When I signed up for the half marathon, a friendly lady pointed out to me that the clock would be changed tomorrow, on 26 October, the day of the race. I would have overlooked that. My first thought: “How stupid to schedule a marathon on the day when the clock changes.” Only after doing lengthy calculations did I realize that this meant one more hour of sleep, which might not be the worst way to prepare for running 21 km (13 miles).
In front of my hotel in Podgorica there is a bus from Slovenia. “All of them marathon runners,” the receptionist explains. The hotel’s restaurant is empty nonetheless. Fitness fanatics on the eve of their great run cannot be baited with ćevapčići or beefsteaks. I indulge myself in a goulash. Based on the waiter’s demeanor, I would risk any bet that he used to serve as a sergeant in the Yugoslav army.
The half marathon course runs from Danilovgrad to Podgorica. A bus carries the runners to Danilovgrad, and the longer the bus is winding through the mountain roads, the crazier this endeavor seems to me.
In Danilovgrad the runners gather underneath a memorial for partisans in the city park. Supposedly adrenalizing music blares from a loudspeaker and seems to stimulate people to perform particularly energetic warm-ups: runners are stretching, expanding, jumping, putting their legs in the air, turning around, bending over. I am walking through the park, hands in my pockets. A long-distance run is a psychological matter. I don’t need any warm-up for that.
An elderly, somewhat stocky runner from Tirana asks me to take a photo of him. He pulls an Albanian flag out of his jogging shorts. The double-headed eagle on red background might pose the proverbial red rag to some in Montenegro because a substantial part of Montenegrins identify themselves as Serbs. The flag-waving Albanian complains that there are so many nationalists in Danilovgrad (while Podgorica is fine). Me personally, I find people who carry flags around more nationalist than cities that invite runners from all around the world to a sporting event.
What amazes me even more is how much useless clutter people carry with them on a long-distance run. All the mobile phones, cameras, heart-frequency measuring devices (which probably transmit the collected data to a satellite, which re-transmits them instantaneously to the mobile phone in the other pocket, publishes the data online and sends a copy to the NSA) must be disturbing when running. I don’t even have a watch. Whether I will be able to keep my target time of two hours like that is anyone’s guess.
The rhythmic beats have meanwhile been replaced by the reading out of the runners’ names, each of them with the country and city of origin. Together with an understandably large number of runners from Montenegro, 90% of the participants hail from states which were united in the Yugoslav Socialist Federal Republic until 1991: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and the runners from Priština are identified as coming from Kosovo. Montenegro, which seceded from Serbia in 2006 after a very close referendum (2037 votes made the difference), has a much more relaxed approach on this issue than the bigger Serbian brother.
Behind the lectern in the city park there are now ten politicians and sports officials, giving one welcoming speech after the other. Suddenly a loud gunshot. An assassination? No, it’s 10 o’clock. The runners trot off, ignoring the words of the chairman of the city council or of the Montenegrin Committee for the Advancement of Amateur Sports.
To avoid starting off too quickly, I look for runners as pacemakers who look equally unprofessional or who don’t display any ambition either. But with each kilometer, I work my way ahead in the field.
The altitude profile in the announcement did not look spectacular, but it seems like a constant uphill course. I could have guessed that a half marathon in a country whose name contains the word for “mountain” and in a city which has the Serbo-Croatian word for hill (“gorica”) in its name would be a strenuous enterprise. The late October sun still shines forcefully. Whenever there is a wind (even more forceful), it is blowing from the front.
The other runners don’t have an easier time, allowing me to leave one after the other behind me. I am particularly proud when I pass two soldiers of the Montenegrin army. These two soldiers represent almost 1 ‰ of the armed forces of the country, which is defended by only 2094 soldiers. Let’s hope that Mr Putin won’t learn that, or part of the country will be pinched off in no time. Probably the coastal region, where Russian millionaires and billionaires have already gone on a shopping spree for real estate and wharves for yachts.
Are the Russian runners the advance party? The authorities were more afraid of the traditionally good and fast runners from Africa. 35 of them were denied visas for Montenegro, for fear of Ebola. Only Africans already residing in Europa were admitted. I or the other European runners were not asked about any health problems or our travel history, making this approach both inconsistent and discriminating. Who’s afraid of the black man? The country of the black mountains.
Speaking about mountains: the mountain view is invigorating. A long-distance run usually is an agony, but this one seemed to me like a walk which I took too speedily, and that was solely due to the environment. Mountains wherever I looked. The turquoise-colored river Zeta winds itself through a canyon deep down below the road. Small villages with cows, chicken and peaceful dogs. For a few seconds, a horse is trotting next to me on the meadow.
The entrance to any little country lane is guarded by a police officer. Apparently, Montenegro has plenty of those, more than soldiers.
I only enter the city of Podgorica on the last kilometers of the run. The field of runners has stretched out so far by now that sometimes I don’t see anyone ahead of me, nor do I hear anyone behind me. At an intersection, I have to stop for a few seconds to ask a police offer, who is regulating the traffic, which way I should continue running. I still feel relatively fit, I feel that I have reserves left. It can’t be that far, so I increase my pace. One-mile run pace.
At the Main Post Office, I turn the last corner. I can see the finish line. A few hundred meters. The large digital clock next to the finish is at 1:59:40, and with each step it ticks closer to the two-hour benchmark. I am completely flabbergasted how I could achieve this so exactly without any watch or other time measuring device. 1:59:45, but I am not there yet. Now I switch to sprinting pace, using my arms to get out the last energy, for the first time today I feel my physical limit, go beyond it, but only for a few seconds. At 1:59:56 I dash across the finish line. That was close.
The Kenyan runners did win the race, by the way.