Thursday, October 19, 2000

TR Istanbul Marathon

10/11 –10/19/00

Planning for this trip began back in March while I was running the Turin marathon with a friend from New York City. He indicated that he planned to run the Eurasia marathon in Istanbul. We both needed to complete a marathon in Turkey as part of our quest to run a marathon in every European country. The Eurasia or Istanbul marathon also has the distinction of being the only marathon in the world that runs through two continents.

Thus I agreed to meet him in Istanbul in October. As I was researching airfares, etc I looked for a second marathon in that same timeframe so that I could complete two marathons/countries on the same air ticket. Luckily I was able to locate a marathon in Lausanne, Switzerland the following weekend and I still hadn’t run a marathon in that country so I decided to combine the two. However I will talk about the Swiss part of the trip in a separate trip report.

Nicole and I planned to spend the first few days of the trip in Istanbul to recover from jet lag, tour the city, run the marathon and then escape to one of the coasts. After that we were going to play it by ear. After leaving Sarasota at 10am on Wednesday and flying via JFK in NYC we arrived in Istanbul at 11am on Thursday – 18 hours of flying and airport time and 7 hours of time difference. Needless to say our bodies were not happy with us! But we managed to stay awake and when our friend Edson showed up a few hours later he and I decided to find the marathon office and pick up our race packages. This turned out to be a bit more difficult than imagined and to explain why I must first give you a geography lesson plus some travel tips for Istanbul.

Turkey is spread across two continents, Europe and Asia. About 1/8th is in Europe, the other 7/8ths is in Asia. The continents are separated by the Bosphorus Strait and the Sea of Marmara. Istanbul sits on both sides of these bodies of water and is connected by two bridges across the Bosphorus and many ferries. The old historic city and business sections of the city are located in Europe; the residential sections are mostly located in Asia. The old city lies across an inlet called the ‘Golden Horn’ from the downtown area called Taksim where most of the tourist hotels and restaurants are located. There is a newer business district called Maslak located northeast of Taksim. We stayed in Maslak. Although it is only about 6 miles from Taksim the traffic in Istanbul is horrendous and public transportation is poor. Istanbul has 15,000,000 people and I think they all drive – and the road system was not built for that many cars! It reminded me very much of Rome and Cairo – there are no traffic rules other than the bravest gets to go and pedestrians have no rights! Taxis were surprisingly cheap when you consider that gas was $4/gallon.
But it took at least 30 minutes and $10 to get downtown from our hotel. So my advice – stay in the Taksim or old city districts! Now back to the story about the race packages.

After a 30 minute taxi ride through sections of Istanbul never before seen by tourists as our driver used back streets and alleys to avoid the congested main roads, he finally dropped us off in front of the soccer/football stadium in Taksim where the race HQ was supposed to be located. Right!
We finally did find race HQ and also found that there was very little organization and even less English spoken. Somehow we managed to get our race numbers but when we tried to get additional information such as how to get to the start, etc. the only answer we could understand was that we were expected to catch a bus at the race HQ to take us to the start. Oh well, we had two more days to figure out what to do. Now it was time to get some sleep and start our sightseeing.

Oh yes! There is another interesting tidbit that I need to pass on. Take a calculator with you! The exchange rate was 675,000 TL (Turkish Lira) per $US. And things in Turkey are not cheap which means you are talking big numbers. Fortunately big-ticket items such as hotel rooms and tours are quoted in $US. Can you imagine being quoted 168,750,000 TL ($250) for a hotel room? But restaurants and taxis charge in TL so you need to carry about 100,000,000 with you in cash. If you charge a purchase they quote $US but actually put TL on your credit slip. I signed a Visa slip with the biggest number I have ever seen on one – well over 1,000,000,000 (yes –that’s BILLION). Hopefully Citibank applies the correct conversion –otherwise I will be asking all my family and friends to donate $50,000,000 each to pay off my Visa bill at the end of the month!

But now it is time for some sightseeing. On Friday we took a full day tour of Istanbul. The first stop was in the old city to visit St Sophia; a Byzantine basilica built by Emperor Justinian in 537 on the same site as the first church that was completed in 360. In 1453 the Ottoman Turks rebuilt and expanded it using remains from ancient cities such as Ephesus (more on that later) and converted it to a mosque. Today it is a museum.
Next was the Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque renowned for the millions of blue tiles used in the interior decoration. Then on to the Hippodrome where the Romans held their chariot races. The last stop of the morning was the Grand Bazaar, a labyrinth of streets and alleys containing over 4,000 shops –reminded me a lot of the ‘souks’ in Dubai.
After a nice Turkish lunch we proceeded on to the Suleymaniye Mosque and the Topkapi Palace. The palace is the former residence of the Ottoman sultans from the 15th to 19th centuries and has been converted into a museum. It contains the famous emerald dagger, star of the film ‘Topkapi’ and the 86 carat Spoonmaker diamond. And finally we had to have the compulsory stop at a carpet factory. Actually it turned out to be quite interesting and informative since they explained how to distinguish carpets from the various regions of Turkey based on their designs and color of the dyes. A silk carpet costs as much as $40,000 US (27,000,000,000 TL) –how would you like to see that charge on your credit card?

