I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Endorphin Russia

(This is a running heavy post; lots to skip if you want to get to the bits about alcohol and luxury travel. Look out for "THAT'S IT ABOUT RUNNING")

Obviously I woke up way before my alarm. I like that. When I'm in decent mental shape and generally enjoying life, I can get away without an alarm and setting one annoys me because it's a little bit of weakness. I like to trust my body to sleep the length of time it needs to and wake me up naturally, and I've previously went for 2+ years straight without setting one even when I was travelling, had early flights, work, parkrun, etc.

Stayed in bed 'til it went off though, playing Threes. Fuck me that's an enthralling and addictive game. I was up early because I was heading out to do my one and only solo venture during the trip: it's Saturday, so it's parkrun.

I found out a few weeks ago that not only was Parkrun Russia an actual thing that exists, but one of the runs was in a park near the metro station just one stop away from the one next to our hotel. And because the park in question is actually the one we'd visited on Friday afternoon - Kolomenskoe - I already had a pretty decent idea how to get there, though the run itself goes along the river bank and we'd not made it down to the water.

Unfortunately I'd packed my only pair of shorts with no pocket, and hadn't brought my armband thing. Somehow I needed to head there with my tube ticket, phone, barcode, hotel key and, in theory, passport - I think I read somewhere that foreign types (or maybe everyone?) are meant to have photo ID on them at all times. After briefly testing out the preposterous idea of literally keeping my passport under my beanie, I decided I'd play super-ignorant on the last count if challenged and left it in the room. Everything else I shoved in my wallet which I wrapped in the hat. Took a screenshot of the directions from the Metro and set out, wearing my parkrun 50 shirt and feeling pretty intreipd and intimidated.

Kolomenskoe is, park aside, a residential suburb so I had to make my way past the buskers, beggars, tramps, and short headscarfed women carrying huge bags. All of life evident at 0840. As I got to the park's entrance another runner was entering and I assumed he must have been going to parkrun, so followed him. Good choice. The weather was perfect - sunny, no breeze, fairly cold. About 15 people or so were hanging around and I loitered some distance away, watching everyone assiduously go through warm ups and stretches.

With about 5 minutes to go a guy came up to speak to me, asked where I was from, etc. Viktor, nice bloke. Another lad also briefly spoke. Both wished me good luck. Then things started happening. There were about 60 or so people, I thought (and the results page says 59). Firstly a proper warmup session was being led by a girl, getting us to do lots of shoulder rotations and waving our arms and jumping 'n that. Then we all had to line up single file facing the river while, er, some stuff got said and lots of photos were taken. Then we had to form a crowd for yet more photos, then change direction and we're off!

The route is a perfectly flat - apart from one tiny bridge over a stream - 2.5km out, 2.5km back along the riverside path. And it is perfect. The views are spectacular, the weather spot on, the path very wide, the touristy cathedrals and stuff are on the way, and you can pretty much see the turning point / finish the whole way, as the route hugs a large bend in the river.

I wasn't expecting much, nor wanting much. I just wanted to do my 97th parkrun, and yeah, thought it was quite cool to do a parkrun in my 3rd country - 3rd country in just 8 weeks, as it happens, after Australia in March and all the Bushys since. The 1.5km I'd run to get to the start was, I thought, surprisingly fast at 5:35/km, despite how knackered I felt after 4 hard days of tourism and drinking. Midway through the first km I looked my watch and it said I was running at 5:01/km pace, which would be a ridiculous personal best if I kept it up, but I didn't think much of it because I have a history of setting off way too fast.

My best ever parkrun is 26:34, just under 5:19 pace. And my best ever 5km is in the same region, though "moving time" was 26:08 but I don't think I can claim that. At about 1.8km in Kolomenskoe I was still at around 5:12 or 26:00 for 5km. After the turn it dropped, and kept dropping - but only by one second at a time, and in fact I was still at PB pace come 3.75km. And 4km. Dropped to 5:17. Gave a push, got it down to 5:16 again. Kept staring at my watch and it registered 5km covered in 26:20, holy fucking shit! And the full run came in at 26:42, pretty much confirmed by the official result from parkrun HQ giving me 26:44. So not a PB, and given the course it's far far more likely that the GPS was just wonky than I actually ran an extra 70 metres by not taking the racing line, but details details: that's comfortably my fastest 5k for 2.5 years, only the second time I've ever had an age grade of over 50%, and I did it in the best setting I'd ever done a parkrun. Plus I'm only 3 shy of the ton.

