On the 9th of October I posted this message on my facebook page....
I had no idea how successful the trip would be in drawing in more funding for biomedical research and how much support I would get.
With no races since November 2019 I went into this one having trained pretty solidly for 11 months and approx 150 runs and 1200 miles under my belt. I wasn't sure how I was going to run but I knew it could be the last time I run a race until there's a vaccine for Coronavirus. Only Sofia and Vilnius Marathons appeared to be going ahead out of all the street races I could find. Vilnius required runners to quarantine whilst they were there for 2 weeks which wasn't going to be possible so I had another look at Sofia. When I checked out flights it felt almost perfect - £60 return flight from Heathrow, a flight that would get me in the night before and the day after and a small, cool weather marathon. I drove to Heathrow, parked up and had a fairly average pasta meal followed by a mask-wearing half-empty flight watching films. The hotel picked me up, my name on a sheet of A4 at Arrivals, never had that before! Pretty amazing place -pool, 2 bars, 2 restaurants and a fairly busy casino(!). It was only £60 a night and came with breakfast and free airport transfers which was awesome really.
Fellow EU marathon collector Mark Openshaw was going, we'd met and run in Cyprus together and got on well. It was great to see a familiar face over there and swap stories of the races and experiences we'd had on our respective challenges. It would make an interesting addition to the book and a proper, slightly crazy adventure. We tried to get a beer at the hotel bar but there was nobody around to serve us so we ventured out at the mercy of Google Maps to a small cafe/bar up a side street where they were playing heavy metal whilst showing a Willie Nelson concert. Back at the hotel I did a quick video post to thank people for their sponsorship (£800 donated in 24 hrs at that point) and went to bed. I got up at 6am, got changed ready to race and walked down to the 'race expo', a 30 min walk in the dark to go and pick up my race number. It was cool to see the sights of the city through a foggy dark mist before a very social distanced buffet breakfast (only one in the breakfast room!) and a short walk with Mark to the start-line.
The sun was coming as the countdown started outside the Art Gallery. A pretty surreal feeling to be crossing a start line again and the runners quickly spread out and I got into my stride. I ran with Mark for a few hundred yards then told him he was free to crack on (he's a much faster runner) and I settled into an 8 min/mile pace. The route turned to the right and it felt like there was a lot of downhill for quite a good period. Once we were out of the centre of Sofia and heading out towards the dual carriageway the sun seemed to give way to a cooling fog and yet more downhill. Just before that we went over a roundabout and Lion statued bridge called Vlavov (Lion's) which straddled the rather disappointing trickle of Vladaya River. I was feeling pretty good so far, running a bit quicker than I'd liked but with the cool temperature and bags of adrenalin it was hard to slow down as much as I knew I would be regretting it later.
I decide to only go with Ipod/music in the second half of the race where I knew I'd probably need it so I was trying to get some rhythmic breathing together that I could sustain and take in any sights/sounds of interest. There was some fairly unremarkable background for a couple of miles before we joined Boulevard Vladimir Vazov which pretty much went all the way to Sofia airport. The stunning orthodox churches gave way to run-down Soviet built high-rise flats and a straight slog of multi-lane highway with petrol stations and retail parks. Up ahead there was a recently crashed motorbike blocking part of the road and it's rider squatting with head in hands. I found out later that Mark had seen him come off and it very nearly hit him. He had laid a yellow barrier on top of the bike to alert runners and the police had just drawn up next to it. Pretty unusual sight and he was very lucky not to have caused anyone injury.
Having run downhill into more fog and looped around to double-back on ourselves the sun started to come out. We passed a rock band setting up on top of a truck over on the other side, there was a bit of Hendrix playing on the stereo which sounded great. There was a bit of uphill back along this route and I got my head down following the white line on the edge of the road hopping over uncovered and broken manholes. The water station here was well-stocked with handy sized water bottles and sponges, plenty of willing marshals but nothing close to a crowd. At around 10 miles I could see that I was doing fine, running at maybe 3.50hr pace which felt comfortable enough. There weren't that many people around me, maybe 5 or 6 before the Half Marathon runners flooded us from behind and the elite runners came bounding through. With 12 miles gone we were still a fair way out of town but I think Sofia's centre is really small so it wasn't long before we were up an over Chavdar Bridge and zig-zagging through to the halfway point.
