The day of the race arrived. 12 months of training had come down to this last race. And I was excited, and pumped and ready to go.
I was so excited that I ended up taking 5 different selfies to got the one that I thought would best reflect this great day!
Here they are:
The first picture had unfortunate flash glare. The second picture didn’t have the jersey. The third one had a scowling Kostadis. The fourth had the sign upside down.The fifth was the one.
I was ready for my run.
As for why bother with the Sharks poster? Well I am a Sharks fan, and the Sharks encouraged their fans to take pictures of themselves and the sign around the world, and I had this goal of having a selfie with the sign at the start of the Athens Marathon.
Unlike last year, I didn’t get on the first bus for Marathon… After all I was no longer a noob. I was going for a PR… I managed to find a spot on the *second* bus and slept all the way to Marathon.
Since we were the second bus, the bus dropped us off a full quarter of a mile away from the starting line…
And once again, I had two hours to kill before the race began.
With all of my nervous energy before my soon to be historic 5 hour run, I went a little bit picture happy and video happy. Must capture every moment I thought. Last Athens Marathon after all, I thought.
As for the weather, the weather the day before was perfect Marathon weather. Cool but not too cool. And that morning the weather was anything but warm. I was very happy to be fully clothed. With the weather so awesome… I was looking forward to … maybe… beating 5 hours?
One of the coolest parts of the Athens Marathon is how much support they provide. There were all these people holding green information balloons willing to help you:
Having run the Napa Valley Marathon, the folks in Napa can learn a thing or two about providing support from the Greeks. There was oodles of water, friendly faces to answer questions and food to go around.
And of course, the Sharks Territory pictures kept coming fast and furious… Here’s me at the starting gate:
But I was like… but I’m not in it… This isn’t about the Sharks this is about me and my run!
So here I am …
And because that was dissatisfying… I also took this one in front of the eternal Marathon flame with Sharks poster:
As the race moved ever closer to start the announcer decided to play some Zorba the Greek music… My favorite part of this clip is the runner who is stretching in time to Syrtaki.
Notice, how no one looks warm.
And then the race began with fireworks and balloons and cheering.
As I was getting into the whole groove of running I noticed a dog next to me…
That isn’t that surprising Greece has a lot of strays. What was surprising was when I learned that the dog and the dog owner were going to finish the race together. Somewhere my labrador is looking at me accusingly… Apparently she feels I should be doing more running with her.
The Athens Marathon is famous for being hard. According to the story, the first Athens Marathon was run by a guy named Pheidippides who upon finishing the race… died. Except, well, Pheidippides never existed. Seems that the guy who started the modern Olympic movement baron Pierre de Coubertin read a poem that told the tale and based off that poem decided to create the event. As a modern Greek, this is yet another example of western Europe being in love with the Greeks they imagined not the Greeks that actually existed… we are … well … not as admired…
The problem is that the race from Marathon is hard. Here’s the elevation profile:
The thing that stands out is that big long nasty climb. The thing that does not stand out is the small nasty climb that comes just before the big one. The problem is that they are both nasty.
My coach and I had a plan. The plan was straightforward enough. 12 minute pace for the first three miles, 11 minute pace for the next 8 miles, 11:30 minute pace during the nasty uphill finishing with an 11 minute pace down the backside. Even a fool could remember that plan.
And so when my wave started, I was ready to go…
The first three miles of the race were fine. The 11:30 minute pace wasn’t hard to maintain. I just needed to keep focused on not going too fast. I was in such a good mood that I was able to ham it up for the camera man at the 5km mark.
Running past the fallen warriors of the original battle of Marathon was, once again, inspiring.
But then the left turn towards Athens beckoned and I had to pick up my pace. And I did.
For the next 9 miles I pushed really hard to hit my 11 minute pace. And I actually pulled it off. This was great. I was going to get my 5 hour marathon time! I was feeling awesome.
I did the 9 mile section in slightly under an 11 minute pace.
I was on a high. I was keeping up with the main pack. I was running with the peloton, to mix sporting metaphors, instead of the groupetto. As we passed the various towns I got to enjoy the cheers and the crows and feel like I was in a big race with a lot of people.
Like last year it was heartwarming to see all these people out on the street cheering us on. One of the clever things the organizers did was to organize children’s races at the major towns along the race, this encouraged parents to come out and then stick around to cheer the racers.
And like last year, I made a point of high-fiving as many different small hands as I could.
Unlike last year, my hard pace made it hard to soak in the scenery because I was too focused on pushing hard.
Which should have been a red flag. One of many. The first was the rather abrupt climb from 28 feet to 283 feet. The second was my alarmingly increasing heart rate. The third was the heat.
Did I mention the heat?
Notice how on Sunday November 10th it was 24 degrees Celsius or 75… And you know how they compute weather in this world… by looking at the shade. And it was not a shady day… And the humidity was 82%. Yes, 82%. I was not in Boston, I was in Greece.
