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How I survived the Danube Marathon - barely

In recent years, the distance of 42.2 kilometers has become known around the world as that of the "standard marathon." But as any marathon runner will tell you, there is still very little about the race that conforms to an international "standard" save the absurd distance.
The 7th running of the Danube Marathon illustrated this irregularity. Though scrupulously normal in length, its unique character will be difficult to forget. The late-April weather arrived in its tricolor best - damp, dismal and dour - with an intermittent downpour as its double-cross emblem. "I can't understand it," groused a female competitor, among the 947 who huddled at the start line. "It was just beautiful yesterday and now it's like this."
The rest of her complaint was obscured by the hiss of rain on the tarmac and the hectoring voice that bellowed the countdown from the loudspeakers in Inter Slovnaft Stadium. And then we were off, at 3 p.m. on April 26, 1997, a day which, if not the nastiest of all time, was at least the nastiest so far.


The joy of mingling. A water station along the route.
Courtesy Danube Marathon

In recent years, the distance of 42.2 kilometers has become known around the world as that of the "standard marathon." But as any marathon runner will tell you, there is still very little about the race that conforms to an international "standard" save the absurd distance.

The 7th running of the Danube Marathon illustrated this irregularity. Though scrupulously normal in length, its unique character will be difficult to forget. The late-April weather arrived in its tricolor best - damp, dismal and dour - with an intermittent downpour as its double-cross emblem. "I can't understand it," groused a female competitor, among the 947 who huddled at the start line. "It was just beautiful yesterday and now it's like this."

The rest of her complaint was obscured by the hiss of rain on the tarmac and the hectoring voice that bellowed the countdown from the loudspeakers in Inter Slovnaft Stadium. And then we were off, at 3 p.m. on April 26, 1997, a day which, if not the nastiest of all time, was at least the nastiest so far.

As the kilometers splashed past, the incongruities of the race began to assert themselves. Plain, ordinary water was seemingly available at only the first refreshment stand. The rest offered various carbonated drinks designed to go up one's nose or, if swallowed, to produce a shattering belch.

And sponges, normally a blessing during hot-weather marathons, were an extravagance here. Apparently not, for they were on offer every five kilometers - perhaps for those competitors who were not satisfied to have rain streaming down their faces or jetting from each waterlogged shoe.

Spectators are normally a wonderful part of the marathon - in Boston they are often six-deep along the course, while in Košice (Europe's oldest marathon) people match the number on your shirt with the name listed in the program, and then chant your name as you stagger past.


Pole Dariusz Prybysz runs the lonely road to victory.
Courtesy Danube Marathon

In Bratislava, however, people seem indifferent to runners. For each generous soul who braved the elements to applaud the participants, there was a knot of snickering children who might ask you for a light, offer you some chips or otherwise impede your progress. Many of them will never know how close they came to receiving a good smack. Even the course officials and volunteers, normally the most ardent of supporters, seemed to be affected with an air of weary skepticism when not jesting with the runners. "Want some vodka? How 'bout some beer?" It was indeed a day of great wit and mirth.

But as the murky skies deepened in gloom, the end drew ever closer. We sensed this not so much from any roar of adulation that greeted us as we finished but rather from the fact that the police were imperceptibly less patient in halting traffic, so that we might pass. Still, we had heard that free beer was available at the finish, along with massages, food and all sorts of luxurious compensation.

Kilometer 35 passed, as did a crisis of cramps, blisters, dehydration and whimpers. Kilometers 40 and 42 arrived in their turn, and even if one did have to run an entire loop of Inter Stadium with the FINISH banner in mocking proximity, one could almost smell the beer, and hear it being poured down hundreds of deserving throats.

To say that we were cruelly deceived is to soften the awful truth. There was indeed free beer, dispensed from bottles into quarter-ounce thimblefuls, and food which could be had for the asking - rolls and a hunk of Lunex processed cheese, no less. But there were no masseuses in sight, only a miserable cluster of runners clutching their beer cups in the rain.

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