When Ivo was 18, a car made a wrong turn and hit him. His left leg was badly broken under the knee and wouldn’t heal. After months in plaster, the doctors announced that they will soon have to amputate, as Ivo lacked the hormone producing calcium in his body and the broken bone would never repair (because he used to eat too much Bulgarian Feta cheese and the body, getting more than enough calcium from the cheese, stopped producing the hormone). All doctors confirmed the necessity of amputation before the wound goes putrid, but one. Doctor Shoilev- the official doctor of the Bulgarian National Football team- had an alternative. He ordered artificial hormones from Switzerland and started injecting Ivo every day for 20 days.
After eight long months in bed with a full cast on his leg, Ivo finally got better and his leg was saved. But it took many more months of physiotherapy for him to fully recover. The calf on his left leg is still smaller than the right one, and his foot is a bit crooked with 7% deviation.
When Ivo got out of his cast he met Bobby Filipov- a republican running youth champion- who took him under his wing and slowly started training him, teaching him the right way to build his damaged muscles. For Bobby, bodybuilding was and still is a full time passion, science and religion which he patiently preached to his one disciple for many long months, day after day after day. Thanks to Bobby, Ivo recovered fully, got in good physical shape and kept his obsession for training and keeping fit all his life.
About one year ago, Ivo met Mel Ebstein, captain of S/V Passages from Australia, at anchor near the small Caribbean island-country of Dominica. Mel is a marathon runner who has participated in races all around the world, including the prestigious 90km ultramarathon Comrades in South Africa. Together, Ivo and Mel started running up and down the streets of the Caribbean islands we visited and once we reached Barbados, they raced in a 10K run. For Ivo, this was the first official organized long distance race. He finished in 52 minutes and didn’t stop running ever since.
From then on, Ivo would go out in the morning no matter where we are, and run with a special Garmin Express watch monitoring and recording his heart rate, speed, time and distance, as well as his GPS position. All this information is then uploaded and recorded in internet. His goal is to run all over the world, in cities, villages, islands and continents. The strangest place he ran so far is the small island of Nargana in the Kuna Yala province of the San Blas Archipelago in Panama, where the longest street is 800 meters, inspiring the young indigenous kids to race after him in the morning.
Once we reached Panama City, Ivo realized this is the almost ideal place to train and participate in a full 42.2K marathon, one of his bucket list accomplishments. Almost, but not ideal, because of the tropical heat and humidity which are a tremendous challenge for the long distance runner. But everything else was perfect. We were at anchor near Amador Causeway, which is a long scenic boulevard making for a nice traffic-free runway in the early morning; there were organized smaller marathons every weekend, so that runners could build up to the big one starting with 10K, 15k and 21K races; and we had access to food. When training for a serious marathon, a special diet is extremely important, and access to the right food at cheap prices here in Panama was a blessing for us.
Inspired by Ivo, Maya and I started running as well, just for general physical fitness in the beginning, and then following a special program, we trained for short distance marathons too. And before our great triumphs, we all had our little mishaps during our first organized runs: first Mira made a fatal mistake, then Maya experienced a major disappointment, and then Ivo suffered because of a virus.
Sunday. It’s very early in the morning and the sun is still slowly waking up. The tall buildings of the city are still sleeping; the streets are empty and quiet. But a strange feeling of anxiety is brewing like a small tornado charged with electricity in one end of the park, where thousands of early people in bright pink t-shirts have gathered for the marathon. Ivo and I are among them. Ivo signed up for the 10K run and I am going for the 5K, after only two weeks of training. We will start together- the 5K and the 10K- and split somewhere along the way.
It’s time. We are a thick crowd facing west, ready to go. Everyone is hush now. Three, two, one, START! The human mass begins moving quickly and suddenly like a creature with many legs: a giant centipede leaping forward with thousands of feet in running shoes. The buzz suddenly stops and everyone is absolutely quiet: a strange silence filled with the murmur of steps on the asphalt like raindrops on a tin roof. The human centipede stretches and stretches and becomes thin and long and I am lost somewhere in the middle, following the ones before me, being followed by the ones behind me. I discover the city of Panama and all sorts of feelings and thoughts overwhelm me. I am thinking how awesome is to be a part of this mass energy.
