The Pope John Paul II Birthday Memorial 13K – Krakow, Poland

“That’s an odd distance -13K,” one of the common comments. “That’s not your normal distance,” people usually say this with a bit of hesitation. I’m not sure if they are referrencing my usual penchant for marathons and half marathons or if they imagine a volunteer running behind the crowd with a machette and hockey mask. The biggest question I get asked is “Why?”. Why this race? Why this distance? Why in Krakow? Trust me, as I walked into registration to the sideway glances and initial hesiation on the part of volunteers to help, I was asking myself the same question.

One of my best friends, my adopted little sister from University, Jen Nagy has been living in Poland for almost 10 years.  As I was planning to spend a significant amount of time in Europe, there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to visit her in a country that has completely engulfed her for a decade. Lets face it – Poland is rarely a place that people put on their Grand European Tour.  What has pulled her focus here? I know she came over to spread her ministry in music, but she has the opportunity to do that in so many parts of the world.  What has been able to hold her attention and fascination for so long? Her first answer is usually the people. That is difficult to understand when we arrive. 

Another oddity to the day was the lateness of the race. We showed up at 2pm for a 3pm race start. I was wearing my usual frippery, colorful sugarskull spandex shorts, bright red and Kennebec Valley Coaching tank, Cerulean Blue knee high compression socks. That along with my weight and larger than life personality set me apart. It’s clear I am an outsider and we seem to be treated as such. Even though Jen speaks a good amount of Polish, answers are short and clipped and lacking in helpfulness as we tried to find registration. Eventually we get to the room and get passed around volunteers even though Jen speaks Polish. When I went to their website it would let me register, however I wasn’t able to pay for my entry online. Fortunately they’re willing to take cash.

The fact of the matter is this is a community event and we are not part of that community. Families are here. There’s a bake sale. There’s a kid area with a bouncy house. Lots of hugs as friends and family connect around the field. Different small clicks of teenagers mesh and separate in an intricate dance. In the hour that we wait there is a kids race and the 5K. There’s lots of cheering and celebration as people cross the finish line.

15 minutes before the start, I start stretching. It’s the middle of the afternoon and we are all gearing up for a race. If I haven’t mentioned this before Europeans for the most part take their races very seriously. Even people who run my speed lineup at the start line like today is THE day. This is the day that they will win. As we get closer to the start line you can feel the tension in the air. However before we know it, it is three minutes past the start time. Confusion appears on everybody’s face. Another three minutes go by and the poor volunteer at the start line is gesticulating the international signal for “Don’t ask me, I just do what they tell me!” Someone runs up and lets everybody know that Start will be delayed another ten minutes. One of the guys who was in my Start Line selfie is kind enough to translate for me. 

I start whistling and singing some of of my warm up tunes. The Hey Sing, Jackson 5’s I Want You Back. People seem to be shifting back in forth to the tunes. All of a sudden, a very official guy in a tie comes up, makes a comment or two and boom we’re off!

We’re only about 60 runners or so, and immediately 50 runners make it clear they came to win. I start off a little faster than normal even though we are on a nice gentle incline until we pass the water tower. Looking out from the apex, I get a little nervous. I am looking at a very steep plunge and some rollicking hills on the road ahead – not rolling hills, but short and steep, forested hills that are much more challenging than I anticipated. It turns me a little sour. As we are all running down this kilometer drop, runners around me are laughing and enjoying themselves. To no one in particular I say, “It’s all fun and games now, but who will be laughing in the 11th kilometer?!?” They must have understood more English than they let on earlier, because everybody got silent. Whoops. Not as funny as I thought, so instead I let off a mad laugh and used the gravity of the hill to push me faster. 

A lot of the neighbors came out to watch the race. They were all ages and most of them gathered around the water stations that were kindly placed every 2 km. For the most part everybody there was pretty quiet and helpful until I started singing. I started singing some old Rock and Motown, and people started clapping along and cheering. After climbing a pretty big hill through some tall trees just after the fourth kilometer, the front runners started to return. The course was mostly an out and back so I was going to see every single one of those 50 people who took off at the start line. So I started cheering for them. Anybody who has run with me knows I like to give each person an individual motivational phrase or complement. Even from the front runners I got smiles and in some cases as we got further back, people were trying to return the favor even if we couldn’t understand a word each other was saying. Certainly, the intent was clear.

The turnaround was up this final hill to an old monastery where three Christian Brothers waited for us in their cassocks and did the wave. I started singing Dona Nobis Pachem and some people started doing the round (like Row Row Row You Boat in Latin) to much laughter and cheering. As I started to head back, I was happy to see I wasn’t last, but there were only a handful of people behind me and we still had to run up all the hills we had coasted down. 

Enter Katarzyna Burdek. Actually, by this point we had run most of the race together, just a little out of sync. She is a mother and a wife. She also has her own business where she crochets the cutest animals. She lives right on the road where we are racing. She definitely saved me the second half of this race. On the way back, we start leap purposefully leap frogging and waiting for each other, pushing each other a little further than we wanted to go, and pulling each other up those long tedious hills. Katarzyna was an absolut delight and as we were running she shared as much as she could could with the English she had. Her kids cheered for us as we went through singing water stations on our way back. water station volunteers remembembered me and although I started off singing to them, some people at the stations started singing Polish songs back to me (Probably Disco Polo, but we won’t hold that against them). This was a big turn around from the way the race day had begun!

As we approached the Finish Line, there was a group of faster runners waiting before the final lap, cheering me on just as I was running out of energy. “Go, Go, Go”! Later the guy who came in third found me to thank me. He was in fourth place when I saw him on the course and cheered him on and whatever I said to him spurred him on to overtake the guy in third, so he got some of his friends to wait and return the favor! 

Crossing the finish line didn’t feel so lonely now. Not only was my friend Jen all smiles and hooting and hollering, but I also had my new running wife to take pictures with (courtesy of her nice husband) and other fellow runners offering thanks and congratulations.  I truly love my running community and the more that I run and interact with runners all over the world, the more I think maybe we should have our world leaders attempt diplomacy over the occasional 5 or 10k. Of course I got my 13k PR of 1:29:51, but I was much more excited by all my new Polish running friends. 

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