EU Marathons Encore: Nicosia, Cyprus
20th of February, 2020
From October 2011 to October 2018 I followed a project called “Teesche’s EU Marathons”. The specifics of the challenge consisted of running an official marathon race in all of the then 28 EU member states’ capital cities. This was almost possible – almost. The only capital city which didn’t hold a marathon race at the time was Nicosia, capital of the country of Cyprus.
Instead I went for the next best thing, a southern coast marathon in the vicinity of Paphos, another Cyprus town. That race went rather well, as you can read about in my blog post about it in March of 2016. I considered this to fulfill my own rules of this challenge which I made up, but on the other hand I vowed to come back if at any point in the future Nicosia would again hold a marathon race.
After an 8 year break, a new team got together to make this happen. Before, the capital city of Nicosia has held a marathon race three times between 2010 and 2012, but had to stop the efforts, apparently due to backlash from the citizens who couldn’t deal with the streets being closed off for a single Sunday morning once per year. At least that’s what the rumors said. But now, things have changed. My friend Jürgen was the person who notified me of this brand new race. Needless to say, I had to stand by the promise I made to myself and signed up almost immediately. A whopping 50 Euros poorer, I was looking forward to another trip to the southeastern-most country of my beloved EU.
I would be going alone, without my girls, because we found out in Brussels 2018 that these short weekend trips mean too much exhaustion for the six of us by now. So I would have a relaxing weekend for myself, which also can be nice. Especially after the last six weeks which were really draining on me. I rented and renovated a new office space, moved into it, hired two new employees and tried growing the company by making a conscious effort to work more efficiently, but also, just more. To get enough running into my body, I moved a bunch of training runs up to 5:30 AM, so I could be done by the time my kids wake up and still have enough time to work later during the day. Although this seemed to work out at first, the additional lack of sleep made these runs ineffective, or so I felt. Will this be enough for a decent marathon race? We’ll see!
The Journey to Nicosia
First, I needed to get to the city. Cyprus is an unusual place – an island in the Mediterranean Sea, but also a country and member of the EU, and at the same time two countries, one a member, the other one not. The history is that around 50 years ago, both Greece and Turkey decided to annex the island by military force. Both succeeded and failed at the same time, resulting in a divided place. The southern part is Greek influenced independent Cyprus, the northern part is named The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, but the only country which is recognizing this northern part is Turkey itself. The rest of the world thinks of the Greek part as “real Cyprus”, apparently. Or maybe it’s just indifferent to this power struggle.
The border runs directly through the central capital of Nicosia. There is a UN protected stripe of safety between both countries and you need to go through a passport control twice to cross the border. It’s a bit like Berlin during the years of German separation, just without the shooting of innocent people – or so I hope.
I did know about this vaguely but didn’t think of it as much of a problem to a tourist like me. Big mistake! I went ahead and booked the cheapest flights to an airport close to Nicosia, which turned out to be Ercan Airport (ECN) on the Turkish side, a mere 15 kilometers away from the city center. Turkish Airlines got me there via Istanbul, which was a pleasant enough connection.
Tired and with a hurting body I stepped out of the plane into this strange country named T.R.N.C.. Or non-country. Not so sure. Next step: getting to the city. And this was a horrible experience against which no internet research helped beforehand.
Fail After Fail
First, I got on a cheap bus. “To Lefkoşa?” I asked the driver. That’s the Turkish name for the city of Nicosia, definitely sure of that. He nodded. So I got on the bus and found myself in the city of Girne an hour later. A pretty coastal town in the north – not at all where I wanted to go, though. Neither Nicosia, nor Lefkoşa.
A nice lady at a hotel next to the bus stop tried helping me. Weirdly she was behaving like the Greek part of Nicosia was just not existing – this wouldn’t be the first occurrence of that behavior I experienced. She said, the best option would be a taxi to the border, and then another taxi to the place I needed to go. But these drivers only accept cash. Time to search for an ATM to get some Turkish Lira I would have no other use for than this.
