Summer holidays started on Saturday, and what better way to start two weeks of rest and relaxation, but to wake up at 6am and run a half marathon in support of Greek stray dogs and cats? Unfortunately there is a serious problem with homeless dogs and cats on the Greek streets, a situation which has not been made any better during the recent (and ongoing) financial crisis the country is facing, with more animals being abandoned and government authorities finding themselves more stretched. While there are no official figures available, a few years ago the BBC estimated that there were around 1 million strays in Greece. It is a problem that, even in the best of times, most authorities paid lip service to solving: the last concerted effort, and not always a humane one, was made in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics (Greece’s last party), when there was concern that the sight of strays would spoil the image Athens wanted to project to the world.
The burden has therefore fallen on concerned individuals who, each on their own or by forming charities, have made a great difference by providing veterinary healthcare (including immunisation and sterilisation), food and – the ultimate prize – a new home to the thousands of stray dogs and cats. They have also been very successful in drawing attention to the problem, raising public awareness and sensitivity and influencing the passing and implementation (the latter not always a given in Greece) of laws for the protection and welfare of all animals and making sure that cases of cruelty and abandonment are brought to the public attention and prosecuted through the courts.
One such charity is Penny Marathon, named after Penny, a dog that did not receive the help she needed and who died on the streets of Athens. She inspired the first Penny Marathon in 2012, a fun-run on the route of the Athens Marathon, but on open roads and in July (and believe me, there is a reason why the Athens Marathon is run in November!)
Penny marathon has since grown into a registered charity, working to generate awareness and funding for a number of charities who provide the hands-on help throughout Greece… and Australia (the founder, Eleftheria Prodromou lives in Sydney). The “marathon” bit has also grown and improved year on year, and in 2016 it was held simultaneously in 5 cities across two continents: Athens, the island of Salamina, Kalamata, Chania and… Sydney!
I took part in the Athens event, which has evolved significantly from that first run in 2012: The route has been redesigned to start from the centre of Athens (more convenient to get to) and now follows the coastline to the SSE finishing at a pet-friendly café in Vouliagmeni (called Rumors; they are worth the mention!). For the majority of the way, it is run on wide pavements, pedestrianised streets or footpaths and when we did have to join the main carriageway we were kept safe by the many supporting cyclists who formed a screen to keep the traffic wide as well as showing us the way.
There were drink stations every 5 km or so where the group of runners and supporting cyclists stopped and regrouped, and where people who didn’t want to run the full distance could join in. Apart from the cyclists who followed us for every step of the way, there was a sizeable support team travelling by a convoy of cars, and moving ahead to set up the next drink station in time for the runners’ arrival. We were greeted with much noise, cheers and the sounds of cameras clicking as we arrived, and isotonic drinks, water, bananas and an assortment of crisps and savoury crackers were laid out to keep the hydration and salt levels up! There was first aid provision as well, but fortunately it was only needed to treat a cyclist’s minor graze.
I’ve run in a number of professionally organised races, with hefty entry fees payable upfront and large corporate sponsors backing them, but they have nothing on this jolly band of enthusiastic amateur volunteers! The care they showed in selecting the route (safe, picturesque and the sea breeze kept it bearable as the heat went up), the peerless organisation, the number of photographers and the quality of their photos (if only official race day photographers were half as good as these were!) the constant discreet presence of the cyclists acting as guides, impromptu photographers, mounted escorts checking every crossing for traffic, company along the way and the overall support and good cheer were all peerless! Considering also the complexity involved in organising the same event, at the same time of the same day in four cities in Greece and one in Australia and pulling it off without a glitch, and thinking that the whole team are unpaid volunteers who also have full time jobs to do and families to look after, one can but feel genuine admiration for the pure competence, dedication and commitment of everyone involved!
Not wanting to (i.e. not being up to) run the full marathon distance, I joined the run at the half-way point, while people wishing to run with their dogs were encouraged to do so and join in the final station, 2.5km from the finish. I thought that was a nice touch, but didn’t expect to see many taking that up. How wrong was I! I didn’t count, but I’m sure the dog runners outnumbered the unaccompanied humans and by a good margin! Star amongst them was Tony, a dog who was found with gunshot wounds causing him to lose an eye and the use of his hind legs; but following a life-saving operation (in the course of which 80 balls of shot were removed), now lives a full and fulfilling life thanks to a personalised (dogalised?) set of wheels and lots and lots of love!
On the purely running front… it was a very pleasurable run along the Attica coastline, passing by a number of marinas and public beaches, beautiful tree-lined promenades hanging over the rugged coastline and a number of sights representing the best and worst that Greece has to offer (e.g. the Naval Tradition park, hosting amongst others a replica of an ancient Athenian trireme and the armored cruiser Averof, which saw triumphant service in the Balkan wars, almost single-handedly winning the Battle of Elli and Limnos in Dec 1912 & Jan 1913 against the amassed Ottoman fleet; followed a few miles later by the old airport, once thought of as a major investment and regeneration opportunity, but now hosting only old, decaying buildings and the abandoned tents of the recently re-evacuated refugees).
We had left the half-way point at 8 am sharp, and as the miles wore on, the sun rose in the sky and the heat began to make itself felt. I was happy that it seemed to affect me no more than everyone else, helping me feel a bit less like the unaccustomed ex-pat who has grown estranged to his native sun. Still, I certainly did feel the last couple of miles or so, when the combination of the ever-increasing heat, a few strategically placed hills and not knowing exactly how far the finish was all conspired to dent my pace…
Before too long I spied the welcome sight of the finish banner, and there was more cheering, encouragement and celebration by the organisers, volunteers, but also the group of my friends and family who were showing their unwavering support by sitting at Rumors’ covered garden, sipping their iced coffees and fruit cocktails!
One by one all the remaining runners (of the two- and four-legged varieties) made it past the line, and we joined everyone else already at the café for a good chat and bark! Dash not being in attendance (his Excellency chose France for his holiday this summer), I had to get my traditional post-workout lick-down by another doggie present, but I didn’t go without!
There was a selection of Penny Marathon technical and cotton t-shirts for sale at the finish (all proceeds going towards their charitable work), so when we return home the colours of Penny Marathon will make their first appearance on the Leicestershire trails and lanes; echoing the Huncote Harriers training tee’s latest appearance under the oh-so-bright Athens sun!
Photo credits: Irini Anadioti, Zoi Arapoglou, Costas Kesinis. I could only fit a small sample of their excellent coverage of the day in my post, I would strongly encourage you to visit https://www.facebook.com/pennymarathon to see the rest.
For more information on Penny Marathon, their activities, ways to support or just to pick up something nice from their e-shop, please visit: www.pennymarathon.com
A short (5′) video of the story behind Penny Marathon and what it’s all about is here: