Tag Archives: End of the World Marathon

Placencia, Belize: A laid-back place for a change of pace

21 Dec
A number of mangrove cayes dot the horizon just south of Placencia, Belize.

A number of mangrove cayes dot the horizon just south of Placencia, Belize.

Want to leave behind the cold and the snow? Want to dip your toes in the warm waters of the Caribbean? Want to visit a tropical locale that’s off the beaten path — but not too far off? Want a place where you can sample unique cuisine and relatively cheap booze?

Placencia, Belize, may be your spot.

After two vacations at all-inclusive resorts in the Playa del Carmen, Mexico, area, my wife and I were looking for something different. We found a nice alternative in Placencia.

Placencia has so many things going for it:

• An ocean-front location. Placencia lies along the Caribbean Sea. We spent some time just stretched out in our beach loungers, watching the waves roll in. The tide only rises a couple of feet in Placencia, so the waves were small. Our beach was relatively narrow — it’s not the wide expanse of white sand you see in some places around the globe — and the sand was rather coarse. But to us, those weren’t big drawbacks.

Snorkeling off Abigail Caye, which is about 8 miles offshore from Placencia.

Snorkeling off Abigail Caye, which is about 8 miles offshore from Placencia.

And we spent some time snorkeling. We swam off a nearby caye (pronounced “key”), and it was like swimming in your tropical fish tank. If snorkeling is high on your list, there are some other excellent spots in the area where you can see rays, turtles, sharks and all sorts of fish. And in general, Belize has some terrific places for snorkeling

• Warm weather. We were there Dec. 6-13. When we left Iowa, the temperature was 20 degrees and it was snowing. In Placencia, the daytime highs were in the 80s, the lows were in the low 70s. It was also pretty dang humid; if your clothes got wet, they stayed wet. But there was a local woman right next door who did laundry. We brought over two bags of clothes, and it cost us $12. Which is another good point …

• Your money goes a long ways. The Belizean dollar is pegged to the American dollar at a rate of 2-1, so it was like buying everything at half-off.

Chilling on the beach by the Seaspray Hotel in Placencia, Belize. An $8 bottle of rum and a $4 bottle of fruit punch can keep you relaxed for days.

Chilling on the beach by the Seaspray Hotel in Placencia, Belize. An $8 bottle of rum and a $4 bottle of fruit punch can keep you relaxed for days.

We went with another couple, and, if we didn’t get too many of the umbrella drinks, a night at our favorite bar cost us $20-$30.

One night, we went out for a delicious fusion dinner at the Mojo Lounge; we went during happy hour, and they had a special on entrees that night, but we had 6 drinks and 3 entrees for about $40 a couple.

• There’s lots to do besides just look at the ocean. We had planned to do a tour every other day, spending the off-days just lounging on the beach. But it was so cheap to take a daily tour and there was so much to do, we took four separate tours.

A crocodile suns itself in the Monkey River, which is about a 45 minute boat trip south of Placencia.

A crocodile suns itself in the Monkey River, which is about a 45 minute boat trip south of Placencia.

One day we went to Monkey River, where we saw howler monkeys, crocodiles, a young boa and birds galore, plus ate an authentic Creole lunch at Alice’s Restaurant. Another day we went to a hidden waterfall and looked at a banana plantation and a teak and mahogany plantation. We toured two nearby Mayan ruins (Nim Li Punit and Lubaantan). And we did the day of snorkeling, which also included a barbecue on the beach with fresh lobster and conch caught by our guide. 

Owner Shane Young prepares conch for a beach-side barbecue. Shane owns Pirates Point Adventure Tours.

Owner Shane Young prepares conch for a beach-side barbecue. Shane owns Pirates Point Adventure Tours.

We’d recommend Pirates Point Adventure Tours for your day-trips. Owner Shane Young took us to Monkey River and the snorkeling trip himself, and he arranged for a colleague to take us on the Mayan ruins tour. And Shane’s partner, Rosario, hearing we were about to amble off to the waterfall by ourselves, rearranged her day so she could take us to the falls in her own vehicle. And after taking the backroads to the falls, we don’t think we would have ever made it there by ourselves.

Shane and Rosario were wonderful hosts, and we can’t say enough good things about them. You can find their office along the famous Placencia sidewalk, just steps down from the Tipsy Tuna.