Maybe I should have been more worried when the announcer, unlike last year, did not keep repeating how today was a great day to set a new personal record.
Maybe. But then I might have not been documenting every moment of my triumphant 5 hour marathon and been paying attention …
The fall of Icarus
One of my favorite tales from the Greek mythos is the story of Icarus. Icarus doesn’t listen to his father and flies too close to the sun, in so doing offends the Gods, and falls to his death.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder has done my favorite rendition of that story:
The painting is my favorite, possibly because of the poem of another Englishman, WH Auden, titled the Musee Des Beaux Arts. To Auden what is important about tragedy is how the world doesn’t give a damn about it.
At the 12 mile marker I felt like Icarus just as the wax starts to melt. The heat had gotten to me, the small nasty climb had turned out to be nastier than I anticipated and the descent down the nasty climb wasn’t as relaxing as I had hoped.
I was hoping that by the time the climb began I would be okay. After all I had just sustained an 11 mile pace through the small climb, I could sustain an 11:30 mile pace through the big climb.
Icarus must have been thinking the same way: I’ll just go to a lower altitude and the wax will congeal… It will all be okay…
I was done.
Completely, utterly done. And I had another 12 miles to go. Seriously. 12 more miles.
That was so not fair. I mean seriously. Not fair. Not at all.
And the 12 mile marker is ominous for another reason, it’s the start of an 8 mile climb.
And the sun, that merciless beast was hottest on that climb.
Look when you’re heart rate jumps to 160 when you’re going at a 14 mile pace … when that should be a 10 mile pace, things are bad.
I had 12 more miles to go.
And in my head I started to understand what it must feel like to be a hockey player on a team that isn’t going to make the playoffs and has 20 games to go. 20 more games of practice. 20 more games of getting hit by players who want to win the game and you don’t. 20 more games of showing up and no one caring. And you’re not one of the young players with talent that can hope for a better contract, you’re the kind of guy who has to show up and play or else you’re flipping burgers or riding the bus in the AHL. 20 more games of loss. 20 more games of watching the hot groupies at home going after the away team. 20 more games of being a disappointment. 20 more games of crankiness.
All you want to do is quit. To just forfeit every single game left in the season and go home. You just want it to end.
And somehow these guys pull it off.
And like Icarus in Brueghel’s painting, your misery is all your own. No one cares. No one notices. The world just moves on.
I had hit empty and the rest of the race just moved forward. I was in excruciating pain, looking for sympathy while the other athletes just pushed forward faster. I wanted some acknowledgement of my pain and of my misery, and all I got was people whizzing by me.
Not fair! Not fair! I was supposed to set a new personal best, to crush this race instead I was floundering…
I saw a truck whizz by, and for a moment, I thought: enough, I will quit.
But then… Then I remembered that I don’t quit. Too much training, and effort had been put into this race for me to just quit because it didn’t go my way. The Athens Marathon wasn’t going to get the best of me. That I still could beat my personal best if I could figure out how to recover.
And then there was the small matter of the fictional Pheiddipides and my Greek pride. I wasn’t going to give some dead Frenchman the satisfaction of thinking that the real Greeks were less manly than his fictional Greeks. Pheiddipides died after he arrived in Athens, I would do the same…
The problem was that I had no clue as to how to recover. And I was too tired to think straight.
But Pheiddipides was able to figure something out, and so would I.
The next 8 miles up to Geraka sucked. Let’s just say I tried to come up with all sorts of ways to recover and failed. All I remember is being hot and miserable and beaten down.
Every foot step up that hill was excruciating. My feet hurt, my head hurt from the heat, my body hurt.
As I moved my sorry ass up this mountain I saw a dude with a running jersey that said “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” and below that quote had “member of 150+ marathon club”. The 72-year-old gentleman had run over 200 marathons in his life … When I congratulated him he said, you have plenty of time to catch up…
Maybe that was the dude who was there to inspire me.
All I can remember is every step, every minute taking me closer to Athens. And in my heat addled brain, I was praying that the descent would be okay. That once I started going down hill everything would just be fine.
As we approached our final climb up to Geraka, there were all these noobs that were wondering when did the climb end, and like the old-timer I was, I kept telling them at the 30km mark. Just keep pushing I told them and myself.
Just before the last climb, the organizers gave us some coke in a thimble. I drank some and felt instantaneously better. Instead of drinking more, I just started running. sigh.
All I kept telling myself is that once you got past the 30km it got easy.
Everything would just be fine.
Unlike the 5km mark where I was all smiles, here I am in all pain:
My face was in pain. My body was in pain. I didn’t even notice the photographer.
I was hoping that once I started going down hill, the magic of gravity would save me.
When I crossed the peak it felt a lot like when I went over the back-side of Ebbets during the death ride and about as tired.
