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Athens Classic Marathon

Greek runners in the Athens Classic Marathon entering the old Olympic StadiumEveryone knows the Boston Marathon and anyone who has not run in the New York Marathon has at least seen it on TV. These are the two most popular long-distance races, not surprising since they are in two of the most popular cities in the USA. But few people have heard of THE Marathon and fewer have actually run it. For while the New York and Boston races can draw over twenty thousand runners and a million spectators, THE Marathon may have three thousand on a good year and the runners almost always outnumber the spectators.

THE Marathon is of course the Athens Classic Marathon, the route run by the runner Pheidippides in 490 BC, to tell the people of Athens that the Persians, who had landed there with an enormous army that should have been able to pulverize the Athenian defenders, had been defeated. The Athens Marathon is said to be one of the toughest, following a course that begins by the sea near the ancient battleground, climbing the base of Mount Pendeli and ending on the plains of Attika, now the center of Athens, at the old marble Stadium, built for the first modern Olympics in 1896. THE Marathon takes on even more meaning as it is dedicated to the memory of noted Greek peace activist, 1930s track star and physician and parliamentary deputy, Grigoris Lambrakis, whose shocking and politically motivated 1963 assassination in Thessaloniki, brought down the Karamanlis government and inspired film director Costa-Gavras' "Z" in 1969.

Athens Classic MarathonSunday November 2nd was a warm and sunny day, more like late summer than early winter (In Greece the word winter seems to mean not summer. Though you can have many summer-like days in the winter.) We woke up early in the Hotel Attalos and went to the breakfast room for coffee and after a walk through the Sunday Flea Market to the Terina Cafe to plan our coverage of THE Marathon. Because it was a race I needed a small and mobile crew, in this case my brother David who happened to be in Athens to make contacts for his sailboat charter company, and was happy to be a part of this event. As we sat in Terina we tried to calculate when we would have to be at the Olympic Stadium to photograph the finish. First of all how long does it take to run a Marathon? Four hours? Three hours? Seven hours? We really had no idea. David, who is a lot smarter than me came up with a formula. How long does it take to run a mile? Let's say the world record is 3 minutes. (Or is it 2?) Let's say 4 just to be safe. Let's double it because you can't run THE Marathon or any Marathon at full speed. That makes 8. Multiply the number 8 by the number of miles in the Marathon which was 28 and the answer was 224. Divide 224 by 60 and the answer was 373 So if we show up at the finish line three hours and seventy-three minutes (which is actually four hours and thirteen minutes) after the start of the race we can get our photos and our story. What time did the race begin though? David remembered that traffic was going to be closed today on the Marathon road at 8:30. That must be the starting time! (My brother would make a fine investigative reporter.)

Athens MarathonWe sat around congratulating ourselves for being so clever. Sure we could have just gone to the website for THE Marathon but that would be too easy. We were a little more hard-nosed than your average reporter. The internet is for wimps. All we had to do is be at the finish line at noon, half an hour from now, which gave us enough time for another cup of coffee. We were joined by our pal Nikos who had spotted us in the cafe table filled square at the bottom of Adrianou Street.
"What are you doing today?" he asked us.
"We are covering THE Marathon for Matt's website!" my brother said proudly.
"Ahh. It's over you know. A Tanzanian has won."
We looked at each other. Could our calculations have been so off? Where did we go wrong?
Niko went on. "There were seven Kenyans and two Greeks in the first ten!"
We were shocked. This was no record-breaking Tanzanian speed demon who had taken us by surprise. We had missed at least the first ten runners. In the world of Sports Journalism we had 'blown the story'. The winners had entered the stadium two and a half hours after the race had started, which meant our calculation of three hours and seventy-three minutes was wrong!

Athens Classic MarathonBy the time we got to the Zappion we knew Nikos had been right. There were large luxury buses parked on the street and tired runners hobbling towards them, some being helped by their friends. Many of them were Japanese. Not a Tanzanian or Kenyan in sight. The winners were probably already on their way to their next Marathon and we had not even reached the stadium. As we approached the intersection of Herod Atticus and Vassileos Konstantinos a ray of hope. There were still runners arriving at the finish line. Not the finely tuned professional athletes who run these races the way college students go from party to party on Halloween to collect first prizes for ingenious costumes. The runners who were finishing the race at the 4 hour mark were people like you and me. Average people with normal bodies who knew they had no chance of winning and did not care. They just wanted to run THE Marathon and to finish the race no matter how long it took. I realized that if we had been in the stadium when the winners arrived we would have probably gotten bored and left by now and not been on hand to see the real heroes of the race. The people who were not so athletically endowed. There were runners with leg-braces. There were runners with disabilities. There were runners in their seventies or maybe their eighties. There were runners who looked like they were more out of shape than me and I could not run a Marathon even if it was from my house, downhill to the local taverna a block away. And every person who ran, walked or hobbled into the stadium was met with enthusiastic applause from the spectators who stuck around until the clock ran out at six hours.

Athens MarathonI spoke to some of the people who had finished the race. Some had never run a Marathon before. Those that had said it was one of, if not THE toughest Marathon they had ever run, with the unseasonably hot weather, the hills (mountains really) and the fact that there were four porta-potties for 4,000 people. (This equation is a lot easier. One toilet for every thousand people). What was particularly encouraging was the fact that this event, which received little attention in the past, actually drew thousands of spectators who lined the route and cheered the runners as they passed, and the large group that was on hand at the finish. There were a few problems. The police had opened the roads after the last runner had passed and since a car is usually faster than a human, runners ended up competing with the traffic and getting stuck at intersections. It also meant that the vehicle with the street clothes for the runners was stuck in Marathon behind the flood of vehicle traffic that had been released from their tethers. When the clothes finally arrived at the stadium they were dumped on the pavement and runners had to find their own in the hundreds of plastic bags which is like trying to find the proverbial needle-in-the-haystack or your luggage on the carrousel at the old Athens airport. This was the only real embarrassment (besides the 4 toilets for 4000 people) and one that probably won't happen again. Especially since the organizer of the event resigned because of it. (Though he got another shot as Athletics Competition Manager for the Athens 2004 Olympics).

Athens MarathonThat evening in the Hotel Attalos we turned on the TV to CNN. "Here it is" I called out to Andrea, watching the African runner leading the pack. But what were these skyscrapers? This isn't Athens. It's New York City! Once again Athens has been overshadowed by the west. As the first few runners crossed the finish line with exhausted but happy expressions I thought of my heroes of THE Marathon. They had the same expressions though they had finished in the bottom two thousand instead of the first ten. But this was not a race through the five boroughs of a relatively flat New York. They had run the same route the ancient runner had taken to tell the Athenians of the miracle victory when defeat would have changed history. From the ancient battlefield and over Mount Pendeli to the broad avenues of modern Athens it was like a race through history.
They had run in THE MARATHON.

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