Friday, 5 November 2010

26.2 hours of marathoning

Midday October 30th: We’ve just completed a shakeout jog – the last run before the marathon, a 20 minute waddle around the hotel. This involves a navigational nightmare as we try and find a park, and an injury tantrum as we try to avoid the bad paving stones. We end up running in a small park around a Orthodox church and past idle homeless folk or old men with little to do. The path is mostly off-road, littered with tree roots and slippery gravel and we whinge about how strange parts of our legs hurt, how hard it is and how much we really need a toilet.

Back at the hotel we give running tips, on request, to two girls looking like the Canadian Olympic team – “run on the main footpath along the highway – it’s easier”.

1pm – we are sitting alfresco at NewBurger ordering baked potato, fries and wedges and baguettes. Carbohydrates anyone? We try and encourage each other to have one more mouthful but at this stage I feel bloated and nauseous.

Left: a bit of a carb feast for lunch

3pm – we take a Metro to Monastiriki and take in the ruins, the sights and smells. I decide I want to buy anything that has Athens Marathon on it. There’s a lot of beaming at complete strangers in marathon tshirts and running shoes in a sense of camaraderie. I’m really conscious about any one or the crazy tiny tourist train running over my toes.

4.30pm – return to hotel. Let the preparations begin. Chia seed energy drinks are made. Clothes are laid out in advance. A list of what to do in the morning is written out. I’ve packed my running belt and my pre and post-marathon kit. Twice. Keep drinking water: 3litres for today. I get help stretching my IT bands – my right one is tight. My arches have been cramping – maybe from sightseeing on foot. I prepare when I am going to have drinks and gels and what my visualisation techniques are for both keeping calm and coping if anything goes wrong.

6.30pm – the lifts are crammed – everyone is at motivational pasta parties. The Americans had dinner at 430 so their night is ending and they are trotting back to their rooms with autobiographies of great American runners under their arms. Every full lift bellows “good luck” as a runner gets out for their floor.

650pm – it takes us a long time to get to the top floor of the Hilton for the Sports Tour International pasta party. It will take guest speaker Ron Hill even longer. Realise that I am very antisocial and pick the quietest looking table to sit at. Polite and strained conversation reveals dinner company to be: proud parents of a very humble and discreet but very good runner; a first time Aussie male and his non-running (“isn’t there anything to eat but pasta”) partner and a group of five women (a mix of experienced and first times) power walkers.

700pm – Ron Hill provides inspiring stories that I can’t relate to because they’re about how finishing over 3 hours was demoralising. But he does say that between kilometres 8 to 32 it’s all uphill, so just keep your head down and relax.

830pm – Dinner is over. All the smart runners have left the table. Or all the runners who are staying in the less classy Novotel and didn’t get the luck of the draw to stay in the uber swish Hilton and have to travel back to their hotel. Blurry pics taken from the Hilton’s posh bar overlooking the Acropolis.

2130pm – watch tv. Finally find American drama that is mind numbing. Set four alarms for five am.

2200pm – try to sleep

2300pm try to sleep. Listen to the white noise of the hotel. There’s a distinct buzz.

November 31st 0200am – wake. Listen to white noise. Feet are cramping.

430am – sort of wake

0500am – listen to alarms going off inside the hotel. Shower, dress. Visit toilet four times. And then again.

530am – outside the elevator are people pumped before breakfast. In the breakfast area, everyone is efficient but silent. There is a swell of energy and movement, mostly directed to any carbohydrate food item. Everyone is wearing souvenirs from other events. They look fast. Pah.

555am - milling around in lobby. Last minute photos. Some people have empty hands – no pre or post kit. Just a tiny gel belt. Some of us have santa sacks.

0600am – on the bus. We pass the 40km mark. Try not to look. Or think what that might mean. Some Americans start pointing and talking about hills loudly. They look like mountains. They start tracing the course. I shhhhush them . A man behind says that it’s better if you don’t know what the course is like as you focus on it when you run it. I heart that man.

20km mark. Don’t look. It will really be this far?! The scenery is roadside industrial and warehouses. I save it for the run and try to sleep. It takes one hour for the coach to get there – it will take the winner slightly over double that. Real marathon runners must certainly ditch the bus.

0700 – off the bus and straight to the loo queues. It’s sunny but cold with lovely music playing and a MC who is so jolly and comical that by 9am we will feel like he’s a friend. I am jostled along the loo queue by an Irish woman over dramatising the cold, which seems rich. As each person gets to the head of the queue, they reel with the opening of the toilet door. The smell is unbelievable. When it’s my turn, I retch, and then like anyone who’s ever worked in adult learning disabilities, I set about cleaning the toilet! The MC is talking incessantly. It might be important...

