Saturday, November 02, 2002

The Athens Marathon

The Athens Marathon was my first marathon. In my prior post, I discuss how I came to sign up for and train for this event. The week prior to our departure was the name day dance for our local Greek Church. During the dance, the parish priest, Father Chris, calls us up before the congregation to announce our departure for Greece to run the Athens Marathon. Afterwards, an older member of the church comes up to us to tell us of his running the Athens Marathon in his youth. He wishes us good luck and we are honored to meet the gentleman. Another friend comes up to me and tells me that I will not be able to run the marathon. Thanks Van, that's just the kind of encouragement I need heading off to run my first marathon.

The Athens Marathon trip was a great travel experience and set me on my way to running marathons and other road races. The trip was through Apostolos Greek Tours. Paul Samaras, the owner of the tour company does a great job of providing side trips that give runners a good experience in Greece. Not only did he arrange for trips to Plaka and the Acropolis, but he arranges a bus tour of the course MCed by running expert Jeff Gallaway. Jeff is an Olympic runner from the 1972 Munich Olympics and an creator of the "Run/Walk" method of running. During our various tours, Jeff gave talks on nutrition, training and running the marathon. Jeff and his wife were also very generous with their personal time during the week for anyone who wanted to talk about running.

My wife Salome came along on the trip. Being fluent in Greek, she was a great help to all who went with us to restaurants or bakeries. Since my Greek wife had family in the Athens area, we went "a la carte" for some of the tours so that we could cut out and visit various aunts, uncles and cousins.

The tour had us staying in a hotel in Voulagmeni, a resort town on the coast about 10 miles south of Athens. After checking into our hotel, I went for a 6 mile run and met a nice couple from Philadelphia, Susan and Bill. They were both good runners and put me through a nice pace to shake my legs out. Later that day, we had a briefing from Jeff and Paul as to what was in store for the week and the marathon. Salome & I had a client who was a part time travel writer for the Sun Sentinel. Salome had arranged an introduction to Paul and the writer and her husband arranged to come along for the trip. Our running buddy John, who had instigated the whole trip was also part of our Ft. Lauderdale group.

The next day, Saturday, the group was given a tour of the course by bus. We drove out to Marathon and drove the course back into Athens getting tips along the way from Jeff. That night, we were served a traditional pasta feed along with salad and bread. At the end of the meal, waiters brought out desserts of chocolate mouse. Of course, we snapped these up and started eagerly eating these treats before Jeff got up and announced that the desserts were for those that were not running the marathon in the morning. Oh well, they were tasty anyway.

Our friend John had forgot to reset his watch to Athens time. He set his Alarm to wake himself at 4AM. However, with the time mix up, the alarm went off at midnight. Having gone to bed early, he didn't seem to notice that he hadn't gotten that much sleep. Thinking it being 4AM and time to get ready, he did just that. Now, I don't know why some people shower and shave before going out to sweat for several hours running a marathon, but this is what my buddy John does. He shaved, showered, got dressing in his running gear, and headed down to the lobby. When he didn't find anyone in the lobby at 1AM, he went to the lower lobby conference hall where we had met the day before. He hears the beat of dance music, which he assumes to be music to pump up the runners before the marathon. He enters the room to find himself as the only one dressed out for a marathon at a wedding reception. After well wishes to the bride and groom, he heads back to his room.
John at 1AM, showered, shaved and ready to run...3 hours early!

I awake at 4 AM and get dressed for the marathon. Salome gets up and comes down to the buses to see us off. She will see us hours later at the finish line in Panathinaiko Stadium, the Olympic stadium built for the first modern Olympic in 1896 on the site of an ancient stadium.

On the bus ride out to Marathon, John and I talk about diving and I learn that he is also certified as a dive instructor. As he runs through some of his spiel on various aspects of diving, I realize that I want him to be the one to teach and certify my son, John the following summer.

The start area is a bit of an unorganized mob scene. There is a track where we see a number of Kenyan runners and other professional runners warming up. We head to the port-a-potties and get in line. John get into a stall and realizes his potty is out of toilet paper. He starts a hilarious routine of asking around a la Sienfeld if any of the runners has a square to spare. Soon, we are lining up for the race and the starting gun is fired. Off we go.

