To be honest, I seriously decided not to get into the starting line.
It was almost 7am in my hotel room at Çemberlitaş, the heart of old Istanbul. It was comfortably warm and dry, with a cup of coffee. Beyond the window is the darkness night of Istanbul winter. It was raining, and according to the weather forecast, the temperature is below 10 degree Celsius. How do you expect me to get out of the hotel and walk to Haghia Sophia for our shuttle bus? And running under this weather? Forget it!
But then, when I put my cup of coffee, I found a piece of paper on the table. On it written the famous mantra for every long distance runner: “Pain is Temporary, Pride is Forever”. Yes, I came to Istanbul to run from Asia to Europe. Through the Bosphorus strait. The rain and cold probably temporary, but the pride of running through Bosphorus is forever.
Little that I know about the pain of running in the winter.
“So you are here, flying from Asia, for the Marathon?” Gülay, our walking tour guide looked surprised. We took a city walking tour a day before through Istanbul’s historical building.
“Yes I am”, I said.
“It is the only time of the year where Bosphorus Bridge open for pedestrian”, Gülay, our tour guide told us. “It was possible to walk through the bridge at any day before. But due to some suicide and other incident, it is no longer possible. Good luck with your run.”
Light drizzle welcome me as I open the door of our hotel. I charged forward, careful on the slippery pedestrian. The disposable plastic raincoat provided by the organizer did well to keep me dry, but did poorly to keep me warm. I was soon joined by many others wearing the same disposable raincoat, the other runners, as we walk to Haghia Sophia.
There was already long queue of runners queuing up at Haghia Sophia. It was indeed a different sight compared to our walking tour a day before. Not many people took picture. Instead the chatter is full of running experience, at least from the one that I can understand.
The air feels a bit colder when you stop walking and just standing there. Many people, myself included shake our legs or just move around just to shake of the cold, which made worst by never ending drizzle. To try to forget the cold, I started a conversation with a fellow person behind me.
“Where was your last run”, I asked one of the runners
“Tehran Marathon”, he answered
“Iran?”, I asked in wonder
“Yep……”, he said. Few buses pulled over near the front of the queue
“Wow, I would love to run in there. Good luck with your run”, I said
“You too”, he said. The queue has started to move towards.
The bus provided temporary relieve from the cold. We drove through quiet Istanbul street, passing through roadblocks being set up to secure the running route. In fact, I feel that the bus was backtracking our running route, kind of like a preview. We passed the bridge over Golden Horn, through the running route in Karakoy and Beksitas. The water station along the road is still being set up, including one gate of Vodafone, the event’s main sponsor. And finally, we reach the bridge, the Bosphorus Bridge connecting Asia and Europe.
Our bus stop right on the other side of the Bosphorus bridge, on the Asian side. And with it also goes our place of warmth. The fact that we now have sunlight does nothing to the weather, raining and chilling.
I walk around the starting line to look for the bag drop. Found the bag drop bus for 10k, around 20 of it, followed by 42k. And that’s it. No bag drop for 15k?
“The other side of the street”, one of the organizer’s staff told me. “Right at the end of the road”
“Thanks”, I said. Walking to pass some 30 buses was not fun, but at least it kept me moving than standing still and freeze.
What happen after the bag drop is something that no training can prepare you. We are again standing still under the rain and cold, waiting for the starting time. Only then I feel that my shoes and socks were wet, soaked by the rain. Any long distance runners know that wet shoes and socks are recipe for very painful blisters. It will be a painful run.
Relieve come when finally the flag off ceremony started. We started singing a song which I think national anthem, in Turkish. One by one, we throw or disposable rain coat aside, myself included. No gun shot heard but the pack has finally moved. Slowly at first, getting faster and faster. And finally I passed under the starting gate. Istanbul Marathon has begun.
Running on Bosphorus Bridge was really a one-in-a-lifetime experience. The strait is so big, well over 1 km wide, and is a major shipping lane. Big cargo ship will pass under your feet, under the bridge, just like when I cross it. From the highest point you can see the hilly part of Istanbul’s European side, which made an interesting terrain.
The bridge itself shakes as thousands of runners trampled through, just like several 18-wheelers passing by. Some people stopped in the middle to take picture of this magical moments. However, noone can stand still for too long, as the strong winds that blow was very cold and will make you shiver, no matter how long one has run.
It was close to 2 km mark when we finally off the bridge and turned left. The route was getting dull compared to Bosphorus Bridge experience, so I started to pay attention to fellow runners around me. I ended up following groups of runners with similar shirts. They sing and chat together, and although I don’t understand what they are singing, it helped to pass the time. Some of them have the word “Coach” written on their T-shirt.
And then I heard voices behind me. A group of runners were pushing someone in wheelchair, asking for a way to pass. The coach and his runners spontaneously clapping and shouting words of encouragement. I don’t know what words to say, so I just clap.
The route become more interesting once we turned into the main road of Besiktas. We reached the first water station not far from 5 km mark. They only have water, and blocks of sugar. I took 2 of it, and spit half of it. I think eating sugar is just too much even during a run. There are no sport drinks available.
I was still tagging along with the coach and his team as we turn into a downhill. It was a long downhill, with wet slippery road from the morning rain. Instead of speeding up, I choose to be a bit careful while hoping my knee won’t give up.
Some time later, on the left side, there are a big European-style gate. Several guards manned the security post in front of it, so it must be a very important building. My brain must be freezing from the cold and lack of oxygen, because it took me a while to realize what building it is. It is the gate of Dolmabahçe palace, the palace of the late Ottoman Empire.
From Besiktas, the running route continue to Karakoy, mostly known for Galata Tower and Galata bridge that pass throught he Golden Horn. We didn’t pass through Galata Tower, but we did cross the Golden Horn through Galata Bridge. Nike, one of the main sponsor, set up spectators booth, stage and music on the bridge that made the run more like festival than a sport event. It is definitely a relieve for the sore feet in the 2nd half of the run.
After the bridge and the fanfare, the real test of mental game begin. First, the fellow runners in 10k category has finally reached their finish line, while for us the 15k runners took another road to continue. Not far from the branching, we can see the 15k finish line, across the street from where we are. So close, yet still 5k away, as we need to continue along the Golden Horn for 2.5km, before taking the U-turn to the finish line. The sun has getting higher, and my wet socks has caused painful blister on my feet. The sighting of the finish line only make the run feel harder.
For the rest of run I was running at autopilot mode. I kind of missed the beautiful scenery of Golden Horn, at least until I arrived in the next water station. Thankfully they have cold sponge, and apple! Yes, someone is actually peeling fresh apple for the runners. Whoever he is, I thank him for the fresh apples.
Powered by the apples, I took the U-Turn and run the final 2.5k of the run behind group of people pushing a wheelchair. We were joined by a group of pacers, which we stick until we cross the finish line.
The blister in my feet has become unbearable that I decided to take off my shoes and limping to collect the finisher medal. The cold pavement of Istanbul winter actually helped to numb the pain as I walk away from the finish area with a thought: If I decided to take the Full Marathon, will I be able to finish the race in the cold winter? Definitely not with wet socks, I hope.