On May 8th, I ran the Prague Marathon. Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic. It’s also the historical capital of the region known as Bohemia. In past centuries, Bohemia has been part of the Holy Roman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War I, it became part of Czechoslovakia. Finally, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The map below shows Bohemia within the Czech Republic.
I’ve long had an appreciation for classical music, so I associate Bohemia with composers from this region, such as Antonín Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana, and Leoš Janáček. I associate Prague mostly with Smetana. Smetana is best known for a cycle of tone poems called “Ma Vlast” (My Country). Collectively, they describe the sights, sounds and legends of Bohemia. The first work in this sequence is called “Vyšehrad.” It’s named for a fortress on the edge of Prague. This is where the city was founded. Next in the sequence is “Vltava” (a.k.a. The Moldau). It’s a musical depiction of the river that flows through Prague. When I learned the marathon route features the river prominently and also passes Vyšehrad, I was intrigued.
I wasn’t originally planning to do another marathon so soon after Boston. In March, a Delta agent reminded me I had a global upgrade certificate that was going to expire on May 26th. It could be used for a free upgrade to first class on an international flight. These upgrades are hard to come by, so I didn’t want to let my certificate go to waste.
As I thought about trips I could take before May 26th, I immediately thought of Prague. Already, the Prague Marathon was near the top of my bucket list for international races. It’s a city with a rich history, and having been to Vienna last year, I suspected I would enjoy Prague just as much.
There was just one catch. The race was already full. Then I discovered I could still get guaranteed entry into the race by booking through Marathon Tours & Travel. MT&T provides hotel and tour packages that are built around popular races. Besides my race entry, their package included a guided tour and four nights in a luxury hotel. It was expensive, but I liked the idea of staying in a hotel on the river that was within walking distance of attractions like the Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, and Prague Castle. I also like traveling with other runners.
When I made my reservations, I didn’t know if I would know any of the other runners. When I crossed the finish line in Boston a few weeks ago, I heard someone call my name. It was Anders, a runner from Sweden. Knowing he does lots of European races, I asked him if, by chance, he was going to be in Prague. He was. Not only that, but I learned from Anders that my friend Michelle was also going to be there. She also booked through MT&T.
Wednesday, May 4
I left Minneapolis on an overnight flight to Paris. It’s a nine hour flight, so I was happy to have a seat that reclines completely flat. It was a late afternoon departure, so I had to wait until the second half of the flight before I could try to sleep. In the meantime, I watched a movie. I was about as comfortable as you can get on an airplane, but I never fell asleep. When I got to Paris, I had to switch gears from trying to sleep to trying to stay awake.
Thursday, May 5
I arrived in Paris at 8:30 AM. There’s a seven hour time difference, so it still felt like 1:30 AM. I had a four and a half hour layover. I could have booked an earlier connection, but it seemed kind of tight. On international trips, I’d rather have a long layover than risk missing a connection. It’s good that I didn’t book the tight connection. My boarding pass apparently fell out of the tray going through the X-ray machine. Security couldn’t find it, so I had to go back to a kiosk to print a new boarding pass and then go through security again.
I spent most of my airport layover in the Air France lounge, where I was able to eat a light lunch. While I was there, I bumped into two runners I met last November at the Istanbul Marathon. They were also traveling to Prague for the marathon.
From Paris, I had a 90 minute flight to get to Prague. To save time in the Prague airport, I didn’t check any bags. I’m not generally a light packer, so it wasn’t easy fitting all my clothes and running gear into a carry-on bag. Lugging my bag through airports made my hip sore, but it saved me time on arrival. I also didn’t have to worry about my bag getting lost. I’ve had pretty good luck with checked bags, but the two times I had problems were both international trips.
I arranged my taxi ride ahead of time by booking online. When I reached the arrival hall, the driver was waiting for me. He already knew my destination, and the fare was already arranged. Before this trip, I had no familiarity with the Czech language. I did my best to learn to pronounce a few basic phrases, but I wasn’t prepared to converse in Czech. Most taxi drivers probably speak English, but I didn’t want to count on that.