The driver then took me back south and after 20 minutes and 120 Turkish Lira (~20 Euros) I had to get into his buddy’s car. That guy also had no idea about the Greek part of Nicosia, which led to me having to navigate him, the taxi driver, using my own mobile phone and Google Maps. While he was smoking cigarettes in the car right next to me. Great. We crossed the border, I got two stamps into my passport, and we reached the place after another 260 Lira (~40 Euros). This sucked!
Anyways, I made it in time for the bib number pickup with half an hour to spare in the evening. This journey took me around twelve hours total, of which four were unnecessary. What a giant waste of time and wrecked nerves, I thought. Why am I even doing this? The pickup of the number was really nice though. English speaking volunteer with a smile, done after two minutes.
What remained was the distance between this race center and my hotel. Four kilometers. Because by now I had lost my trust in buses and taxis completely, I decided to walk with my ten kilogram backpack. Forty-five minutes later I arrived, rather sweaty and exhausted. But, I arrived. And the hotel was still administered by the owner and I got into the room where I collapsed for a few minutes. What a day!
When I asked for an early breakfast tomorrow on race day, the hotel’s owner just laughed in my face. It would have to be at 5:30 AM as the race starts at 7. Okay, fair enough. Grocery store it is. Followed by two foot long Halloumi Subway sandwiches – I really like how Subway takes local specialties and makes them part of their options in other countries. Sixty centimeters of sandwich got me a long way and would qualify as sufficient carbo-loading, I hoped.
An early night’s sleep in a surprisingly comfortable bed with no loud kids around for a change did the rest to make me fit and fresh again. While missing Sophie and the kids. Alarm clock at 5 AM.
February 16th, Race Day
Getting dressed, three bread-rolls with honey, a liter of juice, ready to go marathoning. Since yesterday, the situation of getting around in Nicosia hadn’t changed, which is why I decided to walk the four kilometers to the start for the second time. It’s still half dark outside at 5:30, the streets are empty. Still half asleep, I take two wrong turns but make it.
A Surprisingly Familiar Face
At 6:30 I’m at the venue, which still seems to be under construction. People have different priorities here.
Slowly it’s filling up. Strolling around inside the Municipality Building, I suddenly hear someone excitedly say my name: “Tim Teege!” – it’s Michael from Cologne, a running buddy whom I have met several times by now (Sofia, Bucharest). He is also on a quest to do European capital marathons, currently at 24 plus 4 non-capitals. Such a coincidence! Big hug and smiles, as we now have it easy chatting away the remaining minutes until the start. He has come alone as well but chose a better airport, Larnaca, on the Greek side of the island. No border struggles for him, the smart dude.
Race 29 of 28
Not really noticing what’s going on around us, the gun and clock go off and the marathon starts a few minutes after 7 AM, almost as planned. It consists of two identical laps on major streets of the city, 100 percent asphalt, promising to be a rather boring course. Michael and I keep together and talk through the first dozen kilometers. The sun shows up and it gets a bit warmer, somewhere around 5-10 degrees, crossing the 10 now. We’re wondering where the aid stations are. So far there has been nothing. We’re naturally doing the same pace of around 5:20 to 5:30 minutes per kilometer, aiming for an easy sub four hour finish if all goes well. I don’t feel too good at these first 10 kilometers, but that sometimes happens as the body still has to adjust to the activity. But not today. At 12, I need a short bathroom break, losing Michael. At 14, I even have to do another, longer bathroom break, after a few minutes of stomach pain. Was it the Halloumi sandwiches? The (possibly artificial) juice? Some bacteria picked up during the travel? It doesn’t matter, I can’t change it now. With Michael gone I decide to play it safe today and keep a steady heart-rate instead of a steady pace. This means slowing down a bit. Fortunately, the stomach pain ends and I don’t need another break.
