Istanbul Half Marathon 2023 review
A great race for combining travel with running.
April is a busy month on the half marathon calendar. There are numerous interesting races from which to choose. I began the month with Berlin. And I ended it with the Istanbul Half Marathon, which took place on Sunday April 30.
The Istanbul Half Marathon is a midsize race. In 2023, 4,392 runners crossed the start line. And 4,170 finished. Roughly three quarters were male, a sharp contrast from races in the U.S. where the gender balance is generally more equal or skewed the other way. There was also a 10K race with just under 4,000 runners, so the overall event drew around 8,000 participants.
Spoiler: This is a great travel destination race. But first, some orientation.
To understand the course, it helps to grasp the overall layout of Istanbul. This massive city — with a population of almost 16 million — spans two continents. The European side is separated from the Asian one by the Bosphorus, the 19-mile strait connecting the Sea of Marmara, a subset of the Mediterranean at the south side of the city, with the Black Sea to the north. The Bosphorus is a waterway of immense global strategic importance, since it provides Russia — not to mention other countries such as Ukraine — with maritime access to the Mediterranean. This access leads south from the Sea of Marmara to the Dardanelles Strait and then to the Aegean Sea before reaching the main waters of the Mediterranean. There is a constant parade freight vessels on the Bosphorus, which share the waterway with local passenger ferries and, at the south end, some massive cruise ships.
But there is a further, more local body of water — relevant to this race — which leads off the Bosphorus to the west. This is the Golden Horn, an inlet that separates the two segments of the European side of Istanbul, the south side being the “old” city, and the north the “new” one. The old city is the “original” Istanbul and is home to some of its most historic sites and famous bazaars. However, parts of the “new” city are themselves quite old. Terms such as “old” and “new” are relative concepts in Istanbul, whose history goes back thousands of years.
So — and this is an over-simplification, as Istanbul contains many distinct areas — there are three “big picture” components to Istanbul separated by water: The old and new cities on the European side separated from one another by the Golden Horn; and the Asian side to the east of the Bosphorus. But to further confuse things, you would be mistaken if you visited Istanbul assuming the European side to be more “European” in flavor, and the Asian one to be more “Middle Eastern.” Depending on which parts you compare, the opposite can be the case.
The Istanbul Half Marathon course is entirely on the European side of the city, and almost all on the south — or “old” — portion. It starts close to the Sea of Marmara, skirts briefly along the edge of the Bosphorus, and then turns inland along the south shore of the Golden Horn inlet. It is never very far from the water’s edge. The course does not go deep into the city, which is just as well given the hills that would entail. About four miles into the race, the course crosses a bridge to the north side of the Golden Horn — i.e., to the “new” part of the European side of the city — but then immediately goes back across the same bridge to continue its way inland along the southern shore of the Golden Horn before turning back to where it started. So it is largely an out-and-back course.
Registration and the language issue
I paid 35 Euros when I registered about three weeks before race day. That’s a great price, especially as it included a shirt and, supposedly, race-day photos (not that those had arrived a little over a week later when I posted this [August ’23 edit: or long after]).
I believe the price would have been even less if I’d registered earlier. But this reflects something that is not so good for people living in Turkey, namely the country’s dire economic condition, with out-of-control inflation that has led to a massive devaluation of the Turkish Lira, causing foreign currency to go far (except for things — such as some hotels — that are priced in dollars). The race took place just two weeks before Turkey’s presidential elections in which the country’s strongman ruler was defending his stewardship of the economy.
Don’t leave it too late to sign up. Registration closed about two weeks before race day.
Parts of the sign-up process were in English, but others were not. Google Translate or similar can come in handy. Once registered, however, you do get emails in English to help you plan for the event.
Turkey isn’t a place that consistently goes out of its way to cater linguistically to foreigners. You might be surprised at language difficulties even in places where you wouldn’t expect to encounter them, such as — depending on the luck of the draw with ground staff — when checking in at the Istanbul Airport. (Then again, an English-speaker in Turkey will still have a massive advantage over a Turkish-speaker in the United States.)
