Sunday, November 28, 2004

Mississippi Coast Marathon

Mississippi Coast Marathon
Waveland, MS
Nov 27/04

I can sum this race up in one word – UGLY. Or I can expand the description to Ugly, Ugly, Ugly!

The only reason I ran this marathon was to join some of my UK mates who were finishing up a weeklong trip to the US to run 3 marathons in their quest to run the 50 states. They had invited me to join them for the week (and 3 marathons) but I explained that it was Thanksgiving week in the US and I would be lucky to get a pass to run the final race on Thanksgiving weekend. But I agreed to meet them in MS because I needed a 2nd marathon in MS as I work my way around the 50 states for the 2nd time.

So on Fri I flew from Tampa to New Orleans and drove 90 minutes east to Waveland, MS. As I left I-90 and drove into Waveland I recognized that “I’ve been here –done this”. Nicole and I stayed one night in Waveland and enjoyed a nice seafood dinner in the old, historic fishing village of Bay St Louis on the Gulf of Mexico on one of our many trips between FL and CO. I met my usual two mates Roger and Jack at the host hotel and two other runners from the ‘100 Marathon Club (UK) – Warren and Dave as well as Cliff from Waco, TX. We picked up our race packets and ate the traditional pasta dinner provided by the race organization. I don’t normally attend the pasta dinners provided by the races because it is usually terrible food and overpriced. But the UK guys like to go to these dinners to meet and talk to the US runners so I just go along for the ride.

After dinner we retired to our rooms to prepare for the race and watch the weather channel. The forecast was calling for severe thunderstorms on Sat morning – we were hoping it was wrong? When we woke at 6am and checked outside it was sunny and warm – maybe we would luck out and the storms would miss us? But as we drove north 15 miles to the Stennis Space Center the skies became very dark and gloomy and the winds started to increase. The marathon is held totally within the Stennis Space Center – a large complex owned by NASA and located on several thousand acres of MS forest and swamp/bayou land. This complex is where they test all the rockets for the NASA space craft and missiles. I was surprised that Homeland Security still allowed the marathon to be held here but we had no problem getting through the security gates?

The marathon course is two loops around paved roads throughout the base. It is very flat and also very boring. There was also a 5K and Half Marathon race. There were only about 300 runners lined up for the 8am start so I was surprised to learn there were 118 runners in the marathon? About 5 minutes before the start the thunderstorms moved in the skies opened up with rain! Great! I hate starting a race or even to run in the rain let alone a torrential downpour with thunder and lightning. But the race started on time and we were thoroughly soaked within a few minutes so we didn’t have to worry about getting any wetter or trying to avoid the huge puddles and streams on the roads.

I had decided before the marathon to set a goal of 3:40. I have been struggling with a foot injury ever since I ran a 5-mile race in Sarasota at the end of Oct. I wore racing flats for that race i.e. no support or cushioning but lightweight and fast. And I paid dearly for that decision. I thought I was suffering from inflammation in the tendons and since I am scared to take any anti-inflammatory after that little mishap a few years ago I have been trying to run through the pain and control the injury with ice and massages. I had actually taken a few days rest before the marathon and the foot felt the best it had been for the past month. Since I have been unable to do any hard/fast training the past month I figured that 3:40 was a realistic target?

I also made an important discovery the night before the race. As I was massaging my foot and remarking how much better it felt I found a small point in a bone near the joint of the big toe that hurt like Hell to touch? Maybe it was not inflammation but some kind of contusion or worse yet a stress fracture in the foot? That would explain why it was not healing as fast as it should? No matter – I was running the marathon and I would just have to take it easy!

