A Greek Odyssey: Running THE Marathon in the Land Where It Began
By Pepper Provenzano
The first twenty miles are the easiest.
About then, after your body has absorbed all existing nutrients, it begins to eat its own muscle tissue.
I don't know if I can do this. Come with me now, as I pass the 20-mile mark of the Athens Marathon 2000. The 26.2-mile endurance test equals 42 kilometers here, and we have 10 kilometers to go. After this grueling uphill climb of 32 kilometers, we pound downhill through the heart of Europe's oldest inhabited city, past the heavily secured U.S. embassy, into the shadow of the Acropolis.
I came here to fulfill a dream - to run the original marathon in the birthplace of the Olympics, in my 50th year, at the dawn of a new millennium. More than 1,700 runners began this morning in the little town of Marathon, site of the 490 B.C. Battle of Marathon.
My only goal is to finish injury free; to be part of that one tenth of one percent of Americans who complete a marathon. Especially this marathon. For this event, like no other, has an extraordinary history tied to the original Olympics, the ancient games. And this event epitomizes what it means to train and strain in order to go the distance.
As I retrace the footsteps of pre-Christ heroes, I am painfully aware of my own mortality and a little more appreciative with every step that athletes are God's way of providing hope and inspiration for the rest of us.
I run through a crisis of spirit, a crisis of self-confidence, and a distinct nausea associated, I am certain, with fear. The stomach butterflies have subsided, but the uncertainty remains. After all, a marathon is 26.2 miles. That's plenty of room for injuries of all sorts, let alone exhaustion.
Months of training got me this far, but now I seek inspiration. It's a humid 75 degrees, my blood sugar is crashing, body fluids drained. I am thinking of reasons to quit. Ten pounds overweight, two inguinal hernias, a kink in my back, a twisted ankle, and both knees overdue for arthroscopic surgery. I've been running for three hours.
But I'm no beginner. I've done this before and I know the score. It's time to gut it out.
A Legendary Messenger
So I invoke the spirit of the soldier/messenger Phidippides who, according to Greek legend, ran from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens after a heavily outnumbered Greek force defeated invading Persians in a historic battle for democracy. Unfortunately, as the story goes, Phidippides dropped dead after proclaiming, "Nike!" (victory) over the Persians. Now I wonder if my heart will give out.
I summon excerpts from Steven Pressfield's novel, "Gates of Fire," that chronicles the nearby battle of Thermopylae where, in 480 B.C., 300 Spartans martialed 2,000 Greeks against an overwhelming Persian force. Their three-day standoff before inevitable annihilation remains a symbolic victory for all freedom fighters.
I try relaxation and breathing techniques. A fellow runner suggests deep inhaling to ensure oxygen reaches my depleted muscles. I hydrated early and often, drinking at every 5-kilometer water station.
The Greeks authorities have pursued little corporate sponsorship of this marathon, set in a land overabundant with antiquity where the government has so much to oversee. This event lacks the precision organization of most U.S. marathons, so I joined a tour designed specifically for U.S. runners, put together by Apostolos Greek Tours, including hotel, meals, and support along the race route.
Coming from Salt Lake City, I am painfully aware that the Olympic Games have become a massive enterprise that reflect not only the triumph of humanity, but also the foibles. I am weary of news of scandals related to Olympic organizers and drug testing. I came to pay homage to the athletes who embody the spirit of the Olympics as the quintessential forum for athletes. Theirs is the triumph of body and soul, mind and heart. Would that everyone could experience a modicum of the passion that Olympic athletes know. Marathon runners know. Every marathon runner carries a piece of the Olympic legend and spirit.
And isn't that what the Games are all about? I mean besides the money and politics and the industry the Games have become, it's the spirit of the Games that has transcended the centuries. The spirit of Phidippides.
Triumph and Despair
Every marathon has its stories of triumph and despair, agony and ecstasy. What you don't witness first-hand, you hear about at the finish line, if you make it there.
