While riding the escalator up form the platform at Palats Sportu metro station, I spotted an ad for the Nova Poshta Kyiv Half Marathon. It was late March and I was craving a cigarette. April 26, the sign said. Hmmmm, I’d have a month to train. My pants were too tight and my my gut was over my belt. I had raced many times before but not for a decade. Maybe this is exactly what I needed to take back my body. I exited the metro station and smoked the last Camel Lite in my pack. I haven’t bought another since.
I went home and registered online straight away – 300 UAH and another 150 for the t-shirt. Now came the hard part, getting myself ready. I had been knocking the football around on weekends, a bit of cycling and struggled through the odd run, but with all the late nights, whiskey and tobacco that my lifestyle involved, I was nowhere near the shape I needed to be in to finish 21 kilometers in under three hours.
Over dinner with friends later that night, I announced this this would be my last party before the race. I drank half a bottle of red wine, ate a steak dinner and finished it off with a couple more cancer sticks. That was it, for the next month, it would be nothing but filtered water, fruit salad and my new Go-Run Sketchers. Really, I needed more than a month to train, but I threw myself into my running and hoped for the best.
Weekends without hangovers were amazing, instead of sleeping all day, I was pounding the pavement by nine, and into a second plate of recovery pancakes by noon. Everything I ate tasted great, my clothes fit like a champ and I was getting things done. Why had I waited so long?
The day of the race came and I woke up excited. I ate my pregame meal and rode the metro over to Kontraktova Ploscha on a subway car crowded with runners. The energy was amazing – there were athletes everywhere, stretching, smiling and snapping photos. We charged out into the Podil sunshine to cheering crowds and made our way down to the Dnipro River. Dj’s bumped hip-hop and dancing cheerleaders urged us along the highway as the field began to thin out. We shouted encouragement at the leaders as they ripped by us after doubling back at Pecherska.
Crowds again cheered us as we circled back through Podil, and the first friendly water station welcomed us to the second half of the race. I chased down half a banana and a paper cup of water and pressed on feeling pretty good about my race. That was before the bridge of doom at the 12k mark, where we began our assault on the slope that connected the race to Hidropark. Many runners turned into walkers and I felt myself begin to slow, but a lovely young racer urged me to keep up going, and I challenged myself to keep pace with her. Finally, after what seemed like an hour of climbing, we descended into the 14th kilometer and the calm of the woodsy island.
Legs became heavy, cramps were ignored and the realities of distance running began to settle in. Dropouts walked back against the flow of runners toward the last checkpoint. An ambulance trumpeted through the road on the way to someone in distress. At 18 kilometers, the last friendly aid station beckoned us in for oranges, water and soaked sponges.
“Choot Choot” said a friendly face – assuring me in Russian that the end was near. As we climbed the grade on the pedestrian bridge and worked back across the Dnipro, my legs came back to me – sensing we were almost home. Kilometers 19 and 20 drifted by and suddenly, we turned left and ascended our final hill, a slight 200 meters up a gentle slope, but enough to slow a tired racer to a snail’s pace. A rested and long since finished racer cheered me to the top of the hill.
“Horoshiy Robotat!” he said, praising my hard work. “Devai, devai!”
The homestretch is all crowds, bliss and adrenaline. The pain is gone, the thrill of victory puts a final charge into tired legs and a trot becomes a gallop. A stopwatch over the finish line challenged me into a sprint home where a smiling volunteer hung a medal around my neck. I inhaled a few orange wedges and high fived the friendly finisher who had inspired me on the bridge. I walked out into the crowd and hugged my girlfriend. I felt high as a kite and that all in the world was right.
Then came the devastating news. A young runner had collapsed on the finish line after a strong run. Lifesaving efforts were made and he was taken away in an ambulance. I had been in enough races to know that young runners don’t often survive sudden cardiac attacks.
28 year old Alexander Ishchenko, an experienced distance runner and expectant father, died of heart failure after collapsing at the finish line. His wife Svitlana gave birth to a baby girl the following day. Words cannot express the pain that his family must feel for his loss. It was a beautiful day, a well organized race, a day to celebrate life, health and vitality, and it turned tragic in an instant. Rumors began to swirl that the medical teams were under equipped and that more could have been done. I would hope that defibrilators were available but even then, when a young man’s heart fails in this way the odds are highly against him.
My girlfriend, Anna had seen it all. She was handing out waters at the finish line and saw him fall. In a state of shock, she told me that this was absolutely my last race. She never wanted to see anything like that again, and that she didn’t want to worry about me suffering a similar fate. There is no reason to take such risks, she insisted. I halfheartedly argued, but I could see that it wasn’t the right time. I know how it feels to look death straight in the eye – I once gave CPR to a man who died of heart failure after falling off a treadmill at the gym.
Perhaps she was right. What was the point of racing when it could end so tragically? Why do we race? I slept on it and woke up to legs so sore that I bunked off work for the day. Why had I done this to myself? Why take such risks and endure such pain?
We take risks because without doing so, life is mediocre at best. We endure pain because that’s how we improve. Runners have been dying at the finish line since Phidippides(530-390 BC), the Athenian Herald who collapsed at the gates of Athens 26.2 miles from the battle of Marathon. The pain and risk is part of what draws us to these races, but there is also something more.
The month before the race was one of the best of my life. From what I understand of Alexander Ishchenko, he lived admirably, with a young family and many friends. Everyone who raced alongside me on Sunday seemed blessed by a spirit and energy that is rarely found. The city of Kyiv itself seemed lifted by the race, which was reflected in the infectious energy of the people who took to the streets to encourage us forward.
I know the risks, but I will race again because racing makes me better at life. The organizers of the race should learn all they can from this tragedy and continue to host these events, because Kyiv deserves a transformative event like this.