Back to the race. The race started in a torrential downpour. When I reached the 1st mile I discovered that I had somehow screwed up starting my stopwatch. A fellow runner shouted 7:35 for the 1st mile. Too fast but at least I had a gauge on how much my watch was out of synch with the official race clock? This was not turning out to be a good day?
At mile 3 my mate Jack caught up to me and his watch indicated 23:40 for the first 3 miles. Still too fast so I decided to slow down some more. Jack slowed down with me since he had run his previous two marathons in 3:36 and wasn’t sure how much he had left in his legs? We slowed the pace to 8:15s and ran together for the 1st Half. Several times we bitched and whined about the miserable weather and wished that the rain would stop. We passed the Half together in 1:47 and Jack told me to “go on ahead” because his legs were starting to tire. About that same time our wish came true – and it became one of those cases where ‘you should be careful what you wish for’! The thunderstorms, rain and wind passed over and the sun came out. The temps soared immediately into the 70s and we could see steam rising off the blacktop!

The heat and humidity were torturous and immediately every runner started to slow down and many started to crash. I managed to hold an 8:15 pace until 18 miles and then it slipped to 8:30s. I hoped/tried to hold that pace for the last 8 miles but by mile 23 I was struggling and hurting like Hell just to hold the pace under 9 minutes! By then my right foot was killing me and every foot plant brought a cry of pain. My body tried to compensate for the foot injury by subconsciously changing my gait and stride and now my left knee was also hurting like Hell! I just needed to get this ordeal over with before I really screwed up something! I tried to pick up the pace but there was nothing left in my legs and the foot and knee seemed to hurt more when I tried to run faster. So I decided to ignore my time goal and just finish the race – alive and without causing any more serious injury.

Fortunately at that moment the 2nd place female passed me and I decided to try to stay with her. She was half my age, very pretty and provided some nice scenery/distraction to follow. Unfortunately the body was unable to keep up with the mind (seems to happen often at this age?) but I was able to keep her in sight as I followed her to the finish line. Mile 26 was an excruciating, painful and slow 8:59! I was certain that mile had killed any chance of achieving my goal of a sub 3:40. But -----WAIT --- I could see the finish line and the race clock indicated 3:38 and small change. If I could sprint the last few hundred yards I could still beat 3:40! I begged the old bod to give me one last jolt of adrenaline as I ignored the pain and sprinted/hobbled across the finish line in 3:39:40.

I was totally shocked/surprised that I had done it! Don’t know how but I was pleased to accept it. And the strange thing is that my official time was listed as 3:38:17? Either they adjusted the times or I was delirious as I was sprinting towards the finish line? I also didn’t believe that I had placed very well in the race but I was surprised there too. I placed 15th overall and 1st in my age group. Not too bad for an old fart with a broken foot and bum knee?

However it was a painful wake-up call. As soon as I crossed the finish line and stopped my right foot locked up and fired bolts of pain. With my left knee competing for the gold medal in pain level I was barely able to walk/hobble through the finish chute. I tried to stretch and massage the pains/injuries but even that didn’t help much. So I decided to head back to the hotel to apply ice and heat. I managed to stay around the finish line long enough to cheer Jack across the finish line in 4:07 but I couldn’t wait for the rest of the gang. As I applied ice to my foot and knee back at the hotel I finally realized that I can’t bury my head in the sand any longer and hope the foot injury is going to go away. I will have to visit a quack/doctor next week and request an X-ray to see if we can find the problem. I already know it will be an ugly confrontation because his advice is going to be “quit running” and that is not an acceptable solution to Maddog!

I have one more marathon this year (mid –Dec in Jacksonville) and 4 marathons scheduled in Jan and Feb. so I can’t afford to take time off! In fact I need to start some serious speed training so that I can win all those races!

Fortunately all of the guys made it back to the hotel before I had to leave for the airport so I was able to say my goodbyes – but I will see most of them again in May when I go back to Europe for two more marathons.

