Friday, December 14, 2018

Race Report: Vodafone Malta Marathon

Malta came onto my radar after visiting the New York Times Travel Show in 2016, when meeting with some of the country's tourism bureau employees who had a boot at the event.  I was with my friend and fellow runner Jason, and we both left thinking... "hmm, there's a marathon there!" and I finally decided that I would pull the trigger and do the race in 2018.  Malta's a unique destination, but after surveying some friends, many have actually been to the Mediterranean island country, notably known for being one of the world's smallest, and with a vivid history as a naval base ruled by different powers since it was first inhabited - by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, Knights of St. John, French, and British.  I booked my flights to travel via Rome on Alitalia on the outbound, and via London on Delta on the inbound, with separate round trips to Malta International Airport in Luqa on the country's flagship carrier, Air Malta.  After a 1pm meeting, I left work to get to Terminal 1 by 2:30 to check into my flight, where I was assigned a seat at check in. Unfortunately, the counter agent puts me in a middle seat in the middle section of the long flight, which I wasn't thrilled about.

Waiting to board the flight to Malta
After getting through security, I bided my time at SkyTeam's Air France Lounge. With SkyTeam Elite Plus, I can get into the lounge for free; however, the check-in lady was not having it, especially since I was flying Alitalia - the Alitalia lounge not too far away is gross and in dire need of an update.  But I managed to charm her, and got my way into the lounge, being able to snack on some delicious French cheeses, a salad, and some dessert, and down a couple glasses of champagne! Eventually, I headed over to board for my Alitalia flight, and surprise surprise, it's boarding late.  All in all, the flight wasn't fantastic -- I got through a movie (the remake of Stephen King's "IT" - I'm now afraid of storm drains) and had a very underwhelming chicken on the plane - which included a hard-as-a-rock dinner roll -- before getting about three or four hours of sleep with some interruptions; being so close to the lavatories meant a lot of extant noise and light, even with my earplugs in and my eye mask on.  The lights would be on super bright at times as well, which was not helpful. We ended up landing in Rome a little early, with more than enough time for me to connect to my flight to Malta.

One thing to note... passport control is a MESS in Rome Fiumicino Airport, and so many people were cutting in the winding line that led from the E gates to the B, C, and D gates.  I got to my gate to board my Air Malta flight, and was super exhausted from my little sleep on the flight that I immediately CONK out after boarding, before even taking off for the short flight from Rome to Malta.  I wake up as we are landing, and it's pouring out. Of course.  Apparently, it was going to be like this all day.  We arrive just before noon and I exit out of the small airport's terminal to the bus stop, where I take the convenient local bus (X2) directly to Sliema, where my Airbnb was located, to check in.  It was about an hour trip with traffic there, and upon arriving, my host, Tijana, informed me she ended up locking her keys to the apartment IN the apartment.  Great.  While she figured out how to get in (calling someone who had a spare key), she brought us to the coffee shop across the street for a cappuccino.

A beautiful breakfast view!
I ended up meeting two other guests at the Airbnb, Petr and Jana from Kosice, Slovakia, and we got to chat over lunch and a couple glasses of good Italian red wine.  Eventually, I got myself out the door to explore the city, despite the crummy weather.  I headed down to the Marsamxett Harbor in Sliema, only a ten minute walk away, seeing the finish line already being set up for the marathon.  I grabbed a late lunch at a restaurant overlooking the harbor, just as the rain started to pour a bit harder.  I spent the rest of the afteroon taking in as much of the Sliema area as I could before making my way up to St. Julian's/San Giljan (with a stop at a cute little store selling Malta-themed wares, ironically called "Souvenirs That Don't Suck") and then met up with my Danish friend Frank, who I had originally met in Australia in 2017, to get my bib for Sunday's race.

Frank and I at dinner
Upon arriving at the Le Meridien Hotel for packet pickup, I encountered a huge line wrapped around the perimeter of the lower lobby - the pickup was essentially just a small office with not much room that had participants interact with a single volunteer at a table assigning bibs to registrations and then another table to receive the free t-shirt and the gear check bag.  It took about half an hour before we finally got my stuff, and then headed out to grab some food.  We found a restaurant nearby where I was able to get my first real good meal of the day, and something traditionally Maltese.. stuffat tal-fenek, or rabbit stew!  I went to sleep well satiated that night, crashing for hours to adjust to the Maltese time zone.

