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Feature 17 Apr 17

Albanian Pensioner Finds New Life in Endless Marathons

Sotir Qiriaqi found salvation from life’s disappointments in running marathons - and now, aged 71, has clocked up more than 20,000 kilometers and won legions of fans.

Fatjona Mejdini
BIRN
Tirana
Photo courtesy of Sotir Qiriaqi. 

Sotir Qiriaqi was 54 when he started running in order to “escape” the traumas of life as result of being jobless and generally disappointed.

Back in 1991, he entered politics after being in the front line of the student protests that brought down the half-century-old communist system.

At one point, he was close to the leadership of the centre-right Democratic Party and he stayed in jobs related to politics up to 2000.

“In the end I lost my job and nobody cared. I found myself disappointed, depressed, overweight, a heavy smoker and without an idea about what to do with my life,” he recalled.

But when one door closes, another opens - and for Sotir this new path turned out to be more than 20,000 kilometers long.

“I started to run by Lake Tirana to keep myself busy and forget all my troubles, but soon I found myself addicted to it - like a magnet. I felt born again,” he told BIRN.

Running for five hours a day made him think about institutionalizing his experience and he decided to gather other passionate runners to form the Tirana Marathon Club.

Since then, Sotir, now 71 years old, has participated in 117 marathons, with a total of 3,500 kilometers run and 18,000 others marked out in training.

His first marathon in 2002 in Tirana was 13 kilometers long, while the first one outside the country was in Podgorica, in Montenegro, in 2003. Later, runs took him to other parts of Europe, the United States, Asia, and Africa.

"Many people see me old and it is hard for them to believe I have this tight activity schedule. They are even more surprised on learning that I have never been a professional athlete,” he said. “To tell the truth, I enjoy their admiration,” he added.

Being unstoppable at marathons has won him many fans, while speaking about his experience on television of the benefits of running has only further increased his fame.

“I feel so glad when young boys aspiring to be athletes ask to take selfies with me and I feel honoured when people join our club because they are inspired by my success at my age,” Sotir said.

His passion for participation in marathons has forged a group of businessmen and supporters who finance most of his trips.

“In the end, I keep the Albanian flag on my shoulder and make sure to send a positive message to the young and to those like me 17 years ago. I tell them to stay as far away as possible from politics and enjoy the simple things in life,” he advises.

Sotir has a favorite joke that he likes to tell mostly abroad when other runners ask about how he ended up running endless marathons.

“I tell them that I started to run and feel alive again after quitting a very dangerous drug. They get surprised and ask about the kind of drug - and then I tell them that the one I quit was politics,” he laughs.

After returning from a marathon in Rome held on April 2, Sotir is preparing for another in Pristina in May, while he has scheduled nine others for later this year. “I will run marathons as long as I’m alive,” he says with pride.

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