Tuesday, 2 May 2017

London is a city that never sleeps.  On the night leading to the 23rd day of April, the Birżebbuġia guy, Bernard Farrugia was in London and could not sleep either.  The day after he had 42 kilometres ahead of him with some 40,000 other athletes in the streets of the English capital.  For one day, he was to swap his Mellieħa AC kit to that of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, the charity he chose to represent. 

Bernard, you were a footballer, but now a runner.  What turned you in a runner?
I trained and played for almost 10 years with the senior team and it was my decision to switch from football to endurance running. The main reason that I turned in to running was that it’s more flexible and it’s also an individual sports. Nowadays Maltese football has been hijacked from foreigners and honestly I do not miss anything from football although I was a clubman. Running gives me an opportunity to encourage new people into sports and organise charity events for those people in need.   

You have been running for a number of years, what made you believe that it is now time to step up to the marathon?
As from day one, my main target was to do a Full Marathon. When I’ve joined Mellieħa AC under the guidance of Has Kesra, he always insisted to complete a number of half marathons before doing the Full. About one year ago, I’ve met once again with my coach to discuss this matter. After a long discussion he gave me the green light to start preparing to the Full Marathon and he guided me through since the foundation was already there.

How does completing a marathon for the first time compare to great feats such as a PB in other distances?
It’s always satisfying to do a personal best in any race but finishing a Marathon is a different story. 

You have done a number of half marathons, and trained regularly for years.  What changed mostly when preparing for a full marathon?
I started the training from August and I have focused more on my weaknesses. I worked hardest on my nutrition. In fact I recommend to athletes doing the full marathon to take professional advice from a nutritionist since it makes a big difference. 

Did you have any setbacks while training?
I do most of my training with Adrian Busuttil and we always look forward to train together. The marathon journey is not always plain sailing. Athletes meet with soreness, races disappointments, injuries and illnesses. However, when I hit any setbacks, I always reminded myself the benefits of running and the reason why I switched into running.      

You ran a marathon for the first time in London.  You’ve done races before but what makes the London marathon special?
I’ve done around eight half marathons locally and another two abroad. The London Marathon is special because one of its main aims is that athletes taking part have to collect funds for various charities. This helps to create a unique atmosphere. Also, around one million people get into the streets to cheer the athletes through the whole route.

Looking back, would you divide the race in a sections?
I divided the race into two parts and would do so again for the next once since I believe that it worked.

Were any of the 42 kilometres harder than ever?
I slacked a bit on the 37th and 38th.  However, when starting the 39th I was determined to make up for them as through the former I lost around 15 seconds from my predicted time.    

How much do you think of the marathon is physical, and how much is mental?
I believe to do a full marathon, one ought to have experienced long distance running before so as to be mentally prepared and be wary of the tricks of the trade.  It’s important that on the day one is confident, be physically prepared and carrying a positive mentality alongside an attitude of perseverance.

Can you describe the feeling when crossing the finish line?
As I turned the last corner in front of Buckingham palace I found a large crowd cheering and supporting all the athletes that made it to the finish. Once I crossed the finish line, I couldn’t believe that this is real and felt amazing. I kept on thinking, “Is this real? Did I really do this?”

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The right to move, the gift of running

Running is a simple act of motion, a movement from point A to point B in a quicker way than the act of walking, cause while running, your legs are more in the air than on the ground.  For a split second you feel like a bird and freer than ever. 
Thus, when you are not free to move from one point to another, due to an Occupation, checkpoints manned by armed Israeli soldiers in the way, and an apartheid wall that’s been built shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, running becomes both an act of remonstration, and a refuge.

All this was the background, and the incendiary for a Palestinian and two Danish girls happening to work in the Occupied Territories to create the ‘Right to Movement’ back in 2012.  Speaking to another of the founder members Diala Isid, she told me, ‘that originally it was all about meeting up as a few friends to go out for a run, feeling free to move, but then it got bigger.’
Kids have the most fertile imaginations, and a social movement just getting born equally dreams big.  ‘Running was not common at all in Palestine.  Marathons were non-existent.  But we just decided we want to have a marathon like everyone else.’
And on the 21st day of April, 2013 close to seven hundred runners became pioneers of marathon running in Palestine.

