A brief history of the Marathon
The history of the Marathon has taken many turns over the last 2500 years, culminating in the most spectacular Marathon Athens has ever staged.
Legend has it that the famous run by Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens created the Marathon. He ran from Marathon to Athens, crying “Nenikékamen” (“We have won” in English) when he arrived. He then promptly collapsed and died. I was hoping that whilst I would get to share the same elation at the finish, Pheidippides fate would not also be mine!
As part of the 1896 Olympics staged in Athens, the Marathon was run over the original 24.85 mile course and this first Olympic Marathon was also the first ever organized Marathon race.
A year later in 1897 saw the first Boston Marathon run, with 15 runners and 8 finishers. Remarkably, the Boston Marathon has been staged every year ever since!
The course was lengthened to 26.2 miles for the 1908 Olympics to cover the distance between Windsor Castle and the White City Stadium, allowing the runners to finish in front of the royal box.
Many races were run using both Marathon distances (24.85 miles and 26.2 miles) until the 1924 Paris Olympics when the 26.2 mile distance was finally accepted as the official length for the Marathon. This distance has been used ever since.
As of writing this review, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia currently holds the world record for the Marathon, set in Berlin in 2008. His winning time was 2:03:59.
Paula Radcliffe of England currently holds the women’s world record for the Marathon, set in London in 2003. Her winning time was 2:15:25.
As an update, the male record has been broken several times since and the current holder, as of June 2019, is Eliud Kipchoge in a time of 2:01:39.
Paula Radcliffe’s record still stands although the rules have now been amended to state that the female world record can only be broken in a female-only race. This record is held by Mary Keitany with a time of 2:17:01 set in 2017).
Arriving in Athens
2010 saw the Marathon celebrate its 2500 anniversary and what better place to celebrate this amazing milestone than running the Marathon in Athens. Flying from Australia to Athens is no easy thing when there are no direct flights (there are direct flights from Sydney via Singapore but not on the day I was departing). This meant flying via Singapore, Dubai and Istanbul for a total travelling time of 32 hours. Fortunately all the flights connected well and there were no major delays so my wife Mari-Mar (the owner of Travelling Fit) and I arrived in Athens reasonably refreshed.
I had been to Athens many years ago and my memories, although somewhat hazy at best, were of a dusty, crowded city. This was not the case at all and I was very impressed by Athens in 2010. After being awarded the 2004 Olympics Athens had embarked on an extensive program of renovations and restoration of the city and it certainly showed. There are new motorways connecting the airport to the city, a new metro system and many areas of the city have been closed to traffic to create an extensive network of pedestrian boulevards and walkways.
Some of the major tourist attractions such as the Acropolis, the Panathinaikon Stadium, the Temple of Zeus and the Central gardens have also undergone transformations in the last few years and the Acropolis has even got its own state-of-the-art museum which is well worth a visit.
Out and About
Our hotel was the Electra, which is right in the heart of Athens and situated less than 100m from Syntagma Square and Parliament House. It is also less than a 15 minute walk through the old city to the Acropolis. After checking in we had an hour or so to freshen up and then it was off to explore the markets and tavernas that are on every corner of this part of the city.
The following day (Friday) Mari-Mar and I took the double-decker bus on a tour of the city. This is something we have got into the habit of doing in most major cities that we visit as it is a great way not only to see the city but also to get your bearings as to where all the major attractions are in relation to each other. It cost EUR €15 for a 2 day pass that allows you to hop on and off at will at 14 different locations throughout the city.
On Saturday we had organized to do a course inspection with 50 other members of the tour group, most from Australia but also a great group of runners (and Marathon walkers) from New Zealand. It was a real eye-opener; not only did we get to drive over the entire course but we were also fortunate enough to visit both the tomb of Marathon which houses the graves of the Athenian soldiers who fell during the battle of Marathon and also the Marathon museum that was recently completed nearby.
The Course Inspection
The course inspection set us up well for the following day, giving us all the opportunity to see for ourselves just how undulating the course really was; I had heard some horror stories as to just how hilly the route from Marathon to Athens was but this was not borne out upon inspection. There is a very long, gradual ascent from the 18km mark through to the 32km mark however which was certainly going to be a test for my under-trained legs. The upside of this long hill was that the last 10km of the route proved to be either flat or a very gradual downhill all the way to the Panathinaikon stadium where the Marathon finished.
In the evening we all got together for our traditional pasta party in the Electra Hotel which proved to be a great success and a great opportunity for many of us to meet one last time prior to race day.
We were all up nice and early on race day as our coaches to the race start were due to leave at 6:35am to take us to Marathon for the race start (about an hours’ drive away). Needless to say this was a one-way trip as the only way back was on foot!