Navigating the race — and Istanbul generally — is perfectly possible if you don’t speak or understand Turkish, but it can be a bit of a travel adventure requiring some patience and good humor. If you are up for that, run this race. The experience is well worth it. But if you want everything to be easy, simple, and obvious at every step of the way, and get annoyed if it isn’t, there might be better options. And if you find registration to be too awkward, that could be a signal to look for another race.
I went on this trip with my wife — who is half Turkish and has a working command of the language — which helped a lot with logistics. She doesn’t usually come on my race trips, but we were also visiting family in Istanbul. Since this blog is about aviation as well as running, I’ll add that her uncle — who sadly died last year — had been an A340 captain for Turkish Airlines and before that an American-trained F-104 fighter pilot in the Turkish Air Force.
Packet pickup was over the three days preceding the race. It was efficient and took place in the quite fancy Kanyon shopping mall in the “new” part of the European side, which is nowhere near to the race start. The pick-up location was in the parking level of the mall, and there was a very small expo a floor above. It would be easy to miss the expo if you didn’t know it was there, but you wouldn’t be missing much. There was no mail option and no race-day packet pickup.
The Istanbul Half Marathon uses old-fashioned shoe timing chips, rather than ones embedded in bibs. The idea is that you attach the chip to your shoelaces before the race, and then hand it back at the end. I’d thought shoe chips were obsolete. But a month earlier, I’d also come across them in the Berlin Half. So they seem to have life left in parts of the world. It’s a bit of a pain to have to get them off at the end of a race, especially if you obsessed on making them securely attached in the first place, but it probably helps keep down costs as the chips are reusable.
This year’s shirt was orange. The shirts seem to run a little small. I normally go for mediums, but had opted for large for this race after being burned by a medium in Lisbon that proved far too small. And the Istanbul “large” fitted me well. It wasn’t a brand-name shirt, but it was nice enough. Surprisingly, there was no race merchandise of any sort for sale.
I won’t go into much detail of how to get to the mall, as for all I know the packet pickup location will change. But, briefly, a Metro station called Levent on the M2 line has an exit that leads directly into it.
I find shopping malls can be a good way of observing local life in a city I’m visiting. They are a latter-day form of park, especially in hot weather. It was far from hot that day, but it was raining steadily, so we weren’t in a hurry to leave. When we did, the weather had eased and, after taking the Metro to the other side of the Golden Horn, we explored parts of the old city on foot for the remainder of the afternoon.
Where to stay for the race
Most people coming to Istanbul to run the race would probably be best off staying in the old city within walking distance of the start. It makes the race morning experience that much simpler and there are plenty of hotels there from which to choose. That said, this will place you in the more touristy area, for better or worse. If the race is part of a longer visit, you may also want to consider other options. Some Istanbul old-timers feel the atmosphere in the parts of the old city where hotels tend to be located isn’t what it once was.
We stayed in a part of town on the Asian side called Erenköy, part of an area called Kadiköy. Our hotel was on Bağdat — pronounced “Bah-Dot” — Street, a lively, bustling thoroughfare with numerous restaurants and shops — including a stylish Apple Store — at the center of a tree-lined neighborhood packed with upscale apartment buildings. We picked it largely to be close to family. It is not the most obvious area for tourists visiting the city, but it is an interesting alternative if you want an authentic, contemporary Istanbul experience. We were a few blocks from the seafront, where you can go for long walks or take a ferry to nearby islands. It’s also an area where there are many doctors’ and surgeons’ offices. Some people travel to Turkey from other countries to take advantage of skilled medical services at relatively affordable rates — all the more so with favorable exchange rates.
