Bogotá is a sprawling city with a population of 8.1 million people (a similar size & population to London) and sits high at 2600m above sea level. Dwarfed by huge peaks on one side, the altitude provides a noticeably cooler climate than much of Colombia and gives some respite from the heat elsewhere. As you can imagine from a city of this size, you still get an ample helping of noise and traffic pollution so you don't miss out there.
I had sent many emails to running clubs and organisations before I arrived in Colombia. I was keen to link up with them in country and find out more about their work in the community and what running means to them. I had received very little in the way of response and encouragement (a trend/battle that continues to this very day). However, one of the clubs that had been enthusiastic from our very first conversation was '21Korredores' of Bogotá.
21Korredores are a relatively new club, founded four years ago as the city began to embrace activities and behaviours linked to improved health and well-being. Born from an idea to generate a community that mixes sport, friendship, leisure, health and fun around a passion for running, the clubs main objective has been to develop an inclusive group for runners of all levels (similar to the default model in the UK), setting them apart from existing clubs aimed exclusively at elite or advanced runners.
The 21Korredores name comes, simply, from the number of kilometres for a half marathon. Bogotá has an extremely popular annual half marathon, Colombia's biggest and the only road race in South America to hold IAAF Gold Label status. The Korredores are not exclusively from Colombia, their membership includes runners from Venezuela, Argentina, Spain, Germany, USA, and Brazil among others (and now an English fellow). As with many running clubs the world over, these people are all united by their passion for running and the feeling of community that belonging to a club provides.
In terms of the 'wider reach into the community brief', The Korredores have a scheme to financially support young talented runners in order for them to participate in races as well as fundraising campaigns for Operation Smile Colombia (a charity to improve the quality of life for people with craniofacial malformations) and the Lymphoma Association in Colombia. They also operate a fees exception scheme for runners who may be experiencing economic problems.
21Korredores at the 5K race they organised for Operation Sonrisa (smile) Colombia - 100 members participated along with children supported by the charity
I had been advised by several people that making trips on foot during darkness hours in the city was unwise so used taxis in the evenings. Due to the insane amount of traffic and associated congestion, it can take several months to make your way across the city by car. Because of this, the locals adopt a somewhat forceful driving style that makes driving in London seem positively tranquil. It's like everyone is in their own movie car chase scene. You know those 'near miss' highlight reels you see on social media? That's Bogotá roads all day, every day.
The interesting thing is that these incidents aren't accompanied with a hint of road rage or anger. It's just widely accepted that you need to adopt the mentality of a getaway driver in order to get from A to B. People just get on with it with the occasional sound of a horn to a) warn those cars around you that you're about to undertake a manoeuvre that would normally only be carried out by an experienced stunt driver or b) express mild frustration at the futility of attempting to drive across a city where every person appears to be in their car at the same time. Acutely aware of this, the authorities have introduced regulation so that car owners can only use their vehicles during specific time slots in order to limit the number of cars on the road in an attempt to reduce congestion and pollution.
Anyway, I digress. For a nervous passenger like myself, you can imagine it's quite a hoot seeing your life flash before your eyes every thirty seconds or so. This assertive approach to driving seems to work though. I only witnessed four accidents during the four days I was in the city.
(from left) Charly, Nestor and me.
So, one Tuesday evening, very much glad to still be in one piece after my latest car journey, I met with my host Nestor at a coffee shop close to the venue (perhaps we'll talk about coffee another day, now is not the time). After the lukewarm response from my early communications, and thus having a feeling that perhaps Colombia was a country yet to embrace running, it was with a sense of trepidation that I approached Parque el Virrey.
From the moment I stepped into the park however, these fears were quickly laid to rest. This compact, 25 acre urban park was a hive of activity. Several running and triathlon squads warmly greeted each other whilst others began working through their warm-up routines along the pathways and cycle routes of the dimly lit 1km oval formed around the grass and exercise/play areas in the centre.
I was introduced to the club along with an explanation of what a strange, pale English chap was doing in a park in Bogotá on a Tuesday night and the standard apology for my poor grasp of Spanish. After a warm up and technique drills led by the resident coaches Alex & Kami (I can confirm running drills are the same whether in Spanish or English), we moved onto the business part of the evening...
We embarked on an interval session, running hard for 5-4-3-2-1 minutes with equal rest periods in between. As we negotiated the first loop, the familiar smell of marijuana wafted across and lingered under the tree canopy, taking my mind back to warm summer evenings running on Peckham Rye, south London under a dense cloud of weed smoke. As we hit the midway point of the session, it became clear to me that running hard intervals with talented runners after only a couple of days at altitude (in some sort of hot box) was a decent physical challenge.
My very rusty Spanish meant it was a little difficult to hold a meaningful conversation with anyone who didn't speak some English (I was yet to learn the Spanish for: "my fucking lungs are about to explode fam"). Because of this, at times I was frustrated at not being able to participate in the usual chat with fellow athletes and felt a little on the fringes of the group. I thoroughly enjoyed the session nevertheless, thanked the group and pledged to return the following month on my return to the city.
And so, fast forward to another Tuesday night three weeks later. I returned to Bogotá, The temperature had fallen down to a chilly (for Colombia) 15°C and Parque el Virrey had recently been filled with a Christmas light spectacular.
I was warmly welcomed again and even presented with a 21Korredores running cap. This time my improved grasp of Spanish meant that I was able to understand and join the conversation which instantly made me feel more part of the group. I was initially invited to join the group with the quicks (a.k.a machines) but after explaining in broken Spanish that I still felt as though my legs had been replaced with concrete pillars after my exploits at Del Mar A La Cima, we decided that it would be more sensible if I went for a steady session rather than doing any more damage.
Running at altitude whilst inhaling marijuana fumes and trying to dodge people enjoying a leisurely stroll through a Christmas light spectacular is highly recommended for improving your focus and balance. Joking aside, this highlights one of the challenges growing clubs like 21Korredores and others in the city face, the lack of provision of running friendly areas or tracks in public spaces. Most areas used for running are shared between many interests so do not necessarily lend themselves to large groups of athletes. It's not unusual to suddenly have a cyclist appear around a corner in the middle of a bunch sprint and having to hurriedly scatter in several directions to avoid a visit to the hospital in order to have a handlebar untangled from your ribcage. Not ideal training/coaching territory I think you'll agree!
After saying my farewells, I returned to my hostel to a cool room and my first hot shower in several weeks (and a flipping duvet no less!). A night running with new friends had made me feel very much at home in Colombia.
With heartfelt thanks to all who welcomed me so warmly to 21Korredores, in particular Carlo Polo and Nestor Garcia who provided answers to my (many) questions and facilitated my visits.