It’s a hot November morning and the runners make their way through the streets of La Antigua Guatemala. The road is treacherous: the cobblestones make it hard for the runners to keep their balance and not drop their tray. “The locals have an advantage,” says Wilson López, a young man who traveled from Quetzaltenango to participate in the Race of Trays. “They get to practice in this kind of terrain all the time.”
Every year, thousands of waiters and bartenders from various restaurants across the country travel down to La Antigua Guatemala to participate in a 1.5km race in which they carry trays with different products on them. According to the spokesperson for the event, Adolfo Jiménez, the Race of Trays began 15 years ago as an internal activity of the restaurant that now organizes the event. “Originally, the team of waiters would run around the block carrying trays. It’s a national race now. We have guests from Livingston, Petén, Monterrico, Tecpán, Guatemala City… We’ve unified sport and service through the Race of the Trays.”
The rules of the race are simple: you have to get from start to finish as fast as possible without dropping the contents of the tray. “Contestants can keep running if the stuff falls on the tray,” explains Brenda Gómez Chávez, one of the judges of the race. “However, if they fall to the ground, then they are disqualified. Rearranging the contents of the tray during the race, interfering with other runners, and running on the sidewalks are also grounds for disqualification.” The judge added that, halfway through the race, the competitors are allowed to switch the hand with which they carry the tray.
For some of the runners, this poses no relief. “I can only wait tables with my right hand,” says Emilio Tobías, a waiter from Tecpán who has participated in the race in five different occasions. “To top it off, my shoelaces became untied, so I had to keep running with the added risk of tripping over them.”
“A lot of us train for this race throughout the year,” adds Mr. Tobías. He holds that each waiter and bartender participating has to perfect their tray-carrying technique and adapt it to the contents of the tray to ensure success. For instance, competitors had to carry a can of soda, a tallboy of beer, a cup of water, and a bottle of a sports drink for this race. “The problem here was the sports drink,” explains Melvin, a coworker of Mr. Tobías. “It’s not a stable container, its base is kind of rounded, and it’s big. If it falls over, it would also make the rest of the things on the tray fall. So, you have to adapt and match the movement and positioning of your hands and fingers to the movements of the bottle.” Others added that the height of the bottle forces you to make a tough decision between carrying the tray at hip-level or over your shoulder. “If you’re very nervous, you start to shake,” says Wilson López, the waiter from Quetzaltenango. “Carrying it low makes your hands shake even more. If you carry it above your shoulder, the wind and the movement make it easier for the sports drink to fall. So, it really depends on which risk you’re willing to take.”
Some teams take the competition even further. “This year, we have nine members in our group, and three of them are our ace in the hole,” says a man known as Compañero, the representative of a local bakery’s team. Last year, his team snatched second place in the women’s category. So, this year, he expanded his team to add three elite runners to the mix but it didn’t really pan out because of their lack of expertise. “Let me tell you something, those three runners are very good athletes. But they’re good at running without the tray. The tray limits their freedom of movement. The hardest part isn’t actually running; it’s running with stuff in your hands. And, well, waiters are pros at that.”