Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Race Report: Great Breweries Marathon

The route for the Great Breweries
It was actually a bit of happenstance when I came upon the website for the Great Breweries Marathon last year.  It had already happened, but what intrigued me was the run through three of Belgium's finest breweries, including starting and ending at the globally distributed home brewery of Duvel, in the middle of the Flemish Brabant countryside, where Kleine Brabant, the Dender region and Pajottenland meet. It was a fairly new race, having only run its third annual event in 2018, and being in June, the temperatures soared into the high 80s and even 90s on race day.  They pushed the event back into early May for the 2019 season, and I decided to go in on it. There is at least one other "beer centered" race in the country (the rich beer culture in Belgium is famous beyond its borders), which is the popular Beer Lovers Marathon in Liege, but that race sold out before I could register. So, in mid May, I prepared myself for this race, flying into Brussels, and taking the short train ride to the city of Mechelen, which would be where I would stay the night before the race. After the quick 82 minute Thalys train from Brussels-Midi to Paris Gare du Nord, I arranged to stay overnight in Paris at a hotel near Charles de Gaulle Airport on Sunday evening, taking the early morning flight back to New York on Monday morning.

Brusselpoort gate near my hotel
I flew out of JFK on Friday night, taking a Virgin flight that arrived in London early on Saturday morning, then had a few hours of layover before taking a 45-minute long Brussels Airlines flight to hop over the North Sea to Brussels.  We landed a little after 1PM, getting through immigration pretty quickly and then jumping right onto a train headed into the city of Mechelen, only some 15 minutes away. Thank goodness for the NMBS/SNCB (National Railway Company of Belgium, styled using the Dutch and French abbreviations) app, I easily purchased a rail ticket off there to have on my phone to get through the turnstiles for the railway station at the airport; I missed one at 1:30, so I had to wait til close to 2pm for the next one.  Upon getting off at the Mechelen station, I easily walked over to my hotel, the Best Western Gulden Anker, roughly a mile away, near the Brusselpoort, an imposing city gate structure dating back to the 13th century that is the sole remaining part of the original twelve gates of the city.

Mechelen street scene
Check-in was pretty easy, and they put me in a hotel room located directly above the entrance of the hotel, which at first I was wary of in case of noise; I'd be so tired later on that night that I wouldn't even notice.  After dropping off my bags, I decided to go explore, and took off north along Hoogstraat into the city center.  Being that it was already around 3PM, I knew if I had any sightseeing to do, I only had a few hours before sites would close, so I made my way straight to Grote Markt, the central square in the historic centre of town.

Mechelen's Grote Markt
The city of Mechelen is located halfway between Antwerp and Brussels. Mechelen is one of the Flanders region’s most prominent cities, and was notably a centre for artistic production during the Northern Renaissance, when painters, printmakers, illuminators and composers of polyphony were attracted by patrons such as Margaret of York, Margaret of Austria and Hieronymus van Busleyden. Today it is a vibrant town, mixing trendy and traditional. Its carillon school is world-renowned, training students from all over the world in the art of playing carillons, sets of 24 or more bells hung in church towers. Shops downtown are often housed in buildings with the old-style Flemish architecture.

St. Rumbold's Cathedral
At that point in the afternoon, the Grote Markt was busy with people, many sitting for a snack or drink at one of the cafes that line the square.  On one end of the square is the imposing tower of St. Rumbold's Cathedral (Sint-Romboutskathedraal), the largest of the 8 churches in Mechelen. Its high tower (though not as high as originally planned - construction stopped early due to lack of money), is easily recognizable and dominates the surroundings. For centuries it held the city documents, served as a watchtower, and could sound the fire alarm. Despite its characteristic incompleteness, this World Heritage monument is 320 feet high and its 514 steps are mounted by thousands of tourists every year, following the footsteps of Louis XV, Napoleon, King Albert I, and King Baudouin with queen Fabiola in 1981. The original 49 carillon bells are housed in the tower, each with its own name, as well as a second full set that are regularly played over the summer months; the total weight of both sets of carillons is 80 tons. On the other end of the square is Mechelen City Hall, which consists of the Palace of the Grand Council, the belfry, and the cloth hall. The neo-Gothic style palace, built in 1526, was unfinished for almost 400 years (also due to lack of money) and wasn't completed until 1911, utilizing the original 16th century plans.

Museum Hof van Busleyden
As I continued walking north from the Grote Markt, the carillon bells at St. Rumbold's began to play, which marked a quite amazing part of the day, enjoying something so uniquely Belgian.  I passed by the Museum Hof van Busleyden, housed in the stately Mechelen City Palace which had been recently renovated and reopened to the public last year. It is an eclectic museum with items of local interest: paintings, sculpture, tapestries, the town mascot, and the chains from the old jail - there's a little of everything. I decided not to spend too much time here as the museum's exhibits were all in Dutch, but I did enjoy the early Renaissance style architecture of the building.

Kazerne Dossin's main exhibit
Ultimately, I wanted to head to Kazerne Dossin, which sat further north of the city centre along the River Dijle. Mechelen's more infamous recent history dates to World War II under German occupation, when the extensive railway structure (due to an industrial revolution of metalworking industries within the city) led to the Nazi forces to choose the city for a detention and deportation camp in the former Dossin Barracks. It was here that Belgian Jews and Romani (of which approximately 90 percent of Belgium's Jewish population were living in Antwerp and Brussels) were sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in German-occupied Poland during the Holocaust in World War II. Between 1942 and 1944, 25,484 Jews and 352 Romanis were transported through the complex to the concentration camps in the east. Two-thirds were killed upon arrival. By the time of the liberation and the end of the Holocaust in Belgium, only 1,221 Belgian Jews had survived. The Kazerne Dossin museum building, established in 1996, is situated on five floors, each devoted to telling the story of these atrocities. The top floor is an observation deck, from which one can view all of the city of Mechelen, as well as the original site of the barracks next door.  I spent just over an hour here up until the museum closed at 5pm, taking in as much as I could to learn about the sad history that occurred in this place.

