26.2 in Tallinn: My First Marathon Abroad

Tallinn Marathon sign

When I signed up for the Tallinn Marathon last spring, I promised myself I would run it just for fun. I wouldn’t worry about my time; I would just enjoy the scenery and the experience of running my first international marathon.

Nonetheless, I trained hard over the summer – at a faster pace than in the past and, for the first time, with no injury issues. But then I approached marathon day much more casually than I have approached past marathons.  My three week taper was more of a four week taper and I only ran a handful of times after leaving Chicago.  Two weeks into my big trip, it was almost an afterthought.

But of course, the morning of the race, my competitive nature kicked in.

Despite my promise to not care about my time in Tallinn, I couldn’t help but wear my Garmin watch for the race. I told myself it was so I could track my time and prevent myself from going out too fast, which I have a tendency to do.  Allegedly for the same reason, I also followed along with a pace group when I saw they were available.  While running with the 5 hour group would have been the conservative-I’m-running-this-just-for-fun-thing to do, I ran instead with the 4:45 group – which would beat my personal best by nearly 2 minutes .

I made a few observations over the next four hours:

  • Almost everyone seemed to run with a pace group.
  • Most people ran au naturel, i.e. without an iPod or other MP3 player. A lot of people also seemed to chat with each other as they ran, even with apparent strangers.
  • Running along the waterfront may be scenic but it is also smelly. I mean, really smelly to the point I had to cover my nose as I ran.
  • They gave away Snickers!!  Yes, that’s right, first marathon I have ever run in which they gave away full-size Snickers bars not once, not twice, but at three points during the race!


But I digress.

As I ran with the 4:45 pace group, I felt quite comfortable.  By mile 8 or so, I decided to try to break ahead of the group (that competitive nature thing!) and encountered the other American woman in the race. A petite woman in her 60s, she wore a cotton t-shirt which read “Proud to be an American” across the back. I get trying to be patriotic, especially when running a marathon on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but who runs a marathon in a cotton t-shirt??

The woman ran in a very labored manner, leaning awkwardly to one side and breathing loudly and heavily and I couldn’t help but think there was no way she could keep going at her current pace.  I ran next to her for the next few miles, continuously trying to pull ahead but she just wouldn’t let me (the path was fairly narrow as we ran along the waterfront). She was starting to annoy me and I became determined to beat her.

Nope, I’m not competitive at all.

The route was a double loop out and back, so running into the Old Town area of Tallinn around miles 12 and 13 gave a taste of what the finish would be like.  It also gave us a chance to be lapped by the pros as they passed us running to the finish line, something you don’t normally get to experience.

As we headed out of Old Town past the halfway point, we were joined by half-marathoners just starting their race.  This provided a nice boost of energy that helped me gradually pull ahead of the 4:45 group again, together with a short blond girl (who reminded me of my friend Teri at home) and a pack of 4 guys.  I liked the pace they were running and followed them for several miles until I eventually passed them as well.  I was feeling very good and I started getting visions of breaking 4:40 in my head.

Oh, and I was still set on beating the annoying American woman, who I lost when I took a pit stop, but I was pretty sure she fell behind me.

Around mile 18, the short blond girl caught up with me again and this time started chatting me up. Her name was Sanna-Mari and she was from northern Finland, running her first marathon.  Her brother and father ran one the previous week and finished in 4:42 so she hoped to match their time.  We ran together the rest of the way, talking occasionally, but really just silently pushing the other to keep up the pace.

New friend at the Tallinn Marathon

As we entered the Old Town for a second time, I did some quick math while looking at my Garmin (I know, I know, wasn’t going do that) and figured I had a shot at 4:38 or 4:39.  So I picked things up as much as I could – something that was not easy to do on cobblestone!

Alas, I miscalculated and ended up crossing the finish line at 4:41:49.

That was four minutes behind the annoying American woman I was determined to beat, but good enough to place me within the top three Americans overall.* And of course, a new personal best and a race in which I was smiling throughout felt pretty good too.

Tallinn Marathon, Estonia

*Of course, only three Americans finished the race, but still…it sounds impressive, right?

13 thoughts on “26.2 in Tallinn: My First Marathon Abroad”

  1. I stumbled across your site while Googling for advice on running Marathons abroad- as I am thinking of doing for the first time next year. Having spent the best part of 2008 working in Kyrgyzstan (and going back this year for a holiday), it’s wonderful to have stumbled by chance on someone else who combines an interest in the former USSR (especially Central Asia) with marathon running. I haven’t been to all the ex-USSR countries yet (8 and counting) but did have the pleasure of visiting Abkhazia last year- hope you get the chance to go there someday too. I saw you are also interested in zoos- the Sukhumi zoo is very depressing, the one in Batumi is much nicer (but it’s all relative, both were awful). Please check out our blog (Desolation Travel), it would be great if you had anything you wanted to submit. Belated congratulations on the PB, and I’m sure you would have destroyed the annoying woman had it not been for her blocking your path and the pitstop.

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  5. Thanks everyone! Sorry I got so behind in responding to comments – I do appreciate all of your support and encouragement! 🙂

  6. I realize I am a little late reading this one, but congrats!!! You’re such an inspiration!

    Running a race in another country is on my list, but it probably won’t be a marathon! 🙂

  7. Good job Katie! So amazing to beat your time and at an International Marathon no less. Man… that Great Wall of China Marathon is going to be awesome… 🙂

  8. Congrats, I’ve always dreamed of being able to run a marathon while at the same time doing absolutely nothing to achive that goal. I liked your write up, I can get an appreciation for what it would be like.

  9. Congrats on completing the marathon! I went to Tallinn a few years ago and it would’ve been really pretty to run around I’m sure. I just completed my first marathon in Sydney this last weekend and I have big respect for anyone else who can do it 🙂

  10. Congrats!! Not much feels better than finishing a marathon cause a) you just did something awesome and b) you finally get to finish running. I’ve been following SafariCOM and thinking of registering but I never put any thought to what it could be like to race with so few other countrymen (although as a Texan, running anywhere out-of-state is like running sans countrymen so … )

    Again, congrats. On finishing AND your time!

    (found this by way of Twitter, FYI)

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