Inspiration comes in many forms and ways. I have just been to Sofia, Bulgaria for Fizkultura – a one day event put together by Begach Running Club. The event is geared towards inspiring Bulgarian runners to embrace new challenges, it may be just to start running, or maybe move from marathon to ultra-running, or why not try something bold and new like creating their own running challenge.
My participation was facilitated by the Begach Running Club and the British Embassy – I was joined by ‘the beard!’ The crazy, inspiring and distinctive looking adventurer, Sean Conway.
Arriving in the early hours of Friday morning, Sean and myself were working right from the off with a breakfast at the Embassy and an improvised individual presentation – good job this ‘on-the-spot’ request didn’t phase us… some years back, I’d have immediately melted into a ball of nerves; not now!
Sofia is without a doubt Eastern European in feel and architecture. There are bold, brazen and striking monuments everywhere to remind us that Russia is not far away. But I was surprised. The centre had a distinct feeling of wealth with a multitude of high-end shops, plenty of bars and a huge selection of hotels. A backdrop of impressive snow-capped mountains made me feel relaxed.
A drive to the mountains and a leisurely lunch (in an incredible restaurant) provided us all with an opportunity to bond. It’s here that I had a little more time to get to know Sean and extend my introduction to Irina Daniela from Romania who is slowly but surely inspiring Romanians to run and notably empowering women to siege their futures by foot power. Irina recently ran a sub 3h for the marathon and in doing so has shown what is possible for the women of Romania. She’s a striking person – tall (too tall for Sean and myself), great figure, long dark hair and striking features. It’s easy to see how she will inspire those around her. She’s a bundle of energy and enthusiasm but Fizkultra is her first big ‘gig’ out of her homeland. Website here.
Sean by contrast looks like a lion under a mane of ginger. He’s a small and a slight figure who brims with confidence and an accent that’s hard to work out – South African, Irish and British public school make an interesting mix that is captivating to the ear. He casually talks of his up and coming challenge of cycling ridiculous daily distances in Australia to set a new world record. He has a simple motto – to be the first or the fastest – it works for him! His list of achievements is impressive, but more on that later. Website here.
It was early evening before I finally met Dean Karnazes. Dean, aka ‘Marathon Man’ is someone who I have emailed and spoke too on many times but this is my first face-to-face. He taps me on the shoulder. I turn, he grabs my hand and pulls me in close in a tight embrace and says, ‘Ian, finally, good to see you man!’ For once I feel tall, Dean is my height and we are both taller than Sean and if Irina had not been in our presence, for once I may well have been the tallest – just! However, Dean looks incredible – he’s ripped, chiseled, has a Californian tan and he’s swearing shorts. His legs bulge with muscles and I suddenly realize that the reality of meeting Dean didn’t disappoint. This guy, for me, helped change the way the sport of ultra has grown in the last 10-years. It was his book, Confessions of an all Night Runner’ that suddenly made ‘others’ aware of the crazy sport of running long; ultra-running! Website here.
Dinner took place in ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ and we joke, discuss love, life, running and politics. Bed soon arrives for Dean, he has no idea what day or time it is. Jet lag has hit hard and he leaves early. Our trio relax with our hosts and a late-night walk back to our hotel is followed with a night-cap in the bar. I felt at home with my two new friends and like all good new friendships, 12-hours have made them both feel like lifelong friends. We laughed the night away till bed finally called.
Dean kicked off the day 0945. Short clad, the audience welcome him with rapturous applause and he quickly goes into a 30-minute presentation that gives an overview of his running. Of course, it’s an impossible task – he has achieved so much! Despite the launch of his recent book, ‘The Road to Sparta,’ Dean takes us back on a journey to his first book as Fizkultura coincides with its release in Bulgarian. Many of you will know those early stories of taking the shoes out of the garage on his 30th birthday and then running 30-miles. His first Western States, Badwater 135 and running a marathon at the South Pole. It’s classic ‘Dean’ and the audience lap it up.
