Saturday, October 22, 2005

Bosnia Marathon

Oct 9 –19/05

Race Stats:
Bihacki Jensenji Maraton V
Bihac, Bosnia – Herzegovina
Oct 15, 2005
Marathon #251 – Country # 75 – European country # 51
3:51:59 – 2nd OA - 1st AG

Photos may be viewed at Album is called ‘Bosnia’.

Now where did I leave off from the earlier part of the trip to Bulgaria? Oh – yes I was departing on a bus from Belgrade, Serbia to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. As I was making the 8-hour bus ride I had time reflect on how events had changed so much during the past few weeks. Originally Sofia was supposed to be the official marathon and Bosnia had just been an idea for a Maddog ‘special’ marathon that had developed into the first official marathon in Bosnia since the war! How did this happen?

Since Bosnia did not have an official marathon I had been working for the past year with a runner in Germany –Wolfgang – to organize a marathon in Bosnia to conclude my quest/goal to run a marathon in every country in Europe. Bosnia was to be the final marathon/country and I wanted it to be an official marathon. Wolfgang had a contact in Bihac and I had a contact in Sarajevo. We hoped that one of them would help us organize an official marathon? We had set a tentative date of Oct 15/05 so that I could run both Bulgaria and Bosnia on the same trip.

Two months before our tentative date of Oct 15 we had not made much progress except that two runners from the UK committed to run the marathon with us. I ordered six medals and 10 T-shirts for the marathon expecting that we would find at least two local runners to run the marathon? One month before the race date we struck pay dirt! Wolfgang made contact with the Bihac Athletic Club and the President - Nedzad Hadzic (Dzipsi). Dzipsi replied that the Club was considering a half marathon in mid-Oct and they would hold it on Oct 15 and furthermore would add a Marathon for us! (two loops of the Half marathon course). It would be the first ‘official’ marathon in Bosnia since the war!

Since I had never been to Sarajevo I still wanted to visit that city on my way to Bihac and I wanted to meet and thank my contact in Sarajevo for his efforts. It was worth an 8-hour bus trip. As the bus crossed the border from Serbia into Bosnia I immediately noticed the change in terrain. Serbia was flat and boring – Bosnia was very mountainous with lots of forests and lakes – very pretty! After 4 hours of driving on mountain roads the bus approached Sarajevo and dropped down into the city. The city is located in a narrow valley with steep mountains on all sides- ummm – would be tough to run a marathon there? I was lucky to find a hotel on the east side of the city overlooking the ‘old town’ and the Miljacka River that runs through the middle of the city. It had seen better days but was a bargain at $50/day considering its location. I called my contact Vladimir and arranged to meet him for dinner. In the meantime I decided to explore the old town. It reminded me very much of the old town in Skopje, Macedonia – only larger! Lots of shops, cafes and even a few bars (Bosnia is 60% Muslim!) I decided to shop for my souvenirs and postcards in Sarajevo because I wasn’t sure if I would find those items in Bihac?

Later that evening Vladimir and his wife Nidzara met me at the hotel and we walked over to the old town for dinner. They were much younger than expected – students in their early 20s. Vladimir is studying computer science and Nidzara is in her 3rd year of medical school. They both have part-time jobs and have run a marathon! No wonder Vladimir didn’t have much time to help me organize a marathon in Sarajevo? They gave me a guided tour of old town and we ate some traditional food at a local fast food restaurant. There are no American fast food restaurants in Bosnia – no MacDonalds, no KFC, nada, none in the whole country! But they do have fast food restaurants – a ‘Cevabdzince’ serves cevabd – a flat, leavened bread filled with meat. Nidzara calls then meat fingers – they are not spicy but have a strong taste and are delicious. A ‘Buregdzince’ serves buregd – a kind of pastry or pie filled with cheese, meat or vegetables. A typical dinner costs about $2. We talked about the history and culture of Bosnia. Everyone starts out every sentence with either “before the war” or “after the war”. Vladimir was a young boy in Sarajevo during the war (92-95) and was not allowed to go outside for 4 years! He is bitter that the war robbed him of his youth but he is also determined to get on with his life and be successful. They were very friendly and gracious hosts.

