Athens Marathon 2016-breaking 4 hours for the first time

Living and training in Athens, you sort of can’t get out of this race. The whole running society takes part in this marathon. Anyone who applies early enough can get in, so it is the highlight of our running year. I was unable to take part in the 2015 race due to injury as well as being a bit lazy and it really cost me. I don’t know whether it was seeing all my friends and family train for it or whether I just missed the excitement and anticipation of the big day, but I actually had dreams about it (I think you would call them nightmares). So this year the Athens marathon 2016 was going to be my 5th marathon in total, having already taken part 3 times in Athens and once in Berlin. I therefore new what this race was about. It is a wonderful race that takes you from Marathon to the centre of Athens, finishing in the extraordinarily beautiful Panathenaiko stadium. Two things make this race one of the hardest marathons, the hills involved and the temperature. It takes place in early November so although the temperatures are nowhere near what they are in August, it is still a bit warmer than what one would be hoping for. It’s nothing scary, but one should expect temperatures of about 20oC, though having said that I have ran this race when it was a mere 7oC. One can however deal with that kind of heat by dressing and hydrating appropriately. The really tough bit is the hills, lots and lots of them. But although I remember the pain I have felt during previous races very very clearly, I keep coming back and wanting to take part in this beautiful event.

As I mentioned, last year I didn’t take part mainly due to a calf injury that I picked up that really kept creeping back on me for many many months, not letting me train the way I wanted. This time around though I trained well during the winter, competed in several races and was generally doing well, till the moment that I felt a dreaded slight pull on my other calf during an interval session in June. Although the pain was very slight I instantly new that this was going to be a problem. To cut a long story short, when I went on holidays in August my left calf was a mess and I was in a lot of pain even when walking. It more and more looked like I was not going to make the starting line this year either. So when I returned from our family holiday I paid a visit to my amazing physiotherapists. They used their biggest weapons to treat my calf and treated me as they would an elite runner. There was one time that there were 3 pairs of hands rubbing my legs. I call them magicians as with their help I managed to do all my training (though I kept clear of short interval sessions-no 200m repeats for me this time) and got all my long runs in. Unfortunately 10 days before the race I dared some 400m repeats at moderate speed with short breaks, and at the last one the niggle was back. I really thought that this was it, it was too close to the race to do anything about it. However, a few massages later, lots of acupuncture and after pressing all sorts of weird places to unblock nerves, I was in the car with the other runners on our way to the marathon start, including my 76 year old father. I car filled with the fears, hopes and dreams of 5 runners that were about to confront themselves in this tough 26.2 miler. I was really quiet as I am in cases of emergency. We arrived at the start and we all went through our pre-race rituals. The others went into their blocks early, I kept going back to the loo till the very last minute and started way back in my block. No pain in the first few steps, I started overtaking people to get away from the crowd. But hey, some people were going to the loo behind some trees there, surely I had to go again-I couldn’t possibly not. And then oh dear, I was on the wrong mode in my Garmin and had no pace on any of my screens, so I had to slow down to fix this. Not a great start to the race I was thinking to myself, as the branch of a tree on the pavement I was running on to avoid the crowds almost hit me in the eye. Eventually I passed the 1st km at the dreadful time of 6 min, time to concentrate and run if I wanted to beat my previous time of 4.02.47! The first few kilometres were uneventful but my legs started feeling a bit tired already at 6km. At the 10km point I was one minute over my previous race time, but I knew that I could make the half marathon point at my target time. I was not feeling great and my legs were tired. I strange thought entered my mind, that the hills were going to start soon and although I couldn’t go faster in the flat I would be able to hold better this year on the uphill sections. Funny reasoning, as one could say that if one is tired in the flat it’s only going to get worse when running uphill. However, my original thinking turned out to be right, and when the hills struck at around 12km (7.5 miles) I still felt comfortable. I took advantage of the downhill sections that follow between 17-18km (10-11 miles). At about 17km (10.5 miles) I thought to myself that I only had 25km (15 miles) to go and that was a distance I could totally do, I had done it several times during my training. The ways we try to trick our mind…..

I passed the half way point feeling strong and one minute faster than I had done on my record race. I was in business. The constant uphill section of the race between 20 and 28km (12.5-17.5 miles) was upon me but I kept on going steady, reasonably relaxed, high fiving all kiddies holding their hands out for me, smiling at the people out to cheer. On my way I had passed my good friend that was in the car with us, he had started ahead of me, he was struggling, I didn’t speak to him, I didn’t want to upset him at this stressful stage. I later found out he stopped at 31km (19 miles).

I had to keep in mind that this difficult section of the race was going to eventually end. A bit more and I would surface at 28km (17.5 miles). And I did. From now on things were more flat, till the last uphill bit at 31km (19 miles), but who cares about that one anymore, the downhill roll starts right after it! Once a reached 31km (19 miles) I had slowed down to 6.20min/km. A woman that was standing over the bridge I was passing shouted at me ‘Come on girl-Ἑλα κορίτσι μου’, I smiled at her and kept on going. She gave me the fuel I was running out of at that point, thanks lady! And then the downhill started. I felt that finally I was running towards my husband and my 3 and half year old son waiting for me at the 36th km (22.5m). I couldn’t wait to see them. My pace became something more normal now, between 5.35 and 5.45 min per km. I started feeling a weird pain on my left thigh, at some point I thought I would have to drag my leg along but I thought to myself I was close enough now that I could do that if I had to. I saw my family at the point we had agreed, I ran to the side of the street and covered my boy in kisses. He was very quiet, I later found out that a few minutes before, being so tired waiting, he had fallen asleep on his overcoat on the side of the street. My husband urged me to go, he knew I was close to my 4 hour dream.

