Tuesday, September 02, 2003

TR Lithuania

8/24 – 9/2/03

This trip was decided during the last marathon trip to Latvia in May when my new running friend, Gunars, from Riga confirmed that a marathon would be held in Panevezys, Lithuania on Aug 30/03. Since I needed a marathon in Lithuania to cross that country off my ‘European’ list and it fit into my schedule I confirmed that I would run it!
That was the easy part.

My sports manager was not too keen on making the trip until I suggested that we could route through Poland since she had never been to Poland and wanted to visit. Now I had to put together an itinerary. Fortunately Delta worked with me to let us route through Poland but we also had to route through Prague, Czech Republic since that is the hub for their partner airline Czech Air. It was crazy routing with many extra stops and layovers so I decided (thankfully) to book First Class using air miles left from my business days. The next problem was trying to get registered for the race because the race director was not nearly as responsive and cooperative as Gunars was in Riga. The final problem was trying to book hotels in Lithuania. Most of the hotels do not yet have web sites and even those that list email addresses don’t respond to email. So I had to resort to faxes to finally book our hotels and we were ready.

After three legs/flights beginning from Denver at 9am on Sun we arrived in Paris at 9am Mon – only 17 hours later! After a 7-hour layover in the Air France lounge (why can’t they put 3-cushion sofas in the damn lounges instead of those short 2-seaters - ever try sleeping on a 2-seater?) we were finally off to Warsaw. Only 26 hours to get to our destination – about 30 hours if you include car time to/from the airports! And y’all thought international travel was fun??? Although we were both very tired and jet lagged we forced ourselves to walk around the hotel area, eat dinner and stay up until about 10pm – and then we crashed and slept for 12 hours! Almost felt like we were on local time when we ate a late breakfast.

Now it was time to play tourist and see the city. We booked our customary city tour to learn the layout of the city and visit tourist highlights such as Old Town, Royal Castle, the Old Town Square and Barbican, the Royal Park with the Water Palace and Chopin’s Monument and lastly the old Jewish Ghetto. Warsaw was almost completely destroyed by bombing in WWII so all the historical sites have been reconstructed. There is a lot of history in this city that dates back to 1294.

After the tour we figured out the city metro and returned to Old Town to explore some more and look for a good restaurant to celebrate our 36th anniversary. We found a nice restaurant that specialized in local fare but alas they didn’t serve booze – and there was no way I was celebrating an anniversary without booze! So we found another restaurant that only served wild game and had an excellent dinner with a bottle of good wine – for $30! Too early to quit celebrating so we hit some bars and tried some shooters with local vodka. Good idea at the time – bad idea the next morning when I had to get up to do a long training run. I hadn’t run since Sat in the mountains and I HAD to run! I found my way over to the Royal Park and ran an easy 10 miles to flush the poison out of my system.

Our routing required that we route back through Prague to get to Vilnius so we had to take a late afternoon flight out of Warsaw and stay over a night in Prague. That worked OK because we stayed near the airport and I was able to do an early 5-mile run before we departed for Vilnius on Thursday. This would have to be my last run since the race was on Saturday. We arrived in Vilnius in mid-afternoon and began to explore the city. Our hotel was conveniently located on the edge of the Old Town so we were close to all the bars and restaurants – and tourist sites.

Lithuania was the first of the former Soviet states in the Baltics to declare independence (1989) and although it has the largest population it seems that they have made the least progress towards capitalism. The Old Town of Vilnius is the largest old town in the Baltics but is also the least restored and set up for tourism. However they have many major restoration projects in process in preparation for their 1000th anniversary in 2009!
Normally I start my carbo-loading a few days before a race but I wanted to try/taste Lithuanian food so we found a restaurant noted for its local cuisine and enjoyed a nice dinner. The local cuisine is heavy on meats and potato dishes. A good meal with a bottle of wine cost about $20 for two!

On Friday we again took our customary city tour to explore the city and learn more about the history of the city and country. Much of the city and Old Town were destroyed during the war but there were also many buildings that escaped major damage- especially the churches. Many date back to the 16th century. Most of the original fortifications of the Old Town have been destroyed except for the ‘Gates of Dawn’. In 1671 a chapel was built into the gates to house a holy image of the Virgin Mary and none of the conquering nations – not even Lenin, Stalin and Hitler had the courage to order the gates and the image destroyed. There are lots of legends and fables surrounding the Gates of Dawn and the crown jewels of Lithuania. Legend states that anyone putting the crown on his head without just cause will die within one year and one day. A Nazi SS general ignored the legend and wore the crown and also put it on the head of his young son. The boy was killed in a car accident one month later and the general was assassinated seven months later? I guess one shouldn’t fool with Lithuanian legends?

As usual after the city tour we explored the Old Town on our own. It is only about one square mile and almost all the tourist sites are within or on the edges of the old town so you can walk to everything. It was also time to start carbo-loading so I had a pizza for lunch and pasta for dinner. Lots of Italian restaurants in Vilnius?? I was also surprised to find that many people did not speak English in Vilnius. Typically in the service industry the people –especially the younger people – speak English. This was not as common in Lithuania as it was in the other Baltic countries? But I have learned to get around the language problem with sign language and numbers so it wasn’t a big problem.

Saturday was M-day but the race was being held in Panevezys – about 120Km north of Vilnius so we decided to catch an express bus to Panevezys at 11am that would arrive in the city about 1pm. This would give me about four hours to find the race registration area and pick up my race package before the 5pm start of the race. It rained all morning and all day during the drive. “Goody” I thought, “this sure is going to be fun”! As the bus arrived in the main City Square we noticed some runners (with race numbers) running around the city? Surely they can’t be warming up this early and in the pouring rain? Turns out that they were finishing up a DOUBLE Iron Man Triathlon that had started on Friday – the winner finished in 27 hours! And you thought I was crazy?

