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.