Greece is the Word
The Athens Marathon advertises itself quite rightly as the “authentic marathon”. I would probably say it is the “original” but let’s not quibble. I was not planning to run it to be honest. I had the Beachy Head marathon as my final race of the year in my diary for a long time as punishment for bailing on Lucerne and the Swiss City Marathon and knowing that was trail, and hilly as hell I had planned to finish 2016 with a toughie. But, as anyone who reads my blog will know, that is never how it happens. Before too long I had run a very slow marathon at RTTK, a killer at RTTS, Chester was good and I was happy with that but then Beachy Head had been so hard I needed to end on a high. And so I used a hunka chunka BA miles to get tickets, a cheap but well situated hotel and for a mere 30 euros I was signed up for the original marathon, sorry, “authentic” marathon to be my 6th marathon in just over a year.
The origins of of the whole darned thing, and that Pheidippides chap and his impressive feat is here and god do they spout it at you. Even on the shuttle bus when you are half asleep and trying not to be sick.
I made a long weekend of it, staying Friday and drinking a little, then going to the EXPO on Saturday morning first thing. I am an old hand at EXPOs and have experienced the good and the bad. I found Berlin to be a giant disaster, but this was simple. The numbers could be picked up from the Tae Kwon Do building at the Olympic village by the sea. And the numbers were right at the front, the first desks you met. Packet picked up you can then waste time looking at the same shit you see a every EXPO, or just whizz through and back out again into the sun. I did just that and a 12 euro cab ride either way, and I was back in the hotel within an hour. That is pretty unheard of. And that included buying a race tee at the Adidas store. The store was a bit of a clusterfuck, with one of each size shirt (M and F), and long sleeved tops (M and F). So you would pick the Medium mens, and then give it to someone who would then put it back where you found it and shout “men’s medium” in Greek to someone behind the scenes to go and get it. Quite inefficient I thought, like if Argos sold two things.
I do love my European city races, after London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Paris, Berlin, Luxembourg, Copenhagen and Amsterdam I followed my normal pattern – find the local restaurants I can eat at, drink beer, do the open top bus tour to get my bearings and learn a few choice facts, drink more beer (normally the local brew), and have one or two, or in this case, three terrible night’s sleep.
And I did have a terrible time sleeping. First the air con did not work and turned the room into a furnace. I am already a big old sweaty mess so every morning I would pretty much wake up as a puddle.
On top of that my nemeses are mosquitos. I would be just dropping off and then the tell-tale “eeeeeee” of the little buggers buzzing around my ear. Three I killed! And somehow didn’t get bitten, but it did make me a little paranoid and incredibly tired. I really looked forward to getting back to NW3 and a good night of mozzie free sleep.
The Race Day
The communication from the organisers is very good and pretty constant with a few exceptions. First, the “essential” email that you must take with you as it contains your race number is in Greek, so my spam filter, knowing I do not converse too often (ever) in Greek assumed it was spam and binned it. Fortunately I occasionally check my spam folder for the off chance a Nigerian prince needs someone to accept his inheritance for a nominal fee.
Second, the bit about returning the timing chip or being charged 25 euros, that is nonsense as the chip is now on the back of the bib.
Third the email detailing the free shuttle bus to the start is quite confusing. It states that there are five stops where you can pick up a bus, the first at 5.45am with the last departing at 6.15am (after that you are pretty screwed). This reads like you need to wait and the bus will come. Nope, there are half a dozen waiting and you need to get on the first one you can and it hangs around until it is full.
And that is exactly what I did. I caught a 5.45am bus that pretty much takes the entire route to the town of Marathon in the sun baked, olive tree dotted hills to the east of Athens. You are dropped off just outside the town and walk en masse to the small athletics stadium.
It was still early and the sun was just poking its head over the brows of the hills.
It was cold and, after half an hour sitting in the concrete amphitheatre, where I saw the Bacon Butty Brigade resplendent in their pink running tops covered in clear cellophane bags to keep warm (insert image of cling film wrapped bacon butties here) I discovered that a huge number of runners had invaded the WC and changing rooms of the venue and were huddled in there for warmth and so joined them and was so glad I did, after all, I still had two hours before the race.
Now this is cool; the Olympic flame is there, burning atop a staircase. Excellent selfie opportunity there. And, while this was not to be a really picturesque race, it did have a few wonderful highlights. But I shall come to those in due course.
The authentic Athens marathon is a busy affair. The marathon attracts 20,000 runners. There is also a 10K and a 5K on the same day. You are grouped in waves. I was in wave 6 as my expected time was around the 4-430 mark but really this was not a race to take lightly. I have often said you need to respect the distance. But at the authentic Athens marathon you need to respect the distance, the heat and the hills. And it was hilly.
A near constant climb ‘til somewhere between the 32-35K mark and then a lot of downhill to the finish, when your legs are already beaten.
How I did?
You know me. I live by the Chase and Status lyrics “Being strong feels exactly the same as being weak, the only difference is you don’t quit, not until you reach the peak.” I have been suffering from pretty bad Plantar Fasciitis and heel spurs since August. I have been on the painkillers, and am seeing an osteopath. I have been advised to not run, but that is not an argument. I strap up my foot with KTape, drop a few ibuprofen, and pad the crap out of my shoes.
