Wednesday, October 29, 2003

TR Montenegro

Montenegro and UK
10/20 – 10/28/03

Finally, the last installment from the very lonnnggggggggggggg marathon trip to Europe in Oct.
Where were we? Oh yes! An early departure on Mon morning from Belgrade to Podgorica, Montenegro. I had verified before leaving Belgrade that Montenegro did not use the same currency as Serbia so that I would not have too many Serbian Dinars left. Montenegro uses the Euro and I figured that I could get those from an ATM at the airport. Bad Assumption! And our first lesson of many-to-be that there was/is very little infrastructure in Montenegro.
The country only has a total population of 650,000 and almost half of them live in Podgorica, the capital. After all the wars and turmoil in the region (and still going on) the economy is in a shamble. The economy and country need to be rebuilt from the ground up. The UN and other world organizations are working on it but they have a long way to go.

Back to our arrival at the Podgorica airport at 7:30 am. No tourist info center, no ATM and no currency exchange at the airport! I had made no plan or reservations in Montenegro except for hotel reservations for the marathon on the following Sat. In fact the race director had emailed me at the last minute to inform me that they were inviting me to the race as a special guest and would pay my entry fee and hotel. He sent me the name of the hotel they had booked. Our fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants plan was to go directly to the Adriatic Coast for some R&R and return to Podgorica on Sat. But how do we get there? I managed to find a taxi driver who would accept US $ (for which he charged me double the fee) to take us to the bus station in town. Since the main transportation system in the country was the bus surely the station would have an ATM, etc? Wrong again. No ATM, no tourist center and no currency exchange. And to make matters worse the ticket agent refused to accept any payment except cash in Euros for a bus ticket! This leg of the trip was not starting out good?

I had to find another taxi driver who spoke a little English and convince him to drive me into the city to the only working ATM to get some much-needed Euros and back to the bus station. Now we at least had money to buy bus tickets to Budva. Fortunately I had done a wee bit of research to discover that Budva was the most popular beach resort on the Adriatic coast. After an exciting one-hour bus ride through mountains in rain we arrived in Budva. And finally we had some good luck. No ATM, no tourist info center, etc. but at least there was a travel agency located in the bus station and a very kind agent who spoke English was able to provide me with some information and even booked a hotel in town for us. It was off-season so the hotels were half-price. Our hotel was located right on the edge of the Old Walled Town overlooking the Adriatic Sea. We spent the rest of the day exploring the resort town and quickly determined that we would use Budva and our nice hotel as a base and explore the whole coast of Montenegro from there by bus. Besides a great location Budva actually had an ATM and we needed to be near a cash supply since very few businesses accepted credit cards?

The coast is very beautiful and scenic. Coastal mountains rise dramatically from the Adriatic Sea so that the coastline is rocky and rugged. Reminded me very much of the Greek Islands with the desert landscape and rugged coastline.

Budva is small resort village but I could see how it would be very busy during the high tourist season in the summer. Most of the tourists/visitors are from Podgorica and Serbia trying to escape the summer heat. We explored the old walled town, which is over 2500 years old. The first written record of Budva dates back to Sophocles in the 5th century BC, who refers to the Illyric town of Butua. Most of the existing buildings were rebuilt after a major earthquake in 1667. About 20 Km north of Budva is another walled town called Kotor. Kotor is located on Bora Kotorska, the largest fiord on the Mediterranean. This town also dates back more than 2500 years. The Greeks called the area Akurion and the Romans built a settlement named Acruvivium which they inhabited for 6 ½ centuries. Many of the buildings date back to the 8th century. I found it much more spectacular and interesting than Budva. I even spent a few hours climbing a rock path up to the ancient San Djovani fort on St Ivan hill about 500 meters above the walled town. Believe me, my training on the 14ers this past summer was quite helpful on that expedition!

We got very good at using the local bus system to explore the small villages along the coast. The buses ran often and were cheap – about 1 Euro to go to Kotor. There were two types of buses – a large bus like those used in any city and mini-buses or vans. The large buses were in terrible shape. The mini-buses were newer and in better shape but usually charged more. We tried to take the mini-buses whenever possible because the roads were narrow and mountainous/dangerous. We also determined that the bus schedules meant nothing – if a bus was scheduled to leave at 10am you had better be there by 9:30 am because they would normally leave 15 minutes early or whenever the bus was full? We spent two days exploring the coast and then I decided that we should try to go to Ulcinj, which is the closest town to Albania and check to see if it was possible to cross into Albania? We had been asking locals for two days if it was possible to visit Albania and everyone looked at us like we were crazy and said “No’! Apparently there is still a lot of strife/animosity between the two countries and Montenegrins do not travel to Albania. On Wed we set out to go to Ulcinj. We got as far as the bus station – no buses to Ulcinj at this time of the year! So we decided to travel to Bar, the largest resort town near Ulcinj and then travel from there to Ulcinj. Good idea but when we got to Bar we discovered that there were only two buses each day to Ulcinj in the off-season and we would have to wait about 3 hours. Forget it – we wouldn’t get back to Budva until very late. This little story is typical of everything we tried to do. There was essentially no information available and very few locals spoke English, which made it even more difficult to travel around the country.