Outside of Brouwerij Het Anker
After the museum closed, I became quite hungry, so I sought out a place for dinner. I made my way to Brouwerij Het Anker, one of the oldest breweries in Belgium, dating back to 1471, when it was founded by a community of Beguines. It is best known for the Gouden Carolus Classic beer, a dark ale named after Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was raised in Mechelen. It’s the main ingredient in their recipe for vlaamse stoverij, also known in French as carbonade flamande -Flemish Stew, one of the national dishes of Belgium.  This hearty meal is basically similar to the French beef Bourguignon, but using beer instead of red wine. This dish was accompanied by the customary Belgian Fries and mayonaisse, and also a chicory salad (using locally grown Belgian Endive, or witloof). I also got to try the Anker Boscoli Cool Fruit Beer, a white ale enriched and sweetened with natural fruit juices. Apparently the brasserie at this brewery is quite popular, as I arrived before the evening rush and was able to easily get a table for one; they had been already fully booked for days after the 7pm hour.
Vlaamse Stoverij in Flemish, otherwise known as Carbonade Flamande in French... so delicious!
Gouden Carolus beer to wash it all down...
I came back through town to the Grote Markt to head back down to my hotel, and realized that nearly every shop was already closed, which left me thinking that there really didn't seem to be much to do in the city centre in the evening!  So I headed back to my hotel, and already tired from the six hour time change, I ended up falling asleep by 8:30pm, much like last week in Prague - but not feeling sickly this time!

Welcome sign in Breendonk!
I woke up around 6:30 and got dressed and out the door, checking out of the hotel to walk over to the train station, as a shuttle with the Great Breweries Marathon was to be parked there waiting for participants to provide rides from Mechelen to the start area at the Duvel Moortgat Brewery in Breendonk 20 minutes away.  We were the first bus to leave, and we left barely full - perhaps only 15 of us in the massive tour bus, mostly international runners, since I wasn't the only clueless one when the driver started to try to speak with us in Dutch.

Our startline
We arrived as the area was still being set up, and there seemed to be a miscommunication with where the driver was to drop off runners coming by bus from Mechelen; he started arguing with a woman with a Marathon "Crew" T shirt who was seemingly in charge of traffic at the brewery, which was served as the Athlete's Village for pre-race preparations and post-race celebrations. Eventually we were let off for a short walk to the village, which was superbly organized; all bibs were being picked up race morning, and since we were among the first there, it was very quick to retrieve, as well as the t-shirt.  We had more than an hour to lounge around as the crowds began to grow inside the village; I parked myself on a lounge chair situated near the t-shirt booth, trying to soak up the sun as clouds occasionally raced by, getting annoyed if someone was standing in my way.  Eventually, with about a half hour prior to the 9:15am race start, I took off my sweatpants and jacket (it was a brisk morning, in the mid 40s) and dropped off my bag to walk over to the startline. I positioned myself near the 4:15 pacers, which was knowingly a bit aggressive, but I knew being near them would at least keep me on pace for a sub 2:10 first half, which was my "short term" goal.

Running through residential Breendonk
Running through the countryside
We headed off a couple minutes after 9:15, taking off down the quiet residential street on Breendonk-Dorp, making a sharp angled right turn onto Molenheide, which turned into Groenstraat to make our way out of the town.  We passed a talented busker playing some jazz on his soprano saxophone, accompanied by canned instrumental background music, as we turned left to begin our run through the Flemish farmland.

Dirt trails in Londerzeel
It was pretty quiet out here, as there were no spectators - just us runners, and the views of the flatlands around us.  We'd pass by working farms with cows watching us as we ran by.  We came back out on the asphalt roads near the neighboring village of Sint-Jozef, cutting through the edge of town, past quaint Belgian homes as it merged into Londerzeel.  Before long, we were already three miles into the race, as the single lane streets passed through the surrounding farmland. At one point, we even had to run across a dual tracked dirt trail, made by the wide tires of a tractor. We crossed a road-level train track as well, which had timing sensors on both sides just in case any of runners were held back by scheduled train service passing through the area. I was luckily not affected. During this time, it also rained very briefly, but only a little bit of a drizzle lasting maybe ten minutes at most.
These Belgian cows go moo, so I do too...

Entering Brouwerij Palm and Brouwerij De Hoorn, in the town of Steenhuffel.
Musicians in medieval garb!
All decked out in a knight's armor!
It got decidedly more rural the further out we got, but by mile 6, the scenery began to change, as we approached the Diepensteyn Estate, with its majestic medieval castle in view.  Running on cobblestones (Prague redux?!), we turned into the complex's drive and ran toward the castle, crossing the drawbridge and moat (!!), and encountered a couple musicians in medieval garb and a man in a full knight's costume. The castle was the site of our first brewery stop, the home of Brouwerij Palm and Brouwerij De Hoorn, in the town of Steenhuffel.

Running toward the storehouse
Along a path lined with stacked crates marked with the "Palm" logo, we entered the brewery's main storehouse, where we ran through a marked pathway.  More stacked crates lined the route, while music was piped in via speakers - at that moment, it was Adele's "Chasing Pavements," a fittingly perfect song for the fact we were 10K into our 42K run on the streets of rural Flanders.  We crossed a timing mat as we passed through the warehouse, clocking in a 1:00:18 split.  We emerged out of the warehouse, passing by a cheer station of onlookers drinking some of the beer brewed from that very brewery.  A sign had indicated runners continue on in one direction, while walkers passed through the area where they were serving; they had non-alcoholic beer available for us runners, which I didn't think was very fair!  I exclaimed, bewildered... "alcohol-free?!" as those cheering laughed... oh well, I still had a race to run, so I continued on.

