Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Cyprus International 4 day race challenge

Or maybe this should have been renamed the Cyprus International sightseeing and eating and drinking challenge…

November in Cyprus seemed like a very good plan to escape the onset of winter in Aberdeen and so when John offered the use of his apartment in Paphos for the week I jumped at the chance. Neither John nor I had done this race before but it was a return visit for Bert.  Unfortunately Simon was injured and unable to compete.

The pool at John's apartment in Paphos. Due to the water temperature it remained this empty all week.....

 Simon was very much looking forward to the sunshine of Cyprus so just imagine his disappointment when, on the first day there with the temperature in Paphos hovering around a pleasant 20 deg C, Bert and I decided that a trip into the mountains around Trodos to do a bit of trail running was in order. As we drove higher and higher into the mountains the temperature dropped and Simons face was a picture when we spotted a thermometer in the village reading 1 deg C – about the same temperature we had left in Aberdeen. It was very dry and didn’t actually feel particularly cold once you were running though.

Trail running in Trodos
 The highest peak in the mountains around Trodos is Mount Olympos at 1951m and it was on the trails crossing these hills that we set off for our run after a quick tour of the visitors centre and its display on the natural history and geology of the area. Simon headed off for a walk on these same trails around the village of Platres, a summer resort where people come to get away from the stifling heat of a Cyprus summer as it can reach 40deg C on the coast at the height of summer.

Mount Olympos

The trails were well made, not very steep and took us through pine forests up to the ski tows. Apparently Cyprus is one of the only places where it is possible to ski in the morning and sunbathe on the beach in the afternoon but there was no snow so we weren’t able to put it to the test.

The Ski tow seems a bit out of place on a Mediterranean Island
 None of the three of us had a map of the trails and so somewhat inevitably the planned 6 mile route turned into a 10 mile run punctuated with rather a lot of backtracking and a quick stop to flag down some passing Italian tourists to see if they could give us directions. Fortunately they could.

and finally we found our way back to Trodos!
 The map theme continued as I managed to take us a very indirect route back to Paphos still, driving along the narrow unmade up roads in the dark was quite exciting although whether the car hire company would have taken the same view if they had known is a moot point.

  The next day a trip back into the countryside to visit a winery was the activity of choice and at the Kalamos winery we were served a taster of a variety of wines with  some cheese to accompany them before heading back to the apartment laden down with bottles. Keo is the most prevalent wine that you can buy in Paphos and that was served everywhere. Having little knowledge of Greek wine previously I was pleasantly surprised. Predictably enough the Kalamos winery also produced its own brand of firewater and predictably enough we couldn’t resist buying a bottle of that too. Dionysos, the Greek God of wine would have been proud of us.

Wine Tasting
I'll have that one, and that one....and that one

The first race was four days into our stay and it was a 4 mile time trial. Starting from the event centre we were set off in pairs at 10 second intervals to run along some small back roads passing fields containing large villas and banana plantations before finishing on the beach where Simon had driven out to meet us. John had set off before me and Bert afterwards. Its amazing what the fear of being overtaken can do to your race motivation…..

Waiting for the start

Warm down jog past banana plantations
The temperature was quite pleasant for running and the number of race entrants meant that I passed, and was passed, by people throughout the race so that kept it interesting. After crossing the finishing line on the beach we decided that we would run back to the event centre although transport back is provided. Due to the large number of entries to the race this year it did take quite a while to get started but the event centre is the Coral Bay hotel right on the sea front and so hanging around in its lovely grounds was no real hardship.

The Coral Bay Hotel
 I had become aware of the size of the race field the previous night at the registration and introduction talk. The field had been vastly increased by the appearance of 140 Dutchmen and women all employees or customers of Price Waterhouse Cooper who apparently get to go on an annual athletics event somewhere in Europe, this year the venue being Cyprus. PWC also sponsor professional athletes and so it was quickly established who the race winners were going to be from amongst the sea of orange T-Shirt clad runners.

