10 November 2013
So, this is the authentic marathon, if there ever was one. The story is weird, but I like to believe it really happened. The time is 490 BC, the Greeks just won an important battle against the Persians and some high-ranking guy decided to command this dude Pheidippides to spread the message of victory back in Athens. He had just fought amongst the other Greek soldiers and was exhausted, but of course this is an honorable task, so here he goes. Starting in the city of Marathon, where the battle was won, back to Athens without stopping. He ran and ran, until finally he reached the center of Athens, exclaimed the words “we won!”, collapsed and immediately died. So far the story of Pheidippides. I don’t know why he didn’t grab a horse somewhere or just told someone in the next village to pass the message further along to another guy. Probably because of honor. Well, still, his actions were considered to be very tough and memorable, so people wanted to do the same thing – just without the dying part. I am one of those people, so: to the Batmobile!
A fitting flight via Copenhagen was taken, a very long metro ride survived, and there we were: Athens, Greece. 8th marathon race of the EU challenge. It was really good to fly south in November. We have had about a year without any real vacations because of Sophies intense studying and my work, so we decided we would have a week off right after the race and just relax in the sun, which was still possible in the Greek winter. About 20 degrees Celsius in Athens. Having arrived on Saturday before the race, quite exhausted, I had to go to the racing center immediately because it soon would close. Not very conveniently situated, I found it in the Tae Kwon Do center in the vicinity of the port region of Piraeus, about 1 and a half hours away by train and tram. The place itself was crowded, but well organized, so it took just about 5 minutes to collect all necessary things. Within the package were the bib number, which had the timing chip attached to the back of it, a branded running shirt, a branded towel, and lots of advertising papers. No cool swag, shame. Another 90 minutes and it was evening and I was home again, in a hotel that was just plain awesome. People, if you go to Athens, stay at this place! Centrotel – really cheap, but amazing service. Everyone working at this place was as nice and helpful as if they had just received a 100 Euro tip from us (which they didn’t, in case you were wondering).
After some Gyros and Pasta for a last meal, we went to bed early, because this race would require getting up at 5 in the morning on Sunday. At 5:30 the room service brought me breakfast (usually they’re not ready this early, but as I said: amazing service), I got ready and walked to the metro station of Larissa, went 5 stations down to Syntagma square, which is kind of the center of of Athens. At Syntagma square, things looked like this:
From Athens to Marathon, there is just about one large street. Having thousands of people drive there at the same time wouldn’t work, so the organisators wisely decided to supply us with a shuttle service. This is a huge logistic effort, and it has to be timed perfectly. There were more than 10,000 runners that had to be moved to the small city of Marathon on time. At about 7:00 AM I got into one of the countless busses (I estimate there were more than a hundred of those). The drive took 75 minutes and was tiring. Sleeping isn’t possible for me, so I watched the street which we all had to run in the other direction in a few hours. Sometimes there was a kilometer sign. Some Americans behind me talked about how confusing it is with kilometers and miles. My opinion: not very confusing. So, at about 8:15 AM we arrived at a small stadium where the start of the race would be. Everybody now had the opportunity to warm up a bit, have some free water, and put their personal belongings into a bag and give it to one of the 60 DHL vans, that were hired to carry it back to the finish line in Athens. I didn’t do that, because I didn’t really see the point. I had everything with me that I needed, and not a single thing more.
Now begins the moment right before the start, and I am quite nervous. It has been four weeks since my last marathon in Budapest and because of the bad weather back home in Germany and because of my laziness and love for unhealthy food I wasn’t in the best shape ever. My last training run was two weeks ago and just 15k long, and I felt exhausted afterwards. Also, I knew that this would very likely be the hardest race I would have done so far. It starts at about sea level and goes up to 250 meters and then down again. Not the best circumstances. The atmosphere was great, though. It began with a recited Athlete’s Oath, first in Greek, then in English. Afterwards, there was a minute of silence for the victims of this year’s Boston Marathon terrorist attack. All the thousands of runners were completely quiet. Then, there was a big amount of helium-filled balloons let go into the sky, and finally right at 9:00 AM sharp, the gunshot was heard and huge fireworks started. Fireworks, at daytime! I think that was a first for me. But I really enjoyed how the race was celebrated, and strangely, I felt a bit emotional during that time.
That was gone when the race started. Having the race start at a place far away and leading back home changes the feeling a bit. I felt quite okay at first and was also as fast as I usually am, but already at KM5, my left knee started to hurt. I’ve never had pain in the legs (or anywhere else, for that matter) during a marathon, I think, but now it really stung. So early in the race! I thought it would end soon, as it usually does. But it didn’t. Around that time the course made a short circle around a public place where a lot of olive trees were growing. There were grandmothers picking twigs out of the trees and handing them to random runners – some kind of ritual I guess. Actually, the race itself felt more like a ritual than like a race. I didn’t grab an olive twig, but lots of the runners did and attached them to their hats. After about 10 kilometers, the course started to get challenging. Up and down, but mostly up. The places we ran through were mostly deserted, but every now and then we passed a little town with all the people out on the street celebrating. A good crowd! Also, after some of the steeper uphill parts, there were people standing and cheering, regardless if there was a town or not. They must have travelled there to congratulate us on reaching those little hilltops. Very nice!
What I really disliked, was the plastic bottles at the refreshment stations. As in Madrid they were giving out water in 0.5 liter bottles. That is just such a waste, as no runner can down that much water and therefore all the bottles end up half full on the side of the road. So much plastic and drinking water wasted. I understand it might not be easy to find good quality drinking water in the middle of the desert, but they could have at least delivered the water in big tanks and put it in paper cups. I hope that some time in the future this whole system is going to be different. Maybe everyone will have some kind of cup with them, attached to their bodies in a convenient way. Just dip it in a huge tank of water, and you’re done. Anyway, this has to change.
Still, every 5 kilometers they had blue Powerade. I can’t argue with that, because it’s awesome. Up until the half-marathon mark the race went quite okay, I still had the pain in the knee, but I managed to keep up the tempo. But then, it slowly got harder and harder. My stomach wasn’t happy with the things I ate, and that didn’t get better with the bananas I had during the race. So at some point I wasn’t sure what hurt more, my knee or my stomach. I really didn’t want to quit, so I had to run slower. At one point, a couple in their 70s overtook me. They saw my Amsterdam marathon shirt and we talked a bit. Their tactic was to run for 100 meters and then walk for 50 meters. They did that for the whole race and were really quick that way. The man told me they did the Amsterdam marathon in 3:30 that way. I couldn’t believe it! But they really were fast, and soon I couldn’t see them anymore. I got slower and slower, and more people overtook me. I didn’t care about that, I was focussed on finishing, whatever the time at the end. I wrote a text message to Sophie, saying how bad it was. She responded with a video of Julie cheering me on, saying: “Ich hab dich lieb, Papa!” (I like you a lot) – that really helped. A few people also cheered on Runtastic again, which was really cool! But I think because of the different time zone and therefore early Sunday time in Germany, most of my friends were still sleeping. Can’t blame them. Right now I would have much rather been in bed, as well. But somehow, in spite of all the pain and struggle, the remaining kilometers still melted away, and I ran right into the city of Athens. First the ugly outskirts, then more and more houses, and eventually the city center. And there it suddenly was:
The majestic Panathenaic Stadium, built in 566 BC and renovated for the first modern Olympic games in 1896. Beautiful! The finish line was right inside of it. A few meters and there I was, completing my 8th marathon with so much pain that I was really glad I hadn’t booked any other marathons in the near future. The feeling right after the finish line was still great. 4:50:53, but I couldn’t care less about the time. A pretty girl gave me a medal shaped like the stadium. Cool!
Now there was just one smart option left for me: get in a cab right away and go home to the hotel as fast as possible. Wow, what a fight. I am happy to have a week of holidays with my family in front of me. Now that I’m writing this, which is Tuesday, two days after the race, my knee still seriously hurts, but I am already looking forward to the next marathon, which will be in Rome, 23rd of March. Crazy!