Running through the Palm Brewery Storehouse

Running through the Palm Brewery Storehouse

Pointing toward the hop garden...
All of the hops, just starting to grow!
We passed a small hop garden, where vines of hop plants were being trained to grow into the flowers that are used for bittering and flavoring some of the beers, particularly this brewery's blonde beer variety, known as Palm Hop Select.  We continued onto the aptly named Brouwerijstraat, down a quiet residential street in the middle of the town of Steenhuffel, turning left to continue along an asphalt path through the countryside.  Literally, just a single lane path that cuts through the non-gridlike flat plots of farmland with random houses with neighbors hundreds of feet away, over the next several miles.  Every so often, there would be people out there watching us run, but more often than not, they were involved with the race itself, as course marshals, making sure we were staying on the correct path of the race!
Running between the plots of farmland
Some of the fun signage along the course.
Har har har...
Rnning along a gravel pathway
After four miles of running, seemingly aimlessly, through the countryside, we turned right onto a short segment of street, before turning back onto crushed gravel pathways meandering through a lightly forested area.  We emerged out into an open area half a mile later, to then end up running turning into a thickly forested area that was the Buggenhout Bos, a beautiful dirt pathway that snaked its way under a canopy of oak trees within this medieval forest, the largest forest of East Flanders.  It was truly magical as we ran through this area, eventually reaching the halfway point in 2:08:41.  The 4:15 pacers had caught up at that point, perfect timing as they were right in front of me as we crossed the split mat.  The course had some short out-and-back sections within the forest, allowing for a chance to interact with runners who I had been already playing a bit of leapfrog with since leaving Steenhuffel.  My pace had slowed down a tiny bit, tired from roughly ten miles of sub-10 minute pace.  We exited the forest onto Bosstraat as it made its way into the center of the town of Buggenhout, where our second brewery spot was located.  Meanwhile, back at the start in Breendonk, the 25km runners had begun their race roughly two hours after we did. 
Running through the Buggenhout Bos
Two beer or not two beer...
Bosteels Brewery
We turned left onto Maalderijstraat, where the street was divided with runners coming up the other way.  We entered the narrow entrance gate of Bosteels Brewery just before the 17th mile of the race, literally going in, looping around the building, and coming right back out... a little disappointing to see so little of the brewery itself, but it was what it was.  Again, here, there was a separation between runners and walkers, but I wouldn't let it stop me, as I gestured to a spectator drinking beer if I could have a sip; she gladly obliged, and I drank some to the laughs of other spectators.  It was a nice "kick" as I continued on out Maalderijstraat.  The 4:30 pacers started to come in hot, and I knew I had lost a bit of time in my slowed down last couple miles.

Crossing the center of Flanders
We made our way out of Buggenhout, following Spoorwegstraat and Sportveldstraat on a lengthy straightaway that hugged the elevated trainline that ran from Mechelen west toward Ghent. I made up a little bit of time here, picking my pace up ever so slightly.  We were now three hours into our race, as we took the roads heading northward into the town of Opdorp, the 4:30 pacers literally right behind my tail.  We entered the town of Opdorp and crossed through a grassy section of the course that literally cut right through the center of the town's square, and where local authorities managed the traffic to stop traffic and let us cross through.

Another fun sign along the route
We then followed Vekenstraat northeastward out of Opdorp and back into the countryside.  I crossed the 30km mat in 3:09:06, only about two minutes ahead of the 4:30 pacers.  They eventually passed me somewhere over the next mile, almost just like last week.  My pace slowed considerably, and I felt like I had started to run out of gas.  I chalk it up to the fact that I only ate or drank during four of the last seven days that week, due to contracting strep and not being able to swallow.  I was just exhausted, and working my ass off to just finish these last six miles!  We passed the 20 mile mark, and not long after, the geographical center of the Flanders region, aka the "Middelpunt van Vlaanderen," as evidenced from a sign put up by the race. Over the next mile, we'd run past the Lippelobos, another forested area, which we would run along the edge of on Kruisheide.
Passing the 30km mark of the race

40km completed... just 2.2 to go!
The last 4.5 miles of the race weren't as alone as we had been, as the 25km runners, especially those coming in with 2:30 goal times, merged with us right after we made a bridge crossing over a canalway onto Marselaerdreef.  The narrow roadway became a little narrower, and even a slight bit crowded as these "fresher" runners made their way past, still encouraging us who had many more kilometers under our feet than them. The terrain briefly changed once again to a section of dual tracked dirt trail, much like what we had encountered early on in the race. Eventually we were back on residential roads, seeing signs for the municipality of Puurs-Sint-Amands (where Breendonk was located), and we were on familiar looking streets.  Soon, we heard faint strains of jazz, and there was the soprano saxophone player from the first mile of the race, STILL there and entertaining runners coming into the finish as we entered Breendonk.

Entering Duvel Moortgat Brewery!
We turned left onto Beenhouwerstraat, with the archway of the Duvel Moortgat Brewery in view, our final brewery to run through.  Like at Palm, we were guided through a course with stacks of branded crates lining our way.  There were many more spectators here (since it was the finish after all, and then we were led for the final push, which took us around the perimeter of the main brewery building.  The last several hundred yards of the race even took us over flattened grass - it seems we needed to have yet another different bit of terrain to run over before finishing!  Making the final turn, there was our carpeted finish line; I veered slightly to the right to be able to run alone through the marathon finish line, and I crossed in 4:34:25, over a minute faster than last week!
Finish line isn't too much further...
A couple turns before crossing the finish!
The finish line!