But there were two good/great things about the coast besides the scenery - the weather was warm for the first time since we left Florida and the seafood was great and cheap!
But I was already starting to get bored and since I couldn’t get to Albania I tried to find a travel agency that would arrange a tour to Tara Canyon. Tara Canyon is located in the northwest part of the country –about 100Km from Budva- and is the second deepest canyon in the world. However nobody would take us because it was off-season and the weather was not good for driving in the mountains. And to make matters worse it rained so hard on Thu that we were trapped in the hotel room for most of the day so we decided if the weather was going to suck we might as well go back to Podgorica early. It was a bigger city and there would be more to do? WRONG! WRONG!

We took a bus back to Podgorica and arrived at our hotel two days early. Podgorica, formerly called Titograd during the Communist era, is the capital and largest city in Montenegro. Because of the many wars and constant turmoil in the region the oldest building still remaining in the city is the ‘clock tower’. It is 200 years old and the only building more than 50 years old in the city. The rest of the city is the standard ugly, large and decaying concrete buildings built by the Soviets. The city has no beauty except for the mountains that surround it! And there is nothing to do in Podgorica!

By coincidence as we were asking if we could check in early, the race director also arrived at the hotel. We explained that we had come early and that we would pay for the extra days at the hotel but he insisted that the race committee would pay for our complete stay including all our meals. Since he spoke very little English he later introduced me to a very cute redhead who would be my escort/translator during the official events of the race. Ummm! Things are looking up? She informed me that I and another runner, Emmanuel Kosgei – a Kenyan whom I had met in Belgrade would be going to a press conference the following morning. Oh No – it is starting already and I wasn’t even supposed to be there until Sat?

She picked us up at 8am and drove us to the TV station. I figured that we were going to tape an interview for the sports news? After we were seated in the studio the race director asked me to take my jacket off to show my’50+DC’ T-shirt. I stood up, took off my jacket and started to walk away to leave my jacket somewhere – and all Hell broke loose! We were about 10 seconds away from going live on something like ‘Good Morning Montenegro’! I got seated back down in time for the live morning TV show. Emmanuel stated that he was going to try to win the race and beat the course record of 2:12 and I gave the same flowery BS that I presented in Belgrade.

I was concerned about how much more ‘official’ BS I would have to put up with but they really didn’t have their act together and they became bogged down with all the elite runners that arrived later that day. So they overlooked or left me alone for the rest of the race events, which was fine with me. On Sat I decided to try again to get to Albania on my own. My sports manager decided not to go since I had no idea how I was going to get there? It was probably a good decision because it was not an easy trip.
First I went to the bus station to check if I could get a bus to the border? No – take a taxi! So I found a taxi driver who spoke a little English and understood what I was trying to do. For 20 Euros he drove me to the border and promised to come back in 3 hours to pick me up. I had to check with the Montenegro border guards, walk to the Albanian border and check with the Albanian border guards. After paying a fee/bribe of 10 Euros they let me across the border. Then I had to find a taxi driver and negotiate a fee (10 Euros) to drive me to Shkroda, the nearest city to the border. As we drove into the city past the donkeys and horses pulling carts, hundreds of burned-out cars and garbage along the side of the road and through a few small poverty-stricken villages, I was coming to the conclusion that Albania was a dump. Finally I arrived in Shkroda. It is a large city still mired in the Russian/Soviet system and looks just like a Soviet city – large, crumbling, concrete buildings that are falling apart. As I walked around I realized that every business on the main street had a portable generator operating in front of their shop? I assumed that blackouts must be a typical occurrence but the power never did come back on during the few hours I visited the city? After only an hour I was ready to leave – get out of there but I still had a few hours to kill so I explored some of the side streets. I had now definitely decided that Albania was/is a DUMP. In fact I used to think that Romania was the shit-hole of Europe but Albania now holds that title. It was time to go back to Podgorica – even Podgorica looked good compared to Shkroda! Fortunately I did not have any problems or additional bribes to pay to get back across the border and my taxi driver was waiting to drive me to the hotel. So for 70 Euros I got to visit Albania for an afternoon. But I considered it a great investment because it provided an interesting adventure and story to tell and I could have spent thousands of dollars to travel there from the US to come to the same conclusion – and I would have had to stay longer?

When I arrived back at the hotel I ran into by new buddies, Emmanuel and Ramzi. Both runners were running the Podgorica marathon after running Belgrade. That is unusual for elite runners. They informed me that I was supposed to pick up my race package at registration in a nearby school. Whatever happened to the race organization? They no longer seemed to exist? None of us had any information on an official pasta party other than we thought it was being held in the hotel at 7pm? So my sports manager and I showed up in the lobby at 7pm but there was no official pasta party so we ate dinner in the hotel restaurant. Big mistake! It was the worst pasta I have ever eaten! Later that night the weather turned nasty with thunder, rain and strong winds. Sure hope it clears by morning?

