It wasn’t a hard decision to make. Marathoners who love the sport look upon the original marathon in Athens, Greece, as the iconic race to run, a major goal to achieve. I’ve had the good fortune to do the big marathons in Boston, Chicago, New York, Seattle, Anchorage, and numerous other cities but Athens was still in the ‘to-do/must-do’ category. Now I had my opportunity; I signed up with Marathon Tours to visit Greece and take part in the 31st running of the classic marathon route.
We left on Wednesday afternoon, flying first to Atlanta, then Paris, and finally Athens, arriving on Thursday at 2 pm. On the flight to Athens, we shared a row with Kyle, a young man from Madison, Wisconsin, who was doing Athens as his first marathon. His excitement was palpable and mirrored mine in a more minor key. After landing, we collected our baggage and proceeded to the meeting area for the motor coach ride to our hotel. On the way, the driver pointed out a huge statue of a marathon runner created completely out of flat planes of glass.
It took about an hour to drive to downtown Athens; there was a lot of traffic as well as a demonstration outside one of the public buildings. We checked into the Hotel Hera, an older property that was located in the heart of Athens near the Acropolis Museum, very convenient to shops and restaurants. Our non-smoking room was on the 5th floor and was tiny but immaculate. We took a few minutes to settle in and unpack (I looked longingly at the bed but knew it was best not to give in to sleepiness so early in the afternoon) and then walked to Tavern of the Gods, a nearby café, to have lunch. The food in Athens turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I was not a fan of Greek cuisine until this visit. I found the food to be superb and I liked it all, everything from moussaka, spanakopita, and pastitsio, to Greek salad. Food was also relatively inexpensive. The local beers were also good – our favorite was Mythos. After lunch, we walked around the area for a while and then returned to our hotel. It was getting dark and we were exhausted. We gave up and went to bed.
The alarm woke us at 6 am. Breakfast was buffet-style, with a full repast. I especially enjoyed the pressed coffee and Greek pastries but my husband extolled the virtues of the eggs, sausage, and potatoes. We ate our fill and then repaired to our room to rest and get ready for the morning half-day sightseeing tour of the city sponsored by Marathon Tours. Our guide for the tour was an articulate and knowledgeable Athens native Maria who spoke perfect English. On our drive to the Acropolis, she explained the history and background of the site. We walked up the numerous rocky steps to the top of this natural fortress and were rewarded with a beautiful panoramic view of Athens and the Mediterranean seaport of Piraeus. The Acropolis contains the remains of several temples, including the Parthenon, Erechtheion, Propylaea, and the Temple of Athena Nike. I remember writing a term paper in high school on the Parthenon and its architect/sculptor Pheidias; now I was seeing my long-ago research truly come alive.
We drove by Hadrian’s Arch, the Temple of Zeus, Parliament (where we watched the Changing of the Guard), and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Our final stop on the tour was the race expo. In previous years, the expo was held at the centrally located Zappeion exhibition hall, but this year it was changed to Tae-Kwon-Do Olympic Venue at Faliron, near the port. We were fortunate to have one of the tour buses drive us to the expo and back downtown.
The expo itself was medium-sized, with mostly local vendors selling shoes, supplies and clothes, various physical therapy and massage services, and fast-food offerings. Packet pickup was well-organized and it was simple and quick to get my race packet with bib and chip attached to the back, a large plastic drop bag, and race information booklets and maps. We had to walk through the booths of the expo in order to reach the tee shirt counter; this year’s shirt was a short-sleeve technical shirt, grey with blue and green logos. I was pleased to actually get the size I ordered, even if it was a bit too large. I could still wear it and planned to do so, especially on the trip home. Meanwhile, I had made up my mind to purchase whatever marathon-sponsored articles I could find because – as in Boston – this would probably be a one-time chance for me and I wanted to stock up on tangible memorabilia. Most ladies sizes in shirts and jackets were out-of-stock, but I did buy an attractive cotton tee shirt and a poster. (I was told that there would be additional items offered at a booth near the stadium at the end of the race and I did manage to get a cap and warm ladies jacket after I completed the race).
For lunch on Friday, Darcy and I sat at an outdoor table at the Yard Bar and Restaurant. Our chairs faced the pedestrian walkway and we had a good time people-watching as we ate our tasty entrees. In the early evening we attended a welcome cocktail reception at the other tour group hotel, the Royal Olympic. This hotel was more opulent than the Hera but not as conveniently located. We chatted with some of the other tour group members, listened to a course overview and last minute instructions from Thom and Anita, the leaders, and then walked back to our hotel.
Saturday was a free day and we planned to have a leisurely breakfast and then do some touring on our own. I had a list, a fairly long one, of things I wanted to see, and we planned to attack the list as best we could. Our first stop was the Acropolis Museum. We spent about 2 hours looking at a life-size representation of the Parthenon (which we saw in person yesterday) and a host of Athenian artifacts. We watched a film about the marathon and viewed the Breal Cup, the Marathon trophy for the first modern marathon to be held at the Olympic Games in 1896.
