Why Russians Don’t Run

It is a chilly September afternoon and I am sitting in a smoky Italian restaurant at the dismal southern end of a St. Petersburg metro line with Yevgeny Kurov. Buzz-cut, 45, mustached, and a tightly wound 5′ 10″, he wears a new Garmin GPS watch on his left wrist and juggles two mobile phones. He’s run multiple marathons and is training for a triathlon.

“So, why don’t Russians run?” I ask as we wait for our pizza to arrive.

I have been in Russia for just over 10 days and, aside from the Moscow Marathon, have yet to see a single runner out on the streets, despite the clear, cool fall weather. Moscow has 12 million residents and St. Petersburg has 5 million. Yet none of them seem to pound the pavement.

“I’ll tell you why,” Yevgeny says, shuffling his shoulders. “There are three reasons.”

“First, it is simple laziness,” he says, bending back his thumb and nodding knowingly, as if he is revealing a simple, yet remarkable truth.

“Second, there is the national affliction,” he says with a wink, snapping a finger against his throat, just under the chin – the Russian gesture signifying drunkenness.

“And third,” he says, pausing with a sigh, as he bends down his middle finger. “Third, people are just beaten down by life. They have to deal with this or that complication of life here, and by the time they get home at the end of the day, they are spent.” The situation is even more pronounced when it comes to women (who rarely make up even 10 percent of race registrations), he says, on whom fall a hugely disproportionate load of household and child-rearing duties.

A Russian born in Estonia, Yevgeny speaks with a clipped cadence, gently rolling his R’s. He knows barely a word of English and my Russian is challenged when I bring up the topic of barefoot running.

“We have just two barefoot runners in Russia,” Yevgeny replies, smiling.

“Yes,” I say, “I saw one of them in Moscow,” as proudly as if I had seen a rare Siberian crane.

Later, as we part at the metro, setting our plans to meet in two days time to register for Russia’s oldest run, from Pushkin to St. Petersburg, I express a concern:

“The registration rules say that a doctor’s spravka (certificate) is required, attesting one is fit to run the race.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Yevgeny says, smiling conspiratorially. “Everyone forges their doctor’s note. That’s what color printers are for!”

There is a peculiar sort of Russian disorderliness that borders on chaos and thrives on the adrenalin of the last-minute rush to completion. It goes by the name of bezporyadok and is a force unto itself, bound to the Russian character at the genome level. No level of planning, organization or flow-charting will ever root it out.

Some expats and visitors actually find bezporyadok charming – usually because they have some sort of safety valve, like a foreign residence, or perhaps because they married a Russian.

Bezporyadok was out in force at the 32nd Annual Moscow International Marathon for Peace (known by its Russian acronym, MMMM).* Two hours before gun time, a light drizzle moistened the cupolas of St. Basil’s Cathedral, just a stone’s throw from the organizing tents. Inside a huge white tent workers were hurriedly building makeshift locker facilities, while registrations and other adjustments were accepted, denied, overturned or passed along at a bevy of smaller, yellow tents to the side. None of the registration tents were labeled. You want something, you had to ask and be directed. (The changing tents were an exception, labeled with damp paper signs: “Mens” and “Womens.”)

The quantity of commercial tents equaled what one would expect at a small regional 5k in the US, instead of at Russia’s largest and most prestigious marathon. The dominant presence was an Ernst & Young tent touting the need to save Siberian tigers (the connection with running not apparent to anyone I asked). From the street it looked warm and inviting, with tables, chairs and snacks. But the entrance was guarded by two beefy, granite-faced bouncers. Asics had a single tent, as did some outfit selling wrist magnets, and another offering compression socks.

Someone would have made a killing selling hot tea.

Or not.

Because the Russians came here not to buy and sell, gawk and gloat, but to run. This is a race of regulars, of hard-core, impassioned runners who excel at understatement and overachievement.

Gathering in the large men’s changing tent (just a few women, don’t be shy) friends meet up and chat about races they have done since they last saw one another, or races they are planning on running or organizing. The nice thing about running being such a small sport in Russia is that everyone seems to know everyone else.

I meet a barrel-chested Brit from somewhere in the English midlands who is married to a Russian and lives in Kursk. He has come to Moscow the past few years to run the race and loves the stoic camaraderie.

“See those old-timers in the corner?” he asks.

