Wednesday, May 21, 2003

TR Latvia

5/14 – 5/20/03

Latvia? Where is Latvia? Good question! It is on the Baltic Sea across from Sweden. It is bound on the north by Estonia, on the south by Lithuania and the east by Russia and Belarus. Now for the story.

This is one marathon/trip that certainly had a lot of activity/frustration/history/memories even before the trip started. So where do I start to tell the story?

Maybe back as far as four years ago when we were living in the UK and I was actively pursuing my goal of running a marathon in every country in Europe. I really loved the Baltic countries and was trying to run/finish them all before we left the UK. I had completed all the Baltic countries except Latvia and Lithuania and no matter how hard I tried I could not find ‘official’ marathons in those two countries. There were all kinds of rumors and stories of marathons but I could never locate one and thus I had to leave those two countries uncompleted when we returned to the USA. I continued my search for marathons in both countries over the next three years and had almost given up when I had a stroke of luck!
Last December when I was running the Barbados marathon I met a fellow runner/friend from Sweden who insisted that there was a marathon in Latvia. We were discussing this mythical marathon while waiting for a bus to the start line at 4am when a runner from Latvia approached us and confirmed that, yes indeed, there was a marathon in Riga, Latvia and it was normally held in May. I got names and email addresses to contact and the search was on again. I was fortunate to email a fellow runner in Riga (Gunars Akerbergs) who understood English and agreed to help me. By late January Gunars had confirmed that the 13th International Riga Marathon would be run on May 17/03! Gunars also promised to help me locate a marathon in Lithuania since he normally runs one there each year! Believe me, without all his efforts and assistance this trip/race would never have happened.

While I was awaiting confirmation of the marathon I asked some fellow runners/ friends to join me since I knew that they also wanted to run a marathon in Latvia. Our final group was comprised of two Yanks and four Brits – or in case Big Dave reads this I had better correct that to read – 2 Yanks, 3 Brits and 1 Englishman. Big Dave (when you see the photos you will easily identify him as someone not to mess with) insists that he is ‘English’ – not ‘British’. No matter – Gunars adopted this mangy, crazy group of runners as his ‘family’ and he provided invaluable assistance such as submitting our entry forms and recommending a hotel. By February a plan/agenda was in place with much credit to our friend/runner Roger in London who put the final travel plans together for the group. We would meet in London and travel on to Riga together and share rooms since my sports manager was not going with me.

Although I had hoped/planned to cut back on the number of marathons I would run this year I still planned to train hard up to Latvia and then cut back over the summer. But as we know disaster/fate struck in the early spring. My hamstring problems got worse to the point that I couldn’t run/train and then a wee, medical mishap (yeah, I know – self imposed) occurred in March. I really thought that I had screwed up big time at that point and became concerned – almost depressed - that I would miss Latvia after all the trouble I had gone through to find and set it up? But then I decided that if I couldn’t run it, I would walk it – but I would finish it - and began the long road back.

So now the story jumps to the current time frame and a very tired Maddog arrives in London Heathrow after sixteen hours of journey (car, flight and airport time). Unfortunately I had an 8-hour layover in London and considered traveling into London on the tube to visit one of my friends and maybe crash for a few hours. But he wisely pointed out that it would take so long to get through immigration/customs and travel time on the tube that I would only get a few hours of sleep. So I decided to use my AA – Platinum card to get into the BA Lounge, find a nice long couch and crash there for a few hours. I actually managed to get about two hours of sleep/rest. The European airport lounges are much better than ours – they provide snacks and booze free so I decided to sample a few (well – many) beers and wines so I was quite relaxed and mellow by the time I headed to the BA gate to meet my group of friends. We finally arrived at our hotel in the ‘Old City’ of Riga around midnight. After checking in the group wanted to explore the old city and try a few Latvian beers. By now I was 29 hours into the journey – it was 5pm my body time and I had had maybe two hours sleep? But what the Hell! I trailed along for the first beer and then excused myself because I figured I was ready to sleep. If only! When I hit the pillow my body relaxed and was ready but the nasty old mind suddenly figured out it was only 6pm (body time) and it wasn’t ready to close down yet. So I laid there all night counting Latvian sheep and listening to my roommate snore. I was really missing my sports manager by now! Finally about 5:30am (local time) or 10:30pm (body time) - when I should have been able to sleep – I gave up, got dressed and explored the streets of the old city. Damn it was cold! Low 30s (F) and a wet mist/rain. Am I having fun yet! Damn right I’m not. Nobody said that international travel was all fun and glamour. But I did enjoy the architecture and history of the old city.

