Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sunday, March 08, 2015 - No comments

Running With a New Crowd

Sixteen little white porcelain cups.  That was the debris left after the elaborate pour-over process that injected three of us with a blessedly non-hotel grade caffeine fix and caused our fourth companion to shake his head at “those coffee people.”  Tracking chips laced onto our shoes and race bibs securely pinned onto our shirts, we shook the last traces of sleepiness from our bodies and headed out the door.

As we stretched and warmed up under a palm tree, I surveyed the thousands of other runners who had shown up for the race.  It was as if every pair of spandex in the nation had converged on this one spot.  Various hues of neon moisture-wicking fabric denoted the different clubs.  Some ran sprints up and down the parking lot, others contorted their bodies in all manner of stretching positions, and I was particularly intrigued by the one couple who had perfected a choreographed warm-up routine in which they mirrored each other’s every motion.  Quite a few people had photos of Özgecan, the girl whose recent murder as she attempted to resist being raped by a minibus driver, pinned to the backs of their shirts, and I spotted several “Say no to violence against women” banners being unfurled.   iPhone armbands were adjusted, shoes tested for even lace tightness.  I tried to gauge people’s seriousness based on whether they were arranging energy gels in a waistband (marathon runners) or sipping tea in the shade (probably out for a 10K walk peppered with a whole lot of selfies.)  

I had just wished the guys a good half-marathon and was headed for one last visit to the porta-potties before lining up for the start of the 10K (wouldn’t want the early morning coffee binge to strike at Kilometre 5!) when I heard them:  the long, slow trumpet notes signaling the beginning of the national anthem.  I paused mid-stride and turned to face the grandstand, joining the thousands around me standing at attention, arms at our sides.  And there, in the shade of a statue of an Ottoman with a water jug on his back, I lifted my voice.  “Do not fear!  This red flag that waves in the dawn’s light will never fade...”  And, as happens every single time I sing the İstiklal Marşı, a few patriotic tears found their way down my cheeks.

Fifteen minutes later, the marathon and half-marathon runners now well on their way, I headed towards the starting line.  A pile of friends had come out to cheer - some lined up along the side of the road with encouraging signs in hand, and the others waved from the pedestrian overpass that marked the start of the course.  And then, to the beat of Çakkıdı, my old Avrupa Yakası buddy Gaffur’s signature dance song, the countdown ended and off we went.

I’d only begun my “Couch to 10K” program around Christmas, so I’d known I wasn’t quite ready to run the full 10K and was opting for “run 5, walk 1” intervals.  The surprise appearance of the sun made for a hotter day than I’d anticipated, and this, coupled with the fact that I’d been sick in bed until a few days before, definitely affected my energy.  Still, the fact that I’d actually arrived at this day had me pumped full of excitement, and just putting my feet to the pavement felt like a victory in itself.  

The route wound through downtown, with a good chunk of it running parallel to the sea.  The sight of the turquoise waters and the crisp morning mountains definitely made for a nice distraction.  There was something so exhilarating about running on familiar streets.  It made me feel ownership of my city in a way I’ve never felt before.  Passing shops and businesses I frequent, I watched for faces I might recognize.  My contact lens guy wasn’t open yet and my favourite restaurant is closed on Sunday, but I was thrilled to get a big wave and a cheer from my favourite Starbucks barista as I ran by.  

Leading up to the big day, there had been lot of texts and phone calls back and forth between me and the other guys doing the run. Rehashing our last runs and spurring each other on had made it feel like we were training together, even though we were in different cities and prepping for different races.  With them all running the half-marathon, I was on my own on the course, except for whoever was singing in my headphones at the moment, but I quickly felt such a sense of camaraderie with the other runners around me.  Smiles from those I kept pace with and the exuberant shouts as we passed distance markers made for a sense of “togetherness.”  Wild applause and cries of “Bravo!” erupted from the group as those who had already reached the 5K turnaround passed us on their way back, and this only increased as the first half-marathon bibs started to appear.  Those pushing friends in wheelchairs always aroused a round of “Way to go”s.  Kids waved from apartment windows, policemen rerouting traffic nodded their encouragement, and tourists snapped photos and yelled what I assumed were motivational phrases in a variety of languages.  As I approached the halfway turnaround, one particular man who had just started the return journey himself gave me a high-five as he cried out, “Umut!  Umut!”  (“Hope!  Hope!”) and it was just the boost I needed to tell my weary body to press on.

I would’ve told you downtown was fairly flat, but now I can tell you the location of every seemingly inconsequential incline.  What felt like a reward on the way down was killer on the return trip.  As I passed the last water station at the 8K mark, everything within me wanted to give up and just walk the rest of the way.  The fact that the big hill by the museum was yet to come didn’t exactly give me added motivation.  But my mantra of “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” and the fact that I knew I’d be so disappointed in myself if I caved kept me putting one foot in front of the other.  Fittingly, the song that came on in my earphones just after I conquered the hill and passed the 9K marker was “Your Grace is Enough.”  With the finish line just barely in sight, that was enough to make me skip my last walking interval and push on towards the end.  And with a blown kiss to my friends screaming my name as I closed in on the last few metres, I tasted the sweetness of accomplishing my goal.

I finished with a time of 1 hour, 21 minutes and 49 seconds.  More than anything, I was so proud of myself for sticking to my plan and never giving in to exhaustion, but finishing strong.  All those early mornings dodging sheep poop on the dirt roads around my house had paid off!  But the unexpected pleasure of the whole experience for me was that of spending a few hours in the company of a slice of society I don’t move in very often.  I was surrounded by Turks who live active lives, who set goals and achieve them, who raise money for social causes and carry a culture of encouragement.  They showed me a face of Turkey I hadn’t really seen before.  

There’s another 10K in Istanbul on a weekend in April when I am hoping to be up there.  If I train hard, I think I could swing running the whole distance by then.  And the idea of running on the coastal road in my favourite city is hard to resist.  Might not be long before I am once again standing at attention in my sweats, crying as I sing about my love for the crescent and star at the starting line...