I glance over at a bunch of 70- and 80-something guys who are quietly slouching on ramshackle benches at the back of the tent, like babushkas at the back of a provincial church.

“Several of them have run 200, even 300 marathons. You wanna learn what running is, talk to those guys.”

Just then, I meet up with my guide to the Moscow running crowd, Vitaly Lukyanov, a friendly, bearded nuclear scientist who is running his 146th marathon today. At 55 he is trim and fit, but not gaunt. He has a relaxed, easy-going demeanor and is eager to introduce me to everyone who passes.

I ask Vitaly about the guys at the back of the tent. Yes, several have run over 300 races, he says, and they can get a bit competitive. Some are actually rather lax about how they count their marathons. “There was a guy who set up races in his town every month,” Vitaly explains. “He would just announce it a few days ahead of time, mark the out and back spot, then go out and run 40k and call it a marathon.”

Well, sure enough, 40k is a marathon, but if you clock a 40k as your long run, does that count as a race?

Much seems to revolve around virtual competition. The group that Vitaly helps run, probeg.org is an online forum cum team racing competition. Participants create running teams and compete against other teams from around the country, with points awarded for races run, time, and place. It is an active, avid community.

We meet Vyacheslav Zverev, who ran 47 marathons last year (he has run over 400 in total, and is in something of a competition with Viktor Gordyushchenko to be the country’s “marathon leader”). Gaunt and expressionless, he does not brag of his effort. In fact, he seems to want nothing so much as to change the subject or get away. Vitaly tries to get him to talk about his training, about his races, but Vyacheslav just scans the room and melts back into the crowd, validating über-runner Dean Karnazes’ theory that the most avid runners are introverts.

Vitaly Lukyanov

Vitaly Lukyanov (Photo credit: Masha Shalneva)

Next we are joined by Andrei Sedin, a life coach, writer and poet. A retiree, he professes to run 20-30k a day, yet he doesn’t run, but speed walks, as his doctor advised him to give up running after a heart attack. (He will pass us early in the race and we will return the favor a mile up the road.)

Vitaly calls over a tall, dark, broad-cheeked, muscular fellow named Dmitry Yerokhin. A lawyer, Dmitry travels the world doing difficult adventure races, mainly off-road races.

“Who is this foreigner who speaks such good Russian?” Yerokhin interjects. “What, are you CIA, NSA?” he asks, only half joking as he glares suspiciously. Later, on the road, Vitaly offers, when Yerokhin passes us after the turn-around, that there are Stalinists everywhere, even in the running crowd.

As we stand around chatting with Sedin, who uses his marathoning hobby to travel Europe (“This year so far I have done Greece and Italy”), an elderly babushka sidles up to us. She is all of 4 foot 2, with henna red hair and a running cap. Before I can even form misconceptions, Vitaly announces that this is Babushka Raya – Raisa Alexeyevna Nikitina, their oldest living marathoner, born in 1926. She, like Sedin, does not run any longer, but will walk the race. “They keep it open for six hours. She’ll finish,” Vitaly says. Nikitina looks good, especially for Russia, where 70 too often means one foot in the grave.

There is still an hour to go before the race and the rain has picked up. Cold and wet, I convince Vitaly we should go somewhere for hot coffee or tea. I haven’t eaten since early in the morning, and the race doesn’t start until noon.

Don’t ask.

We hustle over to a coffee shop five minutes away, in Kitai Gorod (“Chinatown”), one of the oldest districts in Moscow – where once foreigners were segregated from the local population. The coffee shop is full of other runners gassing up. Vitaly explains to them changes made to the course the day before. In past years, the race has begun near St. Basil’s Cathedral and headed across the river on Big Stone Bridge, whence the route goes out a few miles on the embankment before re-crossing the river on another bridge and heading back toward the start, circling the river, as it were. The marathon consists of three laps like this. Not very imaginative, but at least it’s flat and along the river. Yet just yesterday it was decided that the race would not go over the bridge, but start down on the embankment, due to the fact that much of Red Square is fenced off for a special 1812 commemorative equestrian event.

Vitaly shrugs off the change. “Last year, just a few weeks before the race, they changed the date completely. It had been set for September 11, but suddenly got moved to four days later, because Prime Minister David Cameron was coming to Russia and the race was to pass right by the British Embassy, on the embankment opposite the Kremlin. If Cameron had known, I bet he would have moved his visit back a day.”

