Tuesday, October 30, 2001

TR Slovenia Marathon

10/23 – 10/30/01

Now where was I? Oh Yes! Leaving Zurich for Zagreb, Croatia. I explained one reason why we were flying into Zagreb instead of Ljubljana – ticket prices! A second reason was that I had visited Zagreb on a previous trip to the Balkans in 1999 and liked the city and wanted Nicole to have a look at it. As is always the case this trip was different because we arrived at the airport which is about 30 miles south of the city instead of the train station that is only a few blocks from the city center.

There was no information center at the airport but I quickly learned that Croatia Airlines ran a bus into the city bus station ($3). When we arrived at the bus station there was still no information center and very few people who spoke English. However I managed to find a kind travel agent who informed me that we were still about ten blocks from the city center and furthermore our hotel was NOT located downtown and in fact was on the outskirts of the city. So I decided to change that minor problem and had a taxi take us to the Hotel Dubrovnik, a 4-star hotel on Bana Josipa Jelacica Square. What a great location!
We could walk to all the tourist sites, restaurants, bars, etc. The only problem was running –lots of traffic and the locals looked at me like I was nuts running through the city square.

I finally made my way to the tourist information center located on the square to gather information on the city and country and here is what I learned. Croatia is about the same size as West Virginia and is bordered by Austria, Italy, Hungary, Slovenia, Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia. It has a long coastline and several islands in the Adriatic Sea. The population is 4 Million and 800K live in the capital Zagreb. The country is predominantly (96%) Catholic. The principal language is Hrvatska (Croatian) although some of the people in the service industry (hotels and restaurants) speak English. Croatian is a complex mixture of Slavic and German and difficult to understand. But we learned the three basic food groups quickly: voda – water; pivo – beer; and vino –wine!
The currency is the Kuna (8 kuna/$US) and most things, other than hotels, are fairly cheap. A good dinner for two with wine will cost about $30 to $40.
Another example is the city tour -$30 for two people. And as often happens in the off season we were the only customers so we were provided with a private tour guide and drive and car to escort us around the city. Our guide knew the city and history very well and was able to spend extra time showing us the main tourist attractions: Jelacica Square, the Cathedral, St Marks Church, the Kaptol and Gradec sections in the Old City and Dolec Market. She recommended a restaurant located in the Gradec(Upper Village) overlooking the city where we had an excellent 5-course gourmet dinner with wine for $60!
Fortunately Zagreb is a nice city because I will have to return for the Zagreb Marathon some year. But I intend to plan for some time on the Adriatic Coast as I was told that the coast is very beautiful and inexpensive!

After two relaxing and interesting days in Zagreb it was time to move on to Slovenia. The border is only 35 Km west of Zagreb so the train had barely got moving when we stopped at the border. The border routine has not changed since my last trip. The train stops 100 meters from the border where the Croatian guards check your passport. Then it moves 100 meters across the border where the Slovenian guards check your passport. Only this time they didn’t seem to be as big and surly as they were in 1999.
The train passes through some very scenic and hilly country on the way to Ljubljana, Slovenia. The autumn leaves were in full color and 60% of Slovenia is covered with forests so there was lots of color to enjoy.
Actually I should keep the rest of the trip a secret because Slovenia is an undiscovered jewel and I would like to keep it undiscovered (selfish old me!)

Slovenia is a very small country sharing borders with Austria and the Alps on the north; Hungary on the east, Croatia on the east and south; Italy and the Alps and the Adriatic Sea on the west. In early summer you can ski in the Alps in the morning and then drive through thick forests on the way to the Adriatic Sea to swim in the afternoon!
There are only 2 Million inhabitants – 300K live in the capital Ljubljana. The principal language is Slovenian but most people speak English and a third language depending where they live e.g. those in the west also speak Italian. The currency is the Slovenian Tolar (250 SIT/ $US). The average salary is $400US/month! Other than hotels which are out-of-whack ($100/day for our 4-star hotel) and anything imported, the prices are very inexpensive. Pivo – 300 SIT for a ½ liter; dinner for two with vino -$25!