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At mile 22.5 running towards my funs!

I was now flying and was even able to look at my timer and figure out that I had managed to at least equal my previous time. I was happy, strong and determined. A couple of miles before the end I found somebody running at a nice pace and tagged along with him. I was going to equal my time even if I walked from then on. And the dream of breaking 4 hours was starting to become a possibility at that point. I reached the corner of the Hilton hotel and took the right turn into the large long avenue of V. Sofia’s, the penultimate stretch before the final straight. The last bit of quiet where all us runners were still giving it our best and hanging in there, running over the pain. And then the final turn into the beautiful street of Herodou Attikou and the crowds were now 4 people deep and cheering. I removed my headphones and about half way down the street I decided to really go for it. I entered the Panathenaiko stadium feeling as if I was running a 200m sprint. I immediately slowed down though as I was looking for my son and husband. They were there on the left, I went over and grabbed my son. We ran together hand in hand the last 150 meters inside the stadium, proudly, swiftly, happily. We crossed the finish line and I looked at my watch (which I had forgotten all about in the last mile). The timer had stopped at 3.58.11. Oh the joy! Finally I had made it, my time started with a 3! I walked around the stadium with my boy feeling ecstatic, got my medal and some nice photographs. What a day!

Strangely some of the things that I am most proud of in my life and some of the most memorable days in my life involve this painful, tough business of running. I guess this is why I keep lacing on.

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Me entering the Panathenaiko stadium for the last few meters of the marathon
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Running to the finish line with my son
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Post marathon celebrations

Athens marathon race info

History, start and finish

The victory of the Greeks against the Persians in the battle of Marathon at 490BC was announced to the Athenians by the messenger that ran the distance from Marathon to Athens. The first Marathon race that took place during the first modern Olympic games in 1896 was born out of this historic event. The race starts in the city of Marathon and finishes inside the beautiful Panathenaiko stadium at the heart of Athens.

The Panathenaico stadium lies on a site where an ancient stadium hosting games for centuries stood. Major reconstruction was undertaken so that the first modern Olympics would be held there in 1896. Pentelian marble was used for the faithful reconstruction of the stadium to as close to its original form as possible. It was here that the Olympic Hymn was heard for the first time and where the first modern Olympic marathon race finished. It is a beautiful and full of light building that captivates my attention and elates me every time I pass by.

Route-Elevation guide

The first 10k of the race are flat. The first hills are encountered at the 12th and 13th km (7.5-8 miles) and then again between the 15-16km (9-10 miles). Between 17-18km (10-11 miles) there is a welcome 50 meter drop in elevation. From 20-28km (12.5-17.5 miles) there is a constant incline of 150m. What you have to keep in mind is that although it seems endless, this part does come to an end, don’t panic. The last big incline is at Agia Paraskeui between 31-32km (19-20 miles) and right after this point the down hill part of the race starts. You will go down 160m from there to the end and will hopefully regain any time lost climbing those hills before.

Temperature

Expect a sunny day and temperatures of around 20-22oC, although there is the off chance of a rainy and cold day. If it’s hot I wear shorts and a short (elite looking) top. I usually pour water over my head too.

Organisation

Excellent. I have done this race 4 times now and the organization has always been excellent.

You can leave your things in the buses at the start of the race that will meet you at the finish line. There are no huge queues when retrieving your things.

Hydration stations are every 2.5km offering water in bottles (do ask them to keep the lid on for you-I find this easier), as well as isotonic drinks (they do come in a cup), GU gels just before the half point, bananas at about 25km, wet sponges to wash the sweat away. I have never felt I would have needed something more. Of course there is a goody bag at the end with drinks, bananas and energy bars. You also get your tin foil blanket rapped around you in no time.

Medical assistance is present all the way and of course various doctor’s stations await at the end. In case you cannot finish the race buses do regularly pick up people from the course and bring them to the finish.

Spectators

Although running in Greece is becoming more and more popular by the minute, it still does not attract three-people deep crowds all along the way. However, the ones that do come out give a very warm and heartfelt support. Do high-five the kiddies that are holding their hands out for you. This is a slightly introvert race but also a very emotional one.

Overall

A race I thoroughly recommend. I think it’s one of the races any marathon runner should compete in, due to its historic significance but also due its difficulty. It’s a tough race but totally possible to do well in for those who have trained well. The finish at the stadium is unparalleled. Do give it a try but perhaps do not expect a PB. Not everything is about personal bests though after all.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Anna says:

    Although not at all athletic, I think this is the most touching description of something so far away from my lazy and slow -going way of life.

    Liked by 1 person

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