As spring nears Prague’s parks abound with fleet-footed runners
This year, I’ve joined the ranks of late-winter runners in preparation for next week’s Hervis Prague Half Marathon. The half marathon, 21.1 km (13.1 miles) is part of a Prague International Marathon’s race series that also includes a full length marathon in early May and a women’s 5 km race and men’s 10 km in September, as well as other family fun runs and a marathon geared toward adolescents. I’ve participated in the women’s 5 km for the past two years, but this is the first time I’ve raced a longer distance.
Although I’ve been a distance runner since my debut as a (slow) mile runner in junior high track, I’ve never run more than 10 miles (and that only last weekend). My goals for the half marathon are modest – I want to finish, ideally before the 3 hour official cut-off. I’m excited about the race day music and atmosphere, and I’m counting on keeping both my legs moving forward when they might otherwise be tempted to stop.
As race day draws near, I keep running into other friends, mostly women, who are also planning to participate. On one hand, this camaraderie is comforting, but on the other hand, it’s beginning to get to me. If so many of my girlfriends can run a half marathon, then there’s no way I can justify backing out at the last minute if I get cold feet. And, since some of my friends know that I’ve been running (on and off) for years, I feel as if I’ve got to uphold my running reputation with a decent performance. Plus, in a post-New Year’s burst of self-confidence that has long since dissipated, I invited my mother to fly over from the US for the race. Thankfully, I know she is also coming to visit her grandchildren, so I can’t get too uptight about how I run.
Running in Prague didn’t come naturally. In fact, in the first year and a half I lived here I rarely ran outdoors at all. Instead, I was a newly converted gym-goer. Since my then-boyfriend Radek, like most young Czech professionals exercised faithfully at the gym after work, I figured it would be a good opportunity for me to learn different types of exercises and take some classes like spinning or yoga.
I’d been running for pleasure since I was 13, but running through Prague’s polluted air and dark parks didn’t much appeal to me. I walked everywhere I needed to go, so I was getting plenty of outdoor exercise, and belonging to the gym was a novel experience. However, I never took to indoor exercise as much as I did to running. After an unfortunate pick-pocket attack while walking home one evening after dinner during my second month living in Prague, the only times I ran outside were to and from tram stops. I probably looked ridiculous, but I just kept thinking, “No one would be foolish enough to attack someone who’s already running.” So I ran.
Back in 2002, I don’t remember seeing many people running outside, at least not in the streets of Vinohrady or Nusle where I then lived. Most of Radek’s friends and my Czech students told me that they belonged to a gym. In addition to learning the ins-and-outs of the Factory Pro gym in Smíchov, I also picked up the basics of squash.
However, by the time Radek and I moved to the Žižkov neighborhood in Prague, after living in America for 2.5 years, running had again become my preferred form of exercise. It was cost-free, baby-friendly (I could even run with my daughter Anna Lee in her jogger), and it gave me a chance to get fresh air while exploring our neighborhood parks, Parukařka or Vítkov.
Although I did run with Anna sometimes, I preferred running once Radek got home from work. I enjoyed the solitary escape, and I didn’t have to worry about timing my runs to coordinate with her schedule. Radek still belonged to a gym, but once his membership ran out, we both turned to running as our exercise of choice. We could get a much quicker and cheaper workout running than we could at the gym, and it was easy for us to take turns running while watching Anna. We often brought her to the park with us and alternated playing in the children’s area and running.
I preferred running on Vítkov as the road was flat and closed to car traffic, plus the park’s location on a hill above the rest of Žižkov made the air seem fresher. There was a well-worn path through the grass frequented by other runners and dog walkers, while cyclists and roller-bladers shared the roadway. Running on Vítkov was an escape from the city and since there were usually so many other people exercising, the loiterers who gathered at the end of the park near the statue of Jan Žižka to drink their beers or smoke didn’t make me as nervous as they would have in a less-open space. In all my days of running through the park, sometimes even at dusk during the winter months, I never encountered into any trouble.
When I ran on the weekends, I tried to run during Anna’s nap time between 11 am and 1 pm. The park was almost guaranteed to be empty as most Czechs were either out of Prague for the weekend or eating Sunday lunch at babička’s. It was nice to have the park to myself, particularly on the sunny days. Sometimes I wished for a running partner, but most days I was glad to steal a few minutes for myself and I relished the solitude.
When I ran my first 5 km race in Prague in 2007, 3.5 months after Oliver’s birth, I was delighted to be running, and I didn’t care how out of shape I was or how much I knew my muscles were going to hurt the following day. Buoyed by the all-woman race and the surreal atmosphere of running through Prague’s cobblestone streets at dusk while bands played and crowds cheered, I finished 2.5 minutes ahead of my conservative 30 minute goal.
The following year, I ran the 5 km again. This time I didn’t have the excuse of nursing a new-born, so I pushed my pace a little harder. Each time I thought I couldn’t go any faster, I’d remind myself of worse scenarios: I could be carrying 2 kids plus the groceries up 3 flights of stairs with a broken elevator; or lifting Oliver’s stroller on and off the tram without help; or listening to the cries of tired children ready for naptime. It only took a moment to get my pace back on track and bring a grin to my face.
When I got within sight of the finish line ahead of my goal time and saw my family, Radek with Oliver on his shoulders and Anna Lee jumping up and down beside him, I couldn’t help but be proud of myself. I’d finished another race in the Czech Republic and had proven to myself and to my family that far from slowing me down, being a mother was actually helping me speed up.
I have no predictions or expectations from the race next weekend. If I finish, I’ll be delighted, and if I don’t for some reason, I’ll just have to live with it and put in more training time next year.