Most marathon runners vaguely know the story of Pheidippides, the messenger who, as legend would have it ran to Athens to deliver news of the victory at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC, and promptly dropped down dead.
The Athens Marathon “The Authentic” runs a route from Marathon to Athens. This year, the 34th edition, marks the 120th anniversary of the debut marathon at the modern Olympic games; and the 70th anniversary of the Cypriot, Stylianos “Stelios” Kyriakides winning the 1946 Boston Marathon with the aim to raise money for the Greeks suffering after WW2. Several runners wore commemorative Stelios signs on their backs for the race. Spectators were handing olive branches to the runners, and many carried them along the whole course back to Athens.
I signed up for the Athens Marathon only a few months ago, not quite realising what a huge event it was, just looking for somewhere to run where I’d not been before and could travel and run a marathon with a maximum of 1 day of annual leave. Having looked at previous years results from top to bottom, I saw my PB would place my quite high, so made the assumption the race was quite small. Not so. Turns out there’s another reason the top runners ran relatively “slow” times.
I was supposed to run Abingdon Marathon 3 weeks prior to Athens, but took the decision to DNS, having seen my performances get worse and worse over the last few months, deciding to get some rest and go all out for a season finale at Athens.
I had an easy weekend the Saturday and Sunday before Athens, pacing 24 minutes at parkrun on saturday, and doing a 10 mile tempo run around my test loop on sunday before a yoga class. The most laid back weekend lacking in plans and commitments I’ve had since at least December 2014 (and that’s where I stopped scrolling back through my iphone calendar. The 10 miler was a couple of minutes faster than my other two matched runs done in August 2015 and January 2016, and I was pleasantly surprised, though that’s perhaps not saying much as the January run was my first “long run” back from my injury this time last year at the Druids Challenge. I know I’m nowhere near PB form, so was hoping for around a 3:30.
Anyway, after a particularly busy Friday morning in work, I managed to get out at 12:30 to head to Heathrow and fly to Athens, jump on the Metro and get to the hotel around midnight, where my friend Maddie was waiting for me. We went out for a couple of hours to a nearby bar, and sat in a pretty fairylit narrow street with a glass of wine, some pastries and bread and hummus.
Saturday we did a whirlwind sightseeing walk around Athens to see the main sights – The Acropolis, The Parthenon, Temple of Zeus, and Roman Agora. But missed out on Ancient Agora, because it turns out that if closing at 15:00 isn’t enough, entry isn’t permitted even for a whizz around at our pace after 14:45 and we arrived at 14:46! Some fantastic calamari, tzatziki, froyo, courgette fritters, pasta and icecream rounded off the day nicely.
I didn’t attend the expo so can’t give an opinion. But like the London Marathon, packs need to be picked up from there in the few days before the event. Without too much hassle though, I sent a picture of my passport and a note with signature to Maddie and they allowed her to pick it up for me. By all accounts it was extensive, but apparently there was reluctance to hand out the freebies to non-Greeks because the marketing was mostly for Greek brands and services.
It was a 5 o’ clock start for me, and Maddie decided to join me in my early rising. The hotel was brilliant to put on breakfast from 5:00 for marathoners, so I had a couple of spinach pastries, a pear, a mint tea, and nutella on toast. I then had a 15 minute walk to the nearest coach stop, where the race organisers had put on coaches to the start in Marathon. I can’t fault the organisation. Like London, trucks were there to transport kitbags to the finish. And they even provided binbags to keep warm after shedding our warm layers to hand in our kitbags.
I did behave, setting off at a fairly steady pace for a 3:30 marathon, unlike my usual rocketing off. But I found the pace tough, and felt as if I was trudging uphill almost the whole way. I’d heard the course wasn’t one for PB potential and had hills, but generally dismiss those kinds of comments, because I’m not bothered by a bit of undulation having done a fair few ultras and trail marathons. However, it was warm and I was finding it tough. I stopped several times at the portaloos, and walked through several aid stations to get some water into me and rehydrate. After half way, people from the pens behind, recognisable by their different colour bibs started streaming past me.
I can’t say the route in general was particularly scenic, but perhaps I was suffering too much to notice it. The support was good and the aid station volunteers were fantastic. There were several live bands and big speakers along the way. At one point, there was a speaker playing “2 Princes” which always reminds me of my late Uncle Terry. I sang a long for a while, and then got a bit choked up. The next mile was for you Uncly Ter.
That wasn’t my only emotional moment. I saw a stray dog well before the half way point, but can’t remember exactly when. Then saw it again at around mile 20, trotting along looking happy as Larry. I’m not sure when it joined in, perhaps even at the start and continued to the end, but it must have done at least a half marathon. It reminded me of Gobi, who joined Dion Leonard at the Gobi Ultra Race and stuck with him until the end. And now Dion is out in Beijing working to take her home to Edinburgh months later. If you haven’t seen the story of Gobi, and the Bring Gobi Home campaign, you should check it out.
Emotional moment #3 was seeing a man run past me (uphill), pushing his daughter in a wheelchair. #4 was seeing a man’s little girl join him on the course on her scooter, and him dragging her along ahead of me by the scooter handles for well over a mile and into the finish. #5 was imagining how I would feel entering the stadium for the finish straight. And #6 was that moment itself.
The finish in the Panathenaic Stadium is phenomenal. A huge white marble feat of construction, towering up above you, and with the sun beating down, it’s a real wow moment. For that alone, I’d recommend this race to others. But overall, it was a fantastic experience, well organised, well supported, good route, nice medal and lovely weather. The only drawback? Where I felt as if I was trudging uphill through lack of fitness, it turned out I actually was climbing uphill for a good 20 miles!
I finished in 3:56:32 by my chip. This was most definitely not a negative split with 1:48 ish first half and 2:09 ish second half! Placings in spite of my slow-for-me time, weren’t bad, (though definitely down compared to London PB performance), and were therefore reflective of the difficulty of the course.
Overall: 3078th / 14111 starters and 13786 finishers (top 22%)
Female: 243rd / 2603 starters and 2536 finishers (top 9%)
Age group (F < 35): 91st / 912 starters and 885 finishers (top 10%)
British female: 13th / 182 starters and 175 finishers (top 7%)
Age group British females: 5th / 90 start / 84 finished (top 5-6%).
The plan is 2 weeks of no running at all, but I’m willing to extend that to 6 if need be.
For the next 2 weeks, I will be attending hot yoga classes, swimming, and doing some strength and conditioning work. After that, I’ll see how I feel and may consider adding running back in, though at no more than 5-6kms at a time. I’d like to run the December Chiltern and Gloucester league cross country fixtures if I’m able, and a few parkruns including the christmas/new year specials. If running is not back on the cards, then the turbo trainer will have to feature for some maintenance of cardio and endurance. Then from January, the focus is on the Boston Marathon in April. Consistent training without squeezing in a ridiculous number of races which detract from training by taking too long to taper into and recover from if you do it properly.