I enjoy my coffee and croissant and try pinning on my race number. There are no pre-punched holes in the corners of the sheet and the safety pins only open on one side. Little things can be very annoying if they aren’t done the way you are used to. I joke about the lack of holes.

“That’s nothing,” Vitaly says. “A few years ago, the numbers were paper, just plain paper (this year they are laminated). It was raining like it is today and I crossed the finish line grasping a wad of wet paper.”

Apparently it is a something of a tradition to have bad weather for MMMM. The previous day had been gorgeous but cool, and every other day for the entire week following would be stunningly perfect as well. Only this Sunday was it raining.

Moscow, apparently, does not believe in running.

When we return to the start, it is 10 minutes to gun time and a van topped with loudspeakers is simultaneously broadcasting two different announcements.

It sounds like Klingon with a Russian accent.

Vitaly heads into the storage tent, where runners can leave their bags and pick them up after the race. I start to follow him in but stop when I see the melee inside. The tent is packed. Runners step inside and are swept along in a powerful current, during which they push and shove to drop their tagged bags, then are spit back out the other side. It will be five minutes before Vitaly emerges, non-plussed.

I elect to stand in the rain and wait.

Meanwhile, from inside the tent, a worker uses a broom to push the eave of the roof upward, to empty water that has pooled there. A runner standing outside, next to the tent, is mercilessly drenched.

Did I mention it was cold?

There are 10 porta-potties lined up by the start and, like everywhere else in the world, the lines are 10-15 runners deep just five minutes before the start.

It is surprising how few runners are good at math.

Vitaly is a nuclear scientist, so he knows math. “I know a place in the bushes,” he says, pointing to the bridge, where there are no bushes in sight. “Wait for me here.”

A brass band strikes up under a tent – adding a Souza-esque pomp to the damp circumstances.

Vitaly is back in less than a minute. Apparently there weren’t any bushes after all, but he knows of some down the road (it will take two more tries; there are no porta-potties en route).

The runners gather at the start under the desultory drizzle. The wheelchair competitors and mile run racers are set off and then, with no fanfare, a gun goes off and we are on our way.

We are in the mid to back of the pack that totals 1395 runners (about 125 of them women). We cross the start in just 15 seconds.

almost exactly 400 years ago, In 1613, Mikhail Romanov was elected tsar by the Zemsky Sobor, the national assembly of boyars. The assembly hoped to bring an end to the decade and a half Time of Troubles that followed Ivan the Terrible’s death and which was prolonged by Poland’s repeated invasions, installation of pretenders, and general meddling.

The Romanovs had been hiding out in the North, near Kostroma, and an escort was sent from the Kremlin to bring the young tsar and his family back to Moscow. The Poles sent troops to reach the Romanovs first, kill the new tsar and put forward yet another pretender.

As the Polish brigade neared Kostroma, it asked directions of a local peasant, one Ivan Susanin, who assured them that he knew the way to where the Romanovs were hiding and would lead them on a shortcut through the forest. The brigade and Susanin were never heard from again. The tale may be apocryphal, but it became the basis for a famous opera by Mikhail Glinka and ever since “Susanin” has been shorthand in Russia for leading someone astray.

We had learned upon returning from the coffee shop that the race organizers pulled a Susanin on us. Not only would the race not start alongside picturesque St. Basil’s or cross the Big Stone Bridge, it would not cross the bridge at all. Russia’s biggest marathon had been transformed into a 5k jaunt down the Moscow River embankment, then 5k back to the start. Rinse and repeat three more times, and you have 40k, a marathon.

It would have been difficult to design a less exciting course.*

Speaking of less exciting, despite the fact that the entire course was compressed into a five kilometer stretch before the Kremlin Walls and Savior’s Cathedral, there were no spectators. Zero. Ok, well, not zero, but as statistically close to zero as could be achieved outside a laboratory.

“The only spectators we have for MMMM are the friends and family of foreign runners,” Vitaly says. This year there do not appear to be many foreigners.

Even the volunteers are thin on the ground. They huddle around a couple of refreshment stops, pumping water from five-gallon water jugs into plastic cups, or offering brown bread and hot tea.

Yes, bread and tea.

I had heard about this and thought it an odd, yet delightful Russian tradition. It actually turned out to be a good way to provide nourishment mid-race, and it was surprisingly refreshing.

Did I mention it was cold and drizzling?

