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!

No comments: