9th of October, 2016
For the second time this year, Sophie and I have decided I would take this marathon trip alone, without her and the kids. That’s a tough decision, because I really like having them all around me. 4 weeks ago, Vilnius had been great, but required a lot of strength, as we had expected. Without any help, a weekend trip like this with 3 small kids has become a serious effort, which is why in early spring of this year, we decided to skip one of the 3 fall marathon family trips, and make it a short vacation for just me.
Which is also the upside to this decision: I get to have a break from our daily routine and relax for two days! And run a marathon, of course.
I’m both sad and happy about the situation. But another upside is the huge amount of saved money by flying alone, which I decided to put to good use by getting a good hotel instead of a cheap AirBnB. And fly a better airline, Lufthansa, not one of the low-cost ones. Still, so much money saved! I even considered upgrading to Business Class, but that would have been overkill. After analyzing the cost/benefit of that, I’m quite sure it doesn’t ever really make sense. But one day, I’d like to try that, too.
There aren’t many countries missing on my list by now. The only remaining ones are Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, and Belgium. I’ve put Belgium last, because it’s kind of the capital of the EU. The other 3 are coincidentally also the 3 newest EU member states. Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007, Croatia in 2013.
In Bulgaria’s case, it’s been 9 years of membership already, and I’m looking forward to seeing what a difference it has made. Last time I’ve been to Sofia was right before that, about 10 years ago. And the city did not look that pretty to me, but I’ve just spend a very short amount of time there, to be fair.
The country of Bulgaria also has a long history, one of the longest on the European continent. Sofia has been a human settlement for probably about 8,000 years! And there are apparently records of that from the Neolithic Age (i.e. New Stone Age). Amazing, I think. The Cyrillic alphabet was invented here. The country had been part of the Byzantine as well as the Ottoman Empire.
More recently, during World War 2, Bulgaria got besieged by the Russians, even though they hadn’t been a part of the war against Russia. Still, there was a pro-fascist government at the time, so I guess it’s partly justifiable. But after the war, the Russians tried to get Bulgaria to be part of the Soviet Union, which is weird. That plan failed, though.
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 also sparked changes in Bulgaria, with former King Simeon Borisov Saxe-Coburg-Gotha returning from exile after World War 2, renaming himself to the much less kingly and a lot more Bulgarian Simeon Sakskoburggotski, and being democratically elected as prime minister in 2001. “We want our king!” – the crowds cheered. Under his management, steps were taken for Bulgaria to finally become a EU member in 2007.
Just 7.2 million people live here, 1.2 of them in the capital of Sofia, which is a huge percentage compared to most other European countries. Culture is rich here, especially musically. Also Bulgarian: concept artist Christo, whose work I admire. They have John Atanasoff, who invented the digital computer, and Carl Djerassi, “father” of the contraceptive pill. People here like to play chess and wrestling (the real kind), and are good at it. Tough minds, tough bodies.
Another thing I usually look up beforehand in a new country, are the universal gestures. In some countries, for example, a simple thumbs up can mean something obscene. And I don’t want to cause any trouble in such a stupid way. So I came across this weird thing in Bulgaria: nodding your head and shaking your head are apparently switched! The legend says, it’s because of the reaction of a former beloved freedom fighter, who was held captive with a sword under his chin, and asked if he wanted to live. Of course he wanted to, but nodding would have had an unwanted result in that situation. The story does not hold up too well, when you think about it, because shaking his head must have had similar results to his neck, not only technically, but also the way his enemies would interpret it. Still, it’s good to know this is different in Bulgaria. Although I’m sure people will still know what you mean, given you look foreign to them. Globalization has its advantages.
What I painfully remember of Bulgaria, though, is a 2:1 victory of their national football team against Germany at the FIFA World Cup quarter finals in 1994. Bulgaria’s winning goal had even been scored by Yordan Letchkov, who at the time was playing for our Hamburg football club. It’s a childhood memory to me. I don’t blame them, though, they were better players that day.
And So The Journey Begins
An early flight via Frankfurt to Sofia. On the plane, the announcements currently include the sentence: “If you’re traveling with a Samsung Galaxy Note7 phone, you must now completely switch it off and are not allowed to use or charge it during the entirety of this and all other Lufthansa flights.” — following the string of little explosions these phones recently had. Funny.
