On the weekend of 14th April 2012, I was invited to take part in the first edition of a wonderful trail race called the “Iznik Ultra”, south of Istanbul, in Turkey. As a few months ago, Caner Odabaşoğlu, the man behind it, had described it for us in an interview, I, for one, had the pleasure to discover it for myself.
You have to go to Istanbul first, then head towards the harbor to take a ferry bound for Yalova, on the other side of the Marmara Sea. The crossing only lasts an hour and thirty minutes. From there, there is a bus line to take you to Iznik in less than an hour. It is a nice ride on the bus.
You may also rent a car and first head for Izmit on your way there, but you will have to cross the industrial suburbs of Istanbul almost all the way and it is not as pleasant a drive.
The main race is a 126-km ultra marathon that circles Iznik Lake. As far as I am concerned, I only took part in the first 60-kilometre race that takes you through the hilliest parts of the complete lap. The day after, a 10-km fun run was also organized for the locals, who are not used to long-distance running yet, to be able to enjoy the festivity. For this first edition, about a hundred runners had signed in to cover the longest two distances.
The headquarters of the race had been set up on the lakeside, in a building lent by the city council. This is where the racers’ registration office was. That was the time to have your bag checked, and pick up your packet which included a T-Shirt. A tiny little shop had been cleverly set up to allow the racers to buy the equipment they might have forgotten (headlamp, gels, bandages and so on …)
Although most of the participants were Turkish, the organizers had made a very special effort to welcome foreign racers. There was always a member of the team who could speak English to assist us and the road-book had been translated into English for us, too. And yet, there were just about ten of us, South-Africans, Russians, British and French people … to have joined the Turkish racers in the event.
From 7.00 p.m., a pasta pastry was organized on the beach, and as such it was an excellent opportunity to meet other competitors. I got acquainted with Ian Corless, the Talk Ultra podcast host (a podcast about Ultra running I encourage you to listen to), together with his charming partner, Niandi.
The evening ended with the showcase screening of the film Pathway to Dreams produced by Caner and his friend, Emre. The film relates their adventure in The Chamonix TDS race (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) last year.
The meeting time was 7.00 a.m. on Iznik’s main square. Compared to the day before, the temperature had fallen dramatically and we did not have a date with the sun on that day. There was a low and threatening cloud ceiling. We even had some drizzle during the briefing. Just like the day before, Caner went to great lengths to translate into English every announcement that was made.
A little before 7.30 a.m., the race was set off. The racers started in a pack. The participants in both races started at the same time and we ran across the city together. The actual competition only began once we had run through the Yenisehir Gate, south of the city.
The first four kilometers were quite easy, as it was flat ground. We were running on the road through the fields planted with olive trees. It was an excellent way to warm up. It was not raining any longer and it was now far too hot to run with a jacket on.
As soon as we ran across the first village, the ground started to rise. Then, there was a path that followed a gully on the route. This path took us over ten kilometers to a village named Derbent, where the first checkpoint along the way was to be found.
Once we had passed the village, we still had to climb a little until we reached the crest path, which we were going to follow over 15 kilometers. The road was wide enough to allow a tractor or car to go through.
At an altitude of 700 meters (600 meters above the level of the lake), the view was impressive. On one side, when the clouds cleared a bit, you could catch a glimpse of the banks of Iznik Lake, and on the other side you could see a green valley and the snow-capped Mount Uludağ in the distance.
The route was rolling with a succession of small ascents and descents amidst the cultivated fields. From the start, I had been running with Niandi, my fellow-citizen (who finished second in the women’s category). It always feels shorter when you can chat along the way!
This section ended with the descent towards the village named Süleymaniye (at km28) where there was the second checkpoint with solid food and liquid. Every time we ran across a village there were a number of inhabitants on their thresholds who had ventured out to cheer us along the way. It must have been the first time they had seen so many crazy people running in the rain!
