So, it’s Tuesday night, April 2nd, and I’m meeting Caleb for a beer to chat about a business idea. Two M43’s (delicious Michigan pale ale) into the evening he randomly throws out the idea that it’d be fun to run across the country of Panama because you could run from the Atlantic to Pacific in one day.
It was a rad idea that I fell in love with more every time I thought about it. By the next evening I’d already found cheap enough plane tickets that we could do the whole adventure for less than $400 (including flights and ground transportation across the country) and do it in a 48 hour window. As always, my goal is to eliminate time and budget as a constraint and less than $400 and less than 48 hours did the trick. Within 4 weeks of kicking the idea around, we’d be in Panama doing the run.
Naturally, I tapered for this 50+ mile run in the oppressive heat and humidity by setting a new speed record on the highest elevation trail in the east (blog link here) just over two weeks before. I like to call the Black Mountain Crest Trail “vertical violence” and while I did get the ascent and round trip record, I broke my ribs on a downhill fall. I had a quick work trip to Georgia 13 days later and couldn’t help myself from attempting another FKT. The Pine Mountain Trail speed record was less eventful than the BMCT but my legs were definitely dead and that run probably didn’t help. I knew I had two weeks of rest coming up, I just had to gut out the Panama run. It’s only 50 miles in the heat, right?
There are many accounts of people crossing Panama on foot including the army rangers in jungle warfare school and the conquistadors but no one has ever claimed to do it in one day. With the isthmus of Panama being the shortest distance to get a “trans-continent” run in the books, it seemed like a rad adventure. There is no trail and the most effecient route would involve road running along a highway and through the cities.
The plan was to leave the Detroit airport at 10:50am and be in Panama by 6pm (CST). We’d get a hotel, sleep, wake up and Uber across the country and then start running by 7am. I had a goal of sub 10 hours and figured we should definitely break 12 hours. Back to the hotel for dinner, a quick nap, catch a red-eye back to Michigan and land around 10:45am. Less than 48 hours to travel to Panama, run across the continent and get back home.
We arrived in Panama City and got to our hotel room. A quick dinner at a local place across the street and then a drug store for supplies. I decided to go coconut water as that’s been my jam lately. All the electrolytes of Gatorade without the crazy amounts of sugar, excessive sodium but with a bunch of potassium and magnesium (the neglected electrolytes). Turns out the coconut water I bought which stated “pulp” was actually huge chuncks. I was worried it would clog my hydration pouch so Caleb and I developed a filtration system using cheap plastic hotel cups and tissue dispensor.
We got up and at 5:30am and caught an Uber across the country. The drive took just over an hour and we arrived at the Juventad Park right on the Carribean just after sunrise. It was cool to see all the huge tanker ships and boats lining up to go through the Panama Canal. The park was scenic and the Colon’ square was a perfect place to start.
I wore a hydration pack with a 1.5 liter camelbak filled with coconut water. I also purchased a bottle of water every stop and always had one in my hand. I bought cookies, candies, nuts and a protein bar that were all in Spanish but looked good. It was a terrible fueling plan but I was out of my normal gels. There was a huge statue of Jesus right on the bay where we decided to start.
The first 10 miles were mostly urban with the first mile running directly down a 20’ wide sidewalk/square with thousands of schoolchildren getting ready for the day. By 8am it was already in the mid-80’s and oppressively humid. Caleb and I were both wearing hydration packs and short running shorts, we got a good amount of stares and smiles.
Our biggest concerns for this run were: 1) Panamanian Traffic. 2) Police. 3) Stray Dogs. We ran together for the first few hours but after a few dozen police motorcycle’s with uzi carrying cops drove past us with no issue, all stray dogs being docile and the traffic being surprising well behaved, we decided it would be okay to run alone. Caleb, very smartly, played it cautiously with the heat and took walking breaks. I was intent on breaking 10 hours, so I ran ahead. I was going self-supported (foraging and buying food along the way) and Caleb unsupported (carrying all his own food and supplies from the start).
After essentially a half-marathon in the urban and dirty highway environment of the city I finally started to reach the more scenic and wild countryside. I was buying water at every place I passed to try and stay hydrated as it was hotter and muggier in the jungle. There were lots of little stands along the road selling bananas, avacados and fruits, which became my main source of fuel. I had some Panamanian cookies called “chokies” which was a perfect name for how my run was about to go.
I knew my legs were dead and I needed time off but this 50 mile run was going to happen regardless of how I felt. The plan was to take a week off as soon as I was done but having done 3 races of 23+ miles in the last 38 days, my legs were heavy from the start. I also thought that having a few runs in Florida, Alabama and Georgia the last two weeks would help acclimate to the heat but it did not. This was full on 90+ degree humidity and it was fierce.
I was moving well the first 20+ miles and keeping pace in the 8-9 minute/mile range while at a low percieved effort but the heart rate was crazy high trying to keep my body cool. Luckily, this was the most scenic part of the run. There wasn’t a ton of elevation gain but it was constantly rolling hills and the top of the hills usually had a good view.
I made it 26.2 and over halfway across the country but I was definitely hurting. I couldn’t drink enough despite constantly drinking and my legs were not right. By mile 29 I was taking walking breaks to try and avoid cramping. Then, it happened. There was a bulldozer working on the side of the road and moving piles of dirt. A laborer was directing traffic and so it was backed up a few hundred yards. As I approached where the bulldoze was entering/leaving the road, I cramped up. And I mean, it was the most magnificient, powerful, full leg, siezing, cramp I’ve ever experienced. It looked like my calf was possessed by a spirit and trying to exit my leg.
