I arrived in Athens on my own on Halloween and met up with Mom and my niece, Mandi the next day while Bryce arrived on Friday. We all holed up in a tiny hotel room. Mom, Mandi and I had to squeeze our small beds together to make enough room for poor Bryce who folded up a blanket and slept on the floor. It was snug, but it worked.
On Saturday we went to the marathon expo. I’d figured this would take maybe a couple of hours at the most. The expo was out in the middle of nowhere at the old Athens airport that is now a sports facility. We took two different trains and then hopped an above ground tram for a long, long ride. Thankfully, it went along some of the coast so at least the scenery was pleasant. The expo was meager. Although held in this huge converted airplane hangar, there wasn’t much in there. We looked up our bib numbers and went to our respective tables to pick up our packets. I ended up ping ponging around to different tables because my registration information didn’t make it onto my bib or time chip, so I had to fill out some forms and make sure they had everything in their system before they would give me any info, my goody bag or my shirt. Tedious, but took care of it. On the back of the bib numbers, runners were supposed to fill out some medical information. Everything was written in Greek along with an English translation. The line asking for a list of prescriptions was translated as: “I am on the following meditations.” How very Zen. So we zoomed through the expo since there wasn’t much and then we made the long journey back. It took us over four hours. What a time suck.
Fortunately, the day wasn’t completely wasted. We ate a hardy meal to sustain us for the afternoon. We sampled a Greek beer, Mythos. It looked light, yet was a little heavier and hoppier than a hefeweisen. The waiter thrust a Greek salad on us with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet pepper, red onions and olives doused in olive oil and vinegar (I worked my way around the feta cheese). There was bread, bread and more bread served with olive oil and red wine vinegar or crumbly slabs of feta that the waiter explained the proper way to eat it was to take a piece of bread in your fingers and use it to smoosh down on part of the feta to adhere it to the bread. Mom, Mandi and Bryce each had gyros with grilled onions and tomatoes, shredded meat (I looked away) and Bryce’s was covered in heavy yogurt (he’s prefers Turkish yogurt, says Greek style is more like sour cream). The pita bread was grilled and smoky, thick and chewy. My lunch was roasted eggplant in garlic and olive oil, mixed vegetables in a tomato broth and fried potatoes with lemon and dill. Hold on, yum, um, what was I saying? What else did we do that day?
Oh yeah, we went up to the Acropolis. It sits up high on a hill overlooking the city as though on vigil. At night they light it up and it gleams proudly. It’s hard to even know where to begin in describing what it’s like viewing the old ruined buildings up top. Everything really is just so dang old, it’s hard to comprehend. You stare at the marble and marvel at the workmanship and detail and then realize how long ago it all happened and how much could have possibly happened there and shoot, who all walked around in the very spot you are standing. It takes one’s breath away.
There’s also a promenade that goes all they way around at the base of the hill that I ran every day I was there. In the mornings, it’s quiet with few people or cars, so it was pretty much only me and maybe a few cats and dogs who were rummaging around for leftover food. The dogs in particular were fun to watch, running around in packs, sniffing everyone and everything, getting into mischief. I had one dog run through the streets with me, barking at me and nudging me with his nose if I ever slowed down. I loved running around there in the mornings with the sliver of a moon and bright Venus still above while the sun started to brighten the sky over the white marble ruins. Inspiring.
Before dinner Saturday night, Bryce and I hit the hotel bar for some Greek energy drink: ouzo. What strikes me as amusing is the Greeks and Turks don’t like each other at all. You tell a Turk you are going to Greece for vacation, they look at you funny. You tell a Greek you are living in Turkey, they look at you funny. Yet, and neither side would ever admit it, much of their food and goods are almost exactly the same. Greek coffee and Turkish coffee? Same gritty, strong stuff. Their yogurts are practically the same. Bryce would argue otherwise and of course I’ve not tasted them, but they look the same to me, gloppy white goo. Walk through the flea market in Monastiraki and then the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and you see the same jewelry, the same carpets and fabrics, the same copper coffee makers and spice grinders, the same evil eye paraphernalia, it’s all the same. So it’s no surprise to me that ouzo is much like raki. They share the same anise flavor, are poured over ice and turn the same milky color when water is added. And Bryce makes the same funny face as Turks and Greeks do about each other when he drinks either shot. Another good night’s sleep that night. Why do these energy drinks make me sleep so well?
