It is 4:45 am in the morning and the abusive scream of the alarm clock wrenches me out of my sleep. I dreamily contemplate the snooze function but think the better of it and instead fall into a tried-and-trusted routine. Throw on sports kit, assemble a small rucksack, lace up trainers and gobble a small bowl of cereal. Outside, the seagulls are mewing away loudly in defiance of the early hour. The loudspeakers on the minaret rattle as the muezzin readies his voice for the first call to prayer of the day. Still sleepy, I stumble up the hill to the local taxi rank where, this being Istanbul, a fleet of bright yellow vehicles are standing ready at any time of the day. The drivers know me, one interrupts his tea and with a cheery wave beckons me in without needing to ask where I want to go. It is time for running.
The city is still very much asleep. The trip to the neighbourhood of Bebek on the Bosphorus takes just 10 minutes at 5 am, at a busy time traffic would mean at least an hour. The very first commuters are stepping bleary-eyed into the first buses of the day: as the night meets day a sprinkling of late night partygoers look for a breakfast of soup before stepping into bed. I am duly delivered into my happy group of running friends, who are as addicted to this early morning routine as me. Günaydın! Nasılsın? Bomba gibi! Good morning! How are you? Just great! It is good to talk the talk at this time of day. Embraces, handshakes, fistbumps. Beeps as the GPS watches are set. This will be no light morning jog. And we are off. I feel the stiffness and lactate weigh in my legs from my last run a few days before. But no turning back now as the 15 km route begins.
Why get up before 5 am to go running, reducing sleep to less than half a dozen hours and making you tired for the rest of the day? In Istanbul, these runs became a physical and emotional necessity for me. To live in Istanbul is to live in one of the most inspiring, beautiful and important places in the world. Yet the city, like anywhere with a population fast approaching 20 million, can be so overwhelming and busy as to make you forget the splendour around. All Turks, from Istanbul and outside, complain the city is kalabalık, a word that means busy but brings a sense of chaos and a lack of personal space. But beginning my run in Bebek at 5:30 am, before dawn at any time of year, the city is something else. As I breathe in the morning air, I appreciate its beauty better than at any other time. A Turkish running friend put it to me best. “At this time of the day I feel the city is mine, I possess it. Then, from 8 am, all that starts, the cars the people. I lose it. But now, this early, while I run, it’s mine.”
The Bebek Classic Run, as I started calling it, falls conveniently into three five kilometre slices. We start at jogging pace back in the direction towards the city centre. At this time, few cars are there to disturb our progress. But at one of the very first corners there is always a group of often dozens of amateur fishermen, warmed by a fire in cold weather and with their tea brewing on coals. I pull up my buff to protect against the acrid smoke. Someone may even have set up a mobile cart to sell them fishing tackle and refreshments. The sheer energy and resourcefulness of Istanbul, 24 hours a day, never ceases to amaze me. By now we may have four-legged company too. Every corner of Istanbul has its population stray dogs but one specific dog always joins us. He is athletic, with a tremendous turn of sprint pace that leaves us for dead. This perfect, affectionate and loyal creature, we call him Tommy, has one weakness, a near cartoonish enthusiasm for chasing and seeking to massacre cats. We try to save him from himself but who knows what he gets up to when we are gone.
We run towards the neighbouring district of Arnavutköy, which many Istanbul residents tell me is simply the most desirable place to live in the city. It has some urban buzz, but also a village feels with spectacularly-constructed mansions, some of them wooden, with sweeping views of the Bosphorus. Indeed, merely decades before, all these points along the Bosphorus would have been considered villages with their own identities and very little in between. Now construction links everything solid. At Arnavutköy’s ferry iskele (dock) a beautiful old-style vessel is moored, snoozing while it awaits the first ferry journey of the day in two hours. We continue, heading towards the beautifully-illuminated first Bosphorus bridge, now named the 15 July Martyrs Bridge after the people killed during the failed 2016 coup. Even at this time of the day, traffic is building up on what in just an hour or so will become a car-clogged nightmare. The cars high above echo eerily as we run under the bridge and stop the watches briefly for a photo-op by the water next to the mosque in Ortaköy. Then with shouts of “Dön! Dön!” “Turn! Turn!” (the song by Travis from my early student days helps me along, we retrace our running steps back to Bebek. 5 km now on the watch and it’s just 6:00 am.
