I remember leaving home and walking to the underground station, the plastic bag with my kit and bib number slung across my shoulder. At 5:50 on a Sunday there was hardly another soul on the streets, but there was already a couple with similar bags on the train platform and more arrived by the minute. On each station more and more people in running gear and the same blue bag boarded the train, silent for the most part, although I did manage to extract a nod and a smile from a couple of them (hey, l wasn’t on the London Underground, so I was determined to acknowledge the people I was going to run 42.2km with!).
By the time we got to Syntagma Sq (one of the points at which we would board the coaches to the starting area) the train was full of runners: Exiting the station we were a stream of blue bags – this photo really doesn’t do justice to the sight!
The organisation was even better than in 2011, with volunteers at the top of the escalators and along the very short walk to where coaches kept arriving, picking up runners and setting off for Marathon, 40-odd km away. It was obviously much busier than 2011 though (it turns out there were double the number of runners in the marathon race) and it took about 5′ to board a coach, which is still pretty good!
En route we were regaled with pre-recorded greetings and instructions of where and when to drop and collect our kit. It gave me a chance to remember what the route looked like in reverse (as we were driving out to the start point). Even having run it before, there was too much noise from the coach’s brakes straining on the prolonged downhill on the way to the start for my liking – which of course would translate to runners panting uphill on the way to the finish! My only other minor gripe was that the pre-recorded messages insisted on pronouncing the “route” as the “rout”! Little did I know…
But the starting area put a smile on all our faces, albeit a nervous one! Limited in size (one of the constrains of having the race on the original route is that you can’t modify the start area to hold more people), but with volunteers everywhere (with helium balloons with an i attached to them, as in information!), who were giving out water bottles, plastic covers to keep us warm and were generally very smiling and helpful (and why shouldn’t they be? They were getting a lift back to Athens!)
Gradually more coachloads arrived, the sun climbed in the sky raising the temperature further and the rain of the previous day evaporated quickly, adding to the humidity in the air… The music from the speakers changed to a Greek song describing how “this soil that we walk on will cover us all”, but we still mingled about smiling unawares…
Eventually the time came for us to get in our starting blocks, the athlete’s oath was sworn (we love our bit of ceremony in Greece as well!) and we were off! Through a combination of the traffic around me and a conscious decision to take it easy, the first km was appreciably slower than my target time for the first section, but I didn’t mind at all: it was developing into a hot day and running in a group of sweating runners on a road that was drying didn’t help one bit! In fact I remember that it was somewhere there that I started talking to myself, like I would to Demi when we run together: little mumblings of assurance that this was the right pace, advising myself to take it easy to begin with and see how the day developed: In any other gathering I’m sure I’d get many strange looks, but marathon runners are a strange sort, and talking to ourselves is one of our more minor eccentricities! I also started singing a Neapolitan song that had become an earworm, inwardly for the most part.
My pace began to pick up a bit in the second and third km, but I was always there to keep myself in check with little mutterings of “there, no faster than this now”; or “wow, ease back a bit, it will be a long, hot day” etc. The fourth km went past, we turned left for the loop round the tomb of Marathon (where the Athenian dead of the battle in 492 BC are buried) and the first water point. On the road to the tomb there was greeting of runners coming the other direction (i.e. had completed the loop and were heading back to the main road) and a bit of banter, but then it was our turn to head back on to Marathonos Av and continue towards the next village of N Makri. I was still very happy with my running, keeping a reasonable pace and I completed my first section (0 – 10km) marginally slower than my goal, but very relaxed about it.
On the undulating section that followed (10 – 15) I was faster than I had aimed to be, primarily because I expected it to be all uphill and had set my target pace accordingly. Still, I continued to coach myself and mumble advice regarding taking it easy, but looking at my splits now, I see that on the genuine uphills I went (on average) at the pace I had set myself – perhaps 2” per km slower.
