Tuesday, October 19, 1999

TR Amsterdam

Amsterdam, Netherlands
(10/15 –10/19/99)

I have always wanted to do the Amsterdam Marathon because it is supposed to be a fast course and I always hear good things about the city. Well, both rumors are true.

Nicole and I left on Friday afternoon. It is a very short hop from London to Amsterdam and there are lots of cheap flights out of our local airport, Stansted.
What we didn’t know in advance but now you do is that the city is notorious for pickpockets. They had a reception committee waiting for Nicole at the airport and lifted her wallet from her purse within the first five minutes. She only noticed it missing when we arrived at the hotel but she remembers being ‘bumped’ very roughly on the moving sidewalk at the airport. Voila!
So we are off to a good start as Nicole spends the next hour on the phone canceling all her credit cards. And I move my wallet from my back pocket to the front one. That way, even if they do pick it at least I will get a thrill from it! And I resolve that I will use my money belt on ALL future trips no matter where I go in Europe and I ask Nicole to buy one also.
But it’s time to get over the negative and begin to explore the city. The first thing that hits you is all the canals. They seem to be all over the place in a random pattern. But actually they are in a concentric horseshoe pattern emanating from the harbor. The Amstel River (I never knew the beer was named after the river) also flows through the center of the old city. So there is water and bridges everywhere! But the city is actually easy to get around once you understand how the canals are laid out. And the public transportation is colorful and efficient. The other travel tip is to buy what they call a ‘strip ticket’ as soon as you can. This ticket contains fifteen strips for 11 Guilders ($5 US) and a typical trip on a tram or metro takes two strips. With the strip ticket you just hop on and off and punch the strips depending on the number of zones you cross. Really very easy and inexpensive.

The Central Rail station is located on the harbor and is the central hub of the city. All the public transportation (even the canal cruises) starts and finishes at the station so you just find yourself in that area a lot of the time. We stayed in a small hotel off Rembrandt Square, which is one of the main tourist areas of Amsterdam. I didn’t see any of the big hotel chains in the old city but there are several expensive hotels. Hotels are expensive, typically $250+ for a good 3-star hotel. We stayed at a small 2-star hotel that had been converted from an old house. And that is another unique (and charming?) feature of Amsterdam that needs explaining. Most of the buildings in the old city or the city center were built 100+ years ago. At that time they taxed property based on the footage that fronted the street. So most owners built their houses very narrow, deep and high. Since the buildings are so narrow there is not much room for stairs and the stairs are very narrow and steep. And as you go up in floors the stairs get narrower and steeper. Our room for the first night was on the top (4th) floor. The stairs to that floor were basically a ladder built into the house. Nicole could barely get up and down them and I had a lot of fun hauling our suitcases up that ladder. Thankfully they moved us to the first floor the next day.
Since the stairs are so narrow it is impossible to move furniture up and down those stairs. So how do they move? Good question? Each house and building has a sky-hook built into the gable. They use the hook to hoist the furniture up and down and move it in through the windows. Now I can understand why they did that 100 years ago but I observed new buildings both in the city and the suburbs and they are still built that way? Even modern skyscrapers have hooks and hoists built into the structures. I guess they have the moving process down to an art and don’t like to climb stairs?

Anyway back to the city. Nicole and I took our mandatory city tour the next day. The guide explained the canal system and showed us the tourist highlights such as the Royal Palace, the National Monument, the Heineken Brewery, various flea markets and of course the ‘Red Light District’. We also took a canal cruise/tour that showed us many of the same highlights from a different perspective. You get a much better view of some of the grand homes along the canals as well as the thousands of houseboats along the canals. Now we were ready to go exploring on our own. But first we made our way to the Olympic Stadium to pick up the race package. That went very smoothly because everyone in Amsterdam speaks English. It is not their first language but we did not meet one person who could not speak English!
After walking around and exploring various sections of the city for the rest of the day we then had to have our usual boring pasta dinner. I had gotten used to the prices in Eastern Europe so had a bit of a shock to have to pay Western European prices again- of course everything is expensive! After dinner we went for a stroll through the Red Light District. It is perfectly safe (except for pickpockets) and there were several couples strolling around or passing through. I did some window-shopping. There were several ladies at work in their windows displaying their wares. But Nicole wouldn’t let me buy anything! Everything you may have heard about Amsterdam’s open or free attitude is true. There are shops selling various forms of cannabis and other drugs that I have never even heard of. The cannabis shop is right next door to the porno shop that has live sex shows that is right next door to several windows with the ladies selling their services. And all of this is legal! There are gay bars and clubs all over the city. It is not difficult to identify them because they usually have pictures in the front of several customers engaged in the type of sex acts that supposedly go on inside! And the pictures are very explicit!
So I am sure that one can find anything one may want in Amsterdam and most of it will be legal!

Now back to the purpose of our visit (no it was not the items above dummy!). It was the marathon –remember! Damn I almost forgot myself!
The only bad thing I have to say about the marathon is the late start –12:30pm. I hate late starts. But everything, absolutely everything else was first class. The organization, the ease of registration, the start, etc was very good. The course was a 21-km loop around and through all the major tourist highlights of the city. The course was flat and fast and completely barricaded to traffic. There were lots of spectators and several bands playing along the course. The weather had turned cool, almost cold. In fact it was the first time this year that I had to wear gloves and a garbage bag at the start to keep warm. The wind was a bit stronger than desired and always seemed to be coming head-on.
I was a bit concerned after hitting the wall in my last race so I started slow and easy and decided to check my fuel tanks every 5 miles. At 15 miles I still felt good but between 15 and 20 I had one of those lulls where you feel tired and are not sure you want to run anymore. But at 20 miles I felt the tanks still had some energy so I drooped the pace to sub eight minutes. Fortunately there were no walls or dikes in my path this time. The last 10K were my fastest of the race and although it hurt like hell, it felt good! (Only a runner will understand that contradiction!) It also helped bring me home in 3:33:37 or under Boston Qualifying time. That is my new goal going forward. If I can run under 3:35 I am going to consider it a good race! The weather must have helped the leaders too since the winning time was 2:06:47- only a few seconds off the world record!
I heartily recommend this marathon and city to any runner wanting to run a great marathon!

After the race Nicole and I strolled around the city some more and finally settled on a restaurant for a great steak dinner ($70 for two with a bottle of wine!) I was thinking of going back to the Red Light District for a massage but instead we went to a sports bar and watched the first half of the San Francisco/Carolina game. I think the massage would have been cheaper and I know I would have enjoyed it more!

Unfortunately we had to return to England on Monday because Nicole has these silly time restrictions that all workers have (called vacation time or something like that?). I would have liked to have had time to visit the countryside but then I still have something to look forward to.

So the bottom line is that as long as you protect your money and wallet, Amsterdam is a great city to visit and the marathon is a great race to run!

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