This year I’ve started getting really seriously into running. It started out as a simple means to lose weight, and I expected it to quickly end like so many of my previous attempts at picking up running; in failure.
But this time, somehow, it clicked and I got hooked on running and now actually not just enjoy it, but even crave it, as a way to relax and clear my mind. It has become a tool of meditation for me.
Furthermore, competing in races is a great way to feed my own competitive instincts and my like for visible achievements, so collecting medals has become somewhat of an obsession of mine now, even if it’s only medals of participation, as I’m obviously no where near winning any races yet.
And the great thing about running is that I can combine it with the other major passion of mine; travelling! And that is just what I’ve now done for the first time.
After successfully finishing my first half marathon back in May, I decided to sign up for the Yerevan Marathon, albeit only for the half marathon distance. I’ve traveled extensively around Armenia on 2 different occasions and Yerevan has a special place in my heart, so it seemed a natural choice for my first international run, and a great excuse to make a return to Yerevan after 3 years.
The Yerevan marathon this year was held on October 13th, which gave me 5 months to get ready. During these 5 months I completed another 5 half marathons back in Denmark, and a couple of 10k races. So I felt in great shape ahead of this race.
Mind you, the conditions for running in Yerevan which sits at about 1000m altitude and has a somewhat warmer climate and more hilly in general than what I’m used to in Denmark would be a little of a joker, but I was very confident I’d make it.
To make my odds even worse, I only scheduled 2 full days in Armenia, so I wouldn’t have any time to acclimatize. After the race I’d fly off to Senegal for the start of my 2 weeks of “actual” vacation, and seeing as how I’ve already seen most of Armenia I thought 2 days would be plenty of time.
So I flew off early Friday 11th of October, flying to Warsaw where I had a 10 hour layover. This time I spent meeting and hanging out with an old friend of mime that I incidentally also met in Armenia on my first visit. So the time passed quickly. Then the flight to Armenia. With arrival at 4 am. Just for it to take almost 45 mins to clear immigration because apparently all flights into Yerevan arrive at the same time. Sucks. Even worse, I had scheduled with my hotel for them to send a driver to pick me up. But there was nobody waiting for me. After waiting 20 minutes without anybody showing up, I just got a regular taxi to my hotel, and then headed straight to bed.
The next morning I woke up after a couple of hours, got some breakfast at the hotel and prepared for a hectic day of picking up my starting kit for the race, sightseeing my favorite sights of the city, and meeting old as well as new friends.
My hotel, Elysium Gallery Hotel, had a excellent location slap-bang in city centre, 2 min walk from the opera house, and easy walking distance from everything else of note. I first walked to, and climbed, the Cascade complex, which is a giant marble staircase-construct rising high up over the city giving spectacular views of both the city and mount Ararat in the distance – that is, if the weather permits it, and unfortunately on this the day the sky was full of haze hiding the mountains. Beyond just offering a good view, the construction, and the square in front of it, doubles as an outdoor art exhibition with a lot of interesting statues on display.
After hanging out at the Cascade a bit, I crossed through the city down to the Republic Square, one of my favorite places in the city, Because it is flanked by huge beautiful governmental buildings on all sides, and with a giant fountain at one end. I always enjoy returning here. The beautiful red stone in various nuances used for the buildings gives it such a remarkable appearance.
A little further on from the Republic Square was the running expo where I would pick up my starting number, and event t-shirt. Picking up the things went smoothly, and after this I returned to my hotel for a little rest, and to get back onto WiFi to organize some meetings with people.
My first meeting would be with some of my old friends working at Envoy Hostel and Tours, as I have a great relationship with many of the people who works, or used to work there, so coming to Armenia without visiting them would be a shame. Two of the people I knew from back in the days were at work this day, and we had a good time catching up, especially as Armenia have undergone quite some changes since my last visit, having gone through a political revolution.
After having spent some time at the hostel, and not wanting to hold them up too long from their work, I set out again. For the Tsitsernakaberd monument, otherwise known as the Armenian genocide memorial and museum. It sits on a hill a little bit out of the city, but is easily reached by taxi. I visited the place on my first visit in 2015, but felt compelled to return again this time to show my respects, as well as just to remind myself about the horrors of the genocide. The museum has a great exhibition, that is however also very graphic. It hits you right in the stomach, as such an exhibition should rightly do.
The actual monument is composed of an eternal flame flanked by huge stone arms covering it, in a circular composition, with a big granite needle sticking high into the sky placed right next to it. It is a very solemn place, with silence and respect.
Returning from the memorial, I went back to my hotel to rest a little before going back to the race expo where there was a pasta party that night, and also where I’d meet up with new runner friends from the American peace corps.
The pasta was delicious, and well needed after a day of not eating anything besides breakfast. Not the best pre-race preparation. Hanging out with my new friends was also a big highlight. Some of them were to run their first races ever, and starting off with a half marathon! Pretty awesome!
At the end of the night we said our goodbyes, and I headed back to the hotel where I spent a little more time awake before heading to bed, to catch up on some needed sleep.
The next morning I woke up 3 hours before racestart and just followed my usual race-routine of taking things slowly, first showering and then getting oatmeal for breakfast, and hydrating sufficiently etc. Finally I donned my running gear, and put on the bib. I was SO ready and excited for this race. Instead of just hanging around at the hotel I decided to just head down to the starting zone near Republic Square, since the marathon had been kicked off 2 hours earlier than the half marathon, so there was plenty of people there already. A big Armenian street party with music and dancing was going on and it was a very cheerful atmosphere.