Vladimir told me that there was an old highway/road beneath my hotel that ran along the Miljacka River. It had been closed to traffic and was used as a walking/bike path and was safe to run. I checked it out the next day. It was only 3km long but was flat – I probably would have used it for my marathon if we had planned it in Sarajevo. I had to wait until noon to run because it was so cold early in the morning. And I noticed/complained that the hotel –in spite of the cold nights – had not turned on the heat to save money? I believe that is the reason that I started to come down with a cold/cough? After my noon run I explored the old town and the city. There are lots of old churches and mosques. Unfortunately there are still many signs of the war. The old City Hall that had been converted to the National Library was badly damaged and burned along with all the books and artifacts. There is no money to restore it. Across from the Holiday Inn (the only international hotel in the country) stands a row of military and government buildings that were bombed. The exterior shells of the damaged buildings are covered with pot marks from bullets as are many houses in the city (and country).

On my final evening in Sarajevo I invited my hosts to dinner at a Thai restaurant –the only one in the city. They are vegetarians in a country where the main diet is meat so finding a vegetarian meal is difficult. We enjoyed a great meal and I thanked them for their hospitality. But it was time to move on to Bihac and prepare for the marathon. I caught an early bus to Bihac so that I could meet up with Wolfgang as we planned to meet with Dzipsi and another club member – Branislav Versic – to offer them any advice and assistance we could provide. They said that the city had provided some financial support and they had enough medals, certificates and T-shirts for 100 runners. They had printed up posters and invited runners from neighboring countries and hoped for 50 runners in the half and 20 in the full marathon. And to alleviate traffic problems the marathon now had its own course. We were very excited. They had organized the race very well in less than one month!

On Thu evening Dzipsi and Bran invited us to do a training run with them. When they picked us up at the hotel they asked if we wanted to run in the city or the country? When they said “country” we thought they meant country roads? However we drove outside the city and started running through fields. We were very concerned because we had been advised not to run or stroll in the country because of land mines. But Dzipsi assured us that those fields were ‘safe’. Nevertheless I ran behind our hosts and followed exactly in their footsteps! Later than evening I could feel a bad cold coming on and hoped this race would not be a repeat of Belfast in May when I became very sick the night before the marathon?

On Fri my two mates arrived from the UK and I told them the good news about the marathon as I guided them on a tour of Bihac. It is a small city with 70,000 people located in the northwest near the border with Croatia. The center of the city is compact and the Una River flows through the middle of the city. The river is so clean and clear that you can count pebbles on the bottom. After traveling through Bosnia by bus for two days I had learned that the country is very mountainous and the region around Bihac is probably the flattest area in the country.

Sat was ‘M’ day! We walked over to the start/finish line – on an island located in the Una River opposite the center of the city – early to see if we could offer any help? Dzipsi had the race under control so we talked to the local runners and watched registration. The race was supposed to start at 10:30 am but was delayed by 30 min. because of fog. The weather was cool/chilly and foggy but was expected to warm up into the 50s. Unfortunately I was not feeling well – the cold/cough had gotten worse on Thu night and the cold weather felt really cold! One of the UK runners (Tad) had arrived with the same cold and was having trouble breathing – but of course it was not going to stop us from running! By 11am Dzipsi was ready to start the races – there were 21 runners in the Half and 13 in the marathon. Strangely there were no women entered in either race? I looked over the competition in the marathon – I figured there were two runners that would be hard to beat?

Both races started together at 11am and we ran two short loops around the city center before heading south out of the city. I was running with a small group of half-marathon runners and could see three marathoners in front of me. We were running a sub 5 min/km pace so I decided to let them go and just try to keep them in sight. Around 8 Km the Half and Marathon split and I was running all by myself. I could no longer see the marathon leaders in front of me. Fortunately they assigned a volunteer – a young boy on a bike – to accompany me so that I would not get lost. The course started to get very hilly and then made a small loop across the Una River and past a scenic set of waterfalls before returning to the main road. At this point I met some of the runners coming from the city and Tad told me that the leaders were about 4 minutes ahead. I was still running under 5 min/km and decided to be patient and not try to push the pace any harder. I didn’t know what affect the cold would have on me later although it wasn’t bothering me yet?

I passed 15Km in 1:10 – too fast if the marker was accurate? Soon the course turned left and headed towards a small gravel road that climbed up past an old castle. Dzipsi had warned us that this was a BAH (Bad Ass Hill) – but he forgot to mention there were dozens of other hills along the course? I reached 20Km in 1:34:26. Either the marker was wrong or the course was short? Then the tough climb to the castle began and my guide left me at that point. I was a bit concerned at first but soon realized that there were no turn-offs on this road so I couldn’t get lost? Finally I crested the top of the BAH and was relieved to find a water stop and a nice 2Km downhill section that brought me back to the main road out of the city. I reached that point (23Km) in 1:53:13. I was averaging close to a 5 min/km pace and decided the course was not short as I made a turn to run the same 17Km loop a 2nd time.

