Belarus sits snugly among the borders of five other countries between the ever growing European Union and the still powerful Russian Federation. Even the regions of the country seem to be ideally placed, divided into six different administrative divisions known as oblasts, with its capital Minsk in the center and the five other regional centers located not far from the borders of each of its neighbours. Living in a nation that has constantly been shaped and reshaped by its neighbors, Belarusians are an extremely friendly and peaceful people who try to avoid conflicts and who are, therefore, very easy to get along with. Borders are clearly defined, but it seems that Belarus is happy to share with its neighbors.
This sprit of sharing and good will can be seen, for example, by the lack of border control between Belarus and Russia, as Belarusians and Russians are free to travel between the countries with an ease similar to that travellers experience travelling between countries in the Schengen area. Belarus also shares the primeval forest UNESCO site Belovezhskaya Pushcha with Poland, its neighbor to the west. Less pleasantly, Belarus shares the Chernobyl ‘no-go’ zone with Ukraine, its neighbor to the south. Belarus’s two northern neighbors, the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania, are now part of the European Union, which makes it necessary for proper documents when crossing borders, but it hasn’t stopped the nations from sharing. This was greatly promoted by the running of the Friendship Marathon, which crosses the Belarusian-Lithuanian border and is run annually in July between the cities of Grodno in Belarus and Druskininkai in Lithuania. When I heard about this marathon, I couldn’t help but jump at the chance to participate. Grodno is a city located on the northwestern corner of Belarus within a marathon’s distance from both Poland to the west and the resort city of Druskininkai in Lithuania to the north. Since 2011, a an annual marathon has been run from one city to the other, alternating directions each year so that both cities get an opportunity to start and finish the race. The logistics of such a race would require a lot more organization than a normal marathon, and a lot of different organizations have worked together to make it possible. These organizations include both the Belarusian and Lithuanian Olympic committees, Lithuania’s ‘SportsBalt’, and the Belarusian Ministry of Sport and Tourism. The main goal of the race is to promote cooperation between two countries that together used to be part of the USSR and which are now divided by one of the strictest political boundaries in Europe. The name ‘Friendship Marathon’ is definitely appropriate. To participate, runners have to prepare their visas and travel documents before they register. On race day, immigration officers collect runners’ passports and stamp them out of the country before the start of the race. Their race number then becomes the runners’ pass across the border.
Throughout the course, there are checkpoints noting down the runners’ numbers as they pass, making sure everyone is still on track. Once runners finish the race, they receive their passport along with a finisher’s medal. It is certainly a very unique marathon experience, not to mention one of the most interesting ways to legally cross an international border. The year that I ran the Friendship Marathon, the race started in Grodno and finished in Druskininkai. Grodno today is a city of less than half a million and is the regional center of the oblast of the same name in northwest Belarus. Like the country itself, Grodno has been the territory of many nations including Poland, Lithuania, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union before becoming a part of independent Belarus. Arriving in Grodno two days before the race, I had the opportunity to do some sightseeing around the city. I started off on the northern side of town at the Stadium ‘Nyoman’, home of the local football team named after the river than runs through the city. Here, I took care of my race packet pick-up, which included a short medical check-up that marathons usually don’t have. After being deemed fit enough to run and getting my race number, I had the rest of the day free. I went down to Kalozhki Park where there is a huge monument commemorating 850 years of the city’s founding. As a local pointed out, the monument has been nicknamed ‘sushi’ because of its resemblance to a giant pair of chopsticks holding a sushi roll. A short stroll away is the 12th century Boris and Gleb Orthodox Church, one of the main landmarks of Grodno as evidenced by the surprisingly large amount of foreign tour buses and the plethora of foreign languages spoken in and around the church. The old brick building has more historic significance than aesthetic appeal; one of its draws is the fact that we can clearly see where the church was split in half by a landslide and fully restored while keeping the undamaged half of the church intact. Naturally, the church’s hillside location overlooking the river below offers an amazing view of the city and the nearby castles. The two castles, perhaps predictably named ‘old castle’ and ‘new castle’, also have more historical significance than aesthetic appeal. The new castle is a museum today, but was built during the time of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth when the two nations united to improve trade and commerce. Walking around the old castle is a bit more interesting as visitors – mostly local – blatantly ignore caution signs and walk along ruined walls for a photo opportunity. Moving on towards the center of the city, I strolled along Soviet Street, Grodno’s version of the ever-popular pedestrian street that almost all former Soviet cities have. The stroll seemed like a walk along a timeline as I go from the Polish-Lithuanian era of the 15th century New Castle to the more recent Russian and Soviet era. Soviet Street eventually led me to Lenin Square, where the monument to Vladimir Lenin still dominates today. Across the street is Park Zhylibiera, a very picturesque and well-maintained affair with a bit of everything for everybody.