The course headed east from Marathon to add an additional 1.2 miles to the course before heading south on the course that is believed to be the probably path that Phedippedes ran on his way from the battlefield at Marathon on his way to Athens to tell the people that the Athenians were victorious over the Persians. The extra 1.2 mile was added in the 1908 London Olympics at the request of the Queen to have the marathon start at Buckingham Palace. Thus, we run this extra section of the course and all other marathons in honor of the Queen of England.

My buddy John having run 3 previous marathons is well ahead of me at a pace to finish in the 3:45 range. As a newbie marathoner, I simply want to finish and take it at a slower pace. I have no time goal, but would like to finish under 5 hours.

As I come to the first water stop, I note that they are handing out full bottles of water instead of paper cups. This seems a big waste as most runners only take a few sips and toss the bottle. I keep my bottle not wanting to create undue waste. I keep a bottle until I've used it up, skipping several water stops.

After about the 10 mile mark, we hit the hills crossing over the mountain range separating Marathon from Athens. I unexpectedly find the hills to not be a problem for me. While I come from the flat coastal area of southeastern Florida, I find that I've got a natural knack for hill running. Who knew? I simply shortened my stride on the uphills and opened up a bit and let my pace naturally pick up on the downhills so as not to unnecessarily brake, which pounds the quad muscles. I note other runners having a problem with the hills and use those portions of the route to pass other runners.

Bill around mile 13 feeling fresh and light on the hills.

I come across a couple of pretty old guys who have numbers like 300 and 700 on their running jerseys. I can't believe it, but it appears these runners have run 300 and 700 marathons. As a first timer, I can't quite believe my eyes. Upon inquiry these old, fit guys inform me that "yes" they've run over 300 and 700 marathons respectively. I have no intention of repeating their feats.

As we come into Athens, around mile 20, I hit the infamous wall, the point at which the glycogen stored in our muscles is completely depleted. You ache. You've gone beyond the body's natural limit for running. From here on in, its mind over matter. Never having gone beyond this point in training, I'm in uncharted territory. I come across one of the charity fund raising runners who is running for Joints in Motions, an Arthritis Foundation organization. As I pass her, the runner says almost under her breath, "Everything hurts." "You said it," I reply.

Now, you have to know that as a boy of about 7 I was working with my older brother trying to fix my bike. We dropped a piece and couldn't find it. I prayed to God that we would find this missing piece. I wanted my bike fixed so bad, I vowed to God that if we found this missing bike piece, I would never bother God with such petty requests again. Ever. For the rest of my life. Of course, we shortly found it. But, I had given my word to God and never asked for personal assistance from him again. Of course, I would pray for the health of loved ones, but I would never seek personal assistance for something I could control. Thus, when I was running at mile 21 and my legs wanted to cramp up, I felt I couldn't ask God or Jesus for intervention. A mile later, I start to pray to the Virgin Mary. Thank God for loopholes and my training as an attorney to find them.

I note that the police have the streets properly blocked from cross traffic. However, the local Greek drivers will have none of this nonsense on their Sunday morning and shout and curse at the police to let them through. Fortunately, the traffic cops turn a deaf ear to these pleas. Unfortunately, as I cross a very crowded intersection on a 6 lane cross street about a mile from the stadium, no other runners are close behind me. The cops decide to let some traffic in behind me. One of the problems with the streets of Athens is that they are so crowded that guys in their 20s ride motorcycles like bats out of Hell so they can waive between the cars and get places faster. They are thus experts at getting to the front of a line of traffic and barreling across intersections as lights change from red to green. Several motorcycles have just been given the green light to cross the intersection I've not finished crossing. As I look up to see several motorcyclist tearing across the street towards me, I lurch to try to get out of their way. This act of lurching causes my right hamstring to cramp. I nearly die trying to limp out of the way of the impatient motorcyclists.