At 25 Km I passed one of the lead runners – a young 20-year old who was walking. At 26 Km I passed a 2nd runner and at 27Km I passed a 3rd runner. However he wasn’t the runner I expected and I realized that there had been four runners in front of me! As I approached the intersection for the small loop across the river I met the leader (and eventual winner) finishing the loop. That meant he was about 2/3Km ahead and I knew I couldn’t catch him unless he crashed. Since nobody could catch me I decided that there was no sense in pushing the old bod too hard and eased off my pace. Now that I was running slower I had some time to observe the beautiful scenery around me.

After I finished that loop and had crested a hill on the main road I made a wee mistake. I had not been paying attention on the first loop because I had a guide and I thought the first intersection I came to was the one that turned left to the castle? So I turned left! After running ½ Km and not recognizing any of the scenery I realized that I had turned too early and had to double back to the main road. I figured that mistake had cost me about 4/5 minutes but it I didn’t think it would change my position in the race? Soon I reached the proper intersection and turned left. As I approached the road to the castle and the 20Km marker I was shocked to observe something I had not noticed on the first loop! I guess I had been so focused on my pace and blindly following my guide that I hadn’t noticed on both side of the roads – there were large red signs and areas marked off with bright yellow tape warning of land mines! Some of the areas were less than two feet from the sides of the road! It definitely confirmed my earlier decision – if I needed to make a pit stop or even pass out – it would be in the middle of the road and NOT on the sides of the road! I later confirmed with Dzipsi who works with the military to clear mines that yes indeed those areas along the course were active mine fields that had not been cleared yet. He also informed us that there are more than one million mines and another one million unexploded ordinances that need to be located and cleared from Bosnia!

Soon I was climbing up the road past the castle again – it was much harder on the 2nd loop. I came close to walking but was concerned that I might not break 4 hours so I kept the legs moving. The 2Km downhill section helped my legs to recover and I reached the main road again at 40Km – 3:38:00. I coasted the last 2 Km back into town and crossed the finish line in 3:51:59. I had done it! I had finished my final country in Europe and had become the 1st person in the world to run a marathon in every country in Europe. And as a nice reward/surprise I had finished in 2nd place Overall. The winner – their local champion – had beaten me soundly in 3:32!

As I waited for my friends to finish, many of the local runners came over to talk to me. Even those who couldn’t speak English brought their kids to act as translator. They were all very friendly and inquisitive about the USA. The Athletic Club had awards for the top three winners in each race. Since I had won 2nd place I gave one of our medals and a T-shirt to the 1st and 3rd place winners in the marathon. They were very pleased and excited to receive these awards. We waited for Tad to finish and Dzipsi awarded him a medal and certificate even though he had exceeded the time limit of 5 hours.

That evening we invited Dzipsi and Bran to dinner to celebrate and thank them for all their work. Dzipsi said that they would hold the marathon again next year and it would be bigger and better since they would have a whole year to organize it. We promised to provide any assistance we could and advertise the race on our websites.
So I include a plug/advertisement. If you like small, friendly races with adventure then this is a great race. And if you are running ‘countries’ then this race is a must! Contact me if you want more information.

But it was time to move on again and start the trip home. All four of us foreign runners were returning home via Zagreb so we all took an early morning bus to Zagreb and then parted ways. I tried to phone the relatives of some Sarasota friends who live in Zagreb but they were not home so I decided to catch an afternoon train to Belgrade. Instead of taking a night train that would only provide a short sleep (the banging on the doors) I decided to take an afternoon train and get into Belgrade around midnight. That allowed me to get a good night’s sleep and revisit the city before I caught my flight to London. I had arranged with my UK mate (Tad) to stay at his place in London for a few nights and make up for that pub crawl I had sadly missed after the Faroe Islands trip.

I beat Tad back to his place and had already sampled his beer fridge before he arrived. I insisted that we run an easy 5 miles the next morning but it was so chilly when we got up that we decided a full English breakfast sounded better. After breakfast we were too full
to run so we rested and then decided to go to lunch for fish and chips. After lunch I was so full and tired that I decided that a nap was more appropriate than a 5-mile run to prepare for a pub crawl! Later that evening we joined some more UK mates for a pub crawl near London Bridge. It was a fun evening and a pleasant/memorable way to conclude my trip to Europe.

I am now back home and preparing in one short week to leave on my next adventure – the Everest marathon! Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Trip Report -Bulgaria

Maddog finishing the Sofia Marathon with the help of his support team. Rossen (l) and Elenko (r) holding the tape and Nikolai pacing him to the finish line!

Oct 6 – 9/05

Photos of the trip may be viewed at Album is called 'Bulgaria'.