The running speed is picking up, the breathing now harder although the dog, who is still with us and snaring at other strays who day come near, remains energetic. Depending on the time of year, there may now be a glimmer of dawn on the other side of the Bosphorus, but not in the winter when the skies stay resolutely black. Runners were none too happy with a government ruling to keep Turkey’s clocks on permanent summer time, making winter mornings very dark. We run towards the second Bosphorus bridge, named after Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer who took Constantinople from the Byzantines. The view of the strait here is spectacular and cargo ships are already pushing their bows through the waves, slicing through the morning silence. Sometimes, there are even dolphins. Above looms the great fortress of Rumelihisarı built by Sultan Mehmet just ahead of the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 to squeeze the Byzantines into submission. Its presence is a reminder of how far away from the city centre this would have been considered then. Beneath are a sequence of popularly-frequented kahvaltı (breakfast) restaurants (it’s impossible to exaggerate how big — and flexible — a thing breakfast is in Turkey). Amazingly, at just after 6:00 am in the morning, quite a few are open, and hungry early risers already tucking into their first helpings of menemem (scrambled eggs), gözleme (Turkish pancakes) with various different cheeses, honey and kaymak clotted cream… My stomach rumbles impatiently but press on we must.
The next mark along the way is the district of Emirgan, again thronged by fishermen at all times of the year. Here I look warily for a large black dog who seems to get along fine with the fishermen on the embankment but over the years appears to have taken a particular dislike to me. Is it this black running tights or the bright yellow T-shirt? Sometimes Tommy can be some help but his presence may provoke even more. That obstacle surmounted, it is time to climb the hill towards the final point, the traffic lights overlooking the district of İstinye. 10 kilometres on the watch. Time for a final dash back to Bebek — and my friends are more than happy to crank up the speed at this point in what I called breathlessly called a “famous five” kilometres.
At weekends, sometimes, maybe I will push on even further, past the plush area of Yeniköy, dotted with stratospherically-priced waterside Bosphorus mansions (yalı). Then past the Huber Köşk, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s main official residence in Istanbul, below which armed jandarma warily patrol but pay little notice to passing runners. And then to the area of Tarabya from where the third Bosphorus bridge — opened in late 2015 and named after Sultan Selim who conquered much of the Middle East — is visible, with the Black Sea beyond. But today is a weekday and work beckons later, so it is time to turn. Handclaps of encouragement and more Dön! Dön!
At this point, at around 0630, there is much more traffic on the road, and the day’s normal rhythm is starting to be established. The buses are also really getting going, taking advantage of the relatively empty streets to go at near frenetic speeds. Sellers of the Turkish pretzel simit are taking their freshly-baked sesame buns out into the street, perched precariously on a wooden platform on their heads. Slightly more awake now, I notice the advertising billboards which more often than not are filled with political campaign slogans. My time in Turkey was dominated by a succession of elections and we always seemed to be in the throes of an election campaign. Needless to say, the advertising space is dominated by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Erdoğan whose face looks down from all sides. Focusing on the running, I try and keep up as we surge into Bebek and complete the 15 km. I am already dreaming of putting on my dry clothes and clasping a warm cup of milky coffee in my hands.
When I emerge from the coffee shop, normal service has already resumed in the city. It is already very kalabalık, even in Bebek the streets are filled with cars and all the taxis may have already been taken by eager commuters. The stress of another day in Turkey’s megapolis begins here. But I have something that cannot be taken away: the pleasure and happiness of experiencing the city at its best, when I feel it can be mine. It is an idyll carved out of a world of concrete, traffic and urban chaos. I have now left Istanbul, at least as a permanent resident. But these memories can never be taken away. And I can be sure, that every time I come back, I will set my alarm for 4:45 am and sleepily lace up my running shoes and prepare to hit the roads.