Crossing Continents in Istanbul: A Race Report and Recommendations for Running in Turkey

This guest post comes from Robin Devaux, a 33-year-old marathoner and attorney from Oakland. She and her husband Pierre left their corporate jobs in March to fulfill their dreams of long-term round-the-world travel, and they have a great blog called Traveling Bones. So far, their journey has taken them to South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, and they’re currently in India. Along the way, they have been running and racing whenever and wherever they can.

Her report below details the Intercontinental Istanbul Eurasia Marathon/15K, which took place October 16, 2011. The race website says the 2012 edition is scheduled for Sunday, November 11, and registration opens January 1. Scroll down to the end of the post for additional recommendations on where to run around Turkey.


It’s not every day you get to run a race that spans two continents. That’s why, when I learned that the Istanbul Eurasia Marathon and 15K would take place during our time in Turkey in October, I jumped at the opportunity to participate. Not having the training in my pocket to run the full marathon, I opted for the much more manageable 15K (9.3 miles). I also managed to convince Pierre to join me. Like the marathon, our race would take us from Asia to Europe.

The marathon course map, with the 15K in purple.

Istanbul straddles the Bosphorous River, which somewhat arbitrarily was classified as the dividing line between the two continents. Istanbul therefore has an Asian side and a European side, connected by a modern suspension bridge called, simply, the Bosphorous Bridge. The European side is further divided by the Golden Horn (a tributary of the Bosphorous) into the two primary sections of the city that visitors tend to see: Beyoğlu and Sultanahmet.

I didn’t know much about any of this before we got to Turkey. In fact, upon arriving in Istanbul, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and this went for the race as well. I wondered how big the field would be, and especially whether many women would be racing. On our first morning in the city, I questioned whether it was a good idea for me to wear shorts for a run along the Bosphorous with Pierre. Having heard that Turkey was a somewhat conservative society, I thought the sight of a woman running while also showing some skin might cause unwanted attention.

As it turned out, my concerns—like many of my expectations about Istanbul—quickly proved to be misplaced. While there were very few other runners out that first day, the only attention we got was some goodhearted cheering from a group of schoolkids as we ran by. Even my shorts didn’t draw any disapproving looks. Indeed, Istanbul was far more modern and westernized than anticipated, not to mention being bigger, more exciting and filled with more delicious food than I had imagined.

The afternoon before the race, we made our way across town to the expo. We grew a little nervous when we saw almost no indication there would be a marathon on the city’s streets the next morning, and we wondered aloud about the race organization.

One of the few signs we saw for the race.

The expo, however, was quite well managed, and we quickly got our bibs, chips and nice Nike technical race tees.

A sign at the expo.

Any remaining doubts we had regarding the organization were dispelled when we woke up the next morning and saw the city transformed. While we slept, barriers had been put up along the course, the finish line made ready, traffic diverted (no small feat in a city like Istanbul) and port-a-potties brought in. The weather also seemed to be cooperating; the torrential downpour from the night before had slowed to a trickle, and the temperatures were perfectly cool. Pierre and I walked from our Sultanahmet hotel (a B&B we recommend called the Saruhan Hotel) to the shuttle bus stop right in front of the Hagia Sophia, where we encountered massive hordes of runners.

Catching a bus to the start.

The buses shuttled us across the river to the Asian side, where we had about 45 minutes to wait before lining up alongside the marathoners. From looking around, my impression was there were far more 15K runners than marathoners, far more men than women, and far more foreign women than Turkish women. While I cannot be completely sure about the latter, the first two impressions seemed accurate—approximately 3100 runners competed in the 15K, but only half as in the marathon. In the 15K, there were nearly 2300 male runners, but only around 810 female runners.

Lining up at the start in a sea of men!

