Reflections on the Havana Marathon

As insightCuba nears its 15th anniversary of sending Americans to Cuba legally, I can’t help but reflect on my experience at the 2014 Marabana Havana Marathon and our three tours celebrating the event. I felt inspired amid more than 60 insightCuba guests as I experienced Cuba through their smiles, their wonderment, and even some tears of joy. The Cubans who took part in our experience shared these sentiments. The affection and appreciation from the Cuban runners, residents, and literally anyone else we came into contact with, touched something inside of all of us. Where else can you go and feel so welcome and appreciated? (Over the past five decades, our governments have not always agreed, but we and our near neighbors have felt a continuous mutual affection.)  Few places offer this type of connection. Cuba always does.

After 51 years of intense travel restrictions thanks to the US embargo against Cuba, few Americans have enjoyed the opportunity to set foot on the island nation. People-to-people travel has begun to change that. It’s estimated that, under travel regulations initiated in 2011, roughly 200,000 Americans not of Cuban descent have visited Cuba—a small number considering that Cuba reports more than 2 million visitors each year. Despite the meaningful access that people-to-people travel to Cuba provides, few American runners have participated in the Marabana Havana Marathon since its inception in 1987. This year, with the inclusion of our group of globetrotting US runners, the largest contingency of Americans participated.

As is often case when Americans visit Cuba, the US runners were received with open arms. Carlos Gattorno, founder and director of the Marabana Havana Marathon, met with our group of runners the night of their arrival. He said, “It has been a dream of mine for decades to welcome US runners to Cuba to participate in our marathon. It’s hard to believe that this day has finally come. I stand before you grateful and humble to be in your presence.” I could sense that everyone in the room knew that this was something special. The US runners felt the same way: They finally made it, too.

This sentiment was not lost during the activities that followed. The day before the big race, all US runners lined up for the MaraCuba, a 3k run that takes place at the same time in every province in Cuba, with the goal of promoting physical fitness throughout the country. The atmosphere beforehand was unusually festive for a race—but not for Cuba. Perhaps a thousand runners started. As the race meandered through Old Havana, it seemed as though double that number finished! The pack of runners grew along Havana’s streets as children joined in and residents emerged from their homes to take part in the festivities. At the end (and to no one’s surprise), we watched a parade with bands and dancers, then joined the crowds of children and other residents singing and dancing.   

Havana Marathon Runners

The Marabana Havana Marathon began at five on Sunday morning. All the usual race jitters were in play. My seven-year-old daughter and I were privileged to enjoy a spot at the finish line. Over the next hours, we saw thousands of runners complete the race. Joy, accomplishment, relief, and just about every other emotion showed on the faces of runners from Cuba and all over the world. But the faces of the US runners revealed even more. Some displayed triumph not only in completing the race, but also, in finally making it to Cuba.  

That night, we dined with Cuban runners, race organizers and their staff. As we bade farewell, a US runner came up and thanked me for making a dream come true. I thanked her for doing the same.  

Tom Popper is president of insightCuba, the leading provider of people-to-people travel to Cuba since 2000. Between 2004 and 2014, Tom sought authorization from the US Department of the Treasury to bring US runners to Cuba. InsightCuba is planning for the 2015 Marabana Havana Marathon. To receive updates, visit the insightCuba website at