On the weekend, I had the privilege of running the Athens Marathon side-by-side with my boyfriend Sye. For a change, I thought it would be fun to get him to write a guest blog of his experience of the race and weekend surrounding it. And so, over to him!
Where does the name of the famous marathon race originate from? Well, for those that do not know, it comes from a Greek town called Marathon, located roughly 40km north west of Athens. During 490 B.C. the Greeks were under siege by the Persians and an important battle had taken place in the town of Marathon. A soldier named Pheidippides, elated by the victory, ran all the way from Marathon back to Athens to share the brilliant news. It was said he fell at the gates shouting “We have triumphed!” only to collapse and pass away of exhaustion.
This story was shared and spread and slowly turned into legend, that is, until 1896 at the first modern Olympic Games. It was at this point in time that Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, decided to create a true competitive event out of the legend. The runners where set to follow a similar path of 42km. In a great moment of pride, the Greeks watched as one of their own, a humble water carrier named Spyridon “Spyros” Louis, won the event while running over the line side by side with the crowned prince of Greece.
The Authentic Athens Marathon was established in honour of this story. With the history and the cultural significance of this event I signed up expecting the great things, both from myself and the event itself. But would we both triumph?
Affinity for this race, given its story, had me lay out a training plan more thorough than any before, and more importantly the strongest will to follow through. I mixed in some cross-training, long runs, speed work, intervals, hills, etc. With 8 weeks to go I had extended my weekly long runs to 32km with weekly totals approaching 72km. I had even being doing yoga (something a younger me detested) to prevent injury. It had all been working and things were looking swell!
Alas, life seems to find a way, and due to personal circumstances my progress froze, even regressed. Suffice to say I went down to a weekly average of around 30km, haphazardly split up amongst the week.
While I never stopped training, and I was still in decent shape, this turn around had a mental affect on my will to go in strong. I had done my research and heard stories: this was a particularly tough marathon, the weather was known to be on the warmer side, the hills undulating and never ending – at least not until the final 10km. This knowledge had instilled a little fear into me, about what to expect. I came close to pulling out, something I mentioned to Julia a few times.
During these moments I held onto the history of the event, and one of the underlying themes of marathons in general: perseverance. I came to face the facts that yes, this event was going to be tough, but unlike Pheidippides, at least I had water stations, energy gels and a wonderful running partner to keep me alive. I would do this.
We arrived in Athens a couple of days before the marathon, giving ourselves some time to experience the city and the culture. I personally love this aspect of doing marathons outside of your home city and country. The chance to experience something and somewhere completely new is a gift I don’t not take for granted.
On the evening we landed we had booked a a truly unique experience. We were the guests of two locals who cooked us some brilliant traditional Greek food and kept us hydrated with tasty local wines (Disclaimer: copious amounts of Greek wine is not actually hydrating). After this meal I felt I would have enough nourishment and energy to complete the upcoming event. While I am sure Spyros and Pheidippides ate differently than I did before there conquests, I still felt a closer connection with them through eating traditional Greek food.
On the Saturday before the event we made our way, albeit slowly, to the expo. I thoroughly disliked the first few expos I attended, they are loud, crowded and use to have very little of interest to me. Yet, as I have matured into to running (or have I been run-down by running? 🧐), I have gained an interest into other marathons that are being promoted, running shoes, gels, nutrition, muscle science, sports wear, etc, etc. This growth in interest has been key to making expos a pleasant experience for me. Plus, I enjoy the energy displayed in the expos, it really helps build excitement!
After a little sightseeing around the old streets of Athens we tucked into our traditional highcarb pre-race meal of pasta and ice cream before getting a good night’s rest.
It was finally the day of the event, and after arising relatively early, gulping down a few more carbs, donning our race kit, it was time to head to the start line.
Trip to Marathon
The race starts in Marathon, but happily there were organised busses that ran from set locations in Athens to Marathon. This was a pleasant experience and was a glimpse into how well run this marathon would continue to be. The route the bus took to Marathon was actually the same route we would run! I really liked this detail as it provided an excellent overview of what we would all face. I will save the details of the route for the run recap itself, but suffice it to say, I realised that it would be tough.
I took the last moments of the bus ride to appreciate the countryside. !s someone who grew up in a similar landscape, although on the other side of the world, rolling hills and scenic ocean views sing to me.
