Report by Heather Irvine
Finishing a marathon. Running a sub-four marathon. Breaking three hours in a marathon. Running a marathon in all 50 states or across seven continents. Qualifying for Boston. We've heard the bucket list items again and again. But the deeper I get down the rabbit hole that is the the running community and the more bucket list items I hear about, the more perplexed I become.
There's an item missing from the majority of these lists: the Athens Marathon in Greece, more specifically, the one that starts in the town of Marathonas. Literally where marathoning started.
Maybe Greece doesn't publicize the November race enough. Or maybe it's overshadowed by the New York City Marathon, which falls the week before and draws worldwide attention. Or maybe people don't even realize there's a marathon in the town of Marathon.
No matter the reason, distance runners should be breaking down the doors to flock to their mecca of Marathonas. I did, last fall, and it was the most fun I've ever had over 26.2 miles.
I could go into specifics about my training (I trained for the September mile and then threw in some long runs and called it a day), my weekly mileage (not many), how I modified my diet in the days we hung out in Athens before the race (stayed away from shaved meat). But this marathon wasn't about that. I knew going into it this was going to be a fun race, a once-in-a-lifetime race, a bucket list race, and I wasn't going to be bogged down by my Type A self turning this into another "race the clock" race.
We got to Athens 2.5 days before the marathon. Enough time to tire my legs out walking all over the city, time to drink heavy Greek coffee causing my stomach to ask me, "what the heck?," and time to experiment with some authentic Greek cuisine, barring the shaved meat.
The temps were warm (low 70s), and I knew it would be a warm race without much shade. But instead of panicking about my time, I thought, you're here to enjoy it and not end up in the hospital hooked to IVs (again).
The Bus Ride
On Sunday morning, while Jeff slept in the separate twin bed, because Europe, I made my way to a line of coach buses in the dark. It was cool, and there was a buzz of excitement, but one that was still shrouded in sleep. I sat next to a woman from England who'd run the race at least once before. She warned me that there's no shade and the road has bits of marble in it, causing the sun to reflect back into your face. But then she told me it took her almost six hours to complete the course, so I worried a little less about my day in the Grecian sun.
Marathonas is about a 40- to 45-minute northeast drive from Athens. The farther away from Athens we got, the more desolate the landscape became. I think the one "thing" to do in Marathonas is the "Marathon Museum." And it doesn't get very crowded.
The sun came up and we passed signs for "Marathonas." Quite surreal, actually.
The bus unloaded 11,000 runners (most of them European men) at a local beat-up track. There were porta potties, not lines of them like at Boston or New York, but there also weren't many runners. And lots of toilet paper.
There wasn't much fanfare at the start. Nothing like you'll see at the major marathons in the United States (or London, Berlin, or Tokyo). Although that wasn't for lack of effort on the mayor of Marathonas' part. There was music, and he tried to hype people up by repeating over and over again, "Where it all began! The authentic Athens Marathon!" I think they realize this is a big deal, but Greece's marketing team didn't get the memo.
I was toward the front and noticed how few women there were. A few people nodded at my North Brooklyn Runners singlet. I even got a couple "BROOKLYN!" screams from Europeans.
Balloons were released before the first corral took off - a pretty cool sight against the clear blue sky. And we were off, to the sound of the mayor shouting, "You're about to run the authentic Athens marathon!" On repeat.
I'm not going to break down my race mile by mile. Again, it wasn't about that. It was about putting an olive branch in my hair at mile three, from a Ya Ya. Stopping around mile five to take a photo of a street sign that read "<---Athina Marathonas--->." Pulling over at a porta potty (which over a dozen half marathons and five marathons I'd never done) because I wanted to be comfortable throughout the race.
It was about making some Greek and Norwegian friends on a six-mile hill and literally running with the world. About pretending I was Pheidippides on a mission to deliver a very important (and world-changing) message, as I passed through an underpass to the beat of some very impressive drumming.
It was about smiling at the little girls who pointed at the gold wings on my shoes and about applauding the children who proudly wore fun run medals around their necks. About savoring the ceaseless cries of "brava bella!" from the women in the crowd because there were so few women in the race.
Running from Marathon to Athens was about being in the moment and savoring the history of our sport. It was about stopping just before the finish line to hug my husband who watched me in yet another marathon. And stopping again to take a photo of the finish line in the marble Olympic stadium, and then sprinting down the straightaway, Acropolis in view on the hill several miles away.
It was about crossing the finish line relatively pain-free in 3:39: an unexpected time on a hot day on a hilly course with a relaxed pace.
It was about yelling "nike" as they placed a medal on my neck.