The Athens Marathon

It wasn’t without much difficulty, but we did it. We ran the mother of all Marathons. The authentic course. The “OG” of all distance races: the Athens Marathon.

 

Lee brought the idea up to me when we first moved here. He said sometime within the next three years, we should plan a trip to Athens to run “the” Marathon. Somehow, that turned into “we’re running the  Athens Marathon this November!” Gulp.

With just under three months to train, we were really putting up our dukes to get ready for this thing. We’re not newcomers to distance running–since high school I’ve completed two full marathons (Chicago and Philly) and six half marathons. Lee has done almost all the same half marathons I have done, and also the Columbus (full) marathon.

We’ve trained side-by-side in the past, usually sticking together for runs up to 16 miles. Inherently, he’s faster than me, so for very long runs (and races) we always run at separate paces. This time, we did all of our training together, and made the decision to finish the race together. It seemed like too momentous of an occasion to go solo.

I won’t lie and say it was a good training cycle. In fact, it was probably the worst training cycle of my life. Definitely one that people don’t talk about (or if they do, they make it sound better than it actually was). I’ve heard people say not to overwhelm yourself with obligations and stress when you’re making a big move, and now I get what they were talking about.

Three months might be enough time to train for a marathon if you’re in a familiar environment. It might be enough time if everything else in your life is constant and unchanging. It might be enough time if you already have a good handle on your running routes and overall plan.

It is not enough time if you’ve just moved to another country. There were too many “unknown” factors. I found myself spending more time trying to find answers than enjoying the training. Is this road safe at dusk? What is the elevation gain of this route? Does that road have a shoulder? Is there a bike path through those woods?

Without adequate time to “practice” all the routes in the area, I felt like we were constantly running blind–hoping the route would be kind to us, but it never was. Every workout is a hill workout in Bavaria. There’s no avoiding it. I constantly felt sore the entire three months, can’t remember the last time I had a runner’s high, and felt like the runs never got easier. But still, quitting never crossed my mind. Not even during the run where I sat down on the sidewalk, still 10 miles away from home, and cried.

I put the miles in, and did everything I was “supposed” to do–from copious stretching, to menthol epsom salt baths, to hydrating and fueling properly–and still felt 100% unprepared. I was so excited to see Athens, but the feeling of the upcoming marathon was like a big gray cloud of doom lingering over me. Having completed two marathons before, I knew that I had the physical capacity to cross the finish line. What scared me was the constant battle in my mind that I would have to endure for hours.

Everything started sinking in when we went to the race expo at the Faliro Indoor Exhibition Center.

Up to this point, the race was just a big obscure idea that hadn’t manifested itself into reality yet. When I was handed my bib number, it became real. And it didn’t feel so bad. Now all I had to do was put it on and run 26.2 miles.

A lot of weird things happened on race morning that have never happened before in my 10+ years of running. First, I wore my race shirt. I play by the rule “nothing new on race day,” so I don’t know why I chose today to start being weird. But, the shirt was comfortable. So I wore it. Second, Lee and I ended up having to sit on the floor of the bus that drove us to the start line in Marathon. The guy counting us off counted too many, I guess. It took 40 minutes to get there, and I was extremely uncomfortable the entire way. Third, I walked into a porta-potty that was worse than your most terrifying nightmare. I’m talking liquid poop covering every inch of the toilet seat and the floor. Almost as soon as the door closed behind me, I kicked it open and stumbled out in shock. I made eye contact with another girl my age who read my mind. I nodded, she nodded, and I moved along.

We had so much time to kill, so we got a picture by the ceremonial Marathon Flame and did a few laps around the stadium track to stay busy.

Usually I feel nervous on race morning. Not terrified or scared, but just enough butterflies to get my adrenaline pumping. That’s what always gets me through those first six miles without blinking. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel those familiar butterflies, and my body didn’t even feel “pumped up” enough to run until we were standing in our corral taking our first steps.

 

Once we started doing the sardine shuffle for the first couple miles, I finally started feeling some pangs of nervousness. And with that came pangs of another type…

I had to pee.

I didn’t say anything to Lee at first, because I thought maybe the urge would go away. But it didn’t. One of the big issues of this race was the insanely late starting time of 9 a.m. I’ve never started a race later than 7. It’s usually a simple formula of wake up, drink water, and relieve yourself 15 minutes before the gun. Well, we woke up at 4:30 in order to catch the shuttle bus to the start line. So that left us with 4.5 hours before go-time! In order to stay hydrated we were going through cycles of drinking and peeing while we were waiting. It sounds ridiculous, but hydrating before a race requires immaculate timing and planning. It’s pretty much an advanced calculus equation. And I guess I screwed up this time.

