Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Original in Review

In late September 2009, I conceived of a brilliant idea.  Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say I remembered a brilliant idea that I had conceived of and subsequently forgotten months earlier.  When I first moved to Europe in 2008, I decided that I should definitely run my first marathon while I was there, and that first marathon should be none other than the original course from Marathon to Athens in Greece, a race which takes place every November.

Time passed.

I didn't completely forget about this plan.  On my first trip to Greece in February 2009, I was in Athens and stopped to see the Olympic Stadium, which is where the race ends.  I took a photo at that stadium.  The label on the photo says, "One day I will finish a marathon here."

More time passed.

This brings us back to late September 2009, when I suddenly realized that it truly was now or never!  I was moving to the U.S. in the summer of 2010, which meant that the 2009 Athens Classic Marathon was the one I had to run!  And it was less than two months away!

I had not really been running much, but lack of preparedness has never stopped me from doing something and enjoying it.  And fortunately I had two crazy friends, one who was ready for a marathon (and had run them before) and one who was in the exact same boat as me, who decided to join me for this short-notice trip.

Thanks to work requirements, I still didn't really get much preparation in before the race.  I ran 13 miles in the Yorktown Battlefields and could barely walk for the rest of the day because my hips were so sore.  That was my long run!  But I knew that I would cross that finish line, even if I walked the majority of the race.  Not the greatest approach to a first marathon, but I don't do 'normal' very often.

We arrived in Athens the night before the race, checked out the expo, picked up our race packets, ate some pasta, settled into our barebones-but-good-enough hostel, and tried to get some sleep!

Race morning.  My first marathon!  Excitement!  Pouring rain!  Fantastic!  We piled into buses to drive out to the starting point in Marathon, where we (being all race participants, not just myself and my two friends) huddled under what little shelter we could find to stay as dry as possible.  Which frankly was a lost cause, since we had all gotten soaked getting from our various places of lodging to the bus pick-up.  But no matter.  I started out that marathon wearing an extremely fashionable black trashbag, which I kept for at least the first five miles of the race.

The rain stopped after a few miles, and then it was just kind of damp and hazy until the halfway mark.  One friend left me behind after the first 5k, but I randomly found the other at about mile 5 and we stayed together until maybe mile 22 or so.  Since my sole goal was to cross the finish, I took quite a leisurely approach to the race.  When I needed a bathroom break, I just stopped at the next portapotty.  I walked up pretty much every single hill, and it is quite a hilly course.  We also walked at the refreshment stops, but took advantage of downhills to swing those sore legs back into motion.

The course is not particularly scenic, nor are there many supporters lining the road along the way.  It meanders through small towns and then suburbs of Athens.  But I loved it, because our names were printed on our numbers in font large enough for the few spectators to see.  So instead of generic cheers from applauding spectators who like to encourage you that "You're almost there!", I was instead hailed with "Bravo, Sasha!  Bravo!" from the diminutive Greek grandmothers scattered along the way.  They made me smile every single time.

Although the spectators were limited, the race was very well supported.  Refreshment and portapotties at almost every single kilometer marker, or at least every other.  Kilometer markers instead of mile markers made the distance seem to go more quickly too.  Just keep putting one foot in front of the other!

The first half of the marathon was soggy, and the second half was painful.  That's when the lack of training really kicked into my joints and muscles.  By the time I was in Athens proper, knowing that I was winding my way towards the central garden where one long downhill would dump me into the Olympic Stadium, I was quite crippled.  I couldn't stop running because I wasn't sure I'd be able to start again!  I would have to kind of tip myself forward until my feet had to pick up the pace to catch my falling body, and then my hips would loosen up enough to allow me to continue to shuffle along.

Then I came down that long, tree-lined last hill, where the crowds were more like what you would expect from such a huge race, and then the stadium was in front of me!  And I was in, and I was still running, and miracle of all miracles I was going to finish my first marathon in under 5 hours!  And as soon as I crossed that finish line, completely exhausted and hurting, and someone hung my medal around my neck, all I wanted to do was cry, except I was breathing too hard, so the only remaining option was to hyperventilate.  Just a little.  And then try to smile around it for the race photographers.

No wonder other people think runners are crazy.  We live for these moments, when the pain and mental toughness bring you to a finish so indescribable that you want to laugh and cry at the same time.

I paid the price for lack of training over the next few months with stiff joints that took quite a while to heal, but I wouldn't change a thing about my first marathon experience.  It was a great, well-organized race steeped in history and tradition that taught me a fair bit about the grit I'm made of.  Some would probably call it stupidity.  :)  But I made it, and it was amazing.

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