Monday, October 07, 2002

TR Romania

10/02 – 10/06/02

The planning for this trip began only this past summer because of two major considerations:
1.0) I had already made a dry run of this trip back in 1999
2.0) Trying to get confirmation and registration for a marathon in the Balkans is an exasperating experience.

As some of you know I tried to run the Bucharest Marathon in the fall of 1999 when we were living in England. It had been scheduled for the weekend after the Budapest Marathon so I made travel plans to run both. However one week before the trip I was notified that the marathon had been cancelled due to lack of financing. Since I had already purchased a Balkan Rail Pass and made reservations I decided to explore Romania and some other Balkan countries after the Budapest Marathon.
I traveled to Bucharest by train and spent two days there before moving on to Constanta on the Black sea where I almost got mugged and robbed in broad daylight on the main street. So NO, I do not have fond memories of Romania. If you recall that trip report I called the country ‘a shit-hole’!

But if I wanted to achieve my goal of running a marathon in every country of Europe it meant that I had to go back to Bucharest to run the marathon. Besides my sports manager had not yet had the pleasure of seeing/visiting Romania. So after many attempts to contact someone in Romania to confirm if and when the marathon was taking place this year I finally hit pay dirt and got in contact with a sports journalist in Bucharest who was also a race volunteer. Now I had to find a second marathon in Europe scheduled within a week of Bucharest to spread the cost of the trip over two races. I was in luck. The Zagreb (Croatia) marathon was the following weekend. However getting confirmation of that race became a frustrating experience and I started to make plans on the hope/trust that Zagreb would really happen. I only received confirmation on Zagreb about a month before the trip!

Traveling to that part of the world from here is very expensive so I decided to cash in frequent flyer miles to reduce the expenses. It also made it easier to book an open-jaw trip; i.e. we would fly into Bucharest and out of Zagreb to give my lovely wife/sports manager the opportunity to experience train travel through the Balkans!
Now – on to the trip!

After a long flight from Denver to Dallas to Zurich, we finally arrived in Bucharest at midnight on Oct 3rd. Andrei, the journalist, met us at the airport to drive us to the hotel. Yes, he was a very kind and nice person – but he wasn’t doing this and the other arrangements he set up for free. He charged us for everything (only US dollars please) but I was happy to pay because it would have been very difficult and costly to do on my own. When he picked us up I wasn’t surprised to learn that the race organization had changed the host hotel at the last minute – another good reason/example of using Andrei to coordinate everything. He had a few more change announcements also. We had wanted to travel into the Carpathian Mountains for a few days to visit Dracula’s Castle – now it was only possible to do a day trip. Fortunately he had not yet booked our train tickets on to Zagreb so we decided on the spot to shorten our stay in Romania and travel on to Zagreb on Sunday night after the trip to the Castle. And one more little surprise (and travel advice for Romania). Andrei had stated up front that he wanted to be paid in cash in US dollars. No problem. Not wanting to carry a lot of cash in Romania or any other country I had taken a lot of travelers checks with me. Andrei would not accept the checks because the banks hold the checks for 45 days before crediting his account. Well, it turns out that travelers checks are almost useless in Romania – the hotels, not even most banks will cash them. I had to find a specific bank in Bucharest to cash them (for a hefty commission). But finally we got Andrei fixed up and some extra cash since everyone will gladly accept US dollars in cash!

Romania is not used to tourism and has no infrastructure set up to support it. There are no packaged tours or excursions of the city or country. Since I had blown most of Friday morning trying to cash travelers checks we only had a half-day to explore the city. I managed to find a local travel agent who was entrepreneurial enough to offer us a private tour of Bucharest in his own car (for $60). There really isn’t that much to see – some government buildings, the theatre, Revolution Square and of course the Parliament Palace. Parliament Palace is the former palace built by the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausecu in the 1980s. He never got to move into it. It is the second largest building in the world behind the Pentagon. Depending who you talk to, Ceausecu was either a villain or a hero. But he did tear down a large section of the old city to build his palace and forced several thousand residents to find other shelter. These residents were forced to turn their pets, mostly dogs, out into the streets to fend for themselves. You can guess what happened. When I was there three years ago there were thousands of stray dogs roaming the streets biting hundreds of people each day. Fortunately a new mayor was elected a few years ago and he has started to clean up the problem – there are now only hundreds of stray dogs but they are still evident all over the city. Not as many dog bites now although one runner did get bitten by a dog during the race.

