The Rio de Janiero International Half Marathon

When people used to ask me what the most beautiful half marathon course was that I had ever run, it was always a difficult question to answer.  I've been fortunate enough to be able to run through some of the most amazing places in the world and narrowing it down to just one has been next to impossible.  Well, now I finally have a good answer for that question: the Rio de Janiero International Half Marathon.

For decades, Rio has been known as one of the most beautiful destinations on the planet.  It's been the subject of many travel shows on television and there have even been songs written about it.  To be able to visit and see it firsthand is an amazing experience in itself, and to be able to run alongside the coast for 21km brings that experience to the next level.

Rio is easy to get to because of its popularity as a tourist destination. There are a number of regularly scheduled flights into Rio's Galeão International Airport from cities around the world. If you're traveling from the United States or Europe, avoiding jetlag will be a bigger challenge than finding a flight.  Try to fly in during the day if you can.  The views from the plane will be spectacular.

There are hundreds of hotels in Rio and with the race being held during the off season (August is still considered to be winter in the southern hemisphere), rates will be pretty cheap.  The biggest thing to check when you're looking for a hotel is the neighborhood that it's in.  For as beautiful of a city as Rio is, it also has its share of crime and if you decide to stay in the wrong neighborhood, you may find yourself without a cell phone (or worse) by the time your trip is over.  So before you book a hotel, make sure to read the reviews on the travel sites.  In general, the hotels along the beaches tend to be the best (and have the best views).

The race expo is at Marina da Glória, which is the venue where the sailing events were held during the 2016 Olympics.  This year's expo was small but fun and it featured samba dancers on stilts along with beautiful views of the beach and the Rio skyline.  My biggest surprise was how crowded the expo was.  This is a popular race with tens of thousands of participants so be prepared to stand in line for a bit to get your race number.  There's plenty of entertainment to help the time pass quickly though.

The race starts at 8:00 am on Sunday morning at Praia de Sao Conrado.  Depending on where you're staying, you may have to arrive up to an hour early to make sure you have a way to get there before the streets close.  If you look around, you'll find a lot of interesting characters at the start line.  Even though I'm still working on my Portuguese, I was able to make a few new friends while I was waiting for the race to start. Besides the runners, all the race officials were happy, the spectators were great and the volunteers at the water tables couldn't have been friendlier. Just like Rio itself, this race was a giant party.

Now for the best part: the course is mostly point to point with a small out and back at the end.  It starts in Sao Conrado then heads along the coast through Leblon and Ipanema and then through Copacabana and the Flamengo neighborhoods.  There's almost never a time when you can't see the ocean.   Most of the first 3K is uphill (though not at a very steep grade). That's followed by about 2K of mild downhill and the rest of the course is very flat and easy to run.

My only real word of caution about this one is that Rio has a tropical climate, so even though the race is during the winter, the temperature on race day was in the mid 20's Celsius (close to 80 degrees Fahrenheit).  Also, the sky was completely cloudless on race day and with almost the entire course going alongside the coast, there was very little shade.  I saw a lot of people slowing down and walking during the second half.  Somewhere around the 17K mark I felt my hands starting to tingle (an early sign of heat stroke) so I slowed down my pace and grabbed some ice from the next water table and put it under my hat to help cool myself off for the final 4K.  To their credit, the race directors set up plenty of water tables - more than I've seen at most other races.  The first one is around the 6K mark and then they're roughly every 2K after that.

A common misnomer about race medals is that the ones in the US tend to be huge and fancy, while races in other countries tend to have smaller more plain looking medals.  This was not the case in Rio at all - the race medal is big and beautiful and its sun shape represents Rio well.

The only thing I would like to see changed about this race would be for it to start the race a little bit earlier.  The sun was already up when I started running and I thought it would have been nice to watch the sunrise during the race.  An earlier start also would have helped with the heat situation since most runners would have finished before the sun was at its hottest point of the day.  That's a fairly small change though and the reason for the start time is because the race is also broadcast on a local television network and 8am works better for viewing purposes.  Everything else about the entire event was perfect though.

Aside from the race, there's no shortage of fun things to do in Rio.  The beaches are an obvious choice but keep in mind that while the air outside might be warm, the water will be cold in August.  There are also restaurants all around the city with traditional Brazilian foods, Samba dancing and great drinks.

Another thing that Rio is known for is Christ the Redeemer, which is a 38 meter high, 635 metric ton Art Deco statue of Jesus Christ that was constructed between 1922 and 1931.  The statue is located at the peak of the 700-metre (2,300 ft) Corcovado mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park and is listed as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Keep in mind that it's a bit of a trek to get there from downtown Rio though so if you want to see the statue up close be prepared to set aside an entire day for the trip.  If you don't want to take the time to visit the statue, it can be seen from almost anywhere in the city and is clearly visible during the second half of the race.

One of the other famous attractions in Rio is a set of world famous tiled steps known as Escadaria Selarón. There are 215 steps measuring 125 meters long which are covered in over 2000 tiles collected from over 60 countries around the world.  They were created by a Chilean artist who wanted to repair the dilapidated steps in front of his house and took over 10 years to initially complete.... However, no sooner than one section of the steps were 'finished', The artist started work on another section, constantly changing it so that it was an ever evolving piece of art.  Originally, tiles for the work were scavenged from various construction sites and piles of urban waste found on the Rio streets. Use caution when visiting these steps because some of the neighborhoods that surround them can be a bit rough.  They're worth the trip though and you won't regret going to see them.

The Rio de Janeiro International Half Marathon was my 69th half marathon.  And now that I've finished it, I can officially say that I've run in all 50 US States and five different countries in Europe, Africa, North and South America.  This is one of the most unique races I've ever done and definitely the most beautiful.  Despite having a few rough areas, Rio itself is an amazing city to visit too.  If you're looking for an interesting race in an exotic location, you should definitely consider it. 


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