Friday, October 17, 2003

TR Slovakia

Germany, Slovakia and UK
10/01/03 to 10/16/03

Since my latest trip lasted 28 days and included 3 marathons and 8 countries in Europe I know that a single trip report would be too long so I intend to split it into three reports based around the marathons.
I will include a prologue with this first report as there is some preliminary information that is common to all three. So let’s get started.

The planning for this trip started last spring when I received news that the Belgrade Marathon, normally held in April, had been postponed to Oct due to political issues – the Iraq war and the assassination of the president of Serbia. When they announced that the race was tentatively rescheduled to Oct. it fit perfectly with my plan to go to Europe for the month of Oct to finish off the last two (now three) countries of Europe (or so I thought at the time?). Slowly – very slowly- over the summer I started to collect the necessary information to put the trip together. Trying to get information and then confirmation and entry into races in the smaller, third-world countries is very difficult if not impossible. They typically do not have web sites and if they do have an email contact they won’t/don’t respond to email. In most cases a letter sent by fax is the best solution.
By late summer I did have confirmation of the dates but the race directors refused to respond to my emails for entry forms and hotel information. I decided to go out on a limb and book the air travel and just show up and hope that I could find the race if that’s the way it turned out? In desperation I also sent the race directors another email outlining my racing credentials and explaining that I was trying to complete a goal of running a marathon in every country in Europe and needed their help. Little did I know that this would eventually come back to bite me?

I decided to cash in the last of my Delta miles to get to Europe but then I needed to buy tickets to travel around/within the Balkans. This proved to be a challenge since the only airline that could accommodate my proposed travel plans was Yugoslavia Airlines (JAT) and I had to locate a travel agency in Philadelphia to write the tickets for me. After much frustration I finally I had tickets to get us to all the required locations and --- miracles - of - miracles: a few days before we were set to leave I received emails from the race directors in Belgrade and Podgorica. The race director in Belgrade advised me that a hotel had been booked and a race package would be waiting at the hotel. The Podgorica director informed me that I was being “invited as a special guest” and the race committee would pay for the entry and hotel. Kosice actually had a real web site and had been the easiest to plan. I felt much more comfortable that I was actually going to accomplish my goal on this trip as I sat waiting for the first plane/leg of the trip.

Now the trip begins.
As usual with ‘free’ tickets we were routed halfway around the world/Europe to get to our first destination – Kosice, Slovakia. You don’t feel like you can complain because the tickets are ‘free’and you are flying first-class? In this case we were routed through Frankfurt, Germany with a nine-hour lay-over. Since neither of us had been to Frankfurt we decided to catch a train into the city center and explore the Old Town. Frankfurt was totally destroyed during WWII so the Old Town has been completely restored. It is quite small but very nice and looks like every other ‘old town’ in Europe. I think we are getting (or have gotten) ‘old towned’; ‘old churched’ and ‘old castled’ out??? But ignore my boredom and sarcasm – it is a nice city. The rest of the city is very modern skyscrapers – several of unique and interesting architecture that is in stark contrast to the old town. We enjoyed a nice lunch in the old town along with some great German beer – even tried the local apple wine but liked the beer better. After lunch we took a cruise on the Main River to enjoy the skyline of the city from a different perspective. Then it was time to head back to the airport and continue our journey via Prague to Kosice. Finally we arrived in Kosice at 11pm – some 30 hours after we left our home in FL.