Friday evening the race committee held a pasta party for the elite athletes and international runners. This was probably the best and only good thing I have to say about the whole event. It was evidently a ‘big affair’ for the local dignitaries. The committee had invited several of Romania’s Olympic gold-medal athletes from track and other sports. The star guest of the evening was Nadia Cominich who is a national hero in Romania. She certainly isn’t the little Nadia I remember on TV scoring her perfect 10! She is a very attractive and sophisticated woman now.

Saturday was M-day! The race started at 11am in the center of the city. The committee had a bus scheduled for the elite and international runners but it left the hotel at 9am for the start that was only a few miles from the hotel? So I decided to take a taxi on my own.
Thankfully the weather was warm so I didn’t have to worry about warm ups because I couldn’t find out any information about a bag drop? There were about 150 runners in the marathon – only 28 international runners and the rest were locals. Two runners from the US and one from the UK – I met both. There were about 3,000 runners (mostly kids) in a 5K race that was run at the same time. What a screw –up that was. They did cordon off a section at the front of the race for the marathoners but they started the race together (Nadia was the race starter). Within seconds we had 3,000 screaming kids charging by us. I had to use the old elbow technique to keep from being knocked down and trampled. Then after ½ mile they all ran out of gas and we had to fight our way through kids walking and jogging for the next 2 ½ miles. Fortunately a kind Romania male runner adopted me around one mile. He ran with me and shouted at the kids to get out of the way. He stayed with me until the 5K runners split off and although he didn’t speak a word of English we shook hands and I thanked him for his assistance as he split off also.
Now I was on my own but the marathoners were well spread out by then. For the first 5K they had closed down one side of a major city street but now we were down to one single lane of the boulevard that had been coned off for the marathoners. Unfortunately that only lasted for another 1K and then the cones disappeared? For the next 4K we had to run along a major boulevard that ran from the city center to the airport with cars zooming by at 50mph! At first I stayed behind some other runners thinking that there was safety in numbers. But as the cars passed by closer and closer (we were running with the traffic) I got scared and moved up to the sidewalk whenever there was one. All I could think was “I do not want to end up in a hospital (or morgue) in Romania”.

At 10K we turned off that boulevard into a large park – the first water stop in the race! I grabbed a bottle of water and started to drink. It was carbonated water! Yuk! I went back to the aid station and asked for still water. There was none – well, it’s either drink this crap or die of dehydration! Enjoy those little bubbles – wonder what they will do to my stomach? I had also hoped that the course would move off the road on to bike paths. No such luck. We were now running with traffic on narrow two lane roads. But at least there was less traffic and I didn’t feel so threatened. About 18K we exited the park back on to the major boulevard heading towards the airport again – but now there are no sidewalks and very little room on the side of the road. I was scared again but had no choice but stick close to a group of runners and pray for safety in numbers. Thankfully we turned off that major road again on to a small two-lane country road. At least I thought I was thankful. But now the road was very narrow and there seemed to be a lot of huge trucks on that road. After a few trucks zoomed by so close that their mirrors almost clipped me and the breeze almost knocked me over I quickly learned to tune my ears for the sound of a truck and move off to the side of the road.