Our hotel was the Intercontinental Prague. I arrived at 4:00 and was able to get into my room right away. After settling into my room, I took some time to acquaint myself with the neighborhood around the hotel, starting with Vltava, where I got my first view of Prague Castle.
I also wandered over to the Old Town Square and saw Prague’s famous astronomical clock.
The weather in Prague was beautiful. Every day, we had highs in the 60s, with sunny skies.
MT&T hosted a welcome reception at the hotel at 6:00. Runner arrived on a number of different flights, so this was the first opportunity for everyone to get to know each other. Our guest speaker was the Prague Marathon race director.
After the reception, a group of us walked to Old Town Square, where we had dinner with Anders. The square looks different at night, with the buildings lit up.
One advantage of not sleeping on my flight was falling asleep quickly after getting back from dinner. I slept reasonably well.
Friday, May 6
I wondered if oversleeping would be a problem. By 6 AM, there was already plenty of light filtering in through the drapes. I was a little slow dragging myself out of bed, but it got easier each day.
I’ve made a dozen other trips to Europe. One thing most of these trips had in common was nice a breakfast at the hotel. The breakfast buffet at the Intercontinental Prague was no exception. There was such a wide variety, I had to try different foods each day.
After breakfast, I met the rest of the tour group for a half day guided tour. We started in Staré Město (Old Town). This part of the city has never had a major fire, and it wasn’t bombed during World War II, so most of the older buildings are still intact. We saw a variety of architectural styles spanning several centuries.
Next, we crossed Vltava at Charles Bridge. This is the most majestic bridge in the city, with eight stone arches. It’s now used only for pedestrian traffic, and the bridge is often lined with artists and vendors.
From the Charles Bridge, we had good views of the river in both directions. We also had a nice view of Prague Castle.
The bridge brought us into Mala Straná (Little Town). This is where most of the government buildings are. There were also a number of small shops near Charles Bridge. We saw St. Nicholas Church and a monument to victims of the Black Plague.
Next, we continued to Prague Castle. To reach the castle, we had to climb 200 steps. This is the largest castle in the Czech Republic, and it stands on high ground overlooking the river.
The castle consists of several buildings, surrounding three courtyards. It’s like a city within the city.
The most impressive building within the castle grounds is St. Vitus Cathedral. I couldn’t get the whole building into one picture.
After walking through the castle, we saw the gardens outside. As we made our way back to the river, we had more views of the Little Town and Charles Bridge.
We ended our tour by making it back to Old Town Square in time to see the astronomical clock strike noon. Then a few of us had lunch at a pizzeria near our hotel. Add the Czech Republic to the list of countries where I’ve had pizza.
In the afternoon, we went together to the expo to pick up our race packets. The expo was held at Průmyslový palác. To get there, we took a tram. This was the only time I needed to use the public transportation. Everything else was close enough to our hotel that I could walk. The race T-shirts had different colors for men and women. We also had our choice of short or long sleeves.
After the expo, I went back out on my own to visit some the shops near Charles Bridge. Later, Michelle and I went to a reception at the mayor’s residence. Most of the guests were members of RunCzech, the group that organizes and promotes the race. Anders was able to get us invited. Some of the other guests included Emil Zátopek’s wife and the Chinese ambassador. I was dressed casually, so I felt a bit out of place at first. It helped that we had met the race director previously at the MT&T reception. Anders also went out of his way to introduce us to the other Americans.
Friday night, I struggled to get any sleep. My body just didn’t seem to be adjusting well to the time zone difference.
Saturday, May 7
On Saturday, we were on our own to explore the city. There were also a number of optional excursions we could book. I went on an all-day tour of Český Krumlov, a small city in southern Bohemia, near the Austrian border.
