About two years ago I started thinking about running the Prague Half Marathon in the Czech Republic. Having worked in Prague for a brief time over 20 years ago, it was a city I really wanted to return to and show my family. All I needed was for the race date to fall within my March holidays to make the trip possible, and this was the year it happened. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely.
My previous posts have talked about our travels in Nice and Prague prior to race day, plus my rather weak attempt at putting in a proper taper. The two weeks of busy traveling prior to the race confirmed in my mind that I would not be going for a PB, but I would be aiming to run a solid, comfortable race.
Race expo opened on Thursday morning and I made sure to get there early, curious as to what it would offer. Up to that point I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Prague Half Marathon is an IAFF Gold Label event, one of 5 held in the Czech Republic and one of 3 Gold Label events in Prague itself. But I had noticed some key differences in the months leading up to race day. I admit that here in Ottawa I am used to some pretty detailed websites, not to mention lots of information through email and Facebook. I found the Prague website and information a little sparse in comparison which made me wonder about race organization.
There was no need to worry however. This would prove to be a very well organized race event. While the expo was quite small compared to Ottawa Race Weekend or Toronto Waterfront, it offered a couple of great things that I have not seen before. I was hugely impressed by the fact you could choose between a long sleeve or short sleeve tech shirt, both in men’s and women’s cuts. I have no idea how they plan for that number-wise, but what a treat as a participant to have a choice. And that certainly puts to shame any races that have yet to manage to offer male and female cuts. You also got to choose your colour for your RunCzech sports bag, another bonus that was much appreciated. I was also very glad to see souvenir gear, something that I really missed not having at last year’s Vancouver Half Marathon.
Another offer at expo was a chance for your family or friends to record a personalized message cheering you on. This message was linked to your timing chip. At the 14 and 18k marks of the race there were chip reading mats and very large – think billboards – screens. When you crossed a mat there was a chance your video message would appear on the screen. I was lucky enough to see my husband and kids up there at the 18k mat and as silly as it may sound, it gave me such a boost of energy! My pace immediately picked up. I also admit that I waved to them… as if they could actually see me 🙂
I also liked the big poster that was up at expo that showed the route plus all 12,500 names of the race participants. A nice touch.
The expo was located outside of the centre of Prague, about 5 or 6 km away from the start line. It was easily accessible by tram, or at least easy enough once we found where we could actually purchase tram tickets. That part took almost as long as the tram ride itself. Moving out of the city core gave me the opportunity to do one final little run before race day, this time in a park immediately beside the expo grounds. I had heard this was a popular area for runners and sure enough there were several out there running the paths. This run gave me an opportunity to make a decision about what shoes to wear race day. I had tried some cobblestone running in my Nike Lunar Tempos earlier in the week and was not convinced they were the right call for such uneven terrain, particularly given the fatigue my legs were feeling after two weeks of constant walking. This time I tried my Asics and with their extra cushioning and support they proved to be the shoes to run with.
This race would be my first ever noon start time. I wasn’t entirely sure of what I would think of that, but it ends up I loved it. Obviously it would not be a great start time in hot weather. While it did get warmer on the course than I was anticipating, it was still manageable. The advantages of a late start? Firstly, I actually had a reasonable night’s sleep, a rarity on race nights for me. With the start line only a short walk away, I had no concerns about sleeping in and being late. Secondly, there were virtually no line ups at the porta potties 35 minutes before the gun. Either European runners just don’t have to pee as much as we North American runners before a race, or the fact that everyone was up well before race time meant there was time to sort things out so to speak prior to arriving at the race. All I can say is it was a treat to be in a race with over 12,000 runners and not have to deal with the stress of waiting in a slow moving porta potty line!
I had made a last minute decision to not wear shorts for the run. There was a fairly cold wind blowing and cloud cover. I did leave my running jacket at the apartment, bringing instead a throwaway fleece to stay warm before the gun. It ends up though that there was access to a building right beside the corrals, so there was no issue staying warm. About 15 minutes before the race I figured I should head out to my corral. I was surprised to find that only a few people had done the same at that time. As a result I had easy access and was even able to run back and forth a few times in the space.
As the corral filled I heard any number of languages, plus English being spoken in a variety of accents. We have an amazing running scene here in Ottawa, but I could not help but be a little jealous of European runners. Imagine being able to hop on a train or take a quick flight and be able to attend a wide choice of races in other countries. That would be a dream situation for me.