I was very surprised as I crossed the Half in 1:44:38. I was running sub-8s even with all of the sidestepping, etc that I was having to do to stay alive. About 25K we turned into a residential area that offered some relief from the heavy truck traffic. That road eventually led us back to the large park. I had decided that I would not worry about my time (for safety reasons) but if I was still close to an 8-minute pace at 32K that I would then try to break 3:30. I reached 32K at 2:40:45 and decided to go for it. But as I lowered the pace my right leg/hamstring tightened immediately and started to hurt. I had to back off the pace for a few kilometers and massage the leg to reduce the pain but finally was able to get my pace back down to sub 8s. By then we left the park again and turned back on to that major boulevard to return into the city. I was back up on the sidewalks wherever possible. It became almost an impossible challenge – up and down the sidewalk and then the police started to disappear or leave their posts at the intersections and we had to be extra careful approaching intersections. Maddog was pushing my sorry and tired ass as hard and fast as it could go while I tried to watch the traffic and keep us alive. I caught up to a Romanian runner at 40K and stayed with her because now we were having difficulty trying to figure out where to go. The course finished at a stadium on the edge of downtown and the course was not marked. At one point she had to stop and find a cop (who was supposed to be directing traffic at the intersection) to ask directions. I wisely stayed with her until we made the final turn on to the street where the stadium was located. Then I left her as I made a final push to see if I could break 3:30. As I turned off that street on to the road into the stadium I was blocked by a massive crowd of kids leaving the stadium after the 5K awards. I shouted at them to get the hell out of the way but had to fight my way through them all the way to the entrance to the stadium and track.
As I entered the track I could see the finish line on the far side of the track – about 300m to go. I looked at my watch – it had just turned over 3:29! I could still do it if I sprinted the final 300m. Maddog dug deep and used everything we had to accelerate that last 300m. As I approached the finish line in 3:29:50 a race volunteer started shouting at me (in Romanian). I didn’t have a clue what he was saying but when he held up his hand with one finger showing I immediately and unfortunately understood. ONE MORE LAP!
I was completely demoralized and disgusted! So I jogged a final lap around the course and crossed the finish line in 3:31:56.

I was so disgusted and pissed off with the whole race- the organization (or lack of) and especially the course that I just grabbed a bottle of water (carbonated of course) and walked out of the stadium. Never to return again. It was a piece-of-shit race and the country is still a shit-hole. Now do you want to ask how I really feel about it?
Fortunately I found my sports manager on the way out of the stadium and we retuned to the hotel for my usual soak in a hot bath.

Later we headed into the center of town to enjoy a few cold drinks and look for one of the restaurants that our tour guide had recommended the day before. Unfortunately both restaurants had been booked for private wedding parties and we had to make another choice. Even that turned out to be a bad meal – not my day I guess!

The following morning we were scheduled to travel to Transylvania to visit the Bran Castle. Andrei had arranged for an English-speaking friend to tour us in her private car. I now understood why we couldn’t go for two days – she was just moonlighting and couldn’t take the time off work. But we were fortunate to have her because I would not drive in Romania. The roads are crawling with cops who stop everyone and expect a bribe to continue your journey. If you are a foreign driver you don’t stand a chance.
Otherwise it was a pleasant trip. Ban is about 120 miles north of Bucharest in the Carpathian Mountains. The leaves were changing and provided a kaleidoscope of fall colors. The Bran Castle or Dracula’s Castle was built in 1212 and has been restored very well. The Castle was owned by Vlad Tepes, the Prince of Wallachia and son of Vlad Cracul. He ruled the region from 1456 to 1462 and used to sign himself Draculea (Devil’s son), a name which was distorted into Dracula. He was known as the Impaler because impaling was his favorite punishment for thieves and criminals.
After touring the castle we enjoyed a great lunch of local fare in Bran including a local liqueur called ‘palinka’ that smelled and tasted like kerosene. Believe me if you drink that stuff Dracula is sure to stay away and leave you alone.

Upon returning to Bucharest we decided to go back to the restaurant recommended by our guide since we had to kill three hours before the night train left. The Burebista restaurant is known as the ‘Hunter’s’ restaurant because the menu is completely comprised of wild game. We had an excellent 4-course dinner with wine and cocktails for $25 – the most expensive meal I have ever eaten in Romania.

Now it was time to catch the night train to Zagreb. My sports manger, having led a very sheltered life, had never taken a night or sleeper train so I thought that she should enjoy the experience. We had booked a private compartment and I was sleeping within one hour of our departure. The train took 24 hours to travel from Bucharest to Zagreb via Budapest. There was a 3-hour stop in Budapest so we left the train and went into the city for a nice dinner before continuing the journey on to Zagreb. I don’t believe my sports manger has the same enthusiasm for night trains that I do.

But we were now in Zagreb, Croatia – another country and another trip report so stay tuned.

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