The Istanbul Marathon
Running marathons isn’t everyone’s idea of ‘living like a VIP’ but the benefits include burning tons of calories, toning up your figure and learning just what your body and mind are capable of. Every year, I’ve seen some celebrities do them including Gordon Ramsay, Ronan Keating, Peter Andre, Pamela Anderson and Katherine Jenkins and it makes me feel quite competitive. If they can do it then why can’t I? Also, I like the idea of training for something. The prospect of having to run 26.2 miles motivates me to do a run to practise and if I didn’t have the fear I probably wouldn’t do anything at all. I signed up for Istanbul partly because I go to a running club called London City Runners and learned that 20 cool people from the club were also doing it. However, it was also partly because I like the combination of running and holidaying. At this point, I should probably admit that I have run marathons before (two in London and one in New York) and I loved combining exploring New York with running a marathon. I could party heavily afterwards and consume doughnuts, pizza and cookies without thinking of the calorific consequences. I’ve never been to Istanbul before and I hoped I would end up celebrating a successful race over meat kebabs in a local venue with wine or champagne and my friends. Well, that’s what I hoped for, but you can’t always control some of the elements when it comes to running marathons so my attitude at the start of the trip could be summer up in one word – nervous! The group from running club was mixed as some people had run 12 marathons while others were running their first. Some expected to fly round in super quick times, while others were just hoping to get round without stopping. That’s one of the things I love about a marathon – anyone can do it and no matter how fast you do it it’s still faster than someone who is too scared to run. If any of you are reading this and think you’d like to try it and potentially combine it with a holiday in Istanbul then this piece will tell you everything you need to know. Let’s start with the travel. I decided to fly out with Atlasjet from London Luton, as the airport is within driving distance of my parents house in Hertfordshire. It’s also home to an Aspire airport lounge, which was just the tonic for my nerves. It’s impossible to feel panicked or stressed when you can wait for a flight in the comfort of a lounge, with a fridge stocked full of soft drinks and alcoholic drinks. You can help yourself to whatever you want, and although I decided to abstain I poured my friend a vodka.
There’s a great selection of snacks but as I was running, I decided to be healthy and have some fruit with a glass of sparkling water. I just had a couple of pieces, not the whole lot! At £18.99 for the access, which you can prebook on the Aspire Executive Lounges website, it’s totally worth it. By the time you’ve had a coffee and a sandwich in Pret you’ll have spent £10 and in the lounge you can eat and drink whatever you want and do it with free WIFI on a comfortable chair!
Atlasjet is a low cost airline, which has operated daily flights out of London Luton since May 2014. The main draw for me was that it was £100 return, which is cheaper than a train fare to Manchester! For this price, I didn’t expect any frills but there was a 25kg luggage allowance and just as much catering as on a BA flight. You could have drinks pre-meal and during meal and they served three courses with meze to start, chicken with rice and peas and a chocolate cake. An hour before the four hour flight landed, we were served tea and cake. The only thing that I missed was in-flight entertainment as there wasn’t even one TV screen inside, but if you pay less than £50 for a four hour flight, you can’t expect to have everything.
Above is one of the photos I took of our accomodation. Istanbul has a mangnificent Four Seasons hotel as well as a Raffles and a comfortable Shangri-La hotel, but I wanted a place where I would feel comfortable in my exercise clothes and I could wake up at whatever time I wanted and get back whenever I wanted without feeling under pressure to behave. Air BnB was the answer and three friends and I chose a place close to the marathon finish line in Sultanahmet, which worked out to £80 a night (£20 a night each). It’s the first time I’ve ever stayed in an Air BnB place and the price made me feel wary. Would it be clean? Would it be quiet? Would the beds be comfy? Would the shower be clean? The answer to everything was yes and the owner even left the fridge stocked with breakfast items – juice, water, milk, eggs, cereal and bread. The best surprise was that my bed was twice the size as my bed at home, although the flat owner did like the colour purple
The corner sofa was used a lot! We could easily fit lots of my friends on if we were sat up – usually about six of us. After the marathon, we fit three of us on it, all lying down. I’d definitely recommend the place and the fact you can walk to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and cake shops in less than five minutes. Check out it’s listing on Air BnB here.
Now I should probably get on to the main reason I was in Istanbul – the marathon! It’s a busy time for the city of Istanbul as there are three races going on at once – 10km, 15km and 42km (marathon distance). The earlier you register in advance, the cheaper it is. I paid 60 TYL, which is less than £20. To put this into context, the entry for New York in 2015 is $358! You can visit the Istanbul Marathon website to sign up if you’re interested in doing it in 2015. There will be a registration form up on 1 January 2015 and its 60 TYL as long as you register before 30 July.