Sunday was M –day! I woke early and decided to eat a light breakfast since the race didn’t start until 10am. I joined Ramzi and a few runners from Moldova for breakfast and we talked about races in Moldova. The runners confirmed what I had learned in Belgrade and invited me to stay with them if I visited Moldova. Nice guys – like all runners! By 9am the rain had stopped and the sun started to shine. It must have been cold the night before because there was a light dusting of snow on the mountains surrounding the city. I was concerned about the cold temps – should I wear a long-sleeve T-shirt for the race? My sports manager and I walked downtown to the main square where the marathon started and finished. There was supposed to be a traditional ceremony at 9:30am before the start. At 9:30am there was nothing happening and hardly any runners at the start? By 9:45 I became very concerned about why nothing was happening? I found a race volunteer who spoke English and asked why? Because it was only 8:45! The clocks had been set back one hour on Sat night. Great! We were probably the only two people in the country who did not know that! Nobody on the race committee had thought of informing us about that little fact? It was probably on all the TV channels and in the newspapers but we only had two local channels in our hotel with no English and we hadn’t seen an English newspaper in 10 days. Well, at least we were early!
I found a park bench to lie down on and rest. Next I had to find an alley or bush to take care of some last-minute duties. Granted it was a small race – only 150 runners in the marathon and another 200 in the Half – but they did not have one single toilet at the start/finish line?

By 10am – the real 10am – it had warmed up significantly. I was now concerned about heat and switched from a long-sleeve T-shirt to a singlet at the last minute. The race started on time. The course was a 42 Km loop south out of the city almost to the Albanian border and back to the city center. After 2 Km and no distance markers I surmised that the markers were only located every 5K, which makes it harder to adjust your pace. I figured I was running a sub 8-minute pace. About that time a group of four Serb runners passed me. Because there was a stiff head wind I decided that it would be smarter/better to follow that group and draft off them even though they were running faster than I wanted to run than waste energy battling the wind on my own. The group pulled me past the 5K marker in 23:09. Damn, that’s a 4:38/Km (7:20/mile) pace – my Half Marathon race pace! I didn’t believe I could hold that pace but I figured that I would try to stay with them through the first half. We reached the Half in 1:39:38 – almost my race pace and much too fast for a marathon.

I still felt strong but did not believe I could hold that pace. But what to do? I was still in the same dilemma – run faster than I should and continue to draft off the group or slow down and waste energy by battling the head wind on my own? I decided – what the Hell? – stay with the group as long as I could. It would either be a fantastic race or it was going to get very ugly and painful over the last 10K! I had the feeling that the group was getting annoyed or pissed off at me because I was drafting all the time and not taking any turns at breaking the wind. So I shouted to them that I was thankful for their fast, smooth pace but I was having difficulty just trying to stay with them. That seemed to break the ice and one of the runners dropped back and started to talk to me.
“Where are you from”?
“Oh Yeah – I read about you in the paper. How many marathons have you run”?
“214 today”.
“Didn’t you just run Belgrade last weekend”?
“How old are you”?
“59 – How old are you”?
“50” - Damn he’s in my age group (50 to 59)

This brief conversation seemed to gain me some respect and they no longer cared that I was drafting. Around 28K I got a burst of energy and surged to the front of the group. At that moment we were passing through a small village called Tuzi, near the Albanian border and I think all 2,000 inhabitants were lined up along both sides of the narrow road? Suddenly the crowd starting cheering and applauding loudly? One of the Serbs ran up beside me and said “ all that noise and cheering is for you”!
“Why” I asked?
“They are cheering for the American”!
“How do they know I am an American”?
“ You were on the local TV and there was a big article in the papers about you and your feats”!
“But how do they know I am ‘The American’ “?
“Oh – the papers published your race number”

Great! I hope all the natives are as friendly as these because I am running around the country with a huge number/bulls eye pinned to my chest and designating me as an American! Fortunately everyone was friendly and this scenario was repeated as we passed through a few more villages. I found that it was pumping me up and I wanted to pick up the pace some more. But I wisely decided that I would drop back and draft off the group until 35K. If I still felt good at 35K I would push as hard as I could for the last 7K because I knew that I was running my fastest race in many years. I figured that I would finish somewhere between 3:20 to 3:25?

We reached 35K in 2:48:10 and the group started to slow so I surged ahead. Fortunately one young Serb went with me. We urged each other on and if the wind got strong I would drop behind him and draft. I told him that he was younger and stronger than me and he didn’t seem to mind? At 40K I ran out of energy! But I was only 2K from one of my best finishes/races in years and I was not going to let exhaustion and pain stop me. My young Serb friend wanted to slow the pace down because he could see that I was in trouble/pain. But I urged him to hold the pace and I focused on staying with him as he dragged my sorry, tired, old ass across the finish line in 3:20:48! I immediately shook his hand and thanked him – I would never have finished in that time without his help.

Needless to say I was ecstatic about my time and performance – it was my fastest marathon since White Rock (Dallas, TX) in Dec/96! And I did it without asking the Maddog for help although I knew he was with me all the way. I was also pleased to learn that my friend Emmanuel had won the race in 2:14 (but no course record). Ramzi had to drop out because of a problem with his leg. I tried to find a results list but never did determine how I placed until I returned home and checked the web. My time was only good enough for 6th place – it’s tough to compete against those 50-year old youngsters!
Time to head back to the hotel to soak the old legs. Then my sports manager and I decided to walk downtown and do our 100th+ circuit of the downtown streets. There wasn’t much else to do in Podgorica!

