“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” -Kahlil Gibran
The first thing to know about this place is that every view is ancient.
Looking up from any point, it seems, there are olive trees that extend to the edge of the earth and on each edge, beyond the trees, are the snow-capped mountains of Uludağ– called the Mountain of Monks for its remote monastaries of the 11th century–and on the other, cascading, deep, white flowers of arugula leading to the deep waters of Lake İznik.
It was on those shores that the town of İznik was founded–one of the oldest continuously operating townships on earth–established over 2,400 years ago. İznik is a place so old, in fact, that when the First Council of Nicaea was called there by the Emperor Constantine to establish many of the foundational tenets of modern-day Christianity–such as the precise date of Easter–the town was already celebrating its 800th birthday.
This month, the town of İznik celebrated a new anniversary–the fourth running of the İznik Ultras. With three ultra-distance races, the İznik Ultra offers a 42k mountain marathon along with an 80k and its flagship 130k, the latter of which circumnavigates the entirety of Lake İznik while the shorter races traverse abridged versions of the long course. I was signed up for the 42k distance.
In the shadow of the much larger European racing events in western Europe, many people don’t realize that there is an enormously active trail running community in the region. Could there be good trail running in Turkey? Was there even an ultrarunning scene in Turkey? I wanted to find out. What is the trail scene’s story?
It was with those questions in mind that I set off for İznik from İstanbul–an unimaginably large metropolis that is the size of New York City and London combined.
By far the easiest way to reach İznik is by ferry to Yalova, which takes over an hour once you reach the seaport and is quite modern and easy to negotiate. From the ferry endpoint in Yalova, a short 60-minute drive is easy to manage through Orhangazi and into İznik.
As with many European races, the İznik Ultras require runners to carry a kit of safety essentials. Check-in requires a kit inspection, conducted–in my case, at least–in the Turkish language. As with so many interactions when traveling to a foreign country, this made things comically difficult. Did I have a reflektiv and an eldiven? I had no earthly idea if I had those things. The teenagers at the check-in tried to mime each item much to their (and my) great amusement. Their attempt at describing a reflective vest looked more like they were acting out a scene from a bumper-car accident. Great fun. Eventually I just handed over my kit and after the appropriate boxes were checked on a form, I was on my way.
The 130k wisely starts at midnight, which allows runners to get in early, fast miles in the cold, night air before hitting the mountains the next morning, while the 80k begins shortly after dawn and the 42k at noon. Each race being point-to-point, buses are employed to shuttle runners to their respective starting lines.
Arriving well before my start in Narlıca, I had plenty of time to watch the longer races unfold. As 130k runners came into town, the entire town–and do I mean the entire town–sat in the cafes on the sidewalks and drank coffee and cheered as runners came through. Men in dark jackets and smiles drank dark coffee at sidewalk cafes while all around, Turkish flags were proudly hung in windows and in doorways. As was the case everywhere the race went, it seemed as though the townspeople could not have been more proud and happy to receive runners through their villages. Shouts of, “Opa! Opa!” along with laughter and clapping came from every direction as the 130k leaders came into town–mostly smiling after a long, 800-meter descent from the hills above the village and preparing themselves for the more difficult climbs of the final 46k. Perhaps nothing motivates one to show well coming into an aid station more effectively than 500 cheering farmers drinking Turkish coffee.
As is quite common in Turkey, the 42k race didn’t begin without speeches from the town’s leaders, proudly dressed in their best for the occasion. As one such leader concluded his speech he raised his arm over his head holding a bright and shiny object, which could have been a starter’s pistol, though bright sun reflecting off of it left some doubt. Runners toward the back turned to each other to express mild concern about whether or not it was a real handgun he was now waving around. As he concluded his speech with a final few oratorical flourishes in very loud Turkish, more than a few in the corral for the start ducked slightly when he fired. Relieved to discover it was only a starter’s pistol after all, we began to run. The race was underway!
The race began on pavement, descending a few-dozen meters from Narlıca and into the olive fields. As we ran, we were observed rather curiously by women in long dresses and headscarves, working the orchards. At 5k, the race quickly took a hard right and began the biggest climb of the day. The 42k is also called the Mountain Marathon, which coming from my home in the American Rockies, I initially scoffed at. These looked like foothills–not mountains! How steep could it be? This arrogance was quickly punished as the course reduced most of the field to walking, hands on knees, slowly up unrelenting pitches, under the ever-increasing heat of the Mediterranean sun.
Suddenly coming around a sharp corner into the town of Müşküle, the road switched to cobblestone and old women sat in groups on the stone steps of homes, in long dresses and headscarves, occupying bits of shade as they could be found and seeing over their daughters and grandchildren. The older women eyed the runners and gave smiles and encouragement. Children lined the streets, with enormous smiles and hands held up, hoping for a high-five and acknowledgement from the runners coming into town, pushing hard up the steep, stone roads.