So in summary it was indeed an UGLY marathon. The course is flat and fast but very boring. It could be a very fast course with good weather. The post race party is good with beer and jambalaya. I don’t know about the awards – I didn’t stick around to get mine.
For me it was marathon #237 and my 37th state on my 2nd circuit around the 50 states.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Trip report - Albania

Macedonia & Albania
11/02 – 11/11/04
Part 2

Photos may be viewed at

Now where did we leave off in Part 1? Oh yes – my support team (Aleksandar and Toni) and I were having a traditional pre-race pasta dinner in Ohrid to discuss our plans/strategy for the marathon in Albania on Sunday morning.

I asked them how many times they had traveled to Albania. I was surprised to learn that they had never been to Albania! They were both in their 30s and only lived 100 miles from the border?
Q: “Why not I asked?”
A: “It is not a nice place – there is nothing there – and no reason to go there!”
Apparently not many of Albania’s neighbors have a burning desire to visit that country? I had the most experience with crossing the border into Albania since I had visited one year ago by crossing the border from Montenegro into northern Albania. But they were willing to help me and curious to see what Lake Ohrid looked like from the Albanian side?

On Sunday morning we left Ohrid at 8am and arrived at the border 30 minutes later. We passed through the Macedonian side of the border quickly with no fees but as soon as we entered the Albanian side the rip-offs began. First we were required to pay a fee of 250 denars ($4 US) to drive the car through a puddle (of water?). An Albanian border guard claimed it was disinfectant but I didn’t believe it was anything but water? But you pay the fee or you don’t go any further. Then we proceeded to immigration where I had to pay a fee to get my passport stamped and Aleksandar and Toni had to pay for visas. I didn’t understand the logic or reasons for the fees: I, the American had to pay a fee of 10 Euros; my support team being Europeans (and neighbors) had to pay a fee of $10 US?
Fortunately as an experienced international traveler I was carrying both currencies and paid the fees for my support team and myself. After 30 minutes of paperwork for visas and car registration we crossed the border into Albania around 9am.

Our map indicated that the highway was a main route west to the capital of Tirana and there was a junction only a few kilometers from the border where a small road split off and ran south along Lake Ohrid. We decided to drive to the junction and begin the marathon there. As soon as we crossed the border we noticed the hundreds (and hundreds) of concrete bunkers along the highways and in the mountains. I had heard and read about these bunkers. The former communist dictator Enver Hoxha in an effort to control the country by fear convinced the population that an invasion was imminent from any or all neighbors and as part of that ploy/strategy implemented a “bunker-in-every-plot’ defense campaign.

The junction was located at the top of a small mountain pass about 500 feet above the lake level. Aleksandar suggested that we drive down to the lake level to start the marathon but I figured it would be easier to start the marathon at the junction and run downhill for the start of the marathon. It was very chilly so I wore a throw away T-shirt to start the run. We agreed that the support team should drive ahead about 3 Km and wait with water and they drove off. And I ran into problems almost immediately! A few minutes after I started running I blew my nose to clean out my sinuses and felt like my nose was running? I wiped it with my sleeve and noticed it was covered in blood? Damn – my nose was gushing blood! In my previous 235 marathons I had never experienced this problem. My support team was already gone and I was alone and running down a steep, narrow mountain road with no shoulders and traffic passing me in both directions! What could I do? Not wanting to stop or waste time I tried to pinch the nostrils but that didn’t work well. I needed to plug the nostrils to stop the flow of blood. I had an idea! Since I was wearing a throw away shirt that was now covered in blood I might as well tear a piece of cloth from the shirt to plug the nostril? Still not wanting to stop or lose time for this delicate medical procedure I tore off a piece of cloth and shoved it up the bleeding nostril – only it was way too big and was hanging down my chin. I started laughing as I ran down that mountain pass! What a strange and comical sight I must have been – a lone, Caucasian male running down a remote mountain pass in Albania wearing shorts and a bloody T-shirt – face covered in blood and a bloody rag hanging out of his nose? My biggest concern was that a cop would drive buy and ask me what the problem was. I knew he wouldn’t believe the answer even if he could understand me which would be unlikely?