We change out tracksuits and into arm and leg warmers I have made from old tights and wrap in plastic. There are some pretty inventive disposables including Primark dressing gowns, and paint protection suits. The MC continues to berate people and plead “please drop your bags off if you want to be part of history.”

0800 – drop bags off in bag area. I realise I have forgotten my special energy drink and go back to retrieve it. I then realise I have also left Imodium in my bag. In a brave but confident nod to my bowels, I decide to risk it. Queue for the toilets. Again. The MC is now begging people to drop their bags off. He is almost crying. His desperate “parakalo” is very amusing.

0830 – Watch people take a warm up lap near the start. Join a mass scrum for the start line. Try to keep calm while inhaling people’s armpits and not trip on the steps and barriers. Take my place at the back of the seventh grid. Zorba the Greek music is playing and I squat a lot to get my legs warmed up. As the music gets faster, I feel I might be risking injury and looking like a fool.

0845 – Depart grid for toilet. Debate at length about going to the toilet on the spot. Instead get warmly received by a nearby taverna owner. I heart taverna. Runners are still queuing to get their photos taken with the marathon flame.

0855 – Joan Benoit Samuelson is here! She’s going to say the marathon oath. We raise our right arms and pledge that it’s the taking part that matters.

0900 – The gun fires, the MCs voice is breaking, the first block starts, the balloons are in the air. I tread on people’s toes as I attempt to stretch and offer a hug to a nervous first timer. Americans beam at me. They do that, Americans.

0915ish – Block 6 – that’s me - starts. The MC is squawking with excitement. It’s autopilot; you don’t even have to think about what to do as you’re jammed in with other runners, so you just jostle along with the motion. There’s a stream of beeping as we all cross the start line. The road opens up – the sun beats down on us and the cold muscles quickly warm up.

The kilometres fall. I watch the clock for pace. I have a secret plan that I would like 4.59.59 but only if it’s possible. I even did the maths the night before. I get pushed at about 3kms, quite heavily in the back, by someone who looks like they’re gone out to get a pint of milk and I go flying. I am more winded than furious.

5km 36:35 perfect pace and timing.

10km 1:13:08 – this is 3 minutes slower than I wanted but I don’t care that much at this stage. The drink stations start and as it’s hot, I am going to use every stop and take water to pour over me and keep my body temperature under control. I also don’t want to dehydrate. There is a little niggle in my right foot which turns out to be absolutely agonising tenderness because of my existing pronation and because of the constant camber from the hills. I gel my legs and when the pain is excruciating I actually strip my foot bare to spray fake ice on it, promptly choking on the menthol camphor fumes. Swallow some ibuprofen. I have rationed myself to three. Every kilometre mark is celebrated with a high five.

There are little old ladies and men in waistcoats standing by the side of the road. He shouts bravo and she waves branches of olives. Little children hold out their hands to slap them as they run past and sometimes I swerve out to do so. Migrant workers from much warmer climes stand by the roadsides looking very bemused.

This is the main road from Athens to Marathon and for all I know, the only road. The houses are mostly market garden farm houses. The towns in between are like those roads from airports to the city selling furniture, a giant toy shop, a big pet shop, fake ancient statutes, massive terracotta pots. The farmhouses sell surplus pumpkins and veg.

21,1km 2:45:07 We do a little dance and a whoop at 21 km. A man points out there is a special half way marker we can officially whoop on. The timers scream as we wave our hands in the air and celebrate. Every step we take now is less than we have taken already. Result. We walk a bit to control breathing and pain in that foot, and take water better. I am swearing at my foot, a little angry and bitter. Because everything is going ok and I don’t even have an injury, just this bloody pain. I run right on the top of the road so the camber is less.

On a hillside, sunny and a little rural in feel. Belinda Carlisle comes on my ipod and we screech to leave a light on for me. Later, when my ipod takes a moment between songs, I realise how very quiet and still it is in the country. There is no sound of the city, no traffic. Just silence. Which would have made my singing very annoying.

An official coach passes and we look up to wave at what we expect is the volunteers; friendly students and boy scouts who have been marshalling and handing out water and helping making things happen. But the bus is empty except for the already injured. Alongside me, a girl, my age stares vacantly at the window focused in the mid distance on nothing but her own disappointment. Her eyes are red rimmed with tears. I have to look away.

