Just three and a half months ago I was sitting at my desk pressing refresh on BBC News every 5 minutes unable to tear my eyes away from the wildfires ripping through southern Greece, just outside of Athens. I’ve been travelling to Greece for many years, in the past because of my mother’s love for the islands, more recently because of my own love for the serenity and beauty of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and in the last couple of years for work. I have visited Athens over 10 times so to watch a disaster unfold so mercilessly so close to a city I loved was heart breaking. As once again shown by the wildfires in California in the last week, the destruction that a forest fire can cause knows no bounds.
In the summer the lovely guys at Adidas Runners London offered me a place to run the Athens Authentic Marathon. Happily it coincided with a work trip so I could roll it together in to a slightly extended stay and persuade a couple of my friends and the Speedster to come out and join me at the end of my working week. Adidas Runners describes itself not as a crew or a club but as an international community and never is that more evident than when a city is hosting around a big event. The Adidas Runners Athens crew were amazing, putting on unbridled hospitality for us from a running tour of the city, to a massive pasta party and recovery massages.
The race itself is a point to point race - something I’ve never experienced before in a big marathon, only in ultras. We met at 6am in squares across central Athens, were loaded efficiently on to coaches and bused out to the village of Marathon, site of the famous battle that gives our notorious 26.2 mile race its name. The great thing about a point to point race is there is no repetition - it’s one way and you feel like you ‘have’ to complete it to get to the finish line. The problem with being bused to the start of a point to point race is you realise quite how far it is you’re going to have to run back. Never underestimate the marathon - so called after all because the poor messenger running from Marathon back to Athens after the Battle of Marathon promptly dropped down dead after running the distance. Perfect piece of history to recreate; no?!
The start line was a wonderful atmosphere; energetic, countries from all over the world represented and an opportunity to pledge allegiance to the marathon. The words I heard continually repeated throughout the day were peace and friendship: the Athens Authentic Marathon tasks you, the runner, with delivering the message of peace and friendship for all, and as a visiting runner from overseas that is a wonderful message to take with you through the distance.
The race itself is pretty nondescript. There aren’t really any views and the course follows a couple of major roads which the race closes off for the runners. Hot, hilly asphalt all the way back to Athens. But this year there was an added starkness to the race. From about 10km to 25km we ran through the village and cities that had been decimated by the wildfires less than 4 months beforehand. The race organisers had given all runners a green bandana to wear in memoriam of the wildfires and in spite of the blistering heat I wore mine in solidarity past the Mommas and Nonnas lining the streets dressed in black. Hundreds of the community came out to remind Greece that they could not be forgotten. 99 people who died in the wildfires in their communities would not be forgotten. And I’ll never, ever forget the experience of running past them as they lovingly cheered us on. Peace and friendship truly on display.
The middle third is really tough as the course isn’t flat and the gradual uphill is the stuff of marathon folklore. I’d lost count in the weeks preceding to how many of my friends had told me how tough this race was. As this was just a month after Chicago, I had set myself the task of enjoying this race and running on feel so I had no tech guiding my journey and when I wanted to take walking breaks uphill or at the water stations I did. At 38km I hit the riotous party of the Adidas Runners cheer station complete with squad goals to end all squad goals. Insert fist bumps, cheerleaders, smoke cannons and wild screaming here. It was an adrenaline buzz like nothing else. The final 4km of the race is really enjoyable as you run in to central Athens and past some beautiful buildings but the highlight has to be the finish line where you run in to the ancient Panathenaic Stadium and are given the chance to run the full straight of the stadium with crowds sitting in the marble bleachers cheering you on. It’s mesmerising.
I stopped my watch which had been invisibly tracking me and was shocked to see I’d finished in 4:11:35 (official chip time 4:11:30) which for a hot, hilly race 4 weeks after Chicago, I was delighted with.
As I wandered towards my drop bag at the finish in a wonderful post-marathon glow the Speedster finds me (he’d had a great run in around 3:35).
“I’ve got a present for you,” he greets me with. He stretches out his hand and in it is an olive branch, carried from the very start in Marathon back to Athens for me. Peace and friendship once again. After several hours running through burnt down forests, the olive branch seems to have taken on new meaning. I feel by running this race we have tied ourselves to the history, memory and people of this place. And I’m not sure that is something that will ever leave me. This really is a race laced with love.
Finishing position: 4,629 (out of 15,279)
Finishing position (gender): 533 (out of 3,287)
Finishing position (age-group): 187 (out of 1,006)
% of runners who finished: Unsure.
First half time: 1:58:49
Second half time: 2:12:41
To find out more about how to enter the 2019 race go to: https://www.athensauthenticmarathon.gr/site/index.php/en/