Fortunately no police drove by but I did get a lot of strange looks from passing cars. Fifteen minutes later I reached my support team at 3 Km and explained the problem. I was able to swap the bloody rag in my nose for a piece of tissue and wash the blood off my face but I kept the bloody T-shirt on because it was still cold. By the time I reached the 6Km mark the road was at lake level, my nose had stopped bleeding as it had warmed up enough to take off the bloody T-shirt. The next 10Km were almost enjoyable. The road was flat and ran close to the lake. If I ignored the hundreds of concrete bunkers located along the shores of the lake and in the mountains (protecting Albania from evil Macedonia?) the scenery was quite pretty. My support team was amazed with all the Mercedes cars driving on the road – more than half the cars we saw were Mercedes? And Albania is the 2nd poorest country in Europe? I wondered out loud “How many of those Mercedes were brought into the country legally” and “How can they afford all these Mercedes but they can’t afford to destroy and remove all those concrete bunkers that are a blight on the countryside and a constant reminder of their folly and naivety?
I passed through a few small villages where the villagers looked at me very strangely and shouted at me. I wasn’t sure whether they were shouting insults or words of encouragement so I just smiled, waved and kept on running. A few kids rode along beside me on their bikes. We tried to converse but their English was as good/bad as my Albanian and the conversations didn’t last long and they got bored and rode off. I never felt threatened along the route but I also never felt completely safe!

Around 16Km I could see the outline of a large city, Pogradec, in the distance. And the scenery started to look like the Albania I remembered – there was garbage/litter/filth piled on both sides of the road and lots of abandoned and burned-out cars and buildings along the road. And it got worse as I got closer to the city. It confirmed my opinion of Albania. Albania is a DUMP – it is the OUTHOUSE of Europe (and I am trying to be nice!).

I reached the Half on the outskirts of Pogradec where Aleksandar was waiting to join me for the 2nd Half. I was really glad he ran the 2nd half with me because we had to run through the center of the city. It was poor/filthy with narrow sidewalks filled with pedestrians so we decided to stay on the main street and share it with cars/trucks/buses/donkey carts/horse carts. Almost everyone in the city stared at us with strange looks and shouted at us. Even though Aleksandar couldn’t understand the language he claimed that they were shouting encouragement and I accepted that explanation because it was better than the other one? A few even took pictures. I figured that a) they had never seen anyone run in shorts, etc through the city or b) they thought we were members of the Albanian National/Olympic sports team? I would be curious to hear the story they tell when they show the photos to their friends? So I began to worry less about the people and more about the traffic. I did not have any desire/wish to spend any time in an Albanian hospital (or morgue)! Thankfully/mercifully we passed through the city center in about 5Km and soon we were back on a quiet road along Lake Ohrid heading to the border at the south end of the lake. There were very few buildings and traffic on this road.

At 32.5Km we passed through a small village and reached a steep hill with only 1Km to the border. We decided the best strategy would be to turn around and run back 5Km towards the city and then loop back and finish in the village. With only 10Km to go my legs were feeling very tired – both hams were sore and tight and my right plantar fascia was killing me. I now regretted running that 2-mile race on Saturday! But I was determined to finish if I had to crawl the last 10Km – I did not want to have to come back to Albania ever again! I told Aleksandar that I was tired/hurting and intended to let the old legs run whatever pace they felt comfortable with. When we made that final turn at 37Km I tried to dig deep and push the last 5Km to get the ordeal over with but there was no push left in the legs. So we jogged the last 5Km and crossed the finish line in 3:53:06.
Marathon #236 and country # 70 completed. It was a very unnerving and challenging marathon even though the course was easy

As I struggled through the last 5Km I had commented to Aleksandar that some runners/people claim that “running a ‘solo’ marathon is not running a ‘real’ marathon”! Well I finally have a great response for these people. Only after they have duplicated/ran my solo/non-real marathon in Albania will I consider listening to their stupid/ridiculous comments! Running an official/organized marathon (anywhere in the world) is a piece of cake compared to running this solo marathon. And I considered myself lucky to have chosen one of the easiest and safest routes in Albania!

