In 490 BC., the Persians under the Emperor Darius set out to capture and destroy the city/state of Athens. The Athenians had refused to pay tributes to the Persian king and encouraged other Greeks in Asia Minor to do likewise. Though still in it’s infancy, the Athenians had embraced a radical new way to govern themselves. They called it democracy. This never before tried, revolutionary concept not only allowed it’s citizens the freedom to pursue their dreams, but rewarded innovators for their individual accomplishments. This had unleashed unprecedented discoveries in medicine, biology, physics, and geometry and had elevated philosophy, theater, sculpture, and literature to new heights.
The Persians made their voyage by ship to the seaport city of Marathon, 25 miles to the east of Athens. Here, from their armada of 600 ships, 60,000 troops disembarked to wage their war. The Athenians had requested help from another city/state and ally, Sparta, but that help would not arrive in time to assist. The able bodied men of Athens totaled only 10,000. These citizen soldiers took up defensive positions in the hills overlooking the Marathon delta. However, before leaving the city, it was determined that should they be defeated, the women and elderly left in the city would set the city on fire and commit suicide, to prevent being brutalized by the invading Persians. Upon seeing the Athenian defenders in the hills outside of Marathon, the Persian General Datis realized the city of Athens would be completely unguarded. General Datis ordered half of his soldiers back on the ships to sail around the horn and attack the now venerable, unguarded city of Athens from the west.
The Athenian General Miltiades, instead of waiting for the remaining Persians to attack, made a number of unorthodox decisions that are still studied by war colleges to this day. They would not wait for the Persian attack, but would leave their defensive strongholds and attack the Persians. Instead of forming his battle line as customary, he would thin out his battle line to match the longer Persian line to keep from getting outflanked. Additionally, instead of putting the most elite, reinforced troops in the center as was customary, he would position them on the ends. Lastly, though traditionally armies encumbered with up to 40 pounds of armor and weaponry would walk to meet the enemy in order to keep close rank and to conserve energy for the battle, General Miltiades gave one last radically different order.
The Persian archers were legendary in their skills from as far as 200 yards. To limit the time his troops were in their “kill zone,” he had the Athenians run from that point to the enemy’s battleline. This unexpected move allowed the Athenians to pass through the archer’s kill zone almost untouched.
The Athenian citizen soldiers clashed into the Persians and fought boldly against the overwhelming odds. The Persians, not prepared for the reinforced flanks of their enemy, were quickly overwhelmed on each flank. As the Athenian flanks closed in, the Persians were soon encircled and were fighting from three sides. Totally routed, the surviving Persians retreated to their ships. When the battle ended, 6000 Persians lay dead, yet the Athenians had lost only 192 men.
Their thoughts quickly turned to their families left in Athens and began the slow and arduous journey back through the hills to defend it against the Persians who had set sail earlier. However, fearing the Persian armada would appear off the Athenian coast and those left in the city would carry out their predetermined actions, they called upon their champion runner, Phidippides, to deliver the message that they had won the battle and were on their way back to defend the city of Athens.
Knowing the lives of his family and those of his countrymen were at stake, Phidippides raced to deliver the news of the battle to those anxiously waiting to hear the outcome of the battle that would determine their fate. There is no way of knowing the exact time it took, or even the exact route he took. However, according to legend, upon entering the city exclaiming “Niki! (victory) he collapsed and died from exhaustion. A shift in winds had slowed the Persian ships. When they did arrive, they were met with the sight of General Miltiades and the brave Athenian citizen soldiers. Upon seeing this, General Datis turned his ships toward Babylon and never returned to Athens.
Phidippides’s run became the inspiration for the Marathon event, introduced at the first Modern Olympics in 1896. The Marathon has always held a prominent place in the hearts and minds of athletes. It represents the ultimate athletic effort —where the human body, mind and spirit are tested to their limits.
Now some 2500 years later, I determined to test my mettle, running in the footsteps of the messenger Phidippides.
Never excelling at sports, this had been an unlikely journey for me. I had begun running ten years earlier, when at the age of 50, I hoped to improve my health and hopefully erase years of working as a “road warrior”. Since starting Total Hearth, our fireplace distributing company in 1991, I had been constantly traveling, either calling on customers, working with one of our salesmen, visiting manufacturers, or attending trade shows. Being in a vehicle 12-14 hours a day, eating fast food from drive up windows, and getting little or no exercise had become my way of life.
