I love you Athens! (though you hurt me so…)

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It’s hard to know what to write about Sunday’s race: looking back I am presented with such an overwhelming mix of emotions, memories and sensations… some are very unpleasant, others – the majority – extremely happy… I really do not have the words to share the experience!

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As most of you will know by now, I finished the race, but at a much slower time than I was hoping for: At 04:12:something, it was 28′ slower than my PB and 21′ slower than my course best – which also happened to be my first marathon ever!

It was a very hot and humid day, an hour before the race the temperature was 20o C with 88% humidity and it just kept getting hotter after we left the coast and headed into the built up areas… While I was feeling good, running well within the limits I had set myself and taking on plenty of fluids, I started suffering from very painful cramps high in my calves from (I think) the 25th km onwards: I had to do a lot of walking, stopped at three First Aid Points along the way for cooling gel / spray and – at one stage close to the end – just sat down and folded my knees because any other position was just too painful! Having given up on salt sticks during my training (you will remember that they did not agree with me), I relied on High5 zero tablets for mineral supplement, which were great, but I think I had diluted them too much for the demands of such a hot day. Proof that when I eventually put two half tablets in the last bottle at the 37.5km water station, I was very quickly able to run again, picked up a decent pace, covering the last two km appreciably faster than my target pace! If only I had thought of it sooner, and what an idiot I feel for not trying it earlier!

But even having just written that paragraph, having relived all the negative experiences of the race, having reminded myself that what I trained so hard for ended in, let’s face it, failure (after all, I didn’t train or a 4h plus marathon, nor to walk with a grimace of pain), I still can’t wipe the wistful smile from my face at the memory of the day… It is common for runners who’ve had a bad marathon to vow to not run another, only to change their mind a few months later as the memory of the pain subsides… Instead I would run Athens again tomorrow given half a chance, under the very same conditions (but with more High 5 tablets)!

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There is probably an element of bias, I accept. After all Athens was my home before Preston or Huncote, Marathon (the starting point) is where I spent most of my summers building castles in the sand, learning to scuba dive and free diving. But still… I’m not one of those Greeks who sees their country bathed in a golden light and lament every moment they are away, so it’s not all the effect of nostalgia! I genuinely appreciated the course much more this time round, I felt much more in control of my running than other times, I loved the fact that not only were there water stations every 2½ km, not only did they give out water bottles instead of those silly plastic cups you get in most races, but you could call out to the volunteers and specify whether you wanted your water bottle with the cap on or off! To say nothing of the usual assortment of bananas, sports drinks, gels, and – oh, luxury of luxuries on such a day – sponges dripping with cool water!

There is also something about how the Greek public (and I include here non-runners) sees their marathon… There is a discreet pride about it being “the one” and it being such a well organised and well run event, even by international standards (a rare occasion of Greek organisation being pretty damn good!). Also, as it is a point to point race from a relatively well known coastal village outside Athens, it’s easy for everyone to get an appreciation of the distance involved (“you ran here from Marathon?”) and I think this shows in how people view the runners and the event. And there is one final thing… It’s a genuinely inclusive event, costing only €40 to enter (€20 for affiliated runners!) for the mid range entry package and entries don’t close for around 5 months after they open in March. So none of that staying-awake-till-4am-to-enter-the-ballot-and-then-find-out-six-months-later-that-you-aren’t-in-it-anyway, which we seem to consider normal for London!

But I digress… The point I am trying to make is that I have become very, very fond of this race: I loved it the first time I ran it, when I had exceeded my expectations; and I’m absolutely hooked now, when I had a terrible race, went through a lot of pain and on the 37th km thought I couldn’t take any more!

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Although this isn’t what I – or I suppose you – expected me to write about when I started this post: Instead of a description of my run, it’s ended up an outpouring of love for the race that gave me so much pain!

But I suppose my Sunday was so emotionally charged that I needed to let some emotion out before returning to the more down-to-earth realm of descriptions…

Which I will do in the next few days with a more factual description of my race. Bye for now!

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