Prague Half Marathon

When: April 6th 2019
Where: Prague, Czech Republic
Course: Single circuit loop next to / near the river Vlatava starting and finishing at the Rudolfinum (Prague 1) extending South to Lihovar and North to Libeňský most.
Other routes touched: Svatojakubská Cesta, Česko střed, Cycle routes X1, VCC, A2, A13, A15, A24, A254
Finish time: 1 hour 57 minutes

The idea for "50 Half Marathons before I'm 50" came to me in 2015. I was on a year-long series of challenges to mark my 40th birthday and to raise money for charity in memory of my Dad. By the end of they year I'd racked up a total of 24 Halfs. It didn't take very complicated maths to work out I'd only need to do 3 more per year to reach 50 before my 50th birthday.

The rules were pretty simple. They had to be organised Half Marathon events and a different one every time. Now that I had a mission, I focused on finding mostly local ones on weekends when we didn't have much else planned. I'd got the routine down to a fine art: arrive an hour before the race; use the toilets before the queues formed and they got rancid; pick up my race number; buy a coffee; do a token 3 minutes of stretching and then we were off.

With a large number of races there were the inevitable mix of highs and lows. Some were fast, flat city courses like Bristol, Bath and Southampton. Some were boring: on forgettable residential streets like Ealing and [ boring I forget the rest]. Others were fun, tough trail events like Marlborough and Dunstable Downs.

I've never been concerned about speed so my finish times were quite a mix. My fastest was Oxford at 1:46 and slowest was an hour slower on the muddy and hilly Bledlow Ridge. My average was around 1:55 but anything below 2 hours was something to be happy with.

By my 40th event at Harpenden I was starting to think about how to celebrate my 50th. I was doing far more than 3 per year so I would overachieve my target by 6 years. It needed to be something special. It needed to be Prague.

Prague will always have a special place in my heart. I lived there for 2 and a half years in my early twenties. I loved it. So much so that when I returned to the UK I had a real problem adjusting to normal life. I kept returning for 5 years to see friends and attempt to keep up my life there. Around 2007 I decided I needed a clean break from Prague so that I could move on. Twelve years went by and I rarely thought about the place.

When I realised that my 50th half would coincide with the 20th anniversary of my first time in Prague it was obvious to me that I had to return. The place that once gave me such a deep and mixed range of emotions now only gave me excitement about the prospect of returning.

I was woke up early on the day of the event. There had been a bit of confusion in the previous few weeks about whether I could pick up my race number on the day. After a few email exchanges with the organisers where it first appeared that I definitely couldn't pick it up, it turned out that I definitely could. The downside was that the pick up point was the Prague Exhibition Centre which was nowhere near the start line.

The extra adventure of finding the Exhibition Centre was a blessing in disguise. It was a beautiful morning and the walk there was the start of a flood of memories coming back to me. I got a bit emotional at the start line. Part of it was the prospect of being on the brink of completing a big challenge milestone. Mostly it was the overwhelming tide of positive memories. I'd spend months exploring the city in my early twenties and knew every inch of it. The main thing I noticed on the walk to the start line was that nothing had changed. It looked exactly the same.

The biggest emotional anchor for me was when they played Vltava by Smetana over the speaker system in the last few minutes before the start. Czech Airways used to play it as I landed at Prague airport on business trips. It was the track that told me that I was home and in my happy place.

The first 3 km followed the Vltava embankment South to Podskalí. My old apartment was in this district and this was a route I'd walked (staggered) many times, mostly drunk after a night out in the centre. The route first crossed the river at Palackého bridge, taking in a loop past the Staropramen Brewery at Smíchov. At 6 km the route doubled back on itself and headed North. Having taken nearly 8 minutes to cross the finish line I'd had the 2-hour pacers in my sights and overtook them on the bend. I worked out that I was only 4 minutes behind the 1:50 pacers and I was determined to catch them up.

The route passed close to the start/finish line at Rudofinum. Two minutes after I passed it the race winners were on the home straight. The winner, Benard Kimeli, completed the race in 59:05, twice as fast as my time. This was a tougher stretch for me. The sun had come out and it and there was the downer of running away from the finish line. The thoughts it had of a close-to PB time I had in the first half quickly vanished. I dug out my emergency Haribo and pushed on.

Despite being roasting hot, the second half was an interesting part of the route. Whereas the first half was on territory that I knew well from my previous life in Prague, I didn't know this part. At 15 km the route crossed back over the river and heading back South toward the finish. I'd already given up on trying to catch up with the 1:50 pacers but I hadn't expected to get overtaken by the 2-hour pacer in he final 1 km. I definitely wasn't that slow and I worked out that I was still well under 2 hours due to the time it took to cross the start line. Even so, I wasn't going to let the 2-hour guy overtake me. I found a bit of extra energy and sped up to pass him.

The end came suddenly. I was still concentrating on keeping ahead of the pacer and hadn't realised how close I was to the end after crossing the final bridge. After a sharp left turn at Jan Palach Square the finish line was right in front of me. I looked out for Timi who was watching from the VIP area but completely missed her. Suddenly it was over: both the best Half Marathon that I'd done and my complete set of 50 different ones. I loved it all.

With the race over we still had the rest of the weekend and a whole new adventure to rediscover my old memories of 20 years ago. That's a story for another time though. This won't be my last Half but I'm not in any rush to sign up for new ones right now. I've got at least six months of other adventures worked out anyway. If any interesting course comes up I'll give them a go. For now 50 is enough and to finish the set in Prague, my favourite city, was the perfect way to finish it.

Richard gowerComment