The results were pinned up at the reception of the hotel every afternoon after the race and Bert soon became obsessed with checking them…

Agios Georgious Beach
 The next day it was the turn of the hill race, an 11k route climbing from the beach at Agios Georgious to the village of  Pano Arodes situated on a hill some 600m higher than sea level. The route followed a wide gravelly track near to the Avakas Gorge and at no point was the gradient so steep that walking was necessary but it was only during this run that I really got a feeling for the Arkamas peninsular to the north of Paphos. This beautiful area, named Akamas after Arkamantas, the son of Thesus who in Greek mythology arrived here after the Trojan war, is due to be designated a national park very soon and it is obvious why. If you could muster up the energy to look behind you during the race then the views back to the beach were spectacular. The run took us up through the Mediterranean hills with their sparse covering of plants and tiny farmsteads with little herds of goats.
The one thing that stuck in my memory of the running through this landscape was the silence, I couldn’t even hear birdsong.

The hill race

The view from the mountains back to the coast
On approaching the village the silence was broken by the cheers from supporters and its one last push up one last vicious little slope before finishing in the village square outside the ancient church. Even the priest was sat in the square watching and he was only too glad to show us around his church.

Nearly at the finish

The finish

You can keep your energy bars and lucozade!
Simon had driven up to the village to meet us and so it was back to the hotel to soak our legs in cold water before going in search of food and so Bert could check the all important results. Stretching, warming down and cold water therapy became and important part of the routine during the race week allowing recovery before the next days effort. After the final race I didn’t bother and I paid the price… for about 3 days afterwards!

Get in, you big Jessies!
The following days' half marathon again was up in the mountains, this time starting in the shady pine forests of  Smigies nature reserve. Getting there involved two bus trips as the roads couldn’t cope with the coaches and so we were all decanted on to minibuses for the last part of the journey.
The first part of this race followed tracks and roads for a gradual climb before starting a very long descent to the finish. The trails weren’t too rough and so it was easy to really stretch out and over take other more cautious runners on the descent. I knew I was fairly battering my quad muscles by doing this but I also knew a dip in the sea at the end would help me recover and besides, I was really enjoying myself.
The last mile to the finish is flat and you can see the finish line for the duration of that last mile. Those running with garmins said that it was actually more than a mile but the last mile of any half marathon always seems long doesn’t it?

Simon hitched a ride to watch the half marathon in the lead vehicle

The final mile to the finish

The finish on the beach

My much looked forward to dip nearly didn’t materialise as I didn’t feel too great for a little while after crossing the finish line – with hindsight it was probably a bit of a sugar low - but I sat in the sea and tried to jog a bit to loosen off, still with the last race the following day in the back of my mind.

When we got back to the hotel disaster had struck – they hadn’t managed to get the results up and boy, was Bert stressed. A couple of visits to the hotel reception later and we had to give up but dark mutterings were heard from Bert throughout the afternoon and evening about “driving past the coral bay hotel”

Just chillin'

The start and finish of the 10k
 Finally it was the Paphos 10k. This race had an early start, 8am, so it was a rude awakening for us to give us time to jog to the startline at the harbour of Paphos. The race was over a pleasant enough flat, fast course finishing back at the harbour. It didn’t have the scenery and wow factor of the previous days races but the impressive medieval fort at the harbour more than made up for that as did the free post race beer – I started the race at 8am, crossed the line at 8.44am and was drinking my first beer at 8.45am. Not bad.

After the 10k it was the usual feeling of elation that the race had been finished successfully tinged with usual sadness that its all over as we wandered around the Fort and then off to the nearest café to drink tea and chat with other runners.

A good thing about this race week is that the races are all relatively short and “do-able” and there is lots of time during the week to take in the sights of the island. There is, however, one problem with this – Cyprus has a history stretching back to 8000BC embracing the Neolithic, Classical, Roman, Byzantine, Frankish, Venetian and Ottoman periods not to mention the times of British rule and the modern history of independence and separation. Each of these periods has left its mark on the culture and architecture of the island and many areas are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites. The entire island has been likened to one large open air museum and there is quite simply too much to see!