As I entered the 16th km, I remember taking a lot of heart from the thought that I had completed over a third of the race already and I was feeling very relaxed, relatively fresh and in complete control of my pace! I had to make a quick pit stop behind a tree (first time ever in a race!), but it wasn’t a big deal in the scheme of things and I could see the people I had been running with a bit further down the road, so I knew I hadn’t lost too much time. Besides, given the heat, I wasn’t really going to push myself for my target time, although I felt I had a good race in me. The 16th km had the most demanding hill yet, but that meant that the line of warm bodies thinned out a bit and a most welcome suspicion of a sea breeze blew over the coast and up to the road we were climbing.
That section of the route is lined by pine trees and is genuinely beautiful; there must also be eucalyptus trees in there somewhere, because I could clearly sense their distinctive smell. I find it grows stronger when there is humidity in the air. I have mixed memories from that smell: My first memory of it was from summer camp in Athens, which had an athletics track the back straight of which was lined with eucalyptus trees. I was never much of an athlete at school (I enjoyed playing some sports like tennis and volley ball, but always purely for fun, which meant the PE teachers had given up on the likes of me and concentrated on those they considered having team potential) and running was my absolute nightmare! Anyway, evenings at the summer camp were dedicated to sports, and the smell of the track’s eucalyptus trees accompanied my feelings of exhaustion and inadequacy as I desperately tried to complete a second lap around the track at a completely inappropriate pace.
I had since made my piece with that smell (summers on Greek islands saw to that) and coming up to the mid-way point of my fourth marathon feeling strong, even the memories of me struggling round a track many years back felt part of the collage of what makes me a runner. But I digress.
I have said nothing so far about the other runners on the course, the many spectators out to cheer us, some waving flags, others handing out little branches of olive trees, all shouting, all encouraging us to go further. The municipalities on the marathon route hold short (1,000m) children’s races before the first runners come through and they and their families had stayed out to watch us, medals hanging from their necks, adding to the atmosphere.
The following two km were downhill and then (from the 18th) the slow climb to Stauros junction, at the 31st km started! I was surprised to see that what I remembered as a long hill was in fact broken by the odd level section, but even so, my pace slowed more than I had planned it to, and at that point I felt the first pangs of disappointment as I had to acknowledge that I was going to miss my target. Still, with a strong last section (11km downhill) I was on for a respectable PB, which given the conditions I’d gladly settle for.
The first pangs of discomfort came a bit after half way point. Niggles behind my knees, my hamstrings began feeling tense and – eventually – cramps developed at the tops of my calves. I tried adjusting my running, lifting my knees a bit more (it had worked in training), varying my pace a bit, but in vain. The pain kept getting worse, so on the 25th km I had to stop by a First Aid point and ask for help. They gave me some cooling gel to rub on my calves, took my number and sent me on my way. I realised after the race that I was diluting my High5 electrolyte tablets too much: I mixed half a tablet in each 500ml water bottle given out, instead of a whole one that was closer to what I was used to and what High5 recommend.
The gel hardly provided any relief and so it went, running, walking a bit, stopping at another First Aid point and so on to the 31st km and the top of the hill. But it was all going to be downhill from there, surely I could manage that?
You know what it’s like when you race falls apart, when what you have set out to do is lost and then, minute by agonising minute, you see even your “settle for” goal slip by and – try as you might – there is nothing you can do but try to hobble along after it, only to break down into a walk a few hundred yards later? You enter a little world of your own, a parallel run: those runners that pass you looking strong (anyone who can continue running looks strong to you) belong to a different race, and that is the race the spectators are cheering. They are cheering the athletes who overcome the discomfort and continue running, while you (in your own head) have stumbled and are about to pull out.
The downhill brought no relief and despite a stop at a third First Aid point, my discomfort (can I call it suffering yet?) only increased. The pain behind my knees was so bad I couldn’t even walk and when I stopped and sat down on the pavement to seek some relief in folding them, it only took them a few seconds to begin hurting again so I had to get up, pretend to stretch (I was too tense for anything to actually stretch!) and limp along.