This is a great place to stop for a refreshing glass of kvass while watching kids enjoying amusement park rides or wedding parties taking photos along the sunny romantic banks of a small river on the other side. My stroll along the ‘timeline’ ended at the main building of Yanka Kupala University, an ivy-covered building whose claim to fame is a QR code embedded on the side of the building. This QR code was the very first one in the country, paving the way into the city’s – and country’s – future. The day of my race offered up ideal marathon running weather as just over 100 excited runners gathered in Stadium ‘Nyomen’. After being stamped out of Belarus, going through pre-race warm-ups and listening to some speeches from official looking people in uniform, we started the third official running of the Friendship Marathon. Being the only non-European there, I immediately caught the attention of several other participants, who would keep pace for some time and chat. I had the honor of running the first five kilometers at a faster than usual pace as a group of professional Belarusian runners wanted to get acquainted. They had just come from a serious competition and were apparently running the Friendship Marathon at a slower pace ‘just for fun’. Eventually, they ran ahead of me much more quickly than I could handle. The marathon truly lived up to its name throughout, as the atmosphere was very friendly, and runners who seemed to know each other greeted each other as they passed.
After leaving Grodno, the marathon route took us through the beautiful Eastern European countryside where one kilometer looks the same as the one before it. About 30 kilometers of the marathon is run in Belarus, and aside from the occasional villages, there isn’t much of a change in landscape. Although the race was incredibly monotonous, it was a fantastic run surrounded by forests. Things get a little more exciting as runners near the border, where there is normally a line of lorries a couple of kilometers long waiting for hours to get through customs. On the day of the race, drivers must wait a little longer as the border is temporarily closed to traffic, and on our particular marathon, they were just about the only spectators. Their ‘encouraging’ comments ranged from confused ‘what’s going on’ comments to ‘why are you running’ questions. Although the drivers didn’t exactly cheer us on, they seemed to be very amused by this unusual diversion to their normal long wait. We did, however, get a very encouraging standing ovation from the immigrations and customs officers as we crossed the border into Lithuania. Once on the other side of the border, the monotonous forests and countryside continues until you get to the turn-off towards the tiny resort city of Druskininkai. After passing through its outskirts, we finally arrived at the café-filled streets of the city center. The race finished anonymously in a park where many park-goers were oblivious to a marathon being run despite the finish line, an award stage and runners with race numbers. After finishing the race, I went to where the runners were gathered, relaxing and going through post-race activities. The runners who had already finished greeted me like a long lost friend, and before I got the chance to collect my belongings, a couple of journalists came up to me eager to get an interview as the first non-European runner in the history of the race. I felt like a celebrity as photographers took photos and journalists asked me all kinds of questions. Later, I got the chance to see my photo along with the article about the race in online magazines from Belarus but not before I had a shower and a few days of hard-won rest.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Yasunori Arikawa, better known in the Western world as Kenny Kurata, grew up in rural Iwakuni, Japan and urban Los Angeles. He has been living and teaching English in the former Soviet Union for the past eight years. He loves to travel though places "highly recommended" by others interest him far less than those that make people ask "Are you crazy? and "Where's that?" He also participates in four or five marathons and/or triathlons each year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yasunori Arikawa, better known in the Western world as Kenny Kurata, grew up in rural Iwakuni, Japan and urban Los Angeles. He has been living and teaching English in the former Soviet Union for the past eight years. He loves to travel though places "highly recommended" by others interest him far less than those that make people ask "Are you crazy? and "Where's that?" He also participates in four or five marathons and/or triathlons each year.