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home > community > viewpoint > 26 miles in athens: running the marathon the greek way

26 Miles in Athens: Running the Marathon the Greek Way
A gathering of the world’s elite marathoners will line up this month for the most sought after championship in the sport: the gold medal in the Olympic Marathon. This will not be just any marathon; it will be the marathon. For that matter it will start in Marathon, the site of Phidippides’ famous run into Athens in 490 B.C., the precursor to all of today’s 26.2-mile madness.

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By Don Allison
Posted Friday, 6 August, 2004

A gathering of the world’s elite marathoners will line up this month for the most sought after championship in the sport: the gold medal in the Olympic Marathon. This will not be just any marathon; it will be the marathon. For that matter it will start in Marathon, the site of Phidippides’ famous run into Athens in 490 B.C., the precursor to all of today’s 26.2-mile madness.

What will the runners face in Athens? This thought had me reminiscing some 16 years back, when I had the opportunity to run the original marathon route from Marathon to Athens. Who knows how much, if anything, has changed since the fall of 1988, but undoubtedly the marathoners are in for 26 miles far different from any they have ever run before. How so? Join me for a trip back in time…

They say that timing is everything, and in 1988 that proved to be true for me. That April, I ran a personal best in the Boston Marathon, clocking 2:35:30. It had been four years since I had set my previous personal best; I was pleasantly surprised to run another one in ’88. It was just one of those days when everything went right. I was hoping to start out at close to six-minute pace, but found myself clocking 5:45 to 5:50 per mile with relative ease early on. Reaching halfway in 1:16, I was waiting for the inevitable wall, but it never came. The last four miles down Beacon Street I knew something special was happening and tried to make the most of it. Before I knew it I was across the finish line.

The good times continued that summer. I set a half marathon personal best and was invited by the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), for whom I ran, to run in the Athens Marathon in October. Athens, as in Greece? I had never even run a race outside the Northeast Corridor, let alone a foreign country. It seems the national sports federation in Greece was hoping to ingratiate itself with the U.S. in order to enhance its chances of landing the 1996 Olympic Games, the 100th anniversary of the first modern Games, held in Athens in 1896. (In the end, Atlanta won the bid for the ’96 Games, and Athens won the bid for 2004.). As such, the federation invited two runners from each of the top U.S. marathons: New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Boston, as well as a few others. As the second BAA finisher in Boston ’88, the club offered me the trip. Well, why not? I considered myself far from elite, but if others thought I was worthy, who was I to disagree?

So it was that a contingent of a dozen or so marathoners gathered in New York City for the long overnight flight to Athens. In a harbinger of coming events, the flight was postponed by several hours. We watched the first game of the World Series in a bar before departing after midnight.

Upon arriving in a very warm Athens the next afternoon and alighting to the hotel, we all wanted to go for a run to stretch our legs and work out the kinks. Not so fast, Americans. It turns out that to run on city streets was extremely inadvisable, due to the kamikaze-like driving habits of Athenians. So we had to wait until the next day, whereupon were driven to a nearby “park,” which one of our group nicknamed “the toxic waste dump.” The race was still a full week away. For all of that time we never ran on the streets, instead visiting a variety of parks, tracks, and on one memorable afternoon in Olympia, the site of the original ancient Olympic Games, held in 770 B.C. This was just one of the many historic sites we were able to see during our trip. Say what you will about Greece, but it is one of the richest cradles of history in the world.

We were having fun, but the race loomed on the horizon, never too far from my mind. I was initially concerned that the other U.S. runners would be out of my league, but I found that not to be the case. Most of the men were in my time range, and several were looking at this as a “fun run,” although I dismissed that as the usual pre-race carpet-bagging. One notable exception was a character from L.A. named “Echo,” who stated his intentions to go all out from the gun and run with the leaders. Echo featured a chiseled body worthy of “Greek God” status, and shall we say, some quirky personality traits.

I was more than a little worried about the baking, summer-like temperatures, and was grateful to the running gods upon awakening to falling rain on race day. My first inkling that this international marathon might not be what I expected however, occurred at the chaotic start. No one seemed to know exactly where the actual starting line was, nor when the race would actually begin. With virtually no warning, a starting gun fired, sending us on our way.

The rain helped keep the temperature down, but it also created a hazard. As one of the most polluted cities in the world, a fine grit lined the streets, which combined with the rain made the roads slick. It was hard to get a good foothold, except when running on the white line in the middle of the road, so that’s what I did. I also learned the Greeks were not big on time splits. No worries, I had my watch. But in a truly strange occurrence, some jostling at an aid station had stopped my chrono; for the first time in any road race I can remember, I had no idea of the elapsed time.

The layout of the course was similar to Boston, in that a relatively easy first half yielded to some pretty tough uphills from miles 15 to 20. The course then flattened out to the finish at the stadium used for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. I was feeling pretty good, thinking I could run a decent time if I did not completely fall apart. But one more obstacle remained. At the 20-mile mark I encountered hundreds of women up ahead, running on the race route. It seems a tour group of Scandinavian women had arrived in Athens and sought participate in the race. But since 26 miles was too far, in their wisdom race organizers let the ladies run the last 10-km, starting them at the 20-mile mark in the middle of the marathon! Thus, I had to weave my way through this throng. While I have to admit it was easy on the eyes, I was not thrilled about running the gauntlet at this late stage of the marathon.

Eventually the city skyline came into view and I knew the stadium had to be coming up soon. In addition to having no idea of the elapsed time, kilometer markers were also almost non-existent. There was nothing to do but run hard to the finish. The entrance to the stadium was a welcome sight; crowds welcomed us as we ran onto the track and across the finish line. Wouldn’t you know it—there was no clock at the finish line! It was not until nearly two hours later when someone in our group had a printout of the results that I learned I had run 2:42:39 and finished in 20th place. To top it off and give us the full Greek experience, our group bus was stuck in a horrendous traffic jam, so we did not get back to the hotel (some four miles way) until many hours after the race had ended.

The 1896 Olympic Stadium, where the marathon finished.

The day after the marathon our band of Americans was rewarded with a cruise that visited some of the Greek Islands. It would have been nice to stay there for another week! Alas, the next day we headed for the airport and the long flight back to New York.

Most certainly, the Olympic Marathon will be far better organized than the Athens race I ran in 1988. I doubt any of the runners will be in the dark about their splits or finishing times. And surely there will be no Scandinavian women engulfing the course at mile 20. But then again, their race experience might not be so memorable. And I’ll bet many of them wouldn’t mind a little rain either.



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