As soon as we left the village, the road started rising towards the pass, which 2 km farther would send us back to the lake. From the pass, the view was gorgeous and you could see down below the village named Müşküle(Demirışık) (at kilometer 35), which we had to reach.
Then a long, a very long descent indeed, started. We went down 600 meters over almost 9 km. My legs stared feeling a bit tired. I let myself go in the descent and caught up with half a dozen competitors. Although I was feeling quite warm now, this section of the race did make your thighs hurt.
But running across the village was fantastic. An awful lot of children had passed on the word to encourage the racers. It cheered me up and somewhat made me forget the pain in my thighs. The road kept going down towards the lake over a distance of another kilometer.
The next section ran along the banks of the lake on a tarred road. We crossed fields of olive-trees again. There was little traffic and the sound of the waves breaking against the strand was particularly relaxing.
So far so good, because the road started rising again pretty fast and from the village called Narlica (at kilometer 41), there was another soil path that would take us up the hill at an altitude of another 700 meters.
The path looked so nice in the middle of the olive trees or orchards in full bloom. But the slope was difficult to run along and it had started raining again. The two-kilometer ascent seemed like a very long time and the ground was becoming somewhat slippery with the falling rain .
While I had started running along the hill on my own, another racer named Haluk reached me. We got along pretty well and as we were running at the same pace, we decided to finish the race together. Everything became easier then.
The steep climb came to an end at kilometer 48. The road was still rising, but there were more ups and downs and I was able to run again. The descent started at kilometer 50. There was another ten kilometers or so, and we would reach Sölöz, where the finish line was.
I finished the race after 7 hours and 32 seconds in 13th position, with a smile on my face. I was happy to be done with it and to take the bus rented by the organizers back to Iznik. I met my friend Ian Corless there who had won the race.
For those running the 126-km Ultra, the race was going on around the lake, but the main difficulties were behind them. All the rest of the distance to cover was at lake level. However, the weather conditions were not going to make things easy for them. It rained for the major part of the afternoon and all night long! The first ones to reach Iznik did so before midnight. The last ones arrived in the early hours of the morning…
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The award-giving ceremony took place on the Sunday morning after the 10-kilometer race. Although my legs felt vey heavy, I decided to take part in the race. There very friendly atmosphere made me run faster than I thought I would for a recovery run.
Hats off to the organizers! The race was perfectly marked. It was impossible to get lost when you could see a ribbon every 10 or 30 meters. The checkpoints were well stocked and positioned on the way. And finally, and it is an issue you are often faced with when registering for a race abroad – they did their best for those racers who did not speak Turkish to feel at home with the road-book translated into English and the volunteers who spoke good English …
There are very few tourists in the city of Iznik at that time of year, but it is charming, really. Without all the Summer hustle and bustle, it is all the more enjoyable to visit its various historical landmarks, such as the Ancient Theatre, the Baths, Saint Sophia, the Museum of Iznik, the Museum of Ceramics and so on…
Iznik is indeed renowned for its ceramics. And the ones that adorn, among other monuments, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul (formerly the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans) do come from there.
After having a walk along the walls that gird the city over some 5 kilometers, you have plenty of restaurants to choose from, relax and enjoy the charms of Turkey and its cuisine.
To finish with, once you have completed the race, spending a couple of days in Istanbul is a must to end your trip with a flourish and enjoy the beauty of Topkapi, the splendors of The Basilica of Saint Sophia or of the Blue Mosque, and to get lost in the busy Grand Bazaar.
This is the type of race I like. It allowed me to discover parts of Turkey I would certainly have never visited by myself. I met charming and particularly welcoming people there, but also very friendly racing pals.
Although it was just the first edition, the race was faultlessly organized. I am sure it will enjoy growing success and I can only encourage you to add it to your racing schedule – it will be a great opportunity for you to discover rural Turkey, that is still preserved. Many thanks to Caner and all his team. It was an experience I shall never forget.
If you have taken part in a race you truly enjoyed and want to share this experience, please send us your racing story.