The downside is that Erenköy is a bit far from the city’s main tourist sites, but the Marmaray train line whisks you to the old city in about 20 minutes. Or you can take a bus or taxi to the Bosphorus and then a ferry. Keep in mind, though, that this part of town is farther from the main airport located on the European side, which is quite far from the city center to begin with. (It can take well over two hours in traffic from where we stayed — we encountered terrible traffic in both directions resulting in journey times much beyond what Google Maps was predicting.)
Getting to the start
The Half Marathon began on the Sunday at 9:30 AM. That’s later than ideal. It had been quite chilly all week, but temperatures were beginning to warm by race day and — given the lack of shade along the course — I would have preferred an earlier start. The 10K has an 8 AM start. Maybe there are logistical reasons for it to go out first, but most race events combining different distances have the longest start the earliest.
If you are not staying within walking distance of the start, take the train to Yenikapi station. Buying tickets on the Istanbul mass transit system can be quite a challenge if you don’t speak Turkish — and even if you do, but are unfamiliar with the options (not least because the machines don’t take credit cards or bank notes higher in value than 50 Lira, about $2.50 at the time of writing). But travel is free on race day for anyone wearing a race bib, so that makes it simpler if you haven’t been able to master the system. (The exception is if you are taking the Marmaray train from the Asian side.) Even if you aren’t arriving by train, you should still head to the Yenikapi station as it is close to the race start and you can just follow the emerging crowd of runners from there.
The start area
You go through security once you get to the start area. At this point, only runners can proceed further. Once past security, you enter a park, but the actual start line isn’t in sight, so it can be a bit confusing as to where to go next. I soon discovered that runners were to congregate in a series of fenced-off fields, one for each starting corral. Close to the start time, gates were opened at the far end of each field with runners then herded toward the start line on a closed-off highway that is nearby but wasn’t previously visible. That is also where you’ll finish the race later in the morning.
Entry into these fields was tightly controlled according to the starting wave numbers shown on runners’ bibs. But once runners exited the fields, they commingled somewhat. My bib placed me in the second wave — based on my aspirational time of two hours — but I found myself among runners whose bibs showed a variety of other ones. And, in practice, the second wave merged into the first after the elites. I crossed the start line less than three minutes after the race began.
Instead of porta-potties in the pre-start area, runners got to use toilets in two prefabricated structures — one for men and the other for women — that looked as though they are permanent fixtures in the park. The lines seemed pretty long, but moved quickly. There must have been around 40 toilets — all Asian-style, hole-in-the-floor, squat variety — inside the men’s building, each in its own cubicle arranged along two corridors.
There wasn’t much in the way of entertainment in the start area. Just some music blaring over loudspeakers. It wasn’t like the start of the Beirut Half Marathon, with its high-energy dancers. But they were giving out bottled water, which is not something you can generally count on at race starts. There was also a bag-drop for runners with the clear bags given out with bibs at packet pickup. Announcements in the start area were largely only in Turkish, but I did catch a couple of brief ones in English.
One aspect of the whole race start/finish layout I didn’t like is that friends, family, and other spectators can’t get close to the start and finish lines to cheer runners along. Just about the only spectators during the last several hundred meters of the race were yellow-jacketed volunteers placed there to cheer.
The race experience
The race started on time. As indicated earlier, the course begins on a closed, multi-lane highway, but it transitions onto regular roads quite early on. It starts with a nice downhill, but this sets you up for a not-so-welcome uphill in the last mile of the out-and-back course. Overall, I found the race to be a bit hillier than I’d expected. There were no really serious hills, but it was not ultra-flat in the way of, say, Berlin. Still, this is a mostly flat course that could well make for a PR, not that it did in my case.
I’d rate the course as among the best I’ve run in terms of urban landscape. You get great views of the city and plenty of variety. While out-and-back courses often make for monotony, I didn’t find that to be the case here. The vistas were sufficiently interesting and different in each direction that I never once felt bored. In fact, I found the race seemed to go quite quickly. I especially enjoyed running across the bridge over the Golden Horn. That part provided some of the best views.