The Starting Line
As the bus rolled in we gained a sense for the number of people partaking in this historically rich event (18,750 for 2018). For me, the energy and adrenaline really pick up once you start seeing others dashing about. Everyone was making last minute shoe adjustments, applying sunscreen, pinning their bibs, scientifically lining up gels, happily snapping pre-race selfies, and of course, heading for a last minute toilet stop. Speaking of which: Athens Marathon had an impressive amount of mobile toilets, I can not overstate how important this is!
As we entered our starting block I was the usual mix of excited and anxious. Excited by the event and atmosphere, nervous about my lack of preparedness. I glimpsed over to a nearby eternal torch and calmed my nerves: I was going to return to Athens triumphant.
We charged over the starting line with fervour, although I quickly restrained myself – I would end up like Pheidippides if I left the gate with too much gusto 😅. The first few kilometres were pleasant as we breezed past farm land and stared at seemingly distant mountains. This area was calmed by the surroundings, but thundered with the strength of our fellow marathoners. At ~5km in we ran past the marathon tomb, although unfortunately there is nothing to really see from the road. This was a little disappointing as the pre-race route maps make it seem you would.
As the hills that were revealed during the bus trip rose and receded over the next few kilometres, we reached an important moment at ~13km. At this point of the route on the 23rd of July 2018 a devastating wild fire tore through part of Marathon, claiming 99 lives. As someone from a country (Australia) that constantly faces these threats, I felt a strong sense of connection and sympathy for the locals. In these moments I truly think the running community shines, generally always happy and welcoming people, this was no different. When reaching this point most of the marathoners took out and made evident a green buff we had been given earlier. The idea was that we could re-create the greenery of the forests by wearing them through this section. It was a warm moment to see, and I truly hope the best recovery possible for those effected.
Inevitably we started our ascent: at the 8km mark the undulating hills started. Up and down, gain and loss, a different writer might tie in references to life’s journey here, but I’ll spare you my contemplations 😜. I was actually doing surprisingly well through this section and I had almost no issues with the hills. However, little did I realise the additive toll they were taking on my legs…
At about the half way point though, it started to become clear. While my pace had not slowed down yet, I could feel more fatigue than I would have hoped for. It is also at this point that I had crossed the boundary of my longest run in the last 8 weeks. Still, I was enjoying the sea vistas at this point, they were breathtaking.
I hit the dreaded wall hated by every runner at around 28km. My legs had simply had enough of the hills, while still surrounded by natural beauty and supported by my expert partner, I had to bite the bullet and realise it was going to be very arduous from here to the finish. I made the strategic decision to switch pace, employing a run 0.9km, walk 100m cadence. I was hoping this would see me through to the end.
Alas, unfortunately it only got worse as my knee started to give way at about 30km. I’d had knee issues at my first marathon at Edinburgh in May 2017, but at least this was not the same knee that had plagued me then. I was defiant at first, after all I have not had any major, or really even minor, injuries or niggles since Edinburgh. After a few more defiant kilometres, I (with some sage advice) made the difficult decision to walk from 33 km onwards. Sometimes the difficult decision is not to push yourself until you are broken, sometimes the right choice is to take a step back and realise the longevity of your joints is wildly more important than a single event. This section should have been the joyous part as we had reached the ‘peak’ of the climb and it was all downhill from here.
These calmer sections allowed me to take in an aspect that I had not yet paid much attention to: the crowd. There was a lot of support from the locals for most of the route, which was surprising given the predominantly countryside scenes. Supporters handed out plenty of “Bravos” and traditional olive branches the entire time with even more cheers and high fives in the built up towns. The support from the crowd was truly amazing!
It was around the 40 KM mark that I was able to start a hobbled run towards the finish. Knee be damned, I wanted to finish this historic run strong, to try and come back into Athens with a sense of triumph. Hand in hand with Julia we strode toward the finish in the historic 1896 Olympic Panathenaic Stadium. It was overwhelming to feel the history of this wonderful place.
Crossing the finishing line will always be a remarkable feat that not all can enjoy. Personally at this moment in my life, I find great satisfaction in that simple action. My time does not matter (5:23, for those that need to know), the next race does not matter, the only thing that does is having finished. And to do so for an event so historic, in a stadium of such significance, hand in hand with someone so special is what gives me pleasure and satisfaction. I will not forgot the trials and the tribulations I faced, I will not forgot the crowds and Greek country side, I will not forget Athens, and I will hold forever the joy of crossing that line.
So, did the event triumph? Yes! A million times yes. Did I? Well, I crossed that line 😝