• Your hometown away from home. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more welcome while visiting another area. Belizeans in general and Placencians in particular seemed genuinely glad to have us visit.

Placencia’s size may lend itself to the friendly atmosphere. There are only 750 or so residents there, and you’ll probably run into the same natives and visitors over and over again during your visit.

Ziggy the 3-legged border collie is the official mascot of the Pickled Parrot -- if you don't count the parrots.

Ziggy the 3-legged border collie is the official mascot of the Pickled Parrot — if you don’t count the parrots.

Nearly everyone we met on the sidewalk said “Good morning.” Waitresses, hotel workers, clerks were all grateful for our business; yes, that’s their job, but it seemed to go beyond that. I even passed the time of day with a high school-aged boy as I waited for my wife to finish shopping one night.

Many businesses in Placencia are owned by expatriated Americans and Canadians. Big John and Betty (Pennsylvania) own Friends Near the Pier restaurant, where you’ll get the best tropical pancakes and lobster omelette you’ll ever eat. Patrick (California) has built The Flying Pig bar and restaurant just north of town, and that’s where I had my best drink of the trip — a Woo Woo, featuring lots of banana and coconut. Erin welcomed us to the Mojo Lounge, and wowed us with some terrific entrees.

Fun at the Pickled Parrot.

Fun at the Pickled Parrot.

But we’d have to say that Eugene, Lynn and Tommy (New Jersey) at the Pickled Parrot blew us away with hospitality. Going to the Parrot was like walking in the bar on “Cheers.”

Lynn does the cooking, son Tommy was bartending and Eugene — what the heck does Eugene do? Oh, yeah, customer relations! And he does it very well.

We made it a point to stop at the Parrot nearly every night for drinks and to watch American football. It was more like stopping by a friend’s house for drinks. On our final night before heading home, we exchanged big hugs with Eugene and wished the family well. We’ll see them all again when we return, and we may even root for the Philadelphia Eagles in their stead.

• There are a lot of good places to eat. And most are very reasonably priced. 

Good food is really important to us. Really. Important.

For such a small town, Placencia offers a great selection. As I mentioned, the Mojo Lounge was very good. We had a great conch chowder and thin-crust pizza at The Purple Space Monkey, which also had draft beer, which is a rarity in Placencia. Omar’s Creole Grub features fresh caught seafood prepared in simple but tasty ways.

During our tours, we’d stop at the local, authentic cafes — because you only get authentic when you are off the beaten path. Authentic Belize food features a lot of beans and rice, stewed chicken or pork, and seafood. It’s tasty, filling and not overly spicy — unless you apply too much of the native vinegar slaw or hot sauce.

We couldn’t get to all the good places that were recommended to us by the locals. But there will be other opportunities, I’m sure.

• English is the official language. OK, I’m a dumb American who is horribly underschooled in the languages of the world. I accept this. But this region became the colony of British Honduras in 1862 and only gained independence in 1981, so there is a strong English influence. Communicating with the vast majority of people was no problem.

• A fun marathon in a Caribbean locale. Obviously, this criteria won’t be a factor for many people, but my wife and I wanted to run a marathon in the winter in the Caribbean.  We took part in the second annual End of the World Marathon on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013. It was a blast and very well executed. For more on the race, see this review that I wrote elsewhere on my blog.

It’s not all perfect…

Like many Caribbean nations, there’s a lot of poverty in Belize. Some of the natives are way off the grid, still living in houses with raw wood siding and thatched roofs. Electricity came to Monkey River in just the past couple years. That’s a challenge, not a fault. I hope that America, with our financial resources, will help. Supporting these areas with our tourism dollars is appreciated by the locals.

You could throw your back out from riding in a vehicle along the backroads. But the isolation is part of the appeal.

There was trash along the roads and along the beaches. Some of it is self-inflicted, I’m sure. In other cases, it’s trash that washes up from the ocean.

The humidity was high; it’s hard to imagine what it would be like in July or August.

Want a glitzy, glittering, sparkling tropical locale? Placencia probably isn’t your place.

But if you want a laid-back location with good food and great people, find your way to Placencia.