After some finish photos and a brief rest we headed for the border expecting to breeze across? Everything went smoothly until we reached the last gate on the Albanian side and the border guard demanded a fee of 1 Euro (a commission for something)? Toni figured it was another rip-off and started to argue and suddenly the fee went up to 2 Euros? I advised Toni to stop arguing, paid the 2 Euros and we escaped to the Macedonia side of the border. We had to drive about another 30Km to Ohrid to complete the loop around lake Ohrid – a total of 90Km.

We congratulated ourselves on the successful achievement of two goals – I had completed a marathon in Albania and Aleksandar and Toni had completed their first loop around Lake Ohrid! I thanked my support team. It would have been impossible to complete my goal without their help and support!

After a quick shower at the apartment I checked into a hotel in Ohrid because I was wanted to stay and explore the city. Then we went for a quick snack/meal before my support team drove back to Skopje. I agreed to meet them when I returned to Skopje on Wednesday.

I was on my own again and looking forward to exploring the Old City.
Archaeological findings show evidence of civilization in Macedonia between 7000 and 3500BC. Ohrid is the 2nd largest city in Macedonia (50,000) and is one of the most ancient cities in the Balkans. Its ancient name is Lychnidos. The Old City is located on Gorni Saraj – a hill that has been continually settled between the Iron Age and the Ottoman period. It was the site of the acropolis of the city of Lychnidos and later of the citadel of mediaeval Ohrid and Samoil’s Fortress that still exists today. Many of the existing buildings and churches date back to the 9th and 10th centuries.

However when I woke up on Monday morning I immediately knew it was going to be a bad day! The weather was cold, windy and raining and my throat was sore and I was coughing and hacking. Even so I ventured outside after breakfast to reconnoiter the Old City. But after an hour both the weather and my health had deteriorated. I passed many locals on the street who were also coughing so I guessed that the marathons had suppressed my immune system and I had caught some local cold bug. I found a pharmacy and managed to explain my problem to the pharmacist who sold me some cough syrup. I went back to the hotel to rest and take some medicine. That syrup had to be the worst medicine I have tasted since I was a kid? But I remembered my mommy telling me that medicine tasted bad because it was good for me. Damn – this stuff must be really, really good? I took some and stayed in bed and rested/slept for 20 hours!

Tuesday morning started out much better. The weather was sunny and warm – my sore throat was gone, I was coughing very little. That medicine really was good! However the cold had transformed from a cough to a sinus cold and my nose was running like Niagara Falls. But it was my last day and I had to explore the Old City. I started wandering through the narrow cobblestone streets to find the Church of St Sophia. The church and its frescoes date back to the 11th century. Next was the Church of St John the Theologian of Kaneo. This church is built on a cliff above Lake Ohrid and has frescoes painted in 1290. Then I climbed the cobblestone streets up Gorni Saraj to Samoil’s Fortress that was built in the 9th century and is being restored. Next on the agenda was the amphitheater. It was built before the Roman Period and used by the Romans for gladiator fights. It has been restored and is used for musical festivals in the summer.

There are several more churches and monasteries in the Old City but I limited my visit to one more – the Church of the Holy Mother of God Peribleptos (St Clement). It was built and decorated with frescoes in 1295 and has an attached Icon Museum that displays religious Icons dating back to the 9th century. One could spend several days exploring the Old City if you are interested in history.

I had one final task to complete before I returned to Skopje. I wanted to enjoy a dinner of the local trout from Lake Ohrid so that is what I ordered for dinner along with a bottle of wine. I couldn’t taste much difference from the Rocky Mountain trout I enjoy all summer in Colorado? I was feeling pretty good after dinner and decided that I should drown/kill my cold germs with alcohol. There is a local liquor called rajika – a grape brandy that is about 80%alcohol and tastes like kerosene. I asked the bartender at the hotel if I was supposed to chug or sip the rajika. “Sip it”! It tasted terrible so I chased it down with a glass of wine. The bartender warned me not to do that! “Rajika is supposed to be chased with water or coffee – never beer or wine”. I ignored him and ordered two more rajika and chased them down with wine! I was feeling really good when I went to bed and passed out!

