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Renovated hotel buildings overlooking Ocean Drive. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
Renovated hotel buildings overlooking Ocean Drive. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

Running a marathon is the best way to see Miami Add to ...

It's 5:45 a.m. in the shadows of the American Airlines Arena, home of the National Basketball Association's Miami Heat. High above us, on the stadium's massive digital screen, an image of Chris Bosh, the star player who swapped the winters of Toronto for the warmth of south Florida, lights up the sky. He's wearing an azure business suit. No tuque, and no obvious sense of regret on his face.

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I get it, Chris.

I'm packed in with 17,000 others, awaiting the start of the ING Miami Marathon and Half-Marathon. A steady, warm breeze is blowing in from the Bay of Biscayne. This morning, we'll cover 42.2 kilometres, crossing causeways, racing through the glitter of South Beach, past mansions on perfectly oval islands, before venturing to less-manicured streets, where it's probably just as well to be running, better still in a pack.

Distance running as a form of sightseeing is definitely a hot trend, though it still takes some getting used to. A few years ago, I decided to run the L.A. Marathon, thinking that it would be a neat way to explore Hollywood and Beverly Hills: no cars, no traffic lights and people handing out oranges and drinks every couple of blocks. But a heat wave socked the city, my spirit wavered and, midway through, by Koreatown, the only sights I saw were volunteers dousing us with hoses. I was hoping Miami in January would be different.

This time, I just want to experience the city, enjoy the course and finish in a respectable time. As the gun goes off, the predawn air is a tailor-made 12 degrees. Once past the port, the first neighbourhood we hit is the club district. South Beach is one of those rare places that are actually as pretty and pink as they look on TV. At night, Lamborghinis and tricked-up Bentleys rumble slowly along the main strip, and merengue dancers swivel on bar tops above the crowd.

Heading north on Ocean Drive, the beach to the right, we pass The Villa by Barton G, now a $1,950-a-night boutique hotel, but once the 19,000-square-foot Mediterranean-styled villa of Gianni Versace. It's in front of these steps that he was gunned down by a spree killer in 1997. However, Versace's sense of stylish opulence continues to thrive on these streets, almost every dance club or hotel and art deco landmark or celebrity haunt.

The design tour continues as we veer away from the water, toward starchitect Frank Gehry's just-opened New World Center (see Page 5). Compared with the swerving titanium of his Bilboa masterpiece in Spain, this is a subdued offering, perhaps meant to complement rather than completely shame the Jackie Gleason Theater next door.

At least, that's my impression. This is most definitely a drink-and-dash tour. A sip of Gatorade, a quick bit of rubbernecking and we're around the next corner.

This time, the turn is westerly, toward a causeway linking the Venetian Islands: five tiny artificial islands, where the waterfront properties start in the mid-two millions and every dock comes with a seafaring yacht. Here's where the Lamborghinis call home. And it's our last chance for extreme envy before we're deposited downtown, a few blocks northeast of where we started.

We're approaching the halfway mark, and now we're in the other Miami, the one the guidebooks rarely mention except to warn you against entering. Nearby is Overtown, a neighbourhood so destitute that even asking a taxi driver about it, as I did a day earlier, brings hoots of derision. "You want to see guys on the ground with guns to their head?" laughed the cabbie.

Regardless, this morning, there is little to see on North Miami Avenue except shuttered storefronts and a lengthy food line. In fairness, nothing seems burnt out or particularly menacing, just forlorn, the stereotypically forsaken inner city.

Farther west is Little Havana, which is far more thriving if no more scenic. On the map, it's a 30-block stretch of window-barred apartment blocks and nondescript shops; in reality, the Latino community stretches across the entire city. Miami is an ESL town: Of its 2.2 million people, more than 70 per cent come from Central or South America. Among the runners and the roadside cheers, Spanish is unquestionably the preferred tongue.

A corrugated steel drawbridge delivers us from the downtown, funnelling us south to Coconut Grove. There's a tropical lushness to the neighbourhood names here, as if the city founders were all Jimmy Buffett fans.

The streets rise to the occasion, though. Huge palm trees tower over us, providing a protective canopy from the sun. If South Beach is a Saturday-night Riviera, Coconut Grove is a Sunday brunch and poolside coffee in the evening. As we run past, residents sit on lawn chairs in their driveways (there are no sidewalks), cheering us on and passing out bananas. Nobody seems to mind that we've blocked off all of the roads out.

Heading north to the financial district at the 33-kilometre mark, the finish line is now more or less imaginable. I focus on the skyscrapers inching steadily closer. Miami's downtown is criticized for having no grand Champs d'Élysée or a gathering spot like Times Square that defines the city. It would be fairer to say that there are some emerging spots; they're just not meshed particularly well together.

Brickell, the banking hub, is a long stretch from the entertainment centre where we started, which is miles from the sizzle of South Beach. It's Brickell that fuels Miami; that fills the breathtakingly plush hotels downtown and finances the waterfront manses in the surrounding islands. The signature piece of architecture here is I.M. Pei's Bank of America, the tower that defines the Miami skyline, and by wrapping itself in the colours of the rainbow, based on its lighting each night, captures the sensuousness of the city.

Near its base is the race's end. It is now 24 degrees, a divine warmth for a morning in January. The marathon has taken us through the most beautiful and beleaguered parts of Miami and back again. The city lives up to its promise. It's sultry and Spanish and gorgeous.

And as much as the finish line can never come soon enough, this is one journey I'd happily continue a little longer.

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