On November 15, I ran the Istanbul Marathon in Istanbul, Turkey. This is the only marathon in the world at spans two continents. It starts in Asia, on the east side of the Strait of Bosphorus, and finishes in Europe, in the heart of Istanbul’s “Old City.”
Istanbul has a long history, and it’s been known by a few different names. For nearly 1,000 years, it was known as Byzantium. In 330, Constantine the Great made it the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. It then became known as Constantinople, which means the City of Constantine. After the fall of Rome, Constantinople endured as capital of the Byzantine Empire. After the Muslim conquest in 1453, Constantinople became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Finally, after World War I, the Ottoman Empire dissolved. When the modern nation of Turkey was formed, the city’s name was changed to Istanbul.
Istanbul spans the Bosphorus, the strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The Bosphorus forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia, making Istanbul a city that’s part of two continents. This location has made it a hub for international trade and a cultural crossroad.
I traveled to Istanbul with Marathon Tours and Travel (MT&T). I’ve made my own arrangements for a number of international races, but this was one where I felt more comfortable traveling with a group. I was one of 30 runners in the group. Here’s a day by day account of my trip.
Tuesday, November 10
I left in the afternoon on an overnight flight to Amsterdam. I say “overnight” because I arrived in Amsterdam Wednesday morning, but in my own time zone, it was still late Tuesday night. It wasn’t until the last two hours of the flight that it was actually late enough for me to try to take a nap. Before I could fall asleep, it was time for our arrival meal.
Wednesday, November 11
I started the day with a five hour layover in Amsterdam. There’s a quiet relaxation area in the KLM lounge, where I managed a short cat nap. Next, I flew to Istanbul, arriving in the late afternoon. MT&T provided transportation to our hotels in the “Old City.” Our group was split between two hotels. I stayed at the Ottoman Imperial Hotel. The other hotel was the Hagia Sophia Hotel, which was a few blocks away. My hotel was right across the street from Aya Sofya, and I had this view from my window.
We got to our hotels around 6:00. After checking in, we had a brief walking tour of the neighborhood around our hotels to help us get oriented. Then I joined a few of the other runners for dinner at a restaurant that was between the two hotels. Besides some kebabs, I got to try raki, a Turkish drink that’s similar to ouzo. It was a late dinner, so I went to bed as soon as I got back to the hotel.
There’s an eight hour time difference between Istanbul and Minneapolis. I’ve only been on one trip that was separated by more time zones. I was so tired that first night I was able to crash immediately. I couldn’t quite sleep through the night, but I got enough sleep to feel OK.
Thursday, November 12
Our hotel package included a buffet breakfast. It was similar to the breakfasts I’ve had at other nice hotels in Europe, but with a few local favorites. One of the things I enjoyed was having figs with breakfast every morning.
After breakfast, we walked over to the Hagia Sophia Hotel to join the rest of our group. From there, we began a full-day walking tour of the “Old City.” We had two local tour guides. During our tours, they gave us insights about the culture and history of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey.
Our first stop was the Basilica Cistern. This underground structure housed one of the city’s largest reservoirs. Cisterns like this were used to supply the city with water, and they helped the city endure long sieges by invading armies. The water was brought into the city via aqueducts.
Next, we walked to the Hippodrome. This is a public gathering area that was once used for large events such as chariot races.
Out third stop was the Blue Mosque. Built in the early 17th century, this mosque is Istanbul’s most recognizable landmark. It’s an example of Ottoman architecture.
Next, we toured Aya Sofya. This basilica was originally built in the 6th century, but has twice been rebuilt. It was the first Christian church built by the Roman government, and signaled a shift to Christian acceptance and dominance after centuries of persecution. After the Muslim conquest, it was converted to a mosque. Now it’s a museum. It’s regarded as the finest example of Byzantine architecture. It was the first building to have a dome supported by arches.
I had lunch at a small, but well-known restaurant called The Pudding Shop. In the 60s and 70s, this was a favorite gathering spot for hippies.
After lunch, we visited the Grand Bazaar. This is a shopping district that dates back to Roman times. It’s now covered and houses over 4,000 shops.
After our tour, we met for a welcome reception at a pub inside the Hagia Sophia Hotel. This was an opportunity to meet all the other members of the tour group. After the reception, a group of us had a light dinner at one of the hotel restaurants.
I got to bed later than I planned, but slept reasonably well. Once during the night, I woke up and trouble getting back to sleep, but that’s not too bad. I gradually adjusted to the time change.
Friday, November 13
After breakfast, we began another sightseeing tour by walking to Topkapi Palace. This large palace complex was the home of Ottoman sultans for hundreds of years. Today, it’s a museum. Many of the palace rooms were decorated with ornate mosaics of tile. The grounds also house the Ottoman crown jewels and a large collection of religious antiquities.