Then we walked to the ancient Agora or meeting place, with the Temple of Hephaistos, the Agora Museum, the Corinthian Capital, statue of Hadrian, and Panathenaic Way. We continued on to the remains of Hadrian’s Library and the Roman forum and agora. Finally, we walked to the Plaka, the most tourist-oriented part of Athens, with narrow streets and myriad souvenir shops. Of course, I had to buy some gifts here, worry-beads, Greek delicacies and spices, and tee shirts. And naturally we had to try the gelato (delicious). We brought our treasures back to the hotel and then had a late lunch at the Tavern of the Gods. We skipped the pasta dinner so I could get ready for the race on Sunday and try to get some sleep.
Ha! Sleep?? Maybe I had an hour or two, but mostly Saturday night was spent tossing and turning and trying to count sheep. I always get nervous before a race, and it doesn’t matter that this would be my 147th marathon/ultra; those pre-race butterflies still make me a nervous wreck. I had set my alarm for 3 am even though our bus to the starting line at the town of Marathon was not due to leave until 6:30. I woke before the alarm went off, heated up my coffee and ate a granola bar, packed some last minute items, finished dressing, and woke my husband so he could walk me to the bus. Marathon Tours (and other tour groups) had arranged for a special bus to take us to Marathon. Free transport was provided for all racers but they had to meet at one of the special locations throughout the city. Darcy and I arrived at the bus early and when it arrived, I eagerly took a seat up front, ready to get started. As we drove through the city to the outskirts, we could see the permanent kilometer markers set up along the route.
It seemed like it took forever to get arrive, probably because of the large number of buses and cars heading to the start. Finally we were there. My first stop was to one of the hundreds of porta-potties in a field next to the start line corrals. The weather on race day was fine, one of those beautiful days with little wind, temps in the upper fifties (perfect), and no rain in the forecast. I wore a short-sleeve tech tee shirt under a green hoodie and had some throw-away gloves on my hands. There were 7 corrals and I was in #7. The start was divided into 7 waves, with approximately one to four minutes between each wave start. Wave number one began – on time – at 9 am sharp and was preceded by a display of fireworks and balloons. I later learned from a racer in corral 3 that there was also a minute of silence in memory of Boston, but my corral was too far away to be aware of this recognition.
As everyone pressed into my corral just before we took off, I began to get a little dizzy and claustrophobic, but once we started to move, people spread out along the wide streets and gave me plenty of room to maneuver. It was impossible to get lost on this course. There is a permanent blue line that marks the route from Marathon to Athens. It’s a bit faded in parts but is otherwise easy to follow. It also follows the tangents of the course, so I tried to stay on the line itself to save myself extra steps.
Every kilometer is marked, with permanent signs and with large flags. Timing mats were set up at 5 kilometer intervals, and aid stations were plentiful, beginning at the 5k mark and then every 2 ½ k after that. There were sports drink, water, bananas, energy bars and gels, and sponges (although the sponges were mostly on the ground by the time I passed by). The only negative about the aid stations was the lack of water in cups. Instead we were handed plastic bottles of water, cumbersome to hold (larger in circumference than those in Dublin), and I ended up drinking just a little bit from each bottle and then tossing the almost full bottles. I disliked wasting so much good water and would have preferred to drink just a few ounces from a cup as I passed by, but there was not much I could do about it.
The day warmed up considerably and I was grateful I had dressed for the heat. There was very little shade on the course but a cool breeze helped keep the heat to a minimum. Medical personnel were plentiful and frequently appeared on bikes and in cars as well as at aid stations; I did see a sag wagon with people who had dropped out from injury or exhaustion and several people were treated by the roadside.
There were more spectators than I thought – lots of people of all ages lined the streets, children and adults of all ages. We heard ‘bravo, bravo’ frequently and lots of people gave me a ‘thumbs up’s sign. Children high-fived us and handed out olive branches; I took one proffered by a little boy and managed to carry it all the way to the finish line. A Greek runner asked me in English if carrying the olive branch gave me energy and I said ‘yes, indeed, and it was also good luck.’
The course ends in Panathinaikon Stadium and runners and walkers complete the final 170 meters within the stadium itself. I finished in 5:59:31 (under my 6 hour goal!) and later learned that in my age group I was 4th out of 11 participants and the first American. The medal is heavy and beautiful and one I will always treasure. My husband met me at the finish line, we walked back to the hotel, and after the obligatory shower and nap, we celebrated with a quiet meal at our favorite café.
We had to wake at 3 am for an early flight to Paris, followed by an extremely long 10+ hour flight to Atlanta and a much shorter flight home. This trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the race was truly a momentous event, to be following in the footsteps of Pheidippides along the original route, and I enjoyed every moment.
This race is highly recommended for everyone, especially walkers. The generous 8 hour time limit, the full support for back-of-the packers, and the enthusiasm of the Greek people make this a race not to be missed.