As we did our continuous loops around the downtown area we searched for one of the best restaurants in the city for dinner. No way were we going to eat at our hotel again – even if it was paid for! We had a great dinner – steak, wine, dessert, coffee, liqueur and tip for $25. But we were glad that the trip was almost over. My sports manager commented that she felt like she was trapped and living in that movie ‘Groundhog Day’. “My God”, she cried “Every morning I wake up and I am still in Podgorica”! She also claimed that she was NOT going to the last four marathons/countries in Europe! She had seen enough of the Balkans and former Soviet countries.

Fortunately Monday morning came (but she still woke up in Podgorica!) and we were on our way HOME! We had an early flight back to Belgrade to catch a flight to LHR. There was some disappointing news when we arrived in Belgrade. Yugoslav Airlines (JAT) had cancelled the Monday flight to LHR. I had to find customer service. I believe that they were going to tell us we had to wait in Belgrade for a few days until the next flight was scheduled to LHR. But I forcefully explained that we had a dinner appointment in London that night and a connecting flight to the USA on Tue. So they booked us on Lufthansa via Dusseldorf to LHR. But we now had a 3-hour wait at the Belgrade airport and would arrive in London 4 hours later than planned.

While we were waiting at the airport Emmanuel and Ramzi walked by? They had decided to leave Podgorica and try to get home early. We had a very long and pleasant chat. They invited me to run a marathon in their home towns (Tunis and Nairobi). I invited them to stay with us if they visited the US. Then they asked me if I would consider taking them and a few other elite runners on as a manager and coach? Ummmm? That might be interesting and fun and it could help me pay for my trips to races all around the world? I’m still thinking about that suggestion/request.

We finally arrived in London at 5 pm – 4 hours late. I called one of my friends from the airport – explained the situation and asked them to meet us at our hotel. We barely had time to get to the hotel and have a quick shower before three running mates who live in the London area showed up to take us out on the town for the night. Since they know the city they took us to a ‘real’ pub close to the hotel. We enjoyed a wonderful evening – had lots of great beer, good food (I finally got my cottage pie) and lots of fun. My sports manager and I looked at each other and agreed “we deserve this after spending two weeks in the Balkans’!

But no matter how difficult and frustrating some of the times may have been ALL of the trip was interesting. And it certainly provided good training for our next international trip/marathon/adventure. Where’s that you say?

India – in Jan, 2004.

Stay tuned!

Monday, October 20, 2003

TR Serbia

UK (England, Scotland & Wales) & Serbia
10/06/03 to 10/20/03

Now where were we? Oh yes – after 4 days in Slovakia where we hardly heard or spoke English we were on our way to the land where they invented English! We arrived in London on Mon at 2pm and after a long tube ride arrived at our hotel next to the Marble Arch and Hyde Park around 4pm. We had booked tickets for a musical in the West End so had to rush to get ready. I was looking forward to going to an old pub and eating some great pub grub like cottage pie. So we headed over to Covent Gardens and started walking around to find a pub and dinner before the show. Big disappointment – after searching a 4-block radius in the West End and looking at dozens of pub menus we couldn’t find any real pub grub. I asked a couple of local blokes what happened and they explained that about 90% of the pubs had been bought out by one of the major breweries and they all offered the same beers and ‘plastic’ menus with fast junk food!

We had to settle for a small café near the theatre. Nicole had wanted to see the musical ‘Mama Mia’ ever since we lived there so I had managed to book tickets. The musical is written around the music of the Swedish group ‘Abba’ and it was OK but I wouldn’t pay another $160 to see it again.
The following day we planned to travel on to Manchester so I had to get up early to do a training run around Hyde Park. What a shock when I left the hotel! It was bitterly cold with a brisk wind. I had not expected such cold weather and had not packed any cold-weather running gear! People stared at me like I was crazy but I still ran a fast 10K around the park.

We arrived in Manchester late that afternoon and were met at the airport by our host and friend John Hubbard. John is from Dallas, TX but lives in Wilmslow, a small village south of Manchester. It reminded me a lot of Bishop’s Stortford where we lived during our year in England but Wilmslow is much more upscale. Many of the players from Manchester UTD live in the area. David Beckham and Virginia Spice still own a house there. John wanted to show me the trails he ran each day so I agreed to do another 10K run with him. After our run John took us to a pub called the ‘Bells of Peover’ for dinner. It is a 400-year old pub located in Lower Peover where Churchill and Eisenhower used to meet for dinner. It serves excellent gourmet food but not quite the pub grub we are used to. John also had some news for us – good and bad. The bad news was that he had to leave on an unexpected business trip on Thu and would not return before we left. The good news was that he was leaving us the keys for his house and Jaguar and we were to “make ourselves at home”.