A couple recommendations…

• Barb’s Belize for advice and travel arrangements. We had never travelled to an out-of-the-way location outside of the United States — and we had never been to Belize — so we appreciated the travel advice and arrangements provided by Barb’s Belize.

Owner Barb Kasak made excellent recommendations on how to get there, where to stay and what to do once we got there. She was very knowledgeable about the area, and she was very accessible. In the end, we had her book all of our arrangements, and we’re glad we did.

Bad weather caused a delay in the initial leg of our trip — from St. Louis to Houston. This caused us to miss our booked flight from Houston to Belize City, and we were afraid it was going to cause us to miss our flight from Belize City to Placencia. A quick email to Barb and a phone call, and she had booked back-up flights, checked on alternatives for an overnight stay in Belize City and talked us through the problems.

In the end, she got us back on the last flight of the day to Placencia, and we were drinking Belikin beers on the beach by 6 p.m.

Worth every penny.

Seaspray Hotel room No. 7 looks right onto the beach, and all the Seaview rooms feature hammocks.

Seaspray Hotel room No. 7 looks right onto the beach, and all the Seaview rooms feature hammocks.

• Seaspray Hotel in Placencia. One of our major concerns was finding a good place to stay. We weren’t looking for fancy, but we wanted a safe, clean place in a good location. The Seaspray Hotel was perfect. We stayed in one of the Seaview rooms and our friends stayed in one of the others. Their room featured a queen bed; ours featured two doubles (I would have preferred a queen instead of the two doubles, but it is what it is) and air conditioning. The room was clean, the service good.

I’d recommend the Seaview rooms, which I believe are nos. 7-8 and 20-21. The end room, No. 13, was in a perfect location, as was the separate cabana. Our rooms were very reasonably priced. The other rooms were pretty small, but the prices were very, very reasonable.

• Other useful links.  Here is a good site that outlines many of the amenities and things to do, and here is an interesting Youtube video that shows the Placencia main road and shows some of the sights at Monkey River.

Getting there…

I’m fairly geographically literate, but before our trip I couldn’t have told you whether Belize is a Caribbean island (it’s not) or located it on a map (here’s a map of Belize to help you).

Tropical Air runs a 14-passenger Cessna on the milk run between Belize City and Placencia.

Tropical Air runs a 14-passenger Cessna on the milk run between Belize City and Placencia.

Belize is actually a small country in Central America. It is located just south of the Yucatan Peninsula, where you will find the more widely known Mexican towns of Cancun and Playa del Carmen.

Placencia village is located in southern Belize, literally at the end of a road — the Placencia Road to be exact.

The Placencia Peninsula is about 16 miles long and, in some spots, just a few yards wide. The Caribbean Sea is to the east of the peninsula, the Placencia Lagoon is the west.

To reach there from the U.S., you’ll fly into Belize City. We flew from Houston, and it was about a 2 1/2 hour flight.

From Belize City, you can reach Placencia by highway or by a domestic airline — Maya Island Air or Tropic Air, the carrier we used.

Most of the main highways in Belize are now paved (they weren’t until just the past few years), so the drive would not be as difficult as it once was. But still …

While flying in-country, you’ll likely travel on a small Cessna. Our flight from Belize City to Placencia was about 45 minutes and offered a great view of the territory between the two towns and a very interesting view of the Placencia Peninsula.

End of the World Marathon a perfect ending to the race year

20 Dec
A couple boys fish off the beach at Placencia, Belize, during the End of the World Marathon on Dec. 8, 2013. I paused long enough at mile 24 or so to take this photo.

A couple boys fish off the beach at Placencia, Belize, during the End of the World Marathon on Dec. 8, 2013. I paused long enough at mile 24 or so to take this photo.

Perhaps “Powered by Pina Coladas” is not the best approach for a marathon.

Or then again, maybe it is. It depends on the marathon. And your goals.

In my case, the End of the World Marathon in Placencia, Belize, was a cap to my racing year. I’d completed an ultramarathon in the spring. I’d made my attempt at what for me was a fast marathon in the fall.

The run in Belize on Dec. 8, 2013, was a chance to combine a warm weather adventure with one of my favorite pastimes. It didn’t disappoint on either account.

I’ll write up my thoughts about Placencia in general in a future post. In this post, I want to share a little about the End of the World Marathon.

