How to Run a Half-Marathon

The only officially organized race that I know of in the two major cities of Astana and Almaty, is the annual Almaty Marathon. Though I hear that Air Astana will be putting a race on in Astana this September.

I had thought about running the half-marathon portion of the Great Wall race, with a friend, but those plans fell through a while back. So when the Almaty race came up, I was already mentally prepared to sign up.

The idea of a race has always intimidated me. I don’t even like running with friends (it was the only time I felt cranky on my trip to Japan) so the idea of running in a crowd is hugely unappealing. But because of its smaller size, the Almaty race felt like the right one to sign up for. Plus, I love Almaty and it’s always fun to go there with friends.

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Some Uzbek plates I saw on this trip since y’all seem to love them so much 🙂

Preparation

I’ve been running (okay let’s be real, jogging) at least twice a week for the past two and a half years, except for the many times I injured myself and had to temporarily stop. People assume because I’m tall and slim that I’m a natural runner. But the sports doctor I saw about my recurring shin splints told me that my body isn’t really meant for running – the load of it being too much for my shins to bear.

I think a lot of that is bullshit in the sense that I can run decently but I just have to be mindful (and I’ll happily use the diagnosis as an excuse to never run a full marathon). After a lot of physio, the right shoes, and finally getting my groove, I started hitting my stride in Astana. Likely, because it’s the best cure I’ve found for all those frustratingly bureaucratic or lonely days.

Once I signed up for the race last fall, I began running four times a week and did pilates and soccer once or twice a week. I never ran more than three days in a row. I did one fast 3-5k run, an easy 5-8, some sort of interval training run between 5-8k, and a long run between 10-18 (I peaked at 18k). Many thanks to running/librarian friends, Shannon and Lindsay for helping me craft a casual training plan!

I do physio exercises before each run (15 minutes) and I’ve found these really help prevent injury. For longer runs, I sometimes tape my right shin and left ankle. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m doing it incorrectly and it’s just a placebo effect that helps. Whatever works!

Soundtrack

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My friend, Megan, said that she runs without her phone and runs as long and as fast as she feels. Spirit runs! I could never do this.

I like running best to podcasts. In Vancouver, I would sometimes run to Songza playlists (1993 rap and Dreampop). But Songza isn’t available outside of North America and I have a very minimal music collection, so podcasts it is.

I find that music is too familiar or repetitive to fully take my mind off of running. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Marc Maron’s WTF are generally engrossing enough to put me in the right headspace. It was especially fun to listen to the Hardcore History series on Ghengis Khan while running along the steppe.

Apps

My friend, and spirit runner (though he would never call it that), Sean, said his body tells him exactly how fast and far he needs to go. I roll my eyes in jealousy and continue to use apps to track how all over the place my pace is.

I’ve been using RunKeeper since I started running but I’ve recently switched over to Strava, simply because one of my best pals uses it. I dislike that Strava doesn’t let you program intervals but I felt that for race day it would be best, because it tells you the pace of your previous km and I thought that would be most helpful for keeping track.

Race Day Strategy

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My goal was to run in under two hours. I would’ve been so happy even at 1:59:59.

I planned to run the first 5k (5:50-5:55/km) at a slower pace, the next 12.5k at a slightly faster pace (5:40), and the last 3.6k as fast as possible. It meant I should hit 5k by 29:35 minutes in, 10k by 58, 15k by 86, and 17 by 94.

I’d never used energy gels before but I tried a couple on longer training runs and reserved two to use during the race (one before the start and one halfway through).

I have to pee all the time, so I planned to wake up super early and hydrate and stop an hour before the race. I also felt nervous about hydrating during the race since I normally don’t bring water on my runs but Shannon convinced me that I really need to hydrate during such a long run. So I decided to grab cups at a few water stations and sip as much down as I could without choking.

Race Day

I ate a whole bunch of spicy Korean food the night before, which was totally cool with my iron stomach but not so great for my fellow racing friends. Woke up early to hydrate, had half a banana and some pomegranate juice and took an energy gel 30 minutes before the race started.

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Fresh-squeezed Tashkent (yellow) pomegranates

There were four of us running the race. Jack and I didn’t want to show up that much earlier than the race start time but Sean told us that races are always so chaotic that you do need to show up early.

I really had to pee by the time we got to the race site but we couldn’t find toilets anywhere so I peed by a pile of rocks. I would’ve loved to have gone again right before the start of the race but there was no way that was happening with all the crowds.

