Hiking Volcan Baru

Hiking Volcan Baru

Ivo and Maya on top of Volcan Baru

Ivo and Maya on top of Volcan Baru

We wake up at 4:30 a.m. and, loaded with our huge backpacks, head for Volcan Baru- a dormant volcano and Panama’s highest peak rising at 3475m. Ivo’s backpack is as big and as heavy as a small chubby dead person who even in his desperate state of utter lifelessness hasn’t lost the ability to put on weight and grow slightly each day. We call him The Chinaman. Ivo hauls him on his back up and down mountains, in cities and villages, in jungles and across borders and we all hate him with passion. The Chinaman and the two other backpacks are our biggest enemies right now.

Maya and Ivo (and the Chinaman) hiking

Maya and Ivo (and the Chinaman) hiking

The town of Boquete is asleep. Those who told us that there is a bus to the trailhead at 5:00 a.m. must have been joking, as there is not a single car on the street; not a bus, not a soul, except for one crazy hobo singing a happy tune, telling us in Spanish that “the road is long”. Desperate, we walk up and down the empty town’s streets for a few minutes and just when we lose hope of getting to the park’s entrance on time, we spot a lone taxi. He takes us up to the trailhead for $7. It is still dark and the park’s office is still closed, which means we are on time, because we can walk right past the office building and begin the long hike without paying the entrance fee- $5 per person, charged only after 6:00 a.m.

Maya and Mira at the beginning of the trail to Volcn Baru

Maya and Mira at the beginning of the trail to Volcn Baru

We walk under the heavy weight of our backpacks loaded with sleeping bags and rolled matts, jackets and clothes for hot and cold weather, cereal bars and canned food for two days, water bottles and photo cameras- all the stuff we will need in the next one month while visiting Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where we are heading after Panama. Most of the heaviest stuff and the tent make up The Chinaman- about 30 kg. Maya’s pack is 7 kg, mine- 15 kg. Soon, our legs begin to hurt and the higher we go the harder it gets. We are not used to high altitudes and huge backpacks.

Hiking with heavy packs

Hiking with heavy packs

If we had no backpacks, the walk from Boquete to the summit would be much easier and painless, even pleasant, on a wide rocky road accessible by 4×4 all the way to the top, passing by mountainous forests, green pastures and rocky hills, so beautiful we forget about the pain of the long walk and pause often to admire Nature’s charms. Large trees dominate the lower slopes, giving way to smaller plants, bushes, scrub and alpine wildflowers as we go higher. It is uphill most of the way for 12km, not very steep, starting at around 1600m with 1900m elevation gain.

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We stop to rest frequently. At noon, we eat lunch on a huge rock in the middle of the road thinking how difficult it would be for those 4WD cars to pass through here. But they do. They suffer and roar and struggle, but those Toyotas somehow miraculously do get to the top and back in one piece (half of the time).

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Lunch on the rock

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Normally, it should take 6 to 8 hours to get to the campground area, which is just before the summit. But we barely make it in 10 hours, completely destroyed, and pitch the tent under a large roofed shelter, half burned and rotten, surrounded by low moss-covered trees. It’s just before sunset- fog and light rain- and at 3200m altitude, it’s freezing cold. We “sleep” with our hats and NorthFace jackets on inside the sleeping bags. It is incredible that just a few hours ago and at 1900 meters lower altitude it was hot tropical summer. Many people start climbing in the warm weather unprepared for the freezing temperatures. One person has died of hypothermia on top of Baru in 1995. Besides cold, it is also uncomfortable, and our legs hurt so much from the long heavy walk it’s hard to sleep. Rather, we wait for the night to end in a series of short nightmares.

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The place we slept the first night

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It’s freezing cold

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Around 4:00 a.m. we hear a group of people passing near the tent. They flash lights at us and this is a sign it is time to get up and go one and a half more kilometers steep uphill to the summit. These guys have started the hike from Boquete around midnight, walking all night in order to get to the summit before daybreak and watch the glorious sight of the sun rising over the clouds below and the sky turn from black to purple to blue, orange and pink. It is said that in clear day you can see both oceans from the top- the Atlantic to the east and the Pacific to the west, but we are not lucky that day. As we climb the last kilometer and a half wrapped in our winter jackets and hats, a strong cold wind brings clouds and rain.

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On top of Baru there are some large unromantic installations and cellphone, internet, TV and radio towers emitting constant buzzing sounds. The group of early hikers are freezing huddled next to one of the buildings’ walls; one guy is in shorts and his legs are white-blue. He starts looking for wood to make fire. We are observing him thinking that for the first time in our lives we will see a person dying of hypothermia in front of our eyes, when Jaime shows up and invites us all inside the warm cozy ranger’s station. Jaime is the summit and installations’ guard from Panama’s National Police Force. He is stationed alone on top of Baru spending 15 days per month away from his family in a small room, on top of Panama. He is a great guy and invites us for coffee and hot chocolate.