Landing in Sofia, the mainly Bulgarian people in the plane ignored the cabin crew’s announcements completely. Right after touch down, the seat-belts clicked and dozens were standing up in the moving plane to take their luggage from the overhead compartments. I’ve never seen this much disobedience in any plane so far. Why would they react this way? The crew just ignored it. They’re probably used to it.
Arriving at the airport, there’s a passport control, which is unusual for EU country travel. Bulgaria, along with Romania, Croatia, and Cyprus, has not yet joined the Schengen Area. They’re working on it, but the requirements have not yet been fulfilled. Update 2023: Croatia has since joined Schengen while the other EU countries mentioned here are still not yet members. Thanks to reader Margaret for bringing this to my attention!
Right after, the first aggressive taxi drivers are racing towards me to offer me an over-expensive ride. I knew about this and opted for the metro. It was built in 2012, partly by EU funds, which is why I was eager to check it out. It’s very modest and functional, I like it. A half-hour ride through about 10 stations into the city center cost 1.60 BGN, or Lev, as the currency is called. That’s about 0.80 euros, which is laughably cheap to our standards. As well as it should be. Public transport should be subsidized as much as possible. Well done, Sofia!
Unfortunately I didn’t have to get out at the very aptly named station of “European Union”, but a different one to get to my hotel. The room has a view of the city and the mountains in the background. I didn’t realize the region was so mountainous, it’s rather impressive! Checking it out, I am surprised Sofia is at 600 meters above zero. This means slightly thinner air. Good for athletic training, but for a race?
The hotel has unusual art in it:
Next, I walk to the nearby stadium to collect my bib number.
I was expecting some kind of hall with lots of companies showing off their running gear as always, but arriving there I am finding just one small place which hands out the numbers and nothing else.
There’s a queue in front of it, because people are required to sign a medical statement confirming their fitness first. I feel fine, so they can have my signature.
Racing number including RFID tracking chip, a can of juice, and a free running shirt. Not too bad for the very little amount of just 30 lev (about 15 euros) I had paid for the race.
After having taken care of this, I turn to walk to the city center in order to have some food now. On the way there I meet Michael, a nice guy from Cologne who had just sent me an email out of the blue a few days prior. In that email, he told me that he found this blog of mine a few years ago and liked it, and also started running European capital marathons. How cool is that? He planned to do the Sofia Marathon as well, and we decided to meet up. After a few minutes of talking about our shared hobby, we decided to meet again tomorrow at the race. Should be easy, as this one probably has very few participants…
A bit of food and some sightseeing later I excitedly return to the hotel, because tonight will be a very special night:
The IRONMAN World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
Because of the huge time difference, the pro athletes around Jan Frodeno and Sebastian Kienle will start at 7:25 PM, which is 6:25 in the Hawaii morning. Add about 8 hours of Ironman racing to that and you’ll arrive at 3:25 in the morning here in Sofia. I would have watched the whole thing as I did last year, but the night before a marathon race is important. I need to get some rest, which is a shame. I watch until they are about half-way done with the 180 kilometers of biking, some time before midnight. It’s a very exciting race this time, because there are many pros who have it in them to win if they’re on a good day.
Ordering room service pasta to get enough carbohydrates during the Ironman watching is very helpful.
But in the end, I have to get some sleep while those guys run their marathons, in order to run my own marathon tomorrow. Waking up at 7:30, you can guess what the first thing is that I check. Yes, as expected, Frodeno won. Kienle, in second place, apparently gave him a hard time, though. And surprise bronze medalist Patrick Lange, who I think is a very cool guy, did the fastest ever Ironman Hawaii marathon at 2:39 hours, which I am not the only one dreaming of. First 3 places, 5th and 7th, and also the female and male amateur groups were all won by Germans today. Triathlon fits our nation, I guess. I certainly like it, too, having two more full Ironman distance races planned for 2017.
Inspiring news, especially from surprise 3rd place Patrick Lange. So now my own challenge can begin.
