of meditation and other spiritual activities put on by the Sri Chinmoy Centre. I had each afternoon free, but I spent most of those swimming in the sea or kayaking. Of course, my natural curiosity eventually gets me out exploring and on this trip that took the form of a hastily arranged trip in a tiny, underpowered hire car to the Parc Nacional Del Este.
We headed out at around eight am to join the visit of the World Harmony Run team to a school on the outskirts of Punta Cana. I'm sure this will get reported with photos on the WHR site, and I will link to it as and when that report is online, so no need to describe it here (except to say that it was great to have such a huge team drawn from so many corners of the globe - when we sang the World Harmony Run song together it felt amazingly powerful). Once we had said our goodbyes to the students, we asked for directions and were pointed right on the highway towards Higuey, the regional town about 40 km inland.
Now, I use the word "highway", but be warned if you drive in this area - the roads may be straight and fairly new but they are littered with massive potholes that require you to slow right down to walking pace. Sometimes these come in packs - big sections of broken road that you have to crawl through or avoid completely by detouring off the road or onto the wrong side of the highway. We were five guys in a tiny hatchback (a Chevy Spark, which I had christened The Hairdryer as soon as I heard the engine) so we were low to the ground to say the least. Still, I soon got the hang of the roads, and the crazy traffic, and the lack of any road rules, and the fact that I was in a left hand drive which was also an automatic!
Higuey was a really bustling town, with cars and motorbikes seeming to come from all directions. Signs were sparse but we doon found the right road heading south for La Romana. We passed busy markets, long rows of meat stalls with really dubious cuts of carcass hanging in the sun pickinng up dust and fumes, roads full of overloaded Nissan trucks (sometimes the cargo was a dozen or more construction workers piled on the flatbed) and every other kind of untogether vehicle you could imagine. The main claim to fame of Higuey is its modern Basilica church - it has a touch of Clifton or Coventry about it, being made of concrete, but what really grabs you is the immense, grey parabolic arch that towers above it. Not many grey, concrete constructions are impressive to my eye but this church certainly was.
South of Higuey we soon found ourselves on a quiet road following a rather lazy and sluggish river that appeared occasionally behind the trees at the roadside. The landscape was mostly open, with some plantations but mostly looking quite uncultivated. There were cattle grazing, horses, guys on donkeys with loads in panniers, bigger loads piled on to mopeds. I was driving all this time so I didn't grab any photos, but the overall impression of this southeast corner of the D R is one of a quiet backwater, with not too much of anything happening (at least not in the middle of the day). Where we crossed a railroad at a level crossing we were surprised to see a couple of armed guards protecting the junction - why does the railroad need that? Perhaps guns are needed to maintain the authority required to keep drivers from stopping on the tracks to talk too someone coming the other way?
Soon we were in San Rafael - not intentionally, but as there are virtually no road signs we couldn't tell which road went through town and which went around it. One lap of this sleepy place was enough to confirm it was as laid back as the rest of the region - a nice change from Higuey and also from the atmosphere of our base in Punta Cana, which was (like Nusa Dua which I visited some years ago) something of a "golden ghetto" of holiday makers sectioned off from the local population by fences and security guards. The road was empty and, perhaps because it doesn't get much traffic, fairly free of potholes, so it wasn't long before we rolled into Boca da Yuma. The road ended in a T junction overlooking the sea, a dirt road one way and a main drag, such as it was, running parallel to the coast in the opposite direction. We parked up and were welcomed into the nearest of a handful of cafes by the rotund owner, who had a big smile, spoke pretty good English and was insistent enough to get us to order pretty quickly but not so insistent as to be worthy of the term "hassle".
He asked two or three times if we wanted to go to the beach - which would involve paying him to ferry us across the Yuma - but he didn't push it when we said we were heading for the National Park. As we were enjoying our coffee and lemonade, who should appear and park their motor next to ours but Abedan and a bunch of other guys from New York. They told us we would be unlikely to get our car down the dirt road (which apparently led to the Park) but that it wasn't far to walk. Although equipped with a four wheel drive car, they were only venturing as far as a nearby pizza restaurant, in the name of "research". Later I found that this research had been very fruitful, as they had confirmed that you could eat a great pizza while enjoying one of the best views on the island. Now thats what I call research!
Meanwhile, goaded on by the challenge implied in Abedan's advice, we tried our luck at defying the odds and getting The Hairdryer, with all five passengers, down the dirt road. At first it was typical of what we'd seen earlier, only more so.....potholes adjacent to potholes with more potholes inside them. Soon that changed to a softer dirt surface as we left the houses behind and headed out into the countryside with the sea on one side and fields of lazy cattle on the other. It was much like a rough farm track you would find back in the UK, rutted in places so that I had to pitch one wheel high up against the hedge to keep the other on a ridge between ruts and avoid bottoming out. It was a clear, hot and dry day so even the dips weren't too soft, so we eventually made it all the way to the end of the road, having nudged our way through the middle of a small herd of docile cattle on the way. On a rainy day, we would definitely not have made it.
The Parc Nacionale was interesting. The infrastructure consisted of a gate that blocked the end of the road, a shack with a smiling attendant (who was supposed to take a fee from us all, but didn't even try) and a cactus which had the signatures of previous visitors carved into the leaves. There was also a sign with a few circles with red lines through them telling us what we could not do - as the sign had faded completely you couldn't tell what the prohibited activities were, only that there were about half a dozen things that were definitely not allowed. Perhaps these included driving down that dirt road? Anyhow, the attendant kept on smiling as we parked and locked the car by his gate and headed off into the woods. He had a bucket of smoulering coconuts to ward off insects, and seemed keen not to venture more than a yard or two from it. We hiked the trail - a stoney track through the forest - for about an hour. After a while it opened out onto limestone pavement overlooking a beautiful, sapphire-blue sea. The rock here looks volcanic, but on closer inspection it seems to be made entirely of shells bound together in a rough full-of-holes rock with lots of sharp and jagged edges. There were some places where we could get down to the water, but this unfriendly rock put us off swimming - this would not have been a good place to pick up a nasty cut. There were Pelicans flying over the shore, and a profusion of butterflies who flew around us as we walked, but the main inhabitants of the forest seemed to be aggressive (or at least hungry) mosquitos. Despite covering ourselved with citronella we all got chewed to some extent, but once out on the open shore we were OK. Although our hike was short, it was peaceful and refreshing at the same time. If I hadn't taken a day to come out and explore I would have felt as if I had passed the Dominican Republic by. We were all here to spend time in meditation, but I feel as if we made some contact with the Soul of the country on this journey. There isn't much happening at the Parc Del Este, but if what you're looking for is a walk in the woods and some awesome views over the sea, here's the place.
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