Training for a Half Marathon While in the Peace Corps

Mastermind Weekend 1/16

Hey there!

I'm Tina

I’m the owner of Carrots ‘N’ Cake as well as a Certified Nutrition Coach and Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner (FDN-P). I use macros and functional nutrition to help women find balance within their diets while achieving their body composition goals.


An in-depth, 4-week reverse dieting course for women who feel like their metabolism has slowed down, think they might have hormonal imbalance and can’t lose weight no matter what they do.

My name is Ellen and I doing a guest post about what it is like to train and race a half marathon in a third world country. Everything that is written below expresses my personal opinions and experiences. I hope you enjoy!

In January 2007 I packed up my bags and moved to Guatemala for a 29-month stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was beyond excited and nervous and did not know what to expect. Previous to me leaving for Guatemala I had been running pretty regularly, running 4 days a week and doing seven or eight miles with out a problem. I was in very good shape and felt great about my body and weight.


The first three months of Peace Corps is all about adjusting. I was in training five days a week, took intense Spanish classes every day, and lived with a wonderful host family. I was loving my experience and soaking it all in, but the only problem was I did not have much control what I ate and I could not exercise like I was used to in the states. My host mother made me breakfast; Corn flakes, hot milk and banana, packed my lunch, usually some sort of beans and vegetables and chicken dish, and for dinner it was refried beans and white bread or tortillas. Food was terrific and in the spirit of adapting to my new country I ate everything. I continued to eat everything when I moved to my post and once again lived with another host family for three more months. I made sure to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, which there were plenty of. It was mango season after all, but I also ate a lot of carbs, tortillas, pasta, cereal etc. By the time I completed my first year I had gained 15 pounds and no longer felt healthy or in control. Fortunately though, I finally moved out into my own little house and was free to cook for myself. That is when I took back control of my diet and I decided that I was going to train for a half marathon!

Guatemala does have a culture of running and biking and hosts a few great half and full marathons throughout the year. The most famous is the international marathon in Coban. Many of the 180 volunteers in Guatemala run the race or travel to Coban to party and support their fellow volunteers. I set my sight on running the half marathon and in scripted a few of my friends to run with me. Training started slow. I had a great running route that led out of my town through the country side and up down the hills, I mean mountains. My town was located in the middle of a valley, and to get any where I had to go up up up and then down down down and then up up up again. Getting used to the hills was difficult but soon I was up and down them with out a problem.

Training for a marathon in rural Guatemala though is an interesting endeavor. Even though running is a normal past time in more urban areas in the country it definitely was not in the rural areas. Walking sure, or biking if your bike could make it over the ruts in the road, better yet hitchhiking in the back of pick up truck, but definitely not running!

The first time I set out to do a seven mile run I got dropped off at the beginning of the dirt road that leads to my town. The roads winds through corn fields and tiny villages. Around mile two of my run I came upon the village where I taught in the high school. I recognized faces of my students and they recognized me. They would call out “Seno” or “Teacher” “where are you going, what are you doing?” Of course I would try to explain that I running back to my town. They would then say “oh well we are having a party for a sister of mine. It’s her birthday why don’t you stop in and have some cake and coffee.” I would try to insist that No I am running, training and I can not stop. My students would look puzzled and then would say “ok we understand, but wait right here why we go get you a snack to take on your way.” So, I would be handed a piece of fruit or some avocado or whatever else and then I would be on my way. When I reached my town after seven miles and told my friends there that I run the whole way they just looked at me like I was crazy and asked me “why didn’t you just take the bus?”

Most of the time while training I encountered good vibes, people who were curious and friendly. They would wave to me, or pull up along side me to give me a ride in the pick up truck or I would have little kids that would run with me for awhile till they got to far out of their town or tired. Let’s not also forget the beauty of running in the country side. Guatemala is a beautiful country and ran through cornfields that towered over me, coffee fields with palm trees rising over the plants. I would run through tiny villages, past chickens, sheep and cows. It was all very breathtaking and made the miles go by fast.


Even though it was mostly positive, running in rural Guatemala had its perils. I usually tried to run with my friend or my boyfriend (now husband) because it is always safer in numbers. The most dreaded thing we would encounter were the packs of wild, chuchos or “dogs”. These animals were wily, skinny and nasty. They would do anything to keep you away from their territory and they would do their best to run you out of town. You had to be prepared. My friend and I would run with fist-full of rocks to throw at them if they got to close.

One time my friend and I were coming up on a tiny village and in the woods I could see the dogs lining up ready to charge. The pack is always led by the smallest, skinniest dog and he would come barreling down snapping at our ankles, and growling. We would slow down to a walk, hold our rocks high up in the air and stomp our feet shouting “fuera chucho!” or “ get out here dog” this usually kept them at bay but we would have to walk like that for a quarter mile or so before we could start up again. There are also more serious risks as well. When you are running in unknown territory and people don’t know who you are you have to be well-aware of your surroundings. Some volunteers had very close-encounters with unwanted advances from men, but that is not my story to tell, eventually being so hyper-aware can drag you down and after completing my race I decided I would only run in my town perimeters or with my boyfriend, so not to risk getting hurt.

Finally the race-weekend was upon us. My two friends and I piled into a bus and took the 12 hour trip to get to Coban. I was ready, excited and pumped! I felt great, I had trained hard for 3 months and I knew I could finish the race. The day before the race my boyfriend and I were sleeping in another Peace Corps Volunteer’s house. I woke up around 3:30 am and felt very bad. I quickly rushed to the bathroom and stayed in there for the rest of morning. It was dawning on me that something not so pleasant was happening in my stomach. I called the Peace Corps nurse and she urged me to go to the hospital to get tests done. I did that, but also concentrated on drinking water and trying to regain my strength so that I could race the next day. That afternoon I received a phone call from my nurse. “Ellen your results are in and you have un monton de amebas in your intestine” translation “Ellen your have amebic dysentery and you are very sick and have to go on intense medicine for a month and you can not run that race tomorrow!” I was devastated. I really wanted to run, I had trained I was mentally prepared and now I was being told I could not. I cried and my boyfriend (now husband) told me don’t worry Ellen there is another race in two months in Antigua we will run it together. I perked up, another race?

