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29 March 2015

Five weeks after Malta I’m running a real city marathon again. Bratislava is a city often forgotten and also apparently being confused with Ljubljana because they are the capitals of Slovakia and Slovenia, respectively. I am not sure if that rumor is true (it probably isn’t, but it would be fun if it was), that the delegation of former U.S. president George W. Bush once flew to a state meeting in the wrong city, confusing the two countries. It doesn’t help that the flags of them look quite alike, both being white at the top, blue in the middle, red at the bottom, containing a shield.

Can you tell which is which without looking it up?
Can you tell which is which without looking it up?

Okay okay. Slovenia on top, Slovakia at the bottom. Fun with flags!

Slovakia used to be part of the country of Czechoslovakia up until 1993, when the two decided to call it quits and split apart. So Slovakia is one of the newer countries within Europe, a member of the EU since 2004 and part of the Euro zone since 2009. The capital Bratislava is probably not the most representative place of the whole country, since it is located very near to the Austrian and the Hungarian borders, just about 50 kilometers away from Vienna. Approximately 500,000 people are living here and it seems rather small but cozy. Just like some cities have different names in different languages, Bratislava is called Pressburg in German, which sounds very weird to us („press“ in the sense of pushing, not the media press) and is rarely used in reference to the city.

Our trip started quite sad. Just a few days before our flight a major airline tragedy happened in the south of France, when a co-pilot of Germanwings allegedly deliberately crashed a plane going from Barcelona to Düsseldorf, killing all 150 passengers inside, including the crew. We were planning to fly to Vienna and then rent a car to drive the remaining hour. That flight was conducted by Germanwings and our friends Hodg and Sarah were to join us to spend the weekend with us. Hodg himself is a co-pilot at Germanwings as well, which made the past few days especially hard on him. He decided to have another day to rest and recover before catching up with us in Bratislava. To add another parallel to this tragedy, the suicidal co-pilot Andreas L. happened to be a vivid runner, having participated in many races with a half-marathon personal best of 1:37, which is very good for an amateur. It makes you wonder what drives a person to do this horrible thing.

So on Friday, which was Sophie’s first free day from work in what felt like a long time again, we spend the first half of the day together in Hamburg, just the two of us, while the kids were at Kindergarten. We strolled the city and had a really relaxing few hours. Then we picked up Julie and Vera and got on the plane. The pilot held a heartfelt speech, standing in front of everyone right before the flight was supposed to start. He wanted to assure us that he and the crew are only human as well and also would like to come back to their families and friends in the evening. It was a nice and considerate thing to do and he received approval from the relieved passengers who clapped. As the vast majority of all flights, this one went well, too.

Knows almost nothing about this situation: Julie
Knows almost nothing about this situation: Julie

These events change your perception of the safety of flying and may even distort your reality a bit. If you look at the plain facts, flying still is one of the safest methods of travel, of course. It is hard to believe, because to us normal people flying still seems like a wonder, something unreal and magical that is hard to be trusted in the same way a train or car can be trusted. You’re sitting in a chair in the sky, after all.

After making it to Vienna safely, it was my task to get our rental car while Sophie had to take care of Julie and Vera, the latter having just prepared an unpleasant surprise. Diaper change in the parking lot, why not. I got a quite alright SEAT Alhambra for us, a big car for all the people and stuff we take with us every time. It was getting late now and the kids almost immediately fell asleep in the car while I drove us across the border between Austria and Slovakia. A stop at a gas station made me realize I had forgotten something, though.

The lady at the counter reminded me that I would need to buy a Vignette (highway toll or “Maut”) in order to be allowed to drive in Slovakia. Nine years earlier, in 2006, I drove through Slovakia with a few friends at night (about 3:00 AM I think) and didn’t know that we needed to buy that. So some armed military guys stopped our car back then and made me sit in a small room for a seemingly endless time while screaming at me and waving their machine guns. Frightening! No English was spoken, so I couldn’t realize what I was about to be punished for and if I would have to go to Slovakian jail or just be shot right there on the spot. Thankfully, a bit later a supervisor came into the room and told me in broken English what the problem was: I was driving without a Vignette, of course.

