Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Trip report - Poland

May 5 –10/05

Photos may be viewed on

Now where were we? Oh yes – this is part two of a two-week European trip and we had just traveled from Belfast to London (Luton airport) and were now departing Luton for Krakow, Poland.

We met up with about 16 runners/mates from London and the Midlands at Luton. I had met most of them on other trips. They are members of the 100 Marathon Club (UK).
When we arrived in Krakow we had a brilliant idea to take a local bus from the airport into the city. Eighteen of us loaded ourselves and all our baggage on to a local bus. Forty-five minutes and another tram later we finally arrived at our hotel. Everyone vowed that they would take a taxi back to the airport when they departed?

Waiting at the hotel was another good friend/runner from London who was our unofficial guide and translator for the trip. Tad is of Polish ancestry and still has family in Poland - and fortunately still speaks Polish! After helping us check in Tad escorted us to Race HQ to pick up our race packets and show us where the race started. His language skills were much in demand and appreciated. After registration most of the runners decided to accompany Tad to a popular local restaurant to enjoy Polish food and beer. However I had still not recovered from the flu – in fact it seemed that I always suffered a relapse each evening. So the sports manager and I found a Thai restaurant near the hotel and enjoyed a nice relaxing dinner. What a difference from Ireland and the UK. Our dinner with wine cost about $15 US! Poland is still a relatively good tourist bargain compared with most of Europe. This is true of most of the former Soviet countries but unfortunately it is changing fast so take advantage of these tourist destinations/bargains while you can.

It was an early evening for us as I hoped that lots of rest would finally kill that damn flu bug? On Friday morning several runners decided to visit a 1000-year old salt mine in Wieliczka that contains many underground sculptures but we decided we would rather explore Krakow. Unlike many other Polish cities Krakow miraculously survived WWII and years of socialist planning relatively unscathed. The Old Town (Stare Miasto) is compact and easy to explore on foot. In the center of the Old Town are the Main Marketplace (Rynek Glowny) and the Cloth Hall. The square is ringed with bars and cafes and several interesting buildings and sites such as: St Mary’s Church with a 500-year old wooden altar – the oldest Gothic altar in the world and the small church of St Wojciech – one of the oldest churches in Krakow. Going south out of the Old Town is the Royal Road that leads past many more churches to the Royal Castle on Wawel Hill. The Wawel Castle (Zamek Wawelski) was originally built in the 10th century and remodeled in the 1500s. The royal apartments and staterooms contain the original furnishings and can be visited. The castle complex includes Wawel Cathedral where many polish kings were coronated and Pope John Paul II was the Archbishop. We spent the whole day exploring Wawel Castle and Old Town.

Friday evening many of the runners/mates decided to go to the official marathon pasta party but some including the sports manager and I decided to find a local Italian restaurant to enjoy better pasta. Nicole and I again did our own thing and enjoyed a nice pasta dinner ($15US vs the $40 at the Pizza Hut in Belfast?). I retired early because the flu was still dragging me down.

Saturday was M-day! The race started at 9am. The weather was miserable as we walked from the hotel to the start line – very cold and raining! There were about 2000 runners in the Marathon and a Half marathon. I wore my typical rain gear (garbage bag) for the first three miles because it was so cold and miserable. I felt sorry for those runners just wearing shorts and a singlet. But this race was much better organized than Belfast. There were distance markers every 1Km and water every 3 – 5 Km. Much of the course was on paved bike paths along the Wisla River and when it did run on roads the roads were blocked off to traffic.

I was not sure or confident in my health/condition because of the flu bug and did not want to repeat the same mistake (and pain) as Belfast so I started out very slowly. I watched my heart monitor closely and kept my pace just under 9 min/mile through the first Half. Many of my mates that I normally beat passed me and I just let them go. I reached the Half in 1:57:09 and felt OK. I thought about picking up the pace at that point to see if I could catch some of my mates but decided it was still too early to make a push. I reached 27Km in 2:30 and still felt OK except for the occasional, uncontrollable coughing spasms that hurt like heck but I decided it was now or never to make a push. Besides it was raining hard again and I was so cold and miserable that I needed to get this over with? I dropped the pace to 8:20/8:30s.
I caught and passed a few mates but was looking for one mate in particular – yes Roger I was looking for you! After 8 Km of pushing hard I still couldn’t see Roger? I figured that if I could just see him by 38K I could make an interesting/challenging race out of it? At 37K there was a loop in the course and I still couldn’t see him (regretfully it turned out that Roger did see me at 37K although I didn’t see him – he was only one minute ahead at that point?). So I decided it wasn’t worth killing myself for the last 5 Km and eased off some. I crossed the finish line in the Old Town Square in 3:53:58 – about 1-½ minutes behind Roger!