So, I held my boyfriend to his word and we signed up for the race. Actually we were the very first people to sign up for the race so my bib number was 1! I can happily report that I continued training and in July of 2008 I ran my very first half-marathon! The best part of it all was that through out the race I heard people shouting “Vayase numero Uno!” or “GO number One!” I completed the race in 2:05 and couldn’t have been more proud!


I returned back to the States in June of 2009. I have trained and competed in few more half marathons and ten milers, but nothing will ever compare to training in Guatemala. The joy of running through the most breath taking scenery, being surrounded by people who love you and want to support you in anyway then can even that is offering you a ride to the finish line or giving you coffee in the middle of a seven mile run will always stay with me. I overcame some major obstacles to compete and I will never forget that experience and will use that to motivate me to keep running!



  1. Wow your dedication is inspiring! A dog alone would have put me off running, let alone a whole pack! Well done for completing a half marathon in such a great time 🙂

  2. thank you for this post! i am a marathoner in guatemala right now, actually. i sure felt strange running through coban yesterday, and huehue today, but a girl’s gotta do what she’s gotta do.

    1. @mary: Wow that’s impressive Mary. Are there many other runners there? I’m not familiar with the culture of Guatamala, but I’ve read stories of women going to other countries in Africa, India, etc. and people not understanding why someone was just running! I think I’d be worried about getting distance in and safety?

  3. I love this story! You should do a series about running races in other countries! This reminded me of avoiding the wild dogs in the morning when I was in Romania 🙂

  4. Hey Ellen! So fun to read about your adventures, great job with keeping up while overseas! I had my own experience with that this past winter; I studied in Ghana for a month in January, right in the middle of training for a 10 mile race (my longest one so far). Definitely hard but fun as well! The only time i would have to run would be right in the middle of the day, of course the hottest time while the rest of the people usually retreat inside to relax…out on the roads though i was constantly encouraged and even joined! It was a blast, and those I came to know became really interested in how I would just run, not for a sport or anything.

  5. Interesting! I had a totally different experience training for 3 years while teaching in the Dominican Republic. I was living in the city 🙁 so the scenery wasn’t beautiful – it was DISGUSTING!! Lol. But I loved the community support + hated the dogs!

  6. I love the difference in culture! Here, training for races is so normal, but I think it’s so funny they asked why you didn’t just take the bus! And, despite all the perils, that sounds like a beautiful place to train! I’m training now for a 10K (and hopefully a half-marathon in the future) and keeping track of it on my blog!

  7. Wow, Ellen! this is such a cool story and I’m so blessed to know that you were in the P.C.! I also give you major major kudos for assimilating to the natives’ lifestyle and culture, through food. After all, that is one of the biggest ways to connect with natives of other countries. 🙂

  8. @Stephanie @The Travelling Tastebuds: @Stephanie @The Travelling Tastebuds: HI! Joining the Peace Corps is definitely going out of your comfort zone and people react differently. My parents, especially my Dad was supportive. They were for sure nervous,but then they came down to visit me for 10 days and loved it! My husband didnt tell his family until a week before he left because he thought they would convince him not to go. In the end both sets of parents were extremely proud of us! Good luck it is an amazing experience.

  9. Thank you everyone for your comments! I have wanted to write this story for a long time because I thought people could really connect with it, especially since running is such a part of our culture here in the states. Thanks Tina for letting me share on your awesome blog!!! Keep up the fantastic
    work. Also, if anyone has questions about the peace corps or running in a different country feel free to contact me at

  10. Awesome story!!
    joining the Peace Corps has always been a HUGE dream of mine, the BA degree is the only thing holding me back! :/

    Thanks for sharing!!

  11. Thanks for sharing your story! I spent the last 6 months living in Israel and I understand what a challenge it can be to exercise/eat right in another country! Your story is really inspiring 🙂

  12. OMG – I loved your post. I work for a university running study abroad/volunteer trips to rural Jamaica and everything you say is pretty darn familiar. Especially when you explain that you’re running and can’t stop and someone just says, “Ok, just wait a minute then and I will get you cake.”

    And, gotta love calls like “Professa!” and “Teacha!”

  13. My story is very similar to yours! I left for Namibia, Africa with the Peace Corps in Oct of 2007. The female PCVs in Namibia felt the same weight gain you did, and many of us trained for a half marathon (some people did the whole thing) in Namibia. I heard lots of “Miss, Miss, why are you running like that? Where are you going?” and had a lot of dogs chase me down as well. But I just LOVED training in Namibia. After I finished a long run, I would visit my students and their families and little kids would run up to me to give me hugs. I am sure you feel the same–no American run can beat a village run! The mountains, the sunsets, the people, the crazy animals–it is hard to put into words how amazing and crazy it is at the same time.

    Hope you got rid of that parasite!

  14. Awesome story! So funny how other cultures feel about “fitness”.

    I am slightly disappointed at the use of the term “third world” by someone who did Peace Corps. I kind of feel like an experience like that would make you realize pretty quickly that it’s just one world.

  15. Thanks for writing this!! I just returned home from the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic and my running/food/cultural experiences were very similar! Such beautiful memories and precious moments to have experienced! Congratulations on all of your runs!

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