The starting area was extremely well organized, especially considering that there was more than double the number of runners this year than in previous years. There were plenty of toilets, the baggage collection area was very well marked and the flow of runners to the start areas was very well signed and organized. Travelling Fit had organized for all runners in the group to have custom-made Coolmax running tops and I was wearing mine with pride. With a picture of the Acropolis on the front and “Australia” emblazoned across the top our running shirts definitely stood out and I had many other international runners come up and comment on how great they looked.
After the almost mandatory stop at one of the many port-a-loos, Mari-Mar and I had plenty of time to make our way to our starting coral. There were seven different corals for runners, designed to ease the congestion at the start of the race, and we were in the fifth one from the front. After waiting our turn to be brought forward (the corals started 3 minutes apart) and after many rousing renditions of “Zorba the Greek” on the PA, the gun went and we were off.
The First Few KM’s
The first few km’s of any large race seem to be all about being able to find your “running space” and the Athens Classic Marathon was no different. With 12,500 runners all trying to get some clear road I found that it took me a couple of kilometers before I hit any sort of rhythm. Given that I was very under trained this was not too much of a problem for me but I was amazed at how many walkers I passed in the initial stages. It transpired that the corals were designed to spread the field out but they did not always take into account the speed of the people allocated to them.
At around the 4km mark we took a left turn and made a 2km loop round the tomb of the fallen Athenian warriors from the original battle of Marathon. This was a great part of the run as it really brought into sharp focus why the event existed in the first place.
Running Up “that” Hill.
As mentioned, the Athens Classic Marathon has a reputation of being quite hilly, and whilst this was not really apparent during the course inspection the small uphill climbs soon started to feel like I was running constantly against gravity. Mari-Mar was still happily pacing me along on my 9 minute run/1 minute walk strategy and all was going swimmingly until about the 18km mark. At this point in the course the road to Athens starts heading upwards in a very gentle uphill manner which was OK until we remembered that this particular rise lasted for 14kms, right through to the 32km mark. The course really started to feel like it was living up to its reputation but to our surprise and delight, this was where the Athenian public really came into their own.
We had expected that the race would have sporadic groups of spectators but the Athens public really came out to cheer us on. There were great crowds right along the course and plenty of cheering us as we plodded by. The long, gradual climb was certainly taking its toll on my under-prepared legs but I was buoyant as I heard “Go Australia” called out every few hundred metres. Also, throughout the entire course, the Athenian crowd would shout out “Bravo” to just about every runner that went past. It was very motivating!
The Road to the Stadium
At the 32km mark we reached the top of the climb and there was a general feeling of relief from all those runners around me as we all knew that the last 10km was either relatively flat or gently downhill. Running into the centre of Athens is quite an experience; the crowds were growing in numbers and the sense of knowing that we were about to finish something quite special was palpable. All the runners around me seemed to be feeling the same feeling of elation that I was and when we hit the 1km to go mark I found it hard to shake the grin off my face. Mari-Mar had paced me all the way to the finish and even though my 9/1 strategy had become more of a 3/2 strategy by the end, we were still together and having a ball.
Stopping for photos with the presidential guards as we went down the Leoforos Vasileos Konstantinou Avenue (the presidential road housing the Greek President and Prime Minister) just before turning into the Panathinaikon Stadium was a great feeling; for me if not for them! I can only imagine how hard it would have been for the guards to maintain their steely and unmoving façade whilst 12,500 crazy runners dashed past.
The Panathinaikon Stadium and the Finishing Line
With 200 metres to go the course takes a left turn under a specifically erected pedestrian footbridge and into surely one of the most amazing finishing stadiums anywhere in the world. What an amazing sight. An open, marble encrusted stadium packed with spectators and runners. It felt totally surreal to be finishing a Marathon in such an historical venue. The last few steps were more a dance of joy for both Mari-Mar and I and the feeling of elation is hard to describe to anyone who has not completed a Marathon before. It was simply fantastic.
The stadium itself had undergone an extensive renovation prior to the 2004 Olympic games and it certainly showed. The marble was clean and bright, the Olympic rings above our heads were glowing and the whole place was just buzzing.
Our finishing time of 5:12:47 was, believe it or not, faster than I had thought I would go. Two years worth of injury and almost no training had left me wondering what I was doing when we started but the finish made the entire journey worthwhile.
We were fortunate enough to bump into several other runners from the Travelling Fit group at the end, distinguishable by our distinctive running tops, and we were able to share in each other’s glory after completing the Marathon.
Around 40 members of the tour group got together in the evening for a “little” celebration in a roof-top bar that evening. We were very fortunate in that our choice of location also had uninterrupted views of the Acropolis which was magnificently lit up once the sun had gone down. A simply fabulous way to end what had been a truly memorable and exhilarating day.
Athens (and indeed the whole of Greece) is well worth visiting, not just for the thousands of years of history but also for the warm and welcoming place it has become. The Marathon is very well organized with plenty of volunteers, a great course, no shortage of water/sports drinks/food along the route and at the finish, and, of course, the finishing line is simply one of the best in the world.