I heard about the modern the Athens Classic Marathon from my fellow North Pole Marathon friend Zacharias, who is from Athens. This year the race will take place on my actual birthday November 13, 2016. What better way to celebrate my birthday than to reward (or punish) myself with running 42.195 km like Pheidippides did in 490 BC?
The legend of Pheidippides and the origin of the modern marathon are something worth mentioning. The Athens Classic Marathon starts in the town of Marathon, in the Attica region, and finishes in Athens. In recent years, there are hundreds of marathon races around the world and it is getting more and more popular. But it all started here, in Attica.
The marathon legend had it that a courier named Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to announce that they have defected the Persians. And Pheidippides perished after the arrival. If you are a history buff, you can read the entire story from Wikipedia. The modern marathon race came from the town of Marathon.
However, there is a less known story about Pheidippides beside running from Marathon to Athens and died. He was sent to Sparta first to request help from the Spartans when the Persians landed at Marathon. Therefore, he had already run 240 km to Sparta and back. Right afterwards, he was sent from Marathon to Athens (40 km) to announce the victory over the Persians. This was the real reason why he collapsed and died - not because of running one Marathon, but because he had run Spartathlon (246 km) twice before the Marathon.
Thus, two modern sports come from the feats of Pheidippides have yielded two modern running race distances: Marathon and Spartathlon. The first modern marathon was run on 1896 during the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens. Only 9 runners finished the race among the 17 participated. In 1972, the first Athens Classic Marathon was organized and it would be its 34th anniversary in 2016. Some 40,000 runners will be running the route as Pheidippides did more than 2500 years ago and cross the finish line in the Panathenaic Stadium saying "Joy, we win!"
Besides the legend behind the Athens Classic Marathon, it is also known for being a tough course to run. The race goes from the seaside village of Marathon to Athens, following the same route ran by Pheidippides to announce the victory of Athens in the Battle of Marathon. The town of Marathon is at sea level (where the Persians landed), and the course follows the coast south for about 17 km before turning east and starting to climb the hills to reach Athens. That translates into 15 km of running uphill with close to 250 m elevation gain.
I met three of my North Pole Marathon friends in Athens: Adjoa, Shilpa and Zacharias. It was a great reunion to catch up with fellow runners. Running friends are special friends. They understand what are the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Among runners, the extreme adventure runners - such as the North Pole bunch - are some serious bad ass. Hang around with them, and you will be drinking the cool-aid before you know. (Hint: that is how I signed up for the Marathon Des Sables!)
Expecting a tough course, I set my expectation accordingly and aimed to go easy in order to conserve enough energy towards the end and enjoy the finish at the Panathenaic Stadium. In another word, I want to be able to smile at the finish line to have some good looking photos taken :) After all, it is my birthday and I just wanted to have some fun.
Me and two girls from the North Pole Marathon shared a taxi to get to the town of Marathon in the morning - that would let us sleep in one more hour comparing to taking the shuttle buses. Even in the taxi, we could notice the long stretch of downhill -- that would be the uphill we need to cover when running back towards Athens.
The Marathon start venue was very well organized in a stadium, with bag drop trucks, a warm up track and of course plenty of WC facilities. A marathon flame tower is positioned behind the start line, giving a great viewpoint of crowd below. One interesting detail of the Athens marathon is the olive branch. In Antiquity, the olive tree symbolised glory, peace and wisdom and the champion of the marathon event would be symbolically crowned with an olive branch. There are many runners either holding an olive branch or tuck it somewhere on their running outfit.
At 9:15 am, my wave departed and to my surprise, running was possible from the start - there are marathons either with too much people or too narrow of a street that you could not run for the first 4-5 minutes. The beginning 5 km or so was the flat part and very comfortable to run. A little detour from the main road led the runners to circle the Fallen Marathon Soldier's Tomb, or Marathon Tumulus, a park with a hill in the middle where the Marathon flame is lit each year.
Passed the tomb, the route continued with the main road, still flat until about the 11 km. It goes through towns and villages and people lined up the route to cheer "Bravo." The energy from the crowd was amazing. Some young people read from my "Keep Calm, It's My Birthday" t-shirt and shouting out birthday wishes to me. Km 11 to km 17 has a very mild uphill and with fresh legs, it did not feel too hard.
At Km 18, there is a small statue of the legendary Pheidippides. That is where the course gets really tough - it continues to climb until Km 31. On the upside, there are more towns - bigger in size too - along the way, and there were performers, drummers and marching bands to cheer us up. The pace was getting slower but I tried to keep running regardless how slow it seemed to be instead of walking. The organizer provided more than enough water stations - about every 2.5 km or so - providing water, sponge, isotonic drink and energy gels. Once entered the city limit of Athens, it was only 4-5 kilometers left till the finish line. And a pleasant descent at Irodou Attikou street finally gave the tired legs a little break.
After passing the president's residence and making the last turn to the left, I started climbing up the ramps to enter the Panathenaic. Surging over the last 100 meters inside the stadium was an amazing experience. I could hear people shouting "Happy Birthday" to me from left and right - wearing that "Keep Calm, It's My Birthday" t-shirt was a definitely a brilliant idea. Despite the tough profile of the course, I achieved a sub-5 finish, which would qualify me for more competitive marathons such as Two Oceans Marathon and Comrade Marathon. This was one of the best marathon endings I can recall.