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!

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