He filled out a form saying that I would need to pay SKK 3,000. “Please, please pay for this!” – he said. That was oddly non-frightening and I was allowed to leave and continue driving. My friends found out that 3,000 SKK were just about 90 EUR or something, so I was relieved at first. After some more internet research the guys were able to confirm that my data couldn’t be handed over to the German government for political reasons at the time, so I would basically get away with not paying a dime. Which I did, because I was a broke student at the time, barely being able to pay for the gas we needed to drive back home from Slovakia.

So my plan was to take this 3,000 SKK ticket with me this time and try to pay for it now that I visit Bratislava again. But: I forgot it at home! What a pity. Thinking about it now, it was probably for the best. Who knows what they might have done with that ticket. Nine years of bad interest rates on those 3,000 SKK (a currency which no longer exists)? Nine years of not paying the fine? What do you think would have been the consequences of that?

So we bought the Vignette and reached our apartment in Bratislava very legally. A surprisingly luxurious one, that was. A nice change after Valletta last month. The next day we went to the city center, which was conveniently located about 500 meters from our place. The big “Eurovea” mall was the main place for the marathon event. And today, one day before the big race, it was already crowded with runners, because the organizers planned several runs: kids’ runs, charity runs, that sort of thing.

Toddler’s run
The toddlers (no upright walking allowed!) were challenged to do a 10 meter “run”, which was really cute

So I collected my marathon swag bag and we strolled around. Now that Vera is able to walk, she wasn’t allowed in that toddler’s race – she prefers ice-cream anyways.

Sisters share ice-cream
If your big sister shares her ice-cream with you, you don’t ask questions, you comply

A little while later our friends from Austria arrived: the Penthors again! After having first met at the Luxembourg marathon in 2013, then last year in Warsaw where Jürgen and I ran together as well, this was the third time we managed to meet. Jürgen is a crazy marathoner, coming closer and closer to 100 completed marathons now. In January he even did this mad thing: he flew to Dubai on a Thursday, ran that marathon on Friday, flew to Hong Kong on Saturday and ran that marathon on Sunday. If you’re already in the area…

It’s always really nice to see them. This time he wouldn’t run with me though, because he already did Bratislava and never runs a marathon twice. Except for maybe, the marathon race he organsises himself, which is the Rauchwart Marathon in his hometown in the south east of Austria. They drove up to Bratislava just to meet with us, which was lots of fun. Jürgen and his wife Sonja have two daughters as well, but they are a bit older than ours. They played sweetly and especially had fun taking care of our sweet little Vera, making sure she didn’t fall over during her still very wobbly steps.

At about the same time, the before mentioned Hodg and Sarah arrived in Bratislava as well, so we all had coffee together.

The marathon crowd
Playing kids and coffee drinking parents

The Penthors then had to leave to come home in time. Two hours of driving were ahead of them. So we picked up some groceries and after a huge pasta dinner Hodg and I went for a walk with little Vera in our buggy. We crossed the Most SNP, which we guessed stands for “Space Needle Pressburg”, because the huge pylon reminded us a lot of the Seattle Space Needle. Obviously that wasn’t its true name, it is much rather this one: Most Slovenského národného povstania (Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising). Unfortunately we didn’t have time to pay the restaurant on top of the pylon a visit. But the view from the bridge was quite nice.

The old Bratislava Castle
The old Bratislava Castle watching over us

Just one more night of sleep and the next marathon was about to start. Daylight Savings Time started this night, so there was confusion when the marathon would really start. It said 10:00 AM, and that meant that it felt like 9:00 AM – or 11:00 AM? No, 9:00 it is. Well, 10:00 to be exact. Anyways, that’s not too early, so I had plenty of time to eat a big breakfast and get ready. I went to the Eurovea Shopping Center, where the start and finish were located an hour early to not mess up on timing and then had to wait in the rain and strong winds of the morning. Then I finally woke up and realized there was a warm and dry shopping center next to me. Waiting in there was a lot better.

People were excited around me, the race was about to start and everyone knew that. So I took my obligatory pre-race selfie.

