Friday, November 12, 2004

Trip Report Macedonia

Macedonia & Albania
11/02 – 11/11/04
Part 1

Photos nay be viewed at

The plans for this trip began during my last international trip to Eastern Europe in July. I asked my friend Dimitry in Moldova if he could help me confirm a marathon in Macedonia in November and also help me find a marathon or contact in Albania. He succeeded fairly quickly in finding a contact for me in Macedonia who did confirm a marathon in Struga, Macedonia in November but was unable to find a marathon or any contacts in Albania. However my new contact/friend in Macedonia informed me that he and the race director for the Struga marathon were willing to help me run a ‘solo’ marathon in Albania if they were unable to find/confirm an ‘official’ marathon in Albania.

I delayed making the final travel arrangements as long as possible but finally had to commit to the trip in late September before we left Colorado for Florida. By that time I had confirmed a marathon in Struga on November 7 and a preliminary plan to run a ‘solo’ marathon in neighboring Albania a few days later. All my attempts to contact a sports organization/authority, runner/running club and even a government official such as the Albanian Ambassador to the USA were neglected and unsuccessful! Albania is the only country in the world that has refused to offer me help/assistance to run a marathon in their country? It disappointed but didn’t surprise me – and it certainly wasn’t going to stop me!

I had to purchase non-refundable discount tickets because AA and their partners could only get me to Zurich on free air-mile tickets. The airfare from Zurich to Skopje was $465 return but the total fare from Tampa to Skopje was only $865. I couldn’t see wasting 60,000 miles to fly to Zurich to save $400? However the risk/concern was that I now had non-refundable tickets and coach/economy class. Both of these concerns eventually did bite me – and it didn’t take long!

Shortly after we returned to Florida I contacted my friend Aleksandar to inform him that I would be leaving soon and wanted to confirm that everything was OK? His return email stated that he was sorry to inform me that the marathon in Struga had been cancelled! Great! I am getting ready to leave in three days and I have non-refundable tickets? I had two options: a) postpone the trip for one year and hope that the marathon would really happen then. Hopefully AA would let me change my tickets with a penalty/fee? b) go ahead with the trip as planned and add another ‘solo’ marathon in Macedonia. Aleksandar confirmed that it would be possible to safely run a solo marathon in Skopje and that he would help me. I prefer to run an‘official’ marathon (if one exists) in any country but option a) had too many risks so I decided to go ahead with the planned trip.

Thus I left Tampa on November 2 for a 24-hour trip and three flights in coach – the flight from Dallas to Zurich took 10 hours! That is a lonnnnnnnggggggggggg time to sit in one of those small coach seats! I arrived in Skopje on November 3 and called Aleksandar as soon as I checked into the hotel. He invited me to a concert that night but I was too tired and knew that I would never be able to stay awake that long. We agreed to meet the next day so that he could show me the route/course he had selected for my marathon.

I had booked a 2-star hotel where locals stayed because of the low price. Macedonia – especially Skopje - has many foreign visitors/workers from the EU and UN and the western/international hotels have learned that they can charge these people 120 to 150 Euros/night for a room. My hotel cost 40 Euros/night. It was only four blocks from the main square, it was clean and had an ensuite bath and TV. The only drawbacks were that the whole room was smaller than our master bedroom closet and the TV only had three local stations. Actually this turned out to be a blessing since they didn’t provide much coverage of the US election and I couldn’t understand what they did say? It took me two days to learn that Bush had won.

Since the preliminary plan was to run a solo marathon on Friday and then travel to Struga on Saturday I figured that I had better play tourist on Thursday and explore Skopje. Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, has a population of 700,000 – about 1/3 of the population of the country. The city sits in a valley or bowl surrounded by mountains that trap the smog/pollution from the cars, etc and thus the air quality is not good much of the time. An earthquake destroyed 90% of the city in 1963 and much of the new city was built by the Soviets – thus square, unimaginative concrete buildings. However there appeared to be construction cranes all over the center of the city and lots of modern new buildings were being built. The center of the city has lots of modern, upscale shops, restaurants, pubs and cafes. Fortunately the earthquake spared most of the old city that dates back to the 13th century and contains the Old Bazaar, the Turkish Fortress and many old churches and mosques. An old Stone Bridge connects the new city center to the old city.

Since many of the locals like to eat out and go to bars the meals and booze prices are not out of whack like hotel prices. A great dinner with (a bottle of) wine costs less than $10. A ½ liter beer costs about $1.50 in a bar. Thus you can visit Macedonia very cheaply if you stay and eat where the locals go which I like to do anyways because you learn and experience more of the local culture.

