Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bratislava Half Marathon - Race Report

I always believe the best way to see a city is to run in it's half marathon or marathon. You run through the most scenic areas of town, pass all the major monuments and cover a fair amount of ground in a short amount of time (for some of us). With this in mind, I signed up for the Bratislava half marathon. Sightseeing and completing a training run with a large running group - excellent!

The registration was at the Primacialny Palace (how else), and was extremely well staffed and organised. I was handed a shoe box, but much to my disappointment, no brand-new shoes inside, just my race bib and souvenir t-shirt. Afterwards I took a quick tour of the start located at Hviezdoslavovo Square and right in front of the National Theater. It was everything you would expect of a city like Bratislava - stately buildings facing onto an impressive square, all under the gaze of a large castle. The organizers, Be Cool Ltd. could be seen rushing around and erecting final barricades and blowing up the large balloon arc through which we would be running tomorrow.

On the day of the race, I arrived early into the city centre after over-calculating my travel time (public transport in Bratislava is just too efficient). At one of the only cafes open, I found good espresso coffee and almost all tables occupied by lean, short-shorts clad runners. Outside, the amount of runners passing steadily increased, each marked by the drink bottle in one hand, some sucking on a gel, others finishing a banana. At the square the first competitors were lining up - the in-line skaters for the inline race:

The view back to the start:

Then it was time for the marathon and half marathon runners to line up. At the front, the Elite runners can be seen:

Edwin Kebowen (Kenya) shaking hands with Glyva Evgenii (Ukraine). Kebowen would go on to win the Marathon in an easy 2:27:39, barely breaking a sweat in the final kilometre:

Runners waiting for the start shown on one of the large screens in the square:

Runners coming through the old town, having just passed through Michael's Gate:

(I can be seen behind the yellow-shirted runner):

At the finish line, very happy with my run:

Overall, the run took me through the many areas of Bratislava - from the old town to the foreshore of the Danube, over the New Bridge and through the biggest residential suburb, Petrzalka (here I encountered 8km of monotonous road running). The camaraderie was great amongst runners, and I ended up unofficially running with one Slovakian "Mr Red Shorts." Although we did not talk once, he stuck with me the whole time, increasing his pace whenever I would. Our brief relationship ended with a firm handshake at the finish line! So, with medal around my neck and a "recovery beer" in hand, my tour of Bratislava ended!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Dudinska Patdesiatka - Race Report

During my stay in Dudince (South Slovakia) I had the pleasure of spectating a Racewalking event! Imagine athletes as lean as a grey hound, hips shaking from left to right at a furious pace, endurance to last for 50km with a cadence rate comparable to a 400m Olympian, and all this while maintaining contact with the ground with one foot at all times. Incredible!

In Dudince, competitive walking has a long history. The 50km event has been held since 1982, and in previous years has been well attended by athletes Europe-wide. The whole town participates in supporting the event - the local marching band provides the entertainment, locals run stalls selling Turkish Honey (nougat) and Medovina (wine made from honey), teenagers pass out wet sponges to the walkers as they lap around the town.

Below is the local marching band:

Some of the junior women:

The men competing in the 50km:

A volunteer handing out wet sponges:

Approaching the finish:

The finish line:

This video demonstrates effectively the pace that these athletes must achieve in order to be competitive. Never again will you scoff that walking is not a sport!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A week and a half of cycling

The whole idea of travelling to Slovakia for 9 days of running and cycling was based on the idea that Slovakia was warmer! An extra 10 degrees meant no snow, the opportunity to cycle and run in shorts, and of course, the chance for me to participate in the Bratislava Half Marathon on the 28th March.

A day around Bojnice

We stayed in the Maringotka of family friends. This is like a train cabin parked in the middle of nowhere and fitted out to be like a summer cabin. The weather was an incredible 16 degrees C, clear sky, no snow! We spent the day cycling an easy 57km through the industrial countryside of Slovakia, the highlight of which was the Castle at Bojnice (No postcards available at the castle as the ladies were about to have a 10 minute tea break).

The Maringotka:

My bike, Juliet, ready for her first ride in Europe:

The cycling party, enjoying a taste of summer:

Countryside Slovakia:

Beautiful views and industry:

The castle at Bojnice:

Sunset as we drive by car to our next destination, Dudince, a spa town close to the border with Hungary:

Known as a "spa town," Dudince is a collection of dated hotels that are situated around natural mineral springs, most of which have a suspicious sulphur smell (much like an old chemistry classroom). We stayed in Hotel Jantar, which was the town's saving grace, as it had a 25m pool, free Wifi, and extremely friendly staff who were willing to go above and beyond to accommodate us and our bikes! We spent 3 days in the region cycling and enjoying the relatively flat landscape. The weather was mostly overcast, casting a further drab shadow across the towns close to the border with Hungary.

The view from our hotel balcony:

On one ride I crossed the border into the Hungarian countryside:

Before leaving the town we were treated to a rare sight: the Dudince Padesatka, a 50km walking race attracting athletes from all over Europe (See separate blog posting).


We were in Bratislava for 1 night and 1 day, partly to grab a quick glance of the Slovakian capital, and partly so I could run the Bratislava Half Marathon (see separate blog posting). As much of the accomodation in the centre was already booked by more organised runners, one of my Czech companions found room for us in an "Ubytovna" - a blend between hotel and apartment, offering both one night and long term accommodation. It is often where out-of-town laborers will stay when coming into the city for work.

We had high hopes after our pleasant experience at Hotel Jantar, but soon, the location (on the fringes of the city) and the high frequency of factories, gypsies and prostitutes in the neighbourhood we realised we should probably lower our expectations.

Ubytovna STOP:

"Super Price!!!":

Notice the bikes are all locked together in our room:

Bratislava as a city has a beautiful old town centre built around a castle, with many old squares, palaces and familiar looking cobbled alleys and winding streets. Nevertheless, if you look close enough, there are signs of decay and poverty everywhere, even a block away from the castle.

Next to the white building (an EU embassy) is a dilapidated, abandoned building:

Once the half marathon had been run, a post-race beer had been drunk, we were very happy to pack our bags and bikes and to leave!

Mikulov is an absolutely charming little town located in South Moravia, the Czech's wine region. It had perfect conditions for cycling: flat terrain, beautiful sunny spring weather, and an abundance of little wineries, vineyards and castle-repleted towns to make the kilometres exciting.

The view from the castle over the town and to Svaty Kopecek, a small church built on a hillside overlooking Mikulov:

Mikulov Castle:

The old town square:

Our accomodation in Mikulov, Pension Anna:

Mikoluv is only 10km from the border with Austria, so on one ride I cycled across the border, riding from one little town to another. I only ever had to ride through the vine-covered countryside for about 5km before coming to the next little village:

Looking back to Poysbrunn:

Checking a roadside map before the town of Hernbaumgarten:

Looking down into the town of Valtice, after crossing the border back into the Czech Republic:

At Valtice Castle:

After 3 beautiful days enjoying the surroundings of Mikulov, we packed our bikes, our bottles of wine, and headed home!