Next, we were brought by bus to the Spice Bazaar. This is a covered market with lots of small shops where you can buy spices, nuts, dried fruits, locally produced snack foods and trinkets.
After the Spice Bazaar, we took a lunch break. I had a pizza with Turkish sausage. It was one of the spiciest pizzas I’ve tasted.
In the afternoon, we were taken by bus to the marathon expo, to pick up our race packets. The expo was a distance away, and on our way we went outside the city walls. On our way back, our guide showed us the walls. He explained how these fortifications were used to protect Constantinople from attack during Roman times, and how the Ottomans eventually penetrated the walls.
After having a large lunch, I didn’t feel like eating another meal. I joined a couple of the other runners for dinner at the Hagia Sophia Hotel, but I just had a dessert. That night, I finally got to bed early enough to get a full night’s sleep.
Saturday, November 14
On Saturday, we were free to explore other parts of the city on our own. I got together with some of the other runners from my hotel, and we took the tram to Galata Bridge. This is a bridge across the Golden Horn, which is a popular fishing spot.
After walking across the bridge, we rode a funicular to the top of a hill and went to the top of Galata Tower. From there, you can see most of the city, including the Asian side.
After walking back across the bridge, we bought tickets for a 90 minute Bosphorus cruise. It was almost an hour until the next cruise left, so we had lunch at a café in the Spice Bazaar. Service wasn’t quite as fast as we hoped, so we missed the noon cruise and had to wait for the 1:00 cruise. While we waited, we did more browsing at the Spice Bazaar.
Our cruise traveled along the Bosphorus near the European side and then turned around and came back along the Asian side. That gave us views of landmarks on both sides. We went underneath the Bosphorus Bridge twice, giving us out first views of how we would start the marathon.
When I got back to the hotel, I spent the remainder of the afternoon resting and getting my clothes organized for the race. Later, we had a pre-race pasta dinner, which was included with our tour package.
Sunday, November 15
Sunday was race day. MT&T provided transportation from our hotels to the start, which was on the Asian side of the Bosphorus Bridge. The race didn’t start until 9:00, but we had to leave the hotel at 6:00, so we could get across the Bosphorus Bridge before it was closed to traffic. After we got to the Asian side, we had extra time, so they took us to the top of a hill. From there we had views of the city from the Asian side.
We got to the start before bathroom lines got long. After a bathroom break and a group picture, we started lining up for the race.
There were three races starting in the same place. The marathon and 15K race each started at 9:00, but on opposite sides of the bridge. The 10K race lined up right behind the marathon, but started 10 minutes later.
The temperature ranged from 53 degrees before the race to 60 degrees around noon. It was a mostly sunny day, making it feel warmer. Although most people would consider that ideal weather for running in shorts, I wore tights. I wanted to keep my legs warm, and I was willing to risk getting hot.
Because we arrived so early, I also wore warm-up layers. The race had a baggage check. I removed my warm-up clothes and checked my bag about 40 minutes before the race. I couldn’t wait much longer or the baggage trucks would leave.
The baggage trucks for the marathon were located in front of the starting line. It took several minutes to work my way through the crowd and find the right truck. Then I looked for the closest place to enter the start area.
They had plastic vests you could wear to keep warm in the start area. After a few minutes, I realized I didn’t need my vest. I was warmer than I expected, so I also took off my gloves.
This race has a time limit of 5:30. My fastest time since September is 5:13, so I had to take the time limit seriously. I was carrying a camera, but I didn’t know if I would have time to take pictures during the race
It’s not every day you cross a bridge from one continent to another. A friend who has done this race cautioned me about congestion on the bridge. Many runners stop on the bridge to take pictures. My first priority was to get across the bridge quickly. I lined up close to the front, stayed near the center, and ran across at the best pace I could manage. After that, I tried to settle into a more sustainable pace.
I had to resist the temptation to stop on the bridge to take pictures. It’s a long suspension bridge, which reminded me of the Golden Gate and Verrazano Narrows bridges, although they both have longer spans. From the middle of the bridge, you can see the Bosphorus Strait, with Asia on one side and Europe on the other.
There was a strong wind blowing through the strait. As I crossed the bridge, I briefly felt cold. For the time being, I was glad I wore tights, but later I would have regrets.
Long suspension bridges are usually steep hills. This one wasn’t as steep as I expected, but after crossing the bridge, we began a long climb. This was an opportunity to slow down, but then we began a long downgrade, and I sped up again. Climbing this hill, I started getting hot, so I removed my arm warmers.