The golden painted road dropped downhill past the stunning golden domes of Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski church and turned the corner to show the start-finish line. 90% of runners were ending here in the sunshine but some of us were going round again. I popped on my marathon playlist, littered with 80's anthems, had an energy gel and cracked on. I ran fairly well, still inside PB pace for the next few miles though I could feel my cheeks getting hotter. It was exactly the same route once again but this time there was even more space and at times I lost my bearings with the monotony of the route and asked marshals for directions as there weren't any runners near me. Back out onto the motorway it was a hard stretch as there only seemed to be one water station for every 5 miles or so.
I was starting to hurt a bit around 18 miles and decided to stop and walk through each water station before going again. There was a little kid offering me a 'hi-5' but in these Covid times I was never going to take him up on it. Going up over the bridges was starting to become a bit more of an ordeal and I'd resolved to walking a bit and then trying to run down them quicker to even out the pace and conserve energy. I did this in Brussels to really good effect even though I imagine it would have annoyed other runners a bit! It was definitely getting up to 20c by this point and with only 1 water station left in the last 5 miles or so it was getting tough. PB chances had gone and I was going to really struggle to break 4 hours if I had to keep stopping. So I decided to try to beat my last Sofia time and it gave me a bit more motivation to get going.
Back into town and there was a good opportunity to check out the incredible Alexander Nevsky Cathedral as we ran around it on the tricky cobbles. With less than a mile to go I realised that this was in all likelihood to be my last mile in a marathon race until October 2021. Not much chance of running in Rome (March, 30,000 runners) and Hamburg (April, 25,000 runners), so the next one would most likely be Zagreb in the Autumn. That made me feel pretty sad but also determined not to stop running and I turned towards the finish line and got over the line in 4.06 feeling a bit bittersweet. I met Mark who did a really strong 3 hrs 37 mins and we did some finish line photos before heading back to the hotel. After a shower and Zoom call home there was a short walk to get ourselves a decent burger before heading to an Irish bar to watch 3 football matches and getting through a lot of very cheap beer.
Looking back a few days after I realised how badly I needed this trip. It was successful for so many reasons. I felt better about all the sponsorship that I had in 2020 (£9K raised this year whilst I type!) and I got to represent the people with ME that would love to still run but can't and are continually neglected by their governments. It didn't feel dangerous even if those around me weren't especially careful, it was worth the risk. And while I sit in quarantine back in the UK I know I've made use of 11 months of training and had an adventure I can look back on and something positive from 2020.
- 10c bright to begin with then 8 miles of fog(!) giving way to cloudless sky rising to 20c by the final hour.
- Course: - 5/10 - 2 lap course that left the centre quickly, heading on a long out and back motorway that felt never ending.
- Expo: - 3/10 - A marquee with a registration table and an doddering old chap with a clipboard. Points given for opening at 7am on race day which was massively helpful to me.
- Support: - 3/10 - Mercifully not crowded due to Covid-19 but enthusiastic marshalling and finish line.
- Refreshments: 5/10 - Very handy water bottles (sorry environment), sponges and gatorade but nothing else. Still not enough water stations but at least they were better stocked this time.
- Goodie Bag: 3/10 - Small rucksack, nice white training t-shirt, leaflets.
- Medals & Pics: 7/10 - Nice chunky medal with 2020 ribbon. Over 2000 free pics to rifle through on facebook. Only found 2 so far.
Time Completed: 4 hrs 06 mins. Run info here: Garmin data
Sponsorship: At time of typing - £30,070 - www.justgiving.com/mikeseumarathons