Waiting for the gun everyone was shivering and I was thinking that the fleece would have to stay on for a km or two before I would warm up. But almost as soon as the gun went off, the sun came out and suddenly I was regretting my decision to not wear shorts. In the 8 minutes it took for me to make it to the start line I ditched the fleece and was ready to go.
The crowds were thick, both on and off the course. The spectators were great; whistles seemed to be the most popular way of showing support. I am pretty sure this was the most crowded I have been at the beginning of a half marathon course. It took all my concentration to make sure I didn’t trip over someone or cause someone else to fall. Throw in uneven cobblestones, tram tracks and curbs and islands in the middle of the road, and this became what I would consider a technical road race. The 2 hour “pacemakers” (no bunnies here) were just ahead of me but I couldn’t fight the crowds to stay with them. They clearly did a better job than I did of maneuvering around other runners, so after several times of me catching up then getting caught behind a crowd I gave up. To a certain extent I felt like I just followed the crowd for the first 5k.
Here is an important note if you are going to run in Europe. Cobblestones are not your friend! They may look quaint and pretty in pictures but I am sure the human body was not meant to run on them! I knew they would feel different, I didn’t know that, particularly once you get tired they can suck the life out of you. I did become a bit of an expert though on which ones were easier to run on. Take a look at this picture:
The stones you see on the left are the worst. They may look flat in this picture but they are not. The stones you see on the right are easier, a little flatter, packed a little closer together, The large line of rectangular stones in the middle are the easiest, except of course for the fact that they are narrow. There were several times on the course when my whole goal was to try to make it to the easiest footing. That said there was lots of smooth pavement and very few elevations changes, so there were plenty of opportunities to run comfortably. If you like flat courses, I don’t think you will find much flatter than this one.
At one point in the course I thought the spectators must all be enjoying a good Czech beer as there was a rather hoppy aroma that was becoming quite strong. Unlike here, in Prague there is no issue having your alcohol outside in a public place. I did come to realize however that we were in fact running past a brewery. Who knew that the smell of beer could overpower the smell of the sweat of thousands of runners? It was a bit of a tease though, since there was a lot more running to be done before being able to enjoy a pint.
Despite my up and down pace due to crowds, my overall average pace stayed a very steady 5:43 for most of the race, with a final pace of 5:42. Could I have pushed a little harder and therefore finished faster than my 2:01:08? I think so. But with the way I had been eating and walking and climbing endless stairs for two weeks, I really had no way of knowing how long my energy would last. I kept things conservative and as a result felt good throughout most of the race. I did somehow manage to screw up my distance reading. I thought I had not even hit the 21k mark yet when suddenly there was a sign saying 600m left. Oops! I admit I would have started pushing harder earlier had I known. But I was able to cross the final bridge (there were a total of 6 bridge crossings over the Vltava river) with a smile on my face and enough energy to wave to my family and then sprint to the finish. I actually had to ask somebody to move over at one point as I couldn’t get by!
There was a long walk through the finishing chute, but everything was handed out efficiently. I handed in my timing chip (the largest chip I have ever had on a bib, maybe that slowed me down a little!), picked up a medal and foil blanket, then was passed water and a sports drink. Following that I had the best post drink ever – they were serving warm, sweet tea. I don’t even like tea but this was delicious! It might even rival chocolate milk. Food as far as I could see was limited, just oranges and apples. Personally, it takes me a little while to be hungry after a race so I was happy to just skip the fruit and pick up a yummy “Trdlo” with Nutella once we left the race.
I will say though that leaving the race was tough. It was definitely a moment I wanted to hang on to. Even as I started to get chilled I didn’t want to leave and instead just spent some time taking in the view of the river and Prague Castle one more time.
In the afternoon there was a little time to relax thanks to my personal race crew:
And then it was time to celebrate with traditional Czech food and of course Czech beer:
Would I run this race again? In a heartbeat. The only reason I probably won’t (besides the obvious of the cost of traveling) is the fact that the world is large and time is short. There are many races out there I would like to try if the opportunity arises. It may be some time before I get to try another running adventure such as this but I certainly hope there will be more in my future. And I admit it, I have now checked out the website for the Reykjavic Half Marathon in Iceland several times. Maybe one day….