The following day we decided to treat ourselves and sleep in to overcome the jet lag. We opted for an afternoon cruise on the Bosphorus that took us along the shores from the fishing village of Sariyer to the Golden Horn. We made a stop to explore the Rumeli Fortress that was built in 1452 at the narrowest point of the strait. We passed under both bridges as we viewed the magnificent mansions and palaces that line both sides of the Bosphorus. Finally at the Golden Horn we made a visit to the Spice Bazaar where they sold Turkish and other spices that I have never heard of? The tour bus dropped us off in Taksim where we found an Italian restaurant to have our pasta feed the night before the race. Over dinner Edson and I pondered how we were going to get to the start of the race. We figured that since we would have to take a taxi into Taksim to catch the marathon bus that we might as well just take a taxi to the start line.

When we returned to the hotel we discussed our plan with the concierge and were immediately advised of some glitches. The Bosphorus Bridge would be closed to traffic Sunday morning until after the race started. No problem – we would have the taxi drop us at the entrance to the bridge on the European side and walk across to Asia. Wrong! Both bridges have been permanently closed to pedestrian traffic because too many Turks were jumping into the Bosphorus to kill themselves! Thus the final plan was to have a taxi take us across the second bridge, drive through the suburbs in Asia and drop us off at the entrance to the Bosphorus Bridge on the Asian side. Time for bed now that we have a plan!

Sunday was M-day! Up early – get the concierge to explain to a taxi driver exactly where to take us. The driver scared the crap out of both of us as he insisted on carrying on a one-sided conversation in Turkish while he drove like Michael Shumacher in the Indy 500! Almost kissed the ground when I got out! But he did get us to the right spot and 45 minutes before the start. Since we had no idea where to find the baggage bus we decided not to take any baggage or warm-up clothes with us. But I did take the customary black garbage bag and as we approached the start area I decided to put it on. Well ! –ALL HELL broke loose the second I put it on!!! Two TV stations including CNN-TURK and a few newspaper teams descended upon me like vultures?? My first thoughts or concern was that I had somehow offended their culture or morals. The interviews went something like this:
Q “ Where are you from”
Q “ Did you come here just to run the marathon”
A “Yes and to visit your beautiful country”
Q “Are you going to win the Eurasia Marathon”
A “No (laugh), I’ll be happy just to finish healthy”
Q (As they touch the garbage bag) “ Why are you wearing this disguise or costume”
A “ In the USA and Northern Europe many runners wear these bags to keep warm and dry until the race starts and then we throw them away”
Q “Are you a top runner and are you going to win the race”
Q “ Can we take your picture for our newspaper”?

By this time more photographers and a big crowd were converging on me so I ripped the damn bag off and quickly blended back into obscurity among the other runners. I never did find out why that damn bag caused so much commotion??
But I do have two recommendations for my fellow runners who may consider running this marathon in the future: 1) Stay in Taksim and walk or take a taxi to the marathon bus to get to the start and 2) DON”T wear a garbage bag –(unless I have started a new fashion trend among Turkish runners?)

Finally it is time for the race to start and all the runners make their way to the start line that is about ¼ mile from the Bosphorus Bridge on the Asian side. The gun shoots and we’re off and soon crossing the bridge for some fantastic views of Istanbul, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Maramara. But I quickly realize that I have another problem! In my anxiety to escape the limelight I never had a chance for my last-minute pee! And I am certainly not going to stop by the side of the road and relieve myself like most runners do in a marathon –until I see some locals pull over. I’ve had enough attention for one day thank you! Fortunately within a few miles after we cross the bridge I see some locals finally pulling over to do their deed and I join them. Now I am ready to run – it is difficult to run with your legs crossed!
After crossing the bridge into Europe the course skirts around the Taksim area and at the 10K point the marathon and 15KM races split. The marathon crosses a bridge over the Golden Horn into the old city where it passes many of the tourist sites mentioned above as it makes it way to the shores of the Sea of Marmara. It then heads west along the Sea until the 15 mile point where you turn and loop back to finish in the football stadium. By this time they started to reopen the roads on the other side of the boulevard and we were sucking in wonderful gas fumes. My buddy Edson caught up to me at 15 miles and we ran together until mile 23 when he lowered the hammer and left me behind so quickly that I had to look down to see if my feet were still moving? But I just didn’t have the energy reserves to respond that day so I followed him across the finish line in 3:47:12!

After a quick shower and a massage we all decided to head over to a small fishing village on the shores of the Bosphorus and find us a great seafood restaurant and some wine. We enjoyed a great meal but it wasn’t cheap –about the same as big-city US prices. Then it was time to go back to the hotel and get ready to leave: for Edson –back to work in NJ; for us – on to the Agean Coast of Turkey!

Since this report is turning out to be much longer than expected and I haven’t even started on the most interesting historical part I think it is time to close and provide the remaining part of the adventure in Part #2.

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