Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Prague has become one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations with its rich history, magnificent architecture and cultural landmarks. After the split of Czechoslovakia and the creation of the Czech Republic in 1993, a new sense of freedom and optimism hit the country, and the people of Prague set about enthusiastically espousing a new culture of globalisation.
The Prague International Marathon is one such change that the city has embraced. The inaugural race in 1995 attracted just 980 competitors, but has grown rapidly since. This year there were over 5,200 entries for the full marathon, as well as 15,000 entries for the other race-weekend attractions, including the option to run the race as a relay in teams of four.
The 2008 race was especially important for the organisers, as Prague had been officially named as the last marathon at which race times would count towards qualification for the Beijing Olympics. The fact that I'd been housed in the same hotel as the elite athletes meant I'd have an excellent opportunity to observe at close quarters exactly how top runners prepare for such an important race.
In the hotel restaurant the evening before the race, I joined the queue for the buffet and gazed with fascination and envious disgust at the procession of small, slim, effortlessly toned whippets in front of me.
There was clearly a well-worn meal-time methodology at work: rather than load one single plate, they each grabbed half a dozen – one for tomatoes, one for rice, one for bread rolls and so on, measuring quantities meticulously. Treating it purely as fuel, they proceeded to mechanically clear one plate at a time, washing it down with 1.5-litre bottles of water and taking no discernable pleasure in what they were eating. Most had retired to bed long before 9pm.
My privileges extended to the use of the elite athletes' pre-race facilities, so I duly rose at 5am on race day to take full advantage. My arrival on the coach caused a muted stir among my fellow athletes who all stared at me as if I were a newly discovered species. There were only two types of people on board: elite runners in tracksuits and paunchy marathon officials in blazers and slacks. Turning up, as I did, sporting both a paunch and a tracksuit, I appeared to have one foot placed in both camps – but I chose to eschew a simple explanation in favour of an enigmatic smile and a fixed gaze into the middle distance.
On arrival at the race venue I retreated to a corner of the vast changing room to observe preparations. T-minus-90-minutes saw the athletes strolling around and mingling freely; 30 minutes later they'd retreated into whispering, huddled groups based on nationality. And with 30 minutes to go, each had found a small space in which to perform his own personal ritual of stretching, meditating, reading instructions from coaches, praying – or just staring into space.
When the time came to move out, I nonchalantly peeled myself off my chair, performed a few stretches and, to the ill-concealed astonishment of the other runners, stripped off my tracksuit, adjusted my race number with a flourish and fiddled with my watch in what I hoped was a professional manner, while sucking my stomach in as best I could. Sadly the charade had to come to an end, and I left to take my place among the hoi-polloi.
It's not difficult to see why this marathon continues to grow in popularity. The race starts and finishes in the very heart of Prague. The course is uniformly flat, and apart from a couple of narrow cobbled streets, extremely fast. For the most part it takes you from north to south through the centre of the city, along the banks of the mighty Vltava River – the longest river in the Czech Republic at 430km.
The organisation was highly competent and could easily have coped with double the number of runners. There were distance markers every kilometre; feed stations every three kilometres; marshals shouting encouragement in an impressive variety of languages; and 15 live bands along the route, including a troupe of Brazilian steel drummers on the home straight, spurring screaming legs into one final charge for glory.
None of the many racers I spoke to at the finish were able to fault anything, and all declared it an experience they were eager to repeat.
The most striking aspect of the weekend was the wholehearted manner with which the entire city embraced this event. There was none of the cynicism or indifference that often manifests itself at larger city races. The people of Prague are clearly proud to host this race and did their best to contribute to its success. A street carnival had been held in Old Town Square the day before the marathon – a joyful riot of colour, noise and dancing – and there wasn't one section of the route the following day that wasn't lined with an exuberant throng roaring encouragement, throwing sweets to runners and enjoying a day out in the sun.
The organisers of the Prague International Marathon want to build on its success, and believe it has the potential to be one of the world's top 10 marathons. On the evidence of 2008's showing it won't have to wait too long for a promotion.
Start The race starts and finishes in the picturesque Old Town Square, which began life in the 12th century as the city’s central market place. The cobbles are inlaid with crosses in tribute to 27 Czech noblemen executed in the square during the 30 Years’ War in 1621.
2K Across the beautiful Charles Bridge. Constructed during the rein of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in the 14th century, the bridge connects the Old Town with the New Town.
3K / 33K
Under the giant metronome in Letna Park, which overlooks the city. The metronome was built on the remains of a statue of Stalin, destroyed in 1962 to symbolise the Czechs’ freedom from communist rule.
13K Past the Municipal House. It was here in 1918 that an independent Czechoslovakia was proclaimed. Currently home to the Smetana Concert Hall.
17K Progressing along the embankment, you run under the shadow of the majestic Vysehrad Cathedral, considered to be a masterpiece of Gothic architecture.
31K Here you pass at the foot of Petrin Hill, a patchwork of parks rising 130m up the left bank of the Vltava. A favourite recreational haunt for the people of Prague.
Home straight Parizska Street leads back to Old Town Square. The heart of the old Jewish ghetto and home of Franz Kafka, it’s also the city’s Mecca for shopaholics.
The 16th Prague International Marathon will take place in May 2010. See www.praguemarathon.com for details.