Also, there are aid stations now, providing fresh Cypriot oranges as well as 500 ml plastic bottles of water, blue Powerade, and orange Powerade. The waste! I have complained about this many times before and will sound repetitive now, but on every occasion it makes me angry and sad again. So much plastic and valuable resources go to waste when you provide drinks during a marathon using this method. Most people just grab a bottle, have a few sips, realize it’s difficult and annoying to drink out of while running, and throw the 80 percent full bottle into the nature next to the street, polluting the environment some more, even. Cyprus is quite a dirty place with lots of plastic waste lying around anyways. Littering seems to be socially acceptable, as I’ve witnessed several times outside of the race already. Why doesn’t anyone care? I guess I’m part of the problem here by having signed up for the race and therefore helping to create the demand. But there are better ways. Pressure needs to be created, I’ll write to the staff.
If Everyone Keeps Thinking Just about Themselves, Everyone Will Be Thought Of
At the major crossings we can see lots of cars waiting for us to pass. Some drivers got out of their cars to argue with the police blocking the roads for us runners. They don’t like being held up and have no understanding for this event. This is why there has been an eight year break between the last and today’s Nicosia marathon, so I’ve heard: The staff couldn’t get the people’s and the government’s agreement to close off the roads. Ridiculous, if you look at all the world’s major city marathons – NYC, Berlin, Paris, being able to block their roads for a lot longer and at many more annual events.
The run has gotten rather lonely by now. I think the marathoner’s field is probably around 50 people strong. There are a few turning points, which make it possible to see a few runners, though. Michael and I greet each other a few more times. I look at the watch and realize he’s having a good time and increases the gap between us. I’m happy for him.
I am losing pace again, now approaching a 6:00 minute average per kilometer during the last 10 kilometers. It’s becoming clear to me that this won’t even lead to a sub four hour finish today. Possibly my worst result in years.
Why is This Happening?
You get a long time to think about this when a race doesn’t go as planned on an otherwise great day like today. The reasons, or rather excuses, I have come up with, include the following:
- Ineffective training sessions at 5:30 AM in the morning during the last 6 weeks
- Very few long runs of 15 km or more, recently
- No good regeneration due to lack of sleep and stressful days
- Possibly bad food leading to the digestive problems early on in the race
- Stressful journey of yesterday with a lot of exhausting failures
- Long walks yesterday and today might have already taken away a bunch of my energy
- Preoccupied mind because of the company expansion and office renovation
- But also, easier to solve: I think my choice of running shoes for today wasn’t the best. My Asics Roadhawk FF have more than 2,000 kilometers in them, don’t feel great anymore and might just be worn out
So there’s a list I can dig up next time. Although most of the problems here happened on accident and I had little power on changing them. Getting new shoes, switching from early morning runs towards early morning work and late morning runs, and trying new power-napping schedules maybe. But most of all, I’ll try to avoid such long journeys to marathon races in the future. I’m definitely sure of that now.
Just six weeks ago, I almost effortlessly did the Wesel marathon in western Germany in just 3:28 hours. And now I’m struggling with four hours. During better weather conditions, actually. That’s a sign to take seriously.
A Preoccupied Mind
One of the best things about long runs for me personally is the time it gives me to be away from everything. Usually, all other problems, circumstances, and challenges of daily life are far away during a race. But for some reason, today that wasn’t true. All the while I caught myself thinking about work. How to solve situation X, how to deal with client Y, what to decide together with employee Z. Can’t I enjoy marathons anymore because of my current larger focus on work? Is the one holy thing gone? This would be very sad for me.
There are a few times during which the sun comes out and shines on my face, a little downhill part starts and I feel great again. But those times are rare. Every time I pass by a deserted office building, of which there are a lot in Nicosia, I am reminded of the worries at my own company. With a greater team comes more responsibilities and I don’t want to disappoint anyone who chose me as a partner, boss, or agency. How to make sure of that? Seems like so much is up to chance anyways. If I keep doing my best, it’s likely it will all work out, but what if on the odd chance my best work isn’t enough? These kinds of questions now roam my head since I’ve got the time here on my hands. Is that really what I need during this vacation? Will worrying make it better? Maybe, maybe not. There’s no way of knowing. Only one thing is clear, I don’t feel great right now and my performance is weak, weighing on my mind as well.
Another runner comes towards me during one of the turning points, takes out his phone to take a picture of me in my EU shirt, commenting: “Now that’s a nice shirt!” – it’s a small gesture, but right now, in my situation, it makes me happy for a bit and is much appreciated.
