Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Race Report: Orlen Warsaw Marathon

Warsaw has two major marathons - one in the fall sponsored by Polish insurance company Powszechny Zakład Ubezpieczeń, which has occurred since 1979; and one in the spring sponsored by Polish oil refiner and petrol retailer Orlen, which was only established in 2013, following the success of the fall race. I started floating the idea of doing a race in Poland at the beginning of 2019, when my friends Thomas and Rafa from Germany (who I met during the Petra Desert Marathon) were in New York City for New Year's weekend.  Rafa was born and raised in southern Poland, so we discussed some of the possibilities.  I zeroed in on the spring Warsaw Marathon just before I left for Egypt in February, and then ultimately decided to pull the trigger about three weeks later.

The website, though, was not the most helpful; while there was an English version of their website, it didn't seem to be as thoroughly updated as the Polish version of the website.  It was difficult to find out more information about the race, such as time limits, the course, and the schedule for the race itself. Rafa helped me with figuring out some of the basic logistics, and I got myself registered with their basic package for only 71 złoty, the equivalent of $18.50. Three packages were available - basic, standard, and premium - which meant race registration with no t-shirt, with a t-shirt, and with a t-shirt and Asics duffle bag, respectively. I got Rafa to join me as well, and while he was planning to be in Berlin for the long weekend, he decided to cut it short to meet with me.

I booked two separate multi-trip flights - long hauls that took me from JFK to Frankfurt on Delta and from Paris to JFK on Air France, then short hauls from Frankfurt to Warsaw on Lufthansa and Warsaw to Paris on LOT Polish.  I left after work on Friday, arriving in Europe on Saturday morning (and ultimately Warsaw in the early afternoon), then left Warsaw on Sunday evening for Paris, with an early morning flight from Paris on Monday morning, arriving in NYC early enough to still work a full day at the office.

Touchdown: Warsaw
The flight left Frankfurt a tiny bit late, so we arrived in Warsaw late, but after deplaning, it was just a matter of following the signs to the train station below the airport.  There was no need to go through immigration, as I already had been stamped through in Frankfurt - the Schengen area included Poland. I had researched the train systems in Poland and downloaded the Jakdojade app, a very effective and highly reviewed public transport planning app where I could also purchase a weekend transport ticket for the Zarząd Transportu Miejskiego (ZTM, or Municipal Transport Authority) and found that I could take a suburban train right into the city to Warszawa Centralna, or the Warsaw Central Station, only a short walk from the hotel that Rafa booked for us. Rafa wouldn't be coming until around 7:30 that evening, so I had quite a bit of time to kill, including picking up our bibs for the race until he arrived.

The Palace of Culture and Science
After dropping off my bags and changing clothes, I headed out to find the Centrum stop for the Warsaw Metro, which was on the other side of Plac Defilad, or Parade Square, one of the largest city squares in the world, and the second largest in the European Union, after the Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Germany. Built in the 1950s, its centerpiece is the monumental Pałac Kultury i Nauki, or Palace of Culture and Science, a center for various companies, public institutions, exhibitions, and cultural activities. After having to find the entrance for the trains going in the correct direction I needed to go, I made my way to the PGE Narodowy, or National Stadium, where the race expo to pick up my bib was located, in a temporary structure in the stadium's northern parking lot.  I managed to also pick up a nice hoodie, featuring the race's logo and the city skyline, with a personalization perfectly fit for me on the back - "JIM - FLY IN. RUN. FLY OUT. REPEAT"
Time to check out the race expo
My new personalized hoodie!
Visiting the Chopin Museum
I headed back into the city by metro and got off at the Nowy Świat-Uniwersytet station with the Muzeum Fryderyka Chopina, or Fryderyk Chopin Museum, as my ultimate destination.  On the way there, I stopped at the Nicholas Copernicus statue, one of the Polish capital's notable landmarks. Only a few blocks away, it stands before the Staszic Palace, the seat of the Polish Academy of Sciences. This was an area that also constituted part of the later miles for the following day's marathon. The Chopin Museum is housed in the Ostrogski Palace, and is a modern biographical museum that centers around composer Fryderyk Chopin. The Museum covers the history and works of Chopin and includes original manuscripts and documents written by the composer, photographs and sculptures of him, and letters. It also hosts piano recitals and competitions of Chopin's works.  Set over four floors, it is quite comprehensive, and has a lot of interactive exhibits that are mostly in Polish with an option to add English subtitles.

