On August 15, I race-walked the Solidarity Marathon in Gdansk, Poland. This race is always held on August 15, which is a national holiday. This year the race was a Tuesday, putting it just three days after the Helsinki City Marathon, which I did on Saturday. This race report picks up where my last one left off.
Sunday, August 13
I arrived in Gdansk around 9:30 AM after a morning flight from Helsinki. I could have taken a bus or train into town, but I would have needed to walk the better part of a mile to get to my hotel. Instead, I took a taxi. Taxis in Gdansk aren’t that expensive, and it saved me from having to carry my luggage across town.
First, of course, I had to find a reputable cab driver. As I was leaving the airport, I was approached by a driver who asked if I needed a taxi. I was suspicious, but then I noticed he was wearing a badge with the numbers 19686. Those are the numbers printed on the side of Neptun taxis, which I knew were reputable. I followed him outside, but he walked past the cab stand toward a car in the parking lot that looked like a taxi, but didn’t have the Neptun markings. At that point, I immediately turned around and headed to the cab stand.
I stayed at the Gdansk Hilton. There were cheaper accommodations, but the Hilton was well-located, and I could be sure of what amenities I was getting. In particular, I needed to be sure I would have air conditioning. August in Gdansk can get hot, and I can’t sleep if I’m too hot.
When I got to the hotel, there weren’t any rooms ready, so I checked my bags and went sight-seeing. My visit to Gdansk happened to coincide with St. Dominic’s Fair. It was started in 1920 by Dominican monks as a feast day, but has grown into a three week street fair, spread throughout the main town.
There were plenty of things to see and do that were close to the hotel, but I needed to do some walking to loosen up my stiff legs. I started by walking to the old town to see the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers. This was built to remember workers who died in the riots of 1970.
A short distance from the monument is the BHP Hall. This is where Lech Walesa organized shipyard workers to form the Solidarity union in 1980.
In between them is the European Solidarity Center.
Finally, I walked over to the Gdansk shipyards. By the time I got back to the main town, it was time for lunch. I found a pizzeria where I could dine on a patio overlooking the Motlawa River.
After lunch, I was able to check into my room. After unpacking, I took a rest break. I didn’t get much sleep the previous night, so I needed to recharge before going out again.
When I was feeling better, I walked to the expo. The address I had was somewhat misleading, so it took me awhile to find it. It was actually at the BHP Hall. I had been there earlier, but that was before the expo started, so none of the signs were up.
I spent the rest of the day exploring the main town. I discovered that St. Dominic’s Fair is a mixed blessing. Later in the day, the streets get so crowded that it’s hard to get around. There are lots of good restaurants in the main town, and the street vendor food smelled good too. To avoid the crowds, though, I walked over to the other side of the river where I found a nice restaurant with Polish food.
Monday, August 14
Right after breakfast turned out to be the best time to see the main town. The street vendors were just beginning to set up, and there weren’t any crowds. I also had more energy after getting a full night’s sleep.
Here’s what Długi Targ (the long market) looks like when it’s not crowded with tourists and street vendors.
The main town also has some picturesque churches, but renovation work made it tough to get pictures of St. Mary’s Basilica.
As I continued walking around the main town, I also saw some interesting fountains.
Finally, there was no shortage of pubs.
Three runners from the UK, Jon, Dan and David (Foxy) all arrived at the Gdansk train station at different times. Jon was also staying in Gdansk. Dan and Foxy were staying in Gdynia, where the race starts. I met Dan at the train station. Then Jon joined us for lunch at a nearby brewery that served good Polish food. After lunch, Dan and I met Foxy at the expo.
Dan and Foxy needed to take a train to Gdynia to check into their hotels, but we all met later for dinner at another Polish restaurant. Often, because of my passion for pizza, I miss opportunities to sample local cuisines. On this trip, I had Polish food for three consecutive meals.
Dinner went late, so I tried to go to bed as soon as I got back to the hotel. I had trouble getting to sleep. It might have been a mistake to try to sleep on a full stomach. Before I knew it, hours had gone by, and I was still awake. I started to have anxiety about getting to sleep. Before long, my heart was racing. I have a long history of insomnia, but this was one of the worst cases I’ve ever had.
Around 3 AM, I finally fell asleep, but I quickly woke up again. Had I not remembered dreaming, I might not have realized that I fell asleep. The same thing happened again about an hour later. Then I was awake until my alarm went off at 5:30. I dragged myself out of bed, but I felt like a zombie.
Tuesday, August 15
Tuesday was race day. The course was point-to-point, starting in Gdynia and finishing in Gdansk. To get to the start in Gdynia, I had to take a train.