The contents of the box of beer!
I eagerly picked up my medal and found my way to the registration booths, that had now been turned into the "gift box" retrieval area, where finishers could get their box of beer.  25km runners got a box of four beers, while full marathoners got a box of six - from all the breweries we had passed through.  In addition, we had the option of getting three beers from the draught of our choice.  After getting my headstand photo taken just outside of the Athlete's Village with the "Duvel" neon sign high on top of a building on the brewery campus, I got my backpack in the gear check area, threw my warm clothes back on, and then found a spot to park myself and begin drinking through my beer prize!  I made a few new Belgian friends in the process, who explained to me how a bit higher in alcohol content these beers were than the Belgian beers I'd find in America... without having much to eat, I definitely started feeling it after finishing my third!
Victory Headstand at Duvel Moortgat Brewery!
Enjoying a Tripel Karmeliet!
After spending a good two hours celebrating my 102nd marathon finish, I made my way out to find the shuttles that would take us back to Mechelen. I had three remaining beers still - after drinking two of the bottles, gifting the IPA to one of the Belgians at my table (I don't like IPAs), and drinking one of my free draught beers (the Tripel Karmeliet from Brouwerij Bosteels, the one I had a little sip of at mile 17, was hands down my favorite!) I gingerly put them in my backpack to consolidate what I was carrying.  Somehow in my post marathon and drinking haze, I ended up misplacing a small red bag that contained my European iPhone charger adapter and my earbuds on the bus, which I didn't realize until several hours later when I was already en route to Paris. Thankfully it wasn't an expensive loss, but I wasn't going to get them back.  We arrived back in Mechelen, and I was able to get on the next train into Brussels Centraal arriving some twenty minutes later.

Walking through Brussels
I had three hours in Brussels to spend, so like the last time I was in this city, I decided to just walk through it and enjoy.  Interestingly enough, the last time I was here (thirteen years ago), I only had three hours to spend here, too.  So I made my way to the central square of the city, iin Grand Place, where I knew a few of the important sites were... this included having to see Manneken Pis, a two foot tall bronze sculpture of a naked little boy urinating into a fountain basin.  Surprisingly, this statue is the best-known symbol of the people of Brussels, and embodies their sense of humor.  I also decided to go out to find Jeanneke Pis, his female counterpart representing a little girl squatting in the act of urinating - far less visited, but not too far away either.  I also made a stop for my usual memento and some chocolate, before continuing on to find a place to eat (which I eventually found at the Brussels-Midi train station) before my train to Paris.
The train ride to Paris was quick, and being so tired, I fell asleep for half of the less than 90 minute trip. The suburban train from Paris Gare du Nord left from the same station, so after navigating my way through, I was on the RER B out to Charles de Gaulle airport to check into my hotel for the night, the Ibis Hotel in Roissypole.  This would be my third Paris airport hotel to check out in my travels over the past month.   I finished my remaining beers before crashing for the night, waking up early the next morning to catch my flight home to NYC at 8am (with breakfast at the Air France Lounge, of course.)  This time, no strep.  I slept for half the flight, and got into work ready for another week!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Race Report: Volkswagen Prague Marathon

I decided to do the Prague Marathon on a whim, a quick in and out trip, since I had been to Prague once before, back in 2006.  This time around, I'd try to hit up some sites I hadn't seen in the past, and make as much use of my 30 hours in the city as possible. I spent Friday at work feeling a little weird, but excited that I would be able to fly in business class, aka Delta One, on the flight from JFK direct to Prague that night. Since the flight wasn't until past 9pm, I stuck around the office til about 6, then headed to the airport, and spent an hour at the Delta SkyClub until my flight was ready to board.  I hadn't been there in awhile, and apparently the SkyClub was undergoing some renovations that were to be completed by Spring 2019 -- so maybe soon?  It was a bit crowded in there, as it usually is on a Friday evening. At half past 8, we were boarding, and I was settled into my seat on the plane.

We had a bit of an issue with the forward door of the plane not arming correctly, so we were delayed nearly almost an hour and a half leaving because maintenance had to come in re-sync the settings, and then fill out paperwork for getting it done.  Then we were off, in the normal JFK evening traffic, so weren't in the air til after 10pm.  The flight was 7 1/2 hours long, and we ended up landing half an hour late, making some time up in the air.  Of course, the business class meal was delicious, and as soon as dinner was over, it was off to bed for me.  When I woke, we were on the approach for Prague, and I knew I was coming down with something - it was hard to swallow, only signalling to me that I was coming down with a mild case of tonsillitis.

I was one of the first to disembark the plane (of course, through the door that was giving us problems before the flight), and proceeded straight to immigration, preparing for huge lines, but it actually wasn't very bad at all.  I was in through in less than ten minutes, and out of customs pretty quickly, beelining for the exit to find the stop for the Airport Express bus I had purchased an online ticket for ahead of time that would take me directly into the town center at Prague's main railway station, Praha hlavní nádraží. A large line was forming at the bus stop with the bus already there, as the driver was issuing tickets; I almost didn't get in, but when he saw I had a digital ticket, he waved me in, and I was the last one to get into the bus.  The roughly thirty minute bus ride to the railway station was pretty quick, and I proceeded to find my way to the Metro, getting a little lost in the process.