When I began my quest for better health in 2004, small changes in diet and walking for 15-20 minutes around a hotel parking lot in the evenings quickly showed up on the scales, and surprisingly, made me feel more energetic. As time progressed, the walks became jogs, and the cleaner diet became second nature. I even started running local 5k races on the weekends and as the years passed, became somewhat competitive in my age group. In the fall of 2013, I stumbled across a running clinic offered by Olympian Jeff Galloway. Though my only goal was to try to better my 5k times, there were others attending the clinic that were running half marathons, and even full marathons. It was intriguing to hear of the places and events they had experienced. One lady was preparing for the 2013 Athens Marathon. This was the first I had heard of this race but discovered that Jeff and his team were the team coach for a tour operator that offered a tour package for the Athens Marathon.
I left the clinic with some new insights into running, but also with a nagging question in the back of my mind. I had never run much more than 3 miles….could I ever do a marathon?
Our business had been an outlier during the 2008 recession and we had actually grown substantially during the tumultuous years that followed. In the spring of 2013, while property values were still depressed, our company had purchased a condo in Port Charlotte, Florida for use as a sales office. It was here that my wife Joann and I had come in January 2014 to prepare for our first major trade show of the coming season, scheduled to take place at the end February.
I was in the habit of visiting Barnes & Noble bookstores whenever I needed to take a break or had free time, and on the drive down had purchased a book entitled, “Run Less, Run Faster”, by Furman University staff members Bill Pierce, Scott Murr, and Ray Moss. Having never been an athlete in high school or college, this book was exactly what I had been looking for as it covered a wide range of running topics. I also discovered that every spring they hosted an adult running camp on the Furman University campus. Since I would be traveling in that area with my work, I signed up for the May 2014 weekend camp.
The running camp began with testing for flexibility, VO2 max, BMI, and a number of other running metrics. Armed with that information the coaches gave each attendee a recommended pace for each run. They had created quite a buzz with the release of their book as it advocated only running three days a week which was completely contrary to conventional wisdom. However, each run was designed to create a very specific adaptation. To this day, I still follow the regimen that they recommended: speed intervals on Tuesday, a tempo run on Thursday, and a long run on Saturday or Sunday.
In addition, the camp taught drills, stretching, running form, diet, strength exercises, and racing strategies. I left not only feeling faster, but more confident that I could indeed complete a marathon if I would apply myself. My goal became to complete a marathon after I turned 60 later that year…..and the marathon I would attempt would be the one that started it all…..Athens Greece!
After leaving the Furman camp in May, I gradually started ramping up my weekly mileage. I only ran three days a week, but where previously I had only been running three miles a day, I was now doing 6-7. Their marathon training program is a 16 week program. Beginning the second week of July, I began adhering to it religiously. Improvement came quickly and I could see and feel the difference. I was now 50 pounds lighter than I had been a few short years ago and my exercise regimen was challenging but achievable. As recommended by the Furman coaches, though I only ran three days a week, I spent another three days a week in the gym. I would do cross training on a stationary bike or rowing machine two days, and do strength training one day.
The timing of the Athens Marathon was perfect. I would turn 60 on October 24th, and the race would be just a little over two weeks later on November 9th. Joann and I had never really vacationed or traveled for pleasure, as all previous travel had been work related. Our only trip outside of the country had been to visit a fireplace manufacturer. However, we decided to take that “once in a lifetime trip”. We booked an 11 day tour offered by Apostolos Greek Tours, Inc. The company owner, Paul Samaras is a native of Greece, but for the last several decades has lived in the Denver area. We would find Paul to be a most gracious host and first class tour operator.
My training had gone well and I could see and feel the difference as I began ramping up my weekly mileage. The first part of August, I began getting a searing pain on the bottom of both heels and extending up the achilles. This would ease up after I had run for a little while, but as I continued to increase weekly mileage, it became worse. After consulting with Dr. Rob Linton, the local chiropractor and running enthusiast, it was obvious I had developed plantar faciitis along with achilles tendonitis. With the Athens Marathon approaching, I continued to run, but started a number of different treatments that Dr. Linton recommended. However, none were effective and by mid September, found it painful to even walk, let alone run. Even though the Athens Marathon was only about two months away, there was no choice but to stop running for a few weeks to give it time to heal.
I continued to cross train and added a number of different cardio exercises that didn’t require weight bearing on my feet. I felt like I was maintaining cardio fitness, but nothing prepares the body for running…..like running!
At the time I boarded the plane, I had not run in the previous 6 weeks. I would “test” every couple of days, and just a few steps of jogging confirmed I was not yet healed. However, I could at least walk with-out pain.
We were met at the Athens airport by Paul and a couple of others from his company and were soon shuttled off to our hotel. I was happy we were not staying in Athens, but in Vouliagmeni, a small town on the Aegean Sea about 15 miles from the city. Our hotel was a just a block away from the sea, surrounded by small cafes and the trappings of an average small town America.