After getting dressed, I had a light breakfast. At 7:00, Jon met me at my hotel, and we walked to the train station. We caught a 7:30 train to Gdynia, which got us there just after 8:00. There were dozens of other runners on the train, so we followed the others to find the start area.
It was a small enough race that we easily found Dan and Foxy at the start. At 9:00, there was a ceremony at the start, right next to Gdynia’s monument to the fallen shipyard workers. Most of the remarks were in Polish, but Dan was able to translate some of it for us. Then a few of the remarks were repeated in other languages, including English. They spoke of how this is a patriotic race for Polish runners.
The race started at 9:30. It was 63 degrees, but I expected the temperature to climb into the low 70s before I finished. We started under cloudy skies, but later, it got sunny.
The time limit was 5:30. That’s an average pace of 12:35 per mile (7:49 per kilometer). There were also intermediate cut-off times, starting at 25K. The most stringent of these was the 3:50 time limit for reaching the 30K point. That’s an average pace of 12:20 per mile (7:40 per kilometer). I beat all of those times in my last race, so I knew I could do it. The question was whether I could do it again just three days later.
The four of us all lined up near the back. I started walking, and the others started running. Our route began with an out-and-back segment that took us out onto one of the piers in Gdynia. I could usually see Dan a short distance ahead of me, but the others were quickly out of sight.
Within the first kilometer, I felt someone tap me on the shoulder as he went by. It was another race-walker. He tried to talk to me, but I didn’t speak Polish and he didn’t speak English. I tried to stay with him, but he was too fast. His form was amazingly smooth. He was obviously an experienced race-walker.
Along the pier, I passed a ferris wheel and other signs of festivities for Ascension Day, which is a Polish national holiday. The road on the pier was cobblestone. Fortunately, most of the route would be smooth pavement.
They only had signs every five kilometers, so it would be a while before I knew my pace. I felt like I started fast. The pace quickly got tiring. In spite of my fast start, I seemed to be falling off the back of the pack. I didn’t want to slow down for fear of being all by myself at the back of the race.
After a few kilometers, I noticed Dan was taking a walking break. I worked to catch up to him. Once I caught Dan, we stayed together until 20K. I asked Dan how fast we were going, and he said our average pace was 10:47. That’s much faster than I should have been starting, but staying together helped us both.
We reached 5K in 34:33. That’s a full minute faster than my 5K split in Helsinki, and I started that race too fast. To be on pace to meet the cut-off times, we needed to do each 5K in 38:20. We were already more than three minutes ahead of schedule.
Sometimes nearby runners tried to talk to me in Polish, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Dan was able to translate. After two runners from Russia went by, Dan told me they were complementing me on my walking pace.
Our pace gradually moderated. We were still going fast, but I got more and more comfortable with the pace. At 10K, we were already about six minutes ahead of schedule.
Between 10K and 15K, Dan noticed that the “sweeper” car was following us. We were well ahead of our target pace, but there were no other runners behind us. Even though I was going recklessly fast, I never considered slowing down. I would not have wanted to be all alone at the back of the race.
Gdansk is part of the tri-city area, with the other two cities being Gdynia and Sopot. The marathon route took us through all three cities. After leaving Gdynia, we quickly passed through Sopot. I was surprised how quickly we reached the Gdansk city limits.
The aid stations had water in half liter bottles. I could only drink every 5K, and it was a warm day, so I drank as much as I could each time. Some aid stations also had an electrolyte drink in cups. 15K was my first opportunity to drink something other than water.
Somewhere between 15K and 20K, Dan noticed they were picking up the road barriers as soon as the two of us went by. By now, we were about eight minutes ahead of schedule, but we were still at the back of the race. Finally, we caught up to a runner who was slowing down. We were no longer the caboose.
At 20K, Dan stopped to make a bathroom break, and I went ahead on my own. After looking at my watch, I realized I was going to obliterate the half marathon PR I set three days earlier during the Helsinki City Marathon. Just past 20K, I passed another runner. Now there were three runners behind me, including Dan.
Just before the halfway mark, we left the main road to begin a long out-and-back segment with a loop in the middle. I reached halfway in 2:31:15, setting a new PR by more than three minutes. I now had almost three hours to complete the second half of the race.
I passed the two runners from Russia. Then I passed a runner from Sweden. I was reeling in all the stragglers. Before long there were 10 runners behind me.
The sun was out now, and I was getting hot. I slowed down a bit. I was hoping Dan would catch up to me, but I knew the heat would slow him down too.
The first aid station with a cut-off time was 25K. The cut-off was 3:12. I got there in 3:00:56. I was 11 minutes ahead of schedule.