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On top of Baru

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Ivo on top of Baru

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Mira, Maya and ivo on top of Baru

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At the station, we found out that we could have slept there for free (instead of the tent a few meters below) if we had walked 30 more minutes the previous day….It’s an emergency shelter, and the guard stationed there is super welcoming and a very nice person. He loves guests!

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The Nomadiks with Jaime

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Jaime Alberto stationed on guard duty on top of Volcan Baru

We go back down after spending some time at the summit watching the sun rising underneath a thick blanket of clouds and the clouds become gold, purple and pink; we pack the tent and bring everything back up, as the trail to the other side of Baru towards the town of Volcan starts right at the peak. We decide to take this unpopular, shorter but much harder and steeper path on the western side of the volcano instead of walking back down on the eastern flank to Boquete (a medium- difficult hike), and very soon we regret this decision, but it’s too late.

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The walk down on the western flank is rated : “Muy dificil” (very difficult) going almost vertically down some unstable lava flows. Click on the image to enlarge.

The hike from the top of Baru to the town of Volcan is rated ‘very difficult’. More difficult than this would be rock climbing, and going down proves to be much harder and more dangerous than going up. Here, the volcano shows its true character. The trail follows old crumbling lava flows, huge burned boulders and extremely steep cliffs. Our heavy backpacks throw us off balance and act like sails; we are constantly “jibing” when strong puffs coming from behind push us. Yet, our biggest problem is no longer the weight of the packs but the terrain which here is not just difficult, but extremely dangerous. Ivo and Maya are much faster, but I am terrified as one wrong move here can be fatal, and sometimes it takes me forever to make even one step. Instead of covering the entire 7 km of the trail in about 3-4 hours, we cover one kilometer in 3 hours, starting at 10:00 a.m., after spending some time drinking coffee and hot chocolate and chatting with Jaime. By the time we are down from the rocky slopes and into the jungles of the lowlands, it is already late afternoon.

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In the jungle, it doesn’t get better. The path is still steep downhill and we have to jump down muddy narrow crevices and fallen trees. It has been eight hours of nightmare; my knees are shaking by now and I cannot make another step. I’m done. Ivo, with The Chinaman on his back, takes my backpack too and keeps walking like a leaf-cutter ant with almost double the load, bitching. We are by now completely miserable and just want the ordeal to be over. But the trail keeps going on and on and soon it’s dark. Night finds us in the middle of a tropical forest, exhausted, dehydrated (we finished the water around noon) and far away from civilization. We keep walking with small headlights in the darkness, thinking about snakes, jaguars and other monsters.

In this kind of extreme situations, one’s true character emerges. It turns out, I am a quitter. I just want to stop walking and sleep. I tell Ivo and Maya to leave me in the forest with my backpack and sleeping bag; I cannot continue; I’m not afraid of the jungle; I’ll find them tomorrow in the village. Ivo is a survivor, a stubborn mule with limitless strength and the exact opposite of a quitter. With the two heavy backpacks he keeps going even though he is also completely exhausted and won’t leave me alone in the jungle. He is helping me as much as possible even tough at this point in time and space, we hate each other with passion. Maya is ahead of the two of us and her true character turns out to be one of a hero. She walks without complaining and tries to cheer us up, telling us “We are almost there; don’t give up; I see the end (even though she doesn’t), we are almost out of the jungle; we can make it; come on!”

Around 8:00 p.m. we are out of the jungle, walking on a wide leveled path covered with thick tall grass. Here, we pitch the tent on the side of the path over a grassy patch and sleep. The wind is violent that night, coming down from the mountain, the tent bends and tries to fly away like a kite, but we don’t care. Thirsty and hungry, we sleep.

The next morning, we awake renewed at the bottom of a beautiful valley- a sea of purple meadows, spiky trees and enormous cacti surrounded by black hills. Thin rain clouds are slowly nearing from the north and with the sun low above the eastern horizon we walk again, under a rainbow. We discover that the end of the trail is just 100 m away from our campsite but it is not the end of the road. From here, we have to walk a few more kilometers on a black road to the first village- Paso Ancho. Luckily, a local woman dropping off tourists heading to Baru gives us a lift on her way back. And this journey is over.

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Our campsite the second night

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Mira pointing at the summit. On the right side of her finger is the trail from Boquete rater ‘medium difficult’ and on the left side of her finger is the trail to Paso Ancho rated ‘very difficult’- vertical down!