Paphos Mosaics
We took in a little Greek mythology by visiting the baths of Aphrodite, goddess of love, where legend has it the goddess herself used to bathe. Whether you have an interest in Greek mythology or not it is worth a visit for the flora that is found around these gorges and pools. From there we headed to Polis, a popular sea side resort and to a nice fish restaurant by the sea.

The baths of Aphrodite
 Our dabble with the Roman period was a visit to Kato Paphos Archaeological Park. This was included in the UNESCO list of world heritage sites in 1980 and its most famed attraction is its mosaics in the ruined houses of Dionysos, Theseus, Aion and Orpheus. These houses or villas belonged to noblemen and the mosaics dating between 2nd to 5th Century AD depict scenes from Greek Mythology.

Paphos Mosaics - The House of Theseus - Mosaic depicts the baby Achilles getting his first bath

Mosaic depicting Theseus fighting the Minotaur

Detail of a Mosaic depicting Achilles

Even the Romans had central heating which is more than can be said for my flat in Edinburgh!

The Paphos Odeon dates form 2nd century AD and is still used for plays today

Paphos Odeon

The medieval fort of Paphos at the harbour is an impressive monolithic structure built in Byzantine times around 200AD to protect the harbour. It was destroyed by the Venetians sometime in the 15th Century and then rebuilt under Ottoman rule in the 16th Century. By crossing the moat by a wooden bridge visitors are now able to wander through its vaults and on to its ramparts

 November is a good time to go to Cyprus, it is well out of tourist season, the temperature is pleasant although a little chilly at night and the only complaints I heard were about the sea and swimming pool temperature. In fact I was the only one to brave a dip in the pool outside John’s apartment. John also seemed to find the mornings a little chilly and developed a very novel way of warming his kit up!

Cyprus is a very easy place to go on holiday, its period of English rule coupled with a yearly influx of English speaking holiday makers and resident ex pats mean that everyone in and around Paphos seemed to speak English and menus etc. were in English. Paphos is in the Greek Cypriot “half” of Cyprus and we didn’t have time to venture as far as the capital of the island, Lefkosia (Nicosia) or into the Turkish “half” of the island which I was disappointed about (an excuse for a return visit?). Cyprus remains divided since the Turkish invasion of 1974 and there are still hostilities between the two opposing parties. Although Cyprus is part of the EU there is an exception to this regarding the areas not controlled by the Cypriot government, pending a successful resolution of the dispute. 

 Eating out in Cyprus is great, all tastes seemed to be catered for and we did our best to try a few different restaurants ranging from sea food, to traditional Mediterranean foods such as moussaka, to an English tea room serving gigantic scones and to a thai restaurant that served John its flaming Phucket duck.

Thats a brave man about to steal some of my chocolate ice cream!

John ordered the flaming Phucket Duck

It’s a good place for 4 hungry runners to be on holiday.

Beer in the sunshine

The final event of the week is the gala dinner at the Coral Bay hotel and it was great fun, a large buffet followed by dancing to some of the cheesiest music ever – Boney M mega mix anyone? During the meal photos of the event were played on a large projector screen and Simon, whilst not racing, seemed to appear in a very large number of them, rather like a Runners World version of the “Where’s Wally”cartoons.

 The prize giving also takes place at the gala dinner. Bert, who had studied the results obsessively during the week until I’m sure he could have told you to the second how far ahead he was of the opposition, picked up first in his age group. I hadn’t paid much attention to the results so it was a complete surprise to me when I picked up a prize. John was unlucky as his birthday was the day after we flew home, had his birthday been a few days earlier he would have been first in his new age category.
As expected the prizes in the mens race pretty much all went to the Dutch runners (even including Bert!) except for one Austrian runner, Stephan who finished 4th overall and so the Dutch runners presented Stephan with a special prize of their own creation, an orange t-shirt that they had all signed. Bert was very disappointed not to get an orange t-shirt though.

Bert receiving his prize

Me receiving my prize

And then it was all over and back home to an Aberdeen winter. A great fun event and holiday, much recommended.

The dream team on tour

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