After wandering aimlessly for about fifteen minutes, I finally realized I needed to get a ticket from the manned ticket booths, since all of the Metro kiosks only accepted Czech currency, which I had none of on me.  (While the Czech Republic has been a member of the European Union since 2004, it has yet to adopt the euro as its currency, and doesn't seem to be on the path to doing so. It's bound by EU rules to join, but there hasn't been any action on the Eu's part to enforce any time plan.)  Luckily, these booths accepted credit cards, and I decided to purchase a 1-day pass, usable on buses, metros, and trams within the city. Knowing I'd probably only use it twice, it wasn't the best use of my money, but it was what it was.  I validated my ticket, and then boarded the metro train on Line C headed toward Letňany, getting off only a few stops later at Nádraží Holešovice, about a ten minute walk from the Průmyslový palac, or Industrial Palace, in Výstaviště.  This was the site of the race expo, an elegant 19th century Art Noveau style glass and steel building turned into an exhibition space! Just as I was getting to the expo, the Saturday races were just ending - the dm family run, with distances of 3 and 5 kilometers, and a 5 kilometer "walk with dogs." I was thrilled to see, just before entering the expo, a beautiful corgi named "Laura," with her owner, having just completed the race!
Meeting Laura the Corgi outside of the Prague Marathon expo!
Průmyslový palac, site of the expo
The expo was a massive space.  Separated into three sections, we retrieved our bibs in the east wing,  going by various vendors' booths from all over Central Europe, then passed through the main wing to go the west wing, where our complimentary jacket could be retrieved, as well as booths for other races from all over Europe (and even the Middle East) at the expo to advertise their events.  I spotted the same gentleman with the Amsterdam Marathon, whom I met at the London Marathon the week prior, and he remembered me and my 100th marathon milestone. I got out of the expo quickly, and came outside to the rain pouring down, and headed straight to the tram stop outside of the gates of Výstaviště, waiting for the proper tram to take me close to where I needed to be to reach my Airbnb in time. Lots of people were out there waiting, as road closures for the Saturday races had hampered public transit as well, which was moving at a snail's pace.  I eventually got to my stop just in time to meet my Airbnb host, and I was able to finally get showered and change clothes to enjoy what was left of the day.

"Man Hanging Out" statue
My Airbnb was located on Husova Street, a mere five minutes from Staroměstské náměstí, or Prague's Old Town Square.  I picked this location because of how close it was to the square - the start and finish line of our Sunday race was right there, as well!  It was perfect.  It was also easy to find, as my host had told me to locate a landmark just a few meters away....  a statue, known as "Man Hanging Out," depicts psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud hanging by one hand on the top of a building, seemingly pondering whether to hold on or to let go. During Freud's life, he suffered from a number of phobias, including the fear of his own death. Artist David Černý, whose work can be found throughout Prague, chose to depict the psychoanalyst in his constant struggle with this trepidation. Funnily enough, “Man Hanging Out” has often been mistaken for a real person and has prompted calls to the city’s fire and police departments in the past.

Right near the square was also a currency exchange location called "eXchange" on Kaprova Street, that's known to have the best rates in the city; rather than exchange $1 US for 21, or at most 21.80 Kč, I was able to download a "coupon" to my phone ahead of my trip that gave me a VIP rate of 22.80 Kč, better than anywhere else.  Plus, the location is open til 8pm. They offer good rates for small amounts, and even better (or negotiable rates) for higher amounts. I then headed into the town square to rekindle my familiarity with the city I last saw 13 years prior.

Right at the northern edge of the square is St. Nicholas Church, a Late-Gothic and Baroque church built between 1732-1737 by Czech-German architect Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer on the site where formerly a Gothic church from the 13th century stood, which was also dedicated to Saint Nicholas. The interior is dominated by a crystal crown chandelier from the Harrachov glassworks, donated by a Russian tsar to the Orthodox Church. Today the Czechoslovak Hussite Church uses the building is as a concert hall.

Prague's Old Town Hall
I, of course, had to check out the Prague Astronomical Clock, known locally as the "Orloj" at Prague’s Old Town Hall. It was first installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still operating. It consists of three independent units: the moving figures (a clockwork hourly show of figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures—notably a figure of Death, represented by a skeleton—striking the time), the astronomical dial (representing the position of the Sun and Moon in the sky and displaying various astronomical details), and the calendar dial (with medallions representing the months). The figures are set in motion on the stroke of every hour by a complex mechanism. All of last year, it was undergoing renovation, so I was happy to see it in its full glory.

Views from the Old Town Hall's tower
I decided to check out the view from the tower of the Old Town Hall. At almost 70 metres high, its massive prismatic tower is the dominant feature of the building, and offers the most splendid views of Prague from the historical core of the town.  We could also see the RunCzech staff begin their set up of the following morning's race on the main square, seeing the start and finish tent go upnear the Jan Hus monument, a large stone and bronze memorial sculpture depicting victorious Hussite warriors and Protestants who were forced into exile 200 years after Hus in the wake of the lost Battle of the White Mountain during the Thirty Years' War, and a young mother who symbolizes national rebirth, completed in 1915.

Museum of Communism front door
After checking out the views, I walked over to the Museum Of Communism ten minutes to the east. Completed in 2001, it is a very well curated museum dedicated to presenting an account of the post-World War II Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in general and Prague in particular. The Museum Of Communism offers an immersive look at life behind the Iron Curtain. Exhibits include genuine artifacts, video interviews, archive photographs, artworks, historical documents and large scale installations that bring an entire chapter of history to life.

