The Prague Half Marathon – Destroying Pavel Nedved

Left hand side in the blue and black - that's me

Ever since waddling through my chubby teenage years, running has been my thing. With poor portion control and a love of everything savoury, it’s also going to be only way of avoiding heart-disease and obesity until my knees inevitably give way in my late-Twenties. Over the last nine years I’ve competed in half marathons in Newcastle, Glasgow, Prague (in 2008) and Leeds and slowly trundled through a full one in Pisa and now I proudly have a trophy cabinet (box under the bed) full of medals. Yes, these medals are all for merely taking part but that’s the best sporting achievement I’m ever likely to obtain.

The Prague Half Marathon on Saturday was my first decent-sized run of a busy running season and it crept up on me and arrived a few weeks too soon. A life-shortening weekend in Wroclaw coupled with a disproportionate cheese-to-everything-else diet and a couple of weeks of icy conditions not suited to running, left me in a perilous position only a month or so before the run. I did my best to get myself in shape but I felt like I left it too late so I had to dig into my arsenal for my two main weapons. First, was pride, I had to beat a friend who had recently excelled in his first half marathon and the second was my classic Yorkshire cheapness – I was not going to spend €50 on a race and not get a PB.

On the greyest day outside of a Soviet-era soap opera, 11,000 people took to the streets of Prague to do one of the most attractive urban runs in Europe. The first five kilometres alongside the river was a giant mess of people and so I had to use my third and final attribute – my pigmy size – to pick my way through. Afterwards, the congestion eased and everybody spread out and I could run at my own pace as I tried to put my foot down to alleviate constant feeling of self-doubt (an annoying lack of clocks) and a bladder that felt like it was going to explode from the start. I traditionally try to sprint the last two kilometres and this time it nearly killed me, especially as the organisers tantilisingly count down every one hundred metres with a kilometre to go.

In the end, I finished with a really pleasing PB of 1 hour 30 minutes, 30 minutes behind the clichéd group of front-running Kenyans but a whole 17 minutes quicker than Czech football legend Pavel Nedved. Always said he was over-rated.

Little amusing things always happen in a run that help you get through with an occasional smile punctuating the almost ever-present grimace/sex face. Like at one point, the course loops round so you double back on yourself and run past people a fair way behind you. Here, I met the 11,000th-place runner loping along very slowly being followed a few feet behind by an ambulance crawling along presumably waiting to scoop her expired body up off the pavement. It was like watching a zebra caught in the eyeline of a waiting lion.

Other delights include a woman I passed twice, who I can only guess spent the entire race singing the Rocky theme tune (not Survivor, but you know, the other one) over and over again…on her own to no-one in-particular.  There was world’s laziest spectator who was not only sitting down but using wooden clappers to take the effort out of slapping two hands together. Oh and there was my Mum who failed to respond to the shout of “MUM!” both times I passed her. That embarrassing moment when you know everyone has seen you fail and you just have to pretend you weren’t waving but scratching your head and sprint away from the scene of the crime.

In two weeks it’s the Pardubice Wine Half Marathon – not entirely sure what that consists of but I’m looking forward to a mid-point tipple of wine and cheeseboard. Then in June it’s the Gorlitz Marathon which I am not looking forward to at all.

The Winter Cometh: Time for a Minus 14 Degree Run With Santa Claus

Not me but I think it sums up the spirit of the run

After an incredibly mild winter, the winter has arrived in Prague (and the rest of Europe) with a vengeance. Personally or otherwise, for too long, have I been the victim of mockery from across the Channel by the entire population of a temperate country who are getting more snow than me. Thanks to Facebook, whenever one snowflake falls in the UK, it is inevitable that the world will hear of it through a blanket social media coverage that makes it sound like the coming of the apocalypse. This year is no different as we are treated to thousands of unique pictures that say ‘look, no matter how bad you’ve got it, it’s much worse here’ and people initially getting snow-giddiness and then snow-moaniness. At least I don’t have to watch the UK news reports with its cries of ‘Britain is literally going to sink under the weight of 2 inches of snow. God help us all.’

One of the draws of the Czech Republic was the perverse desire to live through a really cold winter with lots of snow and eventually I have got a fraction of my wish. Over the last ten days the temperature has relented and hit minus 20 degrees Celsius and has been generally hovering around the minus 10-15 mark. This is an incredible 10 degrees colder than I think I have ever experienced before but only yesterday did the snow fall and it was a pretty poor effort that’s predominantly melted away so far.

I’m a big running enthusiast (they call me the Usain Bolt of Yorkshire) and the height of foolhardy stupidity came on Saturday morning when I joined the 2 Miles with a Smile race around Stramovka, one of Prague’s charming inner-city parks. This monthly event, organised by transcendental keep-fit fanatic Buddhists (http://cs.srichinmoyraces.org/) or some such, is a great way to pit you against yourself and others as you can rack up personal bests, which get updated on their website, as well as racing against others.

This Saturday, dressed in my girlfriend’s thermal leggings, I was joined by about a hundred other shivering fools, loitering around the start line aching merely to get started. By the end of the opening straight I was struggling to feel my lips, fingers and, more worryingly, my toes. In contrast, I could feel really intense pain in my forehead and, weirdly, the inside of my nose, and I just wasn’t warming up at all. I’m pretty sure that if my inner thoughts were projected outwards they would have sounded something like ‘aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagggggggghhhhhh’. For the best part of the run I gravitated towards two other guys running at a similar pace and we created a small heat-retaining pack. At one point, because of a feeling of camaraderie and self preservation, I had to fight a sub-conscious urge to bear hug them both.

One thing the cold is good for is a personal best as you want just want to get to the end in the quickest way possible at any cost. I shaved a whole 5 seconds of my previous best – which means I can hope for a flat 12 minutes by April 2014. At the end of the run you get what is at that point the best food and drink imaginable – a pancake and a hot tea – before scarpering home to be back in bed by 10am. All for just 20 crown (less than a pound).

I’ve met a Czenglish woman who’s helped me decipher the Czech running calendar and is willing to take me into the wilderness to compete in cross countries. I’ve done two so far when the season starts again in March I will happily be there running up right-angled hills at 9am in the middle of nowhere. I was in a strangely proactive mood last night and ended up signing up for the Pardubice Wine Half Marathon (which places a large emphasis on post-race food and drink) and the Gorlitz Marathon (a historical town on the German-Polish border) to go alongside my existing registration for the Prague Half Marathon in March.  Whether that was foolish remains to be seen but it means I should lay off the goulash and dust off the grey Rocky tracksuit once more.

If anyone in Prague is interested in joining me one Saturday morning for a pleasant 2 mile run just send me a message or look me up on Twitter (@johnguzdek).