In didn’t check my pace until I finished 5K. At that point, I could see I was going too fast, so I eased up a little. We started on a highway, but now we were getting onto streets through a busy neighborhood. We started getting good crowd support here.
Just past 5K, we reached an aid station. Like most European races, they handed out water in small bottles. I was already getting hot, so I drank most of the bottle. After that, aid stations were spaced 2.5 kilometers apart. When I realized they wouldn’t be too far apart, I drank less at each aid station. Early in the race, the aid stations only had water.
Just before 10K, we crossed the Galata Bridge. The finish line for the 10K race was just across the bridge, near the Spice Bazaar. The marathon and 15K race continued on an out-and-back section that ran parallel to the Golden Horn.
As I reached the 10K mark, I checked my watch again. I wasn’t going as fast as I did in the first 5K, but it was still a pace that I knew I couldn’t sustain. I chose not to worry about it. I embarked on a fast first half, knowing I would probably struggle in the second half. I was confident I could break 5:30, even if I slowed substantially in the second half. Lately, I haven’t been doing much training other than my races. Running the first half at a faster pace was the only way to get in some training at this pace.
Around 12.5K, the 15K course turned around to head back towards their finish next to the Spice Bazaar. The marathon continued farther before eventually reaching another turnaround point. This out-and-back section was fairly flat. On our way back, we merged in with the 15K field again.
As we neared the finish of the 15K race, the courses diverged. The 15K runners continued straight to their finish line. We turned right to cut to run through the heart of the “old city.”
The “old city” is built on seven hillsides. Running straight through the city inevitably meant running over one of those hills. As soon as we turned, be began a long gradual climb. Here, I slowed substantially. At the top of the hill, we ran under the Aqueduct of Valens. This was once part of an elaborate system of water channels that brought water into the city from the north and connected with 100 cisterns.
After cresting the hill, I was rewarded with a long gradual downgrade. Here, the running got easier, but I never regained my previous pace. As I reached the 20K mark, I saw how much my pace had slowed since 15K. Over that section, I averaged a little better than seven minutes per kilometer. That was nearly a minute slower than my earlier pace, but it was still faster than the pace I needed to average to break 5:30.
I reached the halfway point in 2:13:26. I was on pace to break 4:30, but I knew the second half would be much slower. That’s OK. I could afford to be roughly an hour slower.
After cutting across the city, we reached the coast and began a longer out-and-back segment. I mentally divided the rest of the race into three segments of roughly equal length. It would be 7K to the turnaround and then 7K back to where I was now. Then I’d have 7K remaining to reach the finish.
As I started the out-and-back, the elite runners were already on the way back. Watching the fast runners helped keep me motivated. Before long, I also started to see some of the faster runners in our tour group.
At 23K, we ran through the remnants of the city wall that surrounds the “old city.”
By now, I was getting really hot. I was regretting wearing tights. So far, all the aid stations just had water. I felt like I was drinking enough, but I wasn’t getting any electrolytes. I also wasn’t getting any sugar. I didn’t realize it until after the race, but some of the aid stations had sugar cubes.
From 20K to 25K, I averaged roughly 7:30 per kilometer. That’s barely faster than the pace I needed to average to break 5:30. Overall, I was well ahead of the pace, but it was discouraging to know I would soon be giving back time.
When I reached 28K, I was disappointed that I couldn’t see the turnaround yet. It wasn’t much farther. When I got there, I got a pleasant surprise. We turned into a headwind. When the wind was at our backs, I was hot. With the wind in my face, I felt much more comfortable.
Kilometer 29 was the first one to take more than eight minutes. From this point on, however, I only needed to average 10 minutes per kilometer. I might be able to walk that fast. It was encouraging to know that walking the rest of the way would soon be an option.
The aid station at 30K was the first one to have more than just water. They had gel packets, bananas, and a large basin filled with salt. I ate a gel and a banana. I skipped the salt, but that might have been a mistake. In time, as my perspiration evaporated, I saw white streaks all over my tights. I had been sweating pretty heavily earlier, and I evidently lost a significant amount of salt through my sweat.
At 33K, we ran back through the city wall. Knowing we were re-entering the “old city” was comforting. You always know from the kilometer markers how far you’ve run and how far you have left. That’s somewhat abstract. Knowing I was back within the “old city” gave me a better feel for how close I was to the finish. It made the remaining distance seem more tangible.
At 35K, I reached the end of the second out-and-back section. That 7K segment seemed to take forever. Knowing I still had 7K to go wasn’t as comforting as I hoped it would be.
In international races, I usually wear my Marathon Globetrotters singlet and one of my Comrades Marathon hats. A couple from France saw my singlet and told me they were Marathon Globetrotters too. Earlier, a runner from Norway recognized me as a fellow Comrades runner by my hat. There were a number of runners from South Africa, and they all greeted me when they saw my Comrades hat.