It is a well-known trope among runners that, when they aren’t running, they talk about only running, and when they are running, they talk about everything but running.

As we trot along, Vitaly reveals much of his personal family history, including a grandmother who spent time in the camps and a grandfather who fought with Marshal Tukhachevsky against the Poles. Vitaly has been gathering and writing down family history – an “individualistic” practice frowned on in the Soviet era – and digging through the archives. He was even able to get a copy of his grandmother’s criminal case records, which showed that she had not confessed when arrested on bogus charges in 1936, and had been one of the few released under an unusual amnesty in 1938.

I mention that 1936 was not a good time to get arrested.

“Yes, but you know what,” Vitaly replies. “They didn’t actually convict everyone back in 1936-37. I recently read that there was overall a 10 percent acquittal rate. Imagine that! That is even better than we have today. Today only 0.5 percent of people who go on trial are acquitted. If you are arrested, you will sit.”

It is an enjoyable, easy-paced run. Due to injury I run not the marathon but the shorter 10-verst race (just over 10k). Vitaly finishes his marathon in just over four hours. Part of it he runs with Richard Holmes, an American from Durham, North Carolina.

Holmes was completing his 304th marathon.

The Pushkin to St. Petersburg 30k (a.k.a. The Petersburg Marathon) is Russia’s oldest foot race. Begun in 1923, the race has been run every year since then but five: from 1941-44 when, during WWII, the course’s path inconveniently crossed enemy lines, and in 1949, during the infamous “Leningrad Affair,” which unleashed a ruthless purge on the city’s communist party.

A road race during a purge sends the wrong message, apparently.

Ninety years on, the race keeps going. Of course, its greatest attraction is that it finishes right on Palace Square, in front of the Winter Palace. And the last two kilometers stretch down St. Petersburg’s broad, main thoroughfare: Nevsky Prospekt. This is rather amazing, given that the race is so small. In 2011 – the biggest year on record – there were just 330 runners of the 30k (296 of them men). Our race came close to this record, with 321 finishers (279 men), while another 200 finished the 15k.

The day before the race, Yevgeny Kurov and I meet at race registration, held in the city’s Winter Sports Arena, not far from Nevsky Prospekt. It is a 300 square meter room with a few tables and three sad little booths selling books and shoes. Yevgeny has me fill out my form, and we deliver it to the registration table, along with the registration fee of 150R ($5). The very nice woman working the table asks about my medical spravka. I glare at Yevgeny, who informs the woman that the published regulations clearly state that foreigners do not need spravkas. She replies, quite politely, that her regulations don’t say that.

I see an impasse approaching, but Yevgeny, irritated, leads me across the room, where a rotund, 60-year-old fellow is sitting at a table behind a sign that says “Marathon Doctor.” Yevgeny slaps my form down on his table. The doctor gives me a cursory head-to-toe scan, then scribbles his initials at the bottom of my form. Medical exam complete, we are back at the registration table 30 seconds later and I receive my swag bag and number.

Horror of horrors, I look in the swag bag and see that there is no shirt – only 30k runners get those, and, still injured, I am only running the 15k.

Now, I may be old-fashioned, but a race is meaningless to me without a trophy shirt, so I offer to sign up for the 30k, but run the 15k. I just need to pay another R150, and change my registration form. This is fine by me, but Yevgeny will have none of it. He finds the young race organizer and I watch them pace together back and forth in the hall, Yevgeny gripping the organizer’s elbow and gesticulating. The only word I hear is at the end of their conversation, when Yevgeny says “Egsell” – old Russian for XL.

I get my shirt.

On race day, we meet in a cold drizzle outside a distant metro stop. “Ne sladko,” Yevgeny says (“Not sweet”), offering the most efficient weather report I have ever heard. We drive to the starting point in his new Hyundai SUV (everyone else hopped a bus), as a result of which I get around to asking him what he does for a living. He works in the supply division of a state construction company. Before that, for 26 years, he was a quartermaster in the army.

Later, I will wish I learned this fact a bit earlier…

The gathering point for the 15k is the parking lot of Neste Oil, a non-descript office building that just happens to be 15 kilometers from the finish line. The actual start is in the middle of the six-lane Pulkovskyoe Shosse, the M20 that connects St. Petersburg to Pskov.