Today is no exception. I am sad to note there was one fatality when a 60-year-old German collapsed with heart failure a few hundred yards from the finish. Then there was Rachel Manning of Burlington, CT. She was shy by two miles when Athens police reopened traffic. The determined 71-year old crossed the finish line anyway, after nearly six hours, and was awarded her well deserved medal. Barry Lavine, 53, Cincinnati, finished despite a recent quadruple bypass. For Nancy and Martin Nellius, this is a labor of love; their honeymoon.
There are folks like Graham and Nicola Brown from Auckland, New Zealand, who flew halfway around the world for this run; Jack DeYoung, a 6-foot-4 "Clydesdale" from New Jersey and a veteran of 16 Boston Marathons; Dan Kupris, a Hollywood stand-up comedian who kept us in stitches; Paul Samaras, our tour's official ambassador of Greek culture, and author John "the Penguin" Bingham, a one-man cheering squad who says, "The miracle isn't that I finished . . . the miracle is that I had the courage to start."
One runner is barefoot. No shirt, no shoes; he may not get service back in Utah, but he certainly wins the respect of his fellow marathoners.
The course is a brutal, gradual uphill climb, with crests at 15 and 32 kilometers. The punishment is accumulative as the miles/kilometers slip beneath my feet. Two fellow runners I meet along the way, Chuck and Joan, are a godsend for three-fourths of this strenuous journey, tracking our pace as we team up. I wonder if they will ever know how important their encouragement is. My training in the hills above Salt Lake City becomes a clear asset here at sea level.
U.S. distance runner Jeff Galloway, a 1972 Olympian and a veteran of 114 marathons, said the gradual uphill makes Athens one of the toughest. Galloway, whose run/walk/run method has inspired marathoners worldwide, is the author of several best-selling books on running. He notes that only two events have been a part of every summer Olympics since the modern games began; the 200-meter run and the marathon.
Sometimes you see things that aren't pretty. My mind drifts and I recall a woman projectile vomiting at mile 24 of the St. George Marathon last year in Utah. I watched while a doctor I know ran right by, oblivious to the ill runner. That happens sometimes when your body is exhausted and your mind begins to wander, whether through oxygen depletion or because endorphins bring on that "runner's high," a kind of euphoria that can make you feel like you're in another place altogether, in a dream state. Or in another time.
Now, as I approach the final stage of the Athens Marathon, I awaken from a daze and realize that several miles have melted beneath by feet while I was in another place and time, recalling the spirit of Phidippides. And I remember the strangest detail: Phidippides ran in full armor.
Another two miles to go. This is the same marathon route into downtown Athens that Olympians will run at the 28th Olympiad of the 2004 Summer Games. The roadside crowd is cheering, and my self-doubt is morphing into certainty.
The Heart of the Games
I am inspired again. I came to fulfill a dream, to acknowledge the athletes' role at the heart of the Games, in the very footsteps of the heroes who gave birth to western civilization. With 500 miles of training, considerable mid-life circumspect, and the spirit of the ancient messenger at my side, I am making my last stand.
The curbside spectators spur us on, their language foreign, their sentiment universal, heralding every runner. Athens, a big beautiful monster of a city, momentarily holds its breath as motorcycle police halt all traffic. Horns are sounding everywhere, echoing off a canyon of seven-story buildings on the descent through downtown. Now, as the white all-marble Panathenaic Stadium comes into view, I realize that it isn't the aches and pains of this once-in-a-lifetime event that I will remember, but the many sources of inspiration.
These athletes came from everywhere with a common goal. Each cheers for the rest, as in the Olympic ideal. While I soak up this rich Greek history, wowed by all the antiquity, it is those around me who inspire me most.
I feel the pathos rising in me now, endorphines and emotion surfacing as we enter the stadium and run a last lap, then close the final gap to the finish-line banner, our task complete in the same arena where the first modern Olympics was held in 1896.
Historians say it was normal for the ancient Spartan warriors to cry after battle as a logical purging of inner turmoil. Now I see people around me overwhelmed with something similar: an emotional, passionate, longterm goal accomplished.
Four hundred thousand U.S. citizens have completed a marathon. I have run six, but I vow this will be my last. This time next year I may change my name to Aldo, open a trattoria in Umbria, and happily watch my waist balloon.
On the other hand, next year's Big Sur Marathon happens to fall on my birthday.