My Return and Thessaloniki Marathon

Well as usual a few months have gone by and I have kinda let my Urban Trail Runner duties slip by. However now I am back, settled and have some great ideas where I can take this blog and the site. At the last update I was getting reading for Thessaloniki Marathon which took place back in mid April.

 

So first, a bit about Thessaloniki, for those of you who are not familiar with Greek geography, the city is located in the north of the country on the Aegean Sea and a short three hour drive from Sofia (its about 4 hours from where I am in Plovdiv). The city is one of our favorites in the region as it is a good stop over to or from your seaside vacations. As with many cities in the region, Thessaloniki is steeped in history having been found in 315 BC and being one of the most important regional cities throughout history. Along with history we have found the city has a wonderful food scene with wonderful restaurants, cafes and a laid back vibe.

Team BEGACH in front of the Alexander the Great Statue in Pella

Team BEGACH in front of the Alexander the Great Statue in Pella

The marathon itself is known as Alexander the Great Marathon because its starting point is in Pella the birthplace of Alexander the Great. The organizers bus participants out to the starting line. On the morning of the race this year it was overcast with a slight amount of drizzle. I was on one of the first buses to arrive to Pella and it was a bit surreal. The sun was just rising and small town was mostly still asleep. Most of the participants went straight to one of the two cafes in two to stay warm and have a coffee. The organizers handed out some plastic ponchos to in order to stay warm a little later. As the start approached things kicked into life and the small town filled up with runners. It was nice to see two other BEGACH guys at the start, especially when there was no plan in place.

Obligatory post race selfie with support crew
Credit: Larry Salibra

The race started on time and spread out quickly. The first kilometer was down hill as we passed a passed the ruins of ancient Pella and the local band playing their tunes. At the base of the hill you turn left (east) onto the main road that takes you all the way into Thessaloniki. The route follows this road for roughly the next 35 km, it is relatively flat with some small inclines fro time to time but nothing serious. I cannot say enough about the aid stations as they were located every 2.5 km (after the 5 km mark).  All the volunteers were great, handing out a selection of drinks and cheering on all the runners.  At the 35km point you cross into the city proper and face probably the steepest incline yet as you cross a fly over. Finally at the 37.5 km mark you make a series of turns off of the main road that brings you closer to the water. At the 40km point you near the Thessaloniki Ferry terminal and you get the opportunity to run the last 1.2km down the Thessaloniki waterfront. On your left there a people enjoying their frappes and on your right there is the expanse of the Thermaic Gulf. The finish line of the race is just past the iconic white tower on the sea front, where I was met by my wonderful girlfriend and ridiculous brother. 

Always capturing my best moments
Credit: @Coffee.moffee

Before I get into the nitty gritty of how the race went for me. I definitely have to thanks both my brother Larry, who was kind enough to join us from Hong Kong and my girlfriend for Madlen. As any athlete knows the ones closest to you often sacrifice just as much as you do, especially in the case of Madlen who puts up with my early mornings, long runs and sometimes worrying fatigue. So just a reminder to all my endurance friends don't forget to thank your support crew. Even when they make it a goal to capture your worst moments. 

Strava's Race Analysis, click for the full event

Strava's Race Analysis, click for the full event

As for the race, well that didn't go especially to plan. Now after adequate time to think about and digest the race, I definitely think I overshot.  I was more of less on pace until i hit the 30km point, but from about the 25km point i had begun to experience to mild cramping issues. In retrospect I should have pulled back on the effort then but I stubbornly stuck to it. The 35-40km section was a total nightmare with cramps reducing me to walking and stretching long sections. For the final bit I was able to man up and came across the line with a 3:24 a few minutes slower then my best but far off my goal.  If you're interested in checking out all the race details you can find the link by click the race analysis picture. I guess my most important take away is that I need to work more on my pacing and just race more in general. Thessaloniki was only my second road marathon and as anyone who has ever run a marathon knows, there are lots of questions marks in these races. Each one is individual and you need to learn to interpret what your body is trying to tell you.

Finally the end credit: Larry Salibra

Finally the end
credit: Larry Salibra

So what’s next, well in an upcoming post, I will fill you all in on what to expect from this site in the future along with what I have been up to since April.  Im looking forward to this focus that I have found here and hope that you will all join me on the road. For now feel free to share you thoughts or advice for the future.  As for me I am currently in the thick of trying to figure out my 2020 schedule I definitely want to work another marathon into the works but this time I want to to see if I can run things a bit smarter than I have been. 