Planning for this trip began one year ago shortly after the Sofia marathon in Oct 2004. I had wanted to run that marathon but only found out about it after the race was finished.
I managed to find a contact in Sofia (Anton) who was the editor of a Track and Field magazine in Bulgaria. He was not on the race committee but had contact with it. He asked me to send him an email each month to remind him to get information on the next marathon in 2005. I faithfully sent an email every month and finally in the spring I received a reply confirming that the Sofia marathon would be held on Oct 9/05. I was able to confirm this date through a second source and began planning the trip. I needed to run a marathon in Bosnia also and since there was no official marathon in Bosnia I decided to organize a small marathon for the weekend following Sofia so I could run both countries on the same trip.

Since the marathon in Sofia was an official/organized race I had no work to do except show up? Thus I spent most of my time trying to organize a marathon in Bosnia. A friend in the UK promised to run both marathons with me. As I continued to work throughout the summer with a friend from Germany to organize a Bosnia marathon I kept sending emails to Anton requesting more information on Sofia. In late August we received wonderful news – an Athletic Club in Bihac, Bosnia agreed to hold an official marathon on Oct 15/05 (more details on this effort and marathon in the Bosnia Trip Report). Everything had miraculously fallen into place? For two weeks!
Two weeks before I was to leave for Europe I emailed Anton requesting necessary details like “ where do I register and pick up my race packet” – “where and when does the race start”? He replied with the details plus a casual note “the marathon has been postponed from Oct 9 to Oct 16”! I was totally shocked – then angry! Anton had known for a year that foreign runners were coming to Sofia specifically to run the marathon – on Oct 9th! Surely he had passed this information on to the race committee? I am certain that if I had not sent that email we would not have been informed about the change in date until we had arrived in Sofia!

My UK mate was so upset and disgusted that he threw his non-refundable plane tickets in the garbage rather than waste any more time and money on Bulgaria! I was in a bigger dilemma – my tickets included Bulgaria and Bosnia and I had already made custom T-shirts for the Bosnia marathon declaring the finish of my European Tour/Goal! And I wanted to finish Europe on this trip! Like I told Tad – even if we skip Sofia and go next year there is a high probability that we will encounter the same incompetence and problem? So I decided to keep my reservations and run a Maddog ‘solo’ marathon in Sofia. Luckily I was able to scramble at the last minute and locate some marathon runners in Sofia who agreed to help me.

My first contact, Katerina had run the Sofia marathon last year but she was going away on business so she asked another runner Elenko to help me. We communicated a few times and Elenko agreed to help. An emergency plan was in place.

As the plane approached Sofia on Fri afternoon I noted the city reminded me a lot of Reno, NV. The city is in a large bowl/valley surrounded by mountains. Bulgaria has several mountain ranges with the highest mountain - Mussala (2925m) - located south of Sofia. The population of the country is 8 million – 1.1 million live in Sofia. As soon as I checked into my hotel I called Elenko and we agreed to meet for dinner to discuss our plan for the marathon. I also called Anton and he kindly met me at the hotel. He stated that the change in date was not his fault. I did not blame him and asked only that he pass my comments/criticism along to the race committee and that I would advise all international runners to avoid the Sofia marathon until they got their act together!

Although I was very tired from the 22-hour trip and jet lag I figured it would be best to stay up so I decided to explore the city and do some shopping. Sofia has no ‘old town’ or town square like many European cities and the city center is fairly compact so it can be explored on foot. I noticed that there were many upscale/chic shops and restaurants – I wondered who had the money to support these shops? I found the TZUM – the old communist/government store that had been converted to a mall and a small underground shopping area that included several souvenir shops so I was able to collect my souvenirs and postcards on the first day.

Elenko met me at my hotel – a modern 4-star hotel a few blocks off the main street where locals stayed ($42/day, B&B) – and we walked to a nice restaurant for a pasta dinner. Elenko informed me of the plan. The biggest park in the city only had a 5km path and he figured that would get boring to run a marathon so he and his friends decided to drive me up into the mountains. They had found a road between two mountain villages about 20km apart and the road looked flat on a map and would have very little traffic. Three runners would accompany me and run with me in 10km shifts. It sounded great to me.