We were approaching the 8 km (~5 miles) marker, and I was frantically looking for a safe place to go. The men had been relieving themselves for miles, simply stepping off the side of the road and facing a bush (if you’re shocked, don’t be… it’s a very common sight in a marathon). I kept saying, “must be nice to be a guy,” bitterly under my breath. Lee told me to just pick a place and go for it. So, I ran off the course at the empty-looking field, ran behind a wall, and crouched by some bushes while he guarded me.

Now that the crisis was averted, I felt like I could enjoy the race. The area between Marathon and Athens is comprised mostly of small neighborhoods, fields, or private plots of land. The landscape is breathtaking, but there’s not a whole lot to occupy your mind.

We went through a couple stretches with clusters of spectators where we saw traditional Greek dancers performing for us on the curb, old men and women sitting on their rocking chairs shouting “Bravo!” and clapping incessantly, and the well-known “Sirtaki” Greek song playing on repeat above it all.

It was so Greek. I loved these parts of the course. It’s exactly what I envisioned the race to be. Unfortunately, these lively bursts of excitement didn’t last long and we ran past them in the blink of an eye.

The vast majority of the road to Athens was quiet. No cheering, no “Bravo!”, no excitement that you would experience with a more urban marathon. When we settled into these long treacherous stretches of road, I started getting really worried about my ability to withstand these conditions. It was already 68º (F) when the sun came up, and reached a high of 73 while we were running. That might not seem very hot, but the “feel” of the temperature when you’re running is about 20 degrees higher than the actual temperature. Combine that with the fact that all of our training runs had been in 30-40º cloudy conditions, and it’s a serious problem.

I can gladly say that I was never lacking water or Powerade during the race. Water was provided every ~2 miles, and Powerade was available at every other station. I even got a SpongeBob sponge at one station and kept it the duration of the race, re-soaking it each time I got more water.

What I can’t wrap my mind around is why they handed out full 12 oz water bottles at every station. It resulted in everyone taking 3-4 gulps and then chucking it. And when you “chuck” a mostly full bottle of water, you better have good aim or else you’re going to hurt someone.

Tired marathoners don’t have good aim.

They also don’t want to spend energy and concentration trying to Jack-be-Nimble their way through minefields of full water bottles rolling all over the road. It just seemed like a lot of unnecessary risk… and waste.

The true test of endurance came around mile 15–much earlier than it should have. I was hot, sluggish, and already mentally destroyed. Lee and I usually chat on our long runs, but we weren’t chatting now. My saliva was filmy and made talking a chore. Every time I did say something to Lee, he said, “What?” and I couldn’t even muster the strength to repeat myself.

I got to the point where I truly hated this race. I hated the sun that was beating down on me, I hated that God-forsaken endless road, I hated the km markers that seemed to be repeating themselves, and I hated that I had no choice but to keep battling. At one point, I even had the thought that I hated running altogether. It was the most unpleasant run of my entire life (and I’ve had some pretty gnarly ones).

This is where the true test of the marathon begins. When putting one leg in front of the other has become something you have to consciously think about. When you’re desperately scrambling to collect your last bits of motivation to keep moving towards the finish line. When your mind is screaming at a deafening volume because it’s frustrated with itself, and with you, and with your legs, and with everything in the world at that exact moment.

When this struggle happens, I start thinking about the finish line and how close it is, even though it doesn’t feel that way. I think about what it’s going to feel like to run across the finish line and finally have this race–and these last few months–behind me.Getting to the starting line is the real battle. These small 26.2 miles are just a blip in the grand scheme of what I’ve gone through to finish this. So why does this feel like the hardest part? Sometimes I get choked up, and for a second I almost start to cry before I reign myself in.

As we approached the city center, there were finally dense crowds of spectators cheering us in for that final boost of motivation. We were also graced with a gradual downhill to the finish, which, after a couple dozen miles of gradual incline, was the most amazing feeling.

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We rounded the corner into the stadium, and I didn’t care anymore if I cried.

So I cried. Sobbed, actually.

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Seeing the finish line 100 meters away was the most beautiful and welcome sight. Lee grabbed my hand, and through tears and a final surge of every bit of energy I could muster, we crossed the finish line. Together.

We hugged and I sobbed for a good ten minutes.

It was the first race where I felt like I truly had nothing left at the finish line. I left it all on the course.

Lee and I agreed that, in all our years of running, a finisher’s medal has never been so earned.

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We walked somberly from the finish line to the recovery area, then said to each other that we’ll look back on this years from now and say, Hey, remember the time we ran the Athens Marathon and it sucked? 

He laughed. And I laughed. And then we drank some Greek orange juice. It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how bad the run was, and no matter how much I think it destroyed me, I’m always okay. After a couple weeks of saying I’ll never do this again, I know I’ll always lace my shoes back up. The thrill of survival is what keeps me coming back to this sport.

And it’s a beautiful thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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