I now limp for several yards and stop to stretch my hamstring so I can finish the last mile of the marathon. As I approach the stadium, I must cross a ramp that raises over the barrier from the sidewalk onto the stadium track. That simple one foot rise causes me hamstring to cramp again. My travel writer friend chooses this moment to take a picture of me grabbing my cramping leg. My dignity will not be spared.

Bill about to cross into Panathinaiko Stadium and cramping up one last time.

I message the cramp out and finish the last hundred yards to the finish. As I cross the finish in 4 hours and 27 minutes. I drop my head and tear up. I raise both arms in victory signs. I hear my wife Salome yelling out from the stands. I stop and get me medal. I've completed my first marathon.

Bill crossing the finish line at the Athens Marathon.

After I walk the circular track, I feel great. I work my way over to where our group is sitting in the stands and meet up with my wife Salome, her cousin John and running buddy John. We are handed huge pretzels as after race recovery food, presumably for the salt content. One bit reveals that these are like sawdust, sucking any moisture from your mouth. We immediately spit out the bit. Perhaps it was an intelligence test to see if we had our wits about us enough to know to reject this "food."

After a bus ride back to the hotel, John and I have celebratory Greek beers. I recall my buddy Van's statement and curse his sentiment. We arrange for messages from the hotel and relax. That evening, we attend a dinner and celebration of our completion of the marathon. Jeff Gallaway is the master of ceremonies and crowns us with olive branch laurels like they did in at the ancient Olympics. Jeff tells us that we now belong to a group that is less than 1% of the world population. We are marathon runners.

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Getting Ready for My First Marathon

The Athens Marathon was my first marathon. How did I even get signed up for this event? It was a journey of many years. Back in 1982, I read Jim Fixx's The Complete Book of Running. That book first sparked an awareness and interest in the marathon. I had previously followed the careers of Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar. I was amazed by the feats of both of these runners. I still am.

Given the high level at which these guys, and the average marathon runner of that day, ran, I had no realistic thought that I could run a marathon. I was happy to be able to run for fun and do a 10K or 15K race. During the10 year period starting in 1995 when my brother Dave and I ran the St. Pete Times Turkey Trot 10K in memory of our deceased older brother Jim, we would talk about the idea of one day running a marathon. However, neither of us took any steps towards that goal.

It was in the fall of 2001 that I notice how fit my fellow church council member John looked. When I inquired what he did to keep in such shape, he informed me that he was training for the New York City Marathon. John had run the Disney Marathon twice before and New York would be his third marathon. New York was especially meaningful since John grew up in New York and the events of 9/11 had recently occurred. On his return from New York, John told a moving story of the running of that marathon. Hopefully, he will one day reduce that story to writing.

In the next few months, he talked about his next planned marathon: the Athens Marathon. As an avid reader of ancient history and a lover of the Greek culture, my interest was piqued. If I was ever to run a marathon, the idea of running the historic course that the Greek messenger Phiddippedes had supposedly run from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens appealed to me.

My wife, Salome and another women running friend, Sherry, both chimed in that they wanted to run the Athens Marathon. "You have no idea what you are contemplating," I told them both. I had run a half marathon in my early 20s and remembered getting to about mile 10 and just wanting to stop running. There seemed to be no reason to be running this far. I only completed the distance to be done with it. I had never run that far since, sticking mostly to my annual 10K Turkey Trot. The Athens Marathon also had a reputation as being a hard course. Since we had a family trip to Greece scheduled for June, we decided to check out the course before committing to running the marathon.

When we were visiting Greece in June, 2002, we drove the course from Athens out to the town of Marathon. The drove took us through a series of downward rolling hills. As we continued rolling down these hills in our rental car, Salome said, "This doesn't look so bad. Look, the course is rolling downhill." "I know," I replied, "Unfortunately, the course runs in the other direction. Those rolling downhills are actually rolling uphills." "Oh," Salome soberly responds. As we complete our drive to the town of Marathon, we don't feel so good about this concept.

The people in the town of Marathon did not add to our confidence. As we walk around the town inquiring about the marathon, none of the locals seem to know what we are talking about. "Marathon? Yes, you are in Marathon." "No," we repeat, "The Athens Marathon. The marathon run from Marathon to Athens in November. Do you know where the start is or where we can get information about the race?" No one in Marathon seems to have a clue. We finally stop by the local police station. Yes, they've know of the marathon, but have no idea of how to register. We are directed to the start area and drive out the the track where the race starts. Other than a memorial plack, the start area was unspectacular.

