On tour: Moscow Marathon

One of the pleasures of doing a big city marathon is running on roads that, on any other day, would be swamped with traffic. I can think of few other races where this feeling is more pronounced than the Moscow Marathon. More than 11 million people live in the Russian capital and its traffic congestion is the stuff of legend – one survey last year found Moscow to be the second-most traffic-snarled city in the world. And, sure enough, the taxi that took me to Expo on marathon eve did so inch by frustrating inch through horrendous gridlock. But what followed was one of the most beautiful and memorable races I’ve done.

The 13,500 or so runners lining up at the marathon and 10K start in the Luzhniki Olympic Complex, not far from the stadium that will host the 2018 World Cup final, were treated to a cloudless blue sky and calm conditions. After the start, the route followed the east side of a wide meander in the Moscow River for the first four miles. The road was flat and wide, meaning there was plenty of room to settle into a rhythm, even more so once the 10K runners, almost 60 per cent of the field, peeled off after a couple of miles, leaving around 5,500 in the 26.2-miler.

The early miles were so peaceful it was easy to forget we were running through the middle of one of Europe’s biggest cities. The river was as still as a millpond, its waters reflecting the four-tiered tower and spire of the Hotel Ukraina on the opposite bank, one of seven neoclassical skyscrapers in the city commissioned by Stalin in the 1940s (four are visible on the route). This piece of historic Moscow was replaced by the modern as we rounded the river bend to approach Moscow City – a cluster of modern glass and steel monoliths that includes the three tallest buildings in Europe.

We left the river bank and snaked inland, rising and heading eastwards, after which point the route joined the Garden Ring Road and turned south. This asphalt expanse is 12 lanes wide and usually soundtracked by car horns and tyre noise. But now it was open to just a few thousand runners, following a tangent across the immense curving highway, accompanied only by the sound of footsteps, the odd yell of encouragement and the ringing of church bells. There was an immense feeling of privilege in having exclusive use of such a major road, perhaps rivalled only by the famous First Avenue stretch of the New York City Marathon.

Crossing over the river I glimpsed the statue of Peter the Great to the left – a 98m steel, bronze and copper structure showing the 17th-century tsar standing on a ship, balancing on top of three other ships, with rigging down the sides. It’s certainly striking, if not conventionally pleasing on the eye. (Apparently, most Muscovites don’t like it – perhaps not surprising given that he moved country’s capital from here to St Petersburg when he was in charge.)

After a couple of inland miles, we returned to the south bank of the river to be confronted by the red brick walls and white palaces of the Kremlin, directly across the water. A bit further on were the unmistakable candy-striped onion-shaped domes of St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. This was a majestic moment – I’ve seen both in countless spy thrillers over the years, but nothing compares with seeing them in the flesh.

I was glad I had no firm time goal in mind, as it meant that when the first twinges of tiredness set in, rather than fight them and get stressed, I just went with them and slowed a little, determined to enjoy the second half of the race as much as I had done the first.

At halfway the route crosses back north over the river and follows the Boulevard Ring for the next six miles. This semicircular chain of 10 pretty, tree-lined streets follows the line of the historical White City’s walls. This section had a few inclines, but the extra effort was aided by plenty of shade from the trees as the day got warmer, and more vocal crowd support. I saw a straight-faced policewoman break into giggles after being tempted into high-fiving a passing runner, and a spectator holding a photo of the actor Christopher Walken along with the legend ‘No time for Walken!’ Odd but strangely inspiring.

A long and – for my increasingly heavy legs – welcome downhill stretch brought us back to the walls of the Kremlin, from the north side this time. The route skirted around it for the next mile or so, past the handsome columns of the Bolshoi Theatre and the imposing yellow-brick façade of the Lubyanka, the former headquarters of the KGB.

By mile 21 we joined the north bank of the river, and followed it for the most of the rest of the race. Just in case I hadn’t got a good enough view before, the route again passed the Kremlin and St Basil’s, from the nearside bank this time. But there was little shade here and, with both the temperature and my mile splits rising, I was glad to turn back into the Luzhniki Complex to cross the finish line.

There’s very little to fault with this race. Possibly the only downside, if you’re a runner who enjoys a lot of support, are the relatively low numbers of spectators compared to other major city marathons like New York or London. I get the impression that recreational running is at an earlier stage of evolution in Russia than it is here or in the US. But to me this, and the relatively small field for a major city race, only made it more special, offering acres of space and a feeling of rare privilege.

With a route that cleverly incorporates the best features of this famous city, a palpable organisational pride and a desire to welcome more international runners in future, this race has all the building blocks to grow into one of the world’s leading marathons in the coming years. My advice is to get in there early before it gets huge.

The 2016 Moscow Marathon is on September 25th.


The lowdown

Get there: Easyjet flies direct from London Gatwick, BA and Aeroflot flies direct from London Heathrow. Flight time is 3hr 45mins. UK residents need a visa.

Stay: The refurbished Radisson Royal Hotel is in a historic skyscraper (formerly the Hotel Ukraina) on the banks of the river, not far from the start/finish area.

Fuel: Khachapuri dishes up traditional Georgian cuisine – try the cheese flatbread (from which the place gets its name) or the dim sum-style khinkali dumplings with various fillings.

Warm-up: The River Moscow offers miles of running through the heart of the city. Or watch Muscovites kicking back in Gorky Park.


Moscow Marathon

2015 stats

First man: Lazarus Kiptoo 2:19:36

First woman: Nina Podnebesnova 2:33:10

Last finisher: 6:22:05

Finishers: 5,554


Finishing stats

2-3 hours: 3%

3-4 hours: 35%

4-5 hours: 45%

5-6 hours: 16%

6+ hours: 1%


Photography courtesy of Moscow Marathon