Istanbul is one of my favourite cities in the whole world. Where London likes to think it’s edgy even though the bars all close at midnight, Istanbul is buzzing and full of life right through the small hours – and not just nightlife as you might expect, but everyday life like cafes and snack bars and parks and shops too. It’s a truly 24 hour city. And of course it is a city at the crossroads of a number of cultures, spanning two continents. Historic monuments sit side by side with modern architecture, the old and the new nestled in together, East meeting West. Istanbul is awe-inspiring, vibrant, feisty, charming… and completely bonkers.
I’ve been promising Andy for years that I would take him to Istanbul and show him round all the wonderful sights my father showed me. We’d think about booking a weekend off, then there’d be an away game, then I’d have a freelance job, then we’d be too knackered. So when I finished my last freelance gig – one that very nearly killed me and which made me decide to end my career as a production manager for good – I got straight onto teh interwebs.
September – too soon. October – big project at work, I’ll never get the time off. November – that could work. Wait, doesn’t Istanbul have a marathon around that time of year?
“Andy, I’ve had an idea…”
So poor sod, he finally got his holiday to Istanbul at the expense of watching me run yet another race. The deal was we get two full days of sightseeing, marathon on Sunday, home on Monday. Not a great deal of time, but if we just did the European side we’d be able to do most of the old town and the cultural attractions, maybe get a night out in Taksim Square and definitely a boat tour of the Bosphorus. And obviously we’d eat our body weight in amazing Turkish food in the meantime.
I signed up on the official race website, paid the measly £16 entry fee (still can’t quite believe that wasn’t a typo) and pressed send. The message that came up simply said thank you for your entry, don’t expect any emails from us, see you at the expo. That was that. No confirmation, no booking number, nothing.
Not entirely convinced that I was signed up, I freaked out for about a week, printed off absolutely every bit of info I could find (including directions to the expo centre which would later turn out to be useless) and eventually forgot all about it. That is, until about three weeks out when I got my one and only bit of communication from the organisers. An email to all overseas entrants, explaining that as part of the marathon festival a peace garden would be created to celebrate all the countries represented in the race, planted with trees and plants native to each country. A wonderful sentiment of community, togetherness and sportsmanship, with one minor logistical hurdle. So, would all overseas participants mind bringing an indigenous sapling with them?
I have no idea how many people actually carried a sapling with them on the plane to Turkey, but I’d love to have seen the looks on the customs officers’ faces as runner after runner walked through the Nothing to Declare line carrying a potted rosebush or a sprig of holly. Like I said, charming but bonkers.
The marathon route actually starts on the Asian side and finishes up in Sultanahmet, the heart of the southwest peninsula which is home to the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar to name but a few of the wonderful sights. This means that technically this is the only marathon in the world run over two continents, although you barely even cover a mile before you’re on the European side. Nonetheless, you’re rarely going to find a race with a more stunning first mile. Running over the Bosphorus Bridge, if you look to your right you can just about make out the Black Sea in the distance and to your left stretches the Bosphorus itself, straight towards the Marmara Sea, both shores dotted with higgledy piggledy cottages and luxury waterside summer homes.
Once on the western side the route carries on through the new town along the coastline, crossing the Golden Horn via the Galata Bridge before turning right to continue hugging the water’s edge up towards Eyüp. As I rounded the corner I spotted Andy frantically waving my QPR shirt like a flag, looking as English as it’s possible for a man to look, and gave him a whoop and a cheer before turning towards the first of two main switchbacks. I personally don’t mind switchbacks and I understand their value in a city run, where fewer roads closed off are better for everyone and supporters get to see you more than once without travelling too far. Apart from anything else, you really can’t get too bored of the view here.
We had been spoilt for views thus far though. Having lost the 10km and 15km runners we were on our own now, the field thinned out and finding its rhythm. Andy had challenged me to get under four hours and smash my marathon PB, so with my 9mm pacing band on my wrist and perfect weather conditions behind me, I did exactly what I shouldn’t have done. I raced the 3:45 pacer up to the half marathon point and very nearly beat my Ealing half time. And then I burned out. Just in time to turn onto the carriageway for eleven featureless, monotonous, out-and-back miles.
It sound churlish to complain about a marathon route being boring when you’re in one of the most enchanting cities in the world, but oh my god do I never want to see Kennedy Caddesi again. Like much of the course it runs alongside water, peaceful and serene, but just when I needed some inspiration to get me through the deadly halfway point and keep up a good enough pace to hit my target I found myself staring at Tarmac and bugger all else. Time for the audiobook.