Český Krumlov is home to the second largest castle in the Czech Republic. The town is located at a sharp bend in the Vltava river. The castle is on a hillside overlooking the town. It was built in the 13th century to protect trade routes in the area.
It was a two and a half hour drive to get there. On the way, our tour guide gave us some of the history of the Czech Republic. She mentioned that at the end of World War II, about 80% of Czechoslovakia was liberation by the Russian army, and the other 20% was liberated by the U.S. army. I didn’t realize that was relevant to our visit.
When we arrived, there was a celebration going on next to where we parked. I thought it was odd that there were lots of U.S. Army vehicles. It turns out we arrived on the 71st anniversary of the day Český Krumlov was liberated by the U.S. army.
After walking up a long hill to get to the castle, we had a walking tour of the castle grounds and the town. From just outside the castle wall, we had great views of the town.
I was surprised by the number of small shops in town. I think there was better shopping here than in Prague. After walking through town, we had lunch at one of the local restaurants. Then we had about an hour and a half to explore the town on our own.
Next, we had a tour of the castle interior, including the chapel and living quarters. We learned the history of the noble families that lived here and why the castle changed hands a few times.
Finally, we had the long drive back to Prague. MT&T hosted a pre-race dinner, but we got back too late, so we went out for pizza again.
I got to bed late, but I slept better that night. I seemed to sleep every other night.
Sunday, May 8
Sunday was race day. The marathon started and finished at the Old Town Square, which was 500 meters from our hotel. Anders was able to get wristbands, so Michelle and I would have access to the VIP area. We walked over to the starting area together and stayed in the VIP area until it was time to line up. While we were there, we saw a parade of flags.
The weather was similar to the Boston Marathon (i.e. it was hot and sunny). This time I wore shorts and a singlet, knowing how warm it would feel when the sun was on us. I wore a Tyvek jacket to stay warm in the start area, but I took it off and tied it around my waist just before the race started.
Start corrals are assigned based on your PR. I was assigned to corral C, which seemed entirely too far forward. The elite athletes were in corral A. This was the last race where elite runners could get a qualifying time to make their countries’ Olympic teams. The field included 75 elite runners.
The surface in the start area was cobblestone. About 10% of the course was like this. After walking on cobblestones for the previous two days, I wasn’t looking forward to running on it.
Each runner’s race bib had their name and the flag of their country. There were 320 runners from China.
Before the race, there was music playing on speakers in the start area. It was typical pre-race stuff, like “Eye of the Tiger.” When the gun went off, they started playing Smetana’s “Vltava.” That fired me up as I started running.
I wasn’t sure how my legs would feel. The previous two days, they often got sore after walking so much on cobblestones. When I started running, they felt OK. I started at an easy pace, and felt reasonably comfortable.
Like most European races, the course was marked in kilometers. In the first kilometer, we left Old Town Square and ran toward the river. The route took us right past our hotel. Then we crossed Vltava on the Čechův Bridge. I had planned to do a minute of walking after each kilometer. Instead, I decided to do continuous running for the first few kilometers, to make sure I was warm enough.
In the second kilometer, we ran within sight of Prague Castle. Then we crossed the river again on Charles Bridge. To my left, I could see runners on two other bridges. On the nearest bridge, I saw faster runners who were already about a kilometer ahead. On the more distant bridge, I could see runners from the last few corrals, who were still in the first kilometer.
A few minutes after crossing Charles Bridge, we returned to the left bank on Manasuv Bridge. As we crossed this bridge, we had our best views of Prague Castle.
I took my first walking break at the 3 kilometer mark. After that, I generally walked for one minute every two kilometers. That less walking than I originally planned, but I was running fairly comfortably. I knew I needed to do some walking to delay fatigue, but I wanted to challenge myself to run as much as I could.
Most of the course was smooth pavement, but there were several sections of cobblestones. I found running on the cobblestones to be uncomfortable. It also seemed more tiring than running on pavement.