I wore the Brooks Asteria at Beachy Head and, despite taking my beloved On Cloudracers I decided at the last minute to switch to the Brooks as they had more support. Probably a mistake. I wore my Salomon S-lab vest, with solid bottles rather than bladder. The pockets containing my essentials – Mint Creams, mini Mars, a strawberry yogurt Torq gel, phone and some cash. The solid bottles I filled with coke as knew the water stations would be mostly used for just water.
Kit-wise I wore some Balega hidden comfort (although my PF didn’t ever feel all that comfortable), OMM pace shorts (my personal fave with ipod (mine is called iPodicus) in the back pocket), but I had left my Nike cap in a bar the night before so was without chapeau, and I sported the kit of a French Canadian running club at their behest as they wanted their colours to run at the home of running. This last issue would play out over the coming hours because, as the sun rose and the race started it got hot very quickly as we ran along one side of a highway in olive grove valleys.
I am guessing Phinnepeades carried an olive branch with him, as the locals came out and handed out olive branches of our own to carry to Athens. It was a lovely touch and I am glad to have carried mine the whole way.
Now, this is pretty much a straight shot along one side of the highway, a pretty nice surface for the whole way, other than a little detour to gain an extra couple of K around the 4K mark. The route does have hills for most of the way until you descend into Athens. But before that, you are baked at 25 degrees for a few hours, and come out the other side like a roasted chicken.
I felt the heat early on. It was sweltering. In the race pack they had given us all Aegean Airways baseball caps that, of course, I had binned. But now, as I climbed toward the sun with every footstep, I would kill for one. I saw one on the other side of the road 5 miles in but it would have been a ball ache to clamber over the central barrier to get it. I was being baked, all on one side. Like a burger at a barbecue. I am done on this side, flip me over.
I did find a cap on my side of the road soon after that and gladly donned it for the rest of the race. This was a sensible move, and soon it was crusted in salt from my sweat along with the rest of my kit. It was that hot. Everyone around me was encrusted in salt. Water stations were very frequent though. I do not know how close together they were, but as loved ones tracked me on the app and got 5K updates on my time, I was drinking a lot of water, filling the bottles too to get through the heat. I poured bottles over my head. It was totally Flashdance.
The PF and heel spurs caused me a lot of pain. Bashing my poor trotter on the asphalt was not good for it and soon, with the heat and the hill and the heel pain, I started to walk. This was not going to be the end of season PB that I had hoped of when signing up. This was going to be a slog. But hey, that’s what I do, right?
I took a few selfies, including one with the man himself.
I tweeted to the good peeps at #UKRUNCHAT to show them a bit of the fun.
I saw a troop of Spartans running in formation and decided to keep up with them, running through the pain to salvage some pride.
And as I hit the downhill portion I knew I would make it. Forget the time. Enjoy the moment. After all, the moment was running into the original Olympic stadium, to the cheers of hundreds. And I did run. I normally pootle toward the end of a marathon. It is a running joke, I look like I am trying to work out where I parked as I finish. This time, forget that shiz, I was running to the end. Forget the foot pain. Bam!
And somehow, through the hills and the heat and the heel pain that is exactly what I did, in the colours of a random French Canadian running club, listening to, what has now become known as, the Chester playlist. So many good running memories already to that one.
It is as epic as the finish itself. Well, it is the finish itself. I love it. Top bling for sure. I shall treasure it.
I limped back to the hotel, had a few beers, raising my glass to the walking wounded as they went by with their bling.
Next day, sunburnt I took the bling for a walk to the city, taking in the sights. At the Olympic stadium fellow runners saw me taking photos and asked if they could take photos with my medal as they had left theirs back at their hotel. Of course, I said. And for the next ten minutes my medal got to appear in photos going to the four corners of the world.
On a more serious note I saw a lot of people collapse. The sweeper bus was full as it took the injured back to the start. A guy right near the end looked dead. He was not moving, eyes fixed on the sky, four very concerned medics around him. You have to be thankful for your health, and you need to respect the distance and the conditions. You need to listen to your body, if you feel weak you walk, if you feel dizzy, stop. Someone will help.
I was not enamoured with Athens. The city is pretty run down in places. The food is not brilliant other than at the Balcony restaurant close to the Acropolis. Taxis are cheap, but the cab drivers will try to fleece you. I do not like the hard sell but I did find a shop that made awesome freshly pressed tea. I did not like my hotel room, despite twin beds so I could move from one to the other as I sweated through the night, doing my best to avoid becoming a mosquitoes midnight snack. But the race, the organisation, the spectacle, the madness of seeing Spartans running together, the finish line, the medal, the route and surface, everything about this was EPIC in full capital letters.
Would I run the Authentic Athens Marathon again? You know, I probably would.
Would I recommend the Authentic Athens Marathon? Yes, I would. Be prepared for the long hot slog uphill, but the finish is so worth it.
And now, back to the osteopath to fix me before the next one. We have the technology. We can rebuild him.
NEXT UP: TATTON PARK HALF MARATHON, KNUTSFORD
Other notes on the Authentic Athens marathon:
You can pay for more for a t-shirt, you can also get the VIP ticket that includes tours and entry to the sights. I just bought my own tee and therefore have a greeny blue one and not the blue and red shirt everyone else has. Also, it is only 5 euros to go into each of the sights, so why pay 100 for the VIP experience?
At the airport when I first landed Twitter’s own @IWil_Run appeared from nowhere, like the shop keeper from Mr Ben as I had one eye on my driver and had the post-flight/watching the endless line of baggage at the baggage claim stares. I was completely thrown by his appearance. Apologies for coming over all odd.