Why do international athletes come to the Czech Republic's small, historic town of Karlovy Vary to race the half marathon? Elite athletes, race organizers, and spectators agree: it's a place where breakthrough races can happen.
The Mattoni Karlovy Vary Half Marathon brings high-level competition to a scenic, relaxing setting that is impossible to achieve in a major city. Jana Moberly, elite athlete coordinator for RunCzech, put it best: "This is a small city, but it is a big race. With the IAAF Gold Label, Karlovy Vary is the equal of courses in the world's biggest cities. Athletes have the opportunity to gain international exposure if they run well here."
And if this year's entrants run well enough, the Karlovy Vary course records could once again be in jeopardy. Both the men's and women's records have been broken the last two years, and they provide perfect goals for up-and-coming runners: 1:01.01 and 1:09.19.
For younger runners like Joyceline Jepkosgei, who will compete outside of Kenya for the first time this weekend, breaking the record would be an important springboard—a 1:08 would put her in the top 25 in the world right now, according to IAAF rankings. Jepkosgei envisions a career competing in international marathons, and hopes a successful performance here will help her make progress toward that goal. She is a member of the RunCzech Racing team, which helps international athletes by providing support and housing in Prague for races in Europe.
When asked why he chose to race in Karlovy Vary, Kenyan Abraham Kasongor Akophesha said, "I heard about the race from my friends, and I thought this was a place where I could accomplish my goal: to run 60 minutes. The first time I ran 61 minutes, it was in an evening race, so I am prepared to run my best in Karlovy Vary."
Both Kenyans stressed that their training regimens prepared them to compete well in another country. "We train in the morning, the afternoon, and at night," Jepkosgei said. "We train in altitude and in low lands. We train in warm weather and in cool weather. No matter what the race conditions, we will be prepared."
Breakthrough performances at Karlovy Vary aren't exclusive to young upstarts. Veteran road racer Caroline Kilel is expected to be the woman to beat on Saturday evening. The Kenyan has run under 1:09 several times, but never under 1:08. Doing so on a relatively hilly course here may be a tall order—especially under warm conditions—but the idea certainly has to be on her mind.
For one Czech runner, the event has added significance. Ivana Sekyrova lives and teaches grammar school near Karlovy Vary, and many students from her school are participating as volunteers and runners in the family 3K. "I am sure we will get together on Monday and talk about the experience," she said. The family runs are a popular part of the RunCzech plan, which hopes to bring greater exposure to the country's best runners and international road racing.
The combined international and regional nature of a half marathon like Karlovy Vary provides additional benefits for aspiring Czech elites. "I can race against high-quality competition that allows me to try to meet the standards for the European Championship or the Olympics, all while staying at home," Milan Kocourek said. "Having local race organizers helps us get exactly what we need to succeed, such as proper pace-setting for our goals."
Every RunCzech regional half marathon has unique qualities, and the scenery is one of Karlovy Vary‘s attractions. Moberly said, "It is a city marathon, but it is also very much in nature. We run alongside the river, through the woods, and among the mountains as well as through the beautiful buildings in town."
Combine that with an internationally respected, challenging course, and you have a formula for a breakthrough. Success here might not be as career-defining as a championship-level event, but several athletes have the opportunity to leave with a career-altering experience and something to build on for the future.