9 Jun

Balkan And Runnin'

Sarajevo runnersWhen considering options for a running holiday, the Balkans may not immediately strike you as an ideal location. The region tends to be associated with the ‘90s conflicts that led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Since then, however, running has emerged as a popular activity, helping people reconnect.

Sarajevo Taking Strides
Bosnian capital Sarajevo contains a fascinating mix of cultures and religions. One street in the city – Ulica Mula Mustafe Bašeskije – exemplifies this mix, hosting a synagogue and mosque alongside Catholic and Orthodox churches. As it’s surrounded by hills, the city also offers a perfect combination of running terrain – road, trail and hill. The activity has recently started to flourish in Sarajevo, and there’s one man whose role in this cannot be overstated.

That man is Erol Mujanovic, founder of the city’s half marathon, chair of running club Skola trcanja "Klix", and running tour guide. Initially, Erol faced an uphill struggle to promote the half marathon.

“When I first went to the police to ask about permits they thought I was joking,” Erol tells runABC. “People would see me out running in the street and think, ‘What the hell is he doing?’ It took us a long time before attitudes changed and it really took off. Now we have at least 20% growth in participants each year and people coming from different countries.”

Though the race has grown considerably in recent years, it still retains a personal feel; something Erol is keen to stress: “I took part in Berlin Marathon two years ago and it was perfect organisation, but I think it was missing that human touch. You can still find that here. We’re trying to keep the soul of the race and the city.”

SarajevoBuilding Bridges
Sarajevo is a beautiful and enchanting destination, but Erol is aware that its troubled past can be off-putting for some: “We’re trying to rebuild what politics has destroyed, or tried to destroy. They tried to put barriers between people in recent decades but running is completely exploding and people are connecting with each other.”

To illustrate this point I’m introduced to Maja from Erol’s running club. She’s a self-confessed running addict and regularly takes part in races throughout the Balkans and further afield. “At my first race in Belgrade I met people who were laughing and seemed to have no problems. Running makes you think there are no wars in the world.”

While in Sarajevo, I took part in the 9 Bridges tour offered by Erol, and was able to gain a unique insight into the city as a result. The tour took me through the city’s Austro-Hungarian and Turkish quarters, as well as running past several historically significant bridges including Latin Bridge, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. As a guide, Erol was insightful and humorous which made the experience feel more like running with a friend.

Outside of Sarajevo, the IAAF Bronze Label Vidovdan 10K in the town of Brcko celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. It regularly attracts fields of around 23,000.

Where’s Wally?
A three-hour drive from Sarajevo takes you to the ‘Jewel of the Adriatic’ – the Croatian city of Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik is one of the most scenic spots in the Mediterranean and hosted its first half marathon in May 2015. The event also includes a 2K Wall Run – giving participants the opportunity to run along the famous medieval walls in the city’s old town. The breathtaking views are rich reward for participants’ hard work and will be familiar to any Game of Thrones fans, with large parts of the TV series filmed there. For those who fancy a longer wall event, September’s Ston Wall Marathon offers a similar race-day experience.

Croatia isn’t short of scenic coastal events with other notable races including Split Half Marathon held in a rather mild February, and Hvar Half Marathon in August. Organisers of Split Half Marathon say: “It’s not easy to run 21 km. But it’s definitely easier if you are running in surroundings that will inspire you.” This goes for the Balkans in general – a truly inspiring and engrossing setting.