I met Alexsandar after work on Thursday and he showed me a bike path along the Vardar River that flows through the center of the city. One section of the path was paved and marked every 100 meters for 2.5 Km. An adjoining section was concrete and 2.8 Km long for a total length of 5.3 Km. I would have to run 8 laps but there was no traffic to worry about. The biggest problem would be water. There were water fountains along the path but I couldn’t risk drinking local water and would have to place water bottles along the course. I planned to start my run early (7am) because very few people used the path at that time of day. Unfortunately Aleksandar could not provide support since he had to work but he informed me that another runner from his club would join me for the last 10 to 16 Km of the marathon.

It was time for my traditional pasta dinner and a good night’s sleep to get ready for the marathon. On Friday I arrived at the path/course by 7am carrying three 1.5 liter bottles of water. It was quite chilly – in the mid 30s – so I had to wear a throw away long sleeve T-shirt at the start. I left one bottle of water at the start and had to carry the other two through the first lap. I left the 2nd bottle at the end of the paved section and the 3rd at the end of the concrete section so I never had to run more than 2.8 Km to get water. It worked out quite well except that I had a problem hiding the bottles so that I would be sure they would not be taken. The path was flat and in excellent shape so the marathon was very easy. Since there wasn’t any competition (or company) I just ran an easy 8:30 to 9:00 min pace. After I finished 4 laps or the first half there still was no sign of a running mate. However as I finished the 5th lap I heard my name called and a male runner introduced himself as Ljubco and joined me for the last three laps or 16Km. He understood English but couldn’t speak well but we managed to converse and exchange some stories. He was a marathoner/ultra runner who ran about the same times/pace as me.
I was glad that he showed up because it made the time go faster and he forced me to pick up the pace for the last three laps. We crossed the finish line in 3:49:11. Marathon number 235 and country # 69 completed!

Later that day I talked to Aleksandar only to discover that our plans had changed once again. Instead of taking a bus to Struga and hiring a taxi there to take us into Albania, another member of his running club had volunteered to drive us to Struga on Saturday and into Albania on Sunday for the solo marathon. The club had a 2-mile race on Saturday morning and we would leave after the race. I expressed some interest in going to the club race to watch and maybe even run if my legs felt OK so I was invited to join them.

On Saturday morning I arrived at the race location in a city park at 8am to meet other members of the club including Ljubco and Toni who would drive us to Albania. They are members of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team that is part of the international Sri Chinmoy spiritual organization. I foolishly decided to run the 2-mile race and not surprisingly went out too fast. I finished the race in 14:30 on sore/tight legs and hoped that I wouldn’t regret that decision too much the next day? After the race Aleksandar and Toni picked me up at the hotel and we took off for Struga.

Struga is located on Lake Ohrid in the southwest corner of the country about 160 Km from Skopje. It is a pretty drive over two or three mountain ranges so we had lots of time to exchange information on each of our countries. I learned a lot. There is still a lot of political and ethnic issues/turmoil going on in Macedonia. The constitutional name of the country is ‘The Republic of Macedonia’. However Greece objects to that name and claims it belongs to Greece and has objected to the UN and the EU and closed down its borders to Macedonia many times in the past few years. The UN tried to resolve the issue by admitting the country to the UN as ‘FYR Macedonia’ (The Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia). This did not appease Greece. Two days after the US election (and while I was in Skopje) the US government and George Bush recognized the country in a speech as ‘The Republic of Macedonia’. To the Macedonians this symbolized recognition/approval of their constitutional name by the USA. They were very happy – in fact as I was leaving Skopje they were preparing the main city square for a party on Saturday night to celebrate this important event. I watched on TV as they celebrated and waved both Macedonian and US flags together. It was nice to be loved somewhere in the world. But not in neighboring Greece where they were burning the US flag at the same time in protest and anger at the USA.

I also learned that about 25% of the population of 2 Million are Albanian Muslims whereas the Macedonians are Orthodox. Most of the Albanians live in the western part of the country and two years ago started a brief war for independence. A Referendum was being held on Saturday to determine if the Albanians should be granted more autonomy in certain regions of the country (one of the reasons the Struga marathon was cancelled). The referendum failed. I am sure that you, like I, had no idea any of this political and ethnic strife was/is going on. So you see these marathon trips/adventures are a great way to learn about the history and current affairs of countries around the world.

I learned much more on the 2-½ hour drive to Struga. When we arrived in Struga I went to check into the hotel I had booked but they tried to rip us off by charging almost 100 Euros for the three of us. We agreed that was too much and thankfully both Aleksandar and Toni had visited Lake Ohrid many times and knew of an apartment complex in Ohrid. We rented an apartment in Ohrid that slept all three of us for 20 Euros. We then went for pasta dinner and discussed our plans/strategy for the solo marathon in Albania the next day.

But as usual this report is much longer and wordier than I planned so I am going to split it into two parts. Stay tuned for Part 2 and Albania!

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