Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Trip report - Poland

May 5 –10/05

Photos may be viewed on

Now where were we? Oh yes – this is part two of a two-week European trip and we had just traveled from Belfast to London (Luton airport) and were now departing Luton for Krakow, Poland.

We met up with about 16 runners/mates from London and the Midlands at Luton. I had met most of them on other trips. They are members of the 100 Marathon Club (UK).
When we arrived in Krakow we had a brilliant idea to take a local bus from the airport into the city. Eighteen of us loaded ourselves and all our baggage on to a local bus. Forty-five minutes and another tram later we finally arrived at our hotel. Everyone vowed that they would take a taxi back to the airport when they departed?

Waiting at the hotel was another good friend/runner from London who was our unofficial guide and translator for the trip. Tad is of Polish ancestry and still has family in Poland - and fortunately still speaks Polish! After helping us check in Tad escorted us to Race HQ to pick up our race packets and show us where the race started. His language skills were much in demand and appreciated. After registration most of the runners decided to accompany Tad to a popular local restaurant to enjoy Polish food and beer. However I had still not recovered from the flu – in fact it seemed that I always suffered a relapse each evening. So the sports manager and I found a Thai restaurant near the hotel and enjoyed a nice relaxing dinner. What a difference from Ireland and the UK. Our dinner with wine cost about $15 US! Poland is still a relatively good tourist bargain compared with most of Europe. This is true of most of the former Soviet countries but unfortunately it is changing fast so take advantage of these tourist destinations/bargains while you can.

It was an early evening for us as I hoped that lots of rest would finally kill that damn flu bug? On Friday morning several runners decided to visit a 1000-year old salt mine in Wieliczka that contains many underground sculptures but we decided we would rather explore Krakow. Unlike many other Polish cities Krakow miraculously survived WWII and years of socialist planning relatively unscathed. The Old Town (Stare Miasto) is compact and easy to explore on foot. In the center of the Old Town are the Main Marketplace (Rynek Glowny) and the Cloth Hall. The square is ringed with bars and cafes and several interesting buildings and sites such as: St Mary’s Church with a 500-year old wooden altar – the oldest Gothic altar in the world and the small church of St Wojciech – one of the oldest churches in Krakow. Going south out of the Old Town is the Royal Road that leads past many more churches to the Royal Castle on Wawel Hill. The Wawel Castle (Zamek Wawelski) was originally built in the 10th century and remodeled in the 1500s. The royal apartments and staterooms contain the original furnishings and can be visited. The castle complex includes Wawel Cathedral where many polish kings were coronated and Pope John Paul II was the Archbishop. We spent the whole day exploring Wawel Castle and Old Town.

Friday evening many of the runners/mates decided to go to the official marathon pasta party but some including the sports manager and I decided to find a local Italian restaurant to enjoy better pasta. Nicole and I again did our own thing and enjoyed a nice pasta dinner ($15US vs the $40 at the Pizza Hut in Belfast?). I retired early because the flu was still dragging me down.

Saturday was M-day! The race started at 9am. The weather was miserable as we walked from the hotel to the start line – very cold and raining! There were about 2000 runners in the Marathon and a Half marathon. I wore my typical rain gear (garbage bag) for the first three miles because it was so cold and miserable. I felt sorry for those runners just wearing shorts and a singlet. But this race was much better organized than Belfast. There were distance markers every 1Km and water every 3 – 5 Km. Much of the course was on paved bike paths along the Wisla River and when it did run on roads the roads were blocked off to traffic.

I was not sure or confident in my health/condition because of the flu bug and did not want to repeat the same mistake (and pain) as Belfast so I started out very slowly. I watched my heart monitor closely and kept my pace just under 9 min/mile through the first Half. Many of my mates that I normally beat passed me and I just let them go. I reached the Half in 1:57:09 and felt OK. I thought about picking up the pace at that point to see if I could catch some of my mates but decided it was still too early to make a push. I reached 27Km in 2:30 and still felt OK except for the occasional, uncontrollable coughing spasms that hurt like heck but I decided it was now or never to make a push. Besides it was raining hard again and I was so cold and miserable that I needed to get this over with? I dropped the pace to 8:20/8:30s.
I caught and passed a few mates but was looking for one mate in particular – yes Roger I was looking for you! After 8 Km of pushing hard I still couldn’t see Roger? I figured that if I could just see him by 38K I could make an interesting/challenging race out of it? At 37K there was a loop in the course and I still couldn’t see him (regretfully it turned out that Roger did see me at 37K although I didn’t see him – he was only one minute ahead at that point?). So I decided it wasn’t worth killing myself for the last 5 Km and eased off some. I crossed the finish line in the Old Town Square in 3:53:58 – about 1-½ minutes behind Roger!

