Neil Featherby: Marathon memories of looking for a toothbrush behind the Iron Curtain
Having now written articles for the EDP and Run Anglia for what will be two years come May, I have tried to vary my columns in the hope of keeping them informative, thought provoking and at times a little historical particularly when writing about some of the events of Norfolk athletics past or indeed people who have been great ambassadors for our sport.
At the same time through my own running, I am so lucky and even privileged to have so many fantastic memories whereby I have kept a detailed log over the years under “Marathon Memories” for which I thought I would share one of those special moments with Run Anglia this week.
Behind the Iron Curtain without a toothbrush and much more...
Oct 4th, 1987.
Upon receiving an invite from what was the old British Amateur Athletics Board to be part of the GB team heading out to what was then the country of Czechoslovakia to take part in the Kosice International Marathon, the thrill of being given the chance to pull on a British vest for the first time was far too good to say no to, despite the fact that I had received an earlier invitation from the organisers of the Melbourne marathon in Australia which just happened to clash with the same date.
However, this was not only the chance to run in a British vest, but also race in what was and still is Europe’s oldest marathon dating back to 1924 and a race which so many legends of the past have taken part in.
Having ran four marathons within the previous 12 months - 2:17:35, 2:23:03, 2:22:02 and 2:20:31, I knew this race was steeped in tradition and whilst being flat and what should be a fast course, looking at the results of previous races, I couldn’t quite work out why so many “greats” had run below par times. Certainly, below par to what they would normally run.
The course was a complete out and back one whereby you could see for miles ahead of you starting and finishing at the Kosice football stadium. I trained hard, too hard in truth, but the day arrived and everything was packed including the kitchen sink or so I thought.
Needless to say I arrived late at the hotel at Gatwick for which all the GB kit had been dished out leaving me with the choice of extra large or small. Brilliant I thought, but hey ho it’s a British kit so just take whatever. Whatever, just happened to be a small vest and tracksuit top with extra-large track suit trousers!
The flight into Prague was uneventful whilst also allowing for enough time to do some sight-seeing with the team manager and former great Bill Adcocks along with team mates Ian Bloomfield and Rosemary Ellis and her husband Malcolm who was also joining us for the trip.
What was most surprising though was the silence. It was just like any busy major city with lots of people all going about their business, but very few cars and hardly anyone making a sound.
After viewing most of the major sights, we managed to find a shop which sold really nice cakes only to get told off for talking too loudly. This really was going to be an overseas trip with a difference or should I say “so this is what it’s like to be behind the Iron Curtain”.
Two further flights from Prague to Bratislava and then Kosice which is a city situated in the east close to the Hungarian and Ukrainian borders and now in what is the republic of Slovakia where we were met by a lady called Monica who was our guide and representative for the trip.
Once at the hotel I said to Ian who I was room sharing with, shall we quickly unpack and get out for a run which of course he was in full agreement with. However, unpacking for me not only meant trying to stash loads of kit which included five pairs of shoes into just about every available space in the room, but also horror and disbelief upon the realisation that despite making every effort to bring as much equipment as possible, somehow I had still forgotten to pack one of the most basic of all items, my toothbrush.
Looking out of the window I saw what looked like a big department store and just assumed I would be able to go buy a new one from there.
However, and this is where it really did bring home to us the social differences between living in the west and what was part of the eastern block back then as despite walking round this very large store, trying to buy a toothbrush was impossible. The products on the shelves were very few and far between and basic to say the least!
There were queues just to buy a loaf of bread and even then you couldn’t have a whole one. There was one shop where lots of people stood around just staring into the window. When we looked ourselves, it was a shop with western goods which the locals seemed to be in awe of. Ironically, these same goods were already history back home and at least 20 years old.
The food was sparse that’s for sure and all those who had laughed at me for filling my bags with supplies before leaving England, now wanted to be my best friend.
Kosice just like Prague was busy with lots of people in the streets, but once again very quiet and peaceful apart from the trams going back and forth. We did the usual sightseeing and just like in the old spy films, I looked up after taking several photographs to see a guy wearing a trilby and long coat watching us. I will go as far to say he made a point of giving us the look as if to say “I am watching what you are doing”.
