By McGee Nall
As I run down Frankopanksa in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, I dodge elderly women and hop around little children to avoid collision. Anything unexpected can flash beside you – a tram, a biker, a whiff of smoke. Keeping a steady rhythm is difficult as I run through the Ban Jelačić square mid-afternoon, whizzing past the recent surge of Korean tourists, local vendors and hyper high schoolers. The sound of the tram chugging along the rails makes the heart pound faster and my pace pick up as if real danger was approaching. A dash through the main arteries of Zagreb can feel hectic for a tourist, but in recent years, a running community has emerged, ready to explore more parts of the city by foot. It’s never a dull moment when blazing through Croatia’s capital, taking in every sight and sound the city has to offer.
The jogging scene exists in Zagreb, but not in the American way. Practically everyone who breathes claims to be a “runner” in the States, but in the heart of Croatia, running and other sports are approached with intensity and discipline. A typical American teenager might try ten sports over the course of their adolescence, but a Croatian teenager perfects one sport with laser focus.
Running clubs and schools are recent additions to Zagreb’s culture. Five years ago, the average runner might go past five to ten joggers along the Sava river bank. Today, the average jogger will zoom past hundreds of locals exercising on the dirt paths beside the river. Since the running fever is relatively new in Zagreb, locals still notice and chuckle at the few joggers who pound past their afternoon coffee breaks, interrupting their slow way of living. Purgers (as city locals are called) run, but mostly in their specific locations away from the heart of the city, such as Lake Jarun, Sava River and Maksimir Park.
Maksimir Park, located northeast of Ban Jelačić square and across from the capital’s soccer stadium, is a key jogging location, particularly during summer’s peak when shade is coveted. The park, which includes several trails, a café at the entrance, and a zoo, is home to the Zagreb Runners. Founded just over a year ago, the crew trains three times a week and participates in local and international races.
Domi Nation, one of the presidents and founders of Zagreb Runners, caught the running bug before the contagion spread throughout his hometown. As many Croats do, Nation played soccer religiously until, for various reasons, his teammates left to do other things. At a loss for how to stay in shape, Nation resorted to running. It didn’t take long before he was prepping for his first marathon: New York’s in 2012.
Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy hit that year and as a result, the New York Marathon was cancelled. Frustrated, Nation decided to run the marathon anyway – alone. Avoiding the flooded parts of town, Nation mapped out his own route, buying water bottles and any other forms of nutrition along the way. When discussing his finish, he described the simultaneous victory and disappointment.
“You look around, and no one knows. People are going to their everyday activities like, ‘Look at this guy in a checkerboard shirt,’” Nation says, referring to Croatia’s flag. “When you cross the finish line, you get the metal and everything – but this [experience] was bizarre.”
Nation’s odd marathon debut experience didn’t stop him from running, encouraged him to pursue the sport which led to a relationship with Nike, and then to founding Zagreb Runners. This crew has also formed a relationship with the Belgrade Urban Running Team, binding the two countries together through their love of the sport. “[Zagreb Runners] became politically interesting because of our friendship with Belgrade,” Nation says, who cares about “bridging the gap” between countries and locals within the Zagreb Runners’ team. “When I see people who meet within our running crew and on our trainings, when I see them hanging out and becoming really good friends – it sounds corny, but it’s the biggest pleasure to see.”
Nation acknowledges not only the need for camaraderie in the sport, but also avenues through which to perform the sport well, even for travelers. He encourages tourists to not only run from landmark to landmark, but to also seek out their destination’s key running spots. “Wherever I go, I do take my shoes,” Nation said. “I always do it because it’s a way to see a city in a different way.”
Continuing my afternoon run, after passing Velvet café on Dežmanova street and turning right, I approach the daunting Strossmayer hill. Analyzing my physical condition, I decide to walk the steep cobblestone road leading to Upper Town. At the top, I greet the white-haired man selling popcorn and take a moment to enjoy the vast view of Lower Town. Running past St. Mark’s church towards the stone gate on Kamenita, a young woman, her back toward me, stands wearing a long, black velvet cape. Due to the afternoon sun’s position, the light seems unable to touch her. As she remains motionless, almost haunting the cobblestones that lay before her, I run past her towards the city gate. I stop to walk quietly in an attempt to not disturb the woman gazing up at Mary’s shrine or the elderly gentleman lighting a candle.
After a loud, thrilling jaunt through Zagreb’s Lower and Upper Towns, I decide to run in a slightly more peaceful location. The Sava River, an approximately 20-minute tram ride from the main square, is another hub where Croats emerge from their high-rises to run. Forca, a three-year old running club, meets in the same spot along the bank five times a week to train. The club is led by Goran Murić, a 36-year old Croat, tanned and toned from spending years training in the sun. He’s the founder and head coach of Forca while also teaching kinesiology at the University of Zagreb. Murić runs twice a day and has his own personal coach. His rigorous discipline has served him well, considering he has been the champion of several Zagreb marathons and was the winner of the Wings for Life World Run held in Zadar in 2014.
As we sit on a park bench, watching scores of joggers run past and bikers roll across the gravel, Murić, with a consistent soft smile, shares his view on Zagreb’s recent running “boom.”
“I think people sit a lot in their offices and they needed a change,” Murić says slowly, intentionally choosing each English word. “People have a lot of problems with politicians and [running] is some kind of escape from everyday problems.”
Due to the costs of renting a bike or buying a tram ticket, Murić believes jogging is a cheaper way of exploring the city, especially considering Zagreb’s simple layout. “Zagreb is not so big, so you can run for 1-2 hours and visit the main sights,” he says.
Due to my 10 km/h pace, I’m placed in Forca’s Team 6. It doesn’t take long during our 20-minute run before we begin to sync together in a rhythm as our shoes pound against the gravel. With hardly any clouds in the sky, the sun hitting our sweaty faces shows no mercy except with the promise of a cool evening as it begins to set behind the high-rises. As we run towards Hendrix bridge, we make eye contact with Medvednica Mountain. A family strolls through the dirt path alongside the field of weeds on our left, their dogs zoom through the stems like a cheetah chasing its prey. With birds flying overhead, the sound of hundreds of feet thump, thump, thump along the ground, and a breeze finally cools my reddening skin. As we run towards the mountains and river ahead, we mimic the long blades of grass next to us, climbing towards the sun, freely gliding in the wind as one mobile chorus.