Why Traveling Through Central Asia is Like Running a Marathon

The last time I ran the Chicago Marathon, I passed the halfway point and angrily ripped off my timing band and turned off my Garmin watch. I slowed to a fast walk, my knees wobbling as I struggled to convince myself to keep going. I had trained well all summer for my fourth marathon and was excited about the prospect of beating my previous best time by a significant margin.

But the weather didn’t cooperate. For the second time in three years, I was running in excruciatingly hot conditions for a marathon – well over 80 degrees and humid.  When I realized that my goal time just wasn’t going to happen, I was tempted to quit. Part of me thought, what was the point?

Traveling through the ‘Stans feels like running another marathon.

Chicago Marathon

It requires advance preparation.

I didn’t decide to run a marathon overnight – I worked my way up to it and then trained for months, logging a few hundred miles before the big event.

Likewise, the ‘Stans aren’t just countries I could pick up and visit on a whim. I researched visa requirements, stood in line at embassies, scoured Lonely Planet forums for recent personal experiences and read every guidebook I could find cover to cover. I applied for letters of invitation where necessary and even pre-booked my whole itinerary in Turkmenistan so I could obtain a tourist visa.

It should not be done in extremely hot conditions.

After a fatally hot race in 2007, Chicago Marathon officials implemented Event Alert System for the heat, with red being “high alert”. At that point, runners are encouraged to slow down and consider stopping. Unfortunately for me, it reached high when I ran in both 2008 and 2010.

Lonely Planet provided its own “high alert” in its chapter on Turkmenistan, saying that anyone visiting in July or August is either extremely unfortunate or insane. Um, yeah, that was me.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way – I was supposed to come through Central Asia in April, May and June. But then I spent more time in some places and added in other places and before I knew it, I was riding in a 4WD across the Turkmenistan desert with no air conditioning for four days straight with temperatures well above 100.

When I trained throughout the summer for a marathon, I usually rose at 5:00 a.m. to complete as much of my runs as possible before it got too hot. I have found myself doing the same here, squeezing in my sightseeing before noon and then not heading outside again until early evening. As a result, I have not seen as much as I would have liked – I would have been better off coming in the spring.

Figuring out when & where to pee is a dilemma.

Every time I run a marathon, especially in the heat, I struggle with the ultimate conundrum: I want to drink more water to stay hydrated; but if I drink a lot of water, I’ll have to stop to pee.

I have had the same dilemma while traveling in the ‘Stans – especially Turkmenistan – because public toilets are almost non-existent. During a marathon, I usually hold it until I eventually break down and stop at a port-a-potty with the shortest line possible. With no port-a-potties here in the ‘Stans, I have taken care of business on the side of the road, in the middle of the desert, behind large rocks or sand dunes and even next to ruins that are probably 800 years old. But more often than not, I have trained myself to just hold it – which should come in handy when I run my next marathon.

Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan

It is physically challenging.

Obviously, running a marathon is a test of physical endurance. Turns out traveling in Central Asia is pretty hard on the body as well. Mosquitoes abound and are immune to bug spray, leaving me with dozens of itchy welts all over my arms and legs. The dry, dusty wind has left my eyes red and itchy. Long car rides over bumpy, rocky roads have thrown kinks into my neck and cramps into my legs, not to mention a literal pain in my ass from sitting for hours on end at a time. As I roll out of bed in the morning, I even feel like I often do while training for a marathon – every bone in my body just aches.

There is only so much I can control.

Just like I couldn’t control the weather when I ran in Chicago, a lot has been beyond my control while traveling in Central Asia. Embassies decide to close one day or open late. Train tickets may not be available. My guide may not wake up as early as I’d like him to. Travel agencies may not respond to my inquiries. Banks may not accept my Capital One Mastercard even though they accept everyone else’s.  And visiting highly anticipated sites may turn out to be way beyond my budget. Which has occasionally left me feeling much as I did at the halfway point of the Chicago Marathon two years ago – what is the point?


I feel like I am hitting Mile 20.

I am well beyond the halfway point. Turkmenistan was like the long stretch west on Adams street in Chicago – hot and bare, with almost no shade. I got a quick boost from meeting some other tourists at the Darvaza Gas Crater, just as I usually get a boost from friends while running through Chinatown. But now it is getting tough again – I feel like I’m around Mile 20. For marathon runners, mile 20 is often a make it or break it point – a point when they hit the proverbial wall and either power through or call it quits. In my experience, miles 20 to 23 can be the very hardest.

The next two weeks will take me from Aktau in far western Kazakhstan to Almaty, the former capital in the east near the border with Kyrgyzstan. It will mean struggles to buy tickets for trains that are often oversold, long overnight rides on sweltering (and probably smelly) trains, and arriving in cities not knowing where I will stay because I haven’t been able to book anything in advance (I know some people do this all the time, but it stresses me out to no end). It has crossed my mind more than once to just say to hell with it and hop a flight from Aktau directly to Almaty, but that would mean missing everything I want to see in between.

These next two weeks will be my miles 20 to 23.

But if I push through it, I feel like reaching Almaty will have the same effect on me that passing the marker for mile 23 in a marathon usually does.

I think I will get a rush of adrenaline and new burst of energy as I head into Kyrgyzstan for my final two weeks in Central Asia.

I just have to get there.

15 thoughts on “Why Traveling Through Central Asia is Like Running a Marathon”

  1. While doing research for my upcoming solo and independent silk route trip from Istanbul to Beijing I stumbled on your blog! LOVE it! Thank you so much for all this useful info, and you convinced me to explore the possibilities of staying longer in Turkmenistan (even though it’s expensive). If you’re interested: the take off of my trip is planned august 2015, so if you’d like to have ‘Hey, I’ve been there as well’ moments you can follow me! Cheers and thanks again! Manouk

    1. You’re very welcome! Enjoy Turkmenistan – I was so glad I splurged on staying longer, I hope you’ll feel the same!

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  3. I love this post, Katie! Such a great analogy. You deserve so much credit for this amazing trip! Here’s to hoping the next few “miles” go smoothly!

  4. I love this comparison! You can totally do this. You’ve made it this far, you just need to give yourself a little push. And you have the potential for meeting a friendly face in Almaty, even if she’s someone I know, not you. Wow, I just realized you’re in your last month now, at least the last month until you go back to Europe. Enjoy it 🙂

    1. Thanks! And yeah, can you email me with your friend’s info again. I know you sent it before through Facebook but I can’t find the message. Would love to get in touch with her!

  5. Great post! I have never run a marathon before but can certainly imagine that difficult it can be – that and traveling through the Stans. Best of luck!

  6. I know all about that ‘Mile 20’ feeling, but it’s always so sweet in hindsight to know you powered through. Plus there’s all that stuff you’ll get to see! Good luck!

  7. Katie, you are incredible! You have so many people cheering you on and thinking positive thoughts while you get through some of your toughest parts of your itinerary. You can do it!

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