At this point I was watching the 3:45 pacer slip away, and mournfully reminding myself that four hours was still a good 70 minutes faster that I’d ever done an official marathon before. It still smarted though. Like I always do, I’d gone into the race with a reasonable aim and a plan to execute, and like I always do I got carried away immediately and persuaded myself I could go a step further. I always knew I couldn’t maintain that pace, and my thigh muscles were already beginning to shred, but I was still a little deflated. I had forgotten how painful road running could be.
So I started to break down the remaining distance. Stay in sight of the 3:45 pacer until 25k, then you can have a walk break. You can’t walk on a downhill slope; keep going until an uphill then you can walk. You might as well keep going until 30k now, keep up your margin over the 4:00 pacer. If you can run 30k, you can run 35k. Hold a steady pace until 39k (I like numbers divisible by 3) then you can ramp up for the finish. With my 3:58 pacing band racing to catch up with me, I knew that I couldn’t blow it for the sake of a bit of discomfort and Lord knows if I’d ever have the chance to go for sub 4 again. Bit by bit I nursed my screaming muscles and creaking joints towards the finish line.
Then, disaster. Less than a couple of miles from the end, someone plunged a carving knife into my lower right abdomen and twisted it; or rather, that’s what it felt like. For the first time in the race I stopped running. Bent double, gasping for air, hacking sobs both in agony and despair as my goal time slipped away. Despite being on the home straight every runner that passed me stopped to ask if I was OK, but I knew the only thing I could do was bring my breathing back under control and hope the pain would go away quickly, so I waved them on; I might be about to jeopardise my own target finishing time but I couldn’t do it to anyone else. Every breath twisted the knife further, and when I lifted my shirt I found a huge bruise forming just above my stitch. So of course I assumed it was appendicitis and mentally drafted a will.
Step by step I urged my feet forward. Walk while you can, trot a few paces, never stop moving. Gradually the pain faded away and I could fill my lungs again rather than snatching shallow snappy breaths. The end was in sight. So I took my last mile song, Gold Dust, out of its glass case, and went for it.
For the final stretch we turned off the highway and into Gülhane Park – a beautiful route, but almost entirely uphill. And that was it, a half mile long climb all the way to the end over sheer flagstones made slippery with drizzle. I wanted to throttle whoever designed a marathon that finishes on an uphill, but when I looked up I could see why. After miles of seafront and Tarmac, the lush greenery made for an uplifting view to come home to. Passing through the park gates on the other side, we found ourselves running along the tram tracks towards Sultanahmet, where the finishing straight was lined with hundreds of spectators cheering us on, and as I spotted Andy waving my QPR shirt among them I couldn’t help but grin. We couldn’t be far now. I MUST have done it.
I sprinted over the line with the clock in the 3:58s, knowing for sure that all that pain had been worth it. Face numb with cold and brain fried from the effort, I allowed a goody bag to be thrust into my hands and looked around for Andy. He found me hobbling, dazed and struggling to speak, but happy. Somehow he’d managed to get a good photo of me grinning on the finishing straight and another posing with my medal – I’ve no idea how, I could barely control a single muscle in my body – and we wobbled around looking for the bag trucks before the walk back to the hotel. A random local man grabbed me and asked if he could get his photo taken with me; I don’t know if he thought I was someone else or was simply conducting a study into the mentally unhinged.
Learning lessons from previous races, I had chosen our hotel based on its proximity to the finish and to the sights in Sultanahmet, and frankly I still can’t quite believe how little we paid for such a prime location, let alone the magnificent service. It was worth every penny in the end. I slumped down onto the bed, aching and still slightly delirious, but really bloody proud.
I’m done with roads for the meantime, I think. I wanted to see if I could get under four hours and I did, just. But I can see why road runners have to plan their seasons to allow recovery periods while trail runners tend to go on and on. I’m infinitely less mobile now than I was after Beachy Head, and it’s frustrating, not to mention pretty dangerous to the old waistline as two weeks on I’m still constantly hungry but unable to run too far without pain.
I’ve never really enjoyed road running or racing for a time and that hasn’t changed; I set out with a specific target this time and I accomplished it, but despite the spectacular surroundings and the unique nature of the race I can’t say the experience was wholly enjoyable for me. It was a bucket list race for many reasons, and I’m thrilled to have done it, but road running just isn’t my thing. I miss running for the sake of it, dancing around tree trunks and scree and mud puddles, shaking out my limbs and letting my worries melt away. Istanbul is a weird and wonderful city and I love it dearly, but for now I’m looking forward to getting back on the trails.