The American Guide to Vitosha (Витоша)

Cherni Vrah (2290m/7513ft)

Cherni Vrah (2290m/7513ft)

Although I am an American my intent behind this post isn't necessarily to provide my perspective (I have the whole rest of the site for this) but to provide my eccentric compatriots a guide that suits them. What do I mean by that...well here comes the stereotyping...Americans visiting in Europe are usually passing through and are most interested in checking tings off the list. In this case answering the question, "So, how do I get to the top?" For those of you who don't know the top is Black Peak or in Bulgarian Черни Врах or in latin Cherni Vrah (one of 10 peaks over 2000m on Vitosha). For those intrepid travellers I have put together the bare bones options (I will work to expand on these on the site soon).

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Trail up slopes above Hizha Aleko

Trail up slopes above Hizha Aleko

Option 1: Hard As Nails - In the case you want the most traditional route, start from NDK (НДК), yes thats right NDK and head due south over the pedestrian bridge, across to the main part of South Park where you will head to the south end and take the ul. Nikola Krush towards Dragalevtsi (Драгалевци). This route mirrors that of Vitosha Run and the track and map are available at Marathon.bg (BG). This route is 18.5 km (11.5 miles) long with 1800m (5900ft) of climbing, and thats just to the top.

Option 2: E-4 - Get yourself to the main square of Dragalevtsi, either by taxi, car or public transport .  Follow the red blazed trail up the steep street at the southwest corner of the square and continue all the way to Cherni Vrah. This trail goes via Hizha Aleko. This trail is just under 10km (6 miles) long and requires around 1500m (4900 ft) of climbing. Variant - From Goli Vrah lift station you can continue of the main gravel road to Cherni Vrah, this will by pass the steep section by Hizha Aleko but the distance and climb are the same.

Option 3: Easiest way - So maybe you're not a sadist like other trail runners, if thats the case this if for you. Part 1: choose your method: 

Aforemention gravel road from Goli Vrah to Cherni Vrah

Aforemention gravel road from Goli Vrah to Cherni Vrah

  • Simeonovo Lift (weekends),Taxi, or car to to Hizha Aleko
  • Dragalevtsi Lift to Goli Vrah (Bus 93 from the Zoo or Vitosha Metro stop)
  • Bus 66 (weekends) to Hotel Moreni

Part 2: Choose your way, but I recommended ascending via Goli Vrah to Cherni Vrah then if you like descending to Hizha Alkeo

So there ya go, for my traveling peak bagging friends there is your quick overview. Below is an overview of the trails on on Vitosha so you can navigate a bit better. As you may or may not know I am a fan of REI's Trail Run project  you can access all the data there or you can download their app. If you have any other questions feel free to leave a comment below or to reach out to me on social media at the links below.

Results: A weekend at the Seaside

This past weekend I spent in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort of Golden Sands for a wedding. While I was there of course I had to take the opportunity to get a run or two in.

Descending to sea level in Varna

Descending to sea level in Varna

The first of two runs I planned was in Varna itself. I knew that my main focus area was going to be Sea Garden as it is the site for the weekly. This was the perfect opportunity to work on some pace work as I continue to build my base back after my knee injury. I decided to make a loop out of the course and continue the run further until i reached the road down to the sea. I then followed the road all the way back to the Port of Varna and continued on to my hotel. The sea garden was filled with other runners and offered the perfect terrain to pick up the pace a bit. Running along the sea was very pleasant and empty although as I saw later in the day it would not be the ideal place for running as there is alot of pedestrian traffic especially on the southern half.

The next two nights we would be staying in Golden Sands, and as you saw last week i planned on doing some exploration the Golden Sands Nature Park. The park runs the length of the resort and covers some very rugged terrain reaching inland around 3 kilometers. Leaving our hotel at the northend of the resort I immediately hit a snag having to find my way past roads blocked with construction materials. With that solved the and the correct road I climbed quickly to reach the main road some 50+ meters above sea level. Crossing the road and following the indications on my GPS route I find myself in a sand pit that was being excavated, after a quick back track I followed the broken road that passed the northern edge of the Panorama section of Golden Sands. My plan was to take the M4 trail as marked on the map to the left, the section near the town was the hardest there were few markings and trail was faint at best.

