2000 Athens Marathon Report

Karen Bingham


I was so tired and muddled the week after the Athens Marathon that I couldn't make myself write a report. I tried, but the words wouldn't come. Finally the fatigue and my confusion, which was actually conflict, cleared.

So here it is, long and explanatory--because how can you write something short and sweet about a place and a race on soil so old it makes your flesh crawl to think about where you're stepping, and yet so thoroughly contemporary you don't know whether to laugh or weep over the changes wrought in the world since?


We missed our connecting flight in London by five minutes and the next flight to Athens was 10.5 hours later--a second sleepless night on a plane and arriving in Athens dead tired, stiff and sore, at 4am, 3 days before the race. Our luggage didn't make it to Athens. Panic...John didn't pack his marathon clothes in his carry-on luggage. The taxi driver didn't understand where our hotel in Athens was. It took us 90 minutes at 5am in the morning after 2 days in planes and airports to find the hotel, when it was only 10 minutes from the airport. We wore the same travel clothes for 3 days nonstop. We missed the first day of the group tour, to the Aegean islands. Well, it could have been worse. Running the marathon would seem like a piece of cake after the trip.


My first impression of Athens was that the signs weren't in the English alphabet (helloooo, Karen!) so I couldn't even guess at their meaning. Athens felt foreign to me, in a way European cities that I've visited never have. My second observation was that the people seemed angry at one another all the time, raising their voices and gesturing excitedly in every conversational encounter I witnessed.

The third thing I noticed was the dogs and cats. They were everywhere but not wild, for they followed you along the streets from shop to shop, plopped their heads on your leg as you sat on a public bench or peered over the table edge as you ate at a sidewalk cafe. Dogs slept fearlessly, legs outstretched, in the center of the sunny plazas, while hundreds of people simply stepped around them. Cats lazed in every conceivable cranny. I decided the balky temperament of the city's residents couldn't be their defining trait because their public animals were contented and healthy. Our guide explained that Greeks do not believe in euthanizing animals and that a volunteer organization of veterinarians neuters the animals...not too effectively it seemed.

Athens itself was the source of my conflict. It's a never-ending, dusty, monotone-colored new, not old, city that sprawls across the undulating hills in haphazard disarray. The gray/beige concrete that clads apartment and office buildings alike stretches on for mile after mile of architectural monotony. The city is crowded and noisy, with traffic so congested and snarled it is an endless process to get anywhere. It unnerved me to cross the street. It is a city at war with itself, cars versus pedestrians.

Athens was less than I expected...and more. The city shimmers in the sunlight--under a hard blue sky, bordered by a bluer yet sea. Byzantine churches punctuate the relentless urban architecture with ornate dignity and handsome Neo-Classical buildings lurk in the concrete shadows. The bone chilling realization that we were walking on history hit me when I saw the Acropolis rising over the chaos of the city. The defining moment occurred when we crested the Acropolis (actually one of three in Athens) and I saw the Parthenon floating above us in the air. It shines, it soars, it is airborne, it is awesome, it is indescribable, it is more than you ever imagined. It stopped me in time and I just stood there, breathless and in awe, holding on to a moment and an image that I'll never forget.


We boarded our bus in darkness for the hour long ride from our hotel in the seaside suburb of Vougliameni to the marathon start in Marathon. John and I were leading a group of 16 people who needed to start the race an hour early because they expected to take longer than the official 5 hour cut-off. Our tour organizer had received permission for us to begin early but unofficially (no clock at the early start). He was worried, though, that the size of our group might create confusion among other non-English speaking runners who got to the starting line early.

So it was a quiet start for us--no gun or official time, no crowd of runners. We arrived at the memorial near the start, hit the empty port-a-lieus, and sauntered across the start line as if warming up, walking the first 50 yards or so until we were out of sight. We began running to the cheers of a small handful of family members from our tour group. Two dogs that looked exactly like every other dog in Greece trailed along with us. It was an inauspicious and funny start to a historically momentous run.