An exhibit on the Velvet Revolution
As 6PM approached, I left the museum to meet up with my friends Mike and Lori, who I've known since 2014, for a pre-race dinner. Formerly from Florida, they moved to Galway, Ireland in 2016, and have since then hit up a few countries - this was the first time I would be able to reconnect with them on THIS side of the pond.  We met up at GamberoRosso, an Italian restaurant nearby, and enjoyed getting to catch up.  We had last seen each other a year earlier, when they had come back to the US for some family events and ran the Carmel Marathon in Indiana, a race I was at as well.  After dinner, I headed back to my Airbnb, a bit exhausted from my day.  After all, I had started to feel like I was coming down with something upon arrival, so the nearly eight hours of "Go! Go! Go" took a toll on me.  I had considered grabbing a trdelnik, being marketed as an "Old Bohemian Pastry" - basically a chimney like donut roasted on a spit. But it turned out... it's not even Czech! Mass spread of this dessert in Prague is recognized to have started in the last 10-15 years. Czech cinematographer and reporter Janek Rubeš argues that trdelník is only made for tourists, and that even the hamburger is more traditional in the Czech Republic. I opted to head home instead. I was out like a light by 8:30pm, and would wake up intermittently throughout the night.
Dinner with Lori and Mike at GamberoRosso
Chilly before the race!
At 7:15am, I was up for the race, still not feeling top notch, but still with enough energy to get myself going for the race. Being so close to the race start, I pretty much threw clothes on and rolled out of bed, leaving a mostly packed-up backpack ready for me to get to when I returned. I got out to the town square at about 8:15, with runners all abuzz (and wrapped in multiple layers - it was quite cold and in the high 30s that morning!) and the corrals in place with barricades already up for the race start.  Being in start group J, I was positioned pretty far back, toward the back end of ulica Celetná.  The start groups would curve around to Ovocný trh, the old fruit market space of Old Town Prague. Hoping to run into my American friends also visiting who were in the back corrals, I parked over here while trying to stay warm. I would end up seeing Mike, Lori, and our friend Barb visiting from Wisconsin, so we all posed for a group photo before going our separate ways.

Lined up on ulica Celetná
I found my way into the J group, and settled in, surrounded by other runners from many other countries (mostly Europe) speaking foreign languages.  But wouldn't you know, right next to me, I'd run into an American couple!  She was wearing a Cleveland beanie, and he was wrapped in a Run Toledo/Glass City Marathon heat sheet - Brad and Dawn were actually from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and she had run the Ann Arbor Marathon six weeks earlier, like me! It was nice being able to chat with some new run friends from my once hometown.  Soon, classical music, which I'd later learn was Czech composer (and founding father of Czech music) Bedřich Smetana's "Má vlast: Vltava," was being piped through the speakers to signal the start of the race.  I loved it - I thought that only Vienna would be the only place I'd run where classical music would start off my race... and now, here's another race in another country only four weeks apart!

Our startline in Staroměstské náměstí
Over cobblestones covered in blue carpet, we began to run - and I gingerly made my way across the startline (some 12 minutes after the gun) as we took of north along ulica Pařížská, an asphalted street with fashionable stores on both sides of the road, headed straight for the first of ten bridge crossings (over seven unique bridges) for the day, Čechův most, or Čech Bridge, a 110 year old arched Art Nouveau style bridge that connects the Old Town to the district of Holešovice and the hilltop greenery of Letna Park on the other side of the Vltava River. We hugged the left side of the bridge, which made us run over the tram tracks, making it slightly difficult to find our footing, before turning left onto nábřeží Edvarda Beneše, the embankment on the left bank of the Vltava River. We ran westward along our one and only foray into Prague' Malá Strana district, one of the city's most historic regions and dominated over by the massive Prague Castle. Malá Strana, Czech for "Little Side (of the River)" has also some of the most uneven cobblestones in the city, so it makes a bit of sense that we spent less time "hiking" through this area.
Running along Čechův most to Holešovice
Our first taste of cobblestones
We got our first taste of the cobblestones as we turned right slightly onto ulica Klárov, then left onto the single lane, but asphalted ulica Valdštejnská, a narrow street bounded on the left by the imposing walls of the Valdštejnský palác, or Wallenstein Palace, a Baroque palace the houses the operations of the Czech Senate, as well its gardens. We turned slightly left onto ulica Tomášská, as we headed southward toward Malostranské náměsti, the main square of Malá Strana and in the shadow of the Baroque Church of St. Nicholas, considered one of the oldest churches in Prague... and more cobblestone. From the square, we turned left, and took the cobblestoned ulica Mostecká out to one of Prague's most visited sites, Karlův most, or the Charles Bridge. Passing through the archway of Malostranská věž (Malá Strana Bridge Tower), we ran across our second bridge, usually cluttered with people, but this morning, left to the devices of the marathoners (with the occasional pedestrian cheering us on, but still giving us right of way!) A continuous alley of some thirty Baroque statues, mostly of various saints and patron saints venerated in the late 1600s and early 1700s, lines the corridor - all having replaced by replicas due to damage over the years!

Crossing the river over Mánesův most
Back on the Old Town side, we passed through Staroměstská věž (Old Town Bridge Tower), having to navigate the couple steps and more cobblestone on Križovnické námestí, before turning left onto the ulica Križovnická, sans cobblestones, but still with the metal tramlines along the center of the road. Now about 2.6 kilometers in, the next 10 kilometers would be a section of the course that would be repeated late in the second half of the race, from roughly kilometer 32 to the finish. We ran northward for a few blocks before turning left through Náměstí Jana Palacha and the imposing Rudolfinum building, a neo-renaissance style building that houses the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, crossing the river once again on Mánesův most, or Mánes Bridge. Back on Malá Strana, we turned right onto the Kosárkovo nábřeží, as it hugged the river's edge heading east.  We would pass underneath the pathway of the Čech Bridge to begin a lengthier run that would take us along the embankment out to where the Vlatava River bends.

Along the north shore of the Vlatava
While we'd have some pretty views of the Vlatava River, its a section that was more monotonous than the rest of the race, but uniquely different than the historic areas of Prague we had run through and would continue to run through.  The next two kilometers would be largely flat, while we passed under the bridgeway crossings. Near the 6th kilometer, along Bubenské nábřeží, we would pass by Pražská tržnice, or the Prague Market, a historical area of buildings containing the largest selection of produce and vegetables in Prague and much more, including clothes, electronics, household items and souvenirs. For some 90 years, it served as the central slaughterhouse for the city, until being converted into a market hall in 1983, and later being protected as a cultural monument of the country.