This spring, I marked my 50th birthday with a special challenge, running my first ultramarathon. As my wife, Barb, approached the same milestone, she decided she’d like to run another marathon (because she’s only half as crazy as me). And she wanted to combine that physical challenge with an exotic locale. Enter Placencia, Belize.

Barb proudly displays her trophy for winning her age group in the End of the World Marathon. Way to go, Barb!

Barb proudly displays her trophy for winning her age group in the End of the World Marathon. Way to go, Barb!

Barb’s approach to the EOW marathon was different than mine. It was her big challenge. She wanted to not just meet the challenge but beat the challenge. And, boy, did she, winning her age division for the women’s marathon.

Me, not so much. I bumbled and stumbled my way to my slowest marathon yet.

But the fault for the sub-par race time rested with me, not with the race itself.

This was just the second running of the End of the World Marathon, but it was well organized and well supported. Organizer Chip Lovett splits his time between the States and Belize, but he answered a number of pre-race questions by email and offered us lots of great advice on the area. At the packet pickup the day before the race, Chip and his volunteers were friendly and cordial. And at the post-race celebration, Chip and several sponsors handed out beers and trophies, all to a reggae beat supplied by the entertaining local DJ.

The race traces nearly the entire length of the Placencia Peninsula, which is about 16 miles long and located in far southern Belize. At some points, the peninsula is just yards wide, with the Caribbean Sea to the east and the Placencia Lagoon to the west.

 

The medal's colors fit perfectly with the Caribbean vibe.

The medal’s colors fit perfectly with the Caribbean vibe.

The marathon started at the south end of the peninsula at Placencia village. It ran an out-and-back course along the peninsula to reach the necessary 26.2 miles. For the half marathon, participants were picked up by bus all the way along the route and taken to the north end. From there, they ran back to Placencia. It was fun to meet the half-marathoners as we marathoners made our way to the north.

The race is run on the blacktop road that is the main artery for the peninsula. Traffic control on the road is accomplished by speed humps, which also serve as the high elevation points on the peninsula. If you equate “flat” with “fast,” this is the race for you.

And if you’re sick of running in the cold and the snow, Belize in December is the place to be.

The race started at 5:30 a.m. — a little more than a half hour before sunrise — and it was 70 degrees or so already. By the time I finished, the temperature had risen to 85 degrees. The temperature topped out at 90 degrees on race day. Fortunately, the morning was overcast and there were passing showers; if the sun comes out, even the morning can get quite warm.

Marathoners Mark and Barb Smidt, from left, take a photo with their own personal support crew, Kristi and Ken Stein, before the start of the race. Thanks, Ken and Kristi, for all your help along the way!

Marathoners Mark and Barb Smidt, from left, take a photo with their own personal support crew, Kristi and Ken Stein, before the start of the race. Thanks, Ken and Kristi, for all your help along the way!

As an Iowan, I’m used to the humidity that helps us grow bumper crops of corn. But I’m not used to high humidity and high temps in the winter. During our visit to Placencia, the humidity ranged from 70-95 percent — when it wasn’t outright raining.

This year, there were 35 finishers in the marathon and 134 finishers in the half-marathon. That’s roughly double the numbers from the inaugural race. After running a few mega races over the years, it was fun to do a small run.

Despite the small number of participants, the locals came out in large numbers — relatively speaking — to support the runners. They enthusiastically cheered at several aid stations. One woman cheered on every passing runner from the balcony of her Placencia villa.

There were a number of aid stations at timely locations. Water was actually passed out in small plastic bags — about 8-10 ounces in size. Gatorade and even coconut water was handed out in some places. Bananas and orange slices were plentiful, and Gu was distributed in a few spots.

Perhaps one of the world's worst and least flattering selfies, but what do you expect when you are taking a picture of yourself while drinking a Bloody Mary at mile 16 of a marathon?

Perhaps one of the world’s worst and least flattering selfies, but what do you expect when you are taking a picture of yourself while drinking a Bloody Mary at mile 16 of a marathon?

 

The aid station volunteers at the Maya Beach Hotel and Bistro got the prize for most enthusiastic. They brought to life a circus theme, dressing as penguins, lions, the ring master and the like. And they CHEERED. Coming at mile 16 or so, their enthusiasm was really welcome.

And their unique hydration offering got the best of me.

“How about a Bloody Mary?” one costumed volunteer asked.

It took a couple steps for me to realize the offer, but when it sunk in, I did a double-take. “Why not?” I said. “I’m not going to set a PR anyway, and I’m running in Belize! Sure, I’ll take one.”

“Hey, that’s cool,” the volunteer said. “You’re the first runner to take one.”

I’m sure it didn’t help my finishing time. But it certainly added to the experience.

Smarter training and racing result in satisfying marathon

12 Nov
I'm coming down the homestretch of the famous blue oval at Drake Stadium. Runners in the Des Moines Marathon can even watch themselves on the big screen at the track.

I’m coming down the homestretch of the famous blue oval at Drake Stadium. Runners in the Des Moines Marathon can even watch themselves on the big screen at the track.

Marathon No. 11 is in the books.

And I walked — or hobbled– away from it with two overriding lessons:

  1. Running a smart race can pay big dividends, and
  2. Don’t count your PRs until they are hatched achieved.

The Des Moines Marathon on Sunday, Oct. 20, provided some much-needed redemption from last year’s fiasco and also teased me about what might be possible.

It was a beautiful day for a race: 42 degrees at the start and blue skies. I had a solid year’s worth of racing and training under my belt. Everything was set up for a good run — if I just didn’t screw it up.

 

I had a grimace on my face as I crossed the finish line of the Des Moines Marathon in October 2013. I could have run the last two or three miles stronger, but I was happy that I was able to push as hard as I did.

I had a grimace on my face as I crossed the finish line of the Des Moines Marathon in October 2013. I could have run the last two or three miles stronger, but I was happy that I was able to push as hard as I did.

This year has been a good one for racing and training. I’ve hit my mileage goals, completed a 50-miler and remained relatively injury-free. I’ve done this by being smart with my approach. I’ve built a good base of training miles, and when the usual nagging injuries have flared, I’ve backed off for several days or a week or two.

This year, I tried to set a very realistic goal for Des Moines: finish better than last year.

I made a couple of crucial errors last year. First, I ran too many long runs too close to the race itself, not allowing adequate time for a taper. And during the race itself, I plowed through the early rolling hills at a too-aggressive pace. I paid for those two mistakes by running out of gas in the last 8 miles.

This year, I was determined not to repeat those mistakes.

In this 16-week training cycle, I did 5 runs of 16 to 22 miles, but none were closer than 4 weeks to the marathon date — although I did do one slower, 2-hour trail run the week before the race.

And as the gun sounded for the marathon, I was determined to run the first miles at slower-than-goal pace. The Des Moines Marathon features several rolling hills between miles 3.5 to 8, flattening out in the final 8 miles.

Since my primary goal was simply not to tank this year, I was very comfortable running at a controlled pace. I enjoyed the marathon sights, talked with a runner who ran the Eugene, Oregon, marathon earlier this year, and reveled in the lap around the historic blue oval at Drake Stadium.

As I reached miles 16, 17, 18, I realized I wasn’t going to blow up. So I started thinking about my secondary goals: setting a PR or setting a course PR.

I set my marathon PR in New Orleans — a nearly pancake flat course. For me, setting a PR in Des Moines would be a big accomplishment.

But my fastest splits were coming late in the race. I ran my fastest split at mile 12, but my next fastest splits came at miles 22, 20 and 16. I was still trying to hold back, but at mile 18-20, I thought I could maintain the pace for another 6-8 miles. I almost jumped for joy. I’m going to do it, I thought.

But I got a bit ahead of myself. I let myself go about 2 miles too soon. By mile 23, I realized my error.

My next goal was to set a course PR. This was my third running of the Des Moines Marathon — in addition to the two half marathons I’ve run there. In my opinion, the hills in the early miles don’t make it a great course to shoot for a personal PR.

But I could still set a course PR.

After the race, I pause to get congratulations from daughter Laura. Laura and my wife, Barb, shadowed me throughout the race, supplying me with my endurance drink, a home-made mix of maltodextrin.

After the race, I pause to get congratulations from daughter Laura. Laura and my wife, Barb, shadowed me throughout the race, supplying me with my endurance drink, a home-made mix of maltodextrin.