The road wasn't closed to traffic yet, so we ran in twos along the side of the road. At every walk break, John had the first pair of runners rotate to the back of the line so everyone had a chance to lead. After the first complete rotation, only one person in each pair rotated the lead, so we all had time to meet and talk to one another. Time positively flew by for the first 13 miles! The buses carrying the runners for the official start passed us in a steady stream, honking and waving as they careened by. The two dogs refused to leave us. We worried that they'd get too far from home--if they had one--to find their way back. Before very many kilometers passed they had become part of our group so we did the inevitable...named them, Nike and Pacer.

As we passed through villages and the first water stations, it was clear that some of the locals thought we were the lead pack. People shouted BRAVO! to us from their shops. We pretended the church cantors were intoning our passing as they called people to Sunday services. It wasn't until about 11K that the lead runner came by us, destroying the illusion. We stopped briefly to cheer him on. At that point we lost Nike and Pacer, who ran with us for 11K! Amazing but fickle dogs, they were distracted away by the noise and activity of other runners passing us. We never knew if they finished the race!

I was wondering if I would finish. The HILL started at mile 7and didn't stop until mile 20. It quickly became clear that this was the hardest marathon course I'd ever run, bar none. The long relentless incline lasted over 13 miles. The group got very quiet and started to break up. I gave my watch to the young honeymooners in our group who were running their first marathon on a 15 mile long run and romance. They were sweet, holding hands up the hill. Later she told me that she puked twice and he held her hand through it all. (Surely their marriage is destined to flourish with such a beginning.)

I was not feeling sweet, I was feeling definitely in the Bite Me Zone. I made a pit stop in a roadside clump of bushes and had trouble catching up with the group on the hill. It wasn't helped by the fact that I couldn't get the thorns from the bushes out of my shorts. We pushed on, the group splintering, dwindling to 5. Those 5 stuck with our original 4/1s, never wavering, our last splits as consistent as the first. We were grateful for the overcast sky and cooling breeze, instead of the sunny 70+ that had been forecast. We made grumbly jokes about the abominable HILL. To add insult to injury, the course is not particularly scenic, not at all in fact, as you run through the suburban sprawl of the city.

But…who cares about any of that when you're running in the shadow of history? Even the HILL faded from mind as I thought about that. We began the kilometer countdown to 35, where we knew the downhill part of the course started. By the last 10K we were almost into the city proper, with congestion and traffic cops at every intersection forcibly holding back the impatient cars. I was dying, my heart rate was sky high, I was willing one foot in front of the other, then we hit the last 10K and it was all blessedly downhill from there. We were sailing, we sailed for 6 miles, I never felt so good at the end of a marathon! We sailed....

Right into the stadium! The finish was in the Panathenaic Stadium! Built in 330 BC for athletic competitions. Excavated in 1870. Restored for the first Olympic Games in 1896. Suddenly the runners ahead were turning left. I said, "John it's the stadium." "No, it can't be yet." he answered. "JOHN IT'S THE STADIUM!"

We turned left and were on the pavement outside, then entering the stadium. People cheered wildly. There were hundreds of uniformed Greek soldiers in the gleaming marble stands. I was brain-dead, but not so brain-dead that I didn't register another lifelong image. Running a marathon finish lap in the Olympic Stadium!

We started the lap around the track toward the finish line. John and I dropped back so that we could see the three remaining women in our group finish together ahead of us. John grabbed my hand, we ran our Olympic lap together, I cried right through the biggest smile I've ever felt on my face, and then it was over with a kiss and a hug. Yes...it started quietly, as do most good things, but it ended in a shining moment and a lifetime marathon memory that will be very hard to beat.

Karen B


Read John's account of the marathon here

Penguin Wisdom
Something strange happened as I began to find the time to run. I realized that my being gone from work or family for a while didn't really matter. It turned out I wasn't nearly as important to the fate of my immediate world as I thought. Suddenly I was liberated. I had nothing but time. Time to run, time to laugh, time to live.



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Last Updated: May 14, 2001 21:20