Istanbul Eurasia Marathon – 10/16/11

Istanbul, Turkey

People just liked it better that way

My first run in a foreign country – Turkey – one where running as casual recreation reputedly hasn’t caught on yet.  I can’t vouch for that myself, since the weather during my trip would discourage all but the most dedicated runners! There’s a Marathon, 15K, 8K, and a fun run/walk that’s by far the most popular segment as it’s one of the few times the bridge over the Bosphorus is open for traffic.

Friday:

My flight gets in late Thursday evening. In Capadocia the weather was changeable; in Istanbul it’s been unseasonably cold and raining all week.   Friday morning I wake before dawn to the sound of rain, torn between wanting to be out in it and lying in bed listening to it. Running wins out and I do an easy, and wet, five miles down the Golden Horn and across the Galata Brige where a few hardy, raincoat-clad souls are fishing. A couple smilingly imitate my running stride. I linger over breakfast at the hotel before finally venturing out to the Expo at the Congres Center, two tram rides and a short walk away.

The Expo wasn’t too different from the ones I’ve been to in the US, other than a noticeable lack of sports drink/food vendors, and the speakers are speaking in Turkish.  Istanbul is promoting being the “2012 European Capital of Sports.” The race packet includes a glossy program booklet in both Turkish and English, and a very nice facbric gear bag color coded to the race (Marathon, 10K or 8K). There’s free pasta on offer – bowtie pasta with a little tomato sauce – more a snack than a meal, so on the walk back I stop at a Starbucks and linger over a borek and hot chocolate. (This will be a theme for the weekend.)

Saturday:

Another early morning short run – this one a little later, and I see a few other runners out.  A couple local boys huddled by a fire near the seawall give me a thumbs up.

Between the nasty weather and the accumulated exhaustion of four weeks’ touring through central Asia, I just want to sit at a sidewalk café drinking coffee and feeding scraps to the local cats, but I gather enough energy to do the self-guided audio tours of the Hagia Sofia and Topkapi Palace.  I lay out my togs for the next day, then hit the restaurant across the street for a dinner of tortellini and extremely chocolatey hot chocolate. While there I strike up a conversation with a former-European-turned-Aussie who helpfully informs me that “You are slow,” when I tell him what my target time is. Thanks a bundle.

Pre-race:

My last pop tart was apparently thrown out by housekeeping in Ashgabad, so breakfast is some pita bread glommed from the restaurant last night – my stomach doesn’t feel up to more anyway.  Knots of athletes mill around in the dark “between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia” until the buses materialize to take us to the start on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. There are no corrals other than those separating us from the 15K and 8K segments, but none really needed as there are fewer than 1000 people for the marathon distance. Down at the starting arch the DJ is welcoming everyone with “good morning” in as many languages as he can think of; news crews mingle with the racers and circle in choppers overhead – everybody wave!

The rain has momentarily stopped but there’s a misty cloud looming over the city across the Straight and a chill breeze. I’ve changed plans on what to wear a dozen times and continue to dither on what to wear vs what goes in the gear bag up until the last moment. My final outfit: Capris, rainbow calf warmers, purple long-sleeve tech shirt, fleece vest, garbage bag “raincoat”, pink neck gaiter, and baseball cap. This is what I’ve been preparing for all summer, I remind myself, and wooo! along with everyone else – here we go!

Race:

At one time in history, crossing between the European and Asian shores would be a diplomatic incident at least, an act of war at worst.  Today, the police line the bridge only to ensure that no-one jumps – it’s a popular suicide spot, but fortunately none happen today. There are a lot of pedestrians mixing with the runners, among them photographers and umbrella salesmen – the latter, along with some sidewalk water sellers, likely catering to the later fun run/walk. Look down: you can see the stormy Bosphorus below through the gaps.

Once over the bridge, a sign announces “Welcome to Europe”!  A surprising number of runners race for the bushes – honestly, there were plenty of portaloos at the start! A little bit of a hill, then we’re off the highway and into the city, running through streets draped with blue and red pennants, modern office buildings and monuments from Ottoman and Byzantine times. It’s raining off and on, but it’s just so great to be outside and running. Next we’re over the Galata Bridge, where people are still fishing in the rain. Most of the spectators along the way are people going about their daily business, snapping photos with an attitude of oh-look-a-race. Some kids break away from their parents to run alongside. One guy even photographs my rainbow sox!