Within a few minutes, I realized I needed to make a bathroom stop. I wish I would have realized that before passing the bathroom at 25K. Now I had to hang in there until 30K. That slowed me down.
After about 15 minutes, I noticed a few port-o-potties on the other side of the road. They weren’t there specifically for the race, and I had to cross traffic to get to them. When I got there, they were all occupied. When there was a break in the traffic, I got back on the course and continued walking. I lost about a minute, and I still needed to use a bathroom.
When I finally reached the 30K aid station, I checked my watch. I was about nine minutes ahead of schedule now. After getting a drink, I used the port-o-potty. I was in there for three or four minutes. As I got back onto the course, the two runners from Russia were passing me. I no longer knew how many runners were behind me. I also didn’t know for sure if Dan was ahead of me or behind me.
After stopping for a few minutes, my legs were stiff, and I was suddenly noticing my blisters. I worked hard to get back into a fast pace and loosen up my legs.
I was still five minutes ahead of schedule. With 12K to go, I figured out what pace I would need to finish within the time limit. I just needed to average 8:30 per kilometer. That would be easy. To set a walking PR, I would need to average 7:45. That seemed unlikely, but I gave it a try.
When I reached the end of the loop, I got a psychological lift from knowing that we were once again moving toward the eventual finish in Gdansk’s main town. Unfortunately, it would still be several kilometers before I would see any landmarks I recognized.
When I reached the 35K aid station, emergency responders were attending to a runner who was down. There weren’t any volunteers handing out water. I saw two empty tables, but no cups or water bottles. A runner who got there ahead of me was drinking right from a six liter jug of electrolyte drink. I had to do the same thing. I couldn’t wait another 5K before drinking anything. I was frustrated, because I reached this aid station five minutes before the cut-off time.
Between 30K and 35K, I averaged 7:55 per kilometer. I knew at that point I wasn’t going to set a new PR. Now I had a new goal. I wanted to get to the 40K aid station before they shut it down. Getting to an aid station before the time limit apparently wasn’t a guarantee.
The next few kilometers were tough. Without familiar landmarks or signs at each kilometer, the road seemed to go on and on. Finally, I saw the green cranes of the Gdansk shipyard. Once I passed them, I would have a good feeling for where I was. Unfortunately, they’re so big they tend to look closer than they really are.
When I got to the shipyard cranes, I could see the top of the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers. It was still in the distance, behind some buildings.
We left the street we were on to go around the European Solidarity Center. Then we did a short out-and-back near the BHP Hall. That was the 40K point.
I had 24 minutes to do the last 2.2 kilometers. That was more than enough time, even though I was slowing down. From there to the finish everything would look familiar. I don’t think there was any part of the remaining route that I hadn’t walked before.
We turned onto a short street that goes past the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers. It’s a cobblestone street, and I found it to be extremely uncomfortable for walking. I was relieved when I got onto some smooth pavement again.
As we got into the main town, there were more crowds. In the last kilometer, there were barricades to keep the crowds of tourists from blocking the marathon route. We needed that, as we were now going through the area where St. Dominic’s Fair was going on.
I made the last turn onto Długi Targ. I had to get past the clock tower. Then I would be able to see the Neptune Fountain. The finish line was just past the fountain.
I finished in 5:23:26. I missed a PR by a minute and a half, but the important thing is that I finished within the time limit.
The finisher medal is shaped like a ship’s helm. That’s appropriate, given the connection between this race and the Gdansk shipyards.
After finishing, I waited for Dan. I didn’t know for sure if he had finished ahead of me until his friend Anton asked me if I had seen him. Dan came in at 5:29. We both accomplished our goal of finishing in time to be official finishers.
In the runners’ recovery area, they were serving a soup with pork and potatoes. That really hit the spot. Dan had to leave to catch a flight, but the rest of us got together later for pizza and beer.
I slept well that night, continuing my pattern of sleeping every other night.
Wednesday, August 16
Because I booked my flights as two separate round-trip itineraries, I had to return to Helsinki before I could fly home.
Tonight I’m staying at an airport hotel in Helsinki. Early tomorrow morning, I’ll board the first of two flights to get back home.
When I decided to race-walk the Helsinki City and Solidarity Marathons, I didn’t really know if I could do it. I was optimistic that I could get fast enough to beat Helsinki’s six hour time limit. I didn’t really think I could beat the 5:30 time limit for this race, but I went after it and never gave up. For several kilometers, I was at the back of the race, but I really feel like I accomplished something.
Distance: 42.2 kilometers
Average Pace: 7:40 per kilometer (12:20 per mile)
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 339
Total Countries: 26