Just half an hour left
Just half an hour left

This is the 10th official Bratislava Marathon this year, so the organizers are understandably proud of this achievement. What they put up, organization-wise, was nothing short of the other bigger marathons of the more well-known cities in Europe. Really well done. 9,000 runners in total, but again they were split up across lots of different runs. The full marathon was done by about 800 people, which is not a lot.

It was nice that many of the races started at the same time. The course was just 21.1 kilometers long, that is a half-marathon. So I would have to run the course twice, while all the half-marathoners got to go home after one lap.

At precisely 10:00 AM CEST the race started with countless helium-filled balloons being let up into the air. Although that looks nice, I wonder what places they will end up in. Not very environmentally friendly, if you ask me. But it felt good to finally run a marathon again after five weeks of rather boring training. I had my old shoes on again, because the new ones I used in Malta gave me a blue toenail again. Not cool. The old ones are worn out but really comfortable so I felt no pain. As always, I started rather slowly to warm up at first. All the people around me don’t use the same tactics as me when it comes to consistent pacing, so they ran away quickly only to be passed by me later in the race. I probably have a bit more experience than most of them. Starting at 6 minutes per kilometer I reached my feel-good speed of 5:35 to 5:40 minutes per kilometer at about KM 5 and felt really comfortable and warmed up at about 10.

While I was running, the guys were exploring the city
While I was running, my daughter Julie showed Hodg the real interesting stuff in the city center

Sophie, Vera, Julie, Hodg and Sarah saw me at KM 4 already, which was making me happy. They had quite a relaxing day, because the marathon course was really convenient for spectators. We were running out of the city and back into it quite a few times, so they didn’t need to take any public transportation and could just stroll through the city.

It was also good that the course used the same streets more than once, so when I was at KM 5, the leading runners came racing towards us at their 12th kilometer. Really fast, as always.

How do they do that?
How do they do that?

It’s amazing to see them run as fast as if they were on bicycles. We “normal” runners clapped loudly for them. A few kilometers further we got to listen to some live music by a band appropriately dressed in running gear.

Making noise for us
Making noise for us

That was a very professional and fun band to watch for those few seconds that we runners get to listen to it while running. Live music is always good, especially during an event like this. The weather was not the best, it was raining slightly and we experienced some winds. Not as strong as in Malta, but noticeable. It was about 10 degrees, which is alright but I was expecting more like 15, so I was freezing for the first 10 kilometers.

Unlike these two: warm and dry
Unlike these two: warm and dry

There was another running event at the same time, a relay race half-marathon. Every 5 kilometers, runners were switched. Like at this spot:

Relay race switching station
Relay race switching station including lots of pedestrians

The race felt like it was taking place in the normal crowd from time to time. Not every road was cleared from non-runners, but I thought that was quite nice to mix with them. You feel like being closer to the population, if that makes any sense.

I felt good and kept my usual pace very steadily. The course was almost 100 percent flat, so that helped. At KM 17 or something I saw the guys again, and they saw me:

Me running and making photos
Me running and making photos
Them cheering and making photos
Them cheering and making photos

After that, a 4k lap in the west of the city followed, right next to the Danube river. Third time I ran a marathon at this river after Budapest and Vienna! Also, the last time during this EU challenge. Unless Belgrade (Serbia) somehow enters the Union really soon.

Space Needle!
Space Needle Pressburg!

As I got closer to the half-marathon point, I had to make a decision:

This seems to be a boring job
What a boring job

Most of the people decided to go right into the finish and get their half-marathon medals. I didn’t, because I paid full price. But it got really empty right after that split of the road. 50 meters in front of me was a runner, 50 meters behind me another one. I wasn’t doing too bad, just about 2 hours for the half-marathon and feeling good. I didn’t set a goal for this run, I just hoped I could do it in less than 4 hours again to continue with the same speed as my last three marathons. The pacing runners with the 4 hours balloons were a few hundred meters ahead of me, I saw them on the longer straight road stretches. But I felt they must have been too fast for that finishing time. Then I realized, they were probably going for a brutto time of 4 hours, and given that I started the race next to them when the clock was already going for four and a half minutes, they were in fact running a 3:55:30 marathon. That was a bit too fast for my current situation, so I kept my comfortable pace and ignored all the time goals.