I was pleased with my race. The time was not great but I had run a smart race and even ran a negative split in the second Half. However I will now have to wait for another opportunity to regain my bragging rights over Roger and a few other mates.

It was still raining when I finished the race and I felt cold and miserable. Unfortunately our hotel room did not have a bath so I had to stand in a shower for more than 30 minutes while running the hottest water I could stand over my poor cold body. Finally I felt like living again and decided it was time to explore some more of Krakow and work up an appetite for some Polish food and beer. Thankfully the sun had come out and the sports manager and I walked over to the Castle to take some pictures and then we walked through Kazimierz – Krakow’s 600-year old Jewish Quarter and back to the Old Town for some food and beer.
Later that evening we met with a group of mates to accompany Tad back to the favorite restaurant for an evening of celebration, food and beer. It was an old Polish restaurant – much like a huge beer hall. They brewed their own beers – the light beer was 11% alcohol and the dark was 14%. The beer was delivered to the table in casks and you poured your own pints. There were over 20 runners/mates at the party/celebration. The food, beer and company were all great! Near the end of the meal Tad ordered a ‘special’ local drink for the table. The drink contains the colors of the Polish flag – white vodka, red raspberry juice and Tabasco sauce. The idea is to ‘shoot’ it and then chase it down with some 11 or 14% beer. Tad ordered a second round. However some couldn’t drink the second one so Tad and I volunteered to finish off them off. Needless to say I was feeling real goooooooodddddddd when we left the restaurant. What stinking flu?
Only later did Tad explain that the special drink is called ‘Wsciekly Pies’ - that literally translates to ‘Mad Dog’! Don’t you think I should be getting royalties for all the use of my nickname?

On Sunday morning I was surprised/pleased to discover that I did not have a huge hangover? Many of the group wanted to visit the concentration camps at Auschwitz. Since the normal tours required a full day and we were leaving on a 5pm flight we hired three taxis to be our private drivers and guides. They drove us to Auschwitz, explained the layout of the camps and how to visit them and waited for us. At the first camp, Auschwitz I with the infamous gate “Arbeit macht frei” (Work brings freedom) the original barracks now house exhibits and artifacts describing the atrocities that were conducted there. Fortunately we had seen many TV documentaries on the camps and were somewhat prepared for the gruesome and depressing things we saw. But the sheer size of the camp and the other two camps Auschwitz – Birkenau II & III boggles the mind how so many people could have been forced and duped to their death. We also visited Auschwitz-Birkenau II with the ‘Gate of Death” where the trains entered the camp and unloaded the prisoners. A depressing but educational tour!

Finally our taxis/guides dropped us off at the airport and we were on our way back to London. We arrived at our hotel around 8pm. I had used an award/free points to book the Marriott Grosvenor House near Hyde Park. Usually they give you the worst room in the hotel with these vouchers but the hotel was being renovated and was almost empty so they put us in a corner suite. Biggest damn hotel room I ever saw – a one- bedroom apartment/suite. I could get used to that kind of living? Of course we couldn’t afford to eat at that hotel – breakfast was 20 Pounds/person ($40US). I don’t know how people can afford to live there. Needless to say we found a pub nearby and enjoyed a full English breakfast for 3 Pounds! Maddog knows how to travel like the locals.

In all our trips to London and living there for a year I had never visited the British Museum and that was one of my primary goals on this trip. So on Monday we spent the whole afternoon at the Museum. I especially liked the sections on Egypt, Greece and Roman artifacts. The Rosetta Stone is one of the main artifacts at the Museum. On Monday evening – our last evening in Europe we attended the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “The Woman in White”. The story and music were good but they substituted high-tech for the normal stage scenery and it distracted the audience from the performers. It was OK but not as good as my favorite “The Phantom of the Opera” and certainly not worth the $200 tickets?

Finally it was Tuesday and time to go home. I had managed to get rid of that damn flu by giving it to my sports manager. I felt sorry for her because it was going to be a very long and miserable flight home with that nasty bug. After 14 hours of airport and flight time (London to Chicago to Tampa) we were finally back home. The weather was sunny and mid 80s when we got off the plane in Tampa. Good to be back home – and WARM again!

I don’t believe I will ever be able to get the sports manager to accompany me on any more trips to Europe but I still have three countries left to run so stay tuned for the next adventure!

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