I was pleased with my race. The time was not great but I had run a smart race and even ran a negative split in the second Half. However I will now have to wait for another opportunity to regain my bragging rights over Roger and a few other mates.

It was still raining when I finished the race and I felt cold and miserable. Unfortunately our hotel room did not have a bath so I had to stand in a shower for more than 30 minutes while running the hottest water I could stand over my poor cold body. Finally I felt like living again and decided it was time to explore some more of Krakow and work up an appetite for some Polish food and beer. Thankfully the sun had come out and the sports manager and I walked over to the Castle to take some pictures and then we walked through Kazimierz – Krakow’s 600-year old Jewish Quarter and back to the Old Town for some food and beer.
Later that evening we met with a group of mates to accompany Tad back to the favorite restaurant for an evening of celebration, food and beer. It was an old Polish restaurant – much like a huge beer hall. They brewed their own beers – the light beer was 11% alcohol and the dark was 14%. The beer was delivered to the table in casks and you poured your own pints. There were over 20 runners/mates at the party/celebration. The food, beer and company were all great! Near the end of the meal Tad ordered a ‘special’ local drink for the table. The drink contains the colors of the Polish flag – white vodka, red raspberry juice and Tabasco sauce. The idea is to ‘shoot’ it and then chase it down with some 11 or 14% beer. Tad ordered a second round. However some couldn’t drink the second one so Tad and I volunteered to finish off them off. Needless to say I was feeling real goooooooodddddddd when we left the restaurant. What stinking flu?
Only later did Tad explain that the special drink is called ‘Wsciekly Pies’ - that literally translates to ‘Mad Dog’! Don’t you think I should be getting royalties for all the use of my nickname?

On Sunday morning I was surprised/pleased to discover that I did not have a huge hangover? Many of the group wanted to visit the concentration camps at Auschwitz. Since the normal tours required a full day and we were leaving on a 5pm flight we hired three taxis to be our private drivers and guides. They drove us to Auschwitz, explained the layout of the camps and how to visit them and waited for us. At the first camp, Auschwitz I with the infamous gate “Arbeit macht frei” (Work brings freedom) the original barracks now house exhibits and artifacts describing the atrocities that were conducted there. Fortunately we had seen many TV documentaries on the camps and were somewhat prepared for the gruesome and depressing things we saw. But the sheer size of the camp and the other two camps Auschwitz – Birkenau II & III boggles the mind how so many people could have been forced and duped to their death. We also visited Auschwitz-Birkenau II with the ‘Gate of Death” where the trains entered the camp and unloaded the prisoners. A depressing but educational tour!

Finally our taxis/guides dropped us off at the airport and we were on our way back to London. We arrived at our hotel around 8pm. I had used an award/free points to book the Marriott Grosvenor House near Hyde Park. Usually they give you the worst room in the hotel with these vouchers but the hotel was being renovated and was almost empty so they put us in a corner suite. Biggest damn hotel room I ever saw – a one- bedroom apartment/suite. I could get used to that kind of living? Of course we couldn’t afford to eat at that hotel – breakfast was 20 Pounds/person ($40US). I don’t know how people can afford to live there. Needless to say we found a pub nearby and enjoyed a full English breakfast for 3 Pounds! Maddog knows how to travel like the locals.

In all our trips to London and living there for a year I had never visited the British Museum and that was one of my primary goals on this trip. So on Monday we spent the whole afternoon at the Museum. I especially liked the sections on Egypt, Greece and Roman artifacts. The Rosetta Stone is one of the main artifacts at the Museum. On Monday evening – our last evening in Europe we attended the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “The Woman in White”. The story and music were good but they substituted high-tech for the normal stage scenery and it distracted the audience from the performers. It was OK but not as good as my favorite “The Phantom of the Opera” and certainly not worth the $200 tickets?

Finally it was Tuesday and time to go home. I had managed to get rid of that damn flu by giving it to my sports manager. I felt sorry for her because it was going to be a very long and miserable flight home with that nasty bug. After 14 hours of airport and flight time (London to Chicago to Tampa) we were finally back home. The weather was sunny and mid 80s when we got off the plane in Tampa. Good to be back home – and WARM again!