There’s a big guying running backwards a lot. I thought it was a technique but I learn that he is looking for his wife. There are loads of people from Hydrabad, which seems a long way to come... A Sikh man stands by his house and associated market garden stall but doesn’t wave back at the folk from Hydrabad or me.

A man is on bended knee facing his running partner – a woman. It’s not a shoe lace, he’s really on one knee – he’s proposing, we come closer and the diamonds in the ring catch the sun. And then she shakes her head. Those of us passing are shocked. He turns and walks away with rejection written in his posture. The passerbys have covered their mouths in shock. I turn around to see if they will keep running – he has kept walking, heavy footed; she stands stock still. The whole thing makes me feel a bit nauseous, I feel that bad for them.

Along the way are brown road signs: Athens Classic Marathon route. I beam every time I see one. People are having pics taken with them and the statutes of runners and soldiers that pop up on the route. It’s great to see people really enjoying themselves. Except that couple...

In fancy dress, there are of course the collection of Greek warriors and a few Goddesses. They get an extra cheer as we go through the towns.

At about 27km, I part ways with my running buddy with a heavy heart. There’s a rhythm in my gait and I want to go with it. The race face is on. The trance feet are in action. The hands are doing their little hand thing which is either like robots holding wafers between fingers or some cute little foetus clutching thumb thing. I am passing people. A lot of people. Very exciting. I realise I won’t make 4.59.59 but it doesn’t bother me. In fact, it makes it all much more relaxed and fun. I don’t have to watch the cumulative time and just keep an eye on the pace. I feel really strong but keep a reality check on myself. I won’t let myself step up the pace by more than a minute a km before I get to Paula’s pavement.

30km 3:57:59 – I feel so good that I won’t let myself admit it in case some bizarre jinx puts me out at Paula’s Pavement.

35km I won’t even celebrate as I pass the point where she pulled out of the Athens Olympics. This is also where I bonked in Berlin and where fuel starts to run out. I respect the distance way too much to even think about celebrating now. But I allow myself to pick up pace a little. I realise I don’t know where 20 miles is in kilometres. “The marathon is 20 miles of running and 6 miles of truth.” As I don’t know where truth starts, I don’t mind...

There’s a highway flyover which we go under. It’s shade! Shade shade shade! The only shade that has been on the route except for two small olive trees in a verge. But afterwards we have to crawl over a steep ascent out of the flyover and most people walk it. Alongside, in the shadow of the flyover, are people sitting, eyes blank, waiting for the medic bus to take them back to their bags.

Athens approaches. I don’t even realise. There are more banners and arches but this is really confusing and I don’t know what kilometre I am at. My Sportsband is completely out. I figure I only need to run for half an hour. I keep checking my watch for what feels like five minutes just to see a single minute turn over. But I am still having fun.

I pass the Hilton hotel and the amazing running man statue. I know I must be nearly home. But what kilometre? The route doesn’t go the way I think so there’s at least another kilometre, maybe two. I pass parliament and wave at the guards with the pompoms on his feet. He doesn’t wave back. There are crowds everywhere and they are saying Bravo Bravo. There is also some shade from the buildings. I am flying now – or so it feels and I love it. Runners who have finished stand by the road. One man sees how much I am trying and gives me a great smile and encouraging words. Very nice but where am I? And how many bloody kilometres?

I round a corner and there is the Panathinaiko stadium and I can’t help but smile. And I as leap the ramp into this historic place I choke up a little because this is amazing. This is part of history. This place was built in 329BC and hosted the first ancient and modern Olympics and I am in it as an athlete. And I am in it with a smile on my face. And I am absobloodylutely loving every minute of this. My face is a contortion of joy and emotion. But where’s that bloody finish?! 195m away is the official finish – right inside the stadium. I have the energy to run as fast as I can towards it and even lift my arms and whoop with joy over the beeping of the timing chips. And as I walk towards my very heavy gold medal, which an old lady places around my head, Queen’s “We are the Champions” plays over the tannoy and I burst into happy tears.

Finish: 5:17:59 or 5.16.29 depending on which result you want. To me, it was fun, and it felt “fast” and that’s all that matters.

Finish pics

General pics

You can view the route by helicopter using Google earth (must be installed) and it takes 4 minutes.

Athens by numbers:

  • Start: 01:20 time behind start of block/race
  • 5km: 36:35
  • 10km: 1:13:08
  • 21,1km: 2:45:07
  • 30km: 3:57:59
  • Finish: 5:17:59

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