by Jim Whiting
Pssst, buddy! Wanna be an Olympic marathoner? Running the Athens Marathon puts you on the same route that was used in the 2004 Olympics. This one is the granddaddy of all marathons, because it all started here.
In 490 BC on the Plain of Marathon, some 9,000 Athenian soldiers and another contingent of 1,000 from nearby Plataea faced an invading Persian army at least twice its size and trounced them. The marathon originated 2,500 years later because the European aristocrats who revived the Olympics in 1896 wanted to commemorate the legendary run of a soldier from the battlefield to Athens to announce the victory, then expiring due to his exertions. A nice story, and almost certainly false.
After the Persians landed at Marathon, the Athenians marched out of the city to meet them. The two armies formed encampments several miles apart and faced each other, doing nothing, for nearly a week. Finally, the Persians divided their forces: the bulk of their army remained in place, while a significant portion began to board ships that would carry them around the southern tip of the Attic Peninsula and up the other side to Athens to enter the now-unguarded city.
The Athenian army had to do two things in a hurry: beat the Persians on the Plain of Marathon, then get back to Athens. They accomplished the first by a brilliant use of their forces: They deliberately weakened the center of their line and allowed those troops to be pushed back. As the main force of the Persian army plunged into the gap, the Greeks formed a pincer with their reinforced left and right wings. The battle was fairly short and very one-sided; contemporaries say that 192 Athenians and 6,400 Persians were slain.
With the safety of homes and families at stake, most of the victorious troops put their armor and weapons on carts and quickmarched back to the city. In effect, the first-ever Athens Marathon, Clydesdale division.
I was a long way from home when I awoke on race morning. Actually, I didn't wake up, because I'd never really gone to sleep. Though I've been a runner for nearly 40 years and have finished a lot of races, for a variety of reasons I'd never completed a marathon and was more than just a little nervous. But coffee and a light breakfast - as well as a considerable adrenaline buzz - helped to mitigate the effects of fatigue.
The tour group of which I was a member left the hotel in darkness for the long bus ride to the course. We'd driven it a couple of days earlier and I knew what lay ahead. Beginning at the entrance of the modern town of Marathon, the course roughly parallels the coastline for more than half-a-dozen miles, then cuts inland, undulates for awhile, then ascends for nearly 10 miles before the final slightly downhill 10K to the stadium erected for the modern revival of the Olympics in 1896.
Fortunately, there appeared to be a fairly substantial - and very welcome - cloud cover. Even in early November, daytime temperatures are well up into the 70s.
Because the road into Marathon is only two narrow lanes, the buses that delivered the runners - very few entrants stayed nearby, the majority came from Athenian hotels - arrived well in advance of the start so they could disgorge their passengers, turn around and get back out.
Surprisingly, there were just four porta-potties next to the starting line. Fortunately, a dressing room at the nearby all-weather running track contained an ample number of urinals - but just one toilet - for the several visits that my fellows and I paid in the hour-and-a-half before the start.
Finally, the waiting was over and we began to assemble behind the start banner. The throng didn't seem especially large; I learned later that there were less than 1,000 of us, not a particularly huge turnout for a major international marathon. A race official raised his bullhorn, started speaking in Greek, and a few hands shot into the air. A few moments later, the same thing in English. It was a pledge: we were all amateurs, and would respect the memories of Grigoris Lambrakis and Spiridon Loues, the Greek who won the first Olympic marathon in 1896. Now virtually everyone's hand was up.
A few moments later, we were off. I was among the final runners to cross the start line, about 40 seconds after the leaders, and had no problem getting immediately into my stride. The sun was still behind some clouds, but it was already starting to get warm.
Just past the 4K mark, we made a left turn for a detour past the tomb of the Athenian soldiers killed at the battle of Marathon, though hardly anyone seemed to take note of its symbolism. We soon arrived at the first water stop; mid-sized bottles of water, rather than paper cups, were thrust at us. The ground beyond the station was littered with mostly-full containers of water, which seemed wasteful.
