Tuesday, October 15, 2002

TR Croatia

10/07/02 – 10/14/02

Now where were we? Oh yes - on the Balkan Express riding from Bucharest to Budapest to Zagreb. After a 24-hour train ride we arrived in Zagreb at 11:30 pm – just two minor problems. A) We did not want to stay in Zagreb because we had been there before and had already explored the city so we wanted to travel on to the coast of the Adriatic Sea - but B) the next train to Split, Croatia didn’t leave until 6am. So we found a hotel across the street from the train station and managed to grab 5 hours of sleep before we had to board the train for Split.

The train ride was interesting and scenic for the first 100 miles as the train traveled along and through a coastal mountain range with lots of forests in their final stages of fall colors. But then the mountains became more sparse and desert-like and boring except for a few lush agricultural valleys. Finally eight hours later we emerged from the mountains and started dropping down to the Adriatic Sea. Split reminded me very much of a city in Greece – all the buildings are white stucco with red tile roofs. It is the second largest city in Croatia and is very modern.

After leaving the train we were faced with a bit of a quandary. We were flying by the seat of our pants because we had no reservations or set plans for this part of the journey – and it was a national holiday in Croatia. That meant that the tourist/information offices were closed along with most businesses. So I parked my sports manager at a seaside bar and ventured off to find a hotel. I was in luck – I only had to walk a few blocks along the harbor into the old city to find a hotel right on the harbor. We couldn’t have asked for a better location. The ‘old city’ of Split is established on a site built by the Emperor Diocletian in 300AD as a retirement palace. Many ruins and walls from the original palace still exist and some restoration has been completed. It sits right on the coast overlooking the current harbor and the Bay of Solin. There are several outdoor bars and cafes along the harbor and it really reminds me of a fishing village in Greece. It is a great place to eat, sip wine, etc and people-watch. And there was some great people-watching to be done – the women in Split are gorgeous –much more beautiful than the rest of the Balkans?

We bought a guidebook and conducted our own walking tour of the old city. A fortified city and walls were built around the palace site in the 12th to 14th centuries and most of that city still exists. The streets are very narrow – about 4 to 6 feet wide and lined with shops and cafes. Local residents occupy the upper stories so it is quite active and very interesting to visit. I finally got to enjoy a great seafood dinner at our hotel while overlooking the harbor and bay.

The following morning I decided it was time to check out the legs with an easy 10-mile run along the harbor and coast. The right hamstring was still tight and very sore and I knew that I was going to have to find a masseuse to work on it before the race in Zagreb.
But now it was time to move on to Dubrovnik which is further down the coast and everyone said was the prettiest city in Croatia. The only way to get there was by bus or ferry so we chose to take an afternoon bus. Before leaving Split I walked to the train station and reserved a private cabin on the night/sleeper train back to Zagreb on Friday night. Now we were ready to leave. It was a 5-hour bus ride along the coast. Fantastic scenery with a rugged coastline on one side and mountains on the other. About an hour from Dubrovnik we passed through a border/customs checkpoint? We didn’t understand what the border was until 20 miles later when we passed through another border and learned that we had just passed through Bosnia. I didn’t realize that Bosnia had negotiated a sliver of land cutting through Croatia so that they had access to the Adriatic Sea?

Finally we arrived in Dubrovnik. Since we were still flying by the seat of our pants and had no idea where the ‘old city’ or hotels were located I found a young taxi driver who spoke English and asked his advice. He advised me that the best hotels were located close to the old city so I asked him to take us to the best hotel located closest to the old city. He dropped us off at the Excelsior Hotel – a 5-star hotel with 5-star prices. But it sat on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea and the old city and I decided “what the hell –we deserve a nice treat”! So I booked two nights. After we checked into our room and were taking an elevator back to the lobby a strange thing happened. We overheard three elderly ladies talking in the elevator and realized that they were Americans and struck up a conversation with them. Turns out that they are neighbors who live in the $multi-million condos on the beach across the road from our new home on Longboat Key. Small world?
Later that night we met them again in the hotel bar and traded travel stories. These ladies certainly are not paupers and do not travel on the same limited/cheap budget that we do. But they didn’t know that since we were all staying at the best hotel in the city. They were quite impressed with our travel experiences – maybe even a bit ticked off that I had run marathons in more countries than they had visited. I told Nicole that she would probably find that she had been added to the ‘elite/snob social calendar’ when we moved on to Longboat Key. I can’t express in words how she felt about that prospect.

That evening we explored the ‘old city’. The old city is a fortified and walled city built in the 12th century. It is in remarkable shape. The original walls and fortifications are still intact. Much of the original city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1667 and rebuilt but some of the original buildings still exist. It is still the center of city activity with several shops, bars and cafes located on the lower levels along the narrow cobbled streets. The upper levels are occupied by local residents. Dubrovnik is considered to be the cultural center of Croatia with many concerts, shows, etc taking place in the old city.
We found a nice seafood restaurant with outdoor seating and enjoyed the house specialty an ‘Adriatic Sea Platter’ – local fish, squid and mussels. Very good but not cheap!

