The 27th Athens Classic Marathon

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I may have mentioned it once or twice in recent weeks, but I was not feeling at all prepared for this marathon. At all. I hadn’t done nearly as much running as I’d hoped while traveling, and I was sort of expecting the whole thing to be a bit of a Gong Show. Add to this the fact that it was bucketing down rain when I got up at 5:00 am and you may understand why I despaired a bit before I trudged off to the Panathenaic Stadium to get on a bus for Marathon. It really can’t be a good thing when you’re soaked to the skin before you’ve even reached the starting line.

The bus took an hour to get from downtown Athens to Marathon, which says to me that it must have been going about 42.2 km/ph, though the trip seemed to take forever. We got to the starting area by 7:30, leaving another 90 minutes of waiting in the rain before we’d be off. I had a rain jacket but eventually I had to pack that and my warm fleece away in my checked bag and make do with the standard garbage-bag-with-ripped-arm-and-head-holes that was all the rage that morning. Really, the wait was pretty grim. It was wet and cool and grey the whole time. It was bad, but luckily it turned out that the wait for the starting gun was the worst part of the day.

The inevitable, muddy wait for the porta-potty

I chose this race because it THE marathon. It’s supposed to trace - very approximately - the route Pheidippedes took from the 490 B.C. Battle of Marathon to Athens. (Apparently, I missed the big anniversary by one year. 2010 will mark the 2,500th anniversary of the first marathon!). But I have to say that it was just like every other marathon I’ve done. There was no big sense of history. No one dressed up as Pheidippedes (or dressed down more likely). Nothing special at all. Just the inevitable P.A. announcements about checking your bags and seeding yourself in the proper start corral, and the distorted rock music, and the sad attempt at creating a festive atmosphere with balloons. And of course there were the hordes of wet, frustrated, anxious runners huddled under whatever shelter was available, or jogging up and down, or smearing vaseline anywhere and everywhere. (God, I should have done a lot more of that. My somewhat expanded thighs, and my very wet and fairly short shorts made for a significant amount of chafing about which we shall not speak again.)

The starting corral

Finally we were ordered into our starting corrals and, mercifully, set off. Once I was actually running things were muuuuuuch better. I warmed up, and started to implement my extremely detailed race plan: Start slow and taper off from there. In fact, it wasn’t bad at all. The first 10km or so were relatively flat, and then the elevation went up fairly steadily for the next 22km but I was surprised to find that the hills were no bother at all. So despite all my complaining at the time I really have to take a moment for this:

Thank you Cliffs of Dover. Thank you Arthur’s Seat. Thank you West Highland Trail. Thank you Giant’s Causeway Path. Also, thank you Valence and Orange and Barcelona and Granada and Lisbon and Sesimbra.

I may have bitched at the time, but every hill I ran in the last four months made this race soooo much easier. I wasn’t sprinting up the hills by any means, but I never had to walk them, and passed a lot of people, and felt surprisingly strong. There’s a lesson: hills are your friend.

I’m sorry about this, but I have no pictures of the course at all. This is partly because it was wet for so long that I was nervous about getting out my camera. But mosty it’s because there was not a single moment of scenic anything on the entire course. It was one long commercial street starting in Marathon and ending in Athens. It was disappointing. But when I thought about it later it kind of made sense. After all, Pheidippedes probably took the most direct route from Marathon to Athens – the main road. And since the area has been continuously inhabited since that time it kind of makes sense that it’s still the main road. Only now instead of being lined with, say, pastoral flocks of sheep and groves of olive trees, it’s lined with car dealerships, restaurants, pet stores and the odd Bed & Bath. It also didn’t help that every man running that day treated the course like a 42km long urinal. I don’t think there was a moment when I couldn’t glance to the right and see at least one guy…er… giving something back to the earth, shall we say.

The course support was quite good, with aid stations every 2.5 kilometers. They all had water, and some had sports drinks as well. And there was at least one stop with gels and a couple with bananas. I missed the first banana stop and only realized I’d passed it when I noticed the road ahead was littered with banana peels. Seriously? Did no one at Athens Marathon HQ pause for a moment and think, “Wait a minute… maybe it’s not such a good idea to create a situation where 3,800 people have to run along a road covered in banana peels.” I didn’t see any mishaps, but still the comedic potential was staggering.