After 4 or 5 kilometers, Anders caught up to me. He was on a faster pace, but started farther back. We talked for about a minute. Then I had to let him go. As he went by, I wanted to take a picture. Another runner bumped me just as I was taking the camera out of my fanny pack. The camera went flying, hit the pavement, and bounced a few times. I almost got trampled as I stopped to pick it up. After checking to see if it still worked, I hurried to catch up to Anders. I got my picture, but running faster for a few minutes left me with heavy legs.
The aid stations were spaced 3-5 kilometers apart. I somehow missed the first one. By the time I reached the second one, I was noticeably thirsty. I drank two cups at that aid station and went for the largest cups at all the other aid stations. It was a sunny day, and I was already feeling hot.
For about 5K, we followed the left bank of Vltava. After crossing the river and making a big loop, we returned to the old town on the opposite bank. After passing the Intercontinental Prague for a second time, we ran back through the start/finish area in Old Town Square. Then we made a loop through more of the Old Town.
In international races, I always wear my Marathon Globetrotters singlet. Around 13K, I met another Globetrotter from France.
As we left the Old Town, we returned to the river and followed it south through Nové Město (New Town). At 15K, we ran past the Dancing Building. This is one of Prague’s most distinctive examples of modern architecture.
I saw runners from several countries. Many were wearing the colors of their nations’ flags. I saw a couple from Italy who each had their names on the back of their shirts. Then I recognized the names. I saw this same couple in Lisbon last October.
At 16K, we left the river briefly to run a loop that took us between a large city park and Vyšehrad. As I made the turn, I caught my first glimpse of the twin spires of the church within the Vyšehrad citadel.
About halfway through this loop, the sun was at my back, and I could see my shadow in front of me. This was an opportunity to check my mechanics. I could see my arms were pumping, but it didn’t have any sideways motion in my shoulders. The shadow of my hat was moving straight forward with no side-to-side motion. That was encouraging.
When we returned to the river, we continued south through a tunnel under the fortress wall.
This section of the course was out-and-back. I saw Michelle coming back. She was on pace to break four hours. A short time later, I saw Anders again. I reached the halfway mark in 2:20:30. That’s roughly the same as my halfway split in the Boston Marathon a few weeks ago. I was tiring, but I felt better than I did at the same point in that race. I expected to slow down in the second half, but I was optimistic that I could break five hours.
Just past the halfway mark, I reached the turnaround point. On the way back, I could see more of Vyšehrad.
Between 24 and 25K, we crossed Vltava on Palackého Bridge. I took in the view of the river, looking south.
This bridge took us into the Smichov neighborhood. This is a more modern section of town. We were now farther from the tourist area, but still enjoyed good crowd support. I was less observant of the scenery here. Heat and fatigue were taking a toll on me. I stuck to one minute of walking for every two kilometers of running. After each walking break, it was more difficult to resume running. I was struggling. The next time I had the sun at my back, I watched my shadow again. I noticed my head was bobbing slightly from side to side. It was subtle, but it was there. I was having trouble keeping my upper body upright.
We finished our tour of Smichov with an out-and-back along the river. I got one last view of Vyšehrad from across the river.
At 31K, I checked my watch. To break five hours, I needed to average eight minutes per kilometer. We crossed Vltava again on Legionářů Bridge. This was the sixth of eight river crossings. From the bridge, I got to see a different view of Charles Bridge.
At 32K, I checked my watch again. That kilometer took eight minutes. This was going to be too close for comfort. I fought to pick up my effort. With about 10K to go, we passed Charles Bridge and began to retrace our earlier route. The last 10K was a repeat of a loop we did early in the race. From here on out, everything would look familiar. Unfortunately, it felt quite different. The first time, I still felt comfortable. Now I was hot, and my legs were tired.
As I crossed Manasuv Bridge for the second time, I once again had a great view of Prague Castle. This time I didn’t stop to take any pictures. For the rest of the race, I kept my camera in my fanny pack. It was time to focus on finishing the race.
