Summer recap #3: En Route to Luscious Latvia

Latvia: I was supposed to be visiting my brother, Eric, who I wrote about here. Eric was supposed to be studying Russian and doing army things, but the military nixed those plans last minute—this is the norm for his life, and most people’s in the military.
But, yours truly still had a plane ticket to Latvia, so I found this trail race. Considering the website didn’t have distances for the races, just animal pseudonyms that I was incapable of understanding or translating, it was a small miracle I ended up racing at all. Week of the race, I discovered that the 30km ‘bobcat’ (~19 miles) was the longest race, which was a perfect distance for my training leading up to CCC (the 100k of Ultra de Mt. Blanc).
I left the U.S. from D.C., where I’d been for a friend’s wedding and where I’d gotten so trail-sick that I promptly rented a car to run in the Shenandoah Valley (a delightfully verdant and rocky National Park just a few hours outside D.C.). In Shenandoah, I enjoyed two rainy, but good, runs, which sandwiched a less than awesome back-seat car sleep.
From D.C. I had a long layover in Frankfurt. Unlike most long layovers, I was stoked about this because I’d read about a trail system a mere mile from the airport. To anyone considering a long layover in Frankfurt to run: do it! But, you don’t have to take a hotel bus to get to the trails, as other blogs suggest online, just Google map “hotel steigenberger Frankfurt airport,” run there, and you’ll be at the trails. It’s so close, taking a bus is a waste of time; I tried. Just run!
Anyways, Latvia is eerily quite and serene. Upon arriving late at night, I took a taxi to the countryside near where my race would be. I slept in a trailer cottage abode thingy and felt like I was in the middle of nowhere, which was later corroborated by a Latvian friend who said most of the country is extremely sparsely populated countryside. The entire country has less than half as many people as Colorado (under 2 million versus over 5 million)! Latvia, square mileage-wise, is about the size of West Virginia. It’s a small place.
One quirk about Latvians I immediately noticed: they love sports. When my cab driver, who spoke hardly a lick of English, realized I was from the U.S., and then Colorado, said,
“Colorado, Avalanche, hockey!” I was aghast.
Sandis Ozoliņš, he play for Avalanche and from Latvia!”
“You like hockey?”
“Oh yes!”
The rest of our hour-long ride was silent.
Then, upon waking up on the farm, all that was visible other than farmland, large homes with exquisite potted flowers on every porch–albeit there are maybe 10 homes per square mile–were soccer and volleyball nets.
After my race, I spoke with the woman who placed second—she was a godsend of a translator—and she said, “I grew up in the countryside and when you live in the countryside you have nothing to do. So you find sports!”
The race itself started in a slightly more inhabited village, Milzkane, which is also the name of a nearby ski ‘hill’ we ran on. It was steep, but I can’t say I’ll be going back to Latvia in the winter to send it.
The race start was energetic and beyond confusing. There were supposedly 2,000 people running all of the races, from a 5k to my 30k race. It was the strangest juxtaposition to go from seeing hardly anyone to seeing, and mainly hearing, so many Latvians. They love music and their local music sounds like a Viking chant mixed with Top 40, but mainly just Viking drumming. It permeated my soul in the hours surrounding the race. And after a little reading, I learned that Latvian music is one of the reasons the country has kept its identity throughout centuries of foreign rule.
Once we all counted down in Latvian, us lead runners ran a raucously fast first two miles on pavement exiting the village. Upon entering the forest, I slowed my pace, and even though no less than five men surrounded me during the first five miles of the race, and the quiet spell of the country returned.
It wasn’t like most trail races that have pleasant banter. Everyone was serious. I’d say “Good job” to guys passing me; but, always, no response. Except for one man. We raced the last third of the race together and he encouraged me in Latvian, I’d mumble back in English. He eventually got sick of me, or so I presume, and charged ahead. I got the feeling that Latvian men are not used to women being at the lead of the pack.
The flora was indulgent and the trails were deliciously soft; we often ran directly on moss carpeting the trail, or on a trail so skinny that little fern bushes covered it completely from eyesight. Whoever made the course has a great imagination because we winded and twisted and went up and down constantly. You can see my run here.
There were no long stretches of anything monotonous. I imagine most of southern Russian temperate forests to be like this, because well, this isn’t that far from Russia and was part of the U.S.S.R.; hence why most of the older generations speak Russian, but they don’t speak English. Today, younger generations are much more likely to speak English, but not Russian. Regardless, Soviet Rule thankfully didn’t destroy Latvian forest, as most of the country has primary forest still intact.
I was exhausted throughout the race thanks to the fast start and thanks to jet lag. It was right in that prime sleeping time back home: 3am – 6am. My body hurt, but the lush forest, which made me feel like a forest fairy creature plodding along without a worry in the world, and the appeal of not having to run this fast for my next race, CCC—which I anticipate to be more of a mountainous suffer fest—got me to the finish.
Next time I come to Latvia, it’ll be with Eric, and he will be fluent in Russian and we will do more of these trail races. How ‘bout that, Ewic? Get your forest fairy shoes all shined up!
Onwards to the Alps, but first a pit stop in the Dolomites. Not excited at all…