That first night in the hotel we met for dinner and were introduced to the tour staff and others in our group and given the schedule for the week. The following day we visited the Athens Panathenaic stadium. This magnificent stone structure had been built for the first modern Olympic in 1896 and would be the site of the Athens marathon finish line the following day. After running over 26 miles, I hoped to be entering the stadium to cross the finish line just as the Olympians had done over 100 years earlier.
We then toured the Acropolis, afterwhich we ate lunch and shopped at the Plaka, the open air market. The Acropolis (high point of the city) is the walled and fortified portion of the city that was the home of the Parthenon. The Parthenon housed the “gods” of Greek mythology. It was here that in the first century AD, the apostle Paul visited the Greeks and observed their “statue to the unknown god,” housed in the Parthenon. Just 144 feet from the entry to the Acropolis is a natural rock outcropping that was known as “Mars Hill” where the philosophers, scholars, and politicians would speak and debate the issues of the day. This was where the apostle Paul stood to address the Athenians and introduce them to the God of the Bible as recorded in Acts 17:22.
The next day we left by bus to Sounion, home of the temple of Poseidon which dates back to 1200 BC and is described in Homer’s Iliad in the Trojan wars. On the return trip to the hotel our bus followed the route of the Marathon which would take place the following day.
It was hard to sleep the night before the race. Sunday morning brought a bright clear day, but with near record heat. As I was a first time marathoner in a large international field, I was assigned the very last starting corral. In large races, the runners are released in waves, with the runners that have proven themselves to be faster in the first waves. The bib number has a magnetic chip in it that registers when you cross the start line and again when you cross the finish line, so being in the last corral has no bearing on your finishing time. This is known as “chip time” and is recorded as the official time.
Unfortunately, the later start meant I would be running in hotter conditions. My actual start time was several minutes after the first runners and I could already feel the temperature rising and intense sun rays on my back when our corral was finally released.
It was good to be running! I felt strong, was feeling no pain in my feet and the excitement of the event made the steps seem easy. I had started at the back of the last corral but immediately began to weave my way through the slower runners until I caught up to the front runners in my corral. There were water stations positioned every 2 miles and by the time I reached the first water station, had caught up with the slower runners from the corral ahead of mine, but was disappointed that it had run out of water. It was an exceptionally large field and the race organizers had apparently failed to stock enough water. Though is was already getting hot and I had started off faster than I had planned. However, I was not too concerned until I found the same situation at the second water stop. I continued to move through the runners improving my position and was relieved to finally find water at the third water station around the six mile mark. Thereafter, all stops had water. However, the sun was unrelenting and the small water cups didn’t seem to go very far on my increasingly dehydrated body. Our tour guide had positioned a van at the half way point and I had stowed some energy gels, drinks, and clean socks in my bag. I was very happy with my performance up to that point and after finally getting enough water was quickly back on the course hoping to complete the second half at the same pace as I had the first.
The first half of the race starts at the bay of Marathon and is very flat. The last half includes an 8 mile hill up to the city and ends with a 6 mile downhill to the finish. I knew I would have to slow down on the tough uphill, but hoped I could make up for the slower pace on the final 6 miles.
It was getting very hot by the time I started the uphill and the clear day offered no relief from the beaming sun. I was dripping wet and sweat would sling off each arm as I ran but I was determined to push through it. I had been suffering some muscle cramps since about the halfway point, but at mile 18 got a “charlie horse” so bad I had to stop and massage it back to a somewhat normal function. I was now walking a few steps and then running a few steps. At this point, my only goal was to get to the 20 mile mark that would begin the final downhill portion of the race.
I was ecstatic as I walked to the peak of the hill knowing that I would find relief and increased speed on the coming downhill. However, as I tried to break into a run, was shocked and dismayed that my legs would just barely move. All the muscles in my legs were cramping. Try as I might, I could get no speed and was doing all I could to just get one foot in front of the other to keep from falling.
I had seen YouTube videos of runners whose legs just quit working and they would just fall over. By mile 24, that was my greatest concern. I was getting cramps that felt like electrical shocks and would hit so hard, it would almost knock me down. The Plantar Faciitis had returned with a vengeance and my vision was getting progressively blurrier. I could no longer see colors, but saw everything in shades of grey. Uncontrollable tears flowed down my cheeks. I had long since quit sweating, had a throbing headache, and with each agonizing step was just fighting to stay conscious and keep my legs moving.
