Sport

The Meaning of the Dubrovnik Half-Marathon for the City and its Potential

TCN meets the organiser of the Dubrovnik Half Marathon, Alen Bošković.

On Sunday, May 1, 2016 most of the world, Croatia included, will be celebrating Labour Day. For the second year in a row, Dubrovnik will be home to the half-marathon.

Just several weeks ago, when the organization of the DuMotion Dubrovnik Half-Marathon was being finalized, I had the honour of interviewing Alen Bošković, the director of the entire event. We spoke about how it all began, what obstacles is Dubrovnik half-marathon facing and the idea behind the entire project. I must say that I was impressed by the level of enthusiasm displayed by the director and how not even once he looked into his private notes for a single digit – all the numbers are in his head which tells us his heart and soul are in this project, and given the circumstances, the half-marathon is deemed to succeed.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I started with swimming practices in 1976 at the swimming pool here in Dubrovnik and that is basically how it all began for me. Very soon I started training water polo professionally and I was actively involved by 2009. I also attended Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 with the Croatian water polo team, I lived in Italy where I also professionally played water polo. After I was done training actively, I started working for the Dubrovnik sports committee (Dubrovački savez športova) as the chief secretary.

Why a half-marathon in the city of water polo?

Yes, even the ones who know me personally were very surprised, since I don’t even run. The idea was born in 2005 and 2006 in Monterey, California which is a city-friend of Dubrovnik. They have the Big Sur half-marathon, one of the most popular races in the States, but it took a long time from the idea to realization in Dubrovnik because the complexity and the financial aspects. 3 years ago, Dubrovnik’s mayor was in Monterey and then the initiative began intensively. One of Monterey half-marathon originators found it difficult to be on constant relation between Dubrovnik and USA given the health difficulties, time difference, etc, so he suggested Next Events Production which also own Portland Marathon to take the lead– one of the oldest marathons in USA, this year it’s going to be their 45th year in a row. So when Next Events came to Dubrovnik in 2014, they were examining the roads, they had many meetings with the police department, the city transportation company Libertas, etc. I would like to stress that all the people involved in the project are volunteers. Specifically, this is an important event at all levels because one of the main tasks of Dubrovnik Sport Committee is developing a culture of sport in Dubrovnik and inclusion of children to the event, either through contesting or volunteering. We’re proud to say that last year 350 young volunteers were included and a total of 480 volunteers from the beginning to the end of the project. This year we expect 600 volunteers to be involved in all parts of the organization.

Dubrovnik is a demanding city for such an event.

Extremely demanding since at the very beginning of the tourist season we have to cut off important roads that connect the city and the airport, and Dubrovnik cannot withstand isolation, it is dependent on air traffic. We’re not granted the luxury of a single mistake, the racing route needs to be accorded with the needs of tourists, locals and their obligations, hotel industry – the transfers are not allowed to be late, the guests need to have the services they paid for delivered to them. In the beginning, the route was imagined with an additional part to take place around the town, but we decreased its length and directed it towards Komolac, that is, towards Rožat, because the road is more flexible to handle and the traffic can be re-routed to the bridge. As it goes for the old town, we managed to have good communications with the people living there. We are sure that not everything was ideal last year, but we did manage to gather runners from 34 countries, from all continents. From USA, we had participants from 25 states, not even most of American marathons can do it.

For a young marathon, we managed to present ourselves to a wide market, but you have to know that the competition is fierce in the world amongst road running destinations, but we managed to intrigue the runners and create a destination race, it is not a typical one, it is attached to the city and we were aiming at having something different than other road races in Croatia and further. The event itself surpassed a typical road race and this year is branded under a complete new name – DuMotion Runner’s Day Dubrovnik, in other words, come to Dubrovnik, Dubrovnik is on the move, here you can run, don’t only participate in a single race because there are many more. On Thursday, April 28 was the official expo in Lazareti and it is also the place where it’s all wrapped up after Sunday. The runners were taking their starting packs, even one of sports equipment store opened up a shop specifically for the racers, by offering them sports items they might need. It’s not all about the contest, let’s get back to the main goal: to have as many citizens involved as possible, either by running, or by cheering.

Race on the walls – how? Why?