There was good news/bad news when I woke up the next morning. The cold was much better but my head and stomach were complaining about the rajika. And I had a 3-½ hour bus ride into Skopje. It was a long bus ride but I arrived in Skopje in the afternoon and called Aleksandar. He informed me that a couple of the local newspapers wanted to interview me so I spent the next few hours giving an interview and running along the Vardar River for press photos. Then I met with Aleksandar to say goodbye and thank him for all his help. On the way to a coffee shop Aleksandar showed me the original home site where Mother Teresa had been born and raised. I had missed that historical site on my self-guided tour of Skopje? Aleksandar gave me a souvenir T-shirt from a previous marathon that his running club had held in Skopje and we said our goodbyes. He promised to help me find marathons and/or contacts in Bulgaria and Bosnia.

It was time for an early dinner since I had a 5am taxi to the airport for my flights home. The 11-hour flight from Zurich to Dallas was very long/painful with the sinus cold but finally and exactly 24 hours after I left the hotel in Skopje I arrived at my front door in Longboat Key. Doesn’t international travel sound exciting and fun?

But it was an enjoyable and interesting trip/adventure. Macedonia was much nicer than I expected and the Macedonians are very friendly, kind and hospitable. Albania is still a DUMP but we won’t dwell on that anymore.

I have now completed 47 marathons and countries in Europe. Only 4 more to go. After the 5 marathons/countries I have run this past year in Europe I better understand why nobody has ever accomplished this crazy goal! It is very difficult, challenging (and sometimes even dangerous)! If I had known 5 years ago what I know now I would never have started this crazy challenge/goal! But I am too close to the end/success to give up now. In fact I have become obsessive about finishing the goal in 2005. Thus I plan to run the remaining two countries in continental Europe (Bulgaria and Bosnia) in April and the final two island-countries (N Ireland and the Faroe Islands) in May and July!

So stay tuned for the next adventure!

Friday, November 12, 2004

Trip Report Macedonia

Macedonia & Albania
11/02 – 11/11/04
Part 1

Photos nay be viewed at

The plans for this trip began during my last international trip to Eastern Europe in July. I asked my friend Dimitry in Moldova if he could help me confirm a marathon in Macedonia in November and also help me find a marathon or contact in Albania. He succeeded fairly quickly in finding a contact for me in Macedonia who did confirm a marathon in Struga, Macedonia in November but was unable to find a marathon or any contacts in Albania. However my new contact/friend in Macedonia informed me that he and the race director for the Struga marathon were willing to help me run a ‘solo’ marathon in Albania if they were unable to find/confirm an ‘official’ marathon in Albania.

I delayed making the final travel arrangements as long as possible but finally had to commit to the trip in late September before we left Colorado for Florida. By that time I had confirmed a marathon in Struga on November 7 and a preliminary plan to run a ‘solo’ marathon in neighboring Albania a few days later. All my attempts to contact a sports organization/authority, runner/running club and even a government official such as the Albanian Ambassador to the USA were neglected and unsuccessful! Albania is the only country in the world that has refused to offer me help/assistance to run a marathon in their country? It disappointed but didn’t surprise me – and it certainly wasn’t going to stop me!

I had to purchase non-refundable discount tickets because AA and their partners could only get me to Zurich on free air-mile tickets. The airfare from Zurich to Skopje was $465 return but the total fare from Tampa to Skopje was only $865. I couldn’t see wasting 60,000 miles to fly to Zurich to save $400? However the risk/concern was that I now had non-refundable tickets and coach/economy class. Both of these concerns eventually did bite me – and it didn’t take long!