Aerobically, I was fine. It was my muscles that were rebelling. I took a few walk breaks in the last 3 miles, but I knew the average pace I needed to maintain for a course PR. If I could keep the average pace on my watch below the target, I’d be satisfied.

In the last mile, my IT band, left hamstring and quads were screaming. Several official race photos show the grimace on my face.

But I hated to lose my final goal. And with the finish line in sight, I made one final push — and salvaged my last goal. I finished 6 seconds faster than my fastest Des Moines Marathon. I hadn’t exactly shattered my course best, but, hey, a PR is a PR.

For several reasons, I was pleased with my efforts:

  • I put together a better training schedule — and then stuck to it.
  • I maintained my training through a sultry summer that had me questioning my efforts.
  • I ran a smarter race — and didn’t get caught up in the early euphoria.
  • And I had to gut out the last couple of miles in order to meet one of my key goals for the race.

Checking off four big boxes brings a smile of satisfaction to my face.

Now, one more race to go in 2013: the End of the World Marathon in Placencia, Belize. But this race is more about soaking up the atmosphere and having a good time than it is about setting PRs.

In the end, I’ll judge Placencia by the number of boat drinks consumed — on the course or off, I don’t really care.

1,000 miles run in 2013

16 Sep

Monthly mileage 2013Sunday’s long run pushed me over the 1,000-mile mark for 2013, which means this has been a good year for a couple of reasons.

First, it means I’ve been able log miles on a consistent basis, something I wondered about four years ago when a strange ache at the ischial tuberosity curtailed my efforts for nearly two years.

I still suffer the aches and pains of age and training, but I have learned to listen to my body. I can hear the whispers of the normal pain from training. But when the aches begin to scream, I am now smart enough to take some time off.

Several times this year, I have cut mileage when the aches increased their protests. But there’s only been one week where I recorded zero miles (two weeks after the ultra), and there have been only a handful of weeks when I have run fewer than 10 miles.

Second, I was able to tackle a new challenge — an ultramarathon — and that new challenge added a whole new level of fun to my training and racing efforts. I ran my ultra in early April, which is why my highest mileage months were in January and March. (A couple of trips in February and some aches led to fewer miles that month.)

My average run exceeded more than 10 miles in January and March. In the past year or two, I have pretty much confined my runs to Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday-Sunday. The roughly every-other-day schedule gives my body more time to rest, but it also forces some sort of cap on weekly mileage.

The ultra, the Potawatomi Trail 50, presented a major challenge. I’ve now completed 9 marathons, and I know I can tackle that distance. But I wasn’t sure about covering 50 miles on a trail in one session. That unknown distance increased my focus. The trails presented a whole new set of challenges themselves. And I enjoyed the physical effort and the mental challenge that the trail ultra posed.

I still have two marathons planned for the remainder of 2013.

In late October, I’ll run the Des Moines Marathon, which will be the fifth time for that race (third time for the marathon, twice in the half marathon). Last year, I stumbled to an awful finish in Des Moines. After a strong start this year, I had hoped to set a new PR there and gain a bit of redemption. But some unplanned rest at times throughout the summer means my training isn’t where it should be. So this year, I’ll keep telling myself “Run a smart race,” and my goal will be to beat last year’s disaster.

In December, I’ll run the End of the World Marathon in Placencia, Belize. It will be my first international marathon and my first trip to Belize. The goal there: Have fun and finish. A race in a tropical locale, accompanied by my wife and good friends — I can’t see any way I won’t reach my goals for this race.

And finally, my relative good health this year means I should meet my annual mileage goal and set me up for a new challenge in 2014.

Coming into 2013, my mileage goal was to exceed what I ran in 2012. In 2012, I was finally able to run a couple marathons — after a two-year hiatus — and I wanted to stay healthy enough to build on that in 2013. So far, so good.

And that has me thinking about 2014.

The Illinois ultramarathon was a ton of fun, but I’d like to take that a step further in 2014. I love Wyoming, and we’ve spent some time in the Bighorn Mountains in the north-central part of the state. And that makes the Bighorn Mountain 50 mile run attractive. Registration doesn’t open until January, so I’ve got plenty of time to plan and prepare.

I’m sure there will be additional challenges pop up between now and the end of the year, but with three-fourths of 2013 behind me, it’s been a good year.

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