Running Across Borders for Friendship
By Yasunori Arikawa
Yasunori Arikawa (also known as Kenny Kurata) started running marathons 2 days after his 26th birthday. His first marathon was in Stockholm, Sweden where he represented Ukraine. Since then, he has been running an average of four marathons a year combining his passion for running with his passion for travel. He qualified for the Country Club after running his 30th country at the Bratislava Marathon in Slovakia in March, 2013. He has completed 51 marathons in 45 countries. He currently resides in Podolsk, a suburb of Moscow in the Russian Federation.
One of the most unique marathon experiences that one can have is running a marathon across borders from one country to another. There are several marathons around the world that offer such a unique experience, but almost all of them are between countries that have lax border regulations where people are free to cross from one country to another without much hassle. But if two countries have strict border controls, it seems highly unlikely to organize a marathon from one country to the other. The aptly named “Friendship Marathon” is one such marathon which crosses one of the strictest borders in Europe.
The Friendship Marathon crosses the Belarusian-Lithuanian border, and is run annually in July between the cities of Grodno in Belarus, and Druskininkai in Lithuania. 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, 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 the usual 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 were once unified as 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. Almost every nationality needs visas for one of the two countries. Participants are required to bring their passports on race day. Immigration officers collect runners’ passports, and stamp them out of the respective country before the start of the race. The runners’ race number then becomes the “passport” 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 the runners have completed the race, the runners can collect their passports along with the finisher’s medals. It is certainly a very unique marathon experience, not to mention one of the most interesting ways to legally cross an international border. When I heard about this marathon, I couldn’t help but jump at the chance to participate.
The year that I ran the Friendship Marathon, the race started in Grodno and finished in Druskininkai. The day of my race offered up ideal marathon running weather as just over 100 excited runners gathered in Stadium ‘Nyomen’. As we entered the stadium, immigration officers collected our passports and stamped us out of Belarus. Once we passed through the ‘border control’, we were not allowed back out of the stadium until the start of the race. After 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.
As I began my run, other runners 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 was living up to its name as the atmosphere was very friendly, and runners kept pace to chat or greeted each other as they passed. It was quite a pleasant aspect of the marathon since most marathons, runners tend to keep to themselves.
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 are 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. For such a small marathon, they were just about our 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 continued until we got 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 an article about the race in online magazines from Belarus but not before I had a shower and a few days of hard-won rest.