At some point in every marathoner’s life, they should head to the country where it all began: Greece. For it was here, in 490 BC, that the legendary Pheidippides immortalised the 26.2-mile distance.
Probably you’ve heard the story: following the Battle of Marathon, in which the Athenians defeated the Persians, the foot messenger Pheidippides was sent back to Athens to give word of their famous victory. He dutifully obliged, running 26.2 miles in the process and then promptly dropping down dead.
To complicate matters, there’s another version of the story in which Pheidippides had to run from Athens to Sparta – a journey that’s retraced on the 153-mile Spartathlon – but let’s not get into all that. The marathon started in Greece, and that’s where I headed in early November for the Athens Marathon. Granted, I wasn’t actually running the full 26.2-mile distance (the 10K option proved just too tempting) but I would, at least, finish in the same place: the spectacular Panatheniac Stadium, which hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896.
Taking the 10K option also meant I could take part in the fabulous Athens Insiders walking tour the day before, free from the fear I’d be tiring out my legs. There was plenty to see – from the Acropolis and the Parthenon to the charming cafés where Greeks sip coffees and watch the world go by. Alas, we had to keep the alcohol consumption and revelry to a minimum: there was an early start and a race to run, after all.
While the marathon runners travelled out to the city of Marathon, where their race began, the 10K brigade started in Athens town centre. The weather was delightful – a balmy 21 degrees celsius – and the atmosphere fun and friendly. Having scanned the course profile the previous day, I’d seen that it’s essentially uphill for the first 5K and downhill for second 5K, which is certainly preferable to the other way round.
Support was impressive in number and loud in volume as we ticked off the early kilometres, heading up the wide closed roads. I wouldn’t normally take on any water during a 10K, but made the most of the water stops here due to the warm weather. To my left, the stunning Lycabettus Hill loomed large. Thankfully we didn’t have to run up it, the route instead continuing straight on past the prestigious Athens Music Hall.
I’d been waiting for the 5K sign for some time, hoping that with it the course would begin to head downhill. When it arrived, I began to pick off a few runners who had set off slightly too fast. Did I take any pleasure in this? Absolutely not, none at all.
The spectacular stadium finish was now only a couple of kilometres away and, with the support thickening, I made one final push for a sub-40-minute time. If any arena can inspire a sprint finish, it is surely the Panatheniac Stadium, the world’s largest all-marble structure, which has been standing for almost 2,000 years. I crossed the finish line, exhausted, in 39:08.
Meanwhile, the real Greece lightning could be found at the front end of the marathon, where Kenya’s Samuel Kalalei raced away from the field to finish in 2:12:17. The first Greek home was Konstantinos Gkelaouzos in 2:27:21, roared home by the thousands of fans inside the Panatheniac Stadium.
It was a great spectacle and a reminder that, more than 2,500 years since Pheidippides ran home to tell the Athenians about their famous victory, Greek marathon running is still very much alive and well.
So you want to run the Athens Marathon?
How to get there: Runner’s World flew on Aegean Airlines, which flies direct from London to Athens three times a day.
Where to stay: Crowne Plaza Athens City Centre provides a great base from which to explore the city and provides a great buffet-style breakfast.
See the sights: Athens Insiders offer tailor-made tours, showing you Athens in a new and exciting light.
Enter the race: For more information and to enter the Athens Marathon or 10K, visit their website here.