Runner on the run: A Cuban marathoner's longest haul

Cuban-born Aguelmis Rojas training in Maldonado, Uruguay earlier this year. A naturalized Uruguayan, he will run the marathon at the IAAF World Championships in London on Aug. 6. Vanessa Garcia

MALDONADO, Uruguay -- One foot, then another, sprint to the rhythm of a Cuban beat. Each stride makes chiseled muscle and ligament visible, unveiling the years of training that led to this moment, this flow. A flow Aguelmis Rojas hasn’t always felt, a flow that found its way to him through a long and winding path, not without impediment, and out of necessity.

Rojas is a long-distance runner and 2004 Olympian who escaped the restraints and scarcity of Cuba with his trainer, Rafael Díaz, only to find himself at a standstill in Uruguay, eventually barred from the Rio Olympics. Displaced, once again, asking himself: What now?

Rojas, 39, is considered one of Cuba’s top five long-distance runners of all time. He holds the record for the half-marathon on the island, but he wanted more. When he defected to Uruguay in 2009, 4,000 miles away from home, he thought he would obtain more. The “more,” however, remained elusive for a long time. Now, his eyes are set on London, where he will run the marathon at the world championships on Sunday, this time waving a flag with the rising sun of Uruguay, rather than the stripes and star of Cuba. It’s also now, as Rojas reaches the end of his career, that he is starting to understand what he has really been running away, toward, and for, his whole life.

Jesse Owens said that one of the things he loved about running was that it was something you could do “by yourself and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights, just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.” According to his trainer, Rojas has always had good lungs. As for the strength, he has built that up: hurdle by hurdle.

The first hurdle: Running in Cuban shoes

Rojas started running when he was 14, and it was evident right away that he was agile, ambitious, driven, fast, and hard-headed. All the things a marathoner needs, said trainer Díaz. The only problem was: How to feed his habit? Literally. Because hunger in Cuba wasn’t just the hunger of a competitive athlete to win, it was the growl of a belly, begging for fuel.

Back in El Cotorro, the marginal Havana neighborhood where Rojas lived and trained, his prerace meals often consisted of sugar and water. Other times, it was a single plate of yellow rice and hot dogs, shared among four people. Running shoes? If you were a professional athlete, you got two of them a year, gifted by the government. “Try running on two shoes the whole year,” Rojas said. “If you’re running races that are 26 miles long, they turn to shreds.”

Add exhaustion to the list. Sometimes, to reach a meet, he had to pedal 25 kilometers on a bike before competing. Other times, he and Diaz had to wait five hours to hitch a ride from Havana to the province of Villa Clara, where the State held national competitions.

“And sometimes that ride you hitched was on the back of a cow truck, smell of dung, dust and road dirt in your face, straight into Aguelmis’ lungs, just hours before he had to run. Sí, sí, eso era así,” said Díaz, nodding, covering his face with his hardened hand. “That’s the way it was. Don’t remind me.”

Even when Rojas did win a race, it didn’t always feel like a win. In 2008, when his State-given Adidas shoes ran their course, Rojas went up to the podium in a pair of recreational Nikes, which he’d purchased in Venezuela.

“I’d run the race in the Adidas the Cuban government gave me,” explained Rojas, “but they were all torn up, they’d hardly made it, and so I changed into the newer Nikes to get up on the podium.” Cuba sanctioned him for that and took him off the tracks for a year, forcing him to miss the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“I swear if it weren’t for stubbornness, I don’t know if I’d still be running,” Rojas said. And perhaps it was stubbornness that got him to Uruguay too. “Which wasn’t easy,” both Rojas and Díaz emphasized, when they told their story -- "no es fácil," a common Cuban saying.

The second hurdle: Red tape and escape

When it started to feel impossible to get ahead in Cuba, Rojas and Díaz started planning their defection.

“We’d been dreaming about leaving Cuba for a long time by 2009,” Rojas explained. “But they wouldn’t let us travel together, trainer and athlete.” Cuba, in other words, would send Rojas to compete without his trainer so as to not risk defection, something artists and athletes often did. Prior to 2013, athletes and artists were among the only Cubans that got to see the world outside their island, as the government made it extremely difficult, if not virtually impossible, for others to attain exit visas.

However, when it came time to run the San Fernando in Uruguay -- a 10K road race between the working-class city of Maldonado and the ritzy, seaside resort of Punta del Este -- Rojas and his trainer were, for some reason, allowed to travel together. “That’s what Cuba is like,” said Díaz, shrugging his shoulders, accepting the seemingly random actions of island bureaucracy.

“They made it so hard for us,” Díaz said. “I always say that if I didn’t have a motorcycle in Cuba, we wouldn’t be here in Uruguay.”

He explained that the government had the two of them running around Havana until hours before their departure, gathering paperwork -- “de un lado p’al otro” -- from one end of town to the other. They did, finally, leave together to Uruguay, but they left so late that they missed the San Fernando race.

Once in Uruguay, they asked for an extension of their stay to run another race, the San Antonio, which was to take place in Piriápolis, a city sandwiched between the capital, Montevideo, and Punta del Este.

This also allowed time to solidify their defection. The pair made friends with another Cuban already in Uruguay, who was living in Las Grutas, near Punta del Este. Roberto Geovanis López Sarabia, a dancer, masseuse, and former professional windsurfer for Cuba, had defected years prior. López Sarabia was aware of the trials, tribulations and tragedy that Cuban defection entailed. He quietly revealed that he had lost his wife and child in the Florida Straits, in 1994, in an attempted escape.

Rojas and Díaz pleaded with their newfound friend. They knew they had a short window because soon the government would pull Rojas from running, considering him too old to run for Cuba. This meant he wouldn’t be allowed to leave the island to run races, and in turn he wouldn’t be able to defect during one of these trips. If they didn’t take advantage of this opportunity, runner and trainer would have to risk the prospect of jumping into sea in a makeshift raft, like López Sarabia’s wife and child had, like so many Cubans before them.

“We didn’t want that to be our only option,” Rojas said.

So they asked López Sarabia if they could hide out in his house after the San Antonio, a race which Rojas won. The runner and trainer knew that when they didn’t show up at the airport on the day of their set return, there was a chance they could be located and sent back. “And you’re not a person in Cuba after you get sent back, because they make your life miserable,” Rojas warned.

López Sarabia, at first, didn’t know what to do.

“I thought about it,” he remembered. “Do I help these people? Do I change their lives? I knew what it was like. That separation from family, how hard it was. But I had to help them, I knew I had to.”

The owner of the building López Sarabia lived in was Madelón Rodríguez, the widow of renowned Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró, whose famous Casapueblo is a “livable sculpture” resort near Punta del Este. Their son Carlos ‘Carlitos’ Páez Rodríguez, a motivational speaker, was one of the survivors of the infamous plane that crashed into the Andes mountains in 1972.

A brief respite: A friend

In Carlitos Páez, Rojas and Díaz found an ally who knew what it was like to fight for your life. Páez’s story, retold in the film "Alive", is a tale of epic proportions: A plane carrying an Uruguayan rugby club, of which Páez was a member, crashed into the Andes mountains in 1972. Of the 45 that were on the plane, 16 were rescued after battling subzero temperatures, avalanches, despair and turning to cannibalism to survive. For 72 days, they endured the almost impossible.

López Sarabia, who was bartering for a roof over his head and helping Rojas and Díaz with the income he earned as a dancer and masseuse, told Páez about the Cubans he was hiding. Immediately, Páez backed the Cubans. And because Páez is very well-known in Uruguay, his backing came with significant political and social pull.

"I was happy, because all I could think was: I was free. There it is, that's what it is. I am a lover of freedom, and seeing those Cubans free ... it gave me great pleasure." Carlos 'Carlitos' Páez, survivor of the 1972 Andes plane crash

When Páez told the story of how he helped the Cubans, he remembered a particular moment when he was 18 years old, struggling to survive in the Andes.

After hearing the news on the radio that he would be rescued, Páez started to shave. His father used to tell him that shaving was like taking away the worries of the day that had passed. He applied that to the moment and shaved everything away. He destroyed his face, of course, because it was freezing, but he continued. He brushed his hair and put gel in. Gel was one of the only things they had left because they hadn’t been able to eat it. Finally, he went into the plane and took the seat belts, because he remembered that his mother’s car didn’t have seat belts.

“I could say that I took a compass, something smart like that, but no,” Páez said. “I shaved and I combed my hair, and I took seat belts for my mother. And I was happy, because all I could think was: I was free. There it is, that’s what it is. I am a lover of freedom, and seeing those Cubans free ... it gave me great pleasure.”

Throughout 2009, Páez facilitated a lawyer, his son-in-law Alexis Guynot de Boismenu, to help Rojas and Díaz.

“The Uruguayan, as a people, we are immigrants, we are made up of immigrants,” said Boismenu, who is of French descent. Eventually, Jaime Trobo, a representative of the ruling Partido Nacional, also lent his hand. The necessary paperwork was expedited and the Cubans were allowed to stay. “That was not an easy year,” said Aguelmis, “to say the least, but I am forever grateful to those that helped us through.”