I think about my five dear ladies back home. I’m so glad they are a solid rock always. We’re a great team, that’s something I can count on and which gives me confidence for everything else.
Also, I’m glad I don’t have to walk. That’s something!
You need the bad days in order to appreciate the good ones.
42.195 kilometers, and I’m done. Michael is waiting there, cheering me on after noticing my struggles. He’s a good guy. 4:05 hours, what a horribly bad result. It’s been many years since I’ve run a marathon this slowly, not counting the considerably tougher mountain marathons. Well anyways, I made it to the finish line and completed this bonus round of my 7 years long project. One and a half years after having actually finished it. Now this really is the end of a chapter for me, and now I know exactly why.
The Big WHYs
Recently, to my delight, an old friend of mine, Cornelius, got back in touch with me. Via email, he complimented me on this personal blog and asked me about my WHY for all the endurance activities I do. He has his WHYs too and enjoys sports just as well. A bit later we met up in Berlin, where he lives and I had business to attend to, so we had the chance to talk about it in person. When talking to him I realized again that I feel a very strong connection to endurance sports. It has done a lot to help me going through life, but as with everything, it also has its downsides.
While it is very easy for me to come up with reasons why I run long distances, it has become increasingly easy to find reasons not to do race weekends similar to these. After 29 of them, I’m convinced this will have been one of the last, if not, the last one of this type.
This is the answer to a different question from the one that Cornelius asked me, but it might be even more important to me right now.
Why NOT to do race weekends like these:
- Flying somewhere: the high CO2 output and fossil fuels usage have started to play a larger role for me.
- The time wasted on planes and at airports – time is an increasingly important asset for me these days.
- The high expenses. The cost to benefit ratio doesn’t seem to make sense anymore.
- The relaxing effect is smaller than it used to be, maybe because the necessary energy in me is declining, I’m not sure.
Simple. To varying degrees, these points have been on my mind for a longer period of time, but starting with this experience, they suddenly have made a leap of importance.
Running races is still something I’d like to do a lot. But the circumstances have to change for me to make them enjoyable. One measure that will take care of all four reasons is this one:
Choose races in the vicinity instead.
Again, simple. That’s what’s getting my focus in the upcoming months. In addition to some refined training sessions and, behold, new shoes!
So, How Did I Get Back Home With All This Border Nonsense?
First, right after the race, I took the time to receive a free massage. Now that’s what I’m talking about. Eased up and relaxed, the four kilometer walk home would be no problem at all. Gladly, the muscles worked well even after this disaster of a race. Enjoying a nice afternoon and evening were a challenge I actually felt up for, so that’s what I did. Another relaxing night’s sleep of eleven continuous hours did the trick to help me rise back from the sleepless. What a night. I’ll remember and cherish this one for sure! Felt like that’s the amount of hours I usually get per week, combined.
Now, the journey back. With my newfound knowledge, I simply used the walkable border crossing within the center of the Old Town of Nicosia.
It’s a circular walled inner city, about 4,500 years old. From the southern Greek half I walked through two passport checks, the Greek and the Turkish one. No problem, thanks to my generally accepted German passport. Between the countries within a country is a UN controlled safety buffer. A no photograph zone. But it seemed rather harmless in reality, no armed guards carrying guns at all. The Turkish side of the city had striking similarities to the Greek one. Food, souvenir, and clothing shops. We’re all just human, after all. The only difference being the shape of the churches: the islamic Turkish minarets are visible everywhere due to their height.
Two more kilometers north I’m at the correct bus stop.
This bus costs 15 Turkish Lira (~2.30 Euros) and will get me to Ercan Airport in 30 minutes of travel time. I double checked and it actually turned out to be true. That’s better than 60 bucks for a ride next to a smoking and cursing fool of a cab driver who has to be told the directions.
Two uneventful flights via the incredibly shiny new Istanbul airport, and this adventure is over. And with it, 7, or maybe 8 and a half years of EU capital marathons.
It was fun while it lasted, but now it’s definitely time for something different.