This was originally going to be a piece about my marathon training camp on Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua but as I read it back it's morphed into a homage to community, to having belief in your work when things aren't going so well and to finding a sense of family absolutely anywhere. It's difficult to reflect all of the magic of my time here in short format so I hope I can give you a sense of the warmth I encountered (part literal, part metaphorical) on the island and do it justice.
Part 1: Marathon Training, Volcanoes, 3am Animal Sound Clash & 80's Power Ballads
Part of the plan as I worked my way up toward Boston was to identify two or three locations where I could unpack my stuff, relax in one place for a while, focus on my training and see if I could make more progress on the social impact side of the project with a little more time to make some local connections. I wanted somewhere where I could live the simple life away from all the usual noise & distractions. From my research and conversations with friends who had visited Nicaragua, the island of Ometepe seemed like a perfect fit.
Ometepe sits on the massive Lake Nicaragua (or Lago Cocibolca), an hour long choppy ride on a small ferry from San Jorge on the mainland. Because of the limited transportation options both to and on the island, the availability of luxury accommodation and goods is fairly limited. This means that it predominately attracts a more down-to-earth and adventurous type of traveller. For someone who just wants to strip everything back to basics and run in nature it's absolutely perfect.
Ometepe boasts a jaw-dropping landscape. As well as sitting on a giant lake and having two volcanoes (bit greedy), it is also abundant in weird and wonderful nature. The island has a sub-tropical climate and the days can get warm and humid. The wind off the lake can change from a welcome breeze in the midday heat to something that can whip in a storm in seconds. Just as you're marvelling at what a lovely deep blue sky there is and contemplating a nice cold beer, a torrential shower arrives, the roof sounds like it's about to be ripped off your house and you're soaked to your underpants wondering what on earth just happened.
Ometepe has another distinctive feature. I'm unsure whether it is unique to the island or it happens in other rural communities with a significant population of dogs and chickens. I mean, I've stayed in plenty of rural communities and I've never witnessed anything quite like it. At around 3am, a few of the local roosters/cockerels start their announcements re: who is the main man in the general area. Then, something strange happens. This call to arms gets the local dogs going so they all start their 'Territorial Advertising' (© 'When Do Fish Sleep') and this results in a) some bizarre sound clash between dogs and roosters that lasts anywhere up to three hours and b) no sleep for anyone who happens to be in the eye of the storm (me).
Anyway, I digress. I found the perfect place to stay. A small, simple room in a family house in the lovely little village of Balgue, nestled in the shadow of the lush green Volcan Maderas. A single bed, mosquito net, bathroom with (cold) shower and that's your lot. I could venture out and explore the roads & trails around the island during the early mornings (I was normally awake at 3am after all), visit the ladies in the local pulperia, using my dodgy Spanish to order a whole bunch of the wrong groceries to great mirth from onlookers and then do some work, eat cake and laze in a hammock in the afternoons.
It was whilst I was up early one morning eating a pre-run breakfast (porridge with bananas & honey in case you're interested) that I heard the unmistakable sound of Chris de Burgh's 'Lady in Red' floating across from the next door neighbour. It reminded me of something that had struck me on my journey through Nicaragua so far. I'm really not sure why or how but 80's and 90's power ballads appear to be quite popular. Still. Or perhaps it was just a crazy coincidence that I had heard Foreigner's 'I wanna know what love is' on consecutive days or Richard Marx's 'Right Here Waiting' on several occasions, in more than one village on a lake island in Central America (in fact I heard it again this very morning in the middle of nowhere - hold on... maybe it's in my head). I never really got round to discussing this with any of the locals. I quite like the idea that no other music has ever made it onto the island and everyone is using a copy of the same 'I'm still right here waiting wanting to know what love is' compilation CD.
Ah, yes. Marathon training. I ran 75.2 miles in my 15 days training on Ometepe with a total elevation of 14,239ft. This included:
- Ascent & descent of Volcan Maderas (dormant) via Santa Cruz. 12.4 miles, 4573ft elevation
- Ascent & decent of Volcan Concepción (active). 4347ft elevation in just 5 miles including the sickest descent I've ever had the fortune to throw myself down
- Balgue to Ojo de Agua 5.78 miles, 322ft elevation
- Balgue to Cascada de San Ramon 13.5 miles, 2241ft elevation
Most of the time I felt like my legs were composed of wet cement and I'm pretty sure I sweated enough to fill Lake Nicaragua.