The ‘Old City’ was established in 1201 and the fortifications date back to the 13th century. Most of the old city has been restored since the days of communism. The Riga Castle dates back to 1209 but the restored castle and many of the old restored churches date back to the 16th century. The streets are all narrow, cobblestones and the city has wisely closed the old city off to most vehicular traffic so the streets are essentially pedestrian malls. There are several hotels, bars, restaurants and clubs in the old city and everything is within walking distance. It is very similar to Tallinn, Estonia which I have visited but my friends were quite surprised by how much the city had been restored and how clean and safe it was. And like Estonia, it is a cheap tourist destination. Other than hotels which are expensive everywhere in Europe, everything else was cheap. A good dinner costs about $5 US, a liter of beer – 1 Lat ($1.75 US). Most people in the service industry (hotels, bars, etc) speak English so it is easy to communicate and it is safe to walk around. I can’t understand why more tourists don’t take advantage of this cheap and very interesting, historical part of the world?

After my early morning self-guided tour of the old city I met the group and we set off to explore the city and find the race registration and our host Gunars. But first we had to ask a young boy how to pay for and use the city bus/transport system. He graciously taught the old foreign farts how to get around the city and we were off! We found the registration desk at a stadium and were pleasantly surprised to discover that the race organization had comped all of us; i.e. they would not accept the required entry fee for the race. They were pleased to have foreign runners enter their race. Then we found our host/friend Gunars and invited him for coffee so that we could thank him for all his assistance. As mentioned earlier Gunars had continued to research marathons in Lithuania and had obtained information and entry forms for the 2nd Panevezys International Marathon 0n August 30/03. Anyone want to join me because I am going!

The rest of the day we spent touring and then we had an early pasta dinner and I retired to bed with the hope of finally getting some sleep because my body seemed to be in a time warp. Thank goodness I was successful and slept for a wonderful, restful nine hours.

Saturday was M-Day. The race started at 12pm (noon) which is typical for many European races. I was concerned about traffic control (had forgot to ask Gunars about that) since it was a small race – only 118 runners. Most of the runners were from Latvia and Lithuania –only two runners from Germany, one from Poland and then our group of six from the US and UK. There was one slight problem for our group – there was a time limit of 5 hours for the race and Big Dave who has run 500+ marathons needs 5 to 6 hours to finish. The solution was for him to start the race ‘unofficially’ one hour early. Thus we all accompanied him to the start line at 10am for a team photo and then we cheered him off at 11am. Another runner, Cliff (from Waco, TX) decided to join him since he wasn’t feeling well and figured he could use the extra time also. The rest of the group waited for the official start at 12pm. The race started in front of the Freedom Monument on the edge of the old city and finished at a stadium in the new city. Fortunately the weather had improved – it was mid 40sF and sunny at the start. The only negative was a strong headwind blowing from the north off the Baltic Sea.

I took off at a 5min/km (8 min/mile) pace and was surprised when the youngest of the UK runners (another Dave) caught up to me at 1Km and stated that he wanted to run with me as long as he could. We slowed our pace down to 5:10 to 5:20/km which is the range I wanted and ran very consistently for the first 8 to 10Km as the course wound out of the city and around Lake Kisezers north of the city. The streets were completely closed down for the race/course which really surprised me. They had plenty of volunteers and police along the course to control traffic and provide directions. In fact there were more police on the course than runners – amazing for only 118 runners? Water stations were provided every 5km which is enough when it is not hot. After the first 5km, distance markers were only provided every 5km which can make it difficult to manage your pace properly. We passed Big Dave and Cliff around 8km and at that point the headwind started to become nasty so I taught Dave how to take turns blocking the wind and letting your partner draft. Dave stayed with me till about16km and then he started to fade and drop back and I had to push on by myself. We had been following a female runner with silver-gray hair whom looked like she was in the 50 or 60s age group and I had been quite impressed at how smooth, easy and fast she ran. I decided that I should be able to pass her but it took me till the water station at 20km to do it. She finished about 5 minutes behind me which is a damn good time for a veteran woman.
I crossed the Half in 1:50. I thought about trying to break 3:40 but that would mean negative splits and at that point my body was telling me it didn’t have negative splits in it for that day. So I decided to just continue my pace and stick with the plan to finish around 3:45. Around 18 miles I experienced a short stabbing pain in my left hamstring and immediately became alarmed –“Oh no – not that crap/problem again?”
But I eased off for a few minutes and it didn’t happen again?