Irina power dresses and looks like an air hostess wearing a suit, shirt, scarf and ridiculous high-heels. Sean and myself refuse to stand close to her… The style of dress was important, Irina’s background was in banking and she wanted to show everyone that it has been possible to still be a business professional and a runner. “My Story’ was about dreaming, having no limits and empowering herself, other women and yes, men, to wear run shoes and find out what is possible. The story of how she achieved sub-3, one of the fastest female performances for a Romanian and how her dreams may well lead to Olympic selection.
Antoniya Grigorova, Bulgaria’s top female ultra-runner, talked about her plans, planning and training in preparation for running the longest trail in Bulgaria: Kom-Emine. A journey of 600km. A professional athlete she provided an insight into the mind, the training and the nutrition of what the journey will take.
Lunch was followed with the lion roaring. Sean was in fine form and told the story of his world’s longest triathlon with great skill and humor. He was a natural on the stage and it’s fair to say the audience loved him. His presentation was interspersed with still images and small videos that documented the journey – and what a journey! A bent bamboo bike, a Sunday roast dinner blended into liquid form for lunch, skinny dipping in an icy river and his face being stung constantly by jelly fish while swimming.
I followed Sean and what an act to follow. My talk was always going to be a visual one as I planned on taking that audience around the world with a selection of races and images from Running Beyond (here). Of course, I had to provide some context on my journey and my opening dialogue provided a glimpse on how I got to where I am today.
Boyan Petrov is a legend in Bulgaria. An Alpinist, he talked us through the training, the planning and the equipment required to climb 8000+m peaks without oxygen. He’s one of the few climbers to make 3 x 8000m peak in one year, something he has done twice. He also discussed the dream of climbing all 8000+m peaks – more people have been to space than done this!
The day concluded with Dimitrina Sivkova talking about trauma prevention and getting back in shape.
It was an incredible day of challenges, feats, adventure, goals, inspiration and living a life with barriers or restrictions. The takeaway was, ‘make dreams happen!’ Dean concluded his talk with a famous quote, it’s not new but it’s apt and it somehow summed up exactly what Fizkultura was trying to achieve:
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
Despite tiredness and fatigue, an evening dinner in a vegan and vegetarian restaurant provided us all with an opportunity to discuss the day – we were all motivated. We of course were reminded that the following day, Sunday, there was a race in a local park running a 600m loop and two events, a 12-hour and 6-hour race called Project 360. A small selection of runners would start at 0630 looking to log mileage and a qualifying time for Spartathlon. The main event would start at 0900 with a 6-hour event that would allow runners to do as little or as much as they required. Travel plans scuppered any
Despite tiredness and fatigue, an evening dinner in a vegan and vegetarian restaurant provided us all with an opportunity to discuss the day – we were all motivated. We of course were reminded that the following day, Sunday, there was a race in a local park running a 600m loop. A small selection of runners would start at 0630 looking to log mileage and qualifying time for Spartathlon. The main event would start at 0900 with a 6-hour event that would allow runners to do as little or as much as they required. Travel plans scuppered any participation plans for me but I went and cheered on with Irina for an hour and of course, we just had to run a loop with ‘Marathon Man!’
Watch Dean in the video HERE
I love the fact that despite jet-lag, bust days of presenting and travel, Dean rocked up to the start line and run for 6-hours. He personifies his name.
I must say, I was sad to leave Sofia, my new friends and a great, developing running community. Dean, Sean, Irina and myself were there to inspire others but we left inspired. We were each individually energized by our time in Bulgaria. Sean will be bashing out the bike miles for Australia, Irina will be looking for the speed and endurance for a fast marathon, Dean? well, Dean will just keep running and running and me; travel, photography and telling stories. I love to do that and the story of Fizkultura and Bulgaria is a special one – a personal one!
A huge thanks to the British Embassy, Elenko Elenkov, Begach Running Club and the many new Bulgarian runners who hosted, entertained and looked after us – Alexander, Milen, Vladi and so many more.