After 56 minutes, having covered the 10km, Ivo is at the finish line looking for me. I should be done before him with my 5km, but I am nowhere to be found. I show up after the longest hardest deadliest one hour and twenty minutes in my life, after missing my 5K exit and continuing running the full 10 kilometers of the run, during which time I experienced the phenomenon called “bonking”, when you get cold Goosebumps on your head, your heart becomes as big and as fast as a rabbit gone mad, your legs are no longer yours, and your mind starts playing tricks on you, making you seeing things that are not there or staring at things that are there too much. Like the giant planet of a but on a short lady who just passed me like a graceful small hippopotamus and kept shaking her abundance in front of me until I am completely hypnotized. How is it possible for such a massive thing to run so gracefully and with no effort at all for 10 kilometers straight? I make it alive to the finish line without stopping to rest or walk, but I cry with profound sadness, lamenting my stupidity. How could I miss my exit and run 10 instead of 5 km? Ivo is amused but proud with me.
Next marathon screw-up is when Maya participates in a 1K kids’ race for 5 to 12-year-old children. She is one of the tallest oldest kids in the race and naturally, she is one of the fastest, with the advantage of her longer legs. We are super proud and happy when she arrives among the first finalists and immediately hurry to a small restaurant to reward our little athlete with a nice big sandwich for breakfast. Where is the screw-up, you will ask? Well, when we go back home that day and check on the event website to see how is Maya’s official ranking, we find out that she has won a second place for girls, but never received her medal and her prize, as we left before the awards! Can you imagine her mixed feelings of pride for wining a second place at her first race ever, and disappointment for not receiving the prize?
Ivo’s problem was running sick at his 21K half-marathon in Gamboa. The virus that made everyone we know- people in the anchorage and friends living in Panama- sick with fever and sore throat didn’t spare him. A week before the race, he is down with fever and diarrhea, but keeps training, even though it is more like torture than training. It’s a hard run for his exhausted body, but he made it, even though his time was not what he hoped for.
We all kept running after our initial minor failures and disappointments. We never gave up. On November 15th 2015 Maya successfully completed her first 5K run. She was listed as 18-years-old, as the run was not open to children, and was one of the youngest runners among thousands of people, crossing the finish line in 35 minutes and 47 seconds. She got a medal and the satisfaction of a major accomplishment. The same day, I ran 10K again, this time fully aware of what I am doing when I passed by the 5K exit point and kept going. I didn’t bonk this time. I felt great all the way till the end and even after crossing the finish line 1 hour and 7 minutes later, I had plenty of energy and could keep running.
On November 28th, Ivo received an e-mail from his friend Mel in Australia, who is still training him from a distance, giving him advice and encouragement, and keeping an eye on his progress and physical condition. The e-mail said: “Good luck with your first marathon tomorrow. Celebrate your first 42.2 km during the run and don’t let anything worry you. You have trained hard and well in difficult conditions, which will carry you through any difficulties- especially when your mind starts playing tricks with you. Just ignore any negative thoughts- you can definitely do this! All the very best. Mel Ebstein.”
On November 29th, 2015 Ivo joined the two thousand other people from all over the world, who started running at 5:00 a.m. in the center of Panama City and didn’t return until hours later, having covered the 42.2 K distance.
Training for months for a long distance running and finishing a 42K full marathon under 5 hours is an accomplishment of a lifetime; an incredible achievement. Maya said: “It feels nice when others are proud with you and when you are proud with yourself!” And this is the main reason why people run in marathons.
Ivo crossed the finish line of one of his greatest achievements crying with pain and happiness, completely destroyed and overwhelmed. “There were these people helping us; random people with cars driving slowly beside us, and on bicycles, who came and ask us if we need water or gels; they went and brought us Gatorade when the water at the water stations was finished. They gave me water and I shared it with the other runners; and we helped each other, we encouraged each other like it was a war and we were together against a common enemy. And then there were the wheelchairs athletes. They were there too, pushing with their arms; it broke my heart.”
Ivo, who doesn’t like the human race in general, came back from his 42 km with aching legs and a heart full of inexplicable gratitude for the people of Panama who showed such overwhelming support for the marathon runners. He wept thinking of the doctor who saved his leg, of the friend who thought him how to train, and the friend who thought him how to enjoy and celebrate the long distance run.