The following day Nicole and went to the local supermarket to stock John’s cupboards. He never, ever cooks at home? So we made him a gourmet home-cooked meal and even froze some in doggie bags so he could have leftovers when he got back. After John left on Thu we took a train into Manchester to explore the city center. We had driven through Manchester several times but had never actually visited the city. It is quite nice and they have done a good job blending new buildings in with the old. The IRA blew up a whole city block in 1986 and they built a new shopping center from the rubble. But we still had another six days in Wilmslow – what should we do? We could stay at John’s and make day trips to the surrounding cities and districts or perhaps we should take John’s suggestion to drive to northern Scotland? Nicole called a friend in Inverness to see if he would be home and then we decided to make a weekend trip to Scotland. We left Fri morning and met our friend for dinner in Inverness. He had recommended a few hotels in downtown Inverness but when I drove into the city I realized that they were on the other side of the Ness River. I could see the bridges but after three fruitless circuits around the city we could not find a way to get to the bridges. In frustration I gave up, got a motel out by the motorway and called our friend and asked him to come and get us. He laughed and explained that only locals knew how to get access to the bridges. I believed him!!

The following morning we decided to head farther north since we had never traveled north of Inverness. There is lots of beautiful scenery along the north coast of Scotland – many castles sitting on rugged cliffs. By noon we arrived in Wick near the northern tip. I still hadn’t had any fish and chips so I found a local ‘chippy’ shop. Now I knew I was still in Scotland and the UK but when I asked the cute wee lass (about 17) at the counter for a “large order of fish and chips” she looked at me like I was from Mars and speaking Martian? And then she asked me to repeat the order – I think. Because I couldn’t understand one word she said. I believe we were both speaking English but we had to repeat everything at least three times and use some sign language before I finally got my order? And I thought I was good at discerning the Scottish dialect?

We continued our journey on to John O’Groates at the very northern tip of mainland Scotland. It was time for another decision – head back home or take a ferry over to the Orkney Islands? We found a tourist info center and checked out ferries, etc. There was a ferry at 3:45pm and the trip was only one hour. What the heck – we are this close and it is unlikely we will be coming back. Go for it! We caught the 3:45 ferry at Gill’s Bay and arrived in St Margaret’s Hope around 5pm. It was very dark by then and the road into Kirkwall was very narrow with no lights. I just followed the other traffic from the ferry hoping that they were going into the town? Luck was with us. Thirty minutes later we arrived at the harbor in Kirkwall which fortunately had two hotels. It was off-season and cold so the hotel was happy to rent us a nice room overlooking the harbor for 50 pounds.

Kirkwall with a huge population of 6,000 is the capital and administrative center of Orkney. It was founded in 1035 by Earl Rognvald Brusason. The name comes from the Old Norse, ‘Kirkjuvagar’ meaning ‘church-bay’. The original town is one of the best-preserved examples of an ancient Norse town. It was bitterly cold on the islands so we immediately decided that we would spend one day on the island and catch a ferry back in the late afternoon. That meant that I would have to get up very early on Sun to get a run in before we started our sightseeing. Yeah –Right! When I woke up and stuck my arm out the window at 6am it was about 30F with a brisk wind. No way I was running in that weather with only shorts and a T-shirt. Back to bed! After a hearty full-English breakfast we started our tour of the island. The tourist season is summer – not Oct – so there were no guided tours but we had some maps and tour guides. There are several Neolithic sites on the islands dating back to 3,000 BC. The Ring of Brodgar – similar to Stonehenge but larger; the Standing Stones of Stenness with the tallest megalith towering six meters high; Maeshowe, a prehistoric chambered cairn or tomb; and Skara Brae is a complete Neolithic village. There are many other sites as well as other tourist attractions to see on the islands but I strongly recommend that you visit in the summer when it is WARM! When we got out of the car at the first site –the Standing Stones- it was so cold and windy that we refused to get out again. We just drove by and observed them from the car! And definitely decided that we were catching a ferry and heading back home that afternoon.

After we arrived back on the mainland I thought about driving all the way home but we arrived in Stirling, Scotland around 7pm and it was dark and I just decided to pack the driving in for the day and get a hotel in Stirling. This would give me a chance to make another pilgrimage to the Wallace Monument and demand once again that they give me ‘MY’ monument and land. But they keep refusing??? We finally arrived back at John’s place in Wilmslow on Mon afternoon. On Tue we decided to make a day trip over to Chester, an old walled city with lots of charm and Victorian architecture. Since it is so close to Wales we finished the day with a short drive into Wales just so that we could truly say “that we had visited all of the UK on this trip”!
On Wed we stayed in Wilmslow and took advantage of John’s laundry. We had only packed about 10 days worth of clothes so it was necessary to clean everything for the next leg of the trip. We were now ready for the trip back to the Balkans.

We flew back to LHR to connect to Yugoslav Airlines to Belgrade. It was time to see if those discount tickets were real? Yep – they were real and we arrived in Belgrade with no problems at 5:30pm. My sports manager asked how we would get to the hotel and I responded that we would have to take a bus or taxi into the city as I had not made any arrangements. Thus we were surprised when we exited the customs area and saw a big sign with my name on it. A member of the race committee had brought a car and driver out to the airport to pick us up? Now – that’s service! The committee member was a fellow marathoner who had run a PR of 2:21 – not in my league? He spoke limited English but he did describe some of the course to me as we drove to our hotel located in the center of the ‘Old Town’. I had made the travel arrangements to allow us one day in Belgrade before the race and one day after. I had no information about the marathon other than the date and the time and I figured I would need a day to find out more information and get my race package. I certainly did not expect someone to meet us at the airport. And it only got better (or worse) depending upon one’s perspective? As soon as we arrived at the hotel our host introduced us to his daughter – a junior in high school who spoke very good English. She and her classmate were to be our guides/escorts during our stay in Belgrade?
As soon as I had checked in our guides took me over to the race registration and helped me register and get my race package because nobody at the registration desk spoke English. Then they informed me that they would pick us up at 8am the next day to escort us to the press conference. What the heck’s going on here?

