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Running into history Košice Peace Marathon

02 April 2023, 3pm

100 years of the Košice Peace Marathon

1924   first start

In the summer of 1924 Vojtech Braun Bukovský, Košice sports enthusiast, organiser and journalist all in one person, went to the Olympic Games in Paris. The enthusiasm he returned home with was channelled into organising a marathon race, as it was the event which had thrilled him the most in Paris.

Just a few weeks later, on 28 October and the 6th anniversary of the establishment of Czechoslovakia, eight men lined up for the start below the ruins of Turňa Castle and set off towards Košice, on a then still unsuspected adventure. The winner that day, local runner Karol Halla, tried defending his title another nine times altogether, but the growing quality of the competition was against him. The second edition already had an international line-up and the winners’ laurels from the third were carried off to Germany by Paul Hempel of the Charlottenburg Sports Club in Berlin. The Club exists to this day as the organiser of the Berlin Marathon.

The Marathon made itself at home in Eastern Slovakia and soon got a response from the rest of the world. In 1931 a 20-year-old Argentinian new boy Juan Carlos Zabala shocked everyone with his course record of 2:33:19. Many doubting voices were raised but they were all silenced a year later by Zabala’s victory at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Performances achieved in Košice always had the hallmark of credibility because since 1924 the course has regularly been remeasured to ensure it conforms with the now standard distance of 42.195km. This has not always been true elsewhere – as late as 1956 the Boston Marathon was run over a course of only 40.6km.

Even the torments of World War II could not stop the Marathon, and its continuity was preserved. The early snowfall in 1946 was perhaps a premonition that the era of the Northerners was beginning. In the decade that followed runners from Norway, Sweden and Finland won a total of eight times, with the Swede Thomas Nilsson setting a new course record of 2:22:06 in 1956.

During that period the Košice Marathon had a great reputation in Scandinavia. “May Boston forgive us, but the greatest marathon contests in the world are being played out in Košice,” wrote the daily Göteborg Posten. The leader of the Swedish team declared the race to be the unofficial championships of Europe.

In the 1959 race the course record was dramatically improved by the Russian Sergej Popov, who ran 2:17:45 and at the end of the year topped the world marathon rankings. Košice was also number one in the world in terms of participation. It may seem laughable in comparison to today’s marathon mass starts, but in 1946 and 1947 Košice had more finishers than any other race in the world, 74 in both years. In 1951 there were 69 finishers but that was also more than any other marathon that year.

In 1960 Košice acquired its own artistic symbol, a 3.5-metre high bronze statue of a marathon runner with the names of the winners on the plinth below. One year later the name of one of the greatest of all marathon runners was added there: Abebe Bikila, Olympic champion in Rome and later in Tokyo as well. The population of the city at that time was no more than 80 000, but nearly 30 000 people were crammed into the stadium to see the finish and several thousands more lined the course.

The next few Marathons were graced with other top names; world record-holder Leonard Edelen of the USA won in 1963 and brilliant runners from Great Britain and the Commonwealth took turns lining up at the start, such as Bill Adcocks, John Farrington, Derek Clayton, and Ron Hill.

In 1980 the Košice marathon was opened to women as well as men. For many years the women’s event was dominated by the German Christa Vahlensieck. In 1977 she set the world record of 2:34:48 in Berlin, and in Košice between 1981 and 1988 she won five times. Her compatriot, double Olympic winner Waldemar Cierpinski, tried repeatedly for victory in Košice, but none of his five starts brought him that honour. He ran his debut marathon in Košice in 1974 and finished his career there in 1985.

The year 1989 brought great changes. Less than two months before the ‘Velvet Revolution’ it looked like the Marathon itself was anticipating the changes in society. The traditional course going out to Seňa and back, which had been run from 1926 onwards, was replaced with a city circuit. This attracted the attention of the whole world in 1997, when the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships were held in Košice. Records were broken, with three men finishing under the hour. The titles were taken by Shem Kororia and Tegla Loroupe.

Just two years later Košice hosted the 12th AIMS World Congress, getting the chance to present its rich marathon history and organisational abilities once again. At that time Košice became recognised as the place continuously organising the oldest marathon in Europe. The only race in the world with a longer tradition is Boston. These two marathons have two winners in common: the Swede Karl Leanderson (Boston 1949, Košice 1948 and 1950); and the Belgian Aurel Vandenriessche (Boston 1963 and 1964, Košice 1965).

Today the Košice Marathon is a colourful festival of sport and fun attracting roughly 10 000 participants from all over the world. All those running around the extensive historical centre of this city – the first in Europe to acquire its own coat of arms from King Louis the Great in 1369 – must surely admire the Gothic St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral dating from the 14th century and a great many other architectural gems. It was thanks to this heritage and its programme of creative transformation that Košice gained the title of European Capital of Culture for the year 2013.

This Marathon is attractive not only due to its tradition and the olden-day charm of the city but also for the flat and fast course it offers which has remained essentially unchanged since the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in 1997. This is witnessed by the many personal best times which amateur runners in Košice improve on every year, as well as the course records which reflect the gradually increasing level of the event.

The past few years have shown that the Košice Peace Marathon can overcome even the most difficult of obstacles. It managed to preserve its continuity even in the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021. And in the midst of this difficult period yet another major award arrived – in the form of a World Athletics Heritage Plaque. There are further unique milestones to come: the 100th edition in 2023 and 100th anniversary of the founding of the Košice Peace Marathon in 1924.

If you ask runners what they see as exceptional in the Košice Marathon their answers often match. The unusual atmosphere, with streets full of runners and spectators; the positive energy with which everyone mutually recharges themselves. This is an image which reflects almost 100 years of the marathon phenomenon’s existence in this city. The people understand this marathon, live with it, and are rightly proud of it.

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