Istanbul Marathon

On 25th October 2014 by Rachael Woolston

Nowadays, there are thousands of inspiring marathons to run but Istanbul is the only one in the world that crosses two continents, allowing you to boast that you’ve run from Asia to Europe

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2013-11-17 13.57.49Small wonder that this race attracts up to 30,000 runners despite it’s November schedule. It made for a chilly 12 degree start at at 7am as I made my way to the free shuttle buses from Taksim Square.

A year before, the Square had been the scene of riots against the government. There was no trace of any trouble and despite the huge numbers clamouring to get on the bus, no  pushing or shoving.  I arrived at the start with an hour to spare, time to soak in the atmosphere 300 metres from the Bhosporus Bridge.

Now in it’s 35th year, (in 2013) the race attracts runners from all over the world, (note: the race expo is extremely hectic, the most disorganised of any race I’ve been to. I’d recommend you go early). There were a team of elderly Japanese runners, resplendent in baby pink satin running outfits, warming up alongside runners from the US, Canada, Italy and France. Not to mention lots of Turkish runners who now live in the US who had flown back to run.

It was a busy start area, particularly with an 8, 10 and 15 km event too. Despite this, it is very well organised with big buses where you load your bags which are then transported safely to the finish.

Finally, as the sun began to take the nip from the air, the Mayor of Istanbul fired the starting pistol. It was an inspiring start as I raced across the bridge, the minarets and domes of the city’s ancient mosques etched against the skyline. Not that it’s wise to lose your focus.

With no timed start pens, and the other races (aside from the 8 kms which begins 30 minutes later) joining after 500 metres, it is chaotic. Runners of different speeds, some running in lines, all needed to be navigated. And then there are the hills, the first 100 metre climb within the first 5 kms.

I puffed my way up alongside a Istanbul local, running beneath the Valens viaduct, standing since the year 368 when it provided water to the city during its incarnation as the Eastern Roman capital of Constantinople. In fact, the first 10-15kms of the route provide an inspiring tour of some of the best sights of this ancient city.

Passing the magnificent Dolmabache Palace, a splendid mix of European and Ottoman style built in 1843, the route then passes through the old harbour area of Karakhoy, now one of the city’s upcoming areas, before crossing Galata Bridge.

Originally serving as a link between the Imperial Palace and the merchant neighbourhood, the bridge has been rebuilt many times and is now popular with locals who fish in the Golden Horn. Here, near to the city’s Spice Market in the neighbourhood of Eminonu, the 10 and 15 km races finish.

From here, the marathon route heads up along the Golden Horn, for an out and back section. Already running hell for leather on the opposite side were the elite runners (and with a race purse of $50,000, this race attracts top runners).

As we left the historical area, the route follows a dual carriageway, all the way out and back for 20 long and very monotonous kilometres. It hugs the the Bosphorus Strait, with it’s traffic jam of trawlers all waiting to be navigated to the Black Sea as the regulations here state that this can only be done by Turkish trained captains.

By the 30km mark, I too felt like one of those trawlers, stuck, not going anywhere.

Now and again, the call to prayer drifted through the air to remind me I was in Istanbul. That and the refreshment stops every 2.5 kms, offering water, sponges, energy drinks, sugar cubes, apple and banana chunks, were the only things that kept me going.

With little over a  mile to go, the route finished with a sting. Uphill, across paving slabs and cobbled stones to finish at the Hippodrome, the beating heart of the former Byzantine and Ottoman empires, once home to fierce chariot rides.

My heart was working hard too, but it was also incredibly atmospheric, running through Gulhane Park, once the gardens of the Topkapi Palace, autumnal leaves blazing orange against the sky. With crowds of supporters lining the route, I finished with a sprint, calf muscles burning, within a stone’s throw of the Blue Mosque.

As I looked around, surrounded by ancient mosques soaring into the sky, cheering supporters and men selling freshly baked breads and barbecued sweet corn, it had all been worth it.

The Good

Transport buses to drop you off at the start line

Well organised bag drop and pick up

Spectacular finish

The Bad

Terrible, hectic race expo with a jumble sale of running clothes

Barely any toilets at the start

The Ugly

That long dual carriageway

Runner’s Haul: Hoard or heave?

At the race expo, you get a nylon bag with a race t-shirt. Horrible quality. I wouldn’t bother.

But at the finish line, along with your medal (and you can get a massage straight off the finish line which I would recommend after that final up hill sprint over cobblestones) you get a bag containing water, chocolate and a granola bar.

Verdict: Heave

How to get there: Fly with Turkish Airlines but make sure that you fly into the European side, Aturtak.

Visa: This year (2014) they have introduced a new online Visa service which cuts down the queues at the airport.

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