27 October 2014

Moscow calling

Taking Parkrun tourism to a new level, I turned out for my fifth different Parkrun in Gorky Park on Saturday morning - bright and a little early, so I had time to jog up and down the course a bit to warm up before any other runners appeared. I knew I was in the right place because of the familiar banner, which I could see from the Metro station. I had been bemused by the map on the Gorky Park Parkrun page showing the Vorbyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills, the area formerly known as Lenin Hills) Metro station in the middle of the Moscow River, but as the train pulled in all was revealed - it is on a bridge, so one may leave the station on either side of the river. Clever. Unfortunately the 'vkod na gorod' or 'exit to the town' signs didn't help me to find the best way to the park, and I ended up scrambling down a bank (a well-worn path: I was by no means the first) which I would have avoided having to do had I turned right after the exit gates rather than left, which was the direction in which I had already seen the Parkrun banner.

My plan had been to shed the fleece top I had worn on the seven-stop journey from Lubyanka (hat and gloves also being necessary, as the temperature remained at least a couple of degrees below freezing all weekend despite the weather actually getting warmer from Friday to Sunday) but it soon became apparent that it would not be a good idea. Having established that the officials at the start, the only people there when I arrived, spoke no more English than I speak Russian (although I was complimented a couple of times on my accent when I uttered some of the few words I do know), I was pleased when one of the runners who appeared a few minutes after I got there (they obviously know not to wait around in Moscow weather) spoke to me. Unsurprisingly he used Russian - so I used the most useful phrase in my limited repertoire: я не говорю по-русский -Ya ne govoryu po-russki. 'I said, you look as if you don't belong here, and it seems I was right!' he said.

Konstantin, as I learnt he was called (the phrase 'как ва завут?', 'kak va zavut?' comes very early in the BBC's Russian Language and People course, and even I have got that far), proceeded to act as my interpreter, although the announcements came from the Parkrun script with which I am pretty familiar. We then obediently lined up along the kerb, as instructed by the race director, and applauded the volunteers before moving to the start and posing for a photo. It's an out-and-back course, with the turn (so Konstantin told me) clearly marked with cones, just like Blandford in fact - only cooler. And smaller: 17 runners this week, though I think at least a couple of them joined in after most of us had started.

I suppose that on average runners in the UK wear about 2.5 items of clothing: most men probably wear two (I am not counting socks) and most women, three. Never have I seen a field assembled for a race with so many items of clothing. My fleece was definitely staying on, even if my Abingdon marathon t-shirt would be concealed. Most had jackets on, and all wore leggings - no bare legs or arms and I might have looked every inch the typical Englishman had I stuck with the original plan. Hats (or other warm headwear) and gloves were also de rigueur. The conditions were not conducive to running in huaraches, although I have used them in Moscow at this time of year before: I was in Vivobarefoot (with socks!). You can see the get-up of the other participants on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.799413070121523.1073741831.702520579810773&type=1) - but not me, because when I got to the turn after a very gentle first half the marshal-cum-photographer was busy taking photos of his glamorous assistant (the lady in the fur-trimmed hood and glasses in those photos) so he only got a snap of the lady who was just behind me, in the greeny-blue jacket and white hat. It also meant that I almost failed to spot the cones, which were off to the right of the footpath we were running on so slightly out of my line of sight - and I was going slowly enough that the runner in front (who must have been the chap in the photos with the long hair and beard who seems to have been running in jeans) was already out of sight by this point. A little guidance from the marshal would have been helpful. The lady just behind me kindly ensured I didn't get lost, although we ended up going round the turn in opposite directions and having to dodge each other half-way round.

I suspect most Parkrun photographers would be pleased to get pictures of 88 per cent of the runners, but when that means 15 out of 17 it's a less than impressive hit rate, especially with runners arriving at the turn several minutes apart! Photographic evidence that I was there would have been nice.

After the turn, my injured gastroc still felt OK and I thought it would be possible to up the pace a little. The path had a couple of gentle climbs and descents, in particular on a stretch by what I took to be the Spanish embassy and a lot of new and very exclusive-looking flats, and climbing certainly didn't agree with the errant muscle. My splits were 8:55 for the first mile, 9:01 for the second (including the confusion at the turn) and a very different 8:14 for the third. Once the finish was close (it was visible from about half a mile out, but didn't tempt me to sprint immediately) and the timekeeper with the beard (see photos) was shouting what I assumed to be encouragement I got a lot faster, and did the last .11 mile at 6:59 pace - still a minute a mile slower than my ambitious target pace, not even close to target half-M pace, but it felt good at the time.

The finish was a bit of an anti-climax: I got the codes scanned, and needing to get back to my hotel for a 10 o'clock departure to the Academy I left pretty quickly. Konstantin was leaving at the same time and accompanied me to the Metro station, and for several stops of the journey: we agreed that we would meet again in February, when the race should be even more interesting, weather-wise, and I look forward to seeing him again. The photos suggest that I missed out on the socialising - although I think I had exhausted the ability of most of those present to make a foreigner welcome.

So I am pleased to have done it, both as an event and as a race performance, and will do it if I can on every Moscow visit, but there were definitely disappointing aspects. Perhaps my hopes that Parkruns were a guarantee of a warm and friendly welcome all over the world were too much: not that anyone was unfriendly, and Konstantin was certainly very friendly. And at least I haven't wrecked my (gastroc's) chances of completing a half the weekend after next.

The previous day when we'd landed we stood on the runway for a long time. The pilot was not prepared to pass a mechanical digger which, with a typically Russian appreciation for the twin gods Health and Safety was parked by the runway. The plane's wing would have passed over it had we continued.
While there was enough headroom, I could understand the pilot's reluctance to proceed until the digger moved - a man climbed into it shortly after we stopped, then spent several minutes clearing the windows. At long last he moved off and we were able to carry on: only later did I learn what a sensitive subject large vehicles on runways at Russian airports are: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-29722498