Sure enough the next morning they were waiting in the lobby to take me to the press conference at city hall. I arrived along with several of the elite runners. I tried to take a seat in the back – but Oh No – they insisted that I sit at the table on the podium with the elite runners and dignitaries from the race committee and city hall? I was seated next to Ramzi Mehovachi, an elite runner from Tunisia. A translator was assigned to us for the press conference. So we sat and listened to all the dignitaries complement each other and the race and then they introduced all the elite runners and moi – the Maddog! They asked each of us to make a little speech and I had to think fast – I wasn’t prepared for this crap. I thanked the race committee and the city for their great hospitality, etc and stated that “ I did not have a chance to win the race tomorrow but I was making great progress on my goal to become the first runner in the world to complete a marathon in every country in Europe”. This BS seemed to please everyone? Then they embarrassed me some more by going around the table and asking all the athletes/runners for their PR. Most of the men were around 2:10 to 2:15; the women around 2:35. And finally the Maddog – 2:58. At least I was glad that I had run under 3 hours! After the formal conference the newspapers and TV asked us for interviews. I couldn’t wait for that embarrassing surprise event to conclude. What other surprises did they have in mind? But one good thing did come out of the conference. I met a Russian sportswriter who published a running magazine in Russia. During the interview and our conversation he confirmed that there were indeed ‘official’ marathons in Ukraine and Belarus. In fact he had a copy of his magazine with the race schedule for Ukraine for the 2nd half/03 and gave it to me (published in Russian). He also gave me his email address and promised that he would help me get information and entry into marathons in those two countries.

My friendly escorts offered to take us sightseeing and shopping but I politely refused their offer. We needed some quiet time on our own. OK – they would meet us in the lobby at 7pm to take us to the pasta dinner – for elite runners and special guests only? I still couldn’t understand why I was getting all of this special attention. For some strange reason they thought 200+ marathons and 60+ countries deserved special treatment?

Belgrade and Serbia are not popular tourist destinations. There was actually a city tour but only once per week – on Sat at 10am. That was the same time as the marathon so my sports manger and I just bought a local travel guide and decided to do our own tour. Belgrade has a lot of history but most of it violent and wars so there is not much left of their history. The original city was established in 300BC as the Fortress Singidunum by the Celts. The current Belgrade Fortress – Kalemegdan – that sits on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers dates back to the 17th century and is the focal point of the city. There are very few old, historical buildings in Belgrade. As we walked around we could still see some signs of the Nato bombings in 1999 – mostly in buildings located near the bridges over the Sava River. We were concerned about that and how we would be treated as Americans. But nobody seemed to notice or care. Belgrade is very cosmopolitan and most of the natives dress like Americans –jeans and running shoes. We fit right in.

We really didn’t want to go to the pasta dinner because the food always sucks but we didn’t want to be disrespectable either so we let our escorts lead us to the dinner in the National Museum. The food sucked as expected but I did meet some more important contacts. The Russian sportswriter introduced me to the Director of the Russian Sports Federation and explained what I was trying to do. He also offered his assistance. After the dinner I was told that I was supposed to go to a ‘technical’ meeting on the race at 9pm but I finally drew the line and told my escorts that I wouldn’t go. I wasn’t going to win the race so there was no need to attend! We were beginning to tire of all the ‘official’ events and demands on our time. The elite runners were getting their expenses paid and maybe even an appearance fee – the Maddog wasn’t getting paid and they were making too many demands on our time! However they did insist that they meet me at 10am on race morning to escort me the three blocks to the start line.

Saturday was M-day! The race started at 11am so I decided to get up early and eat a light breakfast. I ended up eating with all the Kenyans and noticed very clearly that this was all business and money to them. There was very little talk and no humor or smiles at the breakfast table. My escorts showed up to take me to the start line. Probably a good thing too. There were only 200 runners in the marathon and another 400 in the Half. Both races started together. But the real problem was the 5K fun run. There were more than 21,000 runners in that race. Thankfully it started 15 minutes later but there were thousands of runners – mostly kids- that we had to make our way through to get to the start line. My escorts came in handy because they were race volunteers and were able to get me through streets that had been cordoned off. Finally it was race time. I said goodbye to most of my new friends - the Kenyans and other elite runners and wished them all “Good Luck’. I knew that they would all be finished and sitting in a hot tub by the time I crossed the finish line!