The next couple of days were spent visiting exhibitions and meeting the locals which was fine, but everything just seemed to be a little surreal and dare I say not in a rush or pushed to get things done.
The night before the race, was certainly not conducive to carbo loading for which I had a right moan when served up rice which had been boiled in a greasy type of gravy and some vegetables which wouldn’t have made the food shelves in the UK only to feel ashamed and embarrassed of my behaviour after my plate was taken away and then replaced with a big pile of chips.
Nevertheless and come race day despite a few pangs of hunger, the time had now come for us to line up in a race with just over 1,000 other competitors including many top athletes from all over the eastern block including the Soviet Union, the old East Germany, North Korea, Hungary, Bulgaria and of course Czechoslovakia.
Knowing that there were teams and athletes from the States, France, Holland and Greece did at least give us the feeling of not being alone out there. In fact the Dutch guys were brilliant and hilarious.
The race for me was pretty uneventful and in truth I felt flat (must have been the chips) and despite staying with the lead group for the first 10k, after that I fell back and whilst no one else passed me it really did feel nothing more than a good solid training run finishing in 13th place, in 2:22:30.
My legs felt lifeless all the way, I could not have run any quicker however badly I had wanted to! My team mate Ian Bloomfield had a stormer though finishing in eighth place in 2:18:45 whilst Rosemary also had a brilliant run finishing in second place in the ladies race in 2:39:58. First place in both the men’s and women’s races went to German athletes albeit Jorg Peter representing the East in 2:14:59 and Christa Vahlensieck from the West in 2:38:40.
Finishing in the stadium was something else though as you made your way round the track for those last 300 metres in front of a huge crowd of people in the stands. Bill came over to me and said: “I have to say you don’t really look like you have run a marathon, but don’t be too disappointed as plenty of World class marathon runners over the years have ran slower on this course.”
Needless to say the next thing to look forward to after the presentations whereby the top 20 all walked away with some really nice crystal glass which I still have, was a few beers in the bar. Unfortunately, after three or four bottles of Czech beer, that was it and once again the Brits had drunk the place dry.
I remember thinking, crikey, they have run out of beer now, but in truth it was probably just as well, especially when two of the locals got arguing and this huge guy cuffed another bloke with a right hook to the jaw only for Malcolm to calmly say “pick a window my friend, you are leaving”.
With that, we could not stop laughing which was followed by a few looks in our direction only for Bill to calmly say, “time to go I think.”
The following day we were all taken up into the mountains for some sightseeing and a BBQ from what I remember was an onion and a lump of lard which I have to say I did pass on.
Then before you knew it one of the Hungarians arrived with a ball which needless to say soon developed into a bit of game. Whatever the language, football is football and I discovered that Ian was also a decent player having played in the Northern League.
The Dutch boys saw us knocking the ball around and said “ah you like football”. Yes I replied, I like football a lot and in fact I have a friend who currently plays in Holland by the name of John Linford. At that point they both held their heads in their hands saying “oh no, he is in the papers all the time as he fights with his own team mates”. Despite laughing my head off I couldn’t help but think….yep that’s John!!
We had to be up really early the next morning and after a quick 6k run in the dark through the silent streets of Kosice, all on my own I hasten to add, we were heading off to the airport for the flights back to Prague and then home again.
This was most certainly a trip with a difference, but one I will never forget. The people were absolutely brilliant and the hospitality what with the limitations back then was so very first class too. Thirty plus years on, I appreciate it even more so.
I still have lots of souvenirs from the trip along with some letters from a couple of local people who were allowed to write to me. I still often wonder how their lives panned out since those days. I know one of them wanted to go to university and become a doctor and they both wanted to visit England. I really do hope they got their wishes.
As for the toothbrush, well let’s just say Ian who is a good working class lad from the North East and had no issues sharing his with me. We were definitely brothers after that! Incidentally he went on to much greater things, winning the V40 masters at the Boston Marathon in 2:17 and captaining the British team at one of the World Cups. Oh and we also went out to Hong Kong and China in 1992 for another marathon with another top bloke Hammy Cox…..now there’s a hilarious story waiting to be told…