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First people we meet after our descent! These guys in the pickup truck are going to climb Baru from the very difficult western flank…. They have no idea what’s ahead of them… and are super exited

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Ivo and Maya walking hand in hand under a rainbow.

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The first house we see as we walk down toward the village. We go there to ask for water.

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At the ranch, we are greeted by indigenous Guayami kids

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Their mother comes out to see us too.

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She has the most beautiful smile in the world….

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After unloading the hikers, the pickup truck picks us up on the way back and saves us a lot of walking to the village of Paso Ancho.

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The Nomadiks with the woman who gave us a ride. The journey is over!

 

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The Lost Waterfalls

The Lost Waterfalls

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Ivo, Mira and Maya at the Lost Waterfalls in Boquete (Panama)

The distance between Panama City and David in the province of Chiriqui, located in the westernmost part of Panama next to the border with Costa Rica, is 500 km. It took us 9 hours to get to David by bus (a very comfortable two level bus, $15 per person; we got the front seats on the second level, right on top of the driver and Maya was super happy) and one more hour to Boquete.

We arrive in the late afternoon in a small scenic town in the mountains, where the temperatures are no longer unbearably hot. The air is fresh and much cooler than in the lowlands and we put on light jackets for the first time in many months. As the sun is about to set behind the mountains, we haul our huge backpacks across the main square where the locals are sitting around watching us with amusement, and hurry to the nearest hostel.

There are plenty of hostels to chose from in Boquete as the town is just at the foot of Vulcan Baru- Panama highest land point and a popular hiking destination among locals and tourists form around the world, and backpack have become a permanent part of the local scene. The hot volcanic springs, the Caldera River running through the town with its waterfalls, and the many coffee plantations where some of the best coffee in the world grows, are some more reasons to visit. Boquete and its surroundings is truly beautiful.

Our main purpose is climbing Volcan Baru, but it has been just two days since Ivo’s big 42K marathon and his legs still hurt, so before the big walk uphill with heavy backpacks for 10 hours, we take “a day off”, leave our stuff in the best and cheapest hostel in town- Hostal Boquete (private room with one single bed for Maya and one double bed for Ivo and me, with bathroom, hot-water shower, TV, Wi-Fi, nice kitchen and veranda right on the Caldera River for $35 per night) and go for an easy one hour hike to The Lost Waterfalls.

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The hostel in Boquete is right on the river

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Mira and Maya making breakfast at Hostal Boquete. The best thing about hostels are the common kitchens everyone can use to prepare cheap meals instead of buying suspicious and expensive restaurant food.

We take the bus to the trailhead at Bajo Mono and walk to the park’s entrance, where we find out that since December 1 of this year (a couple of days ago) the entrance fee is no longer $5 per person, but $7 per person… The good news is, that kids under 12 don’t pay, so Maya just saved us $7!

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At the park’s entrance we look at the map of the Waterfalls Trail

Hiking to the waterfalls is easy and pleasant, on a narrow muddy at places but well maintained trail among flowers and tall trees. We come to a clearing from where Baru, illuminated in sparkling sunlight, is smiling at us. Below- forests and fields.

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View of Volcan Baru

We follow the hand-drawn map which we photographed at the entrance and after about one hour we reach the first waterfall. There is a small pool of cold water to chill in, before the next short walk to the second waterfall. On the way back, we take a small detour and reach the third and highest cascade whose waters thunder over huge boulders.

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Maya arrives at the first waterfall

Back at the hostel in Boquete we cook some hotdogs, take a hot-water shower, which is a real treat for people living on a boat with no hot water at all, watch some TV which is a real treat for people living on a boat with no TV, and rest before the long hike to the top of Panama, sleeping in beds that don’t move at all, which is a real treat for people living on a boat.

Waterfalls Picture Gallery

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Ivo, Mira and Maya

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Just follow the map to find the Lost Waterfalls

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A large pipe runs along the road to the park’s entrance

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To make a fresh lemonade: 1. Fill your water-bottle with delicious cool river-water

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2. Squeeze in some wild super sour lemons you just found in the forest

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Lots of flowers along the way

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Maya is getting ready to cross the river

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Maya at the first waterfall

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Mira at the first waterfall

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Maya

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We saved this shiny beetle from drowning in the river!