The 8K peels off, then the 15K, and then the race starts to get lonely.  There are fewer than 1,000 runners in the Marathon, and the back of the pack is quite strung out. About Mile 7 I discover to my amazement and dismay that someone was insane enough to design an Asian-style squat privy into a portaloo. But that’s OK, because the aid station has apple slices and sugar cubes! Eaten together, these taste a lot better than GU, though the apples make me belch. Water is also available in small bottles. Here my fleece vest’s pockets come in handy as I can stash my camera temporarily while picking up refreshments. Around kilometer 8 there’s another uphill section as the road climbs to the Valens Aqueduct. My Garmin shows that I put on a hilarious burst of speed just before cresting the summit.

Now it’s downhill to the Marmara Sea, and I’ve finished half the marathon – that wasn’t so hard!  I’ve actually been making a conscious effort, now that I have the Garmin, to keep my pace to something reasonable. Though I can’t keep it down to my goal pace of 12:01 (at least during the first half) I’m averaging between 11:00 and 12:00 and at the halfway point I’m just under 2:30! Can I keep it up and turn in a finish under 5 hours? Probably not, but the thought keeps me pushing.

The next ten or so miles are an out and back running alongside the Marmara Sea, a massive sheltered bay where a truly astonishing amount of container ships anchor.  On the return path on the other side of the street I can see that the aid stations do have some sports drinks in addition to water, but only enough for the frontrunners. This section is particularly tiring because there’s not a lot to look at, just a highway like any in the US with billboards, gas stations, even a McDonald’s. I remind myself to take a photo of something interesting at least once a mile, when my Garmin jingles; it gives me something other than my feet to concentrate on.

Then Mile 19-ish we’re at the final turnaround!  Wave at the friendly Japanese tourists taking your photo and head on the home stretch! Between Miles 21 & 22 something amazing happens – it’s time for midday prayer and the voices of the muezzins call out from what sounds like a dozen mosques, mingling and echoing between the hills and off the bay in a cacophony worthy of Charles Ives. Where else in the world could I experience something like this? …and then I hit the wall.

So now my internal dialog goes something like this: “I have five miles left!  I can do five miles! That’s the distance from my house to the Country Club gate and back! Five miles is nothing!” Repeat for each mile. Finally I’m running alongside the old city wall, past the lighthouse and augh what sadist put a hill at the end? Ah, a nice tree-lined run through the park behind Topkapi Palace, then another long uphill to the finish at the Hippodrome – I unzip my vest and adjust my garbage bag so my number will show, and make sure that I’m running when I cross the line.

Official time:  5:10:25 – nearly 5 minutes faster than my target time, and 20 minutes faster than my Dutchman time! Booyah!

Post-race:

This late in the race there are still people in the viewing stands applauding; I suspect they’re tourists who wandered in, and any VIPs who watched the elite athletes crossed the finish are long gone.  (Ethiopians & Kenyans dominated, but there were also a bunch of Turks in the top ten, both male and female.) At one of the tents a volunteer instantly prints out a certificate for me with my finish time. I’m soaked! I discard my torn garbage bag and pull on the “emergency raincoat” provided in my finishers bag along with medal, T-shirt, banana and chocolate bar. Thankfully my hotel is a five-minute walk away, so I stumble back to my room for a hot shower and lie down, and a big dinner that evening.

Unfortunately…  I picked up a stomach bug earlier in my trip that I thought was gone, but five hours running in the rain apparently kicked it back into high gear.After upchucking during the night, and again classily at the check-in counter Monday morning, I’m whisked off by the British Airlines agent to the airport clinic, where I get a quick patch-up treatment and a “fit to fly” certificate. So much for my plans to hit the Gordon Ramsey restaurant in Heathrow! The only upside to this debacle is that I’m classified a wheelchair passenger for the trip home and thus avoid a lot of walking and standing in lines, for which my poor leg and back muscles are grateful.

Post-mortem:

Overall this was a well-organized event with a few bobbles here and there.  Running through the historic parts of Istanbul was a real thrill, and I’m sure if the weather had been fine the second half along the Marmara shoreline would have been more enjoyable. The language barrier wasn’t a big deal since most people spoke at least a little English, but I found I wasn’t really pacing anyone due to the spread-out nature of the pack and so didn’t have much casual conversation with the other runners. A lot of the foreign (non-Turkish, that is) runners seemed to have come in groups rather than individuals, which I think I’d like to try next time I do something like this.

This marathon came at the end of a long and rather grueling trip through central Asia that had a big impact on how much I was able to train over my taper.  I knew it was kind of dumb and wouldn’t try that trick again, but the timing was just too good to pass up. I’m proud of that 20 minute improvement on my PR! My coach received a nice box of Turkish delight in thanks.

Next post will be a little writeup on my experience trying to keep up my training runs across the “Five ‘Stans”: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan – stay tuned!

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