After a rich hotel breakfast, I get ready to leave for the race and routinely check my phone for the current outside temperature. It says: 1. This must be wrong. I kill the app, reload. 1. Switch from hotel Wi-Fi to 4G: still 1. Oh no! A few days before it was supposed to be a gentle 10 to 15 degrees Celsius! I didn’t even bring a running jacket. I guess it’s going to be a cold day for me. Lets see.
Stepping outside in my running gear, I expect the worst, but am pleasantly surprised. No winds, very clear and clean air, and it’s now 3 degrees. Not too bad, I think. And the app says it’s going to increase by 3 degrees every hour, ending up at 15 degrees around noon. Unless the wind is waking up, it’ll be fine. It’s sunny right now, and the city seems empty. I like Sunday mornings.
Arriving at the stadium again, where the start and finish are located, everything looks very different from yesterday. They have set up many tents over night and it’s crowded with many hundreds of runners by now. A surprise, same as in Vilnius. Loud music is playing, an MC entertaining the crowd, and many attractions for the kids are here. Even a huge screen and crane camera have been set up. Drones are flying around. Very cool!
There are 4 different races starting this morning: a 3k FunRun for the whole family, followed by us full marathoners, followed by a 21.1 half marathon, and even a 10.55 quarter marathon race. In total, there are more than a thousand runners. Who would have thought!
The FunRun comes first and really looks like lots of fun. The first row of kids is sprinting away, loving what they’re doing. Many kids and parents follow, some company colleagues with matching shirts, all of them enjoying themselves. Good energy here.
I’m looking for Michael everywhere, but cannot find him. It’s harder than we both thought with these kinds of crowds. I might see him on the course, I think.
Lining up for the marathon now, there are some Country Marathon Club members meeting each other again by coincidence. An old Finnish guy and an evenly old German one. They are excited about it and take photos. I like how this sport brings people together. I’m a (not so serious) member of the Marathon Globetrotters, but I can’t see anyone here who is wearing that jersey or seems familiar. Next time, maybe.
A couple minutes left. I do not feel nervous at all this time. Training was good the last few weeks, I did a few shorter races as well as slower long runs and feel quite fit. I am just eager to run now, I can’t wait. And then the Bulgarian countdown finally starts.
10, 9, 8, those numbers are understandable in every language.
…3, 2, 1, GO!
The 1st of 4 laps of equal length starts! What a nice feeling to finally go off.
I have planned to do my pacing differently than in Vilnius this time. I don’t want to walk today at 38, I want to do it well and start slow, to increase the pace during the whole length, being fastest on the last kilometers. It’s a bold plan, but you got to have goals, right?
Speaking of goals, I would like to beat my best time. I think I can do this today, because yesterday was very easy on my energy, with almost no physical stress compared to my daily routine. In order to finish in the necessary 3:40 hours total, each lap has to be 55 minutes at most. Seems doable to me, the pace isn’t crazy for my current standards. But I decide to do this unconsciously at first, not looking at the GPS watch during the complete first lap and see where I naturally land. Second lap similarly, and then increase the pace if there’s energy left during the last half.
The first kilometers feel very good. My body warms up, the sun is doing its part as well. There are maybe 300 full marathon participants, which means it’s not at all crowded on the course. Good. The fact that we’re doing 4 laps today, is also beneficial to me, because I can find out about the whole course during the first lap and then exactly know what I can expect during the later, harder kilometers. Mentally, that’s a huge advantage.
1st Lap: Checking Out The Course
We run on broad streets, which I like. There’s lots of space everywhere. Green parks surround us from time to time, and there are 3 little hills to be climbed. 30 meters up at the most, which is very doable. The course does not provide a lot of diversity, though. Most parts look alike. I don’t mind. The cheering crowds are apparent, but not huge. All in all, a solid course.
There’s a short uphill section 1k before the end of the lap, which requires some strength. The view pays it back, though.
I reach the start/finish after 10.55 kilometers and 54 minutes and 9 seconds. Awesome! 51 seconds better than what I need for the personal best, and all without looking at the watch. The next lap can begin!
Status After Lap 1
|Lap||Goal Time||Elapsed Time||Lap Time||Lap Time Offset||Total Offset|
2nd Lap: Meeting Faster People
Same course, different weather: it has increased by a few degrees. At about 17 kilometers, half-way through the second lap, the pacing car overtakes me, together with a police escort for the front runners.
