In late March, a plethora of volunteers and myself ventured out to Prague, Czech Republic, for a small vacation. In addition, a friend of mine from the states, Olivia, was going to continue her worldly trek by joining us. This all sounds simple enough and anyone who has ever been to Prague knows that it is a beautiful city with many things to see and experience. Well, our initial “excuse” for going was to run the Hervis Prague Half Marathon that many of us had signed up for in November or December. At the time, this was a brilliant idea. A little motivation to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle, an excuse to travel to one of the greatest cities in Europe, and an opportunity to be with friends. Then, winter in Ukraine happened.
Stereotypically, many westerners think that Ukraine is constantly cold. When we think of Ukraine, we tend to link our visions with those of Russia and the former Soviet Union…or just the region of Siberia. I promise you, there are seasons in this country and the changes to spring and fall are just as beautiful as many regions of the United States. That being said, the rumors are true: winter is ridiculously cold here. Not just cold, but windy. Combine that with an region with high humidity one might say that it is a painful combination. Have I not yet mentioned that Ukraine experienced the coldest winter in the past 6 years and saw the Black Sea…yes, salt water…freeze over for the first time in decades (30 years last I heard). Combined running time prior to Prague: 30 minutes, maybe 3 miles…combined.
Prior to leaving, I had let it be known among my Ukrainian and American friends that I had no intention whatsoever of running anything over 100 yards. I admitted openly that my judgment had been influenced by a desire to travel to a city I had heard so much about. I conceded a bet made with another volunteer and was willing to accept my penance for stupidity: don a Yankee cap for a social media profile picture (thankfully she had not been able to train and we called a truce…more, a postponement to September). I mentally prepared to actually take pictures of places and enjoy my vacation surrounded by good people. Packed the bag and said “До свиданья” to Ukraine for a week. It was time to see if all the stories my friends and family had told me of Prague were true.
Fast forward through three days of thoroughly enjoying a city where the dollar travels far, the sausages and domestic beverages tickle taste-buds like they should be, and visiting the Mexican restaurant around the corner from our hostel multiple times. Needless to say, when Olivia suggested we should attempt the run, I was not happy. My gym shorts were for sleeping purposes and my sneakers were for walking around on cobble-stone streets. I conceded to “half-of-the-half” and assured her that I would probably be walking before the three mile mark (with all intentions to do so). Other volunteers were also going to be running, so twisting my arm wasn’t really necessary. I pretty much knew that I was at least going to show up at the starting line.
Race day: cold, windy, little bit of rain. Perfect. For those who have not seen me recently, I have adopted the “I’ll be buzzing my hair really short for the rest of my life” approach to hair-styles. Combining this with two whisk away shirts and shorts was making me miserable and hating everything about my current situation. The lines for the port-a-johns were long (at this point, I was hoping they would just start the race and could just say, “Oops”) and standing in place through all of this was clearly serving the motivation necessary to go on my longest run in the past three years. I receive some last minute advice from Olivia to “…pick a pace you think you can maintain for the entire run” – awesome advice actually, first time I had heard it too. Turns out we were good pacers for each other and the run was going very well. We were able to see some interesting buildings throughout the city, run over bridges, under bridges, by parks, and really see some areas of Prague not typically “on the map” as tourism goes.
As we approached our agreed upon finish distance, to my surprise neither of us had needed to stop yet. For someone who has been experiencing something similar to back spasms while running (apparently my hamstrings, quads, and hip flexors are all tight…which essentially means, tight lower back muscles) this seemed like a miracle to me. Olivia stuck to her commitment and decided she was going to stop but I told her I wanted to see how far I could make it without walking and that I would meet her near the finish line soon enough. At this point, I crossed over the Vltava River in Prague and proceeded onward.
Up to this point, the race had taken us all along the river and it’s many bridges. My thought was this, “Run as far and as long as you can until you can’t. Then cross over one of the bridges and go meet up with people.” Flawless logic, really. Except for the fact that after 11 kilometers, the course deviated away from the river and into a different section of the city itself. However, I did not notice this until about the 13 kilometer mark. At this point, it hit me that I was going to have no choice but to finish the half marathon. I had only had to stop to stretch my calves – this should have registered as a bad sign. What I did not realize was that my body was starting to hate me and began to fight back. After rounding the corner at the 15K mark, looked at my watch and realized that I still had 35 minutes to run a sub 2:15 half marathon. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about this prospect when it happened. I started to feel it in my lower quads, slowly spreading higher: leg cramps. If you have never experienced these, congratulations. If you have, you know what I am referring to. It was awful. I could barely lift my legs off the ground. I felt like a speed-walker, except with horrible form and would have been easily passed by one at this point.
Thankfully, I knew (hoped) that my friend Eddie was still running. We had passed each other earlier on a switch-back so I at least knew he wasn’t too far behind me – unless he stopped. My periodic “running”, stopping, stretching, walking backwards, afforded just enough time to spot him. We managed to finish together and were greeted on our final straight away by some other volunteers screaming “ДАВАЙ!!” (don’t bother with any translator…it means, “Let’s Go!”) We were able to crack a smile and finish jogging. I would be completely lying if I said I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment after this. Also, felt a completely new sense of motivation to become more physically active. This was until my legs reminded me of how much they hated me and I momentarily forgot how to walk.
The remainder of the trip was full of site seeing, daily Starbucks coffee, laughing, playing frisbee in the middle of the street, learning new card games and overall relaxation. If Prague is on your list of places to visit in your lifetime, I like your style and promise you’ll enjoy yourself. Back in Ukraine, the majority of volunteers are finishing up the school year, lining up summer projects, and preparing for camps or vacations. It’s been over a year in Ukraine and the time has been flying by. The people I’ve met and the things I’ve been able to see and experience continue to make this an experience of a lifetime.