I checked my watch again at 33K. I ran that kilometer in 7:16. That lit a fire under me to keep up my effort. I was due for a walking break, but didn’t take one. I didn’t take any more walking breaks for the rest of the race. For the next six kilometers, I averaged seven minutes. I was building a cushion.
At times, I was noticing a cool breeze. It helped with the heat. Here, the wind was picking up. At one of the aid stations, empty cups were tumbling toward me. The wind was tiring, but the cooling effect was beneficial.
With 5K to go, we crossed the river for the last time. I briefly had the sun behind me again. The shadow of my hat was moving in a straight line. No more sideways wobble. Picking up my pace forced me to improve my posture.
We now had the wind behind us. Without the cooling effect of the breeze, it felt hotter than ever. With about 3K to go, my pace began to deteriorate. Then we ran through a tunnel under a highway. Inside the tunnel, it was even hotter.
After the tunnel, we had to run up a ramp. Then we were alongside the river again. Everything looked familiar. It wouldn’t be too much farther until I ran past my hotel again.
At 41K, we reached a section of uncomfortable cobblestones, and I remembered running here before. We wouldn’t reach smooth pavement again until we made the final turn. We passed a “900 meters to go” sign. To me that meant 400 more meters of cobblestones. I knew the “500 meters to go” sign was right in front of the hotel.
I was relieved to make the final turn. It was smooth pavement for the final 500 meters. There’s actually more cobblestone right at the end, but that section was covered with carpet. I finished in 4:53:31. That’s a 15 minute improvement over my Boston time. It was also the first time since September that I broke five hours.
After receiving my medal and returning my chip, I found my way into the VIP area. Anders was already there and took a picture of me with my medal.
After the race, I learned how some of the elite runners did. The winner finished in 2:07. You’d think that would be fast enough to make the Olympic team, but it wasn’t. He’s from Kenya where there several runners who are even faster. A Czech woman running her first marathon qualified for her team. She’s already represented the Czech Republic in three Olympic games as a cross-country skier. Now she’ll be the first athlete to represent the Czech Republic in both winter and summer Olympic games.
I stayed in the VIP tent for about an hour, visiting with Anders. It was warm enough that I didn’t need to be in any hurry to get inside. Eventually, Michelle joined us, and we met another Marathon Globetrotter from Serbia.
Eventually, I made my way back to the hotel to get cleaned up. Later, several of the runners in our tour group met for drinks at the hotel bar. They also serve food, so I had dinner there. My legs were pretty stiff, and I didn’t feel like going anywhere. After dinner, I tried to get to bed as early as I could.
Monday, May 9
I flew home on Monday. I never enjoy flying home from Europe, because you usually have to book a 6 AM flight to make the connections work. This trip was an exception. My flight from Prague to Amsterdam departed at 8:50. I still had to leave the hotel somewhat early, but I was able to get enough sleep to get by.
I needed to leave the hotel before breakfast started, so as I was checking out, I asked if there was someplace I could get a Coke. The guy at the front desk noticed that my room rate included breakfast, so he had someone bring me a Coke while I was waiting for my cab to arrive. He would have had them prepare coffee, if that’s what I wanted. In general, I thought the service at this hotel was good.
The trip home was … long. I was flying home in the daytime, so I just had to stay awake through a day that was made longer by the seven hour time change. Overseas travel is never easy, but it’s always worth it.
This race represents progress. I’m still slow, but I improved my time by 15 minutes. Running felt more natural today than it did three weeks ago. My hips and core muscles are still weak, but they’re gradually improving. I was able to maintain better upper body alignment in the late miles.
Today my legs are stiff, but nowhere near as stiff as I was the day after the Boston Marathon. After that race, I had some disconcerting soreness in my right adductor. Today, nothing hurts.
I haven’t decided for sure when my next race will be. I have to wait and see how I feel in the next few days. I’m optimistic, however, that running will continue to get easier.