“By the way, the Filothei run is 95% flat, we just learnt!” my sister wrote excitedly, referring to the 10k race she had roped me into on the occasion of my visit to Greece in January.
I was hesitant to enter at first, as we would only be there for the week, with loads of people to see; I was also conscious that I would be in the 4th week of my marathon training: would 10k races be the best use of my Sundays?
But then again was I really going to go on a 17 mile long run on the second day in Athens? And spending time with my sister, my brother-in-law and our common friend on a Sunday morning must certainly count as “seeing people!”
Besides, apart from the Athens marathon (which I’ve run twice), I haven’t taken part in a race in Greece, and I was curious to see what they are like: the atmosphere, starting and finishing in a municipal running track (more on that later), how seriously runners take themselves, how they dress to run in January, what the organisation would be like… I’m sure there is a sub-genre of cultural tourism waiting to emerge dedicated to everyday races: not the big events necessarily, but the more understated, neighbourhood affairs… Any travel agent friends think this is a good idea?
But I digress.
The race in question was named after Stylianos Kyriakides, the first runner from outside the US and Canada to win the Boston marathon in 1946. He then toured the US for a month, raising funds and awareness for the plight of post-war Greece: In all he raised $250,000 (1946 values), moved the Livanos shipowner family to send two shiploads of essential supplies (food, medicines and clothing) and the public awareness raised by his victory, dignified demeanour and fundraising campaign convinced the US government to authorise $400,000 in aid to Greece in advance of the Marshal package.
A statue (“Spirit of the Marathon“) depicting him and Spyros Louis (the winner of the marathon in the first modern Olympics in 1896) was unveiled in 2006 (on the 50th anniversary of his victory) at the 1st mile mark of the Boston marathon course. A twin statue stands in Marathon, in Greece (near the start of Athens’ and, in a way, every marathon).
His is truly a fascinating story which I could not possibly do justice to in the context of this blog post: I urge you to look him up, perhaps starting from this article on Boston.com or this Wikipedia entry (if you speak the language, I would opt for the Greek version rather than the English one).
And from the sublime, back to the more familiar territory of the ridiculous: I arrived at Filothei, the suburb of Athens hosting the race (and where Kyriakides eventually settled, hence the connection) a couple of hours before it was due to start. My first priority was to find somewhere to buy a Lucozade or two, to mitigate the effects of the dry martinis of the night before (“people to see”, remember?)
One thing that impressed me as I was strolling along the pretty, tree-lined streets of Filothei in search of hydration / hangover recipe, was how soon some runners had started their warm up. I’m not sure if they were just running intermittently keeping themselves warm, if they were following a two-hour long warm up regime, or were just combining their morning run with supporting their friends who would be racing, but having runners fill the streets around the stadium certainly added to the colour!
The other thing I noticed was how lively the stadium was from early on: There were a number of 1,000m races for younger age groups starting from 10:05, with registrations on the day only, so there was a constant stream of families arriving, athletes (youngsters and adults) registering, warming up, but above all enjoying what was turning into a wonderful day of winter sun!
Our friend Dimitris was the first to arrive and we started talking about what all runners talk about the world over: injuries, the next race we have entered and (in our case) whether we still held firm in our decision to run Athens Marathon this year with my sister (for whom it will be her first marathon!) and my brother-in-law. I really hope it works out: Niko has had his fair share of injury trouble and he deserves a clean run up to (what will be) his second marathon, and it will be amazing to be there when my baby sister crosses the finish line of her first marathon in the Panathinaiko Stadium!
As for Dimitri… we trained for our first marathon together in 2011 (in opposite corners of Europe), and he was the person who supported me most when injury struck half way through that training campaign; and who introduced me to McDougall’s “Born to Run” and the wonderful and wacky world of minimalist shoes, which I still inhabit (I have written more about those days in the post “My first time“). He too is overcoming some niggles of his own these days, so he joined us at Filothei as a spectator only (and baggage keeper extraordinaire!)
