Athens Marathon. The Authentic runner’s adventure

By Sinead Boshof (RSA)

 

A stadium of champions. An atmosphere rich with history and celebration. The Panathenaic Stadium marks the ending of the legendary Athens Authentic Marathon. This was the first ever modern-day Olympic marathon won by Spyros Louis in 1896. In 2019 I had the opportunity to run this gruelling race as a young woman who had run a marathon for the first time ever that same year. I will never forget it. This was my attempt at my third marathon and the experience of running this iconic race was truly an exciting and challenging journey backtracking through history and time.

 

The marathon festivities, which build up to race day, start off with a theatrical re-enactment of the Battle of Marathon. The battle took place between the Athenians and the Persians in 490 B.C. The performance featured men dressed up in tan cloth armour and women in beautiful flowing Greek dresses wearing characteristic golden Grecian wreaths in their hair. The route run by the legendary soldier Pheidippides is from the town of Marathon to Athens and was undertaken in order to deliver the news of the Persians’ defeat by the Athenians. Little did this Athenian soldier know that his footprints were to be forever etched in history - paving the way for thousands more, including me. It is this legend that inspired the marathon as it is known today.

 

As we watched, the sound of the horn filled the atmosphere signifying the commencement of the battle. It was as if the horn carried one back through the ages, the distant past reaching forward through the centuries to grip us in the present. The drums grew louder, building on the palpable atmosphere of suspense amongst the audience at witnessing the divinely orchestrated rhythm of movement as spear and shield clashed and struck against each other. Finally, the battle came to an end with the lighting of the torch flame. The torch is then transported to the starting point where it is placed for all to see as we began our personal marathon journeys.

 

One daring foot in front of the other - that is how the greatest adventures begin. That is how mine began as I made my way across the Greek landscape. We ran between towns along roads framed by browned and barren landscapes, along the empty roads of Greece overlooking the distant blue ocean and past church-lined city streets, following in the footsteps of the Athenian soldier. One of the unique attributes of this race are the permanent sign boards at each kilometre mark. These display the words ‘Athens Classic Marathon Course’ along with the Greek translation and the AIMS emblem and remain standing all year long. Their permanence reflects the deep sentiment and pride of the Greek people for their rich and enigmatic heritage.

 

The word that comes to mind when thinking back on this race is vibrant. As we determined to overcome the challenging uphill route the Athens Marathon is known for, the cries of encouragement from the crowd lining the side-lines cheered us on. Adding to the sense of celebration in the air, the steady beats and rhythms of folk songs and traditional Greek dances echoed as groups of men and women putting on lively performances and dressed in traditional outfits filled the street. It reflected a joyful celebration of humanity’s will and determination.

 

The route poses a mental and physical challenge: it is basically uphill until about 32km. Yet despite the challenge the suburbs, interesting buildings and an array of skilfully crafted sculptures passed by ensured that it was not a boring one. One particular sculpture stands out in my mind - three individuals poised upon a platform, frozen in a mid-running position: a striking blend of gold, charcoal and green marble.

 

Then, finally - the moment of celebration. There’s nothing quite like a finish line. When you think of running, ‘team sport’ is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind. It can only be described as an individual sport - yet the spirit of running spans far beyond the individual. The best place to get a taste of this is within a race setting amongst the excitement and adrenaline of other runners with a common goal. You will not be disappointed. With the finish line beckoning I found myself walking for most of the last 11km as fatigue set in. I bargained with myself that I would begin running again at the 1km mark before the finish line.

 

As I desperately powered through to get to the end, two Frenchmen who were coming up behind me began calling out to keep going. They spurred me on to pick up my pace alongside them and keep running; we were almost there. As we passed others they encouraged them as well and soon we were a group of strangers running alongside one another, drawing strength from each other. The apparent stubborn resolve of these two lively men could not help but rub off on us.

 

Witnessing the finish line surrounded by the ancient remnants of the Panathenaic stadium and sharing that with kindred souls long passed into legend was an invigorating feeling. And there it was; the torch flame burning brightly and marking the victorious end to our journey. What made the experience even richer was literally running into some fellow South Africans as I crossed the finish line. All four of us women stood together for a photo proudly showcasing – again literally - our country’s flag which was strewn across their running attire. I assured them I would be better prepared next time in sporting our country’s flag.

 

In getting the opportunity to attend the AIMS Awards Gala as part of my time spent in Greece, there was a particular quote featured in the welcoming film that resonated and has stuck with me since then. I am encouraging you to go and see for yourself the truth contained in it:

‘If you are losing faith in human nature; go out and watch a marathon.’

 

Actually, I’d like to challenge you a step further – go out and run a marathon.