The POLIN Museum
After the Chopin Museum, I decided to make my way over to the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Located in within a part of the former Warsaw Ghetto, the museum consists of eight galleries that document and celebrate the thousand-year history of the Jewish community in Poland – once the largest Jewish community in the world – that was almost entirely decimated during the Holocaust. Among the exhibits is a replica of the roof and ceiling of a 17th-century Gwoździec wooden synagogue. Outside the museum is the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 during the Second World War. It is located at the spot where the first armed clash of the uprising took place.
I found a corgi in Poland!  Meet Gavrosz :D
Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, outside of the Polin Museum
Delicious żur, or sour rye soup
By the time I was done with the museum, Rafa had arrived at Warszawa Centralna, so I took the tram down to meet him back at the hotel.  We got him situated back at the room, and then headed out for dinner in Warsaw's Stare Miasto, or Old Town.  Uber is fairly cheap in Warsaw - our 15 minute trip was just under 11 złoty... not even $3!  The sun had gone down, so the buildings all around the cobblestoned old city were lit up for the evening.  We looked around for a decently priced Polish meal for dinner, and decided on Restauracja Zapiecek.  Our delicious pre-race dinner started off with żur, or sour rye soup, a soup traditionally made during the Easter holiday made of fermented rye flour, served with kielbasa (Polish sausage) and jajko (boiled egg); for me, golonka wieprzowa, or pork knuckle in a traditional marinade of honey and beer, with pieczone ziemniaki (baked potatoes), mustard and kapusta zasmażana (sauerkraut); for Rafa, bigos, or "hunter's stew" - a stew of chopped meat of various kinds with sauerkraut and shredded fresh cabbage; and for both of us, washing it all down with a nice pint (or more) of Żywiec beer, a pale lager that's been brewed in the south-central Polish town of Żywiec for the last 150 years!

Zamek Królewski, or Royal Castle
We then walked through Stare Miasto to continue our sightseeing, stopping for photos at the Zamek Królewski, or Royal Castle, a castle residency that formerly served throughout the centuries as the official residence of the Polish monarchs and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Kolumna Zygmunta, or Sigismund's Column, one of Warsaw's most famous landmarks as well as the first secular monument in the form of a column in modern history, commemorating King Sigismund III Vasa, who in 1596 had moved Poland's capital from Kraków to Warsaw; the Archikatedra św. Jana, or St. John's Archcathedral, the mother church of the archdiocese of Warsaw, with its recognizable facade, a reconstruction based on the 14th-century church's presumed appearance (according to an early-17th-century Hogenberg illustration and a 1627 Abraham Boot drawing), as it was largely destroyed during World War II; and the Syrenka, or Mermaid of Warsaw, one of several sculptures of the Warsaw's symbol represented on its coat of arms, spread all around the city.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Despite being filled from dinner, we made a quick stop at a bakery for and a traditional pączek, a holeless donut covered with glaze and bits of orange zest, with a rose petal jam filling, and washed that delectable dessert down with a cup of mulled wine, or  grzane wino!  On our way back to the hotel, we walked by the Grób Nieznanego Żołnierza, or Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to the unknown soldiers who have given their lives for Poland. The tomb was located in Piłsudski Square, named after Józef Piłsudski, one of the founders of the modern independent Poland. The Palace of Culture and Science was also lit up in different colors, so we took an opportunity to have a little photo op before retiring for the night; me super tired from the time change!