It was quite a solitary race for me. I brought my iPod because I thought there was a good chance I’d need a pick-me-up, but I didn’t even turn it on, and didn’t talk to anyone until about the 20km mark when I met Dave from BC. He was there with a group of friends and was running his first marathon. I stuck with him for a while because it was nice to have someone to talk to, and now that I’ve done a few marathons I kind of feel like it’s my duty to help out people who are doing their first if I can. I tried to be encouraging, but finally I left him at about 24km when he stopped to walk and stretch a bit. His ankles were giving him trouble so I gave him some advice and some ibuprofen. He must have had a tough second half but I was pleased to check the results and see that he’d finished. Well done for gutting it out, Dave. Congratulations.

I already mentioned a bit about the elevation profile for the course; it was interesting. A bit of downhill at the start, then about 10km of relative flat. Then the climbing started and carried on pretty steadily until about 32km. That was a bit tough, but as I said earlier I was really happy with how I felt on the hills. Also, knowing exactly where they were going to end was a nice psychological boost because magically, just when you need it the most, the course dipped down. You just have to hang on until the 32km mark and it’s literally all downhill from there. I had a great last 10km – they were easily the fastest of the race, and the most fun. The rain had stopped (actually, it stopped at about 15km), and the sun was out, and I knew I was going to make it, and I felt much much much much better than I’d ever expected.

The last five kilometers were a relative breeze. I continued to pass people and enjoy the downhills and then I was just a few metres from the stadium and I knew I’d finish comfortably under 4:15 (which had emerged as a sort-of goal somewhere along the way) and I was very happy. Within sight of the stadium my right calf started to seize up, so I had a bit of a hitch in my giddy-up, but I kept it together and sailed in at 4:12:07 (Though I dispute that time. I started my watch just before the mat at the start, and forgot to turn it off until at least 50 feet past the finish, and it said 4:11:53.) And I was 27th of 94 in my age group. And I ran a 3:39 negative split. Not bad for a race in which I had no expectations.

The finish

And of course, there was some celebration once I’d cleared the finish area and retrieved my belongings.

Well-earned, I think

And that was it: a race well run, a beer hard-earned, and marathon #10 in the books. Stay tuned for some news about the sights around Athens. I’ll be here quite a bit longer than I expected, but it I kind of feel like a bit of an extended break right now. The hostel is very friendly, reasonably priced, and comfortable. There’s even a bar and a laundromat downstairs, both of which I have patronized. And they run a couple of interesting-sounding day-trips that I think I’ll do. It may mean that I don’t hit my Greek island, but I’m fine with that. The vague plan right now is to get a flight from Athens to Istanbul, maybe as early as Sunday. Or not. I’m not sure. Right now I’m just enjoying not running, not packing and unpacking, not finding the train station or the bus depot or the ferry terminal, and not navigating to another new hostel, and I think that’s just fine.


Unknown said...

I am glad your marathon #10 went well. It seems you are settling into a traveller's schedule of staying in each place for a longer time (if hostel is a good one).

When I travelled Europe for 3 months back in 1989 I met an Austrailian whose mode of travel was a week in each city on a trip of a year. She seemed very at peace with the travel thing so maybe there is something to that kind of schedule.

Have fun in Turkey - I have never been there so a period of extreme jealousy from me will ensue.

Keep on Truckin'

Rob H.

Mitch said...


Congrats, and a great way to celebrate your 10th. With a happy and relaxed run in the oldest and original Marathon! My only disappointment in this race report, is that the photo of your medal is totally obscured by your arm in the excitement of opening your well-deserved beer!

Congrats again!

FLF said...

Move hand and water bottle out of way of well earned Medal... !! Congrats... post pic of medal pls!!

FLF said...

oops... beer, not water!

Unknown said...

Congrats Pam, well done!
... and yes, photo of medal please!

Lisa said...

Mmmmmm lovely beer!!!

Congratulations Pam...wishing I'd been there and running it too!

(totally off topic but I love the word verifications that come up when I post was "ferroly"...huh?!)

notmensa said...

Well done!
Love your blog, it's such an inspiration!


Jill said...

Good for you! I enjoy your blog, you write like i talk. I was in Athens last year and then went on to Istanbul. Too bad you couldn't make a pit stop in the dodecanese island, especially if you were looking for some serious downtime! Happy travels, can't wait to hear about Istanbul (especially if you decide you need to participate in the old turkish bath, what an experience!) In case you needed any inspiration or encouragement to go, enjoy the read on my blog!


jill said...

oops it didn't attach.

Gillian said...

Congrats Pam!! I'm amazed that you have been able to keep up the running at all on your trip...I sent my running shoes home from Jordan, although I did just see a couple running here in Pokhara,'s doable I guess!!

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