We wake up early – marathon runners must be downstairs at 6:30 for their ride to the starting point. At this hour, Athens is silent – but soon Greeks and visitors will line the race paths, and fill the Kallimarmaro (“beautifully marbled” – the nickname Athenians give the Panathenaiko). Runners for all races – even the childrens’ race – finish in the stadium, turning in from the street and running the length of one side to cross the finish line just before the far curve.
As we get ready to go downstairs, I remind Bernie to enjoy the Moment when he enters the stadium – he is doing something epic, running in the footsteps of Pheidippides, and into the ancient stadium. He looks at me a little oddly – but it could just be pre-race jitters. He gets them every time… We tuck his gear-check bag in his jacket pocket in case he decides he doesn’t need the jacket for the run – but he is skeptical. It is cold, and was raining overnight.
Only the marathoners are downstairs so early – and a few well-wishers like Margy and myself, seeing their runners off. We spend most of our time wishing runners well, and being supportive to the runners who are now a part of ‘our’ marathon family. One of our group’s runners has forgotten her water bottle; the bus waits so long for her that the roads have already closed when they set out. A brief debate with the policeman blocking the way (a passenger translates: “I have 50 tourists to run the marathon!”) results in a police escort to ensure they are not blocked again.
The runners start out in a stadium in Marathon, commonly used for local sports. Today it is packed full of runners – over 10,000 of them – who have come to touch history. The monument at the stadium honors Hermes – the fleet-footed god of messengers.
At the start of the race a small stele is inscribed “40” – the original modern marathon was 40 km long. In the early 1900s, the distance was increased by 2 km to allow the British royal family to watch the race from their balcony at the London Olympics. It is still traditional among marathoners, at the 25 mi (40k) mark, to shout “God Save the Queen,’ then run the additional distance.
After the annual lighting of the Marathon Flame, the runners will follow a blue stripe painted on the roadway from here all the way to Athens – but before taking to the open route, they will run a circle around a small and visually unremarkable hillock: the mass grave of the 192 Athenian soldiers who died at Marathon. Their pyre was built at the site where the battle was thickest (basically, where the greatest number of fallen were already located and didn’t have to be moved there), and their ashes and the remains of their funerary feast were heaped together and covered over with earth – the soil they had defended from the Persians – to form a sacred hill. The runners honor the Athenians by circling the hill before turning from the ancient battlefield toward the hills that surround the city.
The race starts at 9, so our marathoners are out of sight until at least noon. Bernie is in the 4th starting wave. Margy and I are alone in the hotel restaurant; marathoners are gone, shorter-distance runners are not yet downstairs. We have a cup of tea, finish getting ready for our race, and walk up past Hadrian’s Arch and toward Syntagma Square to our starting point.
At the starting line, we meet up with two members of our group, and make a new friend as well. She is wearing a Rock and Roll (Chicago) shirt, and we begin discussing RnR runs; she asks about my shoes and we discuss the merits and drawbacks of barefoot soles and articulated toes (my shoes have both).
The race begins and we of the third wave begin our jog up Queen Sofia avenue, to the University, back past the U. S. Embassy and – finally – into the Panathenaiko. Running and walking the straightaway to the finish line is epic – even though, this early, the stands are only half full. But after we cross, and we are walking slowly around the curve and down the length of the stadium, Greeks and visitors cheering us as though we were true marathoners, the weight of the moment settles on me.
I told my husband once that he ought not to worry when I do that inexplicable woman-crying thing – that I am shorter than the average adult, my body has limited mass, and can only hold so much emotion; when I exceed capacity, it leaks out the eyes. For a few minutes, I hover on the edge of that line. I manage not to weep – but I cannot imagine how those running the full marathon keep from doing so.
This is Margy’s first organized running or walking event. What a phenomenal experience.
We walk back to the hotel, to the luxury of hot showers and clean clothes, then make our way back to the stadium to watch for Bernie. We pick up a sandwich and something similar to a hostess cherry pie (Bernie never eats before a run – he will be starving!) and work our way into the marble stands of the Kallimarmaro to wait and watch. As we arrive, my phone buzzes – Bernie’s text tells me he is at the 36 km marker. I calculate the time, and we begin watching for him about 5 minutes before he comes into view.
He doesn’t look tired as he enters the stadium. When he crosses into the Panathenaiko, he straightens – not in that ‘second wind’ kind of way but – I can see clearly – in recognition of where he is and what he is doing.
As the thirty or forty thousand Greeks in the stands cheer him down the line, he raises his arms to them: Νενικήκαμεν!!
As Bernie exits the runners’ area, we are waiting for him. There is a policeman there doing crowd duty, and he is kind enough to allow a photograph. (Bernie always gets pictures with the local police when he travels. He displays them in the security office at the school, showing kids that police everywhere are his friends – and, by extension, are also resources for them. “Deputy Brown’s friends are your friends…”). Bernie hands the officer a department coin, explaining what it is and thanking him for the photo.
We check in with Apostolos (they track their runners, and will look for you if they don’t see you finish), and Bernie sits down to eat at the base of a statue. Bernie declares the pie to be exceptional (I assume that he meant it was ‘I just ran 26 miles’ exceptional but, in fact, he seeks them out the rest of our time in Greece). When he is done, we lead him to the gear check – he turned in his jacket at the race start after all, and the day has risen to nearly 70 degrees – then back to the hotel for a shower.
Cleaned up and with a chance to assess, Bernie declares that he is not tired at all – so we decide to wander around the city. We walk past and through ancient sites, and take some time to shop for souvenirs and have a quiet afternoon/evening, keeping close to the hotel so that we can turn homeward quickly if anyone tires out. It is a leisurely, meandering afternoon among the ancient sites and t-shirt stands, and we all have a happy time. Back down the Adrianou, we stop at a place called Erato for dinner, one of the many restaurants whose tables are strewn along the path among the tourist shops.
When we return to the hotel, I stop at the front desk and arrange a trip to the Temple of Poseidon at Sounio(n) for Monday. We thought we might do that in the morning, and the Acropolis in the afternoon – but the front desk clerk tells us that we must be at Sounion at sunset! So we reverse the plan.