It must have been a success, since the number of runners rose to 2,300 in the second Palestinian marathon, while last year, 3,200 congregated at the starting line by the Nativity Church, all determined to last 42,195 metres on their feet.  Of these 3,200, 1,000 from 50 different countries travelled from afar as Palestine works like a charm for the more adventurous.
As Diala speaks to me, I realise that the Right to Movement is not a normal running group.  While they meet up more than once a week, to organise a simple run a series of logistics is involved.  The West Bank of Palestine is divided in three areas: Area A, B and C.  Area A is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, Area B is under control of both the Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control), while Area C (70% of the West Bank) is fully under Israeli civil and security control.
‘We, of course run and pass by Area C, since it’s the biggest area, but at times of conflict, we get wary that trouble is only round the corner and do not get too near to the Israeli settlements*, so we run only in Area A.  But at least we’re still outside, moving, running, irrespective of being fast or slow.’
With 70% of the area being controlled by the Israelis, organising a route 42km long becomes a quest for elasticity.

‘For the marathon, we only run in Area A, since it’s the only area where we can close roads for cars.  While we try to choose flat roads as much as possible, we have to involve hills, as unfortunately rather than a bridge, the Israelis built a wall.  In fact, about 200 metres of the race is by the horrible wall, but that’s what makes Palestine what it is today.  We start from the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, go through two refugee camps and then the wall, with soldiers stranded on their patches on roofs looking puzzled.  That makes 10 kilometres.  So therefore, the marathoners go through that four times and a bit. We dream of one day starting in Bethlehem run for forty kilometres and then let the runners enter triumphantly in Jerusalem to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, but for now we have to make do with the few roads that are left in our hands.’
Running is addictive.  We realised that we have a weapon against the boredom that an occupied land like ours can inevitably go through.  Instead of sitting in cafes sipping teas and coffees arguing about the latest injustice, we put on a running shoes and have fun.  And when we are not looping around Bethlehem we are running in far-away cities.  ‘Getting permits to travel away from Palestine is hard, lengthy. and demands of yourself endurance as much as a marathon does.  For example, we can only fly from Jordan since as Palestinians we are banned to fly from Tel Aviv.  But such injustices do not get in the way of us travelling to run marathons together.  So far, we ran the Copenhagen, Derry, Beirut and San Francisco marathons together.  We enjoy running away from home together and while there we tell our own story, and invite others to run in our marathon.  We hit two birds with one stone, or to be more politically correct, we become multi-taskers.’

When we were in San Francisco, in the U.S., it was during the last intifada (Gaza war).  Palestine was all the time on the news, but at least that enabled us with the help of the ‘Rebuilding Alliance’ to collect around USD50,000 for Palestinian school children in Gaza.

Myself, being also a runner, I always tell myself that I run to feel being myself, to feel free.  But I am also realising that in doing so I move all the time, and break the walls that sometimes get into my head.
And as a human being I dream of more runners in the world that will dissolve the Israeli built wall and any other injustice.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

It’s Sunday morning, and my mobile clock is showing 05:20.  It’s ten minutes before the alarm is set to ring.  I enjoy beating the alarm, as much as I enjoy handing something to the boss before she asks for it.  I stay a bit in bed and then am on my feet heading to the kitchen for my breakfast.

Today am set for a 10km race at Ta’ Qali, in the outskirts of Mosta.  In the past the place used to mean football for me, as the National Stadium is there.  Now it is the place of the second MAAA League race every January.  An open air place where wind is allowed to do its own thing, sometimes in your face, other times at your back.  For once honesty doesn’t seem to be the best policy, as I definitely prefer it behind my back rather than in front of me.