The Race

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All I knew for sure was that I had shaved my legs

It. Was. So. Hot. During the race it peaked at 27 degrees. There was snow in Astana up until a couple of weeks ago. And I’m the type of person who runs in short shorts and a tank top when it’s 10 degrees out and still get overheated.

By 6k I totally abandoned my pacing plan and started run/walking. I really hated to walk because I never do on my day-to-day runs but I knew if I pushed myself too much, I would burn out way before the end and be fully walking. I stopped at almost all the water stations, if only to pour it over my head (I was totally soaked by the finish line). And I had no qualms about stopping to pee once I spotted some toilets without a big line.

I finished with a time of 2:17:40, 60/351 women who did the half. And I’m left feeling like it was a respectable first try (average time for ladies worldwide is 2:19), I’m really glad I did it, and I’d like to do another half next year. From the last 5k until I finished the race I was thinking, “Never again!” But now I’ve experienced the same symptoms as post-partum women and a layer of vaseline softens my memory of the race.

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I may not have met goal #1 but I did meet goal #2 to not poop my pants.

Things I Learned

  • Ideally, my first race would’ve been in the city I live and have already been running in.
  • I will never run a race again when it’s anticipated that the temperature will go well above 15 degrees.
  • Listening to a podcast on race day was totally the wrong choice for me. I’m so glad that I downloaded ABBA Gold at the last minute.
  • French-braided pigtails was a wise (ie. secure) hair choice.
  • Listening to my body in the moment was also a good choice.
  • Chocolate flavoured energy gels are kind of gross – I think I’d go with fruit next time.

I was pretty impressed with how well-organized this specific race was! The starting could definitely be better managed. And I would never bring a bag to pick up afterwards again (I think it took over 15 minutes to find it). But overall, pretty decent.

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Last flight for a while!

 

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How to Go to the Doctor*

Aside from the worst hangovers of my life (my theory is lower quality alcohol + more limited access to drinking water), I have never been sick while living in Astana. My body loves a dry, cool climate. But I knew I’d have to go to a clinic at some point for a tick-borne encephalitis vaccine. This type of tick is not found in North America and so NA travel clinics generally don’t carry the vaccine, though you can have them special order it, with enough notice.

This vaccine is not a requirement for going to Kazakhstan but if you’re going to be traipsing about rural parts of Eastern Europe/Central Asia, as I am, then it’s a good idea.

Today was the day I went to the clinic. It was bright and clean and the staff was friendly.

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So clean!

The doctor told me not to be scared because it was just “a little pain from a big doctor.” He also told me I was beautiful and half muttered/half sang “so beautiful” to himself while preparing the needle.

He said no more on the topic after I had to define what a wart was for him and ask what to do about the one on the bottom of my foot.

But he did write the name of whatever medication I need in Russian to take to a pharmacist.

All of this was a good ratio of delight/horror until I was presented with a $150 bill. “Oh sorry, I made a mistake,” said the receptionist as she handed me an updated $200 bill.

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A $200 receipt

“I’m pretty sure our medical insurance is just for flu shots and having babies,” my expat co-worker sympathized.

*This post has no real practical value about going to the doctor here. Though if you do ever go to the SOS International Clinic, go to the entrance with the most doors with a view of the turnstiles, and enter the farmost left door, or else you’ll end up in the German Embassy.

Russian Problems (Motion Verbs)

IMG_7317I had always though that Russian was an okay language, in terms of ease. I started dishing a bit of side eye after learning case formation with numbers, (1 of something = nominative singular, 2-4 of something = genitive singular, 5-0 or 11-20 of something = genitive plural, and some things, like potatoes, are “uncountable”). But it’s the motion verbs that had me consider quitting.

You don’t need to know anything about languages to appreciate this clusterfuck*.