Elenko and another runner Rossen picked me up on Sat morning at 9am. I was glad they had decided on a late start because the weather was still very cool. We met up with a 3rd runner Nikolai and Rossen’s girlfriend Milena. I had a support team of four and two cars as we drove south out of the city and up into the Vitosha Mtns. The road was actually on Mt. Vitosha (2290m). Rossen and I started the first 10km of the marathon about 10am. The weather was cloudy and cool and there was little traffic. That was the good news. The bad news was that the road was NOT flat – in fact the first 3 miles climbed steadily up the mountain. The next 2 miles were downhill into a village where the locals looked at us very strangely? The cars took turns leap-frogging ahead and providing water every 3km. Then the road climbed again –steeply! Elenko had loaned me a watch/GPS to measure the distance and pace. We had crested a very steep hill at 10 miles and found the road to be closed and guarded by the military so we were forced to turn around. At least the next 10 miles would be downhill! We reached the edge of the village and the Half in 1:55. I was happy with the pace since the course was hilly and I didn’t see any need to push myself. The easy pace also allowed me to talk to my running partners during the marathon. We asked each other many questions about our respective countries/culture etc. I asked Elenko if he knew anyone on the marathon committee. He explained that the organizers were not runners – just a group of people/bureaucrats who managed to get some money/grant from the government to organize the marathon. They were only interested in making money – they did not care how many runners participated or if any foreign runners participated. They did not have a website – they did not advertise nor put up posters and the date is always subject to change? And they are completely incompetent – the marathon was only 38km in 2004! We continued on past our starting point into another village around 22 miles. Only four miles left! The road did become flat but had lots of hills so when we crested a big hill at 24 miles we decided to turn around again and run back downhill to finish the marathon. As I approached the marathon distance I could see the cars in the distance and had to start laughing when I noticed my support team were holding a red ribbon across the road/marathon finish. I broke the ribbon in 3:50:18. Marathon #250 – Country #74 – European country #50 completed! I thanked my support team and new friends for their hospitality and support. It would have been very difficult without their help!

We drove back to the city for a hot shower and I said goodbye to all my new friends. Later that evening I joined Katerina (who had returned from her business trip) and some of her friends for dinner. Since Katerina is the head of a division of ING Bank in Bulgaria I asked her many questions about the economy and standard of living. I got an answer to my question/curiosity about the chic shops. About 5% of the population is super rich and 95% is poor. The super rich have enough money to keep the shops in business because the poor can’t afford to shop there! The average salary in Bulgaria is about 200 Euros/month.

On Sun Elenko met me at an Internet cafĂ© to show me how to set up my own web page on a Blogger site. I now post all my trip reports to this web page After saying goodbye and many thanks to Elenko for all his help I decided to play tourist and visit the sites in Sofia until it was time to catch my night train to Belgrade. There are many old churches – some dating back to the 6th century – Roman ruins - and interesting buildings built in the 18th century. But soon it was time for dinner and a taxi to the railway station. I had reserved a sleeper cabin on the night train to Belgrade. After settling into my cabin and ordering a few beers from the conductor for a nightcap it was time to sleep – until the expected banging on the door started! Since I have traveled many times across Europe on trains I am familiar with the procedure. First the train stops on the Bulgarian side of the border – then there is a loud banging on your cabin door from the passport control officer who wants to check and stamp your passport. Just as you start to drift off again there is another loud banging – this time it is the customs officer to check your luggage. After 30 minutes the train moves across the border into Serbia and the process starts all over again. You lose more than one hour of precious sleep. Soon however I was sound asleep again and the next banging was from the conductor telling me that we were 20 minutes from Belgrade.

I planned to travel straight on to Sarajevo from Belgrade. A contact/friend in Sarajevo had advised me to take a bus because the railway system in Bosnia is very slow. So I walked next door to the bus station and asked when the next bus left for Sarajevo? In one hour! I bought a ticket and exchanged some money to buy breakfast – a ham sandwich! I could never get used to eating/enjoying a ham sandwich for breakfast at 7am! At 8am I was on my way to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and my next adventure.

Stay tuned!

But before I conclude this trip report I must update and advise all runners about the Sofia marathon. My friend Elenko ran the half marathon on Oct 16/05 and sent me a report on the race. A friend of my UK mate – Witold, a 60 year-old marathoner from Poland had traveled for 3 days by train from Poland to run the marathon. He was refused entry into the race (even though he had a letter of approval from his doctor) because he didn’t pass their mandatory medical exam. He took the EKG results back to his doctor who said that the equipment used was so obsolete that the results were meaningless. Witold did what I would have done – he ran the marathon as a bandit (without a race number) but now he is fighting with the race organization to be included in the race results.
Elenko also reported that the half was 17km and the marathon 38km in distance? Since he is a journalist he wrote a scathing report of criticism in a local paper and asked for an investigation into the race committee.

Thus I must issue a WARNING- DO NOT RUN THE SOFIA MARATHON – until they get their act together!