“I was part of an extraordinary story in the Andes whose protagonists were ordinary people,” Páez said. “Everyone has their Andes to cross, this was Aguelmis’ and Rafael’s.”

The third hurdle: New territory is sometimes slippery

Once in Uruguay, life became a little easier. Rojas could train on an actual track in Maldonado and eat three meals a day. He managed to build a two-story house from the ground up, with his trainer’s help. He married an Uruguayan and had a son, who is now 3 years old. In Cuba, however, he had left behind a daughter, who, until recently, Rojas had only seen through Skype in the eight years since his defection, as Cuba had prohibited Rojas from entering the island.

In order to make ends meet, Rojas worked three jobs: as an electrician, a group athletics coach and at a recreation facility. The same for Diaz, who apart from training Rojas, worked as a carpenter, masseuse and all-around handyman.

Then came the events of spring 2016.

On April 10 of that year, Rojas qualified for the Rio Olympics by running the Montevideo marathon, with a time of 2 hours, 17.32 seconds, beating his closest competitor, Andres Zamora, for the spot. Zamora had previously come in at 2:18.56 in the Sevilla marathon. Only three runners were allowed to run in Rio for Uruguay, and given that two others, twins Nicolás and Martin Cuestas, had better qualifying times than Zamora and Rojas, everything was set to go. It was going to be the Cuban, and the Cuestas twins, and Rojas was excited. He was finally going to be able to make his new country proud.

But, at the last minute, Zamora contested Rojas’ win, claiming that the Montevideo marathon had “irregularities.” These alleged irregularities were brought to the Uruguayan Athletics Confederation (CAU) and the CONSUDATLE (the South American Athletics Confederation). Both entities confirmed the irregularities of the course, which included a change of the original track. This decision disqualified Rojas’ result and did not give him enough time to reclaim it before the Olympics.

The final decision came about a month before the Rio Olympics.

Zamora, whose father had run as a marathoner in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics for Uruguay, wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“It was something hard for me, what happened with Rojas, but, in this instance, necessary, because it had to do with going to the Olympic Games, you understand,” Zamora said.

Social media lit up after Rojas was disqualified, many claiming that the decision was biased in Zamora’s favor because Rojas was a native-born Cuban about to represent Uruguay.

According to Sebastian Amaya, a sports journalist for El Observador in Uruguay, “there are multiple interpretations here, depending on which way you look at the situation. Even though Zamora comes out being the villain of the movie, his stance was clear and understandable. On the side of Rojas, I think Rojas, who made the qualifying time in a very difficult race with a lot of wind, paid the price of picking up someone else’s mess on a very disorganized race.”

Rojas, who was already 38 at the time, felt like he was staring down his last chance to go to the Olympics again. He had waited his turn seven years since his arrival in Uruguay for his official citizenship to come through and was totally disillusioned after the disqualification.

“It was bad, I went to a really dark place,” he said. “I didn’t know how I was going to get out of this one. After everything we’d gone through to get here ... ”

The finish line

Eventually, Rojas got back up and running again, searching for the next big race. “It’s what we do,” he said of himself and Díaz. Except that this time around, the pair was more careful. Rojas will represent Uruguay at the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) World Championships in London running the marathon on Sunday. So as not to run the risk of having to qualify for the worlds in Uruguay on a course that might have caused trouble, late last year the pair went to Amsterdam in order to ensure qualification for the championships. Rojas came in at 2:15.36, earning qualification to represent Uruguay at the IAAF championships. On Sunday, he will run alongside Zamora and Nicolás Cuestas.

In the lead-up to London, Rojas and Díaz had been training nonstop at The Campus, a sports center in Maldonado. One foot, then another, almost to the rhythm of a Cuban beat ringing in Rojas’ ears, as he sang the popular tune "Hasta que se seque el Malecón." The smile on his face as he hit his stride, jumping over one hurdle after another, told anyone watching that he’s exactly where he needs to be -- on the track. His goal is set. On Sunday, he wants to beat Nestor Garcia’s Uruguyan record for the marathon (2:12:48), which would make Rojas not only one of Cuba’s best runners, but also Uruguay’s fastest.

Havana, Maldonado, Amsterdam, London: they are all pieces of a larger picture, strides in a longer race. Because, just as it was for Owens, Rojas says that, for him, “running has always been about feeling free.”

Vanessa Garcia is a novelist, playwright, and journalist. Her debut novel, White Light, was one of NPR's Best Books of 2015.