11 May 2021

Event review: The magical Istanbul marathon

January 11, 2014
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Straddling the Asian and European continent, the Istanbul marathon is a bucket list race. But to simply run and leave would be to miss the rich experiences that the city offers, as Rachael Woolston discovered thanks to www.gototurkey.co.uk

Race it

Nowadays there are thousands of inspiring marathons, but Istanbul still remains the only one in the world that crosses two continents. Small wonder that it attracts up to 30,000 runners despite the November schedule, which made for a chilly 12 degree start as I took the free shuttle buses from Taksim Square to the start.


I arrived with an hour to spare, time to queue for the limited toilets and more importantly, take in the atmosphere 300 metres from the Bosporus Bridge. Now in its 35th year, the race attracts runners from all over the world (note: the race expo is extremely hectic – go early).

A group of elderly Japanese runners, strangely dressed in baby pink satin, warmed up alongside runners from the US, Canada, Italy and France, as well as the many local runners. It was a busy start, particularly with an 8, 10 and 15k event running simultaneously, although everything is well organised with bag transportation to the finish and clearly marked out start areas for each distance.

Finally, as the sun began to take the nip from the air, the Mayor of Istanbul fired the starting pistol and we were off, racing across the bridge, the minarets and domes of the city’s ancient mosques etched against the skyline ahead.

With no timed start pens, and the other races (aside from the 8 k which begins 30 minutes later) joining after 500 metres, it is chaotic, with runners of different speeds all requiring navigation. And there’s a near 100 metre climb within the first 5k.


I puffed my way up alongside a Istanbul local, running beneath the Valens viaduct at the top. Standing since the year 368ad, it provided water to the city in its incarnation as the Eastern Roman capital of Constantinople. In fact, the first 15k of the route provide an inspiring tour of some of the best sights of this ancient city.

Passing Dolmabache Palace, a splendid mix of European and Ottoman style built in 1843, it passes through the old harbour area of Karakhoy – now an upcoming trendy neighbourhood – before crossing Galata Bridge. Originally serving as a link between the Imperial Palace and the merchant neighbourhood, the bridge is now popular with locals who fish the Golden Horn. From here, the marathon route heads up along the Golden Horn for an out and back section.

Already running hell for leather on the opposite side were the elite runners (and with a race purse of $50,000, this race attracts top athletes). It was inspiring, but not so much when they passed the second time in the latter half of the marathon.

As we left the historical area, we followed a dual carriageway, all the way out and back for 20 long, monotonous kilometres. It hugs the the Bosphorus Strait, with its traffic jam of trawlers waiting to be navigated to the Black Sea by Turkish trained captains. By 30k, I too felt like one of those trawlers – stuck and not going anywhere.

Now and again, the call to prayer drifted through the air to remind me I was in Istanbul. That and the refreshment stops, placed every 2.5k, offering water, sponges, energy drinks, sugar cubes, apple and banana chunks were the only things that kept me going.

With little over a mile to go, the route finished with a sting in the tail, uphill, across paving slabs and cobbled stones to finish at the Hippodrome, the beating heart of the former Byzantine and Ottoman empires and once home to fierce chariot rides.

My heart was working hard too, but it was also incredibly atmospheric, running through Gulhane Park, once the gardens of the Topkapi Palace, autumnal leaves orange against the sky. With crowds of supporters lining the route, I finished with a sprint, calf muscles burning, within a stone’s throw of the Sultan Ahmed, known as the Blue Mosque for its blue tiles.

As I looked around, surrounded by ancient mosques and palaces that have stood for thousands of years, the cheering supporters recalling the shouts of millions through the ages, even the dual carriageway run was forgiven. Not least because I could now boast I’d run from Asia to Europe.

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