My journey to Athens Marathon started in 2015 when my wife Lois and I visited Athens on holiday. We visited the Panathenaic Stadium (site of the ancient Athenian Games and the first modern Olympic Games – 1896), and the track was open so of course I ran a couple of laps.
Running on the track of the Panathenaic Stadium in 2015 (note the Cape Town Marathon Shirt)
The gift shop had marathon shirts on sale, and you know the rule – you don’t wear the shirt if you haven’t done the race. That planted the seeds, so in 2017 we decided to go back so I could run the race and of course wear the shirt. The conversation with Lois went something like this:
Me: Would you like to spend your birthday in Athens? (her birthday was 2 days after the race)
Me: Great, and while I’m there I’ll run the marathon.
The marathon has its roots in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, after which Pheidippides allegedly ran to Athens to announce the victory of the Athenians against the Persians, after which he collapsed and died. To be fair this is after he ran to Sparta and back – a distance of about 450km.
Athens marathon is a point to point race, starting in Marathon (yes Marathon is a town) and running pretty much directly to Athens (there is a small detour to run around the marathon battle tomb near the start). While the race started at 9am, I needed to be at the bus station at 6am on 12 November to catch a free bus to the start line. Just about all 14000 athletes are bussed to the start, so I am sure that just about every bus in Athens was used.
The event was extremely well organised; when I got to the bus station I had to wait for about 5 minutes before a bus arrived, and when we got to the start line there were hundreds of toilets, free bottled water and free plastic ponchos to keep warm. Likewise the finish was a production line; you finished, got photographed, were handed a medal and shuttled out of the stadium where you got a space blanket if you wanted, as well as a goodie bag with some food and water in it.
Start area with the hundreds of toilets
DHL handled tog-bags and each race number had its own tog-bag truck (eg number 10000-11000 were truck A etc). You had to use the bag provided at the expo. Speaking of the expo it was much like a Two Oceans expo selling the usual running gear. They did however give me a free travel card for my stay in Athens as part of my registration – a small but nice touch. The start line is a permanent start line, as are the route markers to Athens.
41,2 km to go; these signboards are permanent – every km
The start is staggered which is much nicer than in SA; there was no congestion, there was loads of space in the start pens, and nobody was shoving or trying to get to the front. Likewise you were timed both gun to mat and mat to mat (gun timing is for your start pen). The downside of this is there were no pacesetters; I am not sure how you would manage pacesetting with this type of start – in total there were 12 starting groups spread over about 40 minutes. The other big difference is there were LOTS of headphones, I estimate at least 25% of the crowd were wearing headphones.
The race starts on a rural route (Marathon is a very small town), with farms and fields on the side, interspersed with small villages. Near the start there were children at the side of the road handing out olive branches to the runners (a sign of peace).
The villages are so small that many of them still have town PA systems on the street light poles, all of which were playing Greek music, and I saw a lot of Greek dancing and costumes. There were even a few barefoot Greek warriors running the race complete with swords and shields.
Some of the entertainment
There was loads of crowd support as you ran through the small towns, I traded at least 1000 high fives with the kids, there were lots of bravos being shouted, and live music and dancing. but as soon as you left the villages it was suddenly quiet and introspective.
High Five! There was a kids fun run earlier in the day; hence the race numbers and medals
The route was hillier than expected. Even though the total climb is only 400m, the main hill is a gently yet long and energy-sapping 13km climb, starting around the 18k mark. I was relieved to get to the top of that hill (give me Chappies any day).
At the end of the 13k hill; I was so glad to crest this climb
I was exceptionally lucky with the weather; we had thunderstorms both the day before and the day after, but race day was slightly overcast with a lovely cooling breeze blowing off the Aegean Sea. It was perfect running weather.
First aid was offered every km, and I noticed a lot of runners dropping off in the early stages of the race (some even near the beginning); I suspect that there were many less-experienced runners that underestimated the distance, and I’m sure the generous 8 hour cutoff plays a role. I don’t see that many dropouts at home; maybe our club system is better at getting runners ready for the marathon distance.
Water table – the wet ground is from all the bottled water being wasted
There were plenty of aid stations where you are handed 500ml bottles of water, sponges, gu’s, bananas and nut bars. The water was wasteful since you don’t need that much, and thousands of half-full bottles were tossed on the ground (as a Capetonian this felt so wrong). The road at the aid stations was covered in water from this waste. But 2 days later when I drove the route there was not a single piece of litter on the ground.
Litter at a water tables, it was quickly cleared up
However there were no “unofficial” aid stations. In Cape Town the supporters are amazing with handing out potatoes, chips, marshmallows etc. There was none of that. I don’t know why, but I suspect (without any research) it is due to EU being strict about everything, and I bet its illegal or possibly liable to give food to strangers. I saw a few runners from South Africa, and at one stage I heard somebody shout “Go VOB”, and I turned to see somebody waving an SA flag.