Turning left onto ulica Komunardů, we then veered right onto ulica Jateční into a residential area, which curved onto ulica Jankovcova.  At the 7 kilometer sign, we passed by some spectators cheering from their apartment balcony; they had a sign draped over the edge with "only 35 more!" referring to the 35 kilometers we still had left to run.  I wondered whether they would still be there several hours later when I'd come back through.  We turned right and crossed over Libeňský most, or Libeň Bridge, a concrete bridge connecting us to the right bank of the Vltava River.  We would "exit" off the bridge along ulica Štorchova, then run along ulica Voctářova skirting the landfilled area of Rohanský ostrov, long a neglected area of the city used as a dump and storage area. Development is soon planned to house a residential and office complex on this former brownfield area, to construct some 2,500 apartments in addition to shops, restaurants, and other livable environments. One could see this development start forming as we ran down Rohanské nábřeží, envisioning a city boulevard with wide walkways, retail and greenery.

Running through the Karlín district
As we continued west, we reached the Karlín district, once an industrial neighborhood and now transformed into Prague's up and coming trendy dining and nightlife hub. Cutting-edge office buildings surround the old port, the most recognizable being Main Point Karlín, with its striking facade of vertical bars on its soft curved facade, home to Kooperativa and ČPP (Česká podnikatelská pojišťovna), two insurance companies.  There were a few spectators here cheering us on, a few with signs that said "Do Toho!" which I later found meant "Go for it!" in Czech.

Running through the Těšnovský tunel
Eventually, we made our way into the Těšnovský tunel, a shallow road tunnel passing underneath some Czech government buildings, connecting us to nábřeží Ludvíka Svobody and Dvořákovo nábřeží. Once we got out of the tunnel, we encountered another roadway of cobblestones (sigh...) until turning left onto ulica Pařížská, where we began the race, as we made our way back to the start area.  While it was a relief to be back on asphalt, once we got into Staroměstské náměstí, it was back onto cobblestone we went, and this time, there was no escaping it - other than the smooth strip that ran right down the middle of the road as we ran down ulica Celetná (the street we had lined up on before the start some 80 minutes prior.) I actually ended up walking through most of this area, scared I would twist an ankle on the uneven streets.
Running back toward Prague's Old Town
Running along the "smooth strip" between Old Town's notorious cobblestones
Prašná brána
The Old City was superbly busy, and luckily we had the streets to ourselves while pedestrians were stuffed to the already very narrow sidewalks. After passing through Prašná brána, or the Powder Tower (one of Prague's original city gates), we took a sharp right turn onto ulica Na Příkopě, site of the former medieval moat and one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world.  Parts of the road are asphalt, but some were covered in cobblestone, and so concerned I was with my footing, I barely even noticed as we passed the Jungmannovo náměstí and its views toward Václavské náměstí, or Wenceslas Square, with its grand Národní muzeum, or National Museum, on the far end. As we made our way west along ulica Národní, I did ease up, as the road returned to asphalt, eventually turning left past the Národní divadlo, or National Theatre, onto Masarykovo nábřeží, and one of my most favorite stretches of road on the entire course, due to the beautiful colors and ornate styles of the buildings that line the bank of the river.
The "Laterna magika," or new stage of Prague's National Theatre, to the left
My favorite stretch of road on Masarykovo nábřeží
Before making our fifth bridge crossing over Jiráskův most, or Jirásek's Bridge, the bold lines of Tančící dům, or Dancing House (sometimes known as "Fred and Ginger") caught my eye.  This curving modern building, designed by architect Frank Gehry, was completed in 1996, and its non traditional design, which was controversial at the time, was building I studied in great detail when I was in architecture school.  Now renovated into a hotel building, it's quite the landmark amongst the Baroque, Gothic and Art Nouveau buildings for which Prague is famous, in the Nové Město, or New Town, quarter of the city.

Jiráskův most
We crossed the Jiráskův most over the river, but our foray back over to the left bank was quick, as we would be in the Anděl district for only a few blocks along ulica Zborovská before crossing right back over the river along Palackého most, or Palacký Bridge, one of the oldest functioning bridges in Prague after the Charles Bridge.  We would be back on this bridge in over an hour, since faster runners were making their way back over the bridge in the other direction. We turned right onto Rašínovo nábřeží, taking the east side of the street as faster runners took up the west side.

Another crossing of the Vlatava
Running along both sides of the road
What we thought would be a nice long cobblestone-less stretch down the river had a slight detour, as barely a kilometer later, and we were turning left onto ulica Svoboda, eventually passing by the abandoned  Praha Vyšehrad railway station, a crumbling, boarded up Art Nouveau building laden with graffiti.  High above us was the historic fort and public park of Vyšehrad, with its Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, as well as the Vyšehrad Cemetery, containing the remains of many famous people from Czech history, among them Antonín Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana, Karel Čapek, and Alphonse Mucha.  We followed ulica Na Slupi to a loop that would take us around the edge of Park Folimanka, and around a strange loop in an area that didn't seem to really show us much of anything other than to give us a needed 1.5 kilometers to add up to the marathon distance.  Soon, we were back onto the Rašínovo nábřeží, heading south to a turnaround point nearly 2.5 kilometers away.
Just after the turaround point on Rašínovo nábřeží
The Vyšehrad fort, above the street we were running on
The manmade tunnel we ran through
One of the cool things we did run through, though was a small manmade tunnel from the massive fort above, that hugged the river's edge. After passing through, we saw the widest part of the Vltava, as we continued along Podolské břeží heading south. I would hit the halfway point in roughly 2:14.  It would be just past the 22 km point, at the intersection of ulica Jeremenkova, when when we would make our turnaround and head northward, into a wind that made it a bit harder to run at the same pace as before, but not terribly.  Before reaching the 23 km mark, I eagle-eye spotted my friend Kathy on the other side of the road, just as she was approaching the 22 km mark. She was maybe 100 feet back from the 4:30 pacers at that point, so we were maybe 5-6 minutes apart.  A little while later, I'd also hear Barb call my name out from the other side of the road, telling me Mike wasn't that far in front of her. I'd also spot Brad and Dawn, too, yelling out, "what up, Ann Arbor!" as I passed them on the out-and-back.  It was nice being able to spot my friends on this section of the road, since I hadn't seen them all morning up until now.

