Miami Marathon 2017 Has 25,000 Ready to Run

Avoid the people wearing bird hats.
Avoid the people wearing bird hats.
Courtesy of Four Bent Corners Productions
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Run the Miami Marathon as a slightly pudgy middle-aged man, as I did not long ago, and around mile 23, your brain begins to crackle. The small part of it still functioning can process only the basics: finish line, thirst, what's just ahead, thirst, wristwatch, thirst, that goddamn aching heel, and, yes, thirst.

You look up, and you're on the Rickenbacker Causeway. A small group of men and women stands to the side, behind a rope. They cheer and hold out half-full cups. Maybe you're hallucinating, but it appears there are parrots on their heads — friggin' technicolor parrots. Isn't that Jimmy Buffett echoing from some distant speakers?

You take the offered cup and put it to your parched lips. Maybe "Margaritaville" really isn't that bad. Then you take a gulp. Ughhh. Is it gasoline? Drano? Nope, it's rum. You spit it out. You retch. And you taste it all the way to the finish. May those Parrot Heads burn in eternal Hell!

Miami's magical, monster running race, which is among the nation's hottest in so many ways, will celebrate its 15th year this Sunday, January 29. The competition that began with 3,400 runners in 2003 will include more than 25,000 from 82 countries this year. Most of them will compete in the half-marathon, so they will never see the accursed Parrot Heads. But almost a third will get wasted away again. Only a handful, about 30, are elite runners who will breeze across the 26.2-mile finish line before most participants have completed 13.1.

Though registration can cost as much as $150 to run the full marathon, we Miamians love this race — so much so that 3,000 people will sign up in the final few days for the privilege of torment.

At the helm of Miami's biggest fitness event is chief running officer Frankie Ruiz, a 38-year-old Cuban-American who is as close as you can get to a god of local running, He and two friends started this race, and today Ruiz is the beating heart of South Florida's most successful cross-country dynasty: Belen Jesuit Preparatory School.

You might know Belen as just a Jesuit high school. Or perhaps you know it is a cradle of this city's Cuban-American nobility, such as former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and former Coca-Cola CEO Roberto Goizueta. You might even be aware that Fidel Castro attended this school in Havana before it was moved to Miami after the 1959 revolution.

But what probably isn't in your memory bank, if you're not a devotee of high-school cross country, is that for years — without recruiting — the Southwest Miami-Dade powerhouse has graduated class after class of gazelle-like runners who dominate Florida's 5K competitions.

For the past decade and a half, Frankie Ruiz has coached that team. For seven years before that, starting out as a puny sixth-grader, he ran for Belen. "That is my passion," Ruiz says. "Running the marathon is my day job."

Of course, Miami marathoning has a history that predates even Frankie. It goes back to at least 1977 — when local runner Pat Chmiel won the Orange Bowl Marathon, which included about a thousand entrants. A few years later, Bill Rodgers — probably America's most famous marathoner — won it in 2:15:08. The Metro-Dade Marathon followed, beginning in 1989. That went defunct in 1995.

Then Ruiz and his partners (who have since left the fold) got the real thing going in 2002. It was called the Toyota Prius Miami Tropical Marathon. ("Somebody else owned the miamimarathon.com website," Ruiz says.) The first winner was a Kenyan named David Ruto, who finished in 2:12.22, a record that stands to this day — maybe because the marathon offers a much smaller purse than larger events such as the New York City Marathon, which pays out six figures.

I took part in some of the early races with buddies from the Miami Herald and have survived a few since then. Nothing is more beautiful than running out that first few miles along the Rickenbacker Causeway as the sun begins to peek out from violet clouds.

Hibiscus Island lies to your left. PortMiami's giant cranes tower to your right. One year, a tug pumped a huge jet of water in the air like the world's largest lawn sprinkler. You continue past Star Island and the Fisher Island ferry onto South Beach, where you eventually approach Club Deuce and spot a couple of slovenly, still-drunk patrons peering out on the crowd and loudly belching. Then it's up past the golf course, across the Venetian Causeway, and back to downtown Miami.

That's the end of the half-marathon, the nation's 14th largest.

For the full, the miles through Coconut Grove have drawn debate. They seem dreary to many runners even though the Hash House Harriers distribute beer around mile 20 on South Bayshore Drive. Next come the damn Parrot Heads, and then the finish. One year, I completed the race just behind a guy who reached into the crowd, grabbed his infant son, and carried the kid across the finish line.

"We try to keep it low-key and based on local runners," Ruiz says.

Over the years, the marathon has been sold to various groups. The current owner, Life Time Fitness, produces the Chicago Half Marathon and several local triathlons. The group also advocates for running in local schools and for safer running and biking paths. "It hurts me that we are years behind other cities," says Ruiz, who also commends local politicians for supporting the race. "I have a lot of runners complaining it isn't safe out there. God knows, you might not make it home."

This year's marathon will have a couple of new things, he says. There will be more entertainment along the way, though blaring music at dawn angers some people. And some water stations will be set up on both sides of the street for easier pickup. Racers won't need anything from the abominable Parrot Heads.

One thing that makes the Miami Marathon unique is its international nature. Colombia is the top entrant from outside the United States, with 872; Mexico is second with 513, followed by Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru. Russia has nine runners this year, and Cuba has two — even though thousands of Cuban-Americans run this race.

Will the marathon ever expand across the Florida Straits? Probably not as long as Frankie Ruiz is in charge and a Castro still runs the Cuban government. "I would love to have a race over there," he says, "but I don't know if I am ready to do business. After all, Fidel Castro took over my high school in Havana and made it into a jail."

The Miami Marathon and Half Marathon
6 a.m. Sunday, January 29, at the American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; themiamimarathon.com. Registration costs $150 to $170.

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