Unlike last year I didn’t stop running at the peak of the mountain. I was a mature runner who only went too fast in his third marathon. Do marathon runners have third race syndrome?
The funniest part of the race into Athens was running past ERT. ERT was the Greek public TV broadcaster. Now it turns out things between ERT and the government have been complicated. Last year Samaras shut them down but a group of employees have occupied the building refusing to leave. This year Samaras decided to finish the job before the Athens Marathon.
So as we run a lot of protestors cheered us on. My favorite was: We too are engaged in a struggle just like you… All I could think was… Can you finish my race and I’ll picket for you?
Gravity probably ensured that I finished the race because I hadn’t yet faced the toughest climb of the day:
This climb is an underpass on Mesogeion right about where the Military hospital is.
Here’s a google map:
This particular underpass is one I am very familiar with. When I did my military service in Greece, I served at the military hospital seen on the map.
I feel like I died there.
But once I crossed that threshold it was all over. There were two miles to go, surely I could finish two miles.
Just to give you some idea of what a mess I was, I had to call my sister to tell her when to expect me. And she had this stream of SMS’ that had later and later finishing times. At this point, I think we were 2km from the end at the Hilton. I was texting her that I was 20+ minutes out.
Like seriously. I was so scrambled that I let myself get professionally photographed with a phone. A far cry from my five pre-race selfies…
Just to give you an idea of how much pain I was in, you’ll notice some blood on my jersey. I had managed to cut myself on my pectorals from the friction of the jersey rubbing on the pectorals. I was in so much aggregate pain that I would only notice this at the finish line when I tried to make myself a little bit presentable…
At this point in time, I was just trying to not finish in a worse time than last year. My 15 minute lead at the 30km mark had since evaporated. I was just trying to hang on.
And then it happened, the final turn to the finish line… I’ve been reading some descriptions of how people feel when they make the final turn on Ironman Kona.
And it always felt trite. After this day I have an intuition of how they feel because this turn:
felt like my salvation.
This is one of two pictures I took during this epic race.
The final stretch to the finish line. I was so happy and relieved to finally being done. I think the only time I have ever been happier was when my child was born. The level of relief and joy was that intense.
And so I crossed into the stadium one more time and was just delighted that I had finished. Like Pheiddipides, I had triumphed.
Here I am focused as I run past the Greek flags… So unlike last year where I was waving to the crowds:
Here I am a little bit more celebratory:
One thing I was really jealous of last year was all of those dads who finished the race with their toddlers. So this year I was determined to do that. Ironically I ran past Nicholas, my sister then flagged me, and I ran out onto the race and ran with him in tow.
We crossed the finish line and got our medal:
What I love about this picture is the absolute contrast with the face at the beginning of this race. I was an absolute wreck. The heat had given me an intense tan (no hat) and my body was done.
But because this is a Marathon we needed a selfie, this time vanity was a little less important:
Nicholas got such a big kick out of the race to the finish that the next day he kept re-enacting the whole thing …
He would run from one end of the house to the other and then put the medal around his neck. Later on he kept asking where was my medal…
After we crossed the finish line, I had hoped to hand over my son to his grand parents but the organizing comity had other ideas. Turns out that I had to drag him all the way to get my stuff and then bring him to the car because of the way things were set up. I suspect the Boston bombers had something to do with that.
Poor Nicholas had not been fed… After all I was supposed to have finished an hour ago. So the poor kid when he saw my goodie bag full of food demanded to eat. So there I am, dying of thirst and hunger and my kid wants to eat my food, and I suddenly became convinced of genetic determinism because I gave him the food.
Later on as we walked to the car, the kid declared he was tired and wanted to be carried. So I put him on my shoulders and staggered to the car. Fortunately my cousin Lefteris was there and carried him for me. Otherwise I just might have re-enacted the fictional Marathon.
The many face of a runner
Just for fun I thought I’d share how my face changed during the race…
I certainly look a lot worse at the end than at the beginning… Also a lot more tanned. Turns out it was hot. Did I mention that already?
What about the Kenyans?
The race that started with so much promise had ended with me finishing one minute slower than last year. Yup after one year of intense training I was slower.
I was feeling down and out except later on I learned that many folks had experienced a 10% drop in performance … some more. So if I adjust for weather … I think my time comes in at 5:10 minutes… And that feels a lot better than the 5:43…
Even the Kenyans had a bad day. The pace maker won the race because the favorites couldn’t pick up the pace to beat him.
So much like the Kenyans, I had a bad day.
What about the dog?
Well the dog finished 1:17 minutes faster than me coming in at 4:26 minutes. Apparently running in the heat with a fur coat wasn’t that big of a problem for some people…
So what were the splits:
Once again the Athens climb had beaten me. And the second half was epic-ally bad. No negative splits here….
So much like the Jews at Passover, I have only final thought:
Next year in Athens