'Running Through History': Havana Marathon Attracts U.S. Runners – And Business

Nov 15, 2016

Last month they ran the Key Biscayne Half Marathon – with a big new prize.

“They said, 'You’re gonna go to Cuba,'" says Elliott Mason, who won the race and gets a paid trip to run in the Havana Marathon this Sunday. “I had no idea that Havana had a marathon.”

But like a growing number of U.S. runners, now that he knows, he wants to get to the starting line.

Mason, who owns a Miami tech services business, is from Antigua and Barbuda. So running in Havana now, when the U.S. and Cuba are normalizing relations, has meaning for him as a Caribbean native.

“I will probably be running it with a part of me being attached to something bigger than just the race," Mason says. "Meaning, I’m a part of history.”

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That helps explain why the Havana Marathon has become a popular race for American runners since the U.S. government first allowed them to take part in 2014. And why a South Florida equity firm – General American Capital Partners in Coral Gables – just secured the rights to that popularity.

“People have run Boston, New York, Miami," says GAPC chairman Joe DaGrosa. "But I think it’s the novelty of racing in Havana. It’s the romantic aspect of the city.”

DaGrosa's firm owns MultiRace, a running events company. This year MultiRace partnered with Eventos Latinoamericanos of Spain to win the rights to produce the Havana Marathon.

People have run Boston, New York, Miami. But I think it's the novelty of racing in Havana. It's the romantic aspect of the city. – Joe DaGrosa

Producing the event doesn’t violate the trade embargo against Cuba because the registration and sponsorship revenue is earned outside Cuba. Communist Cuba, meanwhile, allows sponsor advertising on race day.

Still, why would Cuba’s government let a U.S. firm handle a marquee event like that?

“We can deliver Americans," says DaGrosa.

A thousand American runners this year, like Elliott Mason. The Key Biscayne race he won is also produced by MultiRace. Cuba wants more U.S. runners in its marathon, not just for their athletic influence – but their economic affluence, which exceeds that of your typical yanqui visitor.

“The demographics of our racers," says DaGrosa, "they’re considerably wealthier, better educated.”

Such as U.S. triathletes, who compete in the Havana Triathlon MultiRace now produces. DaGrosa says their average income is almost $150,000 a year.

The course of the Havana Marathon, which runners run twice.
Credit Insight Cuba

As Havana sees it, those well-heeled Americans don’t just spend a lot of money in Cuba. Back home they tell more people like themselves about Cuba – a boon to Cuba’s public and private businesses

DaGrosa eyes another benefit for his business. The racing events can position his firm for bigger opportunities if Cuba eventually does open up to U.S. companies. He’s looking at ventures like coffee and financial services.

“The race venture gives us credibility: we’re able to execute and get things done and do transactions that are a win-win for all involved," says DaGrosa. "It was an opportunity where we could differentiate ourselves very quickly and put points on the board.”

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That strategy – create good will with Cuban officials through events or charities – is one more U.S. companies are following.

But there may be a problem now: Donald Trump just got elected President of the United States  – and he’s pledged to cancel normalized relations with Cuba if it doesn’t offer more democratic reform.

In response, there's a chance Cuba might close the door to future deals with U.S. firms.

Miami runner Elliott Mason winning the Key Biscayne Half Marathon - and a trip to race in Cuba - last month.
Credit Courtsey Elliott Mason

Still, Americans will keep visiting Cuba – especially since tourism-related U.S. firms like airlines and Miami's Carnival Cruises have a large stake in the island now. Which means the Havana Marathon – or Marabana, as it’s known – will keep attracting U.S. runners like running coach and author Jenny Hadfield of Chicago.

“This has been on the bucket list for runners for years," says Hadfield, who also trains runners for the heat, humidity and hills on the 26-mile Havana course. And the great sight-seeing.

“It’s such a special treat to run the streets of Havana."

The two-loop route starts at the architectural treasures of Old Havana, then moves along the seaside Malecón and through Revolution Square. Not surprisingly, it avoids much of the city’s notoriously run-down neighborhoods.

Other Havana Marathon enthusiasts say its importance is even greater now after last week's U.S. presidential election.

"President Obama has often talked about how people-to-people travel has facilitated a greater understanding of Cuban society," says Tom Popper, who heads Insight Cuba, a New York company that hosts authorized tours to the island.

Popper led the push to let Americans run the Havana Marathon. And he says events like it, no matter what happens under Trump, will keep U.S.-Cuba normalization alive.

"The marathon is certainly one of those ways" to keep relations intact, he says.

At least as long as Americans feel like they’re running through a part of history.