I’ll allow a quick glance at my watch.
These frontrunners are now at about 28 kilometers, after 1:29 hours. That looks like a solidly fast finishing time, but no world record. It’s only very few runners who overtake here. Every couple kilometers another one, maybe. It’s a small race.
But there are a few of the fast half marathoners who overtake me now, they can be identified by the color of their bib numbers. They started 10 minutes after us. Nobody of the 10.55k runners overtook me on the first lap, though. And after the second lap, no one of the half marathoners will do that anymore, as well.
As the lap comes to an end, I feel very good still. I’m looking forward to what time I did on the second lap. And the display on the gate confirms my suspicions: 1:46:54! I already increased the pace, by accident. So now I’m 3:06 minutes below personal best. Very good.
Status After Lap 2
|Lap||Goal Time||Elapsed Time||Lap Time||Lap Time Offset||Total Offset|
3rd Lap: Meeting Slower People
Now it’s safe to slowly and carefully increase the pace even more. I feel great. Needless to say, I overtake many people now, because most usually don’t pace themselves this well. I come by an older father with his maybe 20 year old daughter. He is surprised and talks to me in Bulgarian, then in English:
– “Which lap are you on? 3rd or 4th?”
– “In that case, you’ve been pacing very well!”
– “Well, lets see how long I can keep that up. Good luck to you!”
– “Thanks, good luck to you too!”
And off I went.
Just a few kilometers later, I came across a struggling soldier, whom I had noticed before, right at the start of the race. It is very usual to have people taking part at a marathon race in disguise, or to show some pride, or inspire others, or just do it for charity. This time, I guess, it’s been a mixture of all of the above for that man. I kind of liked that. He was wearing complete soldier gear, including a huge backpack I assume was full with actual military equipment. He was missing the jacket, but wore the original boots. And a Bulgarian flag was strapped to his backpack. As for the pride. Although nationalistic behavior is always somewhat negatively connotated in my opinion, you cannot deny a certain appeal, especially when it’s displayed in a non-frightening fashion and regarding a non-threatening country. It’s somehow hard-wired into our consciousness, this idea of “us” and “them”. It probably made sense thousands of years ago, and might even make sense in some areas in the world still, but in general it’s clear we as a species have to move on and get rid of that ideology. But that probably won’t happen until aliens arrive, as my friend Laurie recently suggested to me. Difficult topic.
This man, though, wasn’t doing a marathon race in his soldier gear to show off that he believes his nation is better than others, it was just what he identified with. He might have had a bad experience while wearing this, and it was his way to remember and process the emotions. Or he might have been searching for redemption in some way.
Anyhow, he was struggling right now. Walking, sweating way too much, gulping down a plastic bottle of water. After just a bit more than half of the race. This picture was just sad to me. I felt compassion immediately and tried to pick him up mentally. Walking next to him for a while, cheering him on. Making a photo of us two, to show him that seeing what he was doing was making an impression on me. I could just hope it helped a bit, as I then picked up my pace again and couldn’t follow up on what he decided to do today.
As I run away from him I contemplate the superficial side of this odd meeting. He and I couldn’t have been more different. He full with muscle mass, smaller but probably a lot heavier than me, and I, the tall slim guy. He, the warrior, defeating the “enemy”, i.e. the marathon race, by using force, and me, the going-with-the-flow kind of person. It’s funny that we both met on my turf, a marathon race. I’m clearly the better runner, and this is my sport, which I very much enjoy. But at almost every other athletic competition he probably would have won against me by a huge margin. Except triathlons, probably.
I like the aspect that he tried, though. It’s clearly not his strength, and he must have been fully aware of that, but he still showed up and did it. I learned from this encounter that I should also try more things I’m not completely comfortable with. It’s how we grow.
But this race also had a lot less profound experiences to offer. For example, one of the next guys I passed by had his phone set to a loud metronome sound. I assume, in order to keep his step frequency up, because the rhythm sounded like 170–180 beats per minute, which is a desirable speed. Unfortunately, this trick did nothing for him, as he was way off the clicking sound. He still had the metronome going, maybe because he just enjoyed the sound of it.