A view from Upper Barakka Gardens
I ended up getting a bit of an early start Saturday morning, and headed out to grab breakfast along the rocky seashore.  I found a good spot open at 8:30am, and enjoyed a full English breakfast with coffee for a fairly affordable €6.50.  A little later that morning, Frank and his friends Sally and Pål (who he met in Antarctica), and Tone (Pål's wife), came down to Sliema, and we took the ferry over to Valletta, a fifteen minute ride across Marsamxett Harbour.  We had a nice time walking all around the Maltese capital, taking in the sights of the 2018 European Capital City of Culture, and its beautiful architecture many of which date back to the mid-16th century.  One of the highlights was heading to the Upper Barakka Gardens for a view toward the Three Cities of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua across the Grand Harbour.  We then decided to head to Mdina for the remainder of the afternoon, figuring our way out to the old city via the island's bus system, for which there was a large inconspicuous bus terminal a short walk from the gardens to take us the twenty minutes into the interior of the island.
How many people can we actually fit into a red telephone box?
Valletta street views
Posing near the harbor
Late lunch in Mdina
Once at Mdina, we went to grab a late lunch inside the walled city, finding a cute little Italian restaurant, Trattoria AD 1530, not far from the main gate.  After satiating our hunger, we went around exploring the walled city and its medieval architecture.  Eventually, we found our way to some incredible views overlooking the whole island.  As the sun was setting, we were able to find a cab to take us back to St. Julian's, using Taxify, Malta's most popular taxi hailing app.  That night, we decided to head up to the Spinola Bay area of St. Julian's, unsuccessfully finding a table for 5 in the chilly Saturday night - after Pål and Tone decide to head back to their hotel to have a smaller dinner on their own, Frank, Sally, and I lucked out at another Italian restaurant to dine at before heading back to our respective hotels for the night to get ready for the following morning's race.
The view from one of Mdina's bastions
A street view in old Mdina
Race start!
On Sunday morning, I woke up at 5am to get dressed for the race, and headed out the door at about 5:40 for the ten minute walk down to the ferry dock, where buses would pick us up to take us to the start at Mdina beginning at 6am sharp.  Once there, runners gathered just outside the bastions of Mdina, in the playground and parking lot area we were just at the day before.  Not long after I arrive, I ran into Frank, Pål, and Sally (dressed in her avocado costume), who all arrived in a separate bus.  Over the next hour, we waited while more marathoners continued to arrive.  A warm up exercise is led by a woman in the open area of the playground, with a small amount of runners following her moves. Eventually, I would end up seeing my other friends Johannes, Richard, and Zander before the start, and introduce them to my friends.  The startline arch was then inflated and put up at the end of the street, and we were off and running right at 7:30, taking off down the main road of Rabat, the city just outside of Mdina's imposing stone gates.

Pre-race shenanigans in the playground near the start!
Pre-race photo with Richard and Zander, and my avocado costume-wearing new friend Sally!
In front of one of the gates of Mdina
Running with a view of Mdina
It began to drizzle lightly during our first mile, and we felt the terrain start to very gradually go uphill.  After turning right and making our way through a residential area at the edge of Rabat, we finally reached a slight downhill section along the Mtarfa bypass with the first of many views of the walled city from afar.  We then reached Ta’Qali, where we would run past the two football stadiums - the Maltese National Stadium and the Centenary Stadium.  We then passed a farmers market that was beginning to be set up, then at the 5 mile mark, the US Embassy.  This was also where we began to have to share the road with vehicles -- we were warned prior to the race that roads would NOT be fully closed, and we would sometimes have to cross the middle of the road at times, with traffic passing through, while running on the sometimes very narrow shoulder. 
The road is wet from the early morning drizzle
More sights of Mdina, and cacti we ran by
The US Embassy in Malta, which we ran by a couple times
Malta's National Stadium
Running on streets not closed to traffic
The next ten miles would take us winding all around the area - in fact, these first 25 km/16 miles of the race would have us run all around the vicinity of Mdina - we would see the walled city several times during this first half of the race - enough to even think, ok I'm good with seeing this view, lol.  The route was a bit perplexing as it wound its way around several points we had already run through -- we came through Ta’ Qali (and past the old Royal Air Force airfield and barracks), down to the town of Attard, through Mosta, back to Attard, and round Ta’ Qali again.  If I thought the Firenze Marathon had a course that resembled a kid scribbling on a map -- well, the Malta Marathon was even more scribble like!  There were time we would find ourselves in sections where we could see other runners coming up the road but they would make a turn just as we continued forward - later I'd realize they were WAY far in front, as much as six miles ahead.

