Kaunas Marathon has become an event many running enthusiasts have in their calendars, and the fourth edition of this event reflects the growth of it – big numbers of guests, tourists and locals. It appears that such a run can easily become a celebration not only for the athletes but for the city as well. Here’s a talk with Algirdas Pukis, founder of Kaunas Marathon and head of Kaunas Marathon Club, who also represents the initiative for the city to become the European Capital of Culture. The next Kaunas Marathon is scheduled for June 11th, 2017 and you can already register.
When did you first encounter the pleasure of running and how did the marathon idea start?
I have discovered the pleasure in running while in the USA. It was the summer of 2009 when my wife and I had our honeymoon at my brother’s. He lived in a small town – similar to Kaunas in size – and he used to jog all the time. I saw him leaving the house for a run once, twice, three times, and I got curious. So the fourth time had me running too. It took us three weeks to prepare for a 10 km run. Even though it wasn’t a big place, every weekend the town’s people had a sporting event (mostly a run) to take part in. Just imagine 500 to 1000 people ready to go every single weekend.
I didn’t stop training after I came back to Lithuania, yet I’ve spent more than six months looking for a running event in Kaunas. It took place in Panemunė park, where we are having this chat right now, and it was a Christmas run with around 200 individuals who all knew each other. I thought it was quite odd that most people haven’t heard of this event that was attended by a somewhat private community. It was probably then that I thought I could show the city folk how fun these marathons can really get.
Panemunė is one of my favourite spots to run, that’s why our meeting is here. My best personal choice for a route in Kaunas is definitely Panemunė park: fresh air, great atmosphere for a session, and the length of a lap is around 6 kilometres.
When you took up jogging, it wasn’t a popular thing as it is today. Are you surprised by the popularity? What, do you think, inspired it all?
We can see a lot of running events and the interest is high. I think this is a sign of a more conscious society as there are more runners, more cyclists and any admirers of other sports, with new clubs and groups being founded all the time. The society grows, therefore sports get bigger accordingly, so I don’t reckon it’ll slow down soon. I wouldn’t call it fashion, it’s a continuous process.
Kaunas Marathon improves every year, and the number of participants is growing…
There are several important factors that make our marathon stand out, they make it unique. Firstly, it’s the team that makes all the decisions and puts everything in the right places. Secondly, it’s the community of runners, both members of Kaunas Marathon Club and people of the city. The latter ones always help in creating the perfect atmosphere: despite 5,000 individuals showing up, the vibe stays cozy and much more comfortable than during the biggest marathons of the world.
What are the obstacles for you, the organiser of an international marathon?
The first marathon was in 2013, but the idea was born in 2011 when we registered the website of Kaunas Marathon. It took us two years to organise it: it was the first event of such scale for me, I had almost no organisational experience, many processes were completely unfamiliar. We also had no connections to the federation of athletics in Lithuania or other organisers, so the first marathon was very hard for me, even in a physical sense.
During the preparations for the first event, both the city and partners didn’t quite get the idea of the marathon, so we had to kind of educate them about it. Each year we had it easier, and finally the city tamed the event. Third and fourth marathons took place in the square of City Hall; we had a bigger crowd, bigger challenges. This year the marathon was a bit different as we had a much stronger team. Now we work towards establishing new international bonds and attracting more communities.
The most recent marathon had over 200 volunteers. What’s their role and what motivates the people of Kaunas?
Our team is extremely happy about the number of volunteers; their role has really grown too. We believe that volunteering is a way for a young person to get valuable experience, and, most importantly, it strenghtens the communal feelings.
Kaunas – your home town – is aspiring to become the European Capital of Culture of 2022. What’s your part in the “Kaunas Contemporary Capital” project and what’s your vision for 2022? Also, how is sport related to culture and how is it going to be used in this programme if Kaunas secures the title?
I’m part of many discussions about Kaunas’ goal to become the European Capital of Culture. Meetings, talks and other initiatives concerning this project have been taking place for about a year and a half, and it’s great to see it all developing. It was obvious from the very start that this title is truly important for Kaunas. The city is growing and getting more modern, it’s a cultural place for young people. Of course, we can’t forget sport, which has always been a big part of this city’s life.
Kaunas has many spots significant to sport, such as the stadium of S. Darius and S. Girėnas or Kaunas Sport Hall. I personally believe that Kaunas becoming the capital of culture would act as huge motivation for local people, athletes and the culture sector to work together for the good of the city.
“Culture” is a broad term in the programme of the mentioned European capital; it combines sport, business, food, architecture, art and other areas. Sport will probably have a big role in this project, having in mind that sport was at its peak here during the interwar years.
While organising the first Kaunas Marathon, we looked for archives from the earlier running events in the city. One photo from the interwar period has left the biggest personal impression on me: it shows Laisvės avenue full of people who came here to support the runners. I think such interest should be kept and nurtured; we have a lot of sporting events and initiatives, yet locals could participate more often. We wish the whole city to experience this, not necessarily the running but the emotional supporting too.
I see the 2022 Kaunas Marathon as a proper big city event where there are over 20,000 runners from Lithuania and other countries attending. I see many people of Kaunas having picnics throughout the city and cheering for the participants. Another goal of ours is to have a running route (42 km 195 m) that would connect the cultural objects of Kaunas and Kaundas district.
The biggest marathons of the world attract many foreign runners, and these events become a certain form of pilgrimage. Is that something you’re working towards? How realistic are the opportunities to create sport tourism in Kaunas?
Marathon tourism is a common and popular thing: people who jog every day are used to go to a city that they haven’t visited to get to know it and to take part in its marathon. We – the members of Kaunas Marathon Club – also like to go to running events in foreign countries…
Kaunas is a suitable city for running tourism and other types of sport tourism as the city is arranged in a comfortable way. This year we had around 250 participants from 36 foreign countries; this is great for the city, those people get to know Kaunas and certainly want to visit again next year.
Organising the event is just one chunk of your activities. You also take care of Kaunas Marathon Club that unites professional track and field athletes. What was your motivation for this?
We have founded this club along with the marathon. It’s a social project that’s aiming to strengthen the athletic sector in Kaunas. Track and field athletes find it hard to support themselves, therefore Kaunas Marathon Club promotes this sport by establishing scholarships, grants or helping in other ways.
The club takes care of 30 professional sportspeople, and athletes like Rasa Drazdauskaitė and Remigijus Kančys – who both participated in Rio Olympics with their trainer Inga Juodeškienė – are among them. We have some young Lithuanian stars from other sports. The best results come from Eva Misiūnaitė (400 and 200 metres), Rokas Pacevičius (400 metres); Liveta Jasiūnaitė took part in the javelin throw at the European Athletics Championships, while Matas Adamonis broke the record of the decathlon for 18-year-olds.
We have also gathered a group of 60 running enthusiasts that train together and represent the club in various competitions. Athletic Federation of Lithuania organised a race and Kaunas Marathon Club took second place; we have also won the Cup of Lithuanian Running Amateurs in 2015.
The club invites people to join the free training sessions “Bėk lengvai” (run lightly in Lithuanian) or other running events in Kaunas. Next to the Kaunas Marathon in June, we also organise a night run in August, a run of the pink bow and other thematic events.
Any advice for those who have decided to try the Kaunas Marathon route?
The best piece of advice is go on and do it! You’ll rediscover the city while running, you’ll start seeing Kaunas differently.
Algirdas Pukis was interviewed by Ana Čižauskienė on behalf of Kaunas 2022. The original interview was published in 'Kaunas pilnas kultūros' August edition.
Portrait of Algirdas Pukis by Remis Ščerbauskas.