So what does the entry fee get you? Firstly, you get you a bib and chip to attach to your trainers to get an official time, plus pre-race gifts from the sponsors of the race including an Adidas t-shirt and a Tupperware water bottle. The Adidas t-shirt alone looks like it’s worth more than £20. The downside is this needs to be collected from an exhibition centre that is far out from the centre of Istanbul. This is 3 stops from the airport so I would advise booking an early flight so you can tick off the travelling and the race admin in the same day. Here I am with my bag at the expo. It’s a tired smile as I attended the day after I arrived and it felt like it took hours to get there. Don’t do what I did, plan in advance.
Marathon day itself was epic – it felt like it went on forever. If you stay in the Sultanahmet or Taksim areas of the city, you can get a shuttle bus to the start but you have to get on the bus around 7am as the last bus leaves dead on 730am. As a result, people panic to get on the buses and I spent the first half an hour of my race day morning, stood up on a bus, under the armpit of another runner. When the bus stopped suddenly, people trampled over each other. It was worse than the central line in rush hour, which was pretty horrendous. The same atmosphere prevailed at the start. You have to put your luggage on a bus, but nobody knew where the buses were.There are a lot of people to fight your way past to find out where anything is…the start line on the left is for the 15km race and the one on the right for the 42 km start – everyone crams in together! We had to clamber over the carriageways, jumping over road blocks to get to the luggage buses, which really could have caused injuries before the race started. I’m also surprised there were no injuries in the starting pen as there’s a complete lack of organisation. In New York and London, you tell the race organisers what time you expect to finish in and they divide you into places to start the race. In Istanbul, anyone can start wherever they want and everyone wants to be near the front even if they’re not hoping for a good time. This means that as soon as the start guns go off, people are pushing everywhere. You have to have your wits about you. It’s an amazing feeling to run across the Bosphorus bridge, which is normally shut to pedestrians, but the buzz is shortlived as I was focusing more on avoiding other runners and keeping my balance to avoid getting tripped up.
The highs of the race are:
- Good water stations every 2.5km, with sponges so you can throw water over you as well as in you. Some stops also had bananas and oranges and sugar cubes. I expected New York to have these facilities given the massive race entry fee, but as Istanbul is much cheaper to enter it made the refreshment stations more impressive.
- Regular time checkpoints so you can look up your split times for each 5K after the race.
- A post-race goodybag containing a t-shirt, drinks, a chocolate bar and a good quality medal. (Wine not included!)
- Lack of supporters. It was completely quiet from 2km to 41km. In London and New York, the supporters are encouraging you at every mile but in Istanbul there are only people on the last kilometre.
- A dull course. The second half of the race consists of running 7 miles towards the airport along a Coastal motorway and 7 miles back. When there’s no crowds it feels like it’s going on forever.
- An uphill ending. The last 2km are uphill, which seems unfair given that we’ve already run 40km! There was also a hill 11km in which lasted almost a kilometre. It was followed by the same distance downhill, but I find running downhill can damage joints, as you’re tempted to use the momentum of the hill, rather than cushion your landing.
And the end result? I finished in 3 hrs 41. Anything under 3 hrs 45 is termed Good For Age to get you an entry into the London Marathon, so I’m happy that I’m ‘Good For Age’. I’m also happy that I went with such a friendly group of people. If you’re in the London area and you want an England Athletics affiliated club that only charges £30 for the entire year, check out the London City Runners website. I’d advise taking a watch if you want to achieve a specific time goal (I used the Garmin Forerunner 10 watch) This is because there weren’t kilometre markings at regular intervals so I relied on my watch to check if I was on schedule for a sub 4 hour marathon. It turned out I was way underneath! Make sure you get good trainers and practise in them in advance. I learned this the hard way on my first marathon, running in fashion trainers rather than running trainers and suffering a severe achilles injury. Istanbul was the first time I’ve run a race in Adidas Boost 2.0 trainers and the first time I’ve completed a marathon with all my toenails and no blisters. Not one single foot or ankle injury is a real achievement for me and I think the fact that I’ve suffered injuries while wearing different pairs of shoes says something about how much well suited I am to Adidas running shoes. The first time I raced in these shoes I got a PB in a 5K ParkRun. Go figure!
It’s important to think about how you plan to fuel your marathon and practise in advance as you don’t want to try anything new on race day. The water stations on the Istanbul marathon course only served water and sugar cubes and this won’t provide all the energy you need for more than 3 and a half hours of running. I experimented with a few fuel strategies before the race but I found I enjoyed the taste (and benefits) of Clif shot gels and Clif shot bloks the most. The chocolate gel was really tasty so I started with that when I was feeling low around mile 10. Then I had a few shot bloks, which were a bit like a more flavoursome version of gummy bears, and I ended up with a double espresso shot to power me through the last 10km. The espresso shot was amazing – I felt invincible afterwards and I honestly don’t think I would have got under 3 hrs 45 without that much needed boost.
