In the footsteps of Pheidippides …

A tough run given the elevation and conditions.

How many of us can now boast having run a marathon – or many marathons – and yet only have a sketchy concept of the genesis and history of the challenging 42.195-kilometre event?

Well, until last month, I, for one, would have raised my hand. That’s why I decided to go back to where it all began and tackle the authentic Athens Marathon in Greece on 11 November – Remembrance Day.

And for so many reasons it was one to remember, not least because I – quite literally – found myself running through history.

The event derives its name from the legend of Pheidippides, the Athenian soldier-messenger who, it is said, was sent from the battlefield of Marathon in August or September 490 BC, to Athens, to announce that the Persians had been defeated.

Legend has it that Pheidippides ran the entire distance – 42.195 kilometres – in full battle gear without stopping and burst into the Assembly, exclaiming “We have won!”, before promptly dropping dead!  (And to be frank, having run this tough, elevated course in savage heat, I can identify with the poor bloke!  Thankfully, unlike Mr P, I survived to tell the tale!). While there is some debate about the historical accuracy of this account and the route he took, the Pheidippides legend lives on and is so strongly woven into today’s marathon event that some masochist locals choose to emulate him by running the 42-and-a-bit clicks in full battle armour – and barefoot to boot!

Done!

But treading in the footsteps of the heroic Pheidippides is just one of the historical highlights of the Athens Marathon. The Greek capital is also the birthplace of both the ancient and modern Olympic Games.  The course marathoners follow today is the authentic ‘Classic Olympic Course’ – the very same that participants ran in the first contemporary Olympics of 1896 and again when Athens hosted the Games in 2004.

The course follows a linear, sometimes hilly, route from the town of Marathon, a well-known summer resort today, to finish in the centre of Athens in the spectacular Panathenaic Stadium, which for many centuries hosted games in which exclusively male athletes competed in track events – in the nude.

Shortly after 9.00am on 11 November, as I bunch up in my zone with a staggering 20,000 other marathon participants ahead of, and behind, me for a ‘wave start’, the thought does cross my mind that stripping off and running ‘starkers’ on what promises to be a blistering hot day, might not be such a bad thing! I’ve already been up since 4.00am to give myself time to go through my usual pre-race preparations; eat my preferred breakfast with ample digestion time and hop on one of the dedicated athletes’ coaches travelling from Athens city centre to the start line. The start precinct is congested and humming when I arrive and although there are participants from all over the world, the overall impression is a sea of cobalt blue and white – the Greek national colours.

The time I have up my sleeve before the start is all-too-quickly-for-my-liking eroded in the long queues for the portable toilets (though many runners – males and females alike – opt to disappear into nature’s ‘dunnies’ in the surrounding vegetation). By electing to keep my modesty and dignity, I don’t have that much time spare to divest myself of my throwaway layer (it was still cool at 4.00am!) and fight my way through the masses to my zone. I barely settle before our wave is called forward to cross the start mat at around 9.15am – the serious elites having got underway at 9.00am on the dot and (based on previous best marathon times) everyone else commencing every two to three minutes after that, with the last heading out shortly after 9.30am.

The huge historical significance is not lost on me as we run out in front of the ancient Marathon Stadium for the first two kilometres before pounding through the Tymvos area for the next four.  Here, we run around the monument and sacred archaeological site of the Marathon Tomb, where the heroic Athenian soldiers who died during the famed battle are entombed.

The first 10 kilometres to the Nea Makri district are an easy start – almost flat and very comfortable to run – and it’s impossible not to feel euphoric as hundreds of locals line the course to applaud runners, shout ‘bravo!’ and hand out traditional olive branches. But it’s a danger to become complacent because as early as 11 kilometres, things suddenly get a whole lot harder, especially as the sun has some real kick in it already and my feet begin to feel as if I’m running on hot coals as we all tumble through the Rafina district, crossroad to the beach and harbour. By now, I’m supremely grateful for the full bottles of water (the contents of which I pour over me, as much as into me), as well as something I haven’t come across before – soaking wet sponges!

The impressive medal in the shape of the Panathenaic Stadium, where the marathon finishes and home of the first modern Olympic Games.

In all, there are 15 support stations along the course, from the fifth to the 40th kilometre.  The bottled water is offered at the start and finish, as well as every 2.5 kilometres after the five-kilometre mark.  Those life-saving sponges appear at the 7.5-kilometre aid station and at every second one beyond that, through to the 37.5-kilometre mark. On top of that, isotonic drinks are available at the 10-kilometre aid station and at every second station afterwards, through to 40 kilometres.  The 30-kilometre and 35-kilometre points offer Coca Cola, as well as the usual runners’ fodder of bananas and power bars.  However, there were some interesting additions I hadn’t come across before in a road race – dark chocolate and salty crackers!

There is a poignant moment too in the first half of the race, which serves to distract from our own more minor woes as we pass through an expansive area of utter devastation from the September wild fires that started during the heat-wave of the European summer just past. The Greek fires claimed the lives of almost 100 residents and were the second deadliest in the 21st century, pipped only by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires that saw 180 deaths here in Australia.

The half-way mark of the marathon is in the centre of the Pikermi district and it is about here that I begin to note a significant number of runners slowing to a walk or even dropping out completely and requiring medical attention by the side of the road. I keep running, though my earlier pace is steadily slowing as the course becomes more challenging.  However, the hundreds of cheering spectators gathered at Pallini – at almost 28 kilometres – provide a much-needed mental stimulus as we pass through one of the most difficult sections, complete with a gruelling hill climb that seems to grind on and on and on …

Stavros is at the dreaded, traditional 32-kilometre ‘wall’, but, thankfully, I know that this is the highest point of the course.  I take stock, glad that the worst is behind me.  I now have just 11 kilometres to go, and I take some confidence understanding that it’s all downhill and flat stages into the heart of Athens. Closer in, bigger and deeper crowds are gathered to spur us on, including more than 1,000 children who have only just completed their own race nearby, barely minutes prior.

Kilometre 37 sees the iconic Katehaki Bridge, famed for its architectural design, but as I cross it, I must admit that bridge features are the last thing on my mind.  The heat seems to have ratcheted up even more.  It’s draining and it’s taking a toll on me and plenty of other runners.  At this point, I just want the race to be over; to get to the finish line and claim my medal. From kilometre 40, I barely register the city landmarks that I know are there, but which seem lost in a dehydrated blur – the Athens Music Hall; the Freedom Park; the huge Hilton Hotel and the Runner Statue, made of glass.  The latter seems quite appropriate, as my legs are now feeling as equally fragile and on the verge of shattering!

As I do sight the Greek presidential residence and we run down Irodou Attikou Street, one of the most beautiful thoroughfares of Athens, I know I’m just a whisker away from getting this done, and somehow manage to crank up my ebbing pace again, revved by the huge crowds and loud and energetic bands stationed outside the National Garden and the building that is the seat of the Greek Government.

And then – out of nowhere – there’s the Panathenaic Stadium!

My first thought is that the Greeks are not biased in their proud description of it being the most beautiful (as well as historical) stadium in the world.  I am at first transfixed, as I see its elaborate white marble glinting in the bright sunshine, but then rapidly pull myself together.  It’s not yet over! There are a few hundred metres to run on the track in the stadium to the finish line and it’s made even more memorable by the accompaniment of the unmistakable ‘Zorba the Greek’, played by a full orchestra!

I can’t see too many other athletes in a fit enough state to start ‘doing the Zorba’, and I’m certainly not, but collecting my distinctive marathon medal will do just nicely.  It’s been quite the experience, running in the footsteps of the legendary Mr P!

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