At 32 I came to pass by this heavily sweating guy:

Fun with flags
Fun with Flags again!

I saw the EU flag in his hand and talked him up, showing him my EU flag shirt I was wearing. He liked it and we chatted for a while. 105 marathons did he complete, 44 of those carrying flags. Usually the flag of the EU, his home country of Romania and the flag of the country he is currently running in. Quite some energy in this guy! But he was working hard right now, because as you might know a marathon really starts at KM 30.

At 36 the course led into the old city again, and knowing what to expect there I tried to make a video for the first time during a marathon. The result was incredibly shaky, but thanks to modern stabilising technology of not only the iPhone and iMovie but also YouTube itself, it looks rather smooth now:

Entering the old city at KM 36

You can see how few runners are left here. I must say I would have prefered a few more. After that, the Danube loop followed again and right before the finish I decided to take out the camera again.

Me making a video and running
Me making a video and running the last few meters

And here is my video of the end of the race:

Can you get the feeling?

I wanted to try and show you guys how it feels to finish a marathon, if you haven’t already. I think this gets the atmosphere across a little better than just a picture. By the way, it was a coincidence that my guys and girls were standing there and clapping for me just when I made the video. Good timing! I sped up the boring part in the middle and then slowed it down for the finish again. You can see the people there clapping just for me, because I was the only one there. Imagine people you don’t know clapping just for you! Very few of us have had or will have the pleasure, but I can tell you: it feels quite nice! If you want to see for yourself, just run a smaller marathon. That’s all :-)

Happily finished another one
3:59:48 netto, wow just 12 seconds to 4 hours!

Right after the finish they made us cross the street by climbing up lots of stairs and climbing back down again. I guess they haven’t run a marathon before. Stairs are not what you would like to walk on after that. Anyways, I got an apple, a banana, a chocolate croissant and more water. That helped! I found the family and we hung out a bit more in that area to relax.

My crowd
You get really thankful for the people who support you during such a race. It really helps a lot.

In the finishing area, they had a video screen with a RFID reader that would read my chip and automatically display my name and result. The daughters didn’t realize how cool that technology was, unfortunately.

Bored children, happy dad
Bored children, happy dad

The afternoon right after a marathon is always so relaxing! I felt so laid back and we all just played with the children and hung out on the couch. A great day. To finish it off, we searched for the perfect restaurant on Foursquare (I can really recommend using that App again, it’s finally helpful) and had some great food. While we were waiting on our orders, the girls took the kids outside to play a bit on a nearby playground, so Hodg and I were alone for a few minutes, enjoying our first “Apple-tinis” ever.

Apple-tinis with Hodg
Apple-tinis with Hodg

We are both fans of that TV show Scrubs and never tried one. The protagonists of that show, J.D., loves them but is constantly mocked because, well, it’s not a very manly drink. But who cares. Seeing the two of us sitting there with our Apple-tinis, a waitress came by and lit up a candle, saying we would probably like it a little more romantic. Haha! But then our wifes and my tireless kids came back in and the romantic atmosphere was gone. Well, well.

The food was amazing and we all went to bed very happily. The next day started with getting up at 5:00 AM (4:00 if you don’t care for DST), because we had to catch the early flight home. Hodg and Sarah came with us to the Vienna airport but took a later plane to Istanbul to have a vacation without us, which they desperately needed right now after those days with us. Ha.

Breakfast for kids at the airport
Improvised breakfast for kids at the airport

This was a really good trip and we all enjoyed it very much. And I am already planning the marathons for this fall. And can’t wait for the huge London marathon in four weeks. That one is going to be insane. I had to pay quite a lot of money to secure a spot because the whole world would like to run in London, and what you hear about that marathon makes it really exciting. Looking forward to it a lot, especially since we will be with a couple of friends again.

Alright guys, as always: thanks for reading and cheering on Runtastic! By the way, on the first video you can hear a Runtastic cheer coming in live. This is what I hear when you click those buttons. Your cheers make it a lot more fun, honestly. All the best to you all.

Medal and racing number
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Malta Marathon
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London Marathon