Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A little R and R

Red Square and running, that is.

On Sunday I took part in what was without a doubt the coolest thing I have ever done. Nike hosted a huge 5k run that started in Red Square, dubbing it "Run Moscow: Dyen' ii Noch (Day and Night)."Our main objective is to combine and inspire a large number of people to make running a part of their lives," Nike Run manager Olga Koroleva said in an article I read one day at the Central School in The Moscow Times. Apparently running isn't too big here in Russia, and Nike is hoping to tap into a new marketing and advertising opportunity. Adidas seems to have a monopoly on sporting goods here in Moscow, I've noticed - in particular the ubiquitous track suit:

Whenever I've gone for a run around here, I definitely get some odd looks. And I think I've only ever seen one other guy running around Mytishchi (probably a crazy expat as well!) On my first Sunday in Russia, I went for a run in the gorgeous Gorky Park in Moscow, and saw a few more people running, so maybe it is a little more common in the city than the suburbs. (As an aside, the other day two of my new Russian friends, Oleg and Sasha, saw my copy of Women's Health magazine. They immediately started snickering, thinking I was reading Men's Health, but when I pointed out that it was actually for women, they were astounded. "We only have Men's Health here in Russia," they said. "Um, don't women care about their health too?" I asked. Their answer? A bemused shrug. Hmm.)

Anyways, the article I read went on to highlight the challenges facing Nike in trying to "boost a sport that in Moscow usually brings to mind stray dogs, aggressive drivers, steep pavement and a suspicious public." Not exactly encouraging, huh?

A promotional ad for the run

Russian MTV VJ and running enthusiast Irina Ponaroshku rather fancifully (in my opinion at least) said, "You always hear of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City running in Central Park in New York or see pictures in glamorous magazines of Madonna jogging the streets of L.A.'s Beverly Hills, so why not Moscow?" (Not to quibble, but it was Charlotte who is the runner in SATC, but whatevs...the point is Irina Ponaroshku sounds a little bit like an airhead). The writer of the article seemed to agree with me, writing snarkily that Ponaroshku "obviously has never by chased by a pack of rabid dogs while running through air thicker than syrup." (Reading this retort caused me to actually laugh out loud, garnering some strange looks from other passengers on the metro!)

Based on the article, then, it doesn't seem like this run would be all that popular. Rabid dogs and smoggy air don't exactly attract runners...but my friends Hannah, Rhea, Kendra and I all wanted to give it a go regardless. Combining Red Square and running seemed like a match made in heaven for me. Plus, the whole free t-shirt sounded great! I've been wishing I packed a few more clothes than I actually did...

Hannah and I in the free shirts! Very nice, although small...we are both wearing women's mediums!

So we registered online as "foreign guests" and on Sunday afternoon Rhea and I made our way to Red Square, getting off at Okhotnii Ryad station and walking over to the Kremlin. This was my first time actually seeing Red Square, so you can imagine how thrilled I was. I just kept smiling to myself and repeating, "I'm so excited!" which I'm sure Rhea eventually had to find annoying. Or charming?

Red Square There are NO WORDS to describe how amazing it is. I urge everyone to come to Russia just to see it (and you can stay with me!) because it is breath-taking. Outside the walls of the Kremlin are beautiful fountains, bridges, a meandering little river, and some statues, including this one of Red Army General Georgy Zhukov:

I realized after the picture was taken that the kind woman who snapped it had also chopped off poor Zhukov so all you can actually see are his horse's feet. But it was very impressive! Zhukov is the most decorated general in Russian and Soviet history, and he was instrumental in fighting the Nazis during World War Two.

After walking around outside the Kremlin, we entered the walled citadel through Resurrection Gate and walked out onto Red Square. Contrary to popular belief that Red Square is so named because of the colour red's association with Communism, Red Square (Krasnaya Pla'schad in Russian) gets it name from the ancient Slavic word for beautiful, which used to be synonymous with the word for red ("Red" in Russian is krasnii and "beautiful" is krasivii; two words I ALWAYS mixed up in first year Russian, much to my prof Nazia's chagrin! But they sound so much alike, and at least now I know that they technically were the same word once upon a time!). And it truly is beautiful. A wide expanse of cobbled stones, seeming to stretch on forever before being anchored by the stunning collection of churches collectively known as St. Basil's Cathedral.

Where's Waldo? Try to find me!

St. Basil's was built between 1555-1561, during an emerging national renaissance in architecture. Although there's some controversy over the inspiration and genius behind the building, the conservative theory is that St. Basil's is a product of distinct Russian traditions of wood and stone architecture coupled with elements borrowed from the Italians living in Moscow at the time. It has been said that there was no precedent for such a building, and nothing since has ever managed to truly capture the magic and dreaminess of it. It honestly does not look real; like something you'd see in Disney World or in some alternate universe. The onion domes looked like swirls of Dairy Queen ice cream, and the colours!! So bright and all topped off with shiny gold Orthodox crosses! I'm gushing right now, but seriously...St. Basil's is without a doubt the most incredible thing I have ever seen.

Rhea and I walked around for a bit, just taking it all in. I saw Lenin's Mausoleum, but not his enbalmed body - yet. It is only open for public viewing on specific days of the week. But its definitely something I want to see! A little morbid, but one of those "Must-See" things in Russia, I think. I also saw Lobnoye Mesto, a circular raised platform from which the tsars used to give speeches and criminals were executed. Now tourists and locals alike throw kopecks into the middle of it and make wishes. At least now I know that kopecks do have a use. During the intern training, we'd joke a lot by making bets with kopecks, which are virtually worthless (like, one-thirtieth of a penny or something like that). So now maybe I'll just save up all my kopecks and come here every now and then to make wishes!