Around 30K we turned off a country road and headed back into the city on a six-lane boulevard. We ran on that road for about 3 km and instead of using cones to block off a traffic lane they had police officers located every 100 meters to control traffic? I couldn’t believe it? Not only that - about 50% of the Riga police officers are female –very young and very, very pretty. Playboy could easily do a complete issue on the ‘cops of Riga’ – and I would certainly buy a copy! Finally I turned off that busy road and reached 35km as the course ran along a park. Time was 3:05 and I was starting to tire and there wasn’t much spring left in the legs. Now I became concerned that I would even meet my goal?
I tried to hang on and hold my pace till 40Km. I reached 40km in 3:32.30. I figured that I needed to drop the pace to 5min/km to break 3:45 but didn’t think the old legs had that speed/energy left in them. I needed HELP. So I called on the Maddog whom you know is very competitive and has no regard/respect for pain; i.e. crazy! He dropped the pace to 5/5:05 and dragged my sorry, tired ass through the last 2.2km. As the course approached 42km I was climbing the last hill and could see the stadium. All I could think was if I had to run one or two laps inside the stadium I wouldn’t make it! You can’t believe how happy I was to discover the finish line at the entrance to the track and I crossed it in 3:43:42!

I considered waiting around for the rest of the group but my legs started to tighten up and become sore and I knew that I had to get them into a hot bath as soon as possible so I headed back to the hotel alone. I had my bath, shower- wrote my postcards and was sitting in the hotel bar having a beer when the rest of the group returned to the hotel. They joined me later and we headed out for dinner to sample some local Latvian food and beer. The dinner was excellent and very cheap even with caviar and Latvian champagne included!

The following morning the group decided to take a train to Jurmala, the largest Baltic spa-town located on the Baltic Sea about 20 km from Riga. A round trip ticket on the train was 1 lat ($1.75US). There is a lovely sandy beach, about 32km long. We walked a few miles along the beach and through some of the shopping/entertainment areas. Unfortunately the weather was too cold for swimmers and more sadly nude sunbathers! So we decided to return to Riga for our farewell dinner. However on the return train ride we barely avoided a messy/ international incident with two Russians. They claimed to be ex-sailors and were drunker than skunks since they had been fishing and drinking vodka all morning. They took a liking to Big Dave’s tattoos and decided to become best friends.
However they became offended when we refused to drink their rot-gut vodka from the bottle that they had been slobbering in all day. We took a diplomatic approach and explained that we were athletes and didn’t drink but there were a few moments when I thought it might come to fisticuffs before we reached Riga? Fortunately they were forced to get off after two or three stops and diplomacy persevered! That is – diplomacy on our part. I have a better understanding of how deep the hatred is between Latvians and Russians when the Russians stood up in a train car in the middle of Latvia and declared “Latvians are shit - Russians are the best”! The Latvian train conductor indicated that she was calling the police to have them thrown in jail. And I understood most of the argument/discussion even though all the heated conversation was in Russian/Latvian!

We left the following morning to return to London. My ticket/routing required an overnight stay so I was fortunate that a good friend from the group (Tad) whom I have run many international marathons with agreed to put me up for a night at his place. He has a nice house in the Vauxhall district a few blocks from the Thames River. We left his place about 3pm to go pub-hopping around London. He took me to places I had never seen before (and most likely could never find again) around London and we finished the evening with a great dinner of fish and chips – what else??

Now I am back home and fortunately the jet lag on the return leg hasn’t seemed to have affected me as badly as the outgoing leg of the trip?
But even with that jet lag I still enjoyed the trip and the marathon. I am looking forward to visiting Lithuania in August – but not the long trip. I was hoping to tie that marathon in with a few others in the fall. But now it appears that I will have to make two more trips to Europe this year to accomplish my goal of finishing Europe this year! A short (ugh) trip to Lithuania in August and a month-long trip to the Balkans in October.
Stay tuned – and of course y’all are invited to join me????

No comments: