26.2 Miles of Riga

IMG_5761I never travel without my running shoes, as I know I’d be lost without them.

Years ago, I decided that the best way to explore a new place is on foot, with my running shoes on. That decision has led me through countless cities, hillsides, and parks over the years, soaking in the sights and smells around me with each step.

My philosophy of exploring on foot inspired me to sign up for the Riga Marathon back in December. I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d feel about running a marathon nine days after moving halfway around the world to Latvia, but now that the race has come and gone, that decision last December will go down in my personal history as one of the best I’ve ever made.

If you’re looking for a friendly, well-organized event with a flat, fast, and above all, beautiful course, the Riga Marathon is an excellent choice. Runners tour the city on both sides of the Daugava River, weaving through Old Riga, then the striking art nouveau buildings of the city’s quiet centre, circling the small river island of Kīpsala, and running along the Daugava. If a full marathon isn’t your thing, the event also includes a half marathon, a 10K, a 5K, and a marathon relay. The race support was first class and included aid stations at least every two miles; organized entertainment, including professional DJs as well as Latvian folk singers and dancers; and a clearly marked course with signs at each kilometer. At only about €30 to enter, depending on the race you choose and when you register, the Riga Marathon is also a bargain.

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This year’s Riga Marathon was the 25th anniversary of the race. It has been recognized as one of Europe’s premier running events… a well-deserved honor, as we soon found! Photo credit: M.

On race morning, M. and I got an early start to the day with a short walk with Frieda and a small breakfast from the hotel’s dining room. Since our hotel was just across the river from the race start, we were able to wait until about 35 minutes before the start to walk over the bridge and line up in the corrals. This was a nice advantage, because race morning was overcast and quite chilly, and we were able to stay warmer for a bit longer than usual. Rain was forecasted for a bit later in the morning, and it began just in time for the start.

We arrived in the starting area to hear an announcer enthusiastically welcoming all runners and listing the top ten countries with the largest representation at the race. What impressed us most was hearing the greetings flow in different languages- Latvian, Dutch, English, French, German, Estonian, Finnish, Lithuanian, Russian, and Italian. Naturally, Latvia had the most participants. In total, nearly 26,000 runners participated in the event. Only nine Americans ran the marathon.

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The Riga Marathon start/finish line. Photo credit: M.

The marathon and half marathon started at 8:30 am (the 10K and 5K started at 12:30 pm and 1:30 pm, respectively). M. and I lined up in separate corrals according to our race numbers. We had discussed a racing strategy beforehand and waffled between running the first ten miles together, until the course split between the marathon and half marathon, or each running our own race. Given my leg injury and hours spent in physical therapy and on the elliptical machine rather than actually running over the winter, I wasn’t really sure what to expect- if anything- from my race. But, I knew that M. had it in him to run a strong half marathon, possibly even to set a personal record. I wanted neither to hold him back nor to try to keep up with him at a pace I knew I couldn’t sustain for the second half of my race. In the end, we decided to run separately.

A few minutes prior to the start, the race announcer asked us to look around at one another and wish at least one other runner good luck. It was then that I noticed that the older man standing next to me was wearing a pair of gloves from the Fargo Marathon. I asked him if he had run the Fargo Marathon, and he replied that he had. He was from the UK. I told him I’d run Fargo in 2010. It’s rare to find an American runner who has run the Fargo Marathon, yet to come to Riga and find such common ground with the man standing right next to me, among thousands of others, truly makes the world feel a bit smaller. A few light warm-up exercises followed, and promptly at 8:30, we were off!

After about 20 seconds of shuffling, I crossed the starting mat and started my Garmin. I expected the course to be crowded for a while, because there seemed to be so many people, but to my surprise, it opened up pretty quickly. I am notorious for letting my adrenaline trump my efforts to start conservatively, so I kept a close eye on my watch to make sure I didn’t start too fast. I really had no idea how I would feel or what the day might bring, and I certainly didn’t want to ruin my run with an overzealous pace at the beginning.

If you aren’t used to running a race marked in kilometers, it can be a bit disorienting at first. Obviously, the markers appear much more frequently than do mile markers, and figuring out one’s pace for kilometers versus miles requires a bit of arithmetic. Since we’ve only just arrived in Riga, I decided to stick with my American ways for this race and kept my Garmin set to measure the miles. I got a few strange looks when it beeped at each mile instead of in time with the kilometer markers, but that was all right by me. I reached my first mile in 8:23. I felt very comfortable, but of course, it was still very early.

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Spectators cheer on the runners in the cold rain. Photo credit: M.