After a night’s sleep resting our weary legs from walking so much the day before, Bryce and I got up and got ready to run the Athens Marathon. Given our lucky history (see Eurasia Marathon and ask me some time about the hydro-plane-ing bus driver who stopped in the middle of the freeway in Boston) with traveling to races, we were both uneasy about what might happen that morning. I’d asked the front desk of our hotel the night before if they provided a shuttle to get to the marathon buses, but they explained other runners were catching taxis. We decided to take a chance and try to hop in with someone and much to our amazement, someone very willingly let us ride with him. On top of that, the taxi driver knew where he was going, he was a decent driver and it was less than ten bucks. So easy. He took us to the Olympic Stadium where the race was to finish and where buses were carting runners to the start in Marathon. The stadium was lit up and with its white seating, it seemed as though in spite of its comparatively young age as a building, it fit right in with the likes of the Parthenon and Theater of Dionysus.
We queued up for a bus and found the line moving steadily. We were swept up into nice cushy buses with big comfy seats and were able to settle in for the 45 minute ride to the start. Again, bus driver knew where he was going, what he was doing and didn’t try to maybe take his some short cut or on his own personal tour of the Greek countryside. I had no anxiety when we got there. It was so refreshing.
As per routine, we queued up again, but this time for the all too necessary port a potties. There were three Americans ahead of us and I overheard the youngest say to the other couple that she’d yet to meet many Americans. I whispered quietly to Bryce that maybe we should introduce ourselves, but Bryce gave me a very curt head shake. Listening more to this girl speak I became very grateful for Bryce’s instincts. This girl was crazy! She spoke as fast as an elite runner runs and she could not stand still. She kept bouncing and running in place and fidgeting. Then she started going on and on about how “Oh my gawd I love carrots, I eat carrots all the time and my friends tease me that they are going to fly over the marathon and drop carrots from the plane so I can eat carrots while I’m running and then look at this they found me this carrot cake Cliff bar and I eat so many carrots that my skin is turning orange” and sure enough her skin was this strange carotene hue. I felt so sorry for this couple who had to deal with her. They were being very short with their end of the conversation in an obvious attempt to dissuade her from continuing with her tirade. However, she had a ploy. In Greece, whether or not a toilet with have toilet paper is always a question. I carried wads of TP in my bag at all times. This couple had apparently learned their lesson as well since they were carrying an entire roll. The girl asked if she could have some and instead of taking a bit, she took the whole roll with her into the port a potty. They were trapped. They wanted to ditch her, but she had their precious paper. After I finished my own business, I witnessed them walking away defeated and with her adhered to them like wet toilet paper to a shoe.
Relieved we were free of the carrot creature, we began to amble around. Off in the distance, who did I see donning a very familiar bright yellow jacket but a Marathon Maniac! I was surprised because I hadn’t remembered seeing anyone else listed on the Maniac calendar, but was happy to see a fellow there. I introduced myself to #264, Brian “Action” Jackson. He’d run Dublin the week before where he saw #1 and #2 who told him to keep his eye out for me. He said he’d been looking for another jacket or singlet, but I was wearing my “Dirty Weekend” shirt (for you, Jamie K!) so he never would have spotted me. Great that he was representing. We spied the Olympic Flame and felt the need to have our pictures taken next to it, so I wished Action Jackson fun and luck and we wandered off.
About the time we finished taking our pictures, it was time to drop off our bags and line up for the start. Bryce decided over the week he would run with me the entire race rather than on his own. These last couple of races have been rough on him. His leg’s been a bother and he’s felt wasted by the ends and not had all the much fun. He wanted to come to Athens and really enjoy this event so he brought his camera and agreed to be a goofball with me in the middle of the pack. As we headed for the start line I asked if he wanted to hit the toilet lines again, but he said he was fine. I reminded him of my tendency to pit stop, but he shrugged and said he didn’t care. He’d stick with me no matter what. Little did either of us know….
