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!

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