The Main Event

The Bucharest Half Marathon is a sur­pris­ing treat in a newly vi­brant cap­i­tal city, says John Car­roll

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents -

The Bucharest Half Marathon turns out to be a sur­pris­ing treat

The Bucharest Half Marathon be­gins in the shadow of The Palace of Par­lia­ment, in Con­sti­tu­tion Square, close to the cen­tre of the city. In fact, this colos­sal ed­i­fice (the sec­ond-big­gest ad­min­is­tra­tive build­ing in the world, after the Pen­tagon) once cast a shadow over the en­tire city. A mon­u­ment to hubris, delu­sion and in­se­cu­rity, it was built on the or­ders of the dic­ta­tor Ni­co­lae Ceaușescu, who was ex­e­cuted in 1989. The build­ing is now the seat of the Ro­ma­nian par­lia­ment, though 70 per cent of it re­mains empty. Th­ese days it over­looks par­ties, races and rock con­certs, which seems fit­ting.

This was the fifth time the half marathon had been held here and it was clear the race or­gan­is­ers knew what they were do­ing, though there was some con­fu­sion as run­ners strolled from one start­ing pen to the next, to the mi­nor con­ster­na­tion of the mar­shals. As I waited, res­o­lutely in the ‘might dip un­der two hours’ sec­tion, I found my­self rather en­joy­ing not hav­ing a damned clue what was be­ing said by the run­ners around me. Mind you, Ro­ma­nian is a ro­mance lan­guage, so I was able to pick up the odd fa­mil­iar­sound­ing word (‘Scuze’ would come in ex­tremely handy later on).

After the usual pre­race folderol (whoop­ing, ex­hor­ta­tion, high-en­ergy mu­sic, overzeal­ous PBhunters push­ing their way to the front), we set off just after 9am. Al­most in­stantly I was jos­tled out of the way by a slab of meat dressed in tiny black shorts and a shiny black T-shirt. On his head he wore a blue buff tied at the back; he looked like a pi­rate who’d spent too many hours hoist­ing the main­sail by him­self.

The morn­ing sky was a bright, showy blue, un­sul­lied by clouds, and the tem­per­a­ture was al­ready touch­ing 19C, though once in a while a breeze blew in from out of town to try to put man­ners on the sun. It did not work: this was go­ing to be a hot one. From the square we headed south, only to turn around after about 500m. We soon headed right, onto the Boule­vard Unirii (Union), which stretches for al­most four kilo­me­tres from the Palace of Par­lia­ment. An­other legacy from the grim Ceaușescu years, it was de­signed to be like the Champs-élysées – but wider –

and it orig­i­nally groaned un­der the bur­den of be­ing called the Boule­vard of the Vic­tory of So­cial­ism. Nev­er­the­less, it’s a lovely flat road to run along, lined with trees and dot­ted with foun­tains that seemed to burst into life as we passed. There was plenty of sup­port here and no short­age of wa­ter points. This stretch also al­lowed us to watch the elites on the other side of the road, de­vour­ing the route on their way to the fin­ish.

Parts of the old city are strik­ingly beau­ti­ful and grand, but the fur­ther away from the cen­tre we ran, the more the grey, grumpy Com­mu­nist-era build­ings dom­i­nated. Ev­ery­one had set­tled into their pace by this stage and that meant I was keep­ing pace with an older run­ner who with ev­ery step made an alarm­ing sound that re­minded me of some­one try­ing des­per­ately to not vomit – a half-wretch, half-hic­cup that quickly be­came the only sound I could hear. I be­gan to feel the faint urge to throw up in sym­pa­thy, so I picked up the pace to lose him. Some­times I hear him in my dreams.

At the 7km point we ran around the out­side of the Na­tional Arena, built be­tween 2008 and 2011 for the Ro­ma­nian na­tional foot­ball team, and headed along the wide boule­vards back into the city.

The route was closed to cars and there was a de­cent po­lice pres­ence to keep an eye on way­ward traf­fic, but they were no match for reck­less spec­ta­tors. I al­most col­lided with a man who am­bled onto the course at what he con­sid­ered a pedes­trian cross­ing; and later, back in the lively old town, an el­derly woman was lev­elled by a com­peti­tor. He stopped to help her to her feet but, from her bel­lowed in­dig­na­tion, I guessed she was fine. She re­mon­strated with a nearby cop, but he was hav­ing none of it; his elab­o­rate arm-wav­ing said it all: ‘Crazy old per­son, this is a race. And stop shout­ing at me. I have a gun.’

We passed by the race vil­lage once more and then fol­lowed the Dâm­boviţa river for a cou­ple of miles. By this stage the tem­per­a­ture had eased into the twen­ties and I was be­gin­ning to overheat, even though I was dump­ing bot­tles of wa­ter over my head at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. I moved off the road onto the foot­path along the river, where trees of­fered some shade ev­ery few me­tres. I wasn’t yet suf­fer­ing but the go­ing was get­ting harder. And then, at mile 12, I saw him, the pi­rate: still run­ning in his hard-charg­ing way, as if he wanted to hurt the race rather than fin­ish it, but heav­ier now, slog­ging his way along. I lifted my head, picked up my knees and loped past him on the nar­row path. ‘Scuze,’ I said, feel­ing a deep yet very shal­low sense of sat­is­fac­tion.

I fin­ished in 2:03; slow enough, but I wasn’t tak­ing chances in the heat. I had had no idea what to ex­pect of ei­ther the city or the race, but my ex­pe­ri­ence of both was hugely en­joy­able. The event is well or­gan­ised and mar­shalled, and the route is Pb-friendly, while the city of­fers plenty to those who en­joy good wine, good food and star­ing up at build­ings while mur­mur­ing, ‘Ah, yes, very neo­clas­si­cal. The Paris of the east, you know.’

‘I rather en­joyed not hav­ing a damned clue what was be­ing said by the run­ners around me’

PROP­ERTY RIGHTS Run­ners warm up in front of the Palace of Par­lia­ment

TOP VIEW Con­sti­tu­tion Square, with Boule­vard Unirii stretch­ing into the dis­tance

ON THE WAY Only 13.1 miles to go

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