I emerged from the little historical detour and quickly hit the 7K mark sweating heavily, as the clouds had by now virtually disappeared. Just beyond, there was another water stop; we had been told that they would appear at every 2.5K. More bottled water and sponges. "Don't suck the sponges," we'd been advised. "Aid station volunteers will often pick up the discarded ones off the ground and put them back on the tables."
Actually, "volunteers" were likely to be paid hands; in past years, genuine volunteers went to their respective stations, dropped off cases of water, then returned home right away to enjoy a day off. Local citizens had helped themselves to what appeared to be free water, leaving little or none for the runners when they finally arrived.
We passed a church in the town of Nea Makri and the amplified voice of a priest singing the liturgy washed over us. We hoped that he'd included a few prayers for us. There were lots of people in the streets watching. Once we cleared the town, just past the 10K mark, we began to climb. At the next water station, the table was empty, but several discarded bottles had caps on them. I grabbed one, and gratefully drank. As far back in the pack as I was, it paid to get over any squeamishness about taking advantage of pre-used water.
We had our first glimpse of the sea to our left. There were only a few spectators in this portion, standing and clapping for us. Vehicular traffic had been virtually shut off, enabling us to follow the python-thick blue tangent markers left over from the World Track & Field Championships marathon run over this same course the previous year. The only sound was the slapping of hundreds of feet on the pavement, snatches of conversation among runners, and birds chirping nearby.
At the 20K mark, according to the topographical course map, we were at virtually the same elevation as at the start, which meant that all the elevation gain would come in the next 12K. That was hard to believe, since we had already encountered several hilly portions.
Now that we were in serious hill country, kilometer split times begin to reflect the ascent. I began to realize I had gone out slightly too fast, even though I was running close to 10:00 per mile pace. Soon afterward, I passed our tour group's support van parked at the half marathon point. The driver asked me how I felt. Not good.
At least the sun had gone behind some high clouds, so it wasn't quite as hot as it might have been. By now, the brief walk breaks that I had been taking every mile and a half were occurring every kilometer and I was redefining "brief." The long hill flattened out for about a mile leading up to the 30K mark, then we encountered the worst hill on the course - more than a mile, straight, steep, and very strenuous. The two-lane road had become six lanes and divided, with a monster traffic jam heading in the opposite direction.
As I drew near the top of this final hill, my heart suddenly caught in my throat, for I believed that I had done my marathon. Before the race, I felt that once I got to this point, I was more or less home free. The remainder was all literally downhill. It was therefore a rude shock when I discovered that, short of a 90-degree drop-off, I was still going to have to do a lot of walking. My left calf was also starting to bother me, and people were starting to pass me in fairly large numbers.
We'd had the benefit of individual kilometer signs throughout the course, but suddenly they stopped appearing. It would have been nice to know how much further I had to go, especially now that I was measuring my progress by how many jogging steps I could manage before I had to walk again. Far off in the distance, I could see the tiny monastery of St. George at the summit of Lycavittos Hill, and the finish was even beyond that point. I was not a happy man.
I wound up walking about 75% of the time for the next couple of miles. Cops began hustling me through intersections; one car passed no more than two feet behind me. In general, police performance was peerless. Ruling the course with iron fists, they allowed us to run in safety in a country which has one of the highest motor vehicle accident rates in the world.
The course finally made the left turn onto Leoforos Vasileus Konstantinou that I knew meant there was just over a mile to go. Without conscious volition, I began to jog, and even managed to ratchet my pace up a notch and pass a few people, though two young studs from the Greek Navy held me off. We passed the American Embassy on the right, and just beyond it a large stylized statue of a runner. Down a fairly long, straight stretch, across a major intersection and in the distance below I could see people turning left into the stadium. Moments later, I passed through the same entrance that Spiridon Loues had used 102 years earlier to become a national hero as the only Greek winner of the revived Olympics.
I ran most of a lap inside the stadium, then cut across the infield and had a final run-in of about 50 meters. I crossed the finish line without any particular emotion or elation. Just relief that it was over.
How fast? Don't ask.
But if someone asks me now if I've run a marathon, I don't have to shake my head and mutter "Okhi." The answer is "nai, nai" -"Yes, yes!"