In the distance, I saw a large mosque at the top of a hill. It looked like the Blue Mosque, which I knew was close to the finish. To be sure, I counted the minarets. Most mosques have one, two or four minarets. The Blue Mosque is the only one to have six. From this vantage point, I could see five of them. I could see the finish.
With 5K to go, I felt myself slowing substantially. Running became more difficult, so I started walking. I wasn’t sure if it was just a walking break, or if I would walk the whole way. The Blue Mosque looked closer. After stopping to take a picture, I forced myself to run again.
As I got closer, the mosque disappeared behind closer buildings. We were following the coast, and I could see across the strait to the Asian side of the city. Looking farther to my right, I could see the Sea of Marmara. As the road gradually curved to the left, the Bosphorus Bridge came into view.
Soon, I saw a large brick wall on my left. It was the outer wall of the Topkapi Palace complex. Eventually, we had to climb the hill to the finish, but first, we were running all the way around the palace.
As I reached the 24K mark, I realized even a casual walking pace would bring me in well under 5:30. My pace never got as slow as 10 minutes per kilometer, so I had built a nice cushion.
The road bent to the left and we began a gradual climb. Right at the bend, I stopped one last time to take another picture of the Bosphorus Bridge. Then I began walking. The finish at the Hippodrome was at the top of the first of the seven hills. From here, it was mostly uphill. That’s OK. I had plenty of time to walk it.
We made a sharp left and ran up a steeper hill on a cobblestone road. Then we entered Gilhame Park, which is adjacent to the palace. Inside the park, we ran on a wide sidewalk. The surface here was made of stone tiles. It was a smooth surface, and the hill leveled off. I started running again.
This section of the course didn’t have any markings. If not for the steady trickle of runners going through the park, you wouldn’t know it was part of the marathon course. People strolling through the park outnumbered the runners by about ten to one. They didn’t seem to be aware of the race. They didn’t give us any clearance, and I had to weave around them.
Where we left the park, we turned onto a steep hill. I wanted to start walking, but spectators were cheering and clapping. I felt obligated to keep running.
With 500 meters to go, we had signs every 100 meters. As I neared the top of the hill, I had 400 meters to go. Several members of our tour group, who had already finished, were shouting my name. I didn’t see or hear them. I had tunnel vision.
With 300 meters to go, I left the street. I was now running across a brick terrace. I had reached the Hippodrome. I wondered if the horses in those ancient chariot races felt this tired. I was on my last legs.
With 200 meters to go, I could finally see the finish line. I finished in 5:14:04. After crossing the line, I was handed a water bottle and a large plastic bag. I assumed it was a snack bag. It contained snacks, but it also had my finisher medal, a T-shirt, and a plastic rain poncho.
After finishing, my first order of business was finding the baggage trucks, so I could retrieve my gear bag. I had to ask a few other runners, but I eventually found them. To get there by the most direct route, I stepped over a few short fences. Lifting either foot high enough to step over them proved to be a challenge, but I eventually got there. After I had my bag, I only had to walk a few blocks to get back to the hotel. On the way, I saw a few other runners from our group on their way to the finish.
To get to the hotel lobby, I had to go up a few steps. I had to take them one step at a time. I’ve run 299 marathons and ultras, but I can’t remember another time I had so much trouble walking up steps. I had to go up a flight of stairs to get to my room. I made it to the last step. Then I seemed to get stuck. After resting and putting all my strength into it, I got over the last step.
Later in the day, I met the rest of our group for dinner at a nearby restaurant. Our local tour guides were there too. It was a nice way to wrap up the trip.
When I left the restaurant, I was so tired, I thought I would fall asleep immediately. Then I climbed in bed, and my feet started to cramp. It took me two hours to get to sleep. Then I kept waking up with a dry throat. I kept drinking water and going back to bed.
Monday, November 16
Getting home from Europe is always an ordeal. If you need to make connections, you generally need to start with an early flight. I started with a 5:55 AM flight from Istanbul to Amsterdam. MT&T provided transportation to the airport. I needed to catch the earliest shuttle, which left at 3:00. I had to check out and be in the lobby by 2:50. That meant getting up at 1:30 so I would have time to finish packing.
I got less than two hours of sleep. That’s not a good way to start the day when you’re going to spend 20 hours traveling and then face an eight hour time change. I still had a sore throat. At first I thought it was just a dry throat from dehydration. By the time I got home, I realized I was coming down with a cold.
This was my 13th marathon or ultra in Europe. Here’s an updated map of the countries where I’ve run. Only the European portion of Turkey is colored in green. The beige region is the Asian portion of Turkey.