I don’t believe I will ever be able to get the sports manager to accompany me on any more trips to Europe but I still have three countries left to run so stay tuned for the next adventure!

Friday, May 06, 2005

Trip Report - Northern Ireland

4/27 – 5/4/05

Photos may be viewed at

The planning for this trip started last year when my ‘buddies’ from the UK informed me that I would have to run a marathon in Northern Ireland to complete my goal of running every country in Europe. Is Northern Ireland a ‘country’?
“Don’t go there”! If England, Wales and Scotland are countries (and I ran them) I guess I should run Northern Ireland too?

Since the only marathon in N Ireland is in Belfast I had to wait for this year’s race to come up in early May. I really tried to find a second marathon in the same time frame that I could run to check another needed country off my list but alas I was not successful. I still figured that there was no point going all the way to Europe to run ‘just’ one race so I decided to run a second marathon in Krakow following Belfast. That race/adventure will be included in another report. Since both marathons would be in ‘nice’ places the sports manager agreed to go along – it would probably be her last marathon trip to Europe?

After schedules were confirmed I decided to route us through Manchester, England to visit some close friends transplanted from Texas. We departed from Tampa late Wed. and arrived in Manchester at 8am on Thu. Our friends picked us up at the airport and took us to their home in Wilmslow. Normally we try not to crash/sleep when we arrive but this time we had not slept on the flight and decided to crash for a few hours. Later that day I managed to run an easy 5 miles to help my body adjust to the new time zone. Then our hosts, John & Debbi, treated us to a wonderful gourmet dinner at a pub in a nearby village. Since the meal was accompanied by lots of good wine we were very relaxed and tired when we finally went to bed. We slept for 12 straight hours and felt like our body clocks had adjusted to the local time.

Our hosts had a previous business meeting/dinner planned for Fri night so the sports manager and I walked to a pub in Wilmslow (we had stayed there before and knew the town) for a regular pub meal i.e. steak & ale pie! On Sat after a pleasant morning run with John we had to say goodbye to our gracious hosts and depart for Belfast. We arrived in Belfast late Sat. afternoon and after checking into our hotel headed straight to Race HQ to pick up my race packet. Since the race was on Mon. – a bank holiday – we decided that we should tour on Sun. It was cold and raining on Sun morning so we decided to take a day tour north to Antrim County and the Giant’s Causeway.

The Giant’s Causeway is a most extraordinary natural phenomenon – a rock formation of volcanic origin consisting of 40,000 vertical basalt columns of varying sizes and heights. According to legend the Causeway was the work of the giant Finn McCool who fell in love with a giantess from the Island of Staffa (in the Hebrides) and began to build a causeway as a means to bring her to Ireland. It is an interesting site to see but it was so damn cold and rainy when we got there that we did not spend much time out of the bus.
We continued along the Antrim Coast past the Dunluce Castle to the Bushmills Distillery. While many toured the distillery we toured the village of Bushmill. By late afternoon the rain had stopped and it warmed up so I did take a walk down to the rope bridge at Carrick-a Rede. It is not much compared to the rope suspension bridge at Capilano, BC or the rope bridges in the canopies of the rain forests in Costa Rica! But the Antrim Coastline is very scenic. The bus did not arrive back to Belfast until 7:30 pm. By then I was feeling very sick and knew that I was unfortunately coming down with some bug/illness.

There are not many Italian restaurants in Belfast and I didn’t feel well enough to take a taxi to another section of the city and spend lots of money on spaghetti so we found a Pizza Hut near the hotel. Good thing because I learned how expensive things are in the UK. A cheap spaghetti dinner for two was 20 Pounds ($40 US – no booze). It was the same menu and dinner we ate in Trinidad in Feb. – only that meal cost $7 US! The moral of this story is that if you want to retire move to Trinidad – not the UK!

By the time we got back to the hotel I was in BIG trouble! I was really sick! All night I suffered a very high fever and cold chills – sometimes together? I put an extra blanket on the bed in the hope that I might burn the bug out if I kept my temperature high? It partially worked. By 8am my fever was down to about 100F and the cold chills were gone. Should I run? No choice –I was not waiting another year to come back here. And it is too expensive to make another trip!

The good news was that the start of the race was only a few blocks from the hotel – the bad news was that is was very cold and raining again. You cannot imagine how terrible (and cold) I felt standing on that start line in the freezing rain with a temp of 100+F. I decided that I would be lucky just to finish this race alive so there would be no heroics today! I moved to the middle of the pack so I could start out slow.

