Against all odds, the small city of Athens defeated the massive Persian army at the Battle of Marathon in 5th century BC. One sole Athenian ran the distance from the town of Marathon to Athens. Upon arrival, he exclaimed their victory, and dropped down dead. The distance was 26 miles, and the marathon was born.
Now centuries later, people still commemorate this test of human strength and mental will in the race we now call the “marathon”. On November 10, Athens held its annual Classic Marathon, and it was nothing short of incredible. Since my running training is pretty much non existent, I didn’t participate in the running of the race. However, I made the most of the experience by volunteering for it! That Sunday I woke up at 4:30, met the head of the marathon volunteers at 5 AM, and drove with him to the very start of the race in the modern city of Marathon. Once there, we set up “runner stations” at every 5 kilometer stop. Each station had restrooms, water tables, and lots of recycle bins for plastic cups and bottles. The whole race took place on one street, Marathon Street. As I was going down the street towards Athens setting up these stations, I passed by several busses going the opposite direction shuttling the runners to the starting line, all 11,000 of them. While the hilly terrain of the route certainly didn’t look easy for the runners, it was indeed a beautiful one, with the high mountains of Attica surrounding the horizon. We got into the city and he dropped me off at the site of the 5K race, where he left to run it and I to pass out water.
The day consisted of three races: the 5K, 10K, and the marathon (lots of Ks). By far my favorite was helping the 5K. My job was to pass out opened water bottles and Gatorade to runners as they ran by. To the inexperienced marathon volunteer as I was, I didn’t think this task would be too hard. But as experienced runners know, when you’re running and want water, there is no stopping to get it, its simply a grab and go deal. Therefore, there were many times when runners failed to grab the water out of my hand, sending water all over me and the people behind me. It was actually really amusing, and truly put my water-dodging skills to the test. The 5K was such a fun environment, filled with a mix of focused runners, determined speed walkers, families with little kids, and just plain out goofballs. My favorite experience was when a runner, all decked out in USA gear, stopped at my water station and asked, “Hey, what’s all the rush for?!” Leave it to us Americans to say that! After the last runner passed, we cleaned up, and took pictures in front of a massive Marathon runner sculpture. I have no idea what the sculpture is made of, but it was one of the most fascinating ones I have ever seen. Planted on Marathon Street, the sculpture depicts a runner dashing towards the finish line in Athens.
The next task was working the 10K: a lot more Ks, a lot more runners, and definitely a lot more water bottles to clean up! After the runners finish drinking, they throw the bottles to the side of the streets: making a sea of plastic bottles that lined up the whole block. As I was cleaning up (and dodging flying water bottles), a random lady, who was neither a running or a volunteer, came up to me and helped me pick up bottles. We got to talking and she said she was from Sparta, and told me that my name is considered to mean “happiness”. After we were done, I thanked her for helping me, and she responded in broken English saying, “No, thank you, this brings happiness to me, you brought happiness to me today.” So down to earth, she didn’t need to help me clean up thousands of dirty water bottles in the hot streets of Athens, but she did. Simply another reason why I love Greece.
Now came the time for the runners of the actual Marathon to pass by. At this point, I was stationed at the 40 kilometer station. The marathon started at 9, and the first runner flew by at 11.
Then, little by little, a sea of runners began to cross our station. Besides the volunteers, many locals came to cheer on the runners, and cheer loudly they did. Every time a runner passed by, cheers of “μπραβο παιδια! Παμε Παμε!” (Good job guys! let’s go let’s go!) filled the streets. At this point, I waited to see my own friends pass by. My friends Andrew, Will, Julie, Josh, and Cydnee all ran the race, and seeing them pass was definitely the best part of the day.
When the last of my friends passed, I ran with them for a little while for a morale boost. In that leg of the race, we were running straight to the Acropolis. How amazing the feeling must have been to be running 26 miles to finally see the acropolis as inspiration to finish the last 2 kilometers! However, most powerful was the encouragement of the Greeks. There were hundreds of them all lined up upon the last leg, all holding signs and cheering as loud as they could. The atmosphere is something I could never re-create. Both the passion I saw on every single runner’s face and the pride of every Greek onlooker inspired me. Today seemed to be sort of a holiday; every Athenian came out and supported runners both from Greece and abroad. There was a special solidarity that day among all Greeks. Although the onlookers were technically the ones giving the support to the runners, I believe the runners were the ones giving support to the crowd. The runners represented the heart and soul of Athens, and espoused the ideal that man can do anything they put their mind to. That day, I felt extremely proud to be a temporary Greek, and the race certainly reminded me that Athens has a lot of heart to offer.
Never stop running, Athens.