Me and Rafa before the race
We woke up the next morning at 7 for the 9am start, getting dressed and out the door by 7:30.  Since I was not going to make it back to the hotel in time to get changed after the race (even with a late check-out), I brought a change of clothes with me to be able to shower at a mobile unit at the finish, a feature of many European races, and left my backpack in the hotel's storage room. We walked over to the Centrum stop of the Warsaw Metro, and encountered a group of Italians looking super lost trying to figure out how to get to the start. With my limited Italian, I just said "Seguimi!" or "Follow me!" and helped direct them in the right direction.  The trains weren't terribly crowded, and we made it to the Stadium with ample time to acclimatize to the moderate mid 40s temps.  The start village in the stadium parking lot was nicely arranged, and I found the area to leave my bags where I would plan to come back to them some five hours later.  Rafa and I headed to our start chute, and assembled amongst the thousands prepping for the marathon on ulica Wybrzeże Szczecińskie, the road along the eastern bank of the Vistula River. The road was divided by a fence, where runners doing the 10K (the only other distance being run that day) were on the other side of the road, heading in the opposite direction.  After the Polish national anthem was played, they were off, and then us.  We made our way across the startline, heading south at approximately 3 minutes past the hour, the temps at a balmy 46° with a light wind.
Lots of runners raring to go.  (Photo by Rafael Lochowski)
Rafa taught me how to say “98th marathon” in Polish!
Ready to go at the Orlen Warsaw Marathon startline!
Early miles in Praga Południe
We turned left onto aleja Księcia Józefa Poniatowskiego, just south of the stadium, as we made our way east along an out and back section that would take us about 1.5 miles out past Skaryszewski Park and Kamionkowskie Błonia Elekcyjne, two large park areas in the Praga Południe district, on aleja Waszyngtona (named after first American president George Washington!) The lead runners sped right past us, clocking in an incredibly fast pace, the first of a few times I'd see them along the route. We'd loop around ulice Kinowa, Zbaraska, and Międzyborska through a residential area before taking aleja Waszyngtona back the way we came. Before long, the 5K mark was already upon us, and as I cruised down a nice downhill onto Wał Miedzeszyński, I crossed the timing mat in 30:53.  Not bad!
On the Aleja Waszyngtona next to Skaryszewski Park
Heading deeper into the neighborhood of Saska Kępa, we ran along the wide divided highway's northbound lanes, fully closed to traffic.  We turned left onto ulica Zwycięzców at the 3.5 mile mark, and just as we were doing so, the lead runners were already making their way up Wał Miedzeszyński on the southbound lanes nearly 4.5 miles in front of me! Holy cow, they were going fast.  The area we were now running in was largely residential, a family friendly area dotted with blocky and conventional Eastern European eleven to twelve story apartment buildings. Being that it was Palm Sunday (Niedziela Palmowa in Polish), we began to see a lot of this area's residents mulling around, preparing to make their way to church, with palmy wielkanocne in hand of varying sizes - colorful handmade easter palms made of reeds, grasses, willow branches, catkins, dried and artificial flowers, or other decorative elements - to be blessed during mass that day. It was made even more evident as we ran down the main street of the neighborhood, ulica Saska, as it turned into ulica Bora-Komorowskiego. Because it was a major holiday, especially for this largely Catholic and Christian country, it was the first time I've felt during a race that we were kind of disrupting the locals' Sunday routine... but what could we do, it was already happening.

On Wał Miedzeszyński heading north
We ran through the neighborhood of Gocław, turning right onto ulica gen. Augusta Emila Fieldorfa “Nila,” then before long, were back on the Wał Miedzeszyński heading north, alongside the Vistula River.  I crossed the 10K mat in 1:01:37, a split time about eleven seconds faster than the previous 5K.  It was also while passing through water stations in this area when I started to take note of how close the Polish word for water, "voda," was to vodka.  I could've used a shot right about then... there was a guy even joking to have some, and I wished it so were true... it might've made me feel a little warmer! It was pretty quiet and largely unremarkable as we ran along this stretch of road, enjoying the flatness as we continued on northward, eventually running past the start gate on ulica Wybrzeże Szczecińskie for the second time; we were 8.5 miles in, and the slower runners of the 10K were making their way to the finish line on the other side of the road.  The Świętokrzyski Bridge, the cable stayed bridge we would be crossing over twice, came into view, and eventually, we made our left turn onto it, heading over the Vistula River into the city centre of Warsaw.
Crossing the Świętokrzyski Bridge
Now on the western bank of the Vistula, we continued west along ulica Tamka.  We passed another one of Warsaw's mermaid statues, just out of sight from our course, but as I continued forward, I was surprised to see the lead runners for a THIRD time, coming up the ulica Wybrzeże Kościuszkowskie on our left. They were turning onto our street, 20 miles (32K) into their race; we were only coming upon the 15K mark, which I hit in 1:33:59.  But here's where things got a little messy; because the elites were turning left, they were hugging the south side of ulica Tamka - but we were going to be turning left soon, onto ulica Leona Kruczkowskiego. Course marshals held us back for a precious few seconds as the lead runners sped by, continuing straight ahead, before letting us make our left turn.  This was the only part of the race where I felt the course layout was not well planned out, and there was a misjudgment in how to manage the runners turning versus the runners heading straight.