I had a bad experience with the wind 3 weeks ago.  I was running a race at Qawra and as it came from over the sea I felt overwhelmed like a canoe would in the middle of the ocean.  My legs failed me, my inner strength drowned like the canoe would.  I made it to the finishing line late and felt like getting to the theatre when the doors already closed.

For three weeks, it left a sour taste in my mouth, but not enough to want to cut my tongue.  I worked to convince myself it was just a one-off.  I reminded myself I am a runner.  And a runner is someone who leaves the world behind, gets out the door, runs and feel better for it.  I woke up early every morning for every session just like always.    I notched up the miles, I felt the wind more acutely than before.  Numbers had to be admittedly adjusted in my head, pb’s became more of something to aspire for later rather than for the next race.

At Ta’ Qali, I did the first kilometre as fast as planned, the second the same.  The third was harder.  The fourth was fine.  I felt better than last race, and took a deep breath.  The fifth was a bit harder and slower.  The sixth, I suffered.  The seventh felt nice going downhill, the eighth was one of two halves.  Part of it downhill and then as I turned a corner, the wind made its presence felt.

I have to admit I suffered more than I should in the last 2k’s.  I let the wind beat me, letting the seconds on my watch turn up quicker than my legs.  I lost time, but not the day, as I made it to the finishing line in decent time.  Slower than last year but much better than 3 weeks ago. The sour taste is sweetened.

Tomorrow will be another day, I will try to beat the alarm, get out the door and enjoy doing a few kilometres while most are still in bed.  Like a proper runner.

Thursday, 27 February 2014


I had my breakfast early on.  Now all I had was time.  I fetched an old newspaper and looked for a Sudoku.  And I placed one number after another.  I got reminded of logic.  After being inundated with a hubris of thoughts, my mind straightened and I started reasoning things out. 

I reminded myself: the training went extremely well, I got three pb’s in my last four 10k races, I want this badly enough, the target time set by our coach is scientific.  It is now all about placing one step after another rather than numbers.  I owe myself a good time in a half marathon to be happy with.
As I got in the car on the way to Mdina, the stereo went on.  David Bowie blared on, but after a few seconds it annoyed me.  I needed silence and this time I preferred the even sound of the engine instead.

I arrived in time to cheer the Mellieha AC marathoners on the starting line-up with 42 kilometres ahead of them.  I now had over an hour before my start.

A little warm-up, a rendezvous of blue vested friends, and soon enough I found myself on the starting line, with two team-mates closer than others targeting a similar time.  The gun went off.  It was time to just run.

The first kilometre went as planned.  The second the same, the third also.  The fourth slightly faster.  I was getting happy with my average pace showing on my watch.  I was banking from the downhills, but not too much, fearing I would burn myself inside the first half, which basically is the overriding memory of last year.

Soon enough, I passed the Km10 mark, if I remember right on the flat road of Mrieħel.  I was getting close to the half way mark, and as I kept my pace, I could feel my heart beating faster.  In some way, I felt less at ease, in another way, happy that I could maintain it.  A bit like in a speeding vehicle, you get the fear, but you also get the thrill.

Then came the 16th kilometre, the kilometre of the steady hill in depressive surroundings.  It took me longer, a full 20 seconds beyond my target.  I was afraid this could be it, but as I dug in my reserves, I found a positive answer in the timing of the kilometre that followed.  I was now getting closer and closer, but looking back I don’t think I was thinking of the finishing line as yet.  It’s when I finished the 19th kilometre that I remember shouting to my fellow mates ‘it’s just 2 to go’.  The 20th did feel hard, but then it got better on the 21st.  It was now time for the last stretch, supposed to be 100 metres but always is more on the Garmin.

Then, the finishing line, stopping of the watch, confirmation of hitting the target time.

The watch showed 1:33:56. 

I bettered last year’s personal best by over 7 minutes.

The coach was there waiting, a bit dazed, but planting his feet on the ground out of loyalty towards us.  (I later learned our top runner had a very difficult last 2 kilometres in the marathon, but eventually strove on.)  And it was then a celebration of high-fives, hugs, photos together, congratulations to each other.