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First waterfall

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Second waterfall

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Third waterfall

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Ivo and Maya marveling at the third waterfall

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Ivo, Maya and MIra

 

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The Long Distance Runner’s Misfortunes and Triumphs

Ivo

Ivo 10K

When Ivo was 18, a car made a wrong turn and hit him. His left leg was badly broken under the knee and wouldn’t heal. After months in plaster, the doctors announced that they will soon have to amputate, as Ivo lacked the hormone producing calcium in his body and the broken bone would never repair (because he used to eat too much Bulgarian Feta cheese and the body, getting more than enough calcium from the cheese, stopped producing the hormone). All doctors confirmed the necessity of amputation before the wound goes putrid, but one. Doctor Shoilev- the official doctor of the Bulgarian National Football team- had an alternative. He ordered artificial hormones from Switzerland and started injecting Ivo every day for 20 days.

After eight long months in bed with a full cast on his leg, Ivo finally got better and his leg was saved. But it took many more months of physiotherapy for him to fully recover. The calf on his left leg is still smaller than the right one, and his foot is a bit crooked with 7% deviation.

When Ivo got out of his cast he met Bobby Filipov- a republican running youth champion- who took him under his wing and slowly started training him, teaching him the right way to build his damaged muscles. For Bobby, bodybuilding was and still is a full time passion, science and religion which he patiently preached to his one disciple for many long months, day after day after day. Thanks to Bobby, Ivo recovered fully, got in good physical shape and kept his obsession for training and keeping fit all his life.

About one year ago, Ivo met Mel Ebstein, captain of S/V Passages from Australia, at anchor near the small Caribbean island-country of Dominica. Mel is a marathon runner who has participated in races all around the world, including the prestigious 90km ultramarathon Comrades in South Africa. Together, Ivo and Mel started running up and down the streets of the Caribbean islands we visited and once we reached Barbados, they raced in a 10K run. For Ivo, this was the first official organized long distance race. He finished in 52 minutes and didn’t stop running ever since.

Ivo and Mel running in Trinidad

Ivo and Mel running in Trinidad

From then on, Ivo would go out in the morning no matter where we are, and run with a special Garmin Express watch monitoring and recording his heart rate, speed, time and distance, as well as his GPS position. All this information is then uploaded and recorded in internet. His goal is to run all over the world, in cities, villages, islands and continents. The strangest place he ran so far is the small island of Nargana in the Kuna Yala province of the San Blas Archipelago in Panama, where the longest street is 800 meters, inspiring the young indigenous kids to race after him in the morning.

Once we reached Panama City, Ivo realized this is the almost ideal place to train and participate in a full 42.2K marathon, one of his bucket list accomplishments. Almost, but not ideal, because of the tropical heat and humidity which are a tremendous challenge for the long distance runner. But everything else was perfect. We were at anchor near Amador Causeway, which is a long scenic boulevard making for a nice traffic-free runway in the early morning; there were organized smaller marathons every weekend, so that runners could build up to the big one starting with 10K, 15k and 21K races; and we had access to food. When training for a serious marathon, a special diet is extremely important, and access to the right food at cheap prices here in Panama was a blessing for us.

Inspired by Ivo, Maya and I started running as well, just for general physical fitness in the beginning, and then following a special program, we trained for short distance marathons too. And before our great triumphs, we all had our little mishaps during our first organized runs: first Mira made a fatal mistake, then Maya experienced a major disappointment, and then Ivo suffered because of a virus.

Maya, Ivo, Mira and Sandra

Maya, Ivo, Mira and Sandra

Sunday. It’s very early in the morning and the sun is still slowly waking up. The tall buildings of the city are still sleeping; the streets are empty and quiet. But a strange feeling of anxiety is brewing like a small tornado charged with electricity in one end of the park, where thousands of early people in bright pink t-shirts have gathered for the marathon. Ivo and I are among them. Ivo signed up for the 10K run and I am going for the 5K, after only two weeks of training. We will start together- the 5K and the 10K- and split somewhere along the way.

It’s time. We are a thick crowd facing west, ready to go. Everyone is hush now. Three, two, one, START! The human mass begins moving quickly and suddenly like a creature with many legs: a giant centipede leaping forward with thousands of feet in running shoes. The buzz suddenly stops and everyone is absolutely quiet: a strange silence filled with the murmur of steps on the asphalt like raindrops on a tin roof. The human centipede stretches and stretches and becomes thin and long and I am lost somewhere in the middle, following the ones before me, being followed by the ones behind me. I discover the city of Panama and all sorts of feelings and thoughts overwhelm me. I am thinking how awesome is to be a part of this mass energy.