There were about 5,000 runners at the start – 2,000 marathoners and 3,000 relay runners. The race started at 9am – in the rain but I had my rain gear (a garbage bag) on. I wore the bag for about 3 miles before I was warm enough to throw it away. The race started at City Hall, went through Ormeau Park and then along Falls and Shankill Roads past many of the political murals. There were no mile markers until mile 10 so I could not figure out my pace? I tried to set my pace by my heart monitor and figured I was running just under 9 min/mile? I reached the first marker at Mile 10 in 1:22 – an 8:15 pace. That was not good! I tried to slow down expecting to find another marker at least at the Half. No marker or timing mats where they should be? I didn’t understand or find out why until the next day. A terrorist group (IRA?) had planted a bomb on the course around 12 miles. Luckily they called it in to a newspaper and the police found the bomb (yes – a real bomb with a remote control). Only the 20 lead runners had run past the bomb before the police diverted the course. They added 1106 meters to the length of the course and I suspect bypassed the original Half marathon mark?

I finally reached another marker at 15 miles –2:06. Still too fast! I knew I was in trouble at that point. I started to slow drastically. By the time I reached 16 miles (another 10 minutes) I could hear “the fat lady singing” and I knew the race was over for me. I started to walk. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining and I started to overheat. The water stops were located about every 5 Km and by now they had started to run out of water. The runners had to wait while the volunteers filled the water bottles from taps and then filled cups. I was concerned about drinking local tap water but really didn’t have a choice? It was one of the worst organized races I have ever run. With 3,000 relay teams the relay check points were so congested that we were forced to stop and walk. That didn’t really affect my time near the end – it just frustrated me!

Needless to say it was a very long and painful struggle just to walk and run the last 10 miles. But I finally crossed the finish line in 4:17:13. The official website states that 1106 meters were added to the course because of the bomb and each runner should adjust their own time. Well my time is adjusted to 4:09:47! I figured I walked/ran/crawled those 1106 meters at a 12 minute pace? The finish line was a zoo. I almost couldn’t find my sports manager and I desperately needed to go back to the hotel and crash. My body temp was soaring?

In spite of the high temps I still forced the old bod into the hottest water I could stand because it was aching all over. My legs weren’t sore – I hadn’t run fast enough for them to hurt – but everything else ached? After 30 minutes of soaking I felt alive enough to go find a pub. Fortunately there was one close to the hotel and we immediately made new friends with some locals – one had run the relay. We learned a lot about N Ireland, Belfast and the political views over several pints of beer? We also ate in the pub because it was too expensive to eat in a fancy restaurant. A good meal with wine, etc. would cost about $75 to $100 (pounds) – translate to $200 US! I was hoping that a lot of beer would kill the flu bug that was plaguing me – but it was only a temporary fix?

On Tue we decided to take a tour of Belfast. Belfast (Beal Feirste = “sandy ford”) is situated in the northeast corner of Ireland at the outflow of the River Lagan into the Belfast Lough. It was once a very important shipyard. The Titanic was built here. The downtown is going through a redevelopment. But right now it is not pretty. It closes down at 6pm and all the storefronts and buildings have shutters and iron bars for security. Very few bars and restaurants are open except for a section called the ‘Golden Mile’ between City Hall and Queen’s University.

The tour went into the Falls (Catholic) and Shankill (Protestant) sections of the city. These two communities are separated by a 70-ft high fence and two gates (called the ‘Peace Gates’) that are only opened from 6am to 6pm. Each community has several murals painted on the sides of buildings depicting the political struggle/differences.
But once you leave these areas and downtown the rest of the city looks normal and is quite nice. I guess we just don’t understand the situation?

After our city tour we decided that we would spend our last night in the country instead of the city. We were flying out of Belfast International airport that was located about 20 miles north of the city. We booked a room in a B&B in the village of Moira. It was a quaint little village that reminded us of Bishop’s Stortford (where we lived in England).
We enjoyed a great dinner (at reasonable prices) and the next morning our hostess drove us to the airport at 5am. We had to fly to London (Luton) and connect to a flight to Krakow. Unfortunately we had a 5-hr wait at Luton but finally many of my mates from the London area started to arrive at the airport and we chatted and boarded the flight together.

We were on our way to Krakow – the next marathon – the next adventure - and the next report.

Stay tuned!