During the week, we said we’ll drink this, we’ll drink that amount in the evening.  We met in a pub, but we just had a couple.  The celebration was done all hours before.  And like after a war, I and probably most of us didn’t want fireworks, as they’re too similar of bombs.

Now rested, tomorrow I am back on the road.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The marathon from Malta to Guatemala

Marathon was originally a location.  It was the place from where the Greek messenger Pheidippides was sent from to Athens to communicate the news that the Persians were defeated in the Battle of Marathon.  After that, marathon became synonymous with the foot race of 42.2 kilometres.
Nowadays, it is unfortunately abused by the uneducated of what a marathon really takes to do.  Every act that includes more than the touch of a keyboard is claimed to be a marathon.
But genuine marathoners still exist and the marathon still inspires people to get out of their way and make a difference.

Edward Sultana, is one of them.  After seeing what a fellow Maltese countryman is enduring in Guatemala day in day out, he decided to prepare himself to endure a marathon in the form of a foot race. In the process he wants to create awareness and raise up some funds for a 5-a-side football pitch.

I met up with Edward, and he had to tell me all this about this challenge that is now in just a week’s time.

Firstly, what is your connection with the Guatemala Project?
I was in Guatemala on vacation last year.  While there I paid a visit to Dun Anton Grech, a young Maltese missionary helping out in Puerto Barrios. Guatemala is a truly amazing country, rich in history, culture and breath taking landscapes. A large proportion of the population are of indigenous Mayan descent and most still lead a very tough hard life. When I met up with Dun Anton, he tried to explain why such a resourceful country still had such a high level of poverty. The story was truly depressing. Local people are forced to give up their land to corrupt governments, large multinationals exploit the resources of the country. This led to a civil war where the military government persecuted and massacred thousands of its own people. This did not happen in the middle ages. This happened in the 1980’s and 1990's.
Dun Anton has been in Guatemala since the mid 1990’s . He has witnessed all this first hand. He has set up a number of projects to help these people start a new life. He has constructed two fish farms, set up chicken farms, repaired schools , and the list goes on and on. It’s amazing how one person can make such a big difference to the life of so many people in need.
So that is when I decided to do my little to help him out. The project we are working on consists in the construction of a football pitch and small classrooms to enable kids to learn skills they could use to make a living. The whole idea of the football pitch is to attract the children off the streets and into these classes. The project is in an advanced stage. We hope that with the money we will collect from the marathon, to help finish it off.

How do you see the marathon relating to this project?
We have done a number of fund raising events in the past towards this project and we heartily thank all those who have believed in the project and have donated so generously. This time we felt we had to do something more to deserve each donation. So we thought it is up to us to work hard to earn each donation. That is when the idea to run the full marathon started. In conjunction with the Malta Marathon, Dun Anton will be organising a small marathon in Guatemala as well for the same purpose so there is a stronger link between the two events and countries.

I understand that you have done half marathons in the past, but a whole marathon is a whole different story.  How daunting are 42 kilometres?
Yes, it is a completely different story. Increasing your running distance slowly, slowly until you are in a position to run close to your target of 42 km is tough. The training hours are long and intense. It takes up all your focus and verges on an obsession. But the rewards are great. When I compare where i was a few months ago and where I am now, and all the distance I covered in the last few months, I am truly amazed and I am very proud. All that is left now is a good finish on the race day!!

Edward, I imagine you have been preparing holistically – physically and psychologicaly for the event.  What has been the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the journey so far?

The challenges are great. The physical efforts you have to put in and the mental strength to keep on pushing when your body is so close to giving up are both a challenge but also a reward once you’ve done what you set out to do. It really pushes you to the extreme both physically and mentally. I guess the best reward would be crossing the finishing line. That would mean that it was well worth the training.

Finally, which do you think is the farthest – Guatemala from Malta or the finishing from the starting line?
Good question J definitely the finishing line from the starting. I have to sweat it out all the way.....

