By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
PRAGUE (06-May) -- When it comes to marathons, California's Bill Higgins has nearly done it all. The Californian has run marathons on all seven continents; completed marathons in all 50 states; and is a six-star finisher of the Abbott World Marathon Majors.
PHOTO: Charles Bridge in Prague with Prague Castle in the background (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)
Yet the 99th marathon of his career will be something extra special: it will come here Sunday at the Volkswagen Prague International Marathon. Higgins has never raced in Prague, though it has long been on his bucket list.
Despite only being in its 22nd year, the Volkswagen Prague Marathon has quickly become one of the most popular in the world, attracting athletes of all abilities from across the globe. RunCzech President Carlo Capalbo reports that athletes from 101 countries will take to the roads on Sunday; for comparison's sake, that is more countries than were represented in this year's Boston Marathon [citizens of 99 countries entered that race].
"There is a small invasion of Chinese runners with 400 runners, and we wish we could host more, but the marathon was sold out in less than two months last year!" said Capalbo, a gracious host who always sports a friendly smile. "Because this is the last event approved by IAAF for qualification for the Rio [Olympic Games], basically we have been attacked by many, many runners looking to qualify for Rio. So we have the biggest ever start list of elite athletes with over 72 [from 13 countries]... We hope that they can help spread the Prague Marathon around to their countries!"
Whether it is the wafting smell of the delicious pastry Trdelnik that seems to pervade through the air, or the magnificent architecture of Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, the Czech capital is alluring. Runners can be seen in various race shirts throughout the city streets, denoting events from Canada to Sweden and beyond. In Old Town Square, groups of international athletes routinely posed for pictures under the finishing gantry.
In 1995, the first Prague Marathon had fewer than 1,000 finishers. Now, some 10,600 runners will flood the cobblestone streets. A group of 40 or so American runners gathered on Thursday for a pre-race kickoff event hosted by Marathon Tours & Travel, celebrating those who have journey more than 4,000 miles East to participate. Among the crowd were runners from various states and various backgrounds; some running their first marathon while one gentleman prepared to run his 308th.
For Higgins, the veteran runner from California, the Volkswagen Prague Marathon was an easy choice. Higgins is a legacy runner at the Los Angeles Marathon (having run all 31 editions), and was debating running the Orange County Marathon close to home last week. Instead, Higgins and his wife were drawn to Prague, a destination they'd dreamed of exploring -- through running.
"I said I could either drive down the street and run Orange County or I could fly to Eastern Europe and check out four new countries, four national capital cities," he said, adding that he'll be traveling around Europe following the race's completion. Recalling a marathon last year in Rio de Janeiro, Higgins tried to put the magic of the discipline into words. "On our way to the start, there are all these people chatting in about 19 different languages, hardly any of them in English. I felt so special and blessed that I could be there and I could do this. I KNOW [emphasis his] I am going to feel that same excitement here on Sunday. I'm very, very excited for it. It's just remarkable."
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Houston's Sean Werber will be running his first marathon. A friend here convinced Werber to visit and run alongside during the race.
"We wanted a long time to train for it and figured it'd be fun, so I wanted to get in on it," he said. "Finishing is what I'm looking forward to. I just got to get through it. I don't have high hopes time-wise, but I'm looking forward to the experience."
One of the three co-founders of this marathon, Capalbo is thrilled knowing so many visitors come to enjoy the race which he created along with four-time Olympic gold medalist and Czech legend Emil Zatopek, as well as Olympic marathon and Boston Marathon champion Gelindo Bordin.
"It started 22 years ago and that first year we had 985 runners. Last year we closed the [RunCzech seven-race] season with 76,000 runners, and seven [IAAF] Gold Labels," said Capalbo, who studied at the University of California-Berkeley. "I'm happy to say that a small country like Czech Republic --whose entire population is half of New York City, ten million people-- is now one of the best, number one in the world, as far as running events."
Originally from New Jersey now living in Beijing, Julia Huang and her husband Roger Peng have made the Prague Marathon a family affair. In total, a party of eight friends and family will be running on Sunday. Huang is racing her first marathon, and has enjoyed the consistent training along the way. Now, she said, it's about having fun and soaking up the atmosphere.
"We've never been to Prague before, and that's why we wanted to come here. We've taken our kids and it's a family vacation," she said. "It's exciting, I'm looking forward to it being my first one. This is why we came here!"
Runners opting for a shorter distance can participate in a family run, which starts just 15 minutes after the marathon and shares the same finish.
Speaking to Race Results Weekly, Jen Ryder of Marathon Tours & Travel said that the Volkswagen Prague Marathon was an instant hit with Americans. As soon as the race became part of Marathon Tours & Travel's 2016 schedule, registration spiked. In total, 45 Americans are part of the Marathon Tours & Travel program this year.
"We have about half who are repeat runners with us, who have done multiple Marathon Tours trips with us, and another half of first timers," she said. "[Prague is] an older city and has a lot of history, and I hear from a lot of people that it's one of those cities that once you go to it, your friends say 'You have to go to Prague, you have to go to Prague.' I think for a lot of people here it's been on their bucket list for a while, and they've been waiting for a while for us to say 'We're doing Prague again!' on our schedule. Just seeing the sites and coming to the city is a draw. Running through such a jewel of a city, it's a big draw for people. It wasn't hard to sell!"
With less than 48 hours until race day, runners from across the globe could be seen strolling through Old Town Square and by the Astronomical Clock, many with a traditional pilsner in hand. Few marathons in the world can match Prague's combination of athletics, aesthetics, and architecture.
"The marathon has 10,600 [entrants], this is our limit. This is the price to pay to start in one of the most beautiful places in the world," said Capalbo. "The capacity of the streets is limited, and we want to ensure to everybody the top state-of-the-art in quality.
"We are here to create competition, we love sports, we want to create and manage and run world-class events, but at the same time we are here to help everybody have fun," he said.