The time gap between the contestants will be 30 seconds, they will have chips that will register their contesting number and the time at the start and finish. The number of participants is limited, around 50 of them, and it does not have a competing dimension – this race in the walls is what tells us apart from other racing locations in the world. Route is as follows: start and finish are at St. Blaise’s church on Stradun, then the runners will go up the St. Saviour’s church to the walls, they will run the full circle of 1940 m, then back to Stradun, back to St. Blaise. The walls themselves are going to be closed for about an hour and half and that is a benefit rarely approved to anybody. Last year, there were even participants that were running the city walls and they brought selfie sticks along! Immediately after, Kid’s day run will commence on Stradun as well, with about 600 children participating.

What are the benefits for the participants?

As for the starting packs, everybody who is involved in the race has free entrance to city walls, boat ride to Lokrum, public transportation, entrance to museums... the point is to make the runners feel at home, and not just for them to come, do the race and leave. On Saturday (today) we'll have a pasta party on Banje beach, because on the day prior to race the participants need to get their carbs, this is a part of the pack as well – I am sure nothing similar to these racing benefits exist in the racing world. Sunday 9:30 is the start of the half-marathon, and 5 minutes after the 5 kilometre race commences which is completely humanitarian, this year for our Karla Sentić. The route is from the old town to the swimming pool in Gruž and back. Participation fee per person was 50 kunas, but the ones that wish to participate financially, and not run the race itself can pay the fee and in exchange they’ll get the cheering kit. Those running will receive a shirt and a medal after the race.

How about media coverage?

Last year we had 5 professional photographers and several drones as well. This year we’ll have 3 drones that will capture all the most beautiful landscapes of the city. There’ll be direct reports at the national television, radio... Prior to this race we had 4 international presentations: in Ljubljana, Sarajevo, Portland, Monterey and on a running expo. In Croatia, such expos are not common, what is done here in Dubrovnik is quite vast and expensive – benefits pack, more races, but also we can use Dubrovnik’s reputation and start with implementing global standards immediately. This is why we immediately started with elements of a destination race and united them with what a destination stands for. Hospitality is very important in this case and we need to welcome runners first as guests, and then as participants in a sports event. We don’t have some extensive money awarding funds, and once again, it’s not about competing, we want the runners to feel welcome, to enjoy in our city, to have a nice stay. But this year, the half-marathon in Dubrovnik is both male and female Croatian championship in half-marathon in the length of 35 km. Next to the track will be 9 water stations, on 5 places there’ll be motivational music, drummers to lift the racers’ spirits; it’s going to be very lively.

All schools and colleges are included, we want as many young people in the streets as possible, all wearing shirts we provided them, not to mention various sports clubs, citizens... We wanted to increase number of racing participants from Dubrovnik. In 2015 there were 40, while this year there’ll be over a hundred. The message of the entire event is to do sports as much as possible, on the 5 km race it does not matter if you run or walk, just start moving. As one of the by-products of last year’s half-marathon was Dubrovnik running school and this year they’re one of our partners. After the race, a get-together will be organized for all the participants, and also for all the volunteers. There are a lot of events put into 4 days and on Sunday we wrap it all up.

What do we know about the runners coming to Dubrovnik?

Runners from abroad usually come on Wednesday/Thursday, but Croats arrive a bit later, one day prior to the event or even on the day of the event if they come from about 100 km vicinity. The dates of the race have been carefully planned out with the Tourism board given it’s the shoulder season. Average number of overnight stays per runner is 4.25 which are not to be undermined, and if we take that there are going to be about 500 racers that bring along at least one person, then we’re talking about some serious numbers. There are cases where entire families participate, for instance, children in the Kid’s race, husband goes for the half-marathon, and the wife is in the 5 km race. A family comes to vacation, does some recreation and has a quality time in Dubrovnik. Of course, we made thorough analysis of the numbers, that’s why we know all of this. Last year there were more than 2.000 overnight stays.

This year, right after the American contesters, number 2 are the Brits. The race has a great reputation in GB which makes us extremely happy. We have great flight connections and we believe that the number of British participants is going to increase year after year. So far, the ratio is about 50/50: 50% of Croatians with the neighbours and 50% from further destinations. We can say that there are about 30% of Croats. We’re happy to see running schools coming, for instance from Ireland, England... American racers... There was an entire organized group of racers from Taiwan. We believe all of them will feel welcome in our city.

Your enthusiasm is incredible, it’s obvious you’re in this from the beginning to the end.