The wind picked up at mile 10
Our surroundings were fields and farms; along some main roads, we would run alongside stretches of prickly pear shrubs and trees that grow all over the island.  The rural surroundings would give way to some more residential areas, then would abruptly change back to rural surroundings.  There was a short stretch of road we ran along twice that was a bit muddy - the second time around, as it was later in the day, we tried to avoid the wet areas by running around the puddles leftover from the morning's rain, with car traffic tailing us (and even honking at us) which was a bit frustrating.  Mile 10 was memorably slow because of a strong headwind and the unfortunate need to have to run on a concrete sidewalk.  After retracing our paths through Ta'Qali once more, this time passing through a beautifully manicured park area and through a parking lot bordering the Meridiana Vineyards; also a guy who was flying his motorized model plane as it zoomed and swooped overhead while we ran by.
So many cacti... and more of Mdina.  We'd be seeing many angles of the walled city for the first 16 miles of this race!
Official Photo from the Malta Marathon
Passing through Ta'Qali National Park
I could use a beer about now!
At the 24km mark, we passed the US Embassy one last time, and made our way out of Ta’ Qali and down again towards Attard. This time, we would run through the old part of Attard, right in front of the Attard parish church on Triq Il-Kbira.  At the 27km mark, the real downhill finally re-commenced, and I took advantage of the satisfying elevation change as we continued on into the Mriehel section of the town of Birkirkara, where the road seemed to just go on forever.  Luckily, we were about to go through a somewhat zigzag-like section of the Mriehel industrial estate (including the Cisk brewery, producing a local lager and pils style beer) where some of the buildings provided us with some much needed shade (as there was not much of this through the race).  We then took the Mriehel Bypass, a very open highway road (with a lane for us runners thankfully closed to traffic -- for once!) as we weaved our way through a dense and more urban environment to continue on toward the more familiar sights of the northeastern coast.  The bypass skirted the city of Qormi, and towns of Hamrun and Marsa, as we ran toward Valletta and hugged the coastline all the way to the finish line in Sliema.
A bit lonely out on these long stretches of road....
Picking up my speed as I pass people on downhills... I like downhills :)
I'm not crazy about uphills, but they were present, like this one.
The Porte des Bombes in Valletta
Running on the street along the harbor, and sometimes the sidewalk.
Coming in toward the finish, and so tired! (Official photo of the Malta Marathon)
Showing off the bling with the view
The road curved along as it ramped up and down on the by-pass, eventually making a slight left onto Triq Decembru 13 and Triq Nazzjonali.  We came upon the Porte des Bombes, an ornamental arch that dates back to 1721 just before mile 23, when we turned left along a curvy downhill service road that went past an area that seemed to be old fortifications now occupied by Maltese police. The road emptied us into the last 4km of the route, as we hugged the road that skirts the marinas feeding into Marsamxett Harbour, past the Pieta, Msida, Ta’ Xbiex and Gzira waterfronts all the way up to the finish in Sliema.  Exhausted from 40 km of running and the humidity, I made my way past several hundred walkathon participants, all who had started nearly two hours after we did, and who were all heading toward the finish as well.  I finished just ten minutes before the supposed 5 1/2 hour cutoff, in 5:20:32, nearly half an hour faster than the slow and miserably hot finish in Fort Lauderdale the week before - still, the race allowed runners to finish up to the 6 hour mark, so I had some fifty-five runners finish behind me in the official results.

Enjoying a well deserved burger!
I was able to meet up with Sally and Frank afterward at Burger King, our agreed upon meeting point, where we beasted some much needed burgers. Frank had a pretty good race, finishing in just under three hours, and only 3 1/2 minutes ahead of Johannes. I headed back to my Airbnb shortly thereafter to get showered, and also got to take a nap before grabbing dinner with the crew at the fancy seafood restaurant Barracuda in San Giljan later that night.

Victory Headstand with a view
Early the next morning, I called a taxi cab to get me to the airport for my 7:50am flight.  It was raining as we drove to the airport, culminating in a downpour when I arrived; the flight ended up being half an hour delayed (and luckily I wasn't heading to Rome, which was canceling flights left and right due to a rare snowfall - Rome hardly ever gets snow, and they are not prepared for it when it happens, much like the American South when a similar weather event happens) We arrived in London a bit late, and I rush out of the plane quickly to make my connection -- hurriedly running through Terminal 4 and stressfully waiting as a shuttle bus slowly made its way to Terminal 3.  Luckily, security was not a long wait, and despite having to run through the terminal again, I made it to my Delta flight to take me back to NYC -- and in Delta One, nonetheless, my first experience on this class of service internationally (thanks to a global upgrade certificate!)  I was back in New York by 3:30pm, happy to head back to my apartment to readjust to east coast time.