May 06, 2023 4 min read 7 Comments
*Nikolay runs through the forests in Lviv to get some solitude from the war.
*Running and carrying firewood has solved his back problems.
*Pictures at the end of the story.
By Ray Glier
Running for your health takes on a whole different meaning when you are running in a war zone. All of Ukraine, every inch east to west, north to south, is a war zone because Russian missiles fly wherever the invaders want them to fly.
So you are really running for your life, not just your health.
That means you watch your step in Ukraine, as 63-year old Nikolay Sagaidakovsky does. Daily. That's a lot of steps for this man.
A retired engineer and consumer analyst, he lives in Lviv, in western Ukraine, and he makes sure he runs far enough away from power plants so he keeps his label as “runner” and doesn’t add another label “collateral damage.” The Russians seek out the power stations and oil depots and routinely blow them up, an attempt to either freeze people to death, or outright murder them with munitions.
“Some portion of risk exists, for sure, but it’s good to judge it using criteria of probability,” Nikolay said. “I keep in mind places to be bypassed.”
Nikolay prefers to be off the beaten path anyway, far from the hum of civilization. These days he runs through the snowy pine-birch forests surrounding Lviv, sometimes with a backpack full of firewood. Nikolay declares himself “a trail runner” and while he does not get lost in the woods, he gets lost in thought.
“These are quite stressful times, and you think often of compatriots fighting in the eastern part of Ukraine,” he said. “If you think about this all the time it makes you sick. Running gives you something different to think about.
“You think about your pace, you think of your breath, you listen to the music, or you are listening to the voice of nature….and the bad things are gone.”
Nikolay is part of the reason Ukraine is winning against the monster Putin. These people are not all hiding in fright, curled up in a ball, and begging for it to end. They are fighting back and living.
And living for Nikolay is going on joyous jaunts.
In 2021, Nikolay ran 200-300 miles a month, usually half marathons. He said he once did 11 days in a row of half marathons. In 2022, with the war threatening, it is more like 120-130 miles a month.
His personal records in runs with his Garmin device were set when he was 60 and 61. He doesn’t care much for the 5K and 10K competitions, though he did participate in a charity race to raise money for the defenders of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.
Nikolay prefers the solitude of the brick paved streets of Lviv that lead to the woods that surround the city. Several years ago, his son said, “You should go faster” and Nikolay subscribed to Jeff Galloway’s Run-Walk-Run training regimen through his Garmin.
“I never tried before to push myself beyond capabilities,” he said. When he found Galloway’s program, Nikolay ran more and with better pace.
“I was refreshed for the next day,” he said. “I was never dissembled for the next day. It was surprise. It was good.”
Nikolay rid himself of back pain, he said, by walking seven miles to work the last few years of his career, when he lived in Kyiv, the capital. It took him 1 hour, 50 minutes. He made the march in the snow, too, and needed his head lamp on the shorter winter days. Nioklay gave his car to his son and walked or jogged.
“It is safe here,” he said, and then he paused, before adding, “when there is not war going on.”
There are attacks on infrastructure once a week, he said. Nikolay doesn’t hear the blasts all the time, but he hears the sirens of the firetrucks racing to squash the fire and rescue the injured.
Many homes in Ukraine have old coal and wood burning stoves that have been retrofitted with gas from underground pipelines. So far, the gas supply has been steady. His father and mother-in-law live with Nikolay and his wife, so he must think about keeping the family warm.
If the gas ever goes out, Nikolay has a backup plan.
He started carrying a handsaw with him on his runs through the woods. He would stop for fallen trees and go from runner to lumberjack. Nikolay would saw enough wood to stuff into his oversized backpack and jog home with it.
“I found it very healthy, I run with pleasure,” he said. “I found it (backpack) can move steady with me, it is a matter of positioning your legs, your stride, and next day you feel 20 years younger. I never had trouble with back after getting out of office chair and stop driving.”
Nikolay learned how to carry the pack on mountain-climbing trips to Nepal. There, the porters taught him to handle 80 pounds resting on his shoulders and back. He can put 25 to 33 kilograms (50 to 72 pounds) of wood in his backpack. If the snow is deep, he gets out his trekking poles. Nikolay said the weight strengthens his core.
The wood warms him three times. Once on his run collecting it for the jog home. A second time when he splits it neatly so it fits in the stove. A third time when he will need to toss it in the stove, if the Russians interrupt the gas supply.
What warms him especially are the Facebook group members from Runners over 60, and Runners Over 50 and their outpouring of concern and good wishes.
Nikolay does not have regular running buddies—others in Lviv see what he puts himself through and do not come for a second jaunt—so his crew are the Americans, British, Canadians, Germans, Swiss and other westerners in the Facebook groups. Many have said Nikolay and his family can come find refuge with them in their countries, if the Russian invasion grows dire…or more dire.
“I was extremely touched by power of such connections,” Nikolay said. “There is a strong hope within the group ‘Runners over 60’ to have an running event in Lviv, Ukraine after our victory. Hope it will come soon.”
Indeed. Slava Ukraini!
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