The dissimilitude between runners clad in tight Lycra, with bright neon and tiny shorts, passing by the town’s generation of women shroud in layers of clothing and tradition was distinct and unavoidable but deeply comforting. There is divergence in the world, between cultures and generations and instead of being a source of despair–here that contrast was a source of hope. Spectators poured water on the shoulders of grateful runners and shouted with enthusiasm as they climbed out of the town and back onto dirt roads, winding higher and higher into the hills.
As the field climbed, the sound of the breeze overhead and the dirt underneath was punctuated here and there by a guttural sound. Quick to rule out the traditional sources of those sorts of sounds in the mountains, the sound became a source of confusion. Bursa Province isn’t the region for bears or mountain lions. What could it be? Rounding a corner and falling into a line of runners, it became clear. In Turkey, it seems, runners climbing steep hills sometimes let out a type of roar. It sounds like a man trying to lift a car or an irritated bull moose. So, happily we climbed, through the mud and the trees, every so often somebody in our line of runners would let out a yell, as though he were telling the mountain it would not win today.
After topping out near 800 meters above the lake, the field descended quickly into Süleymaniye, on the far side of the hills surrounding the lake. Climbing out of the village, the snow-capped mountains of Uludağ came into view, with enormous fields of green hills extending for miles. Women, with gray and green dresses and headscarves, walked the mountains, tending flocks of sheep–newborn lambs stumbling along behind their mothers with the shepherds keeping one eye on the flock and another on the passing runners. Men toiled in the fields, wearing dark wool, wind whipping their hair as they cut furrows in the fields with hand tools. “Opa! Opa!” and sweat and smiles.
Far below, Derbet appeared–the red and beige pale roofs set against the verdant green and brown of the fields. Small fires from farmers clearing fields burned in the valleys, pushing smoke up and down some of ridgelines and collecting over the lake far below. The minare from the small mosque guarded over the town. Coming through, a man who seemed impossibly old–he must have been a hundred, stood in his yard and stayed busy fetching water for runners from groundwater in his yard. He shuffled back and forth, caring for tired runners as they came past his home. He had dark creases in his face and still a bit of black in his gray hair. I drank, and he held my arm and I held his shoulder for support. “Su, su,” he said, trying to teach me as I drank and drank as the sun moved into the evening sky. “Su, su, su.” Water. Thanking him, it would be impossible to forget his sparkling, green eyes–forever full of youth. Opa.
Descending into the valley brought mud and technical running. Back through the fields and into the smaller sets of houses and farms around İznik. Still, children ran through the streets hoping for a high-five and a smile. How could one not oblige?
Surrounding the city are five miles of walls, first erected by Emperor Claudius in the 3rd century. It was from these walls that the city repelled invasion over the centuries–at times by launching buckets of flaming tar and timber over the walls at the approaching enemy. Turning the corner to enter the town through one of the wall’s gates, the setting sun through the smoke over the lake created an all-consuming sunset. Coming into the city, the ezan–the evening call to prayer–began from the minare in a mosque. The sun turned the city into an amber bazaar, the setting sun was everywhere, touching and coloring everything. No sound could be heard but for sound of the mosque’s call to prayer and my own breath as I completed the final kilometer to the finish through the city, throwing up my arms in jubilation after a day in the mountains of Turkey. After the finish, before returning home, I did what any runner would do–removed my shoes and walked into the cold water of Lake İznik, up past my knees, staring at the last vestiges of the sun and the thin outline of the Turkish mountainside to remember the day. Enormously happy. Impossibly blessed.
İznik Ultra Results
İznik Ultra 130k men:
- Donnie Campbell (UK.) – 13:25:50
- Mahmut Yavuz (Turkey) – 14:33:20
- Aykut Çelikbas (Turkey) – 14:50:29
İznik Ultra 130k women:
- Zoe Salt (U.K.) – 15:16:37 [4th overall]
- Mariya Nikolova (Bulgaria) – 19:31:45
- Ingrid Qualizza (Italy) – 19:45:49
Orhangazi Ultra 80k men:
- Emmanuel Gault (France) – 6:45:25
- Girondel Benoit (France) – 7:26:10
- Tanzer Dursun (Turkey) – 8:40:36
Orhangazi Ultra 80k women:
- Alessia De Matteis (Italy) – 9:09:53
- Elena Polyakova (Russia) – 10:48:57
- Coraline Chapatte (Switzerland) – 11:34:37
İznik Dag Maratonu 42k men:
- José De Pablo (Spain) – 4:03:29
- Benoit Laval (France) -4:19:03
- Duygun Yurteri (Turkey) – 4:28:15
İznik Dag Maratonu 42k women:
- Caterina Scaramelli (Italy) – 5:03:44
- Filiz Çancilar (Turkey) – 5:04:55
- Martine Nolan (U.K.) – 5:09:44