Heading south into Powiśle
We made our left turn onto ulica Leona Kruczkowskiego, and proceeded south, as we passed a smattering of Warsaw's parks and green spaces in the Powiśle neighborhood, the first neighborhood in the city centre to be reconstructed after World War II. The road changed names into ulica Rozbrat, as we continued southward into the Ujazdów neighborhood and Łazienki Park, the largest park in the city, occupying some 188 acres of land.  We ran past the Marshal Józef Piłsudski Legia Warsaw Municipal Stadium (also known as the Polish Army Stadium) while on ulica Myśliwiecka, which houses the Legia Warsaw football club.  We then passed the Spanish and Indian embassies, the first two of many we would be running by during the course of the race.

At the Jan III Sobieski Monument
We turned right onto ulica Agrykola, running along a bridge past an impressive monument dedicated to Polish king Jan III Sobieski over one of the ponds in the park. Sitting opposite of the statue was the rear facade of the Pałac na Wodzie, or Palace on the Isle, a lavish 18th century summer palace on an island on the other side of the pond. During World War II, the occupying Germans drilled holes in the palace walls in preparation for blowing it up. They never got around to carrying out the planned destruction. We then turned right up aleja Tomasza Hopfera, making our way past Ujazdów Castle (Zamek Ujazdowski) opposite the Piaseczynski Canal, now a contemporary art museum. We continued north on our first real uphill of the entire race, finding our way onto ulica Myśliwiecka, then ultimately ulica Górnośląska and ulica Piękna, as it curved past several more embassies (one of note being the French Embassy, with its very modern facade) and the Sejm and Senate Complex, the home of Polish parliament, climbing about 100 feet over roughly half a mile.
Running through the park past Ujazdów Castle
Along the first real uphill of the race on ulica Myśliwiecka
Embassy Row on Aleje Ujazdowskie
At around the mile 12 mark, we turned left onto aleje Ujazdowskie, as we skirted past Ujazdów Park, one of the most picturesque parks in the city. We continued to run past a few more embassies and government buildings, before taking a slight right onto aleja Jana Chrystiana Szucha past more of the same, then found ourselves on ulica Puławska in the Mokotów district, an area that suffered far less damage during World War II than other parts of the Warsaw and is one of the few well-preserved areas of the city that is becoming one of its fastest growing business centres.  I reached the 20K mark in 2:06:49, and the halfway point of the race just under six minutes later at 2:12:47.  I was in a good spot to still run strong, coming in under my 2:15 first half goal, and still get in under 5 hours for the finish!
Mokotów district straightaway
The American Ambassador's residence
Along ulica Puławska was our first real nice urban straightaway, where the warmth of the day and the general peacefulness of the surroundings helped me maintain a decent pace right around a 10 minute mile. I felt really good, just enjoying the atmosphere, watching the trams run back and forth on the median of the divided street.  We passed by Arkadia Park, and hidden amongst the trees, the Pałac Królikarnia, a historic classicist palace, home of a sculpture museum dedicated to Polish sculptor Xawery Dunikowski.  Soon, we turned left onto ulica Idzikowskiego, running downhill, but also passing right by the residence of the American ambassador to Poland, hidden behind high walls.  The American flag was blowing in the wind, and was a nice sight to see before hitting the 15 mile mark and soldiering on. I would hit the 25K mark of the race at 2:38:28, maintaining a steady pace from the 20K mark.

