A couple of years ago, my family stopped over in Greece to let my husband run THE marathon–Athens. Here is the experience in his words: why, how, and tips. (The kids and I visited the Acropolis museum and very friendly children’s museum while waiting on him. Then we met him at the stadium!)
According to legend, the very first marathon in the world appeared on the route where the present day Athens Classic Marathon takes place. In 490 BC a giant Persian army invaded the small town of Marathon near the coast of Greece. However in the Battle of Marathon that ensued, the Greek army defeated the Persians, and a messenger named Pheidippides was sent to Athens to bring news of the victory. The young Greek ran the 42 km from the battlefield to the capital as fast as he could, announced his joyous message, and died. And according to folklore, this is the inspiration for the marathon race we know today.
I picked up running as a hobby ever since moving to the U.S. from India. Until 2001, my races were limited to half marathons and relay marathons in Austin, Texas. In 2001, after moving to Houston my wife gifted me a running journal and a book. This book was about training for a 4 hour marathon in 4 months. I was new to Houston and had several great running locations like Memorial Park and Rice University nearby. I, therefore, decided to go ahead and sign up for the first marathon in Austin in 2002, then Motorola Marathon. I was able to easily convince my brother who lived in Austin then to go ahead and run this one with me. Like most marathoners, we started planning our second one immediately after finishing the first. We also decided to run at least one marathon every year and to do at least 10 marathons (which later turned to a dozen marathons). Accordingly, I stayed with my goal for 10 years, attempting to complete dozen marathons before I turned 40. Along the way I skipped a few years with birth of our kids, but did 2 or 3 in other years. My races were all in Austin or Houston with a few ultra-marathons.
In the summer of 2011, my wife and I were planning our overseas trip to India. Out of curiosity, I asked my wife to look into our stop options in Europe and if there were any good marathons available that time of the year in or around those cities. I was looking for my 12th race and wanted to make it memorable. As a marathon runner we are all aware of its history and where these got started. I was aware of the Athens marathon in back of my mind since it was a sister marathon to the Houston Marathon, which I had run several times. Timing would work well since Athens marathon was in November and we could possibly time our trip to accommodate the race on my way back from India. Fortunately, the cheapest airline we were finding deals with showed almost the same price getting a straight ticket to U.S. or getting a stopover in Europe and through Greece. We refused to believe that this could be due to the mass protests going on in Athens then due to their worsening economy. This opportunity to run in this race was too good to miss. I officially registered for the race.
Of course the flight we were scheduled on from India was cancelled, and instead of flying through Paris and then to Greece we were now scheduled via Amsterdam. We were able to get our itinerary modified and finally reached Athens. After a 3 day excursion to Santorini islands we finally arrived back in Athens the day before the race to collect my race packet.
During our entire stay in Athens and in Greece, we did not see any protests and everything was very peaceful. The race expo was scheduled at the Zappeion conference center near Syntagma square in Athens. The whole area was surrounded by ancient sites with several outdoor cafes. Syntagma square is also where most of the governmental offices for Athens are located. The race expo and packet pickup was effortless. Each registrant received a blue running hat and the white adidas running jersey. These were really nice. I have yet to use these and have kept these as souvenirs so far.
We had booked a hotel on the subway line about 8-10 blocks away. This was really convenient since it allowed me to easily get to the bus location on the race morning without disturbing my family. On the race morning, buses started picking up the runners around 6AM from Syntagma square to take them to the start line in Marathon city. Marathon is located on the eastern coast.
Although the ride was about an hour, we had to wait another 2 hours for the scheduled race to start at 9AM. The temperature was in low 40s with light rain, which made the wait a little unpleasant. I was however well dressed with long pants, gloves, hat and a running jacket. There were several things at the start line though which kept me occupied: flags of various nations, the burning flame (which resembled the Olympic flame), and several people dressed in costumes resembling ancient Greek warriors. As the day light started to illuminate the start line and the festivities, I was able to see the hills surrounding the location. It was a very beautiful setting.
Runners were separated into 7 blocks to start. The first 10k or 6 miles were fairly flat, winding along the coast and going around the old Battle of Marathon and the monument to the fallen (tomb). Course started to change right around the 10K mark with a steady climb. The course was definitely hilly and a bit difficult as everyone says, especially between 10K and 30K. The temperatures and the light rain did make the conditions little less enjoyable for few runners. I had heard that this is the hardest major marathon in the world with the start line at sea level and finish in Athens about 110m (360 FT) elevation. Athens was certainly more challenging than the Houston and Austin marathons I was used to. However, I do not believe it was one of the hardest since I was mentally and physically prepared for it and my expectations were certainly very different than my typical marathon. I had decided that this race is not one to get a PR, but this is the one to savor and enjoy every moment.
The crowd support along the race was awesome considering the wet and cold weather. For the first half of the race, which was mainly through the countryside, there were fewer supporters, but support was very good whenever the course passed through small villages and towns. During the second half of the course there were more supporters, as we neared Athens. Aid stations were well equipped with water and sports drinks. The course sloped downhill for the last 10K or 6 miles allowing me to speed up a little. This and the anticipation of seeing my family and finishing strong at the spectacular old Olympic Panathenaic stadium gave me a new surge of energy. The last few miles were along the Presidential palace and national gardens.