I can’t recall everything that went through my head, but l know it wasn’t pleasant. I hadn’t stopped mumbling to myself throughout, part encouragement, part complaining to no one in particular, but when I heard my own voice telling me I couldn’t take any more, I knew my race was over.
I’ve read the experiences of a number of runners who had painful races but at the crucial moment dug deep, found the strength within them and refused to give up. It was nothing like that for me: By the 37th km (5.2 measly kms before the end and deliverance!), I felt completely drained, physically and emotionally, and I had no alternative but to find a marshal and pull out. I was close to tears and wondering what sort of a horrible person I was that after the past 5 months this was going to be the one thing to reduce me to tears: not finishing a race for pity’s sake!
There was no rage against the dying of the light, no Will to tell heart and nerve and sinew “Hold on!”, just a little sadness that my first DNF had to be in Athens, in “my” Marathon. A lot of self-pity for my pain and a foregone debate on whether I would still allow myself to wear the finisher’s T-shirt (shame, because it was a nice one this year).
I think it was not entering the Panathinaikon Stadium I minded the most and the practicalities of how I’d meet up with Demi and everyone else who might still be waiting (my phone had already given up the ghost).
My hobbling towards the marshal became a bit less slow and – more from habit – I picked up a bottle at the water station at 37.5km rather than stopping. I put the two half-tablets of High5 zero l had left in it and carried on running.
The talking to myself gradually changed tune, the pain became manageable and as I emerged from Pheidippidou Str (the last uphill on the course), I was declaring to the world (in Greek) that “there is NO WAY I am not going to finish this! Not a chance!” and picking up pace to something resembling my overall target race pace. I had began overtaking people again and that was another boost: I was not in the parallel universe any longer, I was back in the race: Half an hour late, but back in it nonetheless! Even so, I had to make sure I didn’t make the mistake of going full out – I didn’t know how long the relief would last for and there were still 3 km to go, but I felt I was running properly again! And it was a wonderful sensation!
Past the War Museum, left down Herodou Attikou Str and it looked like the most beautiful road in the world! A downhill straight lined with trees and people four deep, all cheering us, crowding onto the race course as it crossed Vasileos Konstantinou Ave and into the Stadium! And what a beautiful stadium it was, from the first glimpse of the marble structure over the trees, to when it was revealed in its full glory as we passed under the arch signalling the end of the 42nd km!
I completed the race in what felt like a fluid fast run, but what video evidence later revealed to be a tensed up jog.
As I crossed the finishing line I heard my name been called and there was Demi and her mother, my sister and Niko and a family of good friends who had come to see Demi run the 10k race on the day (also finishing in the stadium) and had stayed on to watch me finish.
l followed the route round the stadium to where we were handed our medals and then out to collect my bag. The cramp returned as I came out of the stadium and I had to stop a number of times on my way to the collection point. lt was only 2 or 3 minutes walk away, but it must have taken me at least 15 to reach it. l kept asking the volunteers where we collected our bags from, hoping one would say “why Mr Symeonides, we have yours here”, but the answer never changed. l had a few choice words for the organisers’ decision to hide our stuff at what seemed like the far end of nowhere, but of course it was the right decision: not only did it avoid congestion at the exit of the stadium, but the short walk eventually got rid of the pain and I presented an almost respectable sight when Demi, Alexia etc met me.
They all seemed quite relieved to see me, walking and alive and everything, and I was greeted to another of the completely undeserved hero’s welcomes that is the real reason I am addicted to marathons!
But I too was so pleased to see them, relieved to have finished despite it all and glowing in self-satisfaction for my persistence and subconscious stubbornness that l didn’t mind one iota about the slow time or the pain along the way. “These things happen” I reasoned and they all add to the collage.
In the mean time, congratulations are due to the unsung, real heroes of the day, Demi and Niko who overcame a complete lack of training and a series of long running injuries (respectively) and finished the 10k race in times they should be proud of and with much less fuss! Congratulations all around and good luck to Alexia in 2015 pushing a pram! 🙂