Aire Libre

There is a new record to chase on the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. A 50km loop from Laguna Tortuguero in Cabo Rojo to Hacienda La Esperanza in Manatí, Puerto Rico. Turn by turn directions and route file is located at Fastest Known Time. The following trip report tells the story of the first “known time” on the course.

On the surface this route was developed to avoid the beaten path, encourage one to buy local, and avoid the overcrowded tourist areas. At its core is a dedication to friendship. Less than 24 hours before I stepped foot on these trails I unexpectedly lost a dear friend. On this day I needed the rhythmic motion of running to ease my sorrow. Death stops for no one. I was stunned.

It was 81°F on the humid morning of Wednesday, April 19th. I parked across from the Pista Atlética Tortuguero in Vega Baja, slathered my body with sunblock, and put on my running vest. At 8:55AM, quite late for my time and quite early for island time, I began to run at a conservative pace on the dirt trails. Within a mile my sneakers began sinking into the loose sugar sand. I followed the trails surrounding the freshwater lagoon which were chosen based on heat maps and a cycling route. The trails transitioned into a mixed terrain of slight hills covered in dirt and limestone. I paused briefly by the Manantial de Guaraney in awe of the crystal clear and cool subterranean water surrounded by boulderous limestones.

The landscape changed as I traced the lagoon out onto the industrial then rural sections of Manatí. It felt good to run across a mixture of humble homes with wrought iron bars, tienditas where you can get food and a cold beer, street satos barking for a snack, and free-range chickens crossing the sidewalks into neighboring yards. The intensity of the sun revealed its full force. I briefly stopped into a tiendita and refueled. As I returned to running I noticed the back of my thighs and calf’s burning from the sun rays. “Hey Annie, remember right after high school when we would spend days tanning on the beach and nights out in NYC clubs?” The biting sunburn felt good. It was just enough to snap me out of emotional numbness.

On the road to Hacienda La Esperanza the wind picked up and kept blowing wisps of my hair across my face. During this stretch it felt like there was a blow-dryer set to low spurts of hot air just long enough to dry the sweat as it tried escaping my pores. My heart rate started spiking after a few minutes. My pace slowed just enough to calm the beating into manageable comfort. I meditated and reflected on the vast openness of the area. “Do you see this Annie?” I knew she would never have the opportunities to feel this freedom again.

Once I reached a “T” in the road I entered the trails of the nature reserve. I took the route counterclockwise around the sugar plantation. Large iguanas constantly darted across the trails into the trees. They ranged from two to three feet long, so I kept a cautious distance from the edges of the trail. The abrasive wind changed to a milder version as it blew across the shoreline to my right. I took off my sunglasses and gazed at the bright, tan colored sand and shades of deep blue ocean water. It was around this point that I realized I fell behind on my nutrition. In fact, I hadn’t had any fuel so I attempted to stuff as many calories as my stomach would allow since my energy was stripped raw.

My focus shifted to leaving the reserve and finding the nearest food stand. The trails gently weaved around the waterways of the Tierras Nuevas Poniente, a rural barrio of Manatí. In town, I purchased two Coke’s, sat down, and noticed that my shoulders had joined the other parts of my body in getting sunburned. I scrolled through the settings of my watch and noticed that the temperature index was now 95.6°F. In my calorie depleted state, it didn’t occur to me that I should re-apply sunscreen. My skin felt torched. I noticed my fingers swelling. Curse words rattled in my brain. My electrolytes were off. I shrugged my shoulders and thought, “Well Annie, it is what it is.” At least I felt something. Anything was better than emptiness. I got up and started the return to my car via the coastal route.

Coasting down Avenida Sol was unforgettable. I briefly attempted to avoid the asphalt in favor of the beaches to my left but found that my pace came to a standstill as each step sunk a foot deep into the soft sand. The views from the road would have to suffice. By this point my legs were twenty plus miles into the run and I was starting to imagine what a complete loop would feel like. I smiled. “Annie, we’ve got this. I hope you’re happy wherever you are at.”

My body shook me alert to the area of my right hamstring as it began to cramp. I slowed my pace to ease the cramp. Every chance I attempted to pick up the pace, my hamstring tightened. I began to hike as fast as possible to avoid triggering my leg. An elderly man saw me from across the street and offered me a Miller Light. I smiled, tried to do trail math and wondered how much salt a can of beer might have in it. There was a slight delirium to my thoughts. I stopped for a moment to tell him where I was going. In Spanish he gently yelled, “You’re going to the athletic track? That’s not bad! You’ll be fine! At this rate you’re going to live to 105, keep going!” I laughed and pushed through the cramps. “You see Annie? It’s going to be fine. We really are just about there.

I turned right off Avenida Sol to return to the lagoon trails. There was a constant humming of car engines and clacking of horse hooves along this stretch as I closed in on the final few miles. I suddenly felt synchronicity and sensed a calm throughout my muscles. The rough texture of my heavy vest no longer felt like it was digging into my shoulders. I arrived at the picturesque pier on the lagoon. It was everything I imagined. The entire area was serene. The bright sun and steam no longer bothered me. I snapped the only picture of myself at this point. This journey was so cathartic. “Damn Annie, why couldn’t I have the chance to tell you goodbye? Why couldn’t we have one more laugh?

I continued the final two plus miles to return to my starting point on the trail. I completed the route at 6:23 pm. The final steps were bittersweet.

Farewell, friend.

RIP Annie 8.5.76 – 4.18.23.

2 responses to “Aire Libre”

  1. It is almost serendipitous that you had this long run journey scheduled when your friend passed. Having this amount of time just to spend with her and yourself and all you wished you could have said, could have done, could have shared…and to honor her for all you actually did share. It had to be cathartic. Not that it makes it any easier. It is never easy losing a friend, especially when it’s way too soon. But, we don’t often get that kind of time to spend with our thoughts about them. Sending my deepest condolences.


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