Shortly after we returned to Florida I contacted my friend Aleksandar to inform him that I would be leaving soon and wanted to confirm that everything was OK? His return email stated that he was sorry to inform me that the marathon in Struga had been cancelled! Great! I am getting ready to leave in three days and I have non-refundable tickets? I had two options: a) postpone the trip for one year and hope that the marathon would really happen then. Hopefully AA would let me change my tickets with a penalty/fee? b) go ahead with the trip as planned and add another ‘solo’ marathon in Macedonia. Aleksandar confirmed that it would be possible to safely run a solo marathon in Skopje and that he would help me. I prefer to run an‘official’ marathon (if one exists) in any country but option a) had too many risks so I decided to go ahead with the planned trip.

Thus I left Tampa on November 2 for a 24-hour trip and three flights in coach – the flight from Dallas to Zurich took 10 hours! That is a lonnnnnnnggggggggggg time to sit in one of those small coach seats! I arrived in Skopje on November 3 and called Aleksandar as soon as I checked into the hotel. He invited me to a concert that night but I was too tired and knew that I would never be able to stay awake that long. We agreed to meet the next day so that he could show me the route/course he had selected for my marathon.

I had booked a 2-star hotel where locals stayed because of the low price. Macedonia – especially Skopje - has many foreign visitors/workers from the EU and UN and the western/international hotels have learned that they can charge these people 120 to 150 Euros/night for a room. My hotel cost 40 Euros/night. It was only four blocks from the main square, it was clean and had an ensuite bath and TV. The only drawbacks were that the whole room was smaller than our master bedroom closet and the TV only had three local stations. Actually this turned out to be a blessing since they didn’t provide much coverage of the US election and I couldn’t understand what they did say? It took me two days to learn that Bush had won.

Since the preliminary plan was to run a solo marathon on Friday and then travel to Struga on Saturday I figured that I had better play tourist on Thursday and explore Skopje. Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, has a population of 700,000 – about 1/3 of the population of the country. The city sits in a valley or bowl surrounded by mountains that trap the smog/pollution from the cars, etc and thus the air quality is not good much of the time. An earthquake destroyed 90% of the city in 1963 and much of the new city was built by the Soviets – thus square, unimaginative concrete buildings. However there appeared to be construction cranes all over the center of the city and lots of modern new buildings were being built. The center of the city has lots of modern, upscale shops, restaurants, pubs and cafes. Fortunately the earthquake spared most of the old city that dates back to the 13th century and contains the Old Bazaar, the Turkish Fortress and many old churches and mosques. An old Stone Bridge connects the new city center to the old city.

Since many of the locals like to eat out and go to bars the meals and booze prices are not out of whack like hotel prices. A great dinner with (a bottle of) wine costs less than $10. A ½ liter beer costs about $1.50 in a bar. Thus you can visit Macedonia very cheaply if you stay and eat where the locals go which I like to do anyways because you learn and experience more of the local culture.

I met Alexsandar after work on Thursday and he showed me a bike path along the Vardar River that flows through the center of the city. One section of the path was paved and marked every 100 meters for 2.5 Km. An adjoining section was concrete and 2.8 Km long for a total length of 5.3 Km. I would have to run 8 laps but there was no traffic to worry about. The biggest problem would be water. There were water fountains along the path but I couldn’t risk drinking local water and would have to place water bottles along the course. I planned to start my run early (7am) because very few people used the path at that time of day. Unfortunately Aleksandar could not provide support since he had to work but he informed me that another runner from his club would join me for the last 10 to 16 Km of the marathon.

