The Bucharest Half Marathon begins in the shadow of The Palace of Parliament, in Constitution Square, close to the centre of the city. In fact, this colossal edifice (the second-biggest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon) once cast a shadow over the entire city. A monument to hubris, delusion and insecurity, it was built on the orders of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, who was executed in 1989. The building is now the seat of the Romanian parliament, though 70 per cent of it remains empty. These days it overlooks parties, races and rock concerts, which seems fitting.
This was the fifth time the half marathon had been held here and it was clear the race organisers knew what they were doing, though there was some confusion as runners strolled from one starting pen to the next, to the minor consternation of the marshals. As I waited, resolutely in the ‘might dip under two hours’ section, I found myself rather enjoying not having a damned clue what was being said by the runners around me. Mind you, Romanian is a romance language, so I was able to pick up the odd familiar-sounding word (‘Scuze’ would come in extremely handy later on).
After the usual prerace folderol (whooping, exhortation, high-energy music, overzealous PB-hunters pushing their way to the front), we set off just after 9am. Almost instantly I was jostled out of the way by a slab of meat dressed in tiny black shorts and a shiny black T-shirt. On his head he wore a blue buff tied at the back; he looked like a pirate who’d spent too many hours hoisting the mainsail by himself.
The morning sky was a bright, showy blue, unsullied by clouds, and the temperature was already touching 19°C, though once in a while a breeze blew in from out of town to try to put manners on the sun. It did not work: this was going to be a hot one. From the square we headed south, only to turn around after about 500m. We soon headed right, onto the Boulevard Unirii (Union), which stretches for almost four kilometres from the Palace of Parliament. Another legacy from the grim Ceaușescu years, it was designed to be like the Champs-Élysées – but wider – and it originally groaned under the burden of being called the Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism. Nevertheless, it’s a lovely flat road to run along, lined with trees and dotted with fountains that seemed to burst into life as we passed. There was plenty of support here and no shortage of water points. This stretch also allowed us to watch the elites on the other side of the road, devouring the route on their way to the finish.
Parts of the old city are strikingly beautiful and grand, but the further away from the centre we ran, the more the grey, grumpy Communist-era buildings dominated. Everyone had settled into their pace by this stage and that meant I was keeping pace with an older runner who with every step made an alarming sound that reminded me of someone trying desperately to not vomit – a half-wretch, half-hiccup that quickly became the only sound I could hear. I began to feel the faint urge to throw up in sympathy, so I picked up the pace to lose him. Sometimes I hear him in my dreams.
At the 7km point we ran around the outside of the National Arena, built between 2008 and 2011 for the Romanian national football team, and headed along the wide boulevards back into the city.
The route was closed to cars and there was a decent police presence to keep an eye on wayward traffic, but they were no match for reckless spectators. I almost collided with a man who ambled onto the course at what he considered a pedestrian crossing; and later, back in the lively old town, an elderly woman was levelled by a competitor. He stopped to help her to her feet but, from her bellowed indignation, I guessed she was fine. She remonstrated with a nearby cop, but he was having none of it; his elaborate arm-waving said it all: ‘Crazy old person, this is a race. And stop shouting at me. I have a gun.’
We passed by the race village once more and then followed the Dâmbovița river for a couple of miles. By this stage the temperature had eased into the twenties and I was beginning to overheat, even though I was dumping bottles of water over my head at every opportunity. I moved off the road onto the footpath along the river, where trees offered some shade every few metres. I wasn’t yet suffering but the going was getting harder. And then, at mile 12, I saw him, the pirate: still running in his hard-charging way, as if he wanted to hurt the race rather than finish it, but heavier now, slogging his way along. I lifted my head, picked up my knees and loped past him on the narrow path. ‘Scuze,’ I said, feeling a deep yet very shallow sense of satisfaction.
I finished in 2:03; slow enough, but I wasn’t taking chances in the heat. I had had no idea what to expect of either the city or the race, but my experience of both was hugely enjoyable. The event is well organised and marshalled, and the route is PB-friendly, while the city offers plenty to those who enjoy good wine, good food and staring up at buildings while murmuring, ‘Ah, yes, very neoclassical. The Paris of the east, you know.’
Run it: The 2017 Bucharest Half Marathon is in May 2017 (date tbc).
The lowdown: Bucharest
Getting there: BA, Ryanair and Wizz Air all operate nonstop fl ights to Bucharest from UK airports.
Stay: The Athenee Palace Hilton is one of the city’s finest hotels and most impressive buildings. Rates are surprisingly reasonable, too, and it’s only about 25 minutes’ walk from the race start/finish.
Fuel: Head to the old town, where there are plenty of restaurants, or, if you’re determined to have your prerace carbs, try Trattoria La Famiglia, Strada Nicolae Golescu 14, where you can get a pasta dinner for 26 Lei (£5) and a hefty glass of wine for 16 Lei (£3).
Warm up: The Cismigiu Gardens, near the city centre, are stunning. Often busy at the weekends, so it’s worth getting there for an early run in breathtaking surroundings.