We checked into our hotel and I set out to look for the marathon registration desk. I quickly realized that after I left our hotel nobody else in the city spoke English! Nobody could understand or help me find the race director or any marathon/race volunteer. My information stated that the race registration would be held in the City Square from 11am to 2pm but there was nothing that looked like a race desk and nobody was picking up race numbers? I even went to another hotel located on the square – an old hotel built by the Soviets - to ask for help. Not one person in the hotel spoke English. I was now getting concerned! So I walked over to the finish line for the Triathlon and started asking those race officials. Nada! But finally I found a volunteer who spoke English and he was able to advise me to come back at 3pm. It was almost 2pm so I decided to explore the city and find something to eat. It took a whole 30 minutes to complete a walking tour and visit all 15 sites recommended by the local tourist office (another person who spoke English by the way). Then I did something I have never done before a marathon – I ate a pizza three hours before the race! I wasn’t sure what effect it would have but I was hungry since I am not used to starting a marathon at 5pm.

After 3 pm I went back to the finish line and did find a registration desk. Fortunately that one English speaking volunteer was there to help me get my race number and chip. And at the same time my running friend from Riga, Latvia ( gunars Akergergs) also arrived looking for his number. He was able to provide much-needed information about the start of the race and the course. He even gave the race director shit for not providing more assistance to foreign racers. But at least I had my race number and chip and where to be at 5pm. Fortunately the rain let up by the time my sports manger and I walked over to the start line at 4:30pm. Turns out there were only about 50 runners in the marathon even though it was the national championship race for the country. I was the only runner NOT from Lithuania or Latvia! Also turns out that there were several others events/activities going on at the same time as the marathon since it was the start of their celebrations for the 500th anniversary of Panevezys.

I was glad that Gunars was also at the start line because I did not understand ONE word or instruction that was given at the start? 5pm – the gun shoots and we are off! The course was a 3 Km loop that started and finished in the main City Square called Laisves (Freedom) Square. The first .5 Km was a short uphill before the start/finish. The next 1 Km was a gradual downhill and then the course became flat as it ran through a park along the Nevezis River back to the short uphill and the start/finish line. I thought I would get very bored but the course was actually OK. Because of all the other celebrations going on in Laisves Square a band stage had been set up on the finish line and one of the major local bands played throughout the whole race. Even though there were only fifty runners in the marathon there were several hundred spectators enjoying the band and other events so that every time we came past the finish line we had lots of supporters cheering us on! By the end of the first loop I found myself running with a young male runner from Riga whose English was much better than my Latvian and we chatted for awhile. He claimed that his wife was the Latvian female marathon champion but she was injured and couldn’t run so was supporting him. We were running a sub 5 min/km pace which I figured was a bit too fast but I decided to stay with him. As we finished our 5th lap she ran out on the course shouting and screaming at him. I didn’t understand one word but guessed that she was telling him that he was running over his head and to slow down because he immediately slowed down and I never saw him again. However she continued to cheer me on every time I passed the finish line. Which is more than I can say about my sports manager. After the race started and she collected my warm-ups she returned to the hotel which was located on the Nevezis River and overlooked the course. So she sat in a nice warm, dry room and watched me go by every 15 minutes while she sipped Crown Royal?? Maybe I should interview Ms Latvian marathon champion for the job?

I managed to hold a sub 5 minute/Km (8 min/mile) pace through the 1st Half as I crossed the Half in 1:41:26. I still felt good but did not believe that I could hold that pace through the 2nd half because I had not done enough speed work at the high altitude of Summit County. So I slowed the pace down to 5 minute/Km and hoped that I could hold that pace for another 21 Km? If so I would still break 3:30 which was better than I expected or hoped for. When I finished my 12th loop (36 Km) in 2:56:48 I knew that a sub 3:30 was in the bag as long as I didn’t crash. I had lots of energy but my legs were starting to tighten and my left hamstring was really bothering me. But sub 3:30s are not easy to achieve any more for us old farts and I was not willing to let one slip away. So I continued to push and ignore the pain until I crossed the finish line in 3:27:25. I was very pleased with this time. I do not know where this time placed me in my age group and I will probably never find out?

My sports manager must have been counting my laps past the hotel room (or maybe she heard that another person was interested in her job) because she was waiting at the finish line to cheer me on and give me my warm-ups. Maybe I’ll keep her???
And now for another first in marathons. I normally can’t eat or even look at food for two or three hours after a marathon but we knew that the hotel restaurant closed at 11pm so I had to rush back to the room, shower and eat dinner. The eating part was OK but my legs started to cramp during dinner because I hadn’t soaked them long enough in hot water.
But the last of the Baltic countries was now crossed off my list.

On Sunday we had to rise early to catch another express bus at 7:20am back to Vilnius because we wanted to take another tour to Trakai. Trakai is a very picturesque town standing on a peninsula surrounded by five lakes, about 28 Km south of Vilnius. It was a former capital of Lithuania in the 14th century and has some very spectacular castles that have been restored. It was an interesting tour.
Then back to Vilnius for our last night and another great dinner before we left for Prague on Monday.

Our final evening in Europe was spent in Prague where we visited the Old Town and splurged on a dinner at a gourmet seafood restaurant. It cost $50 which is a very expensive meal in Prague but it was a nice change from all the red meat that is the norm in Lithuania.

Finally it was time to go home! Prague to Paris to NYC to Cincinnati to Denver. Thirty hours later we arrived home! My mind knew it was home – but my body still felt like it was back in Vilnius. That is always the tough part about these international trips.
I am trying not to remember that we have to do this all over again in one month when we have to go back to Europe to run the final three countries!!!

Stay tuned!!

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