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!

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