There are four verbs used to express motion: Ходить Идти Ездить Ехать

  • Ходить Идти mean to go by foot
  • Ездить Ехать mean to go by transport
  • You generally go “by foot” whenever you refer to going somewhere in the city (without defining a mode of transport), even if you used transport.
  • Regularly scheduled trains and buses go “by foot”
  • Irregularly scheduled transportation goes by the “transportation” verbs
  • Rain and snow go “by foot”
  • Идти and Ехать indicate one direction
  • Ходить and Ездить indicate that going somewhere and coming back
  • The “one direction” verbs are used to state motion at a specific time or duration of time
  • Present tense is used to express a future plan to go somewhere
  • Идти and Ехать are used to express plans to go somewhere
  • Unless they are uncertain plans, then a different (future perfective) form of those verbs is used
  • If someone just left, perfective forms are also used
  • Anything done with frequency uses Ходить and Ездить
  • If you “love” to go somewhere, it implies frequency
  • Even if someone never goes somewhere, the frequency verbs are still used, because “never” is a type of frequency
  • The word for “now” (indication a specific time) can also mean “nowadays” (indicating frequency). The only way to tell the difference is context
  • Swearing at someone to “go to X” requires using Идти

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This snow walked

Asides (aka things I’ve Tweeted)

There is a formal and an informal word for potatoes

There is no word for “gravy” in Russian. Everything is “sauce.” The most successful definition I’ve found for Russian native speakers is “meat juice.” This came up when my Russian teacher asked me to write out a recipe for a Canadian food and of course I chose poutine because what else do we have?

Seven months of lessons and I can talk at people very nicely about the food I’d like to eat.

 

*May very well contain some mistakes.

How to Go to Turkey

As aforementioned, Istanbul is one of the easiest places to get to from Astana. You can get a direct flight (Air Astana or Turkish Airlines), that is not too long (5 hours), and relatively inexpensive ($400-600). And it is an absolutely wonderful city, so that’s all the reason you need to go!

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Morning

When my BSGF (best straight guy friend) told me he was going to Istanbul for a wedding the same week as my birthday, I put it in my calendar right away. I did my library practicum in Istanbul in 2009 and while I could quickly tell it was a city I wouldn’t like to live and work in, as a librarian (a post for another time), I very much liked it as a place to visit.

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Addition to my tiny bowl lifestyle

Some lasting impressions from the first time around:

  • The food!
  • Beautiful views
  • Ferry rides
  • Figs and almonds
  • Being constantly stared at (not always in a lustful way, but in a – you are so tall and so blonde – way)
  • Friendly folks
  • Turkish delight! And being offered a sampling in a strange man’s apartment (too friendly)
  • Being stalked from KFC in a mall all the way to Taksim Square (way too friendly)
  • Bambi Doner
  • An intense May 1 demonstration
  • Smoking because I felt awkward about having so much alone time and having a waiter tell me, “Please, don’t smoke. I think you only started a week or two ago, because I look at you, and I can see that smoking is not your life. So don’t smoke.”
  • Being informed by my flatmate a week after arriving that I wasn’t actually supposed to put toilet paper in the toilet

All good impressions held up and all of the weird things were just as specific, though different, from the first time around.

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Another morning

And now here is some informative content derived from both visits:

Airports

There are two airports, Ataturk on the European side and Sabiha on the Asian side. The sides are split by the mighty Bosphorus Strait. Prior to moving to Astana, I’d only been to Asia by technicality of crossing the Bos’.

Ataturk, on the European side, is closer to where you’re likely to stay. This site has a guide on airport travel options and current taxi prices.

Where to Stay

I’ve only ever stayed in Cihangir and I really like that area. It’s close to major centres/sites without being too touristy. AirBnB places are so cheap! The two places we stayed at were great (especially the second one).

Where to Eat

Basically, anywhere. But some specific places that are good in Cihangir include: Hayat (for fish), Kasabim (for steak), Miss Pizza (for, you know), Kahve 6 (for breakfast), and Smyrna (for drinks).

What to Eat

  • All things street-side meat
  • Bread with kaymak (clotted cream) and honey
  • Pide (pizza-type flatbread thing)
  • Kumpir (stuffed potatoes)
  • Turkish breakfast (bread, cheeses, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, honey, jam, etc.)
  • Menemen (scrambled egg dish)
  • Kofte (meatball-esque)
  • Baklava
  • Turkish delight (lokum)
  • Turkish tea and Turkish coffee
  • Ayran (like kefir but better)
  • Iskender kebap (I haven’t tried this but definitely will next time: kebap with tomato sauce and hot foamy butter)

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And get that fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice with your doners

What to Do

  • Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar

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  • Basilica Cistern (for all the James Bond fans)
  • Hagia Sophia
  • Sultan Ahmed Mosque
  • Walk along the Galata Bridge

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Blue gingham not mandatory

  • Eat a lot
  • Sit outside and chill
  • Take a ferry ride to the Asian side and order some tea

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    This would’ve gotten so many likes had Instagram existed in 2009

Where to Go Outside of Istanbul

Overnight Trip (Izmir/Ephesos)

This was my first time venturing outside the big city and we took a round trip flight to Izmir to go to the ancient city of Ephesos (Ephesos like Efes like the beer).