I found my friends from the night before, and we gave each other a little pep-talk and well wishes before it was time to get into the starting zone, where we would split, since they stayed at the back with the slower pacers while I boldly – or stupidly rather – put myself almost up front. The first several kms were on flat roads anyways so I was a little overconfident.
The weather for this morning was pretty perfect, clear sky, not too much wind and at this time of day still very suitable temperatures. Everything was set for a good run. Then the clock hit 10:00 and off we went.
At the very start the route crosses republic square for the first time. Already here it became fairly obvious that Armenia doesn’t have a strong running culture, as a lot of locals just set off running full power and then crashed after just a few hundred meters – it’s a long way to the finish line like that.
Similarly, the route through the city almost had no crowds at all, and even some people crossing the street as the leading group of runners came pushing through, which almost led to accidents, and a lot of yelling. It was a little disheartening running through such a large beautiful city, but almost without no support. But the volunteers all along the route cheered us on like crazy which was very nice! And as I’ll write about later, all the runners on the different distances were also really good at cheering on each other.
Even though this part of the race was almost entirely flat, I very quickly started feeling the effects of running in a higher altitude than normal, the less oxygen was definitely noticeable. So even though I had started out in my usual pace of about 04:40/km, I quickly adjusted it to 05:00 to not burn out too fast.
Any ways, after crossing republic square, the route takes you out to one of the outer circles making up the boundaries of the city, and took us counter-clockwise around the city, up and down a few road-tunnels which was the only noticeable inclines so far. Eventually we passed the bottom of the Cascade – a magnificent place to run past! And then just further onwards towards the south-west corner of the city and the descend down into the Hrazdan Gorge. But before descending, we actually hit a small set of hills taking us up through some smaller streets, but these had clear views to mount Ararat, which was fully visible on this day. Absolutely brilliant. We hit the descend into the canyon at about kilometre 7. The descend was very long and very big (atleast it felt so, but the data shows that it was only a 20 meter descend), which made me absolutely dread having to run back out of the canyon again later. But for now I just focused on the immediate next task. From there, the next almost 10 kms followed the river at the bottom of the canyon, which was covered in shade for long stretches which was very nice as the temperatures had kept climbing during the first part of the run.
The route in Hrazdan, takes you out to a turning point a few kms out (you turn around at around km 12) and then you run back the exact same way, until you finally split off from the same path to get back out of the canyon. The marathon runners run this full stretch in the Hrazdan gorge 3 times. This arrangement also means that all the marathon and half marathon runners get to pass each other and cheer each other on, on both ways. And oh did people rally each other on! What this race lacked in spectators cheering you on, was more than made up for by the sportsmanship shown by all the runners.
So at about 18 km in, us half marathoners were going to leave the canyon again, and to my relief, the route out of the canyon was less punishing than the big descend into it. Mind you it was still a very tough climb, and with no shade making it even more requiring. The pace slowed down significantly, but I never stopped running. The exhalation of reaching the top, knowing that the worst part of the race was now over, and not least once more being greeted by the spectacular view of Ararat, was very revitalizing.
It was euphoria. Sadly this euphoria quickly dissipated as the last few kms through the city was slightly hilly, and a lot of the time was spent right out in the baking sun, and all the energy had just been used at this point. The final kms took us past many of the beautiful government and museum buildings in the southern part of the city, before finally taking us along one of the main avenues, across republic square, then about 500 meter further on, around the block and then back down to and across republic square and the last 400 meters to finish.
I tried to sprint those last 400 meters but I just didn’t have enough energy to give so I had to return to my normal pace for the last 200 meters, but at last the finish was there, with a big crowd of onlookers and runners that already finished cheering the new finishers on.
I ran across that goal line, absolutely exhausted, but extremely satisfied and happy – and straight into the arms of one of the medal-girls putting the medal around my neck.
I hadn’t had any high expectations of my finishing time, so to finish in 1:48:54, my 3rd fastest half marathon time, and just 4 minutes from a new personal record despite the huge differences in climate and inclines (this route had over double the amount of ascend as my most inclined race up to that point). Very very satisfied.
I then sat around waiting for all my American friends to reach the goal too. Some of them faster than other, but for many of them having this be their first run, they all did a great job, and it gave me an excuse to rest longer!
Sadly they all had to leave quickly to get showered and catch transport back to their respective villages or towns, so no time for celebrating together. So I headed back to my hotel alone and crashed in bed for a while. Eventually getting up and taking a shower before going to the KFC next door for some recovery food and a beer. That was my celebration.
After my personal celebration, I went up to the Cascade again to catch my last sunset in Yerevan for this time, always a beautiful sight, especially with Ararat so clearly visible as it was this day.
After the sun set, I met up with yet another of my old friends and we went out for dinner together and catching up on everything that happened since we saw each other previously, over 3 years ago.
I had to return back to the hotel fairly early to pack, as my flight onwards to Senegal departed at 4am so I had to leave the hotel at 2am.
With that my Armenian adventure came to an end for this time. It was one hell of a crazy weekend with so many new and old friends, new fond memories and not least a new medal to the collection! Already contemplating doing the full marathon next year!