After 56 minutes, having covered the 10km, Ivo is at the finish line looking for me. I should be done before him with my 5km, but I am nowhere to be found. I show up after the longest hardest deadliest one hour and twenty minutes in my life, after missing my 5K exit and continuing running the full 10 kilometers of the run, during which time I experienced the phenomenon called “bonking”, when you get cold Goosebumps on your head, your heart becomes as big and as fast as a rabbit gone mad, your legs are no longer yours, and your mind starts playing tricks on you, making you seeing things that are not there or staring at things that are there too much. Like the giant planet of a but on a short lady who just passed me like a graceful small hippopotamus and kept shaking her abundance in front of me until I am completely hypnotized. How is it possible for such a massive thing to run so gracefully and with no effort at all for 10 kilometers straight? I make it alive to the finish line without stopping to rest or walk, but I cry with profound sadness, lamenting my stupidity. How could I miss my exit and run 10 instead of 5 km? Ivo is amused but proud with me.

Mira

Mira 5K

Next marathon screw-up is when Maya participates in a 1K kids’ race for 5 to 12-year-old children. She is one of the tallest oldest kids in the race and naturally, she is one of the fastest, with the advantage of her longer legs. We are super proud and happy when she arrives among the first finalists and immediately hurry to a small restaurant to reward our little athlete with a nice big sandwich for breakfast. Where is the screw-up, you will ask? Well, when we go back home that day and check on the event website to see how is Maya’s official ranking, we find out that she has won a second place for girls, but never received her medal and her prize, as we left before the awards! Can you imagine her mixed feelings of pride for wining a second place at her first race ever, and disappointment for not receiving the prize?

Maya

Maya 1K

Ivo’s problem was running sick at his 21K half-marathon in Gamboa. The virus that made everyone we know- people in the anchorage and friends living in Panama- sick with fever and sore throat didn’t spare him. A week before the race, he is down with fever and diarrhea, but keeps training, even though it is more like torture than training. It’s a hard run for his exhausted body, but he made it, even though his time was not what he hoped for.

Ivo

Ivo 21K

We all kept running after our initial minor failures and disappointments. We never gave up. On November 15th 2015 Maya successfully completed her first 5K run. She was listed as 18-years-old, as the run was not open to children, and was one of the youngest runners among thousands of people, crossing the finish line in 35 minutes and 47 seconds. She got a medal and the satisfaction of a major accomplishment. The same day, I ran 10K again, this time fully aware of what I am doing when I passed by the 5K exit point and kept going. I didn’t bonk this time. I felt great all the way till the end and even after crossing the finish line 1 hour and 7 minutes later, I had plenty of energy and could keep running.

Maya 5K

Maya 5K

On November 28th, Ivo received an e-mail from his friend Mel in Australia, who is still training him from a distance, giving him advice and encouragement, and keeping an eye on his progress and physical condition. The e-mail said: “Good luck with your first marathon tomorrow. Celebrate your first 42.2 km during the run and don’t let anything worry you. You have trained hard and well in difficult conditions, which will carry you through any difficulties- especially when your mind starts playing tricks with you. Just ignore any negative thoughts- you can definitely do this! All the very best. Mel Ebstein.”

Ivo 42K

Ivo 42K

On November 29th, 2015 Ivo joined the two thousand other people from all over the world, who started running at 5:00 a.m. in the center of Panama City and didn’t return until hours later, having covered the 42.2 K distance.

Training for months for a long distance running and finishing a 42K full marathon under 5 hours is an accomplishment of a lifetime; an incredible achievement. Maya said: “It feels nice when others are proud with you and when you are proud with yourself!” And this is the main reason why people run in marathons.

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Ivo crossed the finish line of one of his greatest achievements crying with pain and happiness, completely destroyed and overwhelmed. “There were these people helping us; random people with cars driving slowly beside us, and on bicycles, who came and ask us if we need water or gels; they went and brought us Gatorade when the water at the water stations was finished. They gave me water and I shared it with the other runners; and we helped each other, we encouraged each other like it was a war and we were together against a common enemy. And then there were the wheelchairs athletes. They were there too, pushing with their arms; it broke my heart.”

Ivo with other marathons. The guy in the middle is from Kenya and won many marathons in Panama this past summer

Ivo with other marathons. The guy in the middle is from Kenya and won many marathons in Panama this past summer

Ivo, who doesn’t like the human race in general, came back from his 42 km with aching legs and a heart full of inexplicable gratitude for the people of Panama who showed such overwhelming support for the marathon runners. He wept thinking of the doctor who saved his leg, of the friend who thought him how to train, and the friend who thought him how to enjoy and celebrate the long distance run.

Ivo crying after finishing a 42 K marathon, Panama

Ivo crying after finishing a 42 K marathon, Panama

Thank you, D-r Shoilev, thank you Bobby Filipov, thank you Mel Ebstein!

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