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The prettiest graveyard

We booked directly through Pegasus and our flights were just shy of $100 each. You can get them for as low as $50 if you book well in advance. It’s only an hour long flight – just keep in mind that most of the flights to Izmir go out of the Istanbul airport that is on the Asian side (ie. further away). You can filter flights that only arrive at the major, generally closer airport, Ataturk. AtlasJet and OnurAir are two others to check out.

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The library

Once in Izmir you can take a train, bus, or rent a car, which we did through this site that searches all car rental sites at once (like Summon searches on a library website!). We stayed at a small hotel in Selcuk (totally loved it), close to the site and went early the next morning after arriving.

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Dusty, the stoic hotel dog

Longer Trips

Turquoise Coast

If I had more time, I would’ve extended my Izmir trip further south to hit up the Turquoise Coast. Beaches and mountains forever. And the Lycian Way.

Cappadocia

You may recognize Capadoccia as the land of hot air balloons and phallic-esque land formations. Totally sold now, right? I’ll be going there this July. Between the expense of going up in a hot air balloon, believing the best view to be of the balloons from the ground, and having a moderate fear of flying, I’ll be sitting that excursion out. If you’re keen, apparently Royal Hot Air Balloon is the place to use. And I will most definitely be staying in this cave, despite my claustrophobia. If this region had some association with needles, it would be a perfect triumvirate of all my fears.

 

And that summarizes the very small portion of Turkey that I know. Happy travels!

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“For woman, that is not baggage. Impressive.”

– Kazakh flight attendant

 

How to Go for a Meal By Yourself

Eating out alone in Astana requires a big DGAF attitude. Mine is moderate.

I used to go for a drink/dinner on my own all the time in Vancouver. But it just doesn’t seem to be done here, among expats and locals, alike. The exception is going to a restaurant that seems more like a coffee shop (Shokoladnitsa, Maronne Rosso, etc.) and bringing a laptop with you to do work.

Even when I first arrived here, it was clear that going to the cafeteria at lunch was a group activity. Despite really liking my co-workers at my last job, 4/5 times I ate lunch alone and I had a hard time adjusting to the norm in my new workplace. But now I make a point of going at a different time at least a couple times a week to clear my head and read over whatever variation of a Greek salad I’ve made for that day. I am an extrovert but need a lot of alone time to function.

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But finally, after 8 months, I decided enough was enough and went for a meal on my own.

Sundays are my long run days and I’m getting a bit bored of my two routes (leave campus and turn right or left, then turnaround and come back once you’ve reached your halfway mark). I’ve been experimenting with going for a run and ending it at the grocery store or at a restaurant to meet friends. This is only possible in cold weather so I’m taking advantage of it, while I can. I tried it once when on vacation in Kelowna during the summer and melted on the pleather seats, while everyone looked with grave concern at my bright red face.

So yesterday I ran from campus to Highvill and ended my run at Kakao Dak for Korean fried chicken and beer. I’ve written about this place before. It’s a small, dark restaurant and seemed suited to the weird foreign girl who just wants to read and gorge. I was a little scared about how much I would eat when left to my own devices here. There are times I’ve been to Kakao Dak and everyone else says they’re full and I keep silent though I could eat another basket.

You have to be really strong to be true to yourself, even in the smallest of ways, I’ve learned.

Anyways, the answer is this much:

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Basket of remaining fries not pictured. Basket of chicken not fully pictured.

The waitress was so unconvinced that I sincerely wanted a whole litre of water. But then she tried to convince me to get a 16-piece combo.

Conclusion

Kakao Dak is a good low-key place to go to by yourself if you’re feeling self-conscious about eating alone (even though you normally don’t in your home city) and you’re tired of pasta salads from Maronne Rosso. But don’t go there if you’re feeling depressed because it’s dark and strange to go there during daylight hours (no windows!).

You don’t have to run there, of course, but it would’ve felt excessive to me to take a taxi by myself both ways and it would take so long to get to Highvill by public bus. Running there also helped me not hate myself post-meal for eating so unhealthily (this has never actually happened to me, run or no run, but I hear it is a thing).

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Post-run Japanese beauty mask