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 www.maddog.smugmug.com. 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 café 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 http://www.maddogwallace.blogspot.com/. 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.
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!