I listened to my iPod in my right ear as we made our way through the streets of central Riga and across the cable-stayed Vanšu Bridge into Kīpsala. The kilometers and miles ticked by and I settled into a comfortable pace of about 8:20 per mile. We circled Kīpsala and, following a short out-and-back stretch on Krisjāna Valdemāra, one of Riga’s main streets, headed back over the bridge and into Old Riga. The course took us through a promenade of Latvian folk dancers in traditional dress, where smiles and high-fives were offered freely by onlookers. The mood was festive, and it was hard not to want to run faster. The drizzle slowly turned to rain as we passed several of Riga’s abundant cafes and bakeries, where spectators stood outside drinking their morning coffee. There were moments when I wistfully wished I was the one bundled up in a coat drinking something warm, but truth be told, I’ve never minded running in the rain. In fact, I kind of love it.

After a brief interlude over the cobblestones of Old Riga and trying my hardest to keep pace without turning an ankle, we made a left turn onto the road adjacent to the Daugava River. The course had been relatively crowded thus far, as is always the case when a marathon and half marathon are taking place simultaneously. I pressed on, heading south along the river, knowing that the course would soon become very empty once the half marathoners made their U-turn around mile 10.7, while the marathon runners continued south for another 3/4 of a mile or so. It was shortly before this turn that I saw M. on the other side, heading back toward Old Riga and the finish line. I called out to him and waved, knowing that he was on his way to a personal best. I was so excited that I picked up my own pace. By this time, I had dropped my pace a bit and was averaging about 8:15 per mile. I still felt quite comfortable, though I was not entirely sure how long that feeling would last. I decided just to rely on the advice I have so often given to others: run the mile you’re in.

When I reached the marathon turnaround, I got a high five and a “Go USA!” from the DJ posted there. I continued on toward Old Riga feeling strong and comfortable. The crowds around me had thinned out and I was enjoying the music in my ear and the view of the river to my left, in spite of the rain, which had become steady at this point. I was surprised, then, when I realized that the half marathoners were re-joining the course again as both routes converged. It caught me off guard and added about three times as many people, so I had to weave a bit in order to avoid breaking my stride. Once we reached Old Riga and the finish area, the course split again as the half marathoners finished their race and the marathoners headed back out for the second loop.

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A bit of a teaser: The marathon course took us right next to the finish line at mile 14 as we headed out for our second loop. Photo credit: M.

I knew at this point that I was really going to have focus. The course was much emptier than I imagined it would be after the half marathon finish and the rain was really coming down. I still felt strong, and I wanted to stay that way for as long as possible. I reached the half marathon mark in 1:49. In all of my marathons – 17 prior to this one, I had never run a negative-split race (a race in which the second half is run faster than the first). I knew I probably didn’t have another 1:49 half marathon in me, but I wanted to try to come as close as possible. I had eaten two of my GU packets and was picking up fluid at about every third aid station. I knew I should probably take in more than that, but I tend to cramp up when I drink too much at once. Besides, I am a bit of a camel when it comes to hydration.

The second loop was admittedly lonely in sections. There were far fewer spectators as we ran north of Riga’s center, and the rain became heavier and the puddles deeper. I tried to avoid them as much as I could. Even though I was already soaked to the bone, there is something about stepping into a deep puddle of cold water that is simply not pleasant. The wind picked up and there was no one to draft behind. The eighteen miles in cold rain were starting to catch up with me. Although my pace had slowed slightly, I was still hanging on at 8:20-8:25 per mile.

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M. captured a photo of Eshetu Deme Meseret, the winner of the women’s marathon, as she sprinted toward the finish line. Photo credit: M.

Following another loop through Riga’s quiet center, we again crossed the Vanšu Bridge for a second loop around Kīpsala. I’m not quite sure what happened on this second loop, but there was a very clear shift in my stride when I picked up a drink at mile 22, my last of the race. The volunteer holding the cup turned away from me to talk to someone just before I arrived to her, so I stopped for a split second to take a cup off the table. I broke my stride to do it, and suddenly I lost my pace. I truly felt like I hit a wall – the same wall that everyone talks about in marathon running – and my legs seemed to revolt. No more! they seemed to say, defiant against my efforts to get back into my previous stride. I glanced at my Garmin… in less than a minute, I had gone from 8:25 pace to 9:50. My overall time reflected the smallest glimmer of hope for the 3:39:59 I would need to qualify for the Boston Marathon, though I knew it would take an enormous comeback in order for that to happen. Going into the race, I hadn’t even considered the possibility of qualifying for Boston, but I’d surprised myself with how strong I’d felt until this point. I’d been running for three hours and four minutes, and I had 4.2 miles to go. I knew it would be close, but it was going to take a lot for me to finish under 3:40. I’d run out of sub-8:30 miles.

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Finishing up the last kilometer in front of the House of the Blackheads. Photo credit: M.

My hands and body had become so cold that it occurred to me that if I slowed any more, hypothermia could be a very real possibility. That thought kept me moving, but I hovered right around 9:00 per mile. Just the day before, I’d been telling M. that the last 10K of a marathon almost always takes me an hour. I didn’t want that to be the case in Riga, but my legs seemed to be headed that way. I made my way across the Vanšu Bridge for the final time and back into Riga. The spectators who had chosen to spend their morning in the cold rain on the side of the road cheering on runners lifted my spirits. I passed the 37K mark on a downhill, reminding myself that I can always run a 5K. I’d eaten all of my GU packets and drunk all the fluids I needed. I focused on the music coming from my iPod, even though the ear bud had been slipping out of my ear for the last fifteen miles as I sloshed through the puddles, my hands so cold that I could barely move my fingers. One more loop through the folk dancers and singers, around the cafes and bakeries (oh, what I would have given for my hands to be curled around a cup of something hot!), and back onto the cobblestones of Old Riga. I passed the 41K marker with glee, and a few minutes later glanced at my watch in dismay as it read 26.2 miles, 3:41:09, a would-be new personal record for me, yet I still had more to run. I passed Riga’s famous House of the Blackheads, where I heard M. call my name, and made the right turn toward the finish line.

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The home stretch! Photo credit: M.

I crossed in 3:43:35, 26.5 miles according to my Garmin, just as the rain slowed back to a drizzle and my legs sighed with relief. My first half had been in 1:49 and I came back in the second with 1:54… not a negative split, but about as close as I’ve ever come. I was done, my 18th marathon completed, and my second-best time in my life, just a minute and six seconds shy of my personal best, set in Wisconsin in 2010.

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A happy but cold finisher of the Riga Marathon. All women received a white rose. Photo credit: M.

As for Boston? If only the qualifying standard had been the same as it was four years ago (3:45 for a woman my age)…. If only I had run the tangents a little bit better (avoiding deep puddles and slipping on cobblestones comes at a price… as does having the Garmin that tells us how much we have run off-course)…. If only I hadn’t run out of 8:30 miles at mile 22 (oh, but my legs)…. If only I were five years older (I’ll have five more minutes to qualify once I turn 40).

If only, if only. 

As I walked through the finishers’ chute, volunteers gave me a finisher’s medal, a goodie bag, and a white rose. I found M. and Frieda (he had gone back to the hotel after finishing his race and picked up Frieda to walk and watch the end of the marathon), and we took a few photos before walking back to the hotel. I learned that he had run a personal best in the half marathon, cutting more than seven minutes off his time and finishing in 1:43:06. I am so proud of him!

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M. and Frieda, my two favorites!

Shortly after we returned to our room, M. noticed that his wedding ring was missing. We searched our room from top to bottom, only to come up empty handed. The last time he remembered having it was before the race. We concluded that between the cold and the rain, it must have slipped off his finger at some point during his race. We mourned the loss, assuming we’d never see it again. Over the course of 13.1 miles, not including the distance he covered going to and from the hotel, the ring could have been anywhere. Still, just to exhaust all options, I wrote to the race organizers and explained the loss of the ring on the minuscule chance that someone may have come across it and turned it in.

To my complete surprise today, I received an email from the race organizers stating that a single ring, which happened to  match the description of M.’s, including the inscription on the inside of it, had been found on the half marathon course. I rushed over to the race headquarters office and couldn’t believe my eyes. The ring was M.’s! Not only had someone found the ring; they had actually turned it in.

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M.’s wedding band is a bit beat up and I’m sure it’s been trampled on by a few thousand runners, but we decided that gives it character. I can’t believe it came back to us!

With the race a day behind us, I’ve had some time to reflect on my run. I didn’t qualify for Boston, but I ran well. Really well, for me. Coming within sight of a dream and missing it by a small margin is always bittersweet. Bitter because, of course, we missed the dream… sweet because that dream is still alive. I remind myself that no matter how far away it may seem, that dream is within reach, that I just have to stretch a little further. After all, stranger things have happened… such as reuniting with a wedding ring lost in sea of thousands of runners. I will get to Boston one of these days, and at that time it will only be sweet… sweetened ever more by the times I have come so closed and missed, and by the memories I have added to my collection over 26.2 miles of Riga.

Thank you for reading!

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Family photo on a great day in running for us!

11 thoughts on “26.2 Miles of Riga

  1. Hi there – I am glad you did the marathon so well. This was my first time to run 10k in a row and I did it a bit over an hour and am very happy. Enjoy exploring Riga and Latvia.
    – Ruta

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  2. Oh my goodness, I was on the edge of my seat reading this! Great recap, and HUGE congratulations to you and M!! I loved reading about what the marathon/half are like in Riga. Funny about the km and mile differences (and that yours was the only watch dinging at the mile mark), and I got a good chuckle at the white rose…it would be so Latvian to give a rose at the end. The fact that you were minutes from BQ only means that you’re sure to hit it next time…especially when it’s warmer and dry! 🙂

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  3. I’m still so impressed that you both did this, such a fantastic effort! And what luck to have the wedding ring returned!

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  4. Congratulations!

    Also, I know that absolutely gut-wrenching sadness of losing a wedding ring… and the huge upswing in finding it again!

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