Not a bad morning, that. Got my barcode scanned, spoke to Viktor again - who also had done a personal best, and who caught up to run with me a bit as I headed back to the Metro too - and made my way back to the hotel utterly fucking full of endorphins.

Fucks sake. The new flickr app is being absolutely shit at uploading photos.

Anyway. Gave Ian a knock and then did a bit of facebookery, retroactively marking my attendance at the Kolomenskoe parkrun event and posting a photo 'n that. Posted a message on their page to say thanks, hoping that what Google Translate had given me would actually make sense. I think it did. I got a friend request from Viktor, a shitload of likes, and later in the day a whole fuckton of photos got posted by the Kolomenskoe guys to Facebook and I was already tagged in some of them. Neat!


Packed, filled out my remaining mini-bar thing, and we checked out. I don't think I got charged for internet even though on at least one of the days I'd picked the non-free faster version. I'll miss having to login via a site where you have to click on the Russian flag / Cyrillic word 'русский' in order to get the English version of the page. Left our bags in their baggage room and headed out once again to Red Square.

It was the nicest, hottest day yet. And there were bloody loads of tourists. Because it didn't seem to be cordoned off we started to wander up towards St Basil's to get some good weather close-up pics but en route it seemed that Lenin's Tomb was not doing a roaring trade, so maybe we should try and tick that one off quickly? The queue looked small but we had to skirt round the back of the huge museum to get there, and once we did we saw... another, bigger, slower queue. And the Tomb was shutting in 40 minutes anyway. Scrapped the idea and walked back to GUM, the huge shopping mall, via the lookalike photo opportunities.

Masha had told us that history will judge Stalin neutrally, 'cos he did some bad things, some good. I appreciate I know very little detail about his reign but, well, that's not exactly how my western perspective of him is. So it was a bit of a surprise to see a Joe Stalin lookalike being a popular attraction. I can't imagine anyone donning a Hitler get up in Berlin or Mussolini in Rome. Or do they?

The main reason we were back in the city centre was GUM. We had rubles to spend and each wanted to get some Russian sweets and drinks to take home with us. After another epic wander through the store we both bought some Kremlin vodka - I did briefly consider buying some of the seemingly bizarre "Jews are awesome" vodka - and a bunch of chocolates and sweets.

Back to the hotel via a food kiosk for Ian, got our bags, and made our way to the airport. Pavletsky station was well signposted and we grabbed seats on the crazily hot - even with aircon - airport express train. 45 minutes passed without much conversation really, I was flagging and already in "just get to the plane" mode, plus horribly antisocially addicted to playing Threes some more.

I barely remember passing through Domodedovo on the way in 'cos I was so fucked up on champagne. I'm not proud, but now I think it might have been a sensible move because having been sober as a judge on the way back I can say that I fucking hated the place.

Check-in was easy enough, straight up to the first class desk. But they said Ian had to take his bag to the oversize baggage desk because it's a rucksack with straps. What? At that desk he had to hand over his boarding pass then wait for a lift to come, and place the bag in the lift. And then leave the lift. What? Very bizarre.

Next, we tried to find how to actually get airside. We were departing from gate 13 and there were two "areas" which said they led to gates 1-22, but the monitors over "area B" didn't mention our flight. So we went to "area A", where the monitors did. First was outbound customs, with green and red channels, then passport control then security. At passport control we were expertly hindered by a woman walking slower than anyone I've ever seen before, and we twice joined the wrong queue until spotting the sign which said "this queue for foreigners".

At the desks, everyone was taking fucking ages to get through. I couldn't catch what the officials were saying to the passengers so waited to hear it first hand, which I never did because when I got to the desk she just found my visa, stamped it, kept the departure card, and waved me through. Huh.

At security we thankfully didn't have to remove shoes, which is good because I was sockless and my feet are pretty horrible things. There were loads and loads of trays specially for shoes though. Electronics didn't have to come out of bags so we just queued up, shoved everything in trays, and got thoroughly confused by the guy between Ian and me who wanted to take his metal rollaboard suitcase through the x-ray machine. How can anyone be so fucking oblivious to what every single other person is doing, even if you've never travelled or been to an airport before? EVERYONE is putting their bags on the machines, their metal stuff and coats in trays, and collecting the other side. Utterly bizarre.