The long northward run through Sielce
Continuing to pass a few more embassies, we turned left onto ulica Sobieskiego, to begin our journey northward through the neighborhood of Sielce, for a long straightaway.  The further north we got, as the road changed names to ulica Belwederska, the closer the spire of the Palace of Culture and Science came into view.  Seeing this may have kept my pace steady, as I maintained a strong 10 minute mile pace even through what is usually my rough patch of the race, around the 16 to 20 mile mark.  We turned right onto ulica Jurija Gagarina, passing the south end of the massive Łazienki Park, then cut our way right along its southeastern border on ulica Podchorążych, continuing to wind its way northward.  We turned left onto ulica Suligowskiego, which would empty us out onto ulica Czerniakowska, one of the main streets in Mokotów district.  We would continue on this busy road northward, occupying the furthest left lane, as traffic rushed by in the other lanes.  We'd pass the Polish Army Stadium for the second time, this time from the other side.

The second "uphill" section on Tamka
Being right off of the river, this ended up being one of the windiest parts of the race. We would reach the 30K mark along here, which I'd hit in 3:10:02, a steady pace that continued to match my 20K and 25K splits - perhaps even just a hair faster - and still feeling pretty strong.  I had managed to keep up a steady pace through what's always been the toughest part mentally for me during a marathon, something I hadn't really ever done before. At this point, I realized I very well could PR that day, or at the least, get one of my fastest marathon times.  The road continued north, as we passed underneath a highway interchange off the Łazienkowski Bridge, then eventually merged onto Wybrzeże Kościuszkowskie, where we had seen the elite runners turn onto ulica Tamka.  We made the turn, and crossed the 20 mile mark, and from then on, it was just a mental game for me, continuing to calculate in my head what time I could actually finish in.

The granite roads of Old Town Warsaw
Ulica Tamka took us up only the second "real" uphill of the race, one which I was expecting, as we passed by the Chopin Museum I had visited the day before. The road zigzagged as it made its way to Ulica Nowy Świat, one of the main historic thoroughfares of Warsaw.  We passed familiar sites from my stroll the day before, as the road changed into ulica Krakowskie Przedmieście, one of the best known and most prestigious streets of Warsaw, part of the Royal Route that led southward from the city's Old Town. I took my time as I navigated this street, as the whole stretch was surfaced with grey granite; though smooth, they proved to still be a little slippery and hard on my knees compared to the asphalt we had been running on all this time. We passed by many important buildings which I had seen the night before, but now in the daylight, such as the Presidential Palace and the campus of Warsaw University.
Captured by the official race photographer in Old Town!
The heart of Old Town Warsaw, ulica Krakowskie Przedmieście
The Supreme Court building up ahead
We took a left on ulica Miodowa, skirting the edge of the Old Town (and thankful we wouldn't have to run over the much more uneven cobblestoned surface of its streets!) past the Krasiński Palace, a baroque palace sitting opposite the Polish Supreme Court building and its unique colonnade, all on Plac Krasińskich or Krasinki Square.  We passed underneath a passthrough, as the road turned into ulica Bonifraterska, and passed the 35K mark at 3:43:00 - slightly slower than the previous miles, but still on pace to be under 4:30, something I never thought would've happenned today! The last embassy we'd pass the entire day was the Chinese Embassy, in a massive building off of this street; we happened to also be in an area of the city that was once part of the northeastern corner of the former Warsaw Ghetto; in fact, there was once a wooden footbridge, one of four such structures built in the ghetto, near this area.