The gun went off promptly at 9 a.m.—with the possible exception of their train system, Turkey is a very punctual country—and we raced through the toll plaza and across the bridge into Beyoğlu. There, just as it started to drizzle again, we were met with a long, gradual uphill climb. This was not unexpected given that much of Istanbul, and particularly Beyoğlu, is San Francisco-hilly. As I plugged along up the hill, I had to keep reminding myself that it could be much worse; there are far crueler climbs throughout the city that were not included in the course. Once we reached the top, we were rewarded with a longer and steeper downhill stretch.

There was very little crowd support along the entire course (most of the spectators appeared to be tourists), but there was plenty to look at. The city was starting to prepare for Turkey’s Republic Day celebrations in late October, so colorful banners stretched across many of the streets, giving the run a festive feel. The course also passed by many of Istanbul’s highlights, including the Galata Tower, several mosques and Topkapi Palace.

Running through Beyoğlu

One of the many mosques we passed on the course.

As we made our way across the Golden Horn into Sultanahmet, I smiled at the fishermen lining the Galata Bridge, their poles poking out into the water and their faces hidden under the enormous hoods of their raincoats. As we ran past vendors with their carts of sweet yellow corn, sesame seed-encrusted bagel-like rings called simits and roasting chestnuts, I inhaled the fragrances deeply. And when we began our run along the water in Sultanahmet, I fought back waves of nausea when the smell of fried fish sandwiches accosted me.

Apart from that, I felt terrific during the race until the final kilometer, which included our second long climb of the day. This hill was steeper than the first, and for it to come at the very end of the race just felt like needless torture. My pace drastically slowed, but I managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other until I reached the finish area at the Hippodrome—once the site of gladiator battles and chariot races, now a broad plaza swarming with tourists and pomegranate juice vendors. I heard my name over the loudspeaker as I crossed the finish line in front of the Blue Mosque in just over one hour and eleven minutes, making me the 25th female finisher. Since I had never raced a 15K before, it was also an automatic PR!

Robin at the finish.

After gathering our things at the finish line, Pierre and I headed down the hill to watch the elite marathoners in the last two kilometers of the race. What an inspiration—they make it look so effortless to pound out 5-minute miles at the end of a tough marathon.

Vincent Kiplagat from Kenya (bib number 1) won in a time of 2:10:58.

And here come the women! Alemitu Abera of Ethiopia, far right, was the winner by five seconds in a very exciting finish.

Although I was sore for days after the race, thanks to the hills, I would compete in it again in a heartbeat. There were plenty of friendly fellow runners to chat with along the way, and while the crowds weren’t huge, they were enthusiastic. Istanbul surpassed my expectations once again with this race, as it had in so many other respects.

Check out for more details about the 2012 running. If you simply want to run while in Istanbul, it seems that the only place to do it—at least within easy distance of where most travelers stay—is the seawall path along the Bosphorous, which goes for several miles. We didn’t see anyone running anywhere else, which is not surprising given the large numbers of pedestrians, the narrow sidewalks, the cobblestones and the crazy traffic. You may also want to check in with the Istanbul chapter of the worldwide Hash House Harriers, whose members will certainly have ideas for interesting places to run.

Like Istanbul, the best bet for running in the Aegean coastal town of Bodrum is the path along the waterfront, which is several kilometers long. It can get crowded with tourists, so the earlier you run, the better. Finally, if you visit Ephesus and stay in the town of Selçuk, there is a wide path along the main road linking the two. With both dirt and concrete sections, it is not terribly long (only about two kilometers each way), but is somewhat removed from traffic. It also is flanked by orchards and the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Which just goes to show: running in Turkey is like nothing else.


Thanks, Robin, for this report! Trail runners: I also recommend the article “Trail Running in Turkey” on – Sarah

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One Response to Crossing Continents in Istanbul: A Race Report and Recommendations for Running in Turkey

  1. Jackie November 10, 2011 at 2:25 am #

    What a wonderful experience! It must have been awesome to run in such a unique place. I briefly visited Turkey a few years ago while on a cruise ship. I didn’t get a chance to run there, but the scenery was amazing and the people were very friendly. Thanks for sharing your story.
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