I had wisely booked the flights to allow us two days to recover from jetlag so we had Fri and Sat to recover and explore the city before the race on Sun. I probably needed the two days for jetlag but we certainly didn’t need two days to explore Kosice. It is a small industrial city that dates back to the 11th century. The Old Town is small – stretching along one main street about a mile long with several old, interesting buildings such as St Elizabeth’s Cathedral (1508); St Michael’s Chapel (1330); Urban’s Tower (1628) and the East Slovak Theatre (1897). Some ruins from the original town ramparts (1290) still exist along with many more churches – but as I said we are ‘churched’ out! Slovakia does not get many tourists and there is little infrastructure for tourists. There were no city tours so we just bought a local guidebook and did our own walking tour of the old town. That took a half- day – now what do we do? We considered doing an excursion to the nearby wine country but since I wouldn’t be able to taste/enjoy the wines the day before the race that won’t work? I decided to see if I could find the race director or some runners from Ukraine or Belarus to ask them if they had information on marathons in those countries. No luck! I could not find one, single race volunteer or runner who spoke English. In fact – other than the desk staff at our hotel – very few people in the city spoke English. Not surprisingly I was the only American and runner from an English-speaking country entered in the marathon. Fortunately our hotel had satellite TV with BBC so at least we were able to hear some English and get some news. Whew! I might have had to talk to my sports manager for a few days and that would lead to nothing but trouble?

Normally I have a routine or tradition that I always follow before a marathon – Chinese food (rice) two days before the race and Italian (must be spaghetti) the night before. But this time I decided that since I wasn’t going to run/race hard I wanted to try the local/ethnic food on Thu night. So we spent a few hours strolling by restaurants in the old town looking for a good restaurant that served local fare. The local food is strong on grilled meats with a lot of fried side dishes. Dinner was good but very heavy – and relatively cheap – about $20 including a liter of local wine.

M-Day was approaching! The International Peace Marathon is the 2nd oldest marathon in the world (after Boston) and the oldest in Europe. This was the 73rd anniversary and thus it is treated somewhat like Boston by the Europeans. Many of the top runners run each year and there is good prize money even though it is a small race. There were only 400 runners in the marathon and about 600 in the Half. Yet there are banners and advertisements posted all over the city. The race gets prime time on TV and space on the front page of the paper – it is a huge/important national sports event for the country and the local citizens really support it. The start/finish line was right under our hotel room and I watched the army build bleachers at the finish line for the dignitaries and public – for 1,000 runners? The weather the day before the race sucked – cold and raining hard. I hoped that we would get better weather for the race?

Finally – Sunday morning – race day! The race started at 10am. It was cold and windy but the rain had stopped. The course was a half-marathon loop that started and finished in front of our hotel in old town. We foolish marathoners had to run two loops. As we started down the main street of old town there were thousands of supporters along the street to cheer us on. Unfortunately by 2K it started raining again and would never stop. I had planned to run an easy (8:15) pace but soon found myself following a couple that were running the Half and were running such a smooth, easy pace that I decided to stay with them. They pulled me across the half in 1:44:58 – right on an 8-min pace. After they peeled off to finish their race I started my 2nd loop and decided to slow down and reached 32K in 2:42:53. At that point I still felt OK so decided to pick up the pace over the last 10K to teach the old bod how to deal with pain and stress for the last 10K. I was also sick of running in the cold rain. I finally crossed the finish line in 3:31:30 – about 4 minutes faster than I had planned to run. I was pleased – especially since I had finished without any pains or injuries that would prevent me from running the next race in two weeks.
To demonstrate how good the competition was in that race – my 3:31 placed me 35th out of 65 runners in my age group (50 to 59). Most of the faster runners were babies – in their early 50s but still the competition was extremely tough/fast!

The tough part was over – time for a long, hot soak in a tub and then celebrate! But first we walked over to Marathon Square so that I could get a photo by the Marathon Monument. The city built a monument to the marathon and runners and every year the winners of the male and female races are added to the monument. If I could have only run 77 minutes faster my name would have been added this year? Well, everyone is entitled to dream aren’t they? Then we found another nice restaurant and enjoyed an excellent dinner of Chateaubriand. With wine, dessert, coffee/liquor and tip the bill was $25! Might as well enjoy good/cheap meals while we could because I knew we were heading for London and the UK next and you won’t get that dinner there for $20!

On Mon we had another strange routing back through Prague to London to begin the next leg of our journey – and the next trip report.
Talk to you again soon!

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