Quiet streets in Żoliborz
We turned right onto ulica Konwiktorska in Warsaw's Nowe Miasto, as we passed yet another football stadium, the Polonia Warsaw Stadium, home of the oldest existing Warsaw sports club, Polonia Warszawa, a club foudned in 1911 - and main rival of Legia Warsaw, who's stadium we had passed twice earlier in the day.  The route then turned left onto ulica Zakroczymska, briefly running into the Żoliborz district of Warsaw on ulica Krajewskiego. We turned right onto Wybrzeże Gdańskie, staring down the final miles of our southward run down along the highway, as Świętokrzyski Bridge and the PGE Narodowy Stadium's recognizable "crown" came into view.  We hit mile 23 and shortly thereafter only had a 5K left to go; my watch still had me on par for a strong finish. At mile 24, we veered right, as the main road was ramping down to a tunnel underneath the Copernicus Science Centre, which we would pass by, past a throng of cheering spectators. We turned left back over the Świętokrzyski Bridge, and began our run toward the finish on Wybrzeże Szczecińskie. I skipped out on taking a photo of the 40K mark, since after glancing at my watch, I knew a sub 4:30 was still possible, but I couldn't stop in order to do so.  In fact, my 40K split was a 4:15:19, consistent with the split I had posted at the 35K mark.
Mile 24, with the Copernicus Science Center, Świętokrzyski
Bridge, and PGE Narodowy Stadium in view
Celebrating with a victory headstand!
But I had no clue there was still one short out and back to run, right at mile 25. We turned left onto ulica Sokola, briefly a 1/4 mile out and a 1/4 mile back, before we were back on Wybrzeże Szczecińskie to pass underneath the start gate for a third time.  Rounding the stadium, we turned left onto the sidewalk path, then turned left once again as the finish line came into view.  I pushed.  I pushed hard.  And I crossed that finish line surprised with what I accomplished - I did a 4:29:14, enough for my second fastest time ever... and my 98th marathon.  It would actually signal the start of a slew of faster marathon times I would end up running throughout the remainder of 2019.  The temperature had risen into the mid 50s, and I felt incredible... invincible, even - having finished with such a fast time for me!
Enjoying my new bling
Time to try a bar mleczny!
After taking my headstand photo with the stadium as my background and using the mobile showers at the race, I took the train back to downtown Warsaw, and headed back to the hotel to find Rafa, who had checked out, and was waiting for me.  Hungry, we set off to find Złota Kurka, a bar mleczny, or milk bar. Going to a bar mleczny is a must-do experience when in Poland. These cafeterias, ubiquitous features of every Polish city’s culinary scene and seemingly stuck in a past decade, popped up in the country at the turn of the 20th century. Ever since the days of communist rule, cheap and cheerful eats have been pouring out of the kitchens of these low-key joints. Although the typical bar mleczny had a menu based on dairy items, these establishments generally also served other, non-dairy traditional Polish dishes as well. Locals love them, and menu items will never break the bank either - we ordered tons of food that ended up only costing us 29,70 PLN, or roughly $7. Among our eats at Złota Kurka (literally, “golden chicken”) included: meat dumplings (pyzy z mięsem i słonina) and pierogies with cheese and potatoes (pierogi ruskie ze słonina); potato pancakes (placki ziemniaczane); baked beans (fasola po bretonsku); breaded chicken cutlet (kotlet z kurczaka panierowany); and pancakes with cottage cheese, cream and sugar (nalesniki z serem, śmietaną i cukrum).
So much good traditional Polish food... and for roughly $7!
Sights inside the Dollhouse Museum
Definitely full after that large meal, we met up with Rafa's sister Iza who lives in a suburb of Warsaw. She kept our bags in her car, then drove us back up to Plac Defilad, where she and her brother could grab a coffee while I headed up to the observation deck on the 30th floor of the Palace of Culture and Science. While it defines the city skyline and is the tallest building in Poland (and one of the tallest in the European continent), the building is controversial due to it being viewed as a "harsh reminder of Soviet occupation;" it was constructed during mass violations of human rights during Warsaw's occupation by the Stalin-led regime. Nevertheless, the observation deck is one of the city's top tourist attractions and offers some panoramic 360º views of the entire city from 374 feet up.  After a brief photo op, I came back down, and decided to hit up the Dollhouse Museum, a fascinatingly interesting collection of over 120 historical houses, shops, and rooms made for dolls.
Incredible views from the top of the Palace of Culture and Science
One last jump for joy!
By the time I was finished, I came out to find Rafa and Iza, and we were ready to head to the airport.  Before getting in the car, I got a quick photo with the large lit-up "Warszawa" sign just outside of the palace, and then Iza drove us down to the airport, where we had ample time to get through security, then sit in the Preludium Lounge, thanks to my membership with Priority Pass.  After a couple beers, we bid adieu to each other - him back to Dusseldorf, while I flew off to Paris.  I spent the evening in Paris at the Holiday Inn next to the airport, and flew out the following morning on an 8am flight to head back to NYC.  Thrilled to have finished not only another marathon in a new country, but a fast one for me, at that!  Time would tell if I could keep up this new found "speed."

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