And if you think this blog post’s build up to the race is long-winded, you didn’t have to wait at the start line for the local dignitary to turn up to get us on our way! He did eventually though, and we were finally unleashed…
The race started well enough: round the curve of the track we went, down the finish straight and straight on out of the stadium’s back door to the public roads (which were closed to traffic along the route). The runners around me wore anything from leggings and long-sleeve tops to the vest / shorts and bra / brief combination you’d normally associate with professionals in official events. To be fair, while the forecast was for a glorious sunny day, it was still January and Athens had only just emerged from a particularly cold spell which had covered streets with snow, so the wide range of outfits isn’t as surprising as that! I stuck to my Harriers vest and a pair of shorts, and I felt quite comfortable, especially once the sun came out.
Most spectators were seated in the stadium (which we would run through at the start and the end of each of the three laps of the course), but there were still quite a few onlookers on the course and the marshals’ enthusiastic encouragement meant we did not want for support!
I had mixed feelings about the course when I was running it, but I have since concluded that I quite like it: The elevation gain was quite modest, but its sneaky, easy-to-underestimate hills and sharp turns had the effect of breaking your rhythm just enough to make it a hard course to PB on. Still, I am afraid that the margin by which I was off PB pace had more to do with my excesses of the night before than the course…
With that said, the three loops weren’t as terrible an experience as they may sound, especially as they were in a very pleasant neighbourhood. Running through the stadium itself (rather than beside it) was new to me, and I quite enjoyed it – although the entrance to it involved a sharp turn, a relatively narrow entrance and a couple of steps. There was also a point where the course switched back on itself (Niko and I would wave at each other there) and another where two parts of the lap almost touched: Both were well marked and marshalled however, so I am mentioning them as points of interest rather than irritation.
Greek runners proved less talkative during the race than Brits, and I found I was the source of most of the banter around me. People did engage though, for example a lady who I first noticed as she was pulling away from me on the first lap: I caught up with her at the beginning of the second as she had slowed down to a walk, and offered some encouragement: whether it helped or not I don’t know, but she obviously recovered enough to come past me again at the start of the third. But it was obvious she was having a hard time of it, because she wasn’t able to build much of a gap before I caught up with her again and urged her on .
We ended up having a longish chat about how she was poorly prepared for the race (her favourite distance was 5k and she had not trained for the 10k) and in a negative state of mind. I assured her that running would help with her negativity – which of course was a remarkably stupid thing to say to someone who had just told me how badly she was struggling in the closing stages of a race double the distance she had trained for!
But by then I was entering the final half-lap and was coming up to lap runners on their middle lap. Passing anyone at the latter stages of a race gives me a boost, and it’s hard to feel bad about the last few hundred yards of a race when you pass someone only half way through theirs!
At long last I reached the stadium and went round the final bend. Crossing the finishing line was a bit of an anti-climax, as it seemed to be the only stretch of the race that wasn’t marshalled! There was a lane marked out with cones, presumably for the finishers’ use, but I didn’t immediately realise that’s what it was for and in my hesitation I lost a place on the line! Now, I can live with conceding a place on a final sprint (it’s happened a few times!), but I felt cheated to lose it because I was trying to figure out whether those cones were meant for us or one of the earlier races… Still, I console myself that position 131 has a pleasant symmetry to it, which 130 lacks!
The goody bag included a medal but no t-shirt, the opposite to what I’m used to for races of that distance. What was a nice touch however was that the first three finishers of each age category were given a replica of the vest worn by Kyriakides in his 1946 Boston victory! I wouldn’t mind one of those, but I’ll need to run much, much faster to get my hands on it!
The three of us crossed the finish line within 8 minutes, but we were in no hurry to leave. The day was bright and warm, the centre of the stadium welcoming, runners were still finishing… So we hang round a bit longer taking silly photos of ourselves, and exchanging excuses for not doing better than we did in the race!
Overall it was a lovely day out, and much as I enjoy the road races in rural Leicestershire, I think there’s much to be said for experiencing races in different settings and countries!
Now, to see if I can get the gang over for this year’s Joy Cann 5!