2000 Athens Marathon Report
ATHENS—THE PLACE AND THE RACE
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
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
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
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.
Read John's account
of the marathon here