I tried to play it cool as there was a ton of cars not moving and I wanted to avoid the cops with Uzi’s and AR-15’s. So I’m incapacited on the ground, moaning and writhing in pain but trying to make it look like it’s not a big deal. Typical gringo, rolling around in the Panamania dirt, I guess. The 60 something year old Panamanian laborer was concerned and he picked up and pushed my toes towards me, apparently knowing how to stretch a cramping calf.
I don’t speak Spanish but knew he was asking where I was headed in such bad shape. I lied and said the next village because I knew he would freak out if I said Panama City, over 20 miles away. I would get up, walk a few feet and cramp again. The worst and most powerful cramps of my life. My whole leg. Hamstrings, Quads, Hips, Calves, they were all blowing up.
I knew I was also having several symptoms of heat stroke. So, I decided that if I actually threw up or passed out, I’d play it safe, call it quits and get an Uber back to the hotel. But, as long as neither of those two things happened, I’d keep walking as long as it took. Mile 29 may have been the slowest mile of my life. It was nearly an hour. At one point I laid in the shade for 15 minutes trying to settle my body down. The next mile was rough but I was able to walk without cramping. I bought gatorade, bananas and avocados and just kept walking.
We had cell service the whole way (Thanks ATT international, $10/day). Caleb was about 4 miles behind me when I blew up. He was smart about the heat and kept making progress. I tried jogging many times but every time I’d break into anything faster than a walk, my legs would immediately cramp. I did the math on how long it would take me to walk to Panama City and it wasn’t pretty. 13-14 hours. It was so hot, just a relentless heat/humidty in the afternoon. Then, finally… at mile 36 I found him. Brooks.
Brooks was a massive chunk of ice that a road-side vendor selling gatorade sold me for one Panamanian Balboa ($1USD). I named him after my Brooks brand running hat and Brooks from Shawshank Redemption because if I made it to Panama City, I was going to feel like Andy when he crawled out of the sewer and into freedom. Brooks probably saved the trip. I was finally able to lower my body temperature over the 45 minutes it took him to melt.
Somewhere before mile 40, after nearly 10 miles of walking and just after Brooks gave his icy life to spare mine, Caleb caught up with me. He was feeling better than I was and could have gone ahead but decided to stay with me and finish together. We soon entered the outskirts of Panama City. I can honestly say I’ve never hurt this badly in my running career. My mucles were just destroyed. Every step was pain every where. My feet, legs, lower back… it was bad.
The one thing that never occured to me was stopping. I came here to run across Panama. It didn’t matter if I had to walk the last 20 miles in crazy pain and sweat and heat. I was going to finish. I don’t know what words to use to express the physical hurt I felt. I think this photo of me taking a quick one minute rest at bus stop might say it all for me.
It was inevitable that we wouldn’t make it to the Pacific Ocean before dark. It was one foot in front of the other. It was really nice having Caleb to chat about things with and get my mind off the pain. The rest of the journey would be urban and some of the vistas of hills and the first glimpse of the skyscrapers in Panama City were lovely and motivating.
The Panama presidential election was later in the week and as we worked our way towards the city center, we encountered many demonstrations and politcal rallys along the road. It was fun to see and experience. There were crazy amounts of people in the streets and sidewalks. While I was irritated I couldn’t physically run and had to walk, I’m not sure how much faster we could have gone anyways. It made the experience more fun.
The sun went down with about 10k left to the ocean. These last miles were all city and mostly sidewalks. The temperatures didn’t drop much with nightfall but it was nice to not have the sun burning down on my scorched skin. At this point time didn’t matter much as were going to be the first to ever document a one-day run across the country but the overall time would be soft. It was just about finishing. And in my case, ending the suffering.
We finally reached the park where we were going to finish… and it was closed with two armed policed officers guarding it. Good planning, Josh. The thought we wouldn’t make it in under 12 hours didn’t even occur to me and we got here so late that it was closed. So we had to walk nearly another mile to get to a spot where we could be on the Pacific Ocean. I can honestly say that was the least favorite mile of my life but it’s kind of funny and a good lesson looking back. Most importantly, that walk got the trip over 50 miles as we would have been just short if we’d have ended at our original target.
Our final time was 14 hours, 12 minutes, 48 seconds. We ran from statue to statue on two seperate oceans. The second half took nearly twice as long as the first half but this was always more about the adventure and documenting the first day-trip across Panama on foot (both Caleb and I believe someone has to have done this before, but we just can’t find any records of it anywhere, nor can other record fact checkers we asked). I learned a few lessons about the heat and fueling properly and also enjoy that fact that I’ve gotten to the point where extreme pain and discomfort no longer even trigger the thought of giving up.
James “Iron Cowboy” Lawerence (in my opinion, the greatest endurance athlete ever) once said in an interview that he never considers quitting because fear and pain have stopped knocking at the door. They know it’s futile, so they don’t even show up. I’ve destroyed my body the last 5 weeks and further wrecked it on this 50+ mile run in the most oppressive conditions… but that doesn’t matter. Quitting isn’t an option because it no longer knocks at my door. While my time sucked and this was the hardest/most painful thing I’ve ever done, I take solice in that.
This was a completely rad adventure with one of the coolest guys I know. We ate some pasta, slept 20 minutes in the hotel, got to the airport at 2am, missed a connection due to a flight delay and arrived back in frigid Michigan and home for dinner. Now, to take 5 days completely off running and put copiouis amounts of Lidocaine on my severe sunburn.
RIP - Brooks (April 30th, 2019 - April 30th, 2019)