Staropramen brewery
Eventually, we'd be passing back over the Palacký Bridge, to begin our out and back run on the left bank of the river.  Having struggled, running into the wind from kilometers 22 to 25, by the time we made the turn onto ulica Svornosti, heading south at 26k, I gained a second wind, and enjoyed the run with the tiniest bit of a tailwind. I enjoyed it so much that I even registered a 9:43 mile, my third fastest of the entire race, at the equivalent of the 17 mile point of the race!  On ulica Svornosti, we raced past the Staropramen brewery, with its beer bottle styled roadbridge, before continuing down ulica Strakonická all the way out toward the turnaround point at the 28k mark.  Again, heading northward was into the wind, but I toughed it out - spotting the 4:30 pacers on the other side of the road, I knew I was still doing good time, staying within pace during the section of the race that has in the past given me issues with time. Eventually, we veered slightly right onto Hořejší nábřeží, passing the 30km mark in about 3:11.  
Running across most Legii, our seventh bridge crossing!
Old Town Water Tower in the distance
I mustered up my strength as we continued northward, onto Janáčkovo nabřeží, turning right onto the seventh bridge of this tour through Prague, the most Legii, or Legion Bridge.  In front of us was the National Theatre, with its beautiful Neo-Renaissance facade. After crossing the bridge, we turned left, running along Smetanovo nábřeží and back along the cobblestoned roads that slowed me nearly two hours prior. It probably didn't help that it was even slightly uphill, as we made our way back onto ulica Križovnická. From here on out, we would be running roads we were familiar with all the way to the finish line - The 4:30 pacers were gaining on me, which they finally did as we crossed Mánes Bridge back over to Malá Strana. They'd still be within my sights over the next three kilometers as we took the long sections along the north side of the river.  I passed the residential area just before the last bridge crossing where those spectators were out cheering on their balcony, and they were STILL there, being as joyous as ever... and with a big "X" through the 3 on their sign, signifying we only had FIVE kilometers left in our run! Well.. just short of five, but it was still quite thoughtful!
Passing by these extraordinary spectators, still at it hours later!
Knowing that the 4:30 pacers had passed, I began to calculate where exactly I would come into the finish, knowing my speed had begun to stagnate after hitting the 20 mile mark.  After crossing the Libeň Bridge, and progressing through Rohanský ostrov and Karlín district, Kathy catches up to me around 39.5k. I’m struggling real hard at that point and knew we still had another section of cobblestones coming up, and my feet were feeling like lead.  Similarly, Kathy's struggling, but kicked it enough into gear to reach me, but knows she went out a bit too fast.  We decide to stick together to the end, even when I had to force a few untimed walk breaks because the cobblestones were giving me injury anxiety.  Eventually, we turned left for the last time on ulica Pařížská, and we made our way to the finish line together.  I was glad to have been able to finish this race by her side! I crossed the line in 4:35:40 - not bad for being ultra cautious about the cobblestones!
Kathy and I after the finish!
All Runners are Beautiful!
Victory Headstand
We made our way through the finish chutes and exited early, as I staked out a spot to do my headstand, knowing I wanted Tyn Church and its iconic spires in my background. On the cobblestones, I managed my headstand (and having to yell at people to not get in my photo!), and then we went our separate ways, as I walked over to my Airbnb. Of course, I had to squeeze my way through the extremely crowded pathways, made even worse by the race's barricades all through the Old Town Square, but I made it back to shower and pack up.  I even had a bit of time to spare, so I reached out to my friend Kevin, who had also run the race, to grab some food after meeting him at his hotel, the Hotel Intercontinental Prague.  I walked over, not even realizing... it was right there, where the cobblestone ended and the asphalt began on the last kilometer of the race!

Kevin and I after the race
The famous "John Lennon wall"
After we met up, we walked across the less busy Malá Strana to find a place that had some good beer and some Czech food.  We found Restaurace Vojanův Dvůr, and enjoyed a couple beers, along with a delicious Czech-style goulash for me, and a burger for Kevin.  We then hit up the famous "John Lennon Wall," a graffiti-filled wall that became an homage to the famous Beatles singer after his death in 1980. After a walk across the Charles Bridge, we separated, and I headed to the train station to take my return bus trip to the airport. I had a flight to Paris that night, where I'd stay overnight before taking the 8am flight back to New York on Monday morning.
Czech pivo!
Delicious Czech-style goulash!
Flying out of Prague
Upon landing in Paris, I felt terrible.  The race had taken its toll on me, and my already crummy state through Friday and Saturday just piled on top of it. I had a rough night's sleep, and had trouble putting food and drink - even water - down; something that hadn't been an issue at all during the course of my time in Prague. The flight home the following morning was really rough, as I slept for half of it, and was mostly in pain as I forced food down my inflamed throat/enlarged tonsils. I went to urgent care near my office after arriving, and got diagnosed with a low grade fever, swollen lymph nodes, and tonsils the size of quarters at the back of my throat - and the kicker, testing positive for strep.   I really put myself through the ringer, and made sure to rest up for the next several days - it took about three for the antibiotics to kick in, which was good since I had another trip planned!