One of the many disabled runners – note he was in a regular wheelchair
At one stage a dog joined the run, and he ran with us for about 5km before losing interest. I saw a few disabled athletes, both “racing” and “normal” wheel chairs, and 1 wheelchair even had a dog sitting on the front.
The best part of the race was the last km; it was a long downhill run to the finish in the middle of town, and it was surrounded by screaming crowds. I felt like I was the frontrunner about to win the race. The crowd support was like the finish line crowds at Two Oceans Marathon, but for a whole kilometre, it was absolutely somewhat emotional running to the finish on the same track as the first modern marathon, and the same location where athletics has been performed for over 2300 years.
The glass running man sculpture in Athens; about 5k from the end
Finally when I spent a few days after the race walking around Athens, I saw loads of athletes wearing their medals. I’ve never seen that at home. Here you put your medal away and think about the next race.
Athens Marathon Medal
I was happy with my pacing (thanks Rassie), I had to dig deep to keep moving but considering all the photo and video stops I was really happy with my respectable 4:36 time.
This was my first overseas marathon, and it was a fantastic experience. If you’re considering an overseas marathon this is a great one to pick. Its historic, exceptionally well organised, easy to register for, and of course you can spend a few days after the race enjoying the food and culture of Athens.
Keeping my promise; climbing the Acropolis for Lois’ Birthday
At the finish
A few days ago I posted about me entering the Two Oceans Marathon. This is a quick update to let you know that I finished the 56km race, and I finished it under the cutoff time of 7 hours (6:53 to be exact). This was my second ultra-marathon, and while I found it extremely physically tough (but then I guess that any run that long is going to be tough), mentally it was a much easier race.
While running it I was seriously wondering why on earth I had got up at 3:30am to run 56k, but as soon as I got home and had a good bath I started thinking about what I could do differently for next year! But the support from my fellow runners and the spectators was simply amazing. I don’t think I could do it without that comradery.
And yes, I will see you next year!
About 2km from the end – I was a lot more sore that it looks
Pretty much a year ago I completed my first Ultra-marathon – the Two Oceans Marathon, the world’s most beautiful marathon. A gruelling 56km run through Cape Town, including over 1000m of climb. It was a brutal yet exhilarating experience. It is difficult to explain the conflicting emotions between joy and pain that I experienced during the last 15k or so.
At around 40k – I was in a lot more pain than I was showing
Well, I am running it again this year. Tomorrow to be exact. 10999 people will be joining me on my run, and another 13000 will be running the half-marathon.
But the route is amazing. You start outside the brewery in Newlands, run down to Muizenberg (almost past my house), down the coast to Fish Hoek, across to Noordhoek, then over Chapman’s Peak. This is the first big hill and where some say the race really starts. Then into Hout Bay where you hit the marathon mark, up Constantia Nek (the big scary hill), and then down about 10k past Kirstenbosch Gardens to the finish on the UCT rugby fields.
Crossing the finish line last year
Last year there was a course diversion over Ou Kaapse Weg – a brutal 7km climb, so in theory this year’s route is a little easier. I hope I am ready; I have certainly done the training. So here’s hoping for a great run.
The Two Oceans Marathon is a 56km Ultra marathon raced through Cape Town. It includes about 1000m of climb, and takes in the view of both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean.
I have been training for several months for this event, and on Saturday 4 April, I and approximately 11000 other people were on the starting line, hoping to finish this amazing run. It is difficult to describe how I was feeling before the race. Excited but a little scared. Definitely lots of nerves. At that distance you don’t know what could happen, and this was my second attempt at that distance.
At the start with my friend Grant
The first 26k are relatively flat, a lot of which is along our wonderful coast, but after that the race really starts. There is approx 7km during which you climb about 600m (in comparison “Heartbreak Hill” in the Boston Marathon is just 27m climb). It was tough, and the speedy downhill the other side was just about as tough.
When you hit the marathon mark you still have a big hill ahead (usually it would be considered a short and small hill, but not after 42km), and 16km to run. To be honest I can’t really explain how I got to the end. I ran with a great bus that really helped to keep us moving forward, and I learned about what “digging deep” really means.
Near the end – feeling the pain
When I crossed the finish line (at 6h53), I feel elated and like I have overcome a massive personal challenge. I felt that I can do anything. But also a little overwhelmed and emotional. It was physically exhausting and a little like a dream. But I did it, I ran a 56km ultra-marathon!
My friend Steve summed up it up perfectly “pain and pleasure signals all mixed up”. I cannot say it better.
Crossing the finish line
PS: Here is the route if you are interested: https://www.strava.com/activities/279019154
Today was the Two Oceans Marathon, a 56m race around the Cape Peninsula. It has been running since 1970 (when there were only 26 entries), and now there are just under 11000 entries.
Now, while I am crazy enough to race around Cape Town on my bicycle, I am not crazy enough to run the marathon*. However, I was more than happy to take some photos.
Happy to see you too
Keeping the stride