The marathon started in the center of the Old Town. The first 8K were run through hilly streets in Old Town before the course crossed over the Sava River into New Belgrade. Then we ran two –16K loops through New Belgrade before returning to Old Town to finish in front of our hotel. I passed the Half in 1:42:44 – just under an 8 minute pace. I ran most of the race – up to 25K all by myself. At 25 K I caught up to a young Serb runner and we ran together for the next 10K until he started to fade. So I pushed on by myself again. I reached 40K in 3:17:49. I was hurting and tired but figured if I could just hold an 8-minute pace I could finish under 3:30. Only two minor problems. The last 2K were uphill from New Belgrade back into Old Town and the race organization had started to fall apart. There were few race volunteers left on the course and the course was not marked very well. At many intersections I had to ask a cop or spectator which way to go. And I wasn’t sure they understood me? I was sure happy when I reached the last corner and could see the finish line at the end of the street. I crossed the finish line in 3:28:41. That was good enough for 2nd place because the age groups were only 5 years (55-59).

After a nice long hot soak it was time for my last official function – an awards ceremony for the elite runners. This was where they handed out the actual prize money. We waited in the hotel lobby along with the Kenyans and other runners for our escorts. The mood was much different from breakfast. Kenyans had taken the top three places and prize money. They were in a much more festive mood. One of the Kenyans gave us his resume and school marks and asked us if we could help him find an Athletic Director at some college that might be interested in offering him a scholarship. A young male runner from Soweto, SA proposed to one of our escorts – begged her to marry him so he could move to Belgrade. I guess they will do anything to get out of their home countries? The awards ceremony turned out to be the most fruitful event of them all for me. The Russian Director introduced me to the Sports Directors from Belarus and Moldova. I learned that there is no official marathon in Moldova but there is a Half and an Ultra. I asked the Director if he would consider drawing a line across the course at 42K for me and a few other crazies. He said “email me with your request and we will consider it”. After that conversation the Russian Director took me aside and told me “you do not want to visit Moldova – the whole county is a dump”!
I also met an official from the Belgrade marathon who confirmed that there were official marathons in Bulgaria and Macedonia. Oh Goody! I had come on this trip thinking that I was finishing up all the official marathons/countries in Europe and now I had FOUR more! And in such lovely tourist destinations! It probably didn’t seem so bad at that time because I was drinking some local liqueur that smelled and tasted like kerosene but it sure had a great kick to it. Two was all I could handle on an empty stomach.

It was time to go to dinner – by ourselves. We found a nice restaurant that specialized in local food that was mostly grilled meats accompanied by greasy/fried side orders. We ordered the house special – a mixed grill that had every type of grilled meat imaginable. Dinner with a bottle of wine cost about $15. We had one more day left in Belgrade. Time to find an Internet café and send my usual race report and then we continued our tour around the Old Town. It was cold and raining (sure glad Sun wasn’t race day) so we spent most of the day watching TV and getting ready for our very early departure to Podgorica, Montenegro. Which is the topic of the next and final trip report.
Stay tuned!

Friday, October 17, 2003

TR Slovakia

Germany, Slovakia and UK
10/01/03 to 10/16/03

Since my latest trip lasted 28 days and included 3 marathons and 8 countries in Europe I know that a single trip report would be too long so I intend to split it into three reports based around the marathons.
I will include a prologue with this first report as there is some preliminary information that is common to all three. So let’s get started.

The planning for this trip started last spring when I received news that the Belgrade Marathon, normally held in April, had been postponed to Oct due to political issues – the Iraq war and the assassination of the president of Serbia. When they announced that the race was tentatively rescheduled to Oct. it fit perfectly with my plan to go to Europe for the month of Oct to finish off the last two (now three) countries of Europe (or so I thought at the time?). Slowly – very slowly- over the summer I started to collect the necessary information to put the trip together. Trying to get information and then confirmation and entry into races in the smaller, third-world countries is very difficult if not impossible. They typically do not have web sites and if they do have an email contact they won’t/don’t respond to email. In most cases a letter sent by fax is the best solution.
By late summer I did have confirmation of the dates but the race directors refused to respond to my emails for entry forms and hotel information. I decided to go out on a limb and book the air travel and just show up and hope that I could find the race if that’s the way it turned out? In desperation I also sent the race directors another email outlining my racing credentials and explaining that I was trying to complete a goal of running a marathon in every country in Europe and needed their help. Little did I know that this would eventually come back to bite me?

I decided to cash in the last of my Delta miles to get to Europe but then I needed to buy tickets to travel around/within the Balkans. This proved to be a challenge since the only airline that could accommodate my proposed travel plans was Yugoslavia Airlines (JAT) and I had to locate a travel agency in Philadelphia to write the tickets for me. After much frustration I finally I had tickets to get us to all the required locations and --- miracles - of - miracles: a few days before we were set to leave I received emails from the race directors in Belgrade and Podgorica. The race director in Belgrade advised me that a hotel had been booked and a race package would be waiting at the hotel. The Podgorica director informed me that I was being “invited as a special guest” and the race committee would pay for the entry and hotel. Kosice actually had a real web site and had been the easiest to plan. I felt much more comfortable that I was actually going to accomplish my goal on this trip as I sat waiting for the first plane/leg of the trip.

