I was asked to speak at a conference in Romania and found out that the Athens Classic Marathon was the Sunday following the conference. This follows the original route from the town of Marathon where the runner Phidippides in 490 B.C. ran to the city without stopping with the news of the Greek’s victory over the Persians. He burst into the assembly exclaiming “Rejoice: We have won” before collapsing and dying. This race would not end at the assembly but instead at the Panathenaikon Stadium which was built on the site of the original ancient stadium for the 1896 Olympics. It was there that the Greek runner Spyros Louis repeated the run—without dying—in 2:58 giving rise to the modern marathon.
I had taken some time off after Ironman Kentucky to recover and was doing the P90X body conditioning program when I decided to do the marathon. This meant that I had about one month to get ready for the race. I adopted a “less is more” running program where I basically did three weeks of training, increasing my distance each week. There was one long run and one or two short ones if time allowed. Week one I did 10 miles; week two 16 and week three 20. Yes, I know that one shouldn’t more than 10% more miles a week but with four weeks to train for a marathon what more could I do? I then did a two week taper (necessitated by work demands) and so I find myself in Athens having run just under 13 hours and 89.3 miles in training.
My friend Taneen said not to worry as I have a good base, but then she hadn’t seen the course… The first 7.5 km were flat, about 10 km of hills, then downhill to km 20 and then uphill to km 32.5. From there mostly downhill to the finish.
My under training was brought home by the film St. Ralph which I watched the night before the race while doing my Yoga X. This is a brilliant Canadian film about a 14 year old boy who decides that if he wins the Boston Marathon his comatose mother will wake up. If you haven’t seen it give it a go. Absolutely delightful. In the film his coach asks how many miles he is doing each week and Ralph says 60. “Not nearly enough for Boston” the coach says. I wonder how he would respond with just under 90 miles in total for Athens. Probably with a word like “lunatic”.
But even lunatics can have sane moments. Although I ran the Boston Marathon six months ago at a sub-8:00 pace, for a 3:27, with only 90 miles of training there was no hope for that. I decided to run the first 15-20 miles conservatively and then if I had anything left step up the pace a bit. At least that was the theory …
I woke up about 05:00 and got my things together. Lis called me at 06:00 with a wake up call, just as the skies opened. It was a real tropical downpour. Bother. Undertrained and a rainy race. Oh well. Not my first and at least, unlike Ironman Switzerland, I won’t be biking 180 km through the mountains in the rain before I run the 42.2 km.
I went downstairs at about 6:15 and there was a fellow at the door. Dalton was here from Brazil and said that he had called a taxi, inviting me to join him. Glad we were not walking as it was poring. Dalton owned a hotel and travel agency in Brazil and I enjoyed having someone to chat with. When we got close to the stadium there was a huge traffic jam. We hopped out and got into one of the buses which took us to the start. Got the photo below before we took shelter inside a building: there was still almost two hours until the start. It was cold and wet so I was glad to be indoors; others were sheltering under trees.
The challenge with weather like this is to know what to wear. It was about 12 degrees C but hard to predict how the day would go. Since I don’t do cold well I decided to leave on my running tights and just wear my New Zealand singlet. That proved to be a great hit as I was regularly cheered during the run with ‘Go New Zealand’. I converted a plastic bag into the runner’s rain coat by punching holes in the bag for my head and two arms. While waiting we met Arnaud from France who was doing his first marathon. He had *everything* with him: gels, two drinks, camera, two shirts. Even plastic ties and a ballpoint pen. I felt naked with only my two energy gels.
When the announcer said that there was less than 10 minutes to drop our gear off at the trucks to take it to the finish, we braved the rain and tossed them in a truck. Another melee as the idea of orderly queuing in this country seems to be abstract—except for the Brits and people from their colonies. Unlike an Australian in front of me I refrained from commenting—they do have a very rich vernacular! I returned to the start where the photo to the left was taken in front of the flame of marathon. Not sure if it was always burning, but was a very nice start to the day. I also appreciated the heat 🙂
Went down to the corral and joined the other 4,500 or so marathoners. Was pleased to meet quite a few Canadians, most of whom were part of a team running to raise funds for diabetes. There were some 80 of them and I was to meet up with them throughout the course of the day.
At 09:00 we were off and there was the usual surge of adrenalin. So much for the race plan. There were a few real enthusiasts like the fellow in the photo to the left who was carrying a spear and shield. I passed two more also dressed like hoplites and several with olive branches in their head bands. The weather was miserable but at least we were now running so I warmed up. Lots of puddles so my feet were quite soaked—in the end I decided in for a penny and in for a pound so jumped in a puddle and got myself totally wet.
As we approached km 5 we deviated from the course and ran around the burial mound from the Battle of Marathon. It is the slightly large mound in the distance. Incredible to think that we still commemorate this battle after 2500 years every time we run a marathon. As we ran through the countryside I reflected that these mountains to the right, and the ocean to the left were the same that Phidippides saw. Unfortunately it didn’t last and for too much of the course we were surrounded by car lots and shops. So much for progress.
I am very appreciative of having been taught to run hills by the Potomac River Running club. On the uphills, I shorten my steps and slow down; on downhills I lean forward and increase my turnover rate. It was a amazing how many people would pass me on the uphill, but I would pass them on the downhill. Gravity is the enemy but momentum is your friend. Why does this matter? They are doing a lot more work than me on the uphill, and trashing their quadriceps on the downhill.
This was by far the best race I’ve ever run with regard to aid stations. There were water stations every 2.5 km or so, many with Powerade or bananas. As the rain stopped and the sun came out I was very grateful for their regularity as it reached 25 degrees—quite hot when wearing running tights! At least I was able to smile in my self portrait while running.
My watch had stopped working after around km 21 so I was not sure where I was time wise. What I did know is that I felt really, really good. Unlike Boston in April, which I ran to break 3:30, as long as I did better than 4:15 I would be quite happy—after all, I only had less than 13 hours of training for the race. So I thanked the police and the spectators for their support, and even stopped to take a group photo of five Canadians around km 31. What’s a few seconds here and there when you are not out for a record.
However, shortly afterwards I realized that a sub 4 hour finish was within reach. My competitive streak kicked in and I picked up the pace. Once I hit km 37 I really put on the speed and began passing lots of people—I passed 183 from there to the finish line, and none passed me (that is one of the things that the Endurance Nation triathlon coaches suggest to keep us motivated at the end of the marathon). I would probably have started sooner had I better picture of my time, especially since I still had a lot of gas in the tank once I finished.
As mentioned earlier, the race finished in the Olympic stadium. I stopped and got the photos below. I was confident of my sub 4 hour, so why not get a few more memories?
So ended my race with a 3:56:27 which is about a 9:00 pace. I had the following splits:
- 5 km: 28:53
- 10 km : 57:30
- 20 km: 2:01:37
- 30 km: 2:53:28
- 42.2 km: 3:56:27
- Place: 108/320 male 50-55
Definitely the last marathon of the year. Time to get back to my P90X and then start training for Ironman Australia in March.
I’m pleased to have run the Athens Classic Marathon. It is a privilege to do the same route as the original marathon. It is not the prettiest course, nor the worst. But it is the most historically meaningful—so highly recommended to any marathoner! Especially next year which marks the 2,500th anniversary of the original run.