Yes, we dedicated a lot of time to promotion, there is not many of us in the organization itself. We approach this entire thing very seriously. 20 days prior to the race, we already start with preparing for 2017. The city of Dubrovnik is the initiator, huge support and we also have big plans for next year. The USA partners have a lot of experience and they were an immeasurable help, but the time difference and the distance is big and we needed support on the site. It was important to see many different stands: from what we as the citizens want out of it, what the tourist workers want and finally, what do we as the organizers wish for – where we are on the market and what’s the product we present to it. Comparative advantage of Dubrovnik is big; after all, this is a tourist town having a great reputation on the international market. We received a great acknowledgement from European Athletics Federation that gave us the highest marks for the last year’s half-marathon. We’re the only ones in Croatia to have received it. Since it’s our first year, it’s an incredible compliment to us. This year we’ll have a 1 runner/1 volunteer ratio which is not the case anywhere else. Portland for instance has 30.000 contestants and 4.000 volunteers; those are also big numbers not to be mistaken.

An official person will come a day before the race and test the water quality, that’s how much attention to detail we gave. Red Cross will be with us for full 2 days with 70 volunteers of their own, plus the doctors; three ambulances, there’ll be cars accompanying the racers, bikers, cyclists, the trail will be secured by 30 officials from Croatian carting federation that are normally involved in the hill races – they’ll be on all major intersections. A month before the race all the duties amongst the volunteers have been delegated and they have all been registered, all the city companies have been notified about their duties.

The synergy is just amazing – the city recognized the potential, you more or less do what you do best with little or no interference from the side.

Absolutely. The city, Dubrovnik Sports Committee, the sponsors, they are all very important for Dubrovnik half-marathon. If the story of Dubrovnik did not reach all parts of the globe, we’d be talking now exclusively about the running, but that’s what we were talking about the least in this interview. What is very typical for Croatia is that a lot is left for improvisation, it’s where we excel. I’ve attended the race in Portland and it left me breathless. You must know I participated at many great contests, I’ve been to the Olympic Games, I’ve lived in Italy where I professionally pursued my water polo career. In Portland, we’re talking about 30.000 runners that paid for the airplane ticket, accommodation, and different events so they could be in that specific race. The American approach I’ve seen from up close is all down to sales – how to sell a product quicker, faster and better than the other person. And that was it! I started working with people involved in different spheres of sport than I was as a player and it’s been of great importance for me. For instance, Charleston, a small USA town size of Dubrovnik annually attracts 40.000 runners and in that week the city makes $12 million! As for our marathon, we go through the data week after week and adjust the offer accordingly, specifically for each segment of participants. Promotion is very important to us, we’ve sent our shirts all over the world especially to the ones that participated already and continued to promote our race because they liked it so much. When a Dane tells you he’s impressed with how clean the city is minutes after the race, when a Singaporean tells you that he hadn’t seen such happy volunteers anywhere else in the world as in Dubrovnik, when a Greek tells you he’s astonished with the tourist offer... then it means you’re doing something right. Cleanliness, kindness, overall safety, all the elements for a great race have been fulfilled for our first race, it’s also a praise to the city. The entire work concept gets down to leaving none of the bigger tasks for the last 7 days except the operational tasks, such as the water stations and such. Application deadline was a month prior to the start of the race because we wanted to know in time how many shirts, medals, refreshments were needed, and these are the necessities for a flawless organization by global standards.

What’s the future outlook of the Dubrovnik half-marathon?

We must understand what our position is on a global rank. It’s impossible to compete with Greece since they’re the cradle of marathon with sports history older than 4.000 years. We can’t compete with Turkey that’s been a rich empire for centuries, same goes for Italy, the birth place of renaissance. The world is huge; we have to discover our niche. But still, in the sea of this diversity, we are a nation with the culture of our own for over a thousand of years. We tend to criticize ourselves, but generally, we speak very good English and I am assured none of the contestants had any difficulties obtaining information from a random person in the street. We’re also very hospitable. As it goes for this year, the expectations are even bigger than for the last marathon, there’s virtually no space for mistakes and if we compare the checklists, they’re the same as for the New York marathon. Personally, if there’ll be 200, 500 contestants, to me it’s irrelevant, I want for my team to be ready to accept 5.000 people in several hours if necessary. Organic growth is what we aim for. There were over 320 people that finished the race last year, this year it’ll be more than 500, next year 800, and so on. If we raise the quality through organic growth, all the racers participating will talk about this event as a high quality race, it’s the same as with tourists visiting Dubrovnik. They speak in superlatives about it to their friends, then the friends visit our city and those are the types of guest that tend to stay for 7 days at least, all thank to referrals. That is the goal of this project, with stressing the importance of living healthy, increasing this notion with our citizens and encouraging them to participate in the race.

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