Thursday, 20 October 2011

Race report: Constantinople

You know those hot beach holiday memories of Turkey you have? Put them aside. Think cold, grey, wet, cloudy, threat of hail and thunderstorm and you got the race conditions for the 33rd Istanbul Marathon (and 8 and 15km) perfectly pictured. Sadly I was running the 15km, having enter
ed as a marathoner, the pompholyx suffered in May and June had impaired my fitness and gait so much that even 15 was going to be a challenge.

But I wasn't thinking that last Sunday as I emerged from my Sultanahmet Pension, clad in cut-up pantihose and plastic raincoat. I was thankful that the wind had dropped, th
e rain had ceased for a moment and I was just picking my way through puddles and kittens heading towards other plastic clad runners emerging from the old city backstreets and forming queues outside the historic Aya Sofia, waiting for transport to the Asian start. The stray dogs barked to sunrise and the queue moved quickly; we were off on a fantastic 30 minute ride past sights yet unseen and dropped off 300m from the edge of the Bosphorous Bridge on the Asian side of Istanbul.

Highway barriers were perilously leapt over, portaloos were swiftly queued for, and the mass of humanity jogged
up and down the approach ramp as the organisers struggled to inflate the start arch. An enterprising type touted woolly hats and scarves. An hour we huddled, shuffled and bounced for warmth before balloons and a bang signalled the pro start and Turkish pop signalled the mass start: we were off, our timing cheeps a constant screech over the start line.

It was a slow start; lots of happy snappers on the suspension bridge and dodging slow runners (mostly overweight men with more ambition than fitness). It was glorious to be running over such a high bridge (210ft) and at 1.5km long, it was a good enough place for a warm up. As the bridge road led into highway offshoots, the rain came back to stay and running under over passes, I noticed that the spect
ators looked pretty glum. Pallets of drinking water appeared pretty early by the road side but the gypsies standing nearby looked like they were capitalists and not volunteers supplying refreshments. The SRO and I had each other in sights, running together despite running apart.

As we returned to shoreside it became clear we were running the exact route we had been driven, past the old university, Istanbul Modern Art Gallery, stunning mosques and decorative Islamic ablution blocks . I found everything fascinating and before long we were at the finish line for the 8km runners. The 8km finishers lined the road in matching green tshirts and finally there was some proper cheering as they sent us off for more.

The route took in one of my favourite spots in the whole world: Galata Bridge, so I was in my element as we approached, I knew I was over half way, I felt awesome and Kanye West was on the ipod! Fisherman lined the bridge, some took out mobile phones to film and I got my big friendly wave out to go with my ecstatic smile. Ahead of us, minarets soared from the Suleymaniye Mosque and the 16th Centu
ry "new" mosque and I was grinning like a fool; I didn't even notice I was running I was so happy.

After the bridge the route splits from 15km to Marathon. Even though I felt awesome there was no way I could do the marathon without impacting my now very tight London Ultra training schedule. So I crossed my arms in front of my bib (marked "marathon") so the marshals could be clear I had decided to do 15km. The first marshal was ok with that decision but numbers 2 and 3 on the turn off point were adamant I should be flagged into the marathon route. I cried out "on beş, on beş" (15! 15!) so frantically that the Turks running nearby had a good old laugh - at least I'd made my point.

The route then snaked along the waterfront alongside the railway line and I recognised it from a walk the SRO and I had done the other day and knew it was close to the hotel. I knew it was also on an incline so I kept my focus as we headed into Gulhane Park. In the park, I picked someone who looked pretty pro (he still had a run jacket on so I figured hadn't worked up a sweat) and stuck on his heels as much as I could given the crowds on the route. I snuck a glance at my watch and realised I was on 1:26 - set for a personal best. It was then that I decided I really wanted to finish before 1hour and thirty minutes. I didn't think this would be a problem until I exited the park to find that the route now became a little cobbled, narrow (we only had access to one side of the road) and featuring strange triangular speed obstacles to stop cars speeding down the hill. It was the last thing that was a problem as we were running up hill and while the 500m warning sign looked reassuring, it was at the bottom of this bitch of a hill. I hammered it up the hill as best I could, weaving through folk who had decided it was better to suddenly walk. My asthma - which had kicked in all weekend - now ramped it up a notch so I had to grab my inhaler and pump it up the hill, around the corner and into the Hippodrome in front of the Blue Mosque as I pushed myself into a sprint finish. More ventolin was pumped as I watched the clock tick over, and I flew over the line for a 1:29.

To say I was pretty bloody pleased was an understatement. It was the best run all year and fastest ever. Given that I walked with a limp in June this was phenomenal and even though it was gutting not to be running a marathon I had overcome a lot of stuff to get this far.

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