Part 2: Community, family and how I ended up coaching the village football team
Before I set off, there were a couple of things I promised myself I would do differently on this trip. Firstly, to try and stay in 'homestay' style accommodation with local families wherever possible and secondly, to try and integrate into communities rather than just be a passing tourist or 'consumer' of the destination. Secondly, to see whether the (admittedly limited) skills and knowledge I have picked up during my time on Earth could be passed on to others who may not have the opportunities I have had to learn skills that can benefit the well-being and progress of their community.
I already mentioned the house I was staying in, I wanted to touch briefly on the wonderful family that made me feel so at home in my time on the island. They embraced my project with an enthusiasm that no-one had thus far, supported my training and subsequent recovery sessions with great gusto (to the point where they would slice up Aloe Vera and apply it to my creaking legs each night before I went to bed). They went to the larger towns on the other side of the island to buy my favourite foods when they weren't readily available locally - avocado & bananas are hot currency here. They were just genuinely lovely, warm and supportive people. In all of my travels, I can't remember a time I have felt so welcomed into someone's home and such a part of someone's family.
Now, as previously stated, as part of this project, whenever I land somewhere for more than a couple of days, I always make an effort to offer to share skills/knowledge with people or groups. This is something that takes me out of my comfort zone as I'm not particularly great at continuing with something after a couple of knock-backs or disinterest and I've had plenty of that on this trip. I have had to constantly push myself to continue despite overwhelming self-doubt and believe that what I am trying to do is worthwhile, even if things aren't going particularly well.
It can be frustrating as after investing a lot of energy in research and emails I may not even get to the point of having a conversation with someone to explain at greater depth what I am trying to do and the fact that any coaching or sessions are absolutely free. This whole process normally takes several days so often I'm already moving on by the time someone responds but despite the many unanswered emails & messages I have had some success in Colombia, if less so in Panama & Costa Rica.
In preparation for my time on Ometepe, I had managed to have several email conversations with Gerhard Linner who is (amongst many things) race director for the popular Fuego y Agua ultra marathon which takes place on the island each March. We then met up in San Jose, Costa Rica and had a useful chat over dinner with Gerhard providing me with plenty of encouragement and information as well as a local contact on the island (Ben). After arriving and speaking with Ben, he was not overly hopeful that there would be an opportunity in run coaching with the local community specifically but a side conversation about football and my former life as a football coach suddenly (and rapidly) put the wheels in motion for something else entirely. A chance to work with the village football team who, I gathered, were in a state of disarray.
So, the following afternoon I had unpacked my training cones, dug into the depths of my mind for my old football drills and showed up at the local pitch (which somehow functions as a football/baseball/coffee-drying/pig-grazing field). It soon became clear that the pitch had been treble-booked and there would be no session. Taking heed of my earlier advice to myself re: sticking with it despite knockbacks, I returned the following afternoon to begin working with the team. What I found was a small group of friendly but demotivated lads lacking in teamwork, technical knowledge and individual responsibility. We had an hours session but the effort and will to learn/improve wasn't really there and the following evening I watched the team defeated comprehensively by one of the other villages on the island.
After the defeat, the team manager, Anibal, held a post-mortem and announced daily training sessions in the evenings in an attempt to turn things around with my assistance. I took to the task with extra gusto, spending the evenings learning Spanish for technical football phrases, taking the team right back to the fundamentals and working on drills that would get these guys energised and enjoying the game again.
And then something magical happened. Word got out that we were putting on some focused, technical training sessions, more players started turning up and we suddenly found some energy and momentum. We trained four evenings a week, people started listening, working harder, improving rapidly and the effects of this then made the group work harder still and even more eager to learn and prove themselves. I started to hear the players remind each other of the themes and individual responsibilities that we were working on. You could see the realisation and excitement in players eyes as they learnt movements and strategies that no-one would have worked with them on before. By the end we were getting 16 guys at a session. They looked good and started winning games. Two of the senior players gave a speech at my last session to thank me for my help that brought a lump to my throat. In other circumstances, it would have been wonderful to stay and see how far we could go as a team but with Boston calling, I will have to be content with staying in contact and keeping an eye on their development and results.
And there you have it. That's how Ometepe became a home from home for me. I know I'm not the only person this happens to but I know that I value it immensely. When you are travelling solo for a long time and a family and community open their arms to you it's a big deal and it warms your heart. Unfortunately it also makes it very difficult to leave that new comfort zone you've fallen into thousands of miles from home. So thank you to Odelba, Marvin, little Mateo and all the other folk who made me so welcome in Balgue, Ometepe. I hope to see you again some day soon.