European races are measured in kilometers rather than miles, 42 kilometers equal 26.2 miles. Along the course, I had been converting the kilometers to miles in my head. Over the last few miles, I could no longer do the conversions and I did not know how far I was from the finish line at the Panathenaic Olympic Stadium. The Greeks take great pride in this race and line the streets to enjoy the festivities and encourage the runners with shouts of “bravo” and other calls in their native language. When I was sure I was either going to pass out or die, I heard a sound from the crowd that I will never forget. With people lined up 6 deep along the route, I heard a young girl’s high pitched voice come from among them in broken English saying, “Go meester, go! Only 600 meters to go!” By this point, my thinking was so fuzzy that I didn’t know how far 600 meters was, but assumed it must be pretty close. I concentrated on not passing out or having the leg cramps knock me down and hoped for the sake of this little girl that I didn’t traumatize her by collapsing in front of her.
Running into the Panathenaic stadium as the Olympians had done in 1896 should give anyone cold chills. It did me, but for an entirely different reason. I was seriously dehydrated, with every body part screaming in protest. I did not know it at this time, but discovered later that I had exhibited all the tale-tell signs of heat stoke. Stumbling across the finish line with a time of 4:21, I continued around the track to the prearranged meeting point and found Joann and another 5-6 from our tour group. I sat down and laid back against a chain link fence that was leaning outward at about a 45 degree angle. Over the next hour, I dropped in and out of consciousness, waking to take a sip of a drink and assuring each person that came in that I was going to be alright (I was not sure of that, but didn’t want to be hassled). My only thought was, I did it! …….but I will never do this again!
When a van load of runners were assembled, Paul shuttled us back to the hotel. Having to reroute due to the marathon still in progress, this took about an hour. By that time I was no longer so light headed, but my Plantar Faciitis was so painful that I had to lean heavily on Joann to even walk. Chris Twiggs, the Galloway coach that was attending, had recommended standing in the sea upon our return to assist with leg recovery. I was grateful our hotel was next to the water and as soon as Paul dropped us off at the hotel, I waded into the cool Aegean sea and could immediately feel some relief.
After going to our hotel room, I lay down on the bed and didn’t rise until it was time for the “victory celebration”, which Paul was hosting for our tour group that evening.
Each marathon finisher was awarded an olive leaf laurel, just as had the early Olympians. The only time I had to walk was to receive it. At this point, walking was almost impossible due to the pain in my feet. We were seated at large round tables with 8 guests per table. There were a number of interesting people in our tour group. We sat with a group of runners from Greenville, SC as well as Mark and Sally, a remarkable couple from Seattle who had traveled the world running marathons and experiencing the different cultures. Mark and Sally were roughly our age which we found very encouraging. Joann had run the Athens 10k while I was doing the marathon. Likewise, Sally had little interest in running full marathons, but ran shorter races while Mark pursued his marathon quests. Over the next few days we would learn a great deal from them and they would become not only running role models, but lifelong friends.
The next day was a rest day and we were on our own. The rest was greatly needed but we were anxious to begin the bus tour the following morning. Over the next week we would visit: Delphi, Olympia (location of the first Olympics in 776 BC), see Bible landmarks, and numerous places associated with Greek mythology. The last couple of days we traveled by boat to the Greek Isles. Very few places in the world are as beautiful and scenic as these islands.
As we prepared to depart Greece, my head was whirling from a broad spectrum of thoughts and emotions. Seeing the ancient and well preserved architecture, being in the crater and birthplace of democracy, running in the footsteps of Phidippides, and visiting Biblical landmarks were all worth the trip by themselves. Likewise, just as interesting was the modern Greece culture with their 1 1/2 hour coffee breaks, a national afternoon siesta time, and sampling the authentic mediterranean diet, eaten late in the evening and could last for hours as it was shared with family and friends. All these things were part of the magical Greek charm.
I had gotten so much more than I had expected. Frankly, I had hoped to achieve a better finish time than I had gotten at 4:21. However, the Athens marathon is a “pilgrimage” all serious runners should experience once in their lives. Other than the lack of water at the first two stations, this iconic race was perfectly managed. Though the course starts in the seaside city of Marathon, it provides a variety of views and experiences as it winds through a series of smaller, idyllic villages and towns. For the Athenians, it is a major holiday and the crowd support is overwhelming. The course is challenging, but interesting enough to help take your mind off the fact you are going uphill a good part of the way! Running across the finish line inside the Athens Panathenaic stadium has got to be one of most inspiring experiences in all of sports!
Though I had done a number of training runs as long as 20 miles, I had underestimated the difficulty of running the full marathon. It had beaten me up pretty badly. Though I never intended to run another marathon, I had achieved my bucket list goal of running one and was happy that I had chosen the Athens Marathon as the one. My goal now was to recover, heal, and refocus on running my business.