Ljubljana, the capital, is a small and compact city with a lot of interesting architecture and charm. The Ljubljanica River flows through the center of the city before it joins the Sava River that flows through Zagreb and eventually flows into the Danube at Belgrade.
The city is built on a site occupied by the Romans from 100 to 600 BC although Ljubljana was first mentioned in 1144. The city is overlooked by a grand castle called Ljubljanski Castle that was originally built in 1144 but the current castle dates from the 16th century. It has been restored and is used for concerts and other social events in the city. Because the city is so small and compact there is no city tour but the information center did provide us with a brochure for a self-guided walking tour.
Since we knew that we could do the tour easily in one day we decided to explore the countryside. Tourism has not been discovered or developed in Slovenia so it was difficult to find a tour that would take us out of the city.

On Friday morning I went for my last training run and it was so much better than Zagreb. There is a large public park, Tivoli Park, on the northern edge of the city that has miles of dirt trails running through forests and lots of challenging hills. I would have run for hours if I did not have a marathon in 2 days. After the run we explored the city by foot. We walked along the cobblestones of the old city while enjoying the buildings and views along the river and finished up with a tour of the castle. There was one strange thing we discovered. There are lots of ‘cafes’ in Ljubljana – essentially bars that serve booze and snacks – but very few restaurants? We ate several meals at the same restaurant because we couldn’t find other restaurants?
On Saturday we had booked a tour to the Lake Bled region – in the north at the base of the Austrian Alps. Again we lucked out – we were the only customers so the owner took us on a private tour. The owner was a young man who had worked at the front desk of the luxury hotel in town and had recognized the need for a tour operator and had started up his own business. He escorted us up to Lake Bled where we toured a magnificent castle overlooking the lake and the only island in the country. Believe me folks this is drop-dead, postcard scenery! And the real-life view is even prettier than you will see in the postcard. The 16th century castle has been restored and sits on a rock cliff 300 feet above the lake. We also took a unique paddleboat over to the island that is occupied by a 17th century church that sits on the same sight as the original church built in 400 BC. Because of the spectacular scenery the church is used mostly for weddings and has its own custom and legend. There are 99 steps from the lake up to the church and legend says that if the man cannot carry his bride-to-be all the way up the steps the marriage won’t last.
I asked Nicole if she wanted to carry me down – but she declined???

After the church our guide took us to a local restaurant for a snack of special local sausages, mushrooms and bread. He figured we needed the fuel for the next part of the tour – a one-mile hike into Skocjanske Park. The park is a steep canyon carved by the Sava River. The canyon walls rise so steeply from the river that they had to build wooden walkways into the sides of the cliffs. I have never seen water so crystal clear! But then it was time to return to the city and begin the look for a pasta dinner. No easy task in Ljubljana as we couldn’t find one Italian restaurant?

Sunday was M-Day! Our hotel was only one block from the start/finish in Kongresni Trg (Congress square). But it was a late start (11am) which makes it difficult for me – do I eat a breakfast or not? The weather was sunny and mild at the start and the course was a half-marathon loop that ran through the cobbled streets of Old Town for a few miles before heading north into the suburbs and country. I had not driven the course but the map indicated that it looped north along Tivoli Park so I assumed that it would be hilly. Thus I decided not to be foolish like Luxembourg and started slow and easy. When I had picked up my race bid I had wondered if the yellow bib I received had any significance. I didn’t understand the significance until the 17K mark when I was heading back into the city center and the half marathon mark and I started meeting the elite runners coming the other way on their second loop (25K). They all wore yellow bibs! They had seeded me with the elite runners! Thank goodness I hadn’t known that beforehand because I might have tried to live up to their billing! I was already discouraged because I started meeting runners in my age group which meant that they were running a SUB 3:00 hr race!
But I wisely stuck to my own pace and crossed the half in 1:48. It paid off in the second half as the hills started to take their toll on most of the runners. I felt OK all through the race and at 20 miles decided that I could pick up the pace. At 40K I decided that I could/should break 3:40. I tried my best which required hurting like hell for the last 2K so I was not disappointed when I crossed the line in 3:40:35. My 185th marathon and 50th country!
However I was surprised/shocked when I scanned the results list and discovered that two runners in my age group had run 2:49s! It is unusual to have one OLD FART run that fast – but TWO in the same race? I am not and never will be in their league!

After the race it was time for the standard hot bath and then we strolled through Old Town stopping for a few pivos and vinos while searching for a restaurant for our celebration dinner. Ljubljana is such a pleasant city to stroll around and we felt absolutely safe at all times!

The following day we ate breakfast at the hotel and caught an early train back to Zagreb. We had arranged for a taxi to meet us at the train station to take us to the airport where we had a light lunch while waiting for our flight to Zurich. In Zurich we enjoyed a snack and beer while waiting for our connection to Luxembourg. Finally – back in Luxembourg! We had booked a hotel at the airport since we had an early flight to London but decided to catch a local bus into the city center to enjoy a last gourmet dinner and stroll in Luxembourg before leaving Europe.

Fortunately our routing home was much better – Luxembourg to London Heathrow to Miami to Tampa. Ah! It’s always nice to be back home!
Time to rest up for the next trip! To where? Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 23, 2001

TR Luxembourg Marathon

10/18 – 10/23/01

I had set this trip up in early summer in anticipation of reaching one of my major marathon goals – to run a marathon in my 50th country! To accomplish this goal I needed to run two marathons/countries and I preferred that they both be in Europe to work simultaneously on another goal – to complete all the countries in Europe! My research found marathons one week apart in late October in Luxembourg and Slovenia.
Unfortunately this period is still in the high season with regards to airfares so it became a challenge to find reasonable fares and it was further complicated by the distance between the two countries. After much research and fiddling around on the net I was able to book flights from Tampa to Luxembourg and ongoing flights from Luxembourg to Zagreb, Croatia. Why Zagreb? For some reason the fares seemed to be much cheaper into Zagreb vs. Ljubljana, Slovenia. And it is only a 2-½ hour train ride from Zagreb to Ljubljana at a return fare of $11. So our itinerary was booked!

But I did make one small error that I wish to warn you about. The international leg from Tampa to London included routing through NYC and changing airports in the Big Apple. Won’t do that again! The airlines do not transfer you or your luggage between airports in NYC. Thus you have to reclaim your baggage at the arrival airport (LaGuardia in our case) and haul it and yourself via bus or taxi to the departure airport (JFK) and check your luggage and go through security again. What a pain in the ass! I would not accept that routing again unless I was really saving big bucks!

But now on to the actual trip. We had to rise early on Oct 18th for the 1 1/4 hour drive to Tampa plus the extra time for security at the airport. Add on 4 hours in NYC to make the transfer and a 7-hour flight to London and we arrived at Heathrow at 6:30am or 1:30am body time. Unfortunately the ordeal was not over yet. We had to transfer between terminals at Heathrow and although we never left the secured transit area we had to go through security again at the next terminal – and again at the gate. I was almost ready to bitch but bit my tongue, as it is just a sign of the times. Finally we were on the next plane and arrived in Luxembourg City and our hotel at 12pm – exactly 24 hours after we left our house in Sarasota! Needless to say our bodies were not happy! But I have learned that the best and quickest way to overcome jet lag is to fight the desperate urge to lie down for a nap and stay awake until your regular bedtime that evening. So we walked over to the tourist center at the train station and started collecting information on the city and country and the best way to travel on to Echternach where the marathon was being run.

In case you are too lazy to look at your world atlas (or don’t have one –and I consider it to be as essential as a dictionary) here are some facts for you. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is a small country, 2500 sq Km bounded by Germany on the east, Belgium on the north and west and France on the south. The country is divided into five regions and is mostly rural – 1/3 is covered by forest. There are 400,000 inhabitants and 120,000 live in Luxembourg City. The inhabitants, called ‘Luxembourgeois’ speak three languages – Letzebuergesch (the national language) and French and German. Most also speak English but we found it was simpler just to speak French.

The information center advised us that there was a city tour every afternoon so we reserved seats since we find this the best way to get a quick overview and history of the city. After a quick lunch we boarded the tour bus for a 2-hour tour of the city.
Count Siegfried founded the city in 963 when he built a fortress called ‘Lucilinburhuc’ on the Bock promontory. This fortification was expanded over the next several hundred years to include 23 Km of tunnels called the ‘Casemates’ and Luxembourg came to be called the ‘Gibraltar of the North’. When the Treaty of London declared Luxembourg to be a neutral country in 1867 many of the tunnels and fortifications were destroyed. What remains were listed as world heritage by UNESCO in 1994 and can be toured today. The city is fairly compact and can be toured by foot except for a new section where several European institutions including the European Commission are located.

After the tour we struggled to stay awake and finally succumbed to an early dinner and bedtime. But after a solid 14 hours of sleep our bodies were adjusted to local time and we were ready to continue our explorations. We spent the morning walking around the city to explore some of the sights in more detail and then decided to move on to Echternach. Echternach is in the Mullerthal region also known as “La Petite Suisse” (Little Switzerland) because of the hills and landscape. We were fortunate to pick a ‘milk run’ bus to get us there because it passed through many small villages and a region that contained many unique and picturesque rock formations. This is a very popular hiking area.

Echternach is located 35km northeast of Luxembourg City and sits on the Sure River that forms the border with Germany. It was established in 698 when St Willibrod founded an abbey. The current cathedral sits on the same site. The cathedral was built in the 11th century but completely destroyed in WW II and rebuilt after the war. In fact the complete town, along with most of the neighboring towns, was destroyed by both German and Allied bombers during the war. One of the few buildings to remain intact was the city hall built in 1444. Echternach is a pleasant little town (pop. 4,000). The old main street has been converted into a pedestrian mall and ends in the original town square. We strolled around the town and watched and participated in an ‘apple festival’ in the town square. They were pressing apples to make apple juice and eventually cider and apple beer. Since I couldn’t find any Gatorade to hydrate with, I bought a liter of fresh-pressed apple juice. I figured there had to be more fructose in the juice and it tasted much better. After visiting the cathedral we strolled across a bridge into Echternacherbruck, a small village in Germany.

But now it was time to find and pick up my race package. No problem. Our hotel was located about 500 feet from the town sports center where the marathon started and finished and a small exhibition was set up. Upon viewing the registration list I noticed that I was the only runner NOT from Luxembourg or one of its neighboring countries. In fact they had me listed as being from the UK? I figured it wasn’t worth correcting and that decision provided some amusement later on.
Now that I had my race package it was time for the normal pasta dinner. Again no problem as there seemed to be a lot of Italian restaurants in Luxembourg. The prices in Ecternach were about 25% lower than the city where they were equivalent to US prices.

Sunday was M –Day! Logistics were not a problem since the race start was 500 feet from the hotel and it was a late start –9:30am. The weather was overcast and cool. The course was not very exciting as we ran two loops around the town and Lake Echternach and then headed north out of town on a narrow rural highway (closed to traffic). We passed by the sports center about five times during the race and each time I passed an announcer shouted out “ here comes Number 867 – John Wallace, an Englishman form Great Britain”. Does that make me an honorary Brit?
For some reason I found myself running with a group of runners who appeared to be in my age group so I decided to stay with them. BAD decision! We ran through the first half in 1:43, which is way too fast for me without speed training. But I still felt OK so foolishly decided to stay with them. Another BAD decision! I started to realize how bad around 17 miles as we came back through Echternach and my legs began to feel tired and heavy and I could no longer stay with the group. By 20 miles I had used up the two minute cushion from the first half (for a 3:30 marathon) and knew that a sub 3:30 marathon was not in the cards for that day! I decided to slow down and jog the last 10K. By 23 miles I was struggling just to keep my legs moving – I wanted to stop and walk. So I decided that I had two options 1) stop and walk or 2) pick up the pace to see if that would ease the pain in my legs. Pride would not let me choose #1 so I picked up the pace figuring that even if it hurt more at least I would finish faster?
Surprisingly it worked? By mile 24 I had dropped the pace to about 8:30s and decided that I needed to drop it even more if I wanted to break 3:40.
I was very pleased when I ran the last mile at an 8 minute pace to cross the finish line in 3:38:23. Marathon #184 and country #49 in the bag! Time for a quick soak in a hot bath and explore the lovely little town some more.

The following morning we took a bus over to the neighboring town of Diekirch to visit the National Museum of Military History. The museum is dedicated to the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ during the winter of 1944/45 and the crossing of the Saurer River to launch the land invasion of Germany – both of these events were centered around Diekirch. The museum contains a lot of WWII equipment and uniforms left behind by the Germans and Allies plus many gruesome pictures of the battles.

