Running in Central Asia

And you may find yourself in another part of the world

And you may find yourself on a more sedentary package tour than you’re used to.  And you may find yourself trying to cram in training for a major race.  And you may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?

At least, that’s where I found myself when I decided to tack the Istanbul Marathon at the end of a tour of central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.  Well, all I can say is it seemed like a good idea until the hour drew nearer and I started comparing the tour’s tight itinerary against the last weeks of my coach’s training plan – uh oh!

Here are some tips that worked for me.  Tell your co-trippers what you’re up to.  They’ll help keep you on track by asking you every morning at breakfast whether you ran that day.  This led to the following exchange one particular day that we all had to be up and on the bus by stupid o’clock – She: “Did you run this morning?”  Me: “Get real.”  She: “Hey everyone, Nancy’s human!”  Keep your eyes open as you’re riding to your hotel for good running routes.  You can plan ahead using Google Earth, and ask your tour guide for suggestions (like nearby parks), but your own boots-on-the-ground reconnaissance is the best resort – and stay flexible!  Don’t worry about motivation; after sitting on a bus all day I was itching to get outside for a run.  Are you ready?  Dust off your high-school Russian and let’s go running in Central Asia!

First, accept the fact that you are a weirdo, and you will be stared at.  People in these countries just do not run, except when they’re in a hurry to get somewhere.  I encountered at most a handful of joggers out on my early morning runs – that’s total, not daily.   Reactions ranged from amused greetings from old men in traditional garb, to incredulous stares from businesswomen in tailored suits, to giggling girls in school outfits, to sheer goggle-eyed wonder from little kids.  I’m not sure what impression this strange and fleeting apparition might have on their future life – inspirational or traumatic?  The only bad experience I had was some guy yelling at me from the back seat of a car in Almaty, and I reacted by adjusting my route to avoid any further encounters.

A legacy of the Soviet era, the major cities almost all have wide, tree-lined boulevards and a central park.  In some areas the pavement is the worse for wear, due to spotty maintenance and decades of freeze-thaw cycles.  You might need to watch your step more than you do at home, depending where you live!  In the evenings both are crowded with young couples and families, and during the day the car exhaust fumes can be a bit much, so the best time of day to run is usually early morning – some sites, like Lake Issyk-Kul or the ancient walls of Khiva are absolutely spectacular at dawn!

As for nutritional support, well, see the above about running not being a major pastime.  You won’t find GU or Gatorade in the stores, so bring your own of whatever you need.  For some local flavor, good snacks you can get at the farmers’ markets include halvah, nougat, and roasted apricot pits.  For gear, I packed three different weights knowing the weather would be variable in the fall, and used all three.

Finally, a note on personal safety.  The day before my flight left, I left the house at 4 AM for my long run, only to have to change my route because the police had blockaded a stretch of the canal to catch some fugitive.  Bad stuff can happen in your back yard, and not just in places named “Stan”.  By all means do your research and use common sense when running abroad – but don’t let fear of the unknown keep you away from having a unique and wonderful running experience!

The following list is for anyone who may have stumbled across this page looking for info about specific cities in central Asia.  These link to my Garmin traces and brief notes.

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