The following morning I did an easy 10-mile run through the old city and along the Adriatic Sea. My right leg was telling me that I definitely needed some massage work. Since the hotel had a spa I checked with the in-house masseuse but she couldn’t fit me into her schedule. I decided to wait until I got to Zagreb and look for a masseuse there.
On our final morning in Dubrovnik we went back to the old city for a final stroll. Unfortunately the weather had turned nasty – raining and windy – but I decided to walk along the top of the entire fortified wall. It provided some spectacular views of the old city and the coastline. But now it was time to take the long bus ride back to Split to connect with the night train back to Zagreb. The train departed at 9 pm and again I was asleep within 30 minutes of our departure and woke up as we arrived in Zagreb at 6 am. I love night trains. They rock you to sleep like a baby in a cradle and you wake up and you are in a new city. And a private sleeper cabin costs less than a hotel room? But my sports manger is still not convinced?

Although we arrived in Zagreb very early we were fortunate that our hotel allowed us to check into our room at 7am. After a quick shower and breakfast we went looking for the host hotel for the marathon and the registration desk. The marathon started and finished in front of the Opera Hotel that was only a mile from our hotel. I had booked the Hotel Dubrovnik that is located right on Jelacica square – the main city square. We found the registration desk easily and I signed up and received the last-minute information and details. I was ready for the marathon – except that I still needed a massage. Luck was with me – our hotel had a masseuse in-house and she agreed to take me right away. She was not as good as my masseuses in FL and CO but she was much cheaper – only $20 for a 1-hour massage! Now I was ready!

Sunday was M-Day! The race started at 9 am. The weather was cloudy and cool (low 40s). Since I was concerned about the state of my right leg/hamstring I decided that I would be smart and run slow and easy with a goal of finishing as healthy as possible. There were about 200 runners in the marathon and another 300 in a 10K race. Both races started together but at least the 10K runners were adults and although the start was congested it was orderly. The course started with a 10K loop that ran from the city center to the north and back to the finish line. The streets were closed down or at least one lane was coned off for the entire course and traffic control was much better and safer than that debacle in Bucharest. About 5K into the race the course funneled down into a single narrow lane that followed the tracks for the city tram. I was so focused on watching out for the other runners that I tripped I on something and went flying through the air? As I was falling I was concerned about landing on the tracks and breaking something but fortunately I landed on the pavement and escaped with only minor cuts and abrasions on my hands and elbow. I looked back to see what I had tripped on – a huge metal brake shoe that had fallen off a tram. But that little mishap was probably a blessing because I decided that I needed to pay more attention to my footing and discovered that several sections of the course followed the tram tracks and there were many man-made holes with missing covers. It would have been easy to step in one of those holes and break an ankle!

The 10K loop turned back to pass the finish line where the 10K runners finished and the marathoners continued on a 22K loop to the southern section of the city. I crossed the Half in 1:51:05. My leg felt good and I felt excellent since I was running slow and easy. In fact my biggest challenge (other than trying to stay on my feet) was trying to keep the Maddog in check. With the cool weather and a flat, fast course he was frothing at the mouth to lower the hammer and go for a sub 3:30 marathon! But I kept him under control on that 2nd loop – even on a nice flat section of the course that passed through a park with no traffic to contend with. However as the course looped back towards the finish line and approached 30K the leg still felt OK and I decided to let the Maddog out of his cage. I was curious to see if I could run a negative split on the second half and finish under 3:40?
Maddog immediately lowered the pace to sub 8:00s and it felt good and easy? The course looped past the finish line at 32K and repeated the initial 10K loop for the final 10K of the race. No repeat of the trip and flying act on the second time around though. As I approached 40K the right leg started to tighten up and hurt like Hell. But Maddog wasn’t listening as the leg screamed at me to back off – he just ignored the pain and screams and pushed my sorry ass through the final 2K to finish the race in 3:39:36 and a negative split of 1:48:35. Although the leg was tight and sore at the finish it didn’t appear to have suffered any additional injury so I was quite pleased with my performance and time. I hung around for about 15 minutes on the hope that they would post some results but finally left for the hotel and my customary soak in a hot bath. Later found out on the web that I had missed the 3rd place award by one minute.

That evening my sports manager and I found a restaurant in Zagreb that also specialized in wild game. We had a great dinner - but not as good as the one in Bucharest and it cost three times as much? The following morning I treated myself to another massage at the hotel. The masseuse worked all the toxins and lactic acid out of the legs and my right leg felt so much better. Then it was off to the airport and our flight back to Zurich. Our flight connections required an overnight stay in Zurich and we didn’t really mind because we have been through Zurich several times but have never had the opportunity or time to explore the city. We checked into a hotel at the airport and took a train into the city. We explored the old city and the city center and enjoyed a great dinner in the old city. I wouldn’t want to live there though – the prices are similar to NYC prices – very expensive!

Finally it was time for the long flight home. And as always – even though we had enjoyed another marvelous marathon adventure/trip, we were looking forward to going home and sleeping in our own bed. Time to get back to regular schedules and rest up for the next adventure! Stay tuned.

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