I’m still doing fine during this 3rd lap. During this marathon I only drink water, but didn’t actively decide so. It’s more what I just felt like. Isotonic electrolyte drinks are usually offered – here, in the form of special iced tea –, but I just don’t feel like it. The water is excellent here, in fact. Perfectly cold and clear, it tastes so good that I specifically notice it. It might be the standard tap water, because I’ve heard this following statement more than once now: The tap water in Sofia is not only drinkable, but one of the best quality tap water in all of Europe! I, for one, believe them.
This time I have packed just HoneyPower energy gel for the first time. The last few races, I usually had a few HoneyPowers and one different brand energy gel to directly compare the effects it has on me. But today, the transition is completed and I feel like I’ve tested every single gel there is and I am still convinced that HoneyPower is the best. 2nd place, by the way, would be 32gi, in my opinion, 3rd probably Multipower – only considering taste and sensed effectiveness right now, not quality of ingredients, a category in which HoneyPower always wins. Taking all into account, both are far behind HoneyPower, though. But I wouldn’t be selling HoneyPower at www.honeypower.shop if I thought otherwise, of course.
So, after about 26 kilometers, I feel like adding some HoneyPower to the water in my body I’ve had so far. It’s delicious, and picks me up. Does exactly what is promised. This lap comes to an end as well, and the streets are getting very empty. At the end of a marathon it’s always like this, especially if there are just a few hundred participants. I like the freedom and chance to run on these huge closed off streets on my own.
Status After Lap 3
|Lap||Goal Time||Elapsed Time||Lap Time||Lap Time Offset||Total Offset|
4th and Last Lap: Bringing it Home
A look at the digital clock at the gate reveals a time of 2:39 hours, after about 31.5 kilometers – very good I think! It means I am currently about 6 minutes below my goal of 3:40. 6 minutes I could lose on this last lap and still beat my personal best.
As I cross the gate to enter into the last lap, I notice the finish band lying on the ground. One of the staff people gestures at me to move to the right and quickly run off. Then I see a whole lot of photographers and look back over my shoulder. The first female is about to win! After 2:39, that’s quite a good time for a professional. Just 10 to 20 meters behind me, she is sprinting off and wins by a huge margin.
I still haven’t seen Michael anywhere, even though there are some sections where it’s possible to see the slower or faster runners on the other side of the road. I hope he’s fine and still in the race.
Kilometer 32, I’ll have a second HoneyPower, and move on. Now I’m in the magical last 10 kilometers. The part where the actual race takes place. Who can fight best against fatigue, is the question. I’m doing very well, but I also know not to overestimate my own powers, so I still just very slowly increase my pace. I realize I’m getting a bit tired, and for the first time I’m actively noticing my own deteriorating running style. Running requires about 98% of all muscles we have, which is the most out of any sports activities, so of course it’ll affect me if some of them get tired more quickly than others. That’s how the technique gets worse over the course of a prolonged activity. The back muscles get tired, so my posture isn’t as upright anymore, for example. The task is now to realize which muscles are getting tired, and how to circumvent using them in the best way. That means: a change of running technique.
You might remember from my Paris marathon report earlier this year, that I’ve recently become interested in barefoot running. Needless to say, running without shoes requires a whole other technique, but a much more natural one for the body, of course. The difficult part is, to awaken this knowledge in our underdeveloped feet and legs. We as humans have forgotten how to run barefoot, mainly because of huge manufacturers convincing us to buy more and more cushioned shoes, be it air, gel, or some artificial chemical compounds engineered to make you bounce back and “recover the energy” as hard as possible. Marketing lies, of course.
As many serious runners know, this is bad for our human feet. On the other hand, it requires a lot of effort to transition into barefoot running, because we need much more trained muscle mass in specific areas of the running apparatus. It can, and has been done, but it can take years to get to a marathon level. I’ve recently read a great book on the topic, called Born to Run, and decided to follow up on this, after my friend Malte already started with the transition and told me about the positive effects. In fact, everyone who tried it seems to report positive effects. Faster running, less injuries, more freedom, better mood. So why not give it a try?