We were both totally entranced by a bride and her wedding party posing for photographs, and I convinced Rhea to sneak a few pictures:

How beautiful is she? Just to let you know Mum and Dad, I've found where I want my wedding photos to be taken one day :)

We also walked past GUM (pronounced goom), one of the world's most expensive department stores (even more so than Harrods' or Bloomingdales!) It runs along one side of Red Square, and although we didn't go inside, the outside was absolutely stunning. I definitely want to go back, but only for window-shopping unfortunately...

Rhea and I!

We then made our way to the registration, going through security fairly quickly and then waiting in line. This was around 3pm, and registration opened at 4, so we had a bit of a wait but we quickly realized it was good to come early as the crowds were starting to build! It was while we were in line, just chatting, that of all a sudden a woman turned around in front of us: "Is that English I hear??!" she exclaimed, obviously, in English. Her name was Sarah, and she was with her husband Phil, as well as a Belorussian named Dima (Dmitri) that they had just met in line and who happened to speak excellent English. We all did introductions, and when they said they were Americans, Rhea asked from where. "San Diego," they answered, which was a crazy coincidence! "Me too!!!" Rhea said, and then it turned out that both Rhea and Sarah had gone to the same university, UCSD, too. What are the chances? Sarah and Phil had just made it to Moscow after traveling all the way from Ulan-Bataar, in Mongolia, on the Trans-Siberian Railway, with another couple. Ummm...taking the Trans-Siberian across Russia is a dream of mine, and Rhea's, so we had a lot to talk about!! Sarah and Phil were so nice, friendly, and interesting, and we ended up hanging out with them for a few hours before the run. They have a three year old daughter who they had left with Sarah's mother back in Taiwan, where Sarah is originally from, and they were going to spend a few days in Moscow and St. Petersburg before heading back to Taiwan to pick her up. They exchanged phone numbers with Rhea and when they get back to the States, they're going to email us and send us the link to their blog, and check out ours'. I love this little network of friends from across the world I'm making here!

Dima was also super-nice, hilarious, and very helpful. I've realized just how great it is making a Russian friend because they can help translate everything! :) Plus they are also generally just really interesting people. Dima had spent a few semesters in the States, studying, both in Boston and Myrtle Beach, and his English was fantastic. We had a lot of fun hanging out with the three of them, and then when Hannah and Basile (a teacher from Boston at Language Link) arrived, the seven of us stayed together, stretching and talking and getting ready for the race. Registration was really simple, and then it was just a matter of waiting until the race started at 7:30. At one point the guys were all sitting on the ground, and Sarah went to join them. "Have you heard the Russian superstition?" Dima asked us as she sat on the concrete. It turns out that Russians fervently believe that if a girl sits on cold concrete, she will be unfertile. Sarah shrugged and laughed. "Well, I think we're done at one!" she said, but then noticed that the three of us - Hannah, Rhea, and I - all stayed standing. "Is that why you guys won't sit down?" she asked, and we all laughed but remained standing...just in case!

The stage getting set up for the concert after the run

Keeping the peace...haha, yeah right

Our race bibs!

Yes! Finally got a picture with a militsiya guy! He was totally humouring me though...

At the start line...getting nervous!!

What we saw behind this point we were getting a little scared about being crushed when the race started. It turns out there were OVER 12,000 runners participating!!

And we're off!

Running along the Moskva River, towards Park Kultury

The Moskva River again

Success!! Post-run high

The run was awesome - nice and easy 5k, flat roads, and there were so many spectators lined up along the river and over top the bridges cheering us on!! The build-up to the race was so intense: there were so many people and when the clock started counting down, everyone just started yelling in Russian - "Chetirii, tri, dva, ras!" Four, three, two, one! The enthusiasm and intensity of the crowd was just so incredible and infectious. It felt like we were extras in a scene from Braveheart or something! All that was needed was for someone to scream, "Freeeeeedom!" as we raced under a bridge. Someone did, in fact, yell "Run, Forest, run!" which I thought was pretty freakin' awesome. It seemed the run was over in no time, although it did take me 27:35 to finish...not my fastest time, but for me it was much more about the experience than completing it in a certain time. Afterwards, we all met up and just hung out and listened to the concert for a bit, although none of us had really heard of the bands playing (Sophie Ellis Baxtor, Cheese People, some Russian band...) Then we made our way back to the metro and parted ways. All in all, it was probably the best day I've had in Russia so far and something I will never forget!!

St. Basil's by night

Hannah, Rhea and I

GUM all lit up for the night...walking home

*More pics are on my facebook page!


  1. Awesome! What an experience! And what a very small world we live in. You haven't run in to anyone from Cambridge yet, have you? How about Bright's Grove or Port Elgin? Hopefully I will get to see St. Basil's. I have a feeling that the pictures don't do it justice. I guess you have Rhea to thank for the pictures? Imagine going to your dream country and not bringing your camera charger! I will send soon. Love you so much.

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  3. The run sounds amazing! I hope to join the 10K Club shortly.

  4. Hi, I found your blog through another Russian teacher's blog. I am a fellow Canadian too! I'm looking to go there myself on the same program, LL's internship.

    Do you have an e-mail I can write you to ask some questions? Thanks.

  5. Hi Stephen - ooh another Canadian!! We need more of us here :) Feel free to ask any questions you want, this is one of the reasons why I started up a blog. My email is

    And Mum, nope, haven't run into anybody from back home (yet!) but Nate (from Owen Sound and lived briefly in Cambridge) is coming back to Russia soon!

  6. what a wicked memory Katie! I loved your descriptions of how everyone was cheering you on...especially "Run Forrest Run" hahaha that's great.