As the road ended I continued into the forest following the faint trail for a few hundred meters. As the trail appeared to end cut through the few streets that remained and found the trail off a dirt road heading in the correct direction. I continued following this trail as it rapidly began to climb. I soon reached the intersection with the M1 trail where I was met with good trail markings and some foreboding animal skulls.  Here I turned south and continued along the wide trail, after a few hundred meters the trail joined a road for a few minutes before returning to dirt. This next section of trail had been heavily traveled by 4 wheel vehicles and made running difficult.  

M4 trail

M4 trail

Five kilometers into the run I reached the outskirts of a residential area that lies on a plateau about 200m above the sea. Here the M1 and M4 trails split and I decided to take the M4 that continued to the south. This ended up being a great choice as the terrain in this section was gorgeous. The trail was just over single track width with rolling hills and dense Lord of the Rings type forest surrounding either side. Shortly before reaching the next intersection I came across a small view point from and outcropping unfortunately the trees have overgrown and no view was available.

At the next intersection I turned left and descended via the M2 trail. The trail quickly descended about vertical meters in about half of a kilometer. This section of the trail is paved with limestone and has many stairs so I imagine in wet conditions its like ice. After the trail flattened out a bit I got back to running. The trail wound through the forest and was mostly flat until I reached the first road crossing. There I headed across the parking lot and found the trail that descended quickly again. I then crossed the main road and entered back into the resort area.  

Modeling my new hair style

Modeling my new hair style

Overall I was very happy with the quality of the trails and the weather. While I was lucky to be running in a mild 15-20C, I still felt the seaside humidity. In the summer I would imagine that this trail would be much more difficult. In fact I would be surprised if many tourists explored these areas as the summer sun would turn the forest into a sauna. However if you are in the area you should definitely check out some of the trails they are worth the time. Plus after running there is nothing better than taking a dip in the sea to cool off.

Routing in a foreign land

One of the main reasons I originally got into running was because it is an easy activity for me to do even when I am on the road. For those of you that know me, I am lucky enough to have a job that provides me with the opportunity to travel regularly. However I rarely find myself staying in a hotel in a major city, this makes finding running routes more of challenge and more of an adventure.

Strava's Route Builder

Strava's Route Builder

The primary tool that I use to plan my routes is Strava's Route Builder. It has a number of features that help me manage my time and effort levels. Firstly, it allows you to load the routes that you make on your phone. I no longer track activities using the Strava iPhone app, but will leave the track open to check if i am close. The other option is that I could potentially export the GPX then transfer it to my Garmin Fenix 3, however in the past Garmin Connect has not allowed me to do this. In addition I often travel without my connecting cable making transferring to my watch not an option.

Heat Maps Activated

Heat Maps Activated

The second feature that I love on Strava's Route Builder is overlay of the heat map. Although somewhat controversial due to data privacy, I find heat maps an import tool when I am on the road. They allow you to see the most commonly used routes (running/biking). The third feature (which is built off of heat maps)is the ability to plan a route by popularity. As you click the system will build the route between points using the most popular paths. This of course isn't fool proof and I have found that in heavily tracked cities or areas it can be a bit of a pain. However you can turn it off and add in a few manual points when necessary. This helps me get the most accurate track and idea of how long it will take me to run.

In addition to Strava's Route builder I do use a few other tools when I am researching different routes. If I am in an area where trail/mountain running is an option I will check REI's Trail Run Project, however it is most useful in North America. I will also try doing research for local races which can often give me an idea of trails or routes that maybe of interest. In addition I try to reference a variety of map resources to determine what is the path of least resistance.

Generally when I am traveling I have one of two goals that I try to get from my runs. The obvious one is the opportunity to see some of a city that I would have otherwise missed. The second is get some time out in nature and find an adventure. I rarely do work outs when I am travel however on occasion I find that I need to and for this I stick to the heaviest traveled routes. I recommend being extra observant if you do this because unfamiliar areas may present unfamiliar challenges. Not only unexpected changes in surfaces, but differing traffic patterns and all other forms of unexpected circumstances.

Tentative Route

Tentative Route

This weekend I am headed to the Bulgarian seaside for a wedding and as is ever the case, I plan on doing some running based exploration. The first run will be in Varna mostly based around the "Sea Garden." However the morning before the wedding I plan to explore some of the trails near Golden Sands and to the right you will see what I have tentatively planned. Let me know what you guys think, either leave a comment or send me a message on Instagram if you have thoughts on how I can get the most out of my run.