I’m slowly starting it at the moment, but right here, after 35 kilometers, I recognize what the barefoot runners mean, when they talk about our underdeveloped muscles and tendons caused by bouncy shoes. I actively switch my style a bit more to the barefoot style, which is using your front foot more than your heel to land, and it’s better. Usually, this way of running is a lot harder, for the aforementioned reasons, but right now, it feels good to just use different muscles for a change. I switch back and forth right now and am okay with the results.
The last few kilometers are just a mental fight. In my opinion it gets easier, because the thought of it’ll be over soon motivates a lot. Another mental boost is this 4 lap method. I really like it. You can easily divide the race into 4 very doable shorter runs and take them on one by one. Just 10 kilometers each, anyone can do it.
At 37, I have another HoneyPower. The salty one this time, because I might need sodium. After all, I’ve just had water and no isotonic drinks. Tastes good, gets me going. It sounds very easy to just have 5 kilometers left, but at my most recent marathon this was the point where my energy left me and it got very tough. Fortunately, not today.
The only slightly negative thing I can say about the whole endeavor might be the weather right now. It never got really warm, maybe around 10 degrees at the most, and now the sun is covered by clouds, too. No sunshine anymore, in contrast to this morning. I’m not shaking, but it’s a bit too cold for my taste. Maybe that motivates me to finish faster.
The streets are very empty by now, but there are 3 guys with matching calf tattoos in front of me, whom I have met before a few times today. They look like gym enthusiasts. But I think now is the time to pass them by and stay in front until the end.
There is a slight uphill stretch about 2 kilometers to the finish, which requires a bit of willpower to get through at a good pace, but I’m motivated. 1 kilometer left, the crowds are getting bigger again. There’s a guy holding up a sign “Free Hugs!” – why did he decide to do this here? Hugging sweaty, running people sounds like a bad idea. But he is nice and I appreciate the effort, although I don’t take his offer.
500 meters, now I finally feel like I’ve done it, and give it all I have left. Perfect, nothing went wrong today! I just enjoy this last straight street and run through the coveted gate.
New Personal Best!
3:31:58 – who would’ve thought I could really keep up the pace this well! About 9 minutes faster than my previous best time, I’m surprised and really proud and happy. Time to enjoy this.
Status After Lap 4, Finish
|Lap||Goal Time||Elapsed Time||Lap Time||Lap Time Offset||Total Offset|
What was the trick that made me succeed today? A few of the factors might be that I’ve had a comparatively relaxing day before the race, the course was rather easy, I’ve done enough training in the last few weeks, the weather was a bit colder than usual, and also maybe HoneyPower. I really like that stuff. Many of these factors are easily repeatable, so I’m already thinking about the next race…
The routine starts. Getting a medal, searching for offered drinks and food. Sitting down, waiting for the heart to take a rest as well. Just enjoy. This is one of the best parts of a marathon, right after the running of the marathon itself. Happy.
Then I walk around the area in order to find Michael, but he’s nowhere to be found. It’s getting too cold for me to wait any longer, and I’m looking forward to a hot shower now, so I decide to send him a text and hope we’ll meet at another race. I think the chances are high. He answers a couple hours later, says he’s been late for the race for about 1 minute because of slow working staff and then finished the race in 4:01 – such a pity! But he still had fun and thinks we’ll meet again, too.
Walking home I suck in the atmosphere of the city again, smiling. What a beautiful place, and day. Runner’s high, I guess.
The hot shower is glorious, as expected, and an evening meal at a Indian themed vegan/vegetarian restaurant in the city center proves to be amazing as well.
Who needs steak if you can have Edamame. It’s full of nutrients, especially proteins, which is perfect for regeneration right now. How haven’t I ever heard of that stuff before?! The restaurant, called Veda House, is some kind of tea-house and offers a very special white tea, among others, which provides an ethical question I couldn’t answer so far:
This type of tea is harvested by trained monkeys. The tea leaves grow so high up in the Indian mountains that it’s too difficult for humans to do, but it’s these monkeys’ natural habitat. The question is: is the tea vegan? Feel free to give me a reasoned response, I’m looking forward to it!
Exploring the night in Sofia’s city center a little further, before I head off to bed.
Thanks for reading and until next time, when we’ll go to Dublin. This time, as an extended family again. Looking forward to it! If you enjoyed this, consider signing up for the newsletter down below. It’ll send you an email whenever there’s a new post on this blog!