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!

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