There were about 4,000 runners there that day and from all over. Both Munich and Istanbul had their share of international runners, but I don’t think they compared to Athens. I saw people from Poland, France, Ireland, Scotland, England, Mexico, Venezuela, USA, Germany, Finland (bad joke alert: he was Finish before he started), Switzerland, Holland, should I go on? Because I could. The crowd was excited and egged on by the overly-excited announcer who I think hit the Greek coffee a little too hard that morning. A marching band was playing, cameras were everywhere, and helicopters were flying overhead. Many in the crowd were holding colorful balloons they released just before the gun went off, dotting the sky as they flew away. It was among the most vibrant beginnings to a race I’ve experienced.
So we ran and pretty soon, just as I’d warned Bryce, I needed to stop. I had to find a spot and opted for behind a wall. Okay, good. Wait, no. I needed to stop again. This time we found a port a potty. All right, I’m fine. But hold on, I stopped again…. And then again…. Seven times. I stopped seven times this race, five of which were in the first 14 miles, the last of which came right after mile 20. Ugh, so frustrating. I kept cramping up. I’d go along feeling fine and then suddenly it was like someone punched me bringing tears to my eyes from both pain and aggravation. Thankfully, Bryce was such a trooper. The first stop or so, I could tell he wasn’t sure how to react. I came out of the second stop to see him looking at his watch and he said to me, “So many people just passed us.” People don’t normally pass him, the brat. I shrugged because I’m used to it and kept on. But by the fourth or fifth stop, Bryce had stopped looking at his watch and stood by waiting patiently and taking pictures of other runners or funny signs. Then we started joking around because we kept passing the same people over and over again. They couldn’t help but notice and we made some pretty good wave at each other buddies by the end.
In between the stomach issues, we really did have a great time. The course, well, wasn’t as pretty as one would hope. The marathon is a celebration of the soldier Pheidippides who ran from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC to deliver the message “Niki” (victory). This course is ostensibly the same one he ran and should only be 24.85 miles. However, in 1908 during the London Olympics the Queen of England wished the marathon to end in front of her viewing box so instead of adjusting the start line, they added mileage. Hmm, I don’t get their reasoning on that choice. I reminded Bryce of this when he asked why in the world we went on this stupid, short and boring out and back. Marathon and Athens are only 24 miles a part and so yeah, it seems they’ve had to change Pheidippides’s route a little to accommodate the new distance. Damn the Queen! Pheidippides didn’t exactly pick the easiest route. It’s almost all up hill from the 15K to 30K marks, but considering my recent Turkish running life, hell, my ass was prepared. And since he really was trying to get from point A to point B as fast as he could (there is debate about whether he died at the end or not), he wasn’t about to take any side trips to see all the best sites. He didn’t care about the coast line or the monuments; so consequently, we didn’t get to see most of them either. Sigh. We did see a couple though and enjoyed the crowds yelling “Bravo!” and “Vedy, vedy good!” Bryce took tons of pictures and I hammed it up for him. I was handed an olive branch complete with olives still hanging on it. Got to run with a dog for a while and near some people dressed up as Greek soldiers in togas and one guy who carried a flaming torch the entire way.
After my seventh and final pit stop, my body felt fantastic. Mile 20 or so is usually when I feel the best and now that my stomach was cooperating, my legs finally had the chance to do their thing. They’d had Coke (yay, Jess, Coke!) at the last aid station so I was full of sugar and caffeine and feeling good all over. Plus, I was running next to Bryce whose jogging pace is faster than my running pace so I felt like we were flying. I told Bryce as much and he said something silly like how it was probably the pace I could always run. I shushed him immediately. Oh, those fast runners, wanting everyone else to be fast too.
We rounded a corner and there was the Olympic Stadium. A final couple of funny faced pictures and then our feet hit the track. We took each others’ hands and crossed the line with the olive branch held above our heads. The rest is the usual after race hub bub. Got our goody bags, medals and emergency blankets (which were appropriately gold instead of silver). We were a little disappointed in the lack of food. For some reason I was really craving olives. Nevertheless, we’d just finished an historic event. This is where the marathon was born and we’d run it, all 24 (wait, damn the Queen), 26.2 miles of it. We were tired, we were happy, we were proud. Niki!