Now the trip begins.
As usual with ‘free’ tickets we were routed halfway around the world/Europe to get to our first destination – Kosice, Slovakia. You don’t feel like you can complain because the tickets are ‘free’and you are flying first-class? In this case we were routed through Frankfurt, Germany with a nine-hour lay-over. Since neither of us had been to Frankfurt we decided to catch a train into the city center and explore the Old Town. Frankfurt was totally destroyed during WWII so the Old Town has been completely restored. It is quite small but very nice and looks like every other ‘old town’ in Europe. I think we are getting (or have gotten) ‘old towned’; ‘old churched’ and ‘old castled’ out??? But ignore my boredom and sarcasm – it is a nice city. The rest of the city is very modern skyscrapers – several of unique and interesting architecture that is in stark contrast to the old town. We enjoyed a nice lunch in the old town along with some great German beer – even tried the local apple wine but liked the beer better. After lunch we took a cruise on the Main River to enjoy the skyline of the city from a different perspective. Then it was time to head back to the airport and continue our journey via Prague to Kosice. Finally we arrived in Kosice at 11pm – some 30 hours after we left our home in FL.

I had wisely booked the flights to allow us two days to recover from jetlag so we had Fri and Sat to recover and explore the city before the race on Sun. I probably needed the two days for jetlag but we certainly didn’t need two days to explore Kosice. It is a small industrial city that dates back to the 11th century. The Old Town is small – stretching along one main street about a mile long with several old, interesting buildings such as St Elizabeth’s Cathedral (1508); St Michael’s Chapel (1330); Urban’s Tower (1628) and the East Slovak Theatre (1897). Some ruins from the original town ramparts (1290) still exist along with many more churches – but as I said we are ‘churched’ out! Slovakia does not get many tourists and there is little infrastructure for tourists. There were no city tours so we just bought a local guidebook and did our own walking tour of the old town. That took a half- day – now what do we do? We considered doing an excursion to the nearby wine country but since I wouldn’t be able to taste/enjoy the wines the day before the race that won’t work? I decided to see if I could find the race director or some runners from Ukraine or Belarus to ask them if they had information on marathons in those countries. No luck! I could not find one, single race volunteer or runner who spoke English. In fact – other than the desk staff at our hotel – very few people in the city spoke English. Not surprisingly I was the only American and runner from an English-speaking country entered in the marathon. Fortunately our hotel had satellite TV with BBC so at least we were able to hear some English and get some news. Whew! I might have had to talk to my sports manager for a few days and that would lead to nothing but trouble?

Normally I have a routine or tradition that I always follow before a marathon – Chinese food (rice) two days before the race and Italian (must be spaghetti) the night before. But this time I decided that since I wasn’t going to run/race hard I wanted to try the local/ethnic food on Thu night. So we spent a few hours strolling by restaurants in the old town looking for a good restaurant that served local fare. The local food is strong on grilled meats with a lot of fried side dishes. Dinner was good but very heavy – and relatively cheap – about $20 including a liter of local wine.

M-Day was approaching! The International Peace Marathon is the 2nd oldest marathon in the world (after Boston) and the oldest in Europe. This was the 73rd anniversary and thus it is treated somewhat like Boston by the Europeans. Many of the top runners run each year and there is good prize money even though it is a small race. There were only 400 runners in the marathon and about 600 in the Half. Yet there are banners and advertisements posted all over the city. The race gets prime time on TV and space on the front page of the paper – it is a huge/important national sports event for the country and the local citizens really support it. The start/finish line was right under our hotel room and I watched the army build bleachers at the finish line for the dignitaries and public – for 1,000 runners? The weather the day before the race sucked – cold and raining hard. I hoped that we would get better weather for the race?

Finally – Sunday morning – race day! The race started at 10am. It was cold and windy but the rain had stopped. The course was a half-marathon loop that started and finished in front of our hotel in old town. We foolish marathoners had to run two loops. As we started down the main street of old town there were thousands of supporters along the street to cheer us on. Unfortunately by 2K it started raining again and would never stop. I had planned to run an easy (8:15) pace but soon found myself following a couple that were running the Half and were running such a smooth, easy pace that I decided to stay with them. They pulled me across the half in 1:44:58 – right on an 8-min pace. After they peeled off to finish their race I started my 2nd loop and decided to slow down and reached 32K in 2:42:53. At that point I still felt OK so decided to pick up the pace over the last 10K to teach the old bod how to deal with pain and stress for the last 10K. I was also sick of running in the cold rain. I finally crossed the finish line in 3:31:30 – about 4 minutes faster than I had planned to run. I was pleased – especially since I had finished without any pains or injuries that would prevent me from running the next race in two weeks.
To demonstrate how good the competition was in that race – my 3:31 placed me 35th out of 65 runners in my age group (50 to 59). Most of the faster runners were babies – in their early 50s but still the competition was extremely tough/fast!

The tough part was over – time for a long, hot soak in a tub and then celebrate! But first we walked over to Marathon Square so that I could get a photo by the Marathon Monument. The city built a monument to the marathon and runners and every year the winners of the male and female races are added to the monument. If I could have only run 77 minutes faster my name would have been added this year? Well, everyone is entitled to dream aren’t they? Then we found another nice restaurant and enjoyed an excellent dinner of Chateaubriand. With wine, dessert, coffee/liquor and tip the bill was $25! Might as well enjoy good/cheap meals while we could because I knew we were heading for London and the UK next and you won’t get that dinner there for $20!

On Mon we had another strange routing back through Prague to London to begin the next leg of our journey – and the next trip report.
Talk to you again soon!