In spite of our experience in Marathon, Salome, our friend Sherry, and I decide to train over the summer for the November 2, 2002 Athens Marathon. Unfortunately, Salome started to have a problem during her training runs in the month of July. She had a couple of falls while running. One morning, she left for a run from the condo we lived in. I was ready to drive to work. However, about 10 minutes after she left the condo, I receive a phone call from a women. She tells me, "Your wife fell. But don't worry, the ambulance is on the way." "What?" I reply somewhat shocked, "What do you mean, an ambulance is on its way?" I rush out of the condo and drive a half mile north where I come across Salome lying in the street with a couple of paramedics putting a neck collar on her and blood in the street. Apparently, Salome had tripped again while running, had hit her head on the ground, and was bleeding from a cut from the fall. The paramedics, taking no chances, immobilized her neck with the collar, rolled her onto a board, lifted her to a gurney and drove her off in an ambulance to the hospital.

As we waited for the results of test which all turned out fine, I told Salome that she was off of training for the marathon. In fact, until we could figure out what was causing her to fall while running, I advised her to stop running altogether. It was during our time in Athens that we figured out that Salome had gotten used to running with our baby, Alex, in a jogging stroller and had gotten used to leaning forward and down towards the jogging stroller. When jogging without the stroller, she was still leaning forward and slightly down. Thus, a slight stumble that most runners would recover from resulted in Salome losing her balance and down she would go. However, during the summer months prior to the Athens Marathon, we did not have the problem figured out. So, Salome was out of training for Athens.

Shortly thereafter, our friend Sherry's knees started to give her trouble. Thus, my two other rookie marathoners, who were both more excited and committed to training for the marathon, were out of the event. By early August, I was training for Athens alone.

I learned how difficult it is to train for a fall marathon living in South Florida. The months of August and September are simply too hot to run long distances without becoming dehydrated. I had a 10 mile run scheduled for August. I started to have real problems from mile 7 on in. I was getting too hot and my back would get achy, a sign of dehydration. It is simply too hot and once you get behind the dehydration curve, there is no ability to recover.

In September, I up the long run distance to 13 miles. While I get thought the 10 mile mark easier by working to improve my hydration, the last 3 miles are again agony. Its so hot, I duck under the beach showers to cool off, so that I can complete the distance. In the following weeks, I try to increase the long run, but can't seem to be able to get beyond the 13 mile mark before crashing out. As it becomes early October, I start to worry whether I can get in the 20 mile training run that the running books say I'll need to be marathon ready.

I turn to John for advice. He suggests I try using a goo to get beyond the 13 mile mark. I also start working in walk breaks, running 10 minutes and walking for 1 minute. I also switch to night running. It seems to make the runs more manageable, but I still can't seem to get beyond a 13 mile run before the heat and humidity stop me dead in my tracks. Salome starts suggesting that I fly up to North Carolina to train in less humid conditions. Finally, with only 2 weeks before the departure date for Athens, we get a break in the hot weather and I'm able to struggle to complete a 20 mile run. Jumping directly from a 13 mile training run to a 20 mile run was not according to the recommended training schedules. Thus, after struggling through my 20 mile training run, I was still not confident that I could complete the marathon distance. Perhaps I needed longer to train for a marathon. Perhaps it was a mistake to train for a fall marathon forcing me to train in our hottest and most humid months.

In the paper those 2 weeks before the Athens Marathon, I read in the paper the announcement of the new Miami Marathon. As I read the description of the route, I think the race organizers have set out the perfect course starting in downtown Miami, crossing over to South Beach and back through downtown on its way to Coconut Grove and finally back to downtown. This was exactly the course that I would take by car to show off the Miami area. I decide I have my insurance for the Athens marathon and register for my second marathon before I depart for my first marathon. If I failed to finish in Athens in November, I vowed to keep training and run the inaugural Miami Marathon on February 2, 2003.