There is a lot of stretching and milling about in the drizzle, some warm up runs in the neighboring park, and a not inconsiderable amount of bush hunting. Apparently, the porta-potties ordered for the starting point are stuck in outbound traffic.

That’s the story, and the organizers are sticking to it.

Ten minutes before the start, the police stop all three lanes of inbound traffic on the busy highway, after having blocked off the left lane with traffic cones all the way into the city.

Another unceremonious start, and we are off, the 250 of us quickly compressing into the left lane, trusting the dubious safety provided by plastic yellow cones. Meanwhile, there is a police officer and a volunteer at every intersection. All cross traffic is stopped, and pedestrians get a stern whistle and shout if they don’t mind the oncoming runners.

I can’t help feeling a bit like I am part of Putin’s motorcade, my way into the city made smooth while thousands are stuck in traffic for reasons they will never know. About 10k into the race, we turn onto the Fontanka Embankment and see traffic backed up for miles. For less than 500 runners.

Yevgeny Kurov, bottle thief.

Along the route, I take drivers’ honks as encouragement, yet I rather suspect that is not their intent.

“Nobody announces ahead of time that there will be traffic stoppages,” Yevgeny explains. I wonder aloud at how that might incite a bit of resentment toward the sport. Yevgeny just shrugs.

The run into the city center is mostly uneventful, if a bit hairy. The highway is not divided by a median; there is only a single yellow line separating us from
50 mph oncoming traffic, and the cones on our right are hardly enough to keep traffic in our direction from swerving into our lane. If races were handicapped like golf courses, this one would definitely get points for hazards, not the least of which is the carbon monoxide load of passing cars, heavy even in the driving rain.

There are water stops at 5k and 10k, where they hand out water bottles. I have been carrying my own from the start, which Yevgeny finds inexplicable. But St. Petersburg, built on a swamp, has a notoriously giardia-infested water supply. I want to know where my hydration comes from.

Yevgeny checks his Garmin every kilometer and is extremely satisfied that we are keeping a consistent pace of 5:25/km (8:40/mile), even though I said from the outset that I would be happy to finish at a 6:00/km (9:30/mile) pace. My Clydesdale plod is clearly holding him back, but he will not run ahead, despite my urging. At first, I think it is Russian hospitality. But later, as we cross the 10k mark and I start to slow, he starts to crack the whip, his voice expressing clear displeasure that our times are dropping into the 5:40 range. His 26 years of military experience begin to seep out. I start to feel as if I am on a forced march into the city.

Somewhere along the Fontanka, Yevgeny asks for a drink from my water bottle.

“Ah, see,” I say, handing him my bottle, “not such a bad idea that the dumb American came prepared, eh?”

But he doesn’t drink from it. Apparently he thinks that my carrying a half-full water bottle is slowing me down. He is relieving me of my burden, hoping it will shave ten seconds off my per-kilometer time.

“Listen, commander,” I shout between breaths, so that I can be heard over the rain and the honking of irritated drivers, “it’s not the water bottle slowing me down, it’s my broken down legs. You want to take those off my hands?”

He waves me off, but won’t give back the bottle. I see myself at the finish line, being handed a cup of water with little giardia creatures doing the backstroke. Finally, I threaten to stop and he relinquishes the bottle, though he does try to take it again later.

Soon enough, we turn onto Nevsky and half the main avenue is ours. But, again, just as in Moscow, where we were running down a main thoroughfare past some of the city’s most important monuments, there are no spectators or crowds. Unless we count the people just going about their business, or the tourists strolling Nevsky.

Still, we soak it in. I’m never going to be riding in the president’s motorcade, so I decide to soak in the novelty of having the cold, rainy street all to myself.

Simple pleasures are the best.

I cruise across the finish line in 163rd place (out of 207) overall, and 1st among all US citizens (out of 1 overall), wolf down three or four bananas, and skip out of the finish area to watch the winner of the 30k – Artur Burtsev – come cruising in just eleven minutes after us.

I walk back to my room, soaked to the skin and cold, looking forward to nothing in the world so much as a hot shower and a post-run Guinness.

Some things are the same all over the world. RL


* Perhaps inspired by the abysmal events of 2012, MMMM is no more. It has passed the baton to a new, officially sanctioned group that will, on September 15, 2013, stage what it calls “the first real Moscow Marathon” – it will reputedly traverse the Boulevard and Ring roads, as well as the Moscow River embankment. At press time, just 1212 runners had signed up.

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