And finally, I think it’s important to watch your nutrition so you don’t get ill. Before the marathon I wrote about drinking CherryActive and BeetActive and I think they really helped as well as the Guarana powder and health food bars from Creative Nature Super Foods
With the marathon out of the way, and no major injuries, I was free to make the most of the eating and drinking in Istanbul as well as see the sights. I visited some places I wouldn’t recommend but I enjoyed:
Cemberlitas Hammam Ok, it doesn’t look like much from the outside, but this is a traditional Turkish hammam and completely unlike anything you’ve ever experienced elsewhere in the world. It’s all done on a heated marble bed, which is ideal for post-marathon aching muscles. But it’s not for the shy! You’re given knickers to wear…but nothing else. A local woman will bathe you all over, exfoliating and moisturising you with soap suds so your skin feels soft and clean but my face was just as flushed from the awkwardness at seeing so much nudity as it was from the heat. Boys and girls use separate facilities so it’s not sexual but it is pretty surreal. Visit the Cemberlitas hammam website for more info – at 90TYL (approx £30) for the full experience it’s worth doing once in your life.
Mavi Melek restaurant This had a lovely outside area for the summer and even the inside felt cosy – like you’re eating in a family’s home. The full London City Runners crowd (more than 20 of us) visited the night of the Marathon and had a set menu. I’m sometimes sceptical when restaurants offer these and also cautious about group dinners when the chef is too overworked to think about flavours. However, they do catering for large numbers well in Istanbul. In the Mavi Melek set menu for 50 TYL a head, approx £15, the hungry group of City Runners feasted on an array of mixed cold starters, warm cheese, meat or seabass and a rich chocolate fondant. The food kept coming out – just what you need after running a marathon!
Ozi pizza As the City Runners crew celebrated hard the day of the marathon, the following day we may have been slightly damaged / hungover. Ozi pizza was just opposite our Air BnB flat and we ordered three of the most cheesey pizzas, heavy on the topping and light on the base, that perfectly hit the spot. Disappointingly they got out order slightly wrong with one of them and we ended up with seafood when we ordered chicken, but I can see why Ozi is rated 11th out of all the restaurants in Istanbul by Trip Advisor reviewers. It’s not somewhere you go for a fancy meal, but if you want comfort food it’s an alternative to the kebabs and kofte that are on every street corner. Don’t let the photos of the pasta and pizza dishes on the menu put you off!
Hagia Sofia Simply stunning! It’s the oldest building I’ve ever been in, built in 526AD. There’s a fascinating mix of catholic and Islam history plus a shrine dedicated to Empress Zoe. It’s 30 TYL to enter, but you get a real sense of history and architectural awe once inside.
Blue Mosque This is on every postcard you see of Istanbul so you can’t leave without exploring it closer. Take a head scarf if you want to visit inside or you’ll have to borrow one of theirs. Also, you do have to take your shoes off when inside so make sure you have good socks. Finally, check opening times in advance as the mosque is shut 5 times a day at the Muslim prayer times. It’s pretty spectacular inside!
Cakes by Sultanahmet tram station I always knew Istanbul was famous for Turkish delight and baklava but I never expected the large, creamy cakes. Around the sultanahmet tram stop, there are lots of cake shops next to each other. I ordered the version of giant swiss roll below. It was so wide, there was a profiterole inside. I ate it all and enjoyed every mouthful. Grand Bazaar Yet more sweet treats! However, the Grand Bazaar is mainly the place to buy your tourist souvenirs like local pottery and glassware. Be prepared to haggle and beware of the fake handbags and watches and the sellers heckling you to buy knock-offs. Be strong!
A fish sandwich by The Galata Bridge Paying 6 TYL (ie £2) for a decent sized sandwich? Get in! This area is full of fishermen casting rods from the bridge above or trawlers going out to see and the result is a sandwich that tastes so fresh it practically swam up to your mouth. I sort of wish I bought two as they wore very moreish, especially when drizzled in lemon juice. As you can tell, I really enjoyed eating in Istanbul!
Would I go back to Istanbul? Absolutely. Would I run another marathon? Definitely. I am even glad I ran the Istanbul marathon as it made me stronger. I learned how to pace myself to beat the lack of signage and I learned to dig into the depths of my mind to keep myself going when there was a lack of support. As the Istanbul marathon is easy to enter, it’s good if you don’t get a place in the ballot of a big marathon like London or New York plus it’s cheap. If you’ve ever run a marathon in a interesting place please let me know – Tweet me @livelikeavip or email firstname.lastname@example.org If we’re going to do exercise, we may as well do it in style and have fun, right? Xx