SPORTS

U.S. runners prepare for Havana marathon amid thaw in tensions with Cuba

  • Robin Thom

     (Robin Thom)

  • Robin Thom

     (Robin Thom)

  • Robin Thom

     (Robin Thom)

To some the idea of running 26.2 miles through the humid, dusty streets of old Havana as throngs of Cubans scream and shout at you would be a nightmare drummed up by the Castro regime's cruelest torture expert. 

To others, however, the chance to lace up sneakers and take a lap down the iconic Malecón esplanade is a dream that is only now becoming a reality.

As relations between the United States and Cuba begin to thaw following the announcement last December that the Cold War-era foes would resume diplomatic ties – thus allowing more Americans to travel to the once off-limits island – more and more U.S. citizens have begun inquiring about how to travel the 90 miles across the Florida Straits.  

For runners, one way to legally get to Cuba is to sign up for the Havana Marathon – a grueling, hilly course known locally as La Marabana that winds its way through Old Havana, past the El Morro fortress and down the iconic Malecón – and tour companies offering packages to usher racers to and from Havana for the race have seen a dramatic uptick in interest.

"It's really unprecedented," said Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, a company that offers people-to-people travel packages to Cuba, including for the marathon, told Fox News Latino. "Since the December 17 announcement everything has increased. We've seen are bookings go up two to three times from what they were last year."

Running through the streets of Havana is running through history, culture and a society that has such rich traditions.

- Tom Popper, president of insight Cuba

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Popper and other travel industry insiders say that the surge in interest in Cuba since the December announcement stems from two main reasons: one being that island has been off limits to American travelers since the embargo against the country was enacted in 1960 and also that many Americans feel that the country will lose its unique character as of one of the world's last remaining bastions of communism if U.S. investment is allowed on the island.

Bookings to Cuba jumped 57 percent for one New York tour operator in the weeks after Washington said it would renew ties with Havana and they were up 187 percent in February; nearly 250 percent in March.

While about 600,000 U.S. travelers are estimated to visit Cuba each year - most of them Cuban-Americans visiting family or those going through approved cultural, religious and educational exchanges – Cuban officials estimate that 1.5 million Americans would travel here annually if all restrictions were removed.

"There's an ongoing and growing interest in Cuba," said Emily Fisher, the head of North American Communications for Cheapflights.com, to Fox News Latino. "The people who are interested in going are interested in getting a snapshot of Cuba before it changes."

Insight Cuba's Popper said that what makes the Havana Marathon different from its more famous cousins like the Boston or New York races is the distinct Cuban culture surrounding the race. There are no corporate banking sponsors like TCS or John Hancock emblazoning their logos on signs or bibs, no energy bars handed out during the race and no international television coverage. Instead marathoners slurp sugary, distilled water, race alongside people wearing boots – no shoes at all –and head through the crumbling post-colonial architecture of Havana.

"Running through the streets of Havana is running through history, culture and a society that has such rich traditions," Popper said. "It really takes your mind off the race…it has a whole different feel."

Despite the lack of modern trappings that surround most marathons across the globe, Popper added that the runners who ran the marathon last year – the company's first time offering a package to the race – said that it was one of the best put together events they've competed in.

"It was one of the most well organized races they've been to," he said. "They felt really comfortable and tended to by the race staff, doctors and everyone involved."

This year's race takes place on November 15 and while Popper says that runners should train for La Marabana like they do any other marathon, there are some things to keep in mind before they head to Havana.

"Be prepared for hills, buy a good hydration system and definitely bring an open mind when you come to Cuba," he said.