More info about the cause can be found here.
Anyone who thinks such an endeavour deserves a donation, can do so by effecting a transfer on HSBC Account: 071-017552-051 or through Paypal on the address d01eds@yahoo.co.uk

Monday, 10 February 2014

The weekend drew closer, then it started, Sunday arrived, the Attard 10k race was with us.
Being just two weeks before the biggest race of the season on the local athletics calendar, it is justifiably seen by many as the final dress-rehearsal for the marathon or its younger sibling, the half-marathon.  Rehearsals or preparations might only be a warm-up for some, but in my personal reality they are the base in the pyramid scheme of things.

I was now in my blue Mellieha AC vest expecting the starting gun to duly go and press the start button on my stopwatch.  The first kilometre is more a case of control over giving yourself to the cause, but this time in the narrowest of roads of Attard, it was a case of finding empty spaces to go through, reminding oneself of Monday morning traffic jams.  It wasn’t the best start possible.

I went through two years of not beating my personal best in a 10km race.  With 10km races being the bread and butter of the road running scene and a benchmark to pit myself against, 10km races at the time could sometimes feel like a long lonely tunnel.  But subconsciously they were probably building a base for today.

I broke my personal best in December and then two weeks ago, I went down under 43 minutes for the first time in Ta’ Qali.  I was now expecting rather than hoping that I will break that in the roads of Attard.

The first kilometre was thus a setback, but I found my rhythm in the second kilometre.  The third one was slightly harder with a silent incline, I did almost enough to get through it fine, the fourth was more vocally inclined and it showed on my watch.  For, the fifth and sixth I was practically within my target time.  In the overall scheme of things, I was though still playing catch-up.  And the seventh felt like a thorn, as the wind blew against in the unsheltered roads of Ta’ Qali.  The pb of 2 weeks ago at the same Ta’ Qali felt far away.

Then came a turn to the left, and all was left for the day were 3 kilometres.  The wind wasn’t felt anymore and after going up the ramp it was time to go down.  I let go.  I had a good eighth kilometre.  The ninth was fair but with the average pace still refusing to go down properly.  Now for the last kilometre – a proper compensation for the earlier inclines.  My body pushed forward, my breath got probably louder, my strides were hopefully going longer.  I think I recorded my fastest kilometre in a race. 

I finally arrived a mere 3 seconds earlier than I actually did two weeks previously.  It felt enough for the day.

Two weeks ago felt beautiful, this time it felt solid.  They make for a good combination.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

There was a lot of talk on the weather.  It were as if we live in the middle of an ocean rather than on terra firma.  Rather strangely, the talk about the prospect of strong winds eclipsed that of raining.  For a few days we were like fishermen.

On Friday it howled and howled like a wolf.  I felt like a sheep.

On Saturday, it rained.

On Sunday, the tree in front of me was swaying to the current of the wind.  And of all places, the race was at Ta’ Qali, which for the uninitiated, it is a barren piece of land where shelter is to it what sun is to Scandinavia in winter.
But then we met.  All in the blue colours of Mellieha AC.  We warmed up and as is usually the case, reality proved much better than our assumptions. 

Part of me told me to adjust my expectations.  The other, to just focus and let go.

Admittedly taking off my sweater, and finding myself in just a blue vest and shorts felt cold rather than cool.  The number was already pinned, we marched towards the starting line and 10 kilometres loomed.  The first one went well.  The second as well, and there was a procession of kilometres.

The seventh was really good, with the wind blowing in my back and the road inclined downwards.  Then came a turn and the wind came in my face.

All good things came to an end, or maybe it’s all a matter of balance.

I just put one step after the other, lifted the heel up and increased the cadence.

The wind continued to blow, I continued to move forward, the distance to the finishing line continued to decrease.  The average pace slowed down.

Then came the last kilometre.

I continued doing what I did for nine kilometres.  Then urged my body forward more.
Before knowing it, I was past a finishing line stopping my watch, realising that for the first time I covered the distance under forty-three minutes.  It felt nice.  Like someone jumping past a barrier for the first time.

Now it’s sunk in and am just excited about what to find from now onwards.

Simple things which give a big rush.