Went straight in the nearest duty free shop and bought another bottle of vodka, and Ian checked a few shops for some very specific gifts which nowhere had. By now it's about 90 minutes 'til the flight and I'm in the mood for the lounge. BA's lounge at DME is called the Navigator Club lounge. It seemed to be the only lounge which wasn't signposted anywhere. We walked the length of the terminal and descended, as it happens next to the gate we'd fly from. The whole place was fucking heaving and people demonstrated the same ignorance and lack of spatial awareness as they do in crowded places the world over. I was getting really quite fucking grumpy, almost certainly because I was starving: I'd had zero calories so far despite having been awake for 9 hours, and expended loads. My blood sugar was probably really low, and I was on a fucking short fuse.

Eventually we saw signs to the BA lounge, which was at the opposite end of the terminal and back up the escalator. It's not a very impressive lounge, and did not really have the benefit of being a calm place away from the horrors of regular departure areas - not because it was crowded, but because the entire place seemed to be operating as a creche for 5 or 6 kids to run around and make loads of noise. Jesus christ. I nabbed a slice of cake and a can of lager, and then a plate full of cold food, and then a plate full of hot food. My mood started to improve almost immediately.

The BA app said our flight was delayed by 10 minutes, but before I'd even finished my sole can of beer boarding was announced. The gate was pretty slow going, not least because one couple seemed to be trying to get on the wrong flight and didn't understand that fact. But, down the airbridge we went and escorted to our seats in the nose of a 747.

When I'd managed to grab us seat 1A and 1K a couple of days previously the seat map made it look like there was no-one else in First. And so it turned out. We had the whole cabin (of only 14 seats) to ourselves, which also meant the entire staff for only us. Ace. He was a nice bloke who treated us very well indeed. There's kinda two ways the pointy end staff can treat customers: either some full-on "you are in First, and everything is posh here" formality or a more personalised "I'm going to give you the full First service, but interact with you in the way suits you". This guy was definitely the latter. Chatty, laughing, but no kowtowing or sense of ceremony.

Caviar and vodka? Oh, go on then.
So, two glasses of champagne before take off, a new washbag and pyjama set, and a safety demonstration during which I said "I'm pretty sure we can figure out the nearest exit when we're in row one". Take off itself was a bit mental - looking out the window there were planes everywhere, at random angles, seemingly no taxi ways or anything like that. Even some pedestrians, wtf. We thought one turning plane might actually graze our nose. I've never seen so many planes just littering an airfield.

Once in the air, chatted with our cabin guy a bit about how we wished it was a longer flight. The fizzy drink kept flowing and the meal service started: Belgian oscietra caviar washed down with a Russian vodka, then some duck to start followed by a main of seared scallops and for dessert, a big cheese plate. And a large bourbon.

I watched the last 20 minutes of Wolf of Wall Street, which was disappointing, and then two episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm which I laughed very hard at. We'd actually taken off early and had a short flight time so there wasn't time to see masses of stuff. I just about managed to fit in "David Blaine - Real Or Magic", a show where he does all kinds of tricks to celebrities and the tricks are amazing. I'm a sucker for magic anyway and Blaine's tricks are out of this world. He does this one on Harrison Ford, in his Kitchen. Indy says very little throughout the trick, just nods of the head, and at the big reveal he looks shocked as anything then turns to Blaine and says "get the fuck out of my house". Fantastic. I properly loved that show.

"One for the road"? Well, don't mind if I do. Do like champagne. Do like flying.

There's no chauffeur service with BA, so the luxury experience ended when we got off the plane. There's only a fast track at immigration for non-British passports, with natives like us just ushered to the electronic gates. Our bags came out fairly quickly and we made our way to the Piccadilly Line via a stop to get some queen's heads in exchange for our remaining roubles. Went to Hatton Cross and got off to get a bus, feeling a bit drunk, very knackered, and sad that it was over. Also a bit confused by how cosmopolitan everything seemed, but glad all the Rs and Ns were the right way round.

Moscow was awesome. And that's 27,030 miles flown in 2014 so far. Next up: 22,855 miles in 8 days (and another new passport stamp) in August. My first trip of my 40s.

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