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Havana marathon draws South Florida runners

These South Floridians are planning to run in Havana's annual marathon or Marabana

Marcus and Ali Harrington enjoy sprinting along the bridges and beaches of Fort Lauderdale.

Next month, the couple will be among hundreds of Americans running along the Malecon seawall in Havana.

South Florida runners will trek to Cuba Nov. 20 to take part in the Marabana, or Havana Marathon, the 26.2 mile marathon, half marathon, 5 kilometer and 10 kilometer races that take place in Cuba each year. The event draws about 2,500 participants including international and Cuban runners.

"The culture, the history, I'm excited to see exactly what I've been reading and seeing in pictures," said Ali Harrington, a speech therapist and supervisor at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood. She's been running with her husband since 2008. "I want to see Cuba before it becomes Americanized."

The easing of relations between the United States and Cuba and new regulations that allow Americans to take part in sporting events and exhibitions in the Caribbean nation have made it easier for American runners to participate.

The Havana Marathon isn't the only competitive sporting event looking to draw U.S. athletes. Enjoy Cuba, a travel company that works with the Havana Marathon, is organizing the second annual Titan Tropic Cuba by Gaes 2016 mountain bike race that starts in Havana in December. Coming in February, the 2017 La Habana Triathlon, which includes a 56-mile bike ride, a 1.2-mile swim and a 13.1 mile run.

Travel representatives say that American runners aren't just interested in the races; they're also curious about Cuba, which has been trending lately as a tourist hotspot.

"For five decades, generations have been told, 'You can't go there.' We have such close cultural and geographical ties to this island," said Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba, a company that has been providing people-to-people exchanges to Cuba since 2000. The company began offering travel packages for the Havana Marathon in 2014. "There is an incredible amount of interest and curiosity. You have generations saying, 'What is down there?' As a runner, you have a level of appreciation for the race and you have a level of appreciation for where the race is."

For some, the marathon is something of a running retreat, a unique opportunity to sprint with a historic backdrop. The race starts and finishes at the capitol building. Along the route: the American Embassy, which reopened last year, Revolution Square, El Morro fortress, the popular Hotel Nacional de Cuba and the Malecon walkway.

"It's really a fascinating way to see that city, which has been so taboo for so many years," said Ryan Van Duzer, a travel video journalist from Boulder, Colo., who ran the race last year. He recorded the event on his camera and later posted his video on YouTube. "It's finally opening up to a degree and running is the best way to see it."

One of his highlights from the event: running beside the five-mile-long Malecon.

"The waves are smashing against the wall and the water is splashing up on the road and you are essentially getting splashed by the ocean wave. It was nature's way of cooling us down," recalled the 37-year-old runner, who donated his black and orange sneakers to a local Cuban after the race.

Marcus Harrington plans to pack his size 10 Saucony running shoes for the half marathon. His wife will do the 5K race in her size 7 Asics sneakers. They expect to leave them behind.

In keeping with the running spirit, they plan to bring pairs of running shoes, sandals, toothpaste, floss and toothbrushes to give to the Cuban people, who are in short supply of basic necessities.

"Whatever we can. We are going to find out what our weight limit is and take what we can and leave what we can," added Harrington.

The last time he visited Cuba was in the mid-'90s.

"It's like going back in time, you are taking a step back to these old '57 Chevys you are riding in, convertibles...You get to see it as it is now before the floodgates open up and tourism takes over and changes the island," said Harrington, a store manager at Runner's Depot in Fort Lauderdale. In addition to the marathon, his group, which includes Amanda McArdle of Dania Beach, plans to sample rum, cigars and coffee during a guided tour in Havana and explore one of the beaches.

"We want Cuba to still look like the pictures...before all the nostalgia is gone," said McArdle, a friend of the Harringtons.

The race began in 1987, according to the website. This is the third year that Americans could participate in the event. Last year, about 350 Americans ran the race and more are expected this year, said Popper.

To visit Cuba, American travelers must meet certain guidelines, including having family in Cuba or participating in cultural or educational activities. American runners can participate in the marathon because of 2015 regulations from the U.S. Treasury Department that allows amateur and semi-professional athletes to take part in competitions and exhibitions on the island.

Popper's InsightCuba offers four- and eight-day cultural tours for the race. Starting at $2,600 plus taxes, the packages include the hotel, flight and race entry fees and a farewell cocktail reception. There's also training with American running coach Jenny Hadfield before and during the race.

During the marathon, streets are blocked off. Volunteers stand by offering water and drinks as runners speed by.

"When you are running through Havana, you are viewing the city slowly," added Popper. "Every resident along the course takes an interest. They are standing by the sidewalk with their doors open, cheering and watching."

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