Now it was time to head back to the city and prepare to catch our flights on to Croatia. There was a small concern about the viability of out tickets. I had purchased tickets on Swissair – a government carrier and affiliated with AA. But only a few weeks earlier Swissair had almost declared bankruptcy and although the government had poured more money in, our flights had been changed and none of the competing airlines would accept the Swissair tickets. We were routed through Zurich and our original 2 hour transfer was changed to 4 hours – not long enough to consider leaving the airport to visit the city and too long to stay in an airport. The only thing that saved us was the free Internet terminals that were provided in the airport so that we could check and send emails.
Finally we did make it to Zagreb, Croatia - but that is the subject of the next report.
See you then!

Saturday, October 13, 2001

RR Hartford Marathon

Hartford Marathon
Hartford, CT

The trip started out early and ugly on Friday 10/12/01 since we had to get up at 3:30am to drive to Tampa by 5:30am for a 7:30am flight. But we did arrive on time in Hartord, CT and made our way to our friends, Drs. Dick and Sue in Hamden, CT. Dr Dick is a charter member of the BBR - that informal running group in Dallas that I have written about previously. Since Jason only has a one-bedroom apartment we decided to stay with Dick and Sue whom have a big empty house in Hamden - about 15 minutes from Jason's apt in New Haven. Jason met us at Dr Dick's and we all went out for our pasta feed since the marathon was on Saturday. On Saturday morning Dr Dick and I drove into Hartford for the start of the marathon at Bushnell Park. The weather was great; cloudy and unseasonably warm - 56 degrees at the 8am start and 73 degrees when we finished. The course starts at Bushnell Park and proceeds across the Connecticut River into East Hartford. Most of the first 20 miles are in the rural suburbs of E Hartford - flat with some rolling hills and lots of fall colors with the changing of the leaves. Dr Dick and I had decided to run the race together since he claimed that he was not in great shape ( he is younger and stronger than the Maddog). Since we were just doing a pleasant run we shot the breeze for the first 20 miles and caught each other up on the latest gossip. Thus we were surprised when the miles kept clicking off at an 8 minute/mile pace. We commented that this euphoria probably couldn't/wouldn't last and we were right! At 20 miles I did the customary gut check and decided that I would probably run into trouble on the last 10K if we maintained that 8 minute pace so I tried to back off. The problem was that Dr Dick was much stonger at that point and kept dragging my tired and sorry ass over the next 4 miles of rolling hills at a much faster pace that I wanted to or would have run had I been by myself. Finally at 24 miles, as we were turning back towards Bushnell Park I checked my watch (3:16) and commented to Dr Dick "Hell, I have decided that I will have to hurt a little more if we want to be sure to break 3:35"! So I dropped the pace to 8 minute- miles over the last 2 1/4 miles. And sure enough - it did hurt - but any fool can hurt for a mere 17 minutes! And besides, the pain faded quickly as we approached the finish line and saw/heard my sports manager and son cheering us on. Dr Dick crossed the finish line in 3:33:13 and I was 1 second behind. I was not surprised to learn that my time of 3:33:14 was not good enough to place in the age group on such a fast course.(5th place). I was happy with my time but somewhat surprised and disappointed that I had only run 30 seconds faster than my last race in Montana where the course was at least five times more difficult? And I felt much stronger and better all through the race in MT? I should have easily broke 3:30 on this course - but it obviously was not one of those 'feel good' days! But heck, the race was done and now it was time to enjoy the rest of the weekend. On Saturday evening, Dr Jason's girlfriend (another doctor) came up from NYC to join us and we all went out for dinner but then the tired old Maddog had to retire early to recuperate for the next day. On Sunday the four of us toured along the coast of CT enjoying the fall colors and coastline. Dr Jason was on call (pediatrics)so we could not venture too far from the hospital and much to his chagrin we got to see him in action as he had to respond to numerous pages/phone calls. So although the trip was a last-minute, unplanned visit we were very happy that we had squeezed it in as we really enjoyed the time with our son and our friends. But now we have to rush to prepare for the next trip - two weeks in Europe - 5 countries and two marathons. Fortunately I have only one trip/marathon planned in Nov as my right hamstring/leg is a tight bundle of knots and needs some rest?