It was time for my traditional pasta dinner and a good night’s sleep to get ready for the marathon. On Friday I arrived at the path/course by 7am carrying three 1.5 liter bottles of water. It was quite chilly – in the mid 30s – so I had to wear a throw away long sleeve T-shirt at the start. I left one bottle of water at the start and had to carry the other two through the first lap. I left the 2nd bottle at the end of the paved section and the 3rd at the end of the concrete section so I never had to run more than 2.8 Km to get water. It worked out quite well except that I had a problem hiding the bottles so that I would be sure they would not be taken. The path was flat and in excellent shape so the marathon was very easy. Since there wasn’t any competition (or company) I just ran an easy 8:30 to 9:00 min pace. After I finished 4 laps or the first half there still was no sign of a running mate. However as I finished the 5th lap I heard my name called and a male runner introduced himself as Ljubco and joined me for the last three laps or 16Km. He understood English but couldn’t speak well but we managed to converse and exchange some stories. He was a marathoner/ultra runner who ran about the same times/pace as me.
I was glad that he showed up because it made the time go faster and he forced me to pick up the pace for the last three laps. We crossed the finish line in 3:49:11. Marathon number 235 and country # 69 completed!

Later that day I talked to Aleksandar only to discover that our plans had changed once again. Instead of taking a bus to Struga and hiring a taxi there to take us into Albania, another member of his running club had volunteered to drive us to Struga on Saturday and into Albania on Sunday for the solo marathon. The club had a 2-mile race on Saturday morning and we would leave after the race. I expressed some interest in going to the club race to watch and maybe even run if my legs felt OK so I was invited to join them.

On Saturday morning I arrived at the race location in a city park at 8am to meet other members of the club including Ljubco and Toni who would drive us to Albania. They are members of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team that is part of the international Sri Chinmoy spiritual organization. I foolishly decided to run the 2-mile race and not surprisingly went out too fast. I finished the race in 14:30 on sore/tight legs and hoped that I wouldn’t regret that decision too much the next day? After the race Aleksandar and Toni picked me up at the hotel and we took off for Struga.

Struga is located on Lake Ohrid in the southwest corner of the country about 160 Km from Skopje. It is a pretty drive over two or three mountain ranges so we had lots of time to exchange information on each of our countries. I learned a lot. There is still a lot of political and ethnic issues/turmoil going on in Macedonia. The constitutional name of the country is ‘The Republic of Macedonia’. However Greece objects to that name and claims it belongs to Greece and has objected to the UN and the EU and closed down its borders to Macedonia many times in the past few years. The UN tried to resolve the issue by admitting the country to the UN as ‘FYR Macedonia’ (The Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia). This did not appease Greece. Two days after the US election (and while I was in Skopje) the US government and George Bush recognized the country in a speech as ‘The Republic of Macedonia’. To the Macedonians this symbolized recognition/approval of their constitutional name by the USA. They were very happy – in fact as I was leaving Skopje they were preparing the main city square for a party on Saturday night to celebrate this important event. I watched on TV as they celebrated and waved both Macedonian and US flags together. It was nice to be loved somewhere in the world. But not in neighboring Greece where they were burning the US flag at the same time in protest and anger at the USA.

I also learned that about 25% of the population of 2 Million are Albanian Muslims whereas the Macedonians are Orthodox. Most of the Albanians live in the western part of the country and two years ago started a brief war for independence. A Referendum was being held on Saturday to determine if the Albanians should be granted more autonomy in certain regions of the country (one of the reasons the Struga marathon was cancelled). The referendum failed. I am sure that you, like I, had no idea any of this political and ethnic strife was/is going on. So you see these marathon trips/adventures are a great way to learn about the history and current affairs of countries around the world.

I learned much more on the 2-½ hour drive to Struga. When we arrived in Struga I went to check into the hotel I had booked but they tried to rip us off by charging almost 100 Euros for the three of us. We agreed that was too much and thankfully both Aleksandar and Toni had visited Lake Ohrid many times and knew of an apartment complex in Ohrid. We rented an apartment in Ohrid that slept all three of us for 20 Euros. We then went for pasta dinner and discussed our plans/strategy for the solo marathon in Albania the next day.

But as usual this report is much longer and wordier than I planned so I am going to split it into two parts. Stay tuned for Part 2 and Albania!