There were some bands along the way. But there was not a huge amount of crowd support. I didn’t count the number of water stations, but there seemed enough of them. They were handing out water in plastic bottles. At one or two of the water stops, they also gave out cut-up banana quarters.
A half marathon can be as much a mental challenge as a physical one. I recall wondering in the first mile or two whether I had it in me that morning to run the sort of race I wanted to, but I somehow powered through mentally and was able to shake off the doubt quite soon. That was good, because I know from past experience that once the mind gives up on a race, the body can’t make up for it. It is a strange interaction between the two that I still don’t fully understand. My time ended up as 2 hours, 3 minutes, 52 seconds. That was my fastest of the three half marathons I’d run so far in 2023, but not by much. My splits were pretty even, ranging from a low of 9 minutes 19 seconds per mile to a high of 9 minutes 36 seconds — so all within 17 seconds of each other.
There were the usual goodies at the finish area, but not much of a festival or anything else to encourage runners to linger before leaving. This was in part because spectators can’t really access the area where runners initially emerge after collecting their medals (although my wife — never one to be deterred by barriers of any sort — somehow managed to do so). The medal was decent — quite small, but heavy for its size. Results were posted online within hours.
The cool cats and dogs of Istanbul
Most people who travel to Istanbul to run the Half Marathon — especially if coming all the way from North America — will want to spend some time exploring the city. Even if you have been there before, you probably wouldn’t have been to all of it. It is a great city. There is amazing food. And it puts places like London — my original home town — to shame when it comes to the absence of litter and overall street cleanliness.
A reader messaged me knowing I was going to run the race to ask whether I thought Istanbul is safe for women traveling alone. She’s hoping to run the 10K next year. I think it is, subject to normal precautions you’d take anywhere. My wife agrees, as does a female friend of ours who visited recently from the U.S. with a girlfriend. And even though I’ve noted the race field in 2023 was largely male, that should not in any way deter female participation. I didn’t observe anything at the race that would make women uncomfortable.
Before ending this post, I wanted to remark on something you’ll almost certainly encounter if you do visit Istanbul — cats. And, to a lesser extent, dogs.
Istanbul is, quite literally, full of cats. Street cats. They are not stray domestic pets. But nor do they have the demeanor of feral cats. They are too chill, too put together. They are everywhere. You see them on the street, but you might equally find one lounging in a chair when you are about to sit down in a café. Or sprawled on the hood of a car. They generally seem well fed and not skittish around humans. And this is in no small part because humans do provide for them. Throughout Istanbul, one sees plates of food put out for them and even little cat houses built to provide them with shelter. It is almost as though they are the human city’s collective street pets. But the cats rarely show much interest in people. A piece about them in The Economist referred to their “cool nonchalance,” which sums it up well.
I read reports of there being up to 200,000 to 250,000 street cats in Istanbul. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number was higher. I know of no other city in the world with this type of cat presence.
There are also street dogs, but much fewer. These are not like the mangy, occasionally scary street dogs you see elsewhere. They are quite large and many appear to have retriever or similar genes. And they, too, appear well fed. Maybe they tuck into the cat food or maybe they, too, have their human patrons. They look more like dogs out of a “Farmer’s Dog” TV ad than your typical street dog. They wander around with a genial air when not slumbering on a sidewalk. They don’t have much to do with the cats. Occasionally, a cat might scramble upon seeing one. But the dogs don’t seem all that interested in their feline street mates.
Back to the race. Here are my conclusions, but the bottom line is that I recommend it. There don’t appear to be that many runners from other countries, but there are some and I think it is a great destination for combining running with traveling:
Pros: Great course at the heart of a fantastic city; fairly flat for the most part with only modest hills; generally well organized. Cons: Out-and-back is not everyone’s favorite type of course; logistics can be more challenging than some for English speakers; race starts a bit on the late side; start and finish area not great for spectators. Sum-up: A truly great race for combining travel with running. ✈️🏃
Next race: Sydney Half Marathon.
Related post: Turkish Airlines review.
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