Illustrations by João Fazenda
“No human is limited,” said the great Kenyan distance runner Eliud Kipchoge after he became the first person in recorded history to run 26.2 miles in under two hours last October. But as my Uber wound through the arid mountains outside Athens, ferrying me to the start of my own marathon—the original marathon, the one that started in the town of Marathonas—I felt, in a word, limited.
This was last July, two days after a friend’s wedding on Santorini, a cliffside ceremony that was essentially a seven-hour wine tasting with vows at the beginning and ouzo at the end. Shots of the anise liquor were set on the stone dance floor, and we were commanded to drink them without the use of our hands, each of us squatting to pick up a glass in our teeth as old Greek men chanted and someone played “Uptown Funk” on a lyre.
When I first told my Hemispheres colleagues about this Greek wedding, they issued a challenge: Since I was training for my second New York City Marathon (very impressive), why not practice on the original marathon course? You know, the route the messenger Pheidippides ran from Marathonas to Athens in 490 BCE to proclaim the defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. The course that was revived, in slightly altered form, for the first modern Olympics, in Athens in 1896, and again for the 2004 Summer Olympics. The course of the annual Athens Marathon, which we were now driving in reverse. The course that was now also Greek National Road 83.
Vanity on the Line
I had imagined a bucolic lane lined with cypress trees, olive groves off in the distance, a shepherd doffing his cap to me as I sped past. Not so. This was the New Jersey Turnpike of Greece, a highway lined with strip malls and gas stations and very little shoulder, a road that was taken up, this afternoon, by a lot of diesel trucks and, to my eye, exactly zero runners. It traversed an actual mountain, making it, according to the New York Times article I was only now reading on my phone, “one of the more difficult marathon courses in the world.”
Most troubling was something that in retrospect feels very obvious: They close the highway for the Athens Marathon. Would it even be possible to run the route with traffic? Maybe not, but it seemed too late to back out now. I watched what looked like a military convoy of Mercedes-Benz semis roar past us. “This will be pretty difficult!” I said to my driver, Gramos, even though I was pretty sure he didn’t speak English. He looked at me in the rearview mirror and smiled.
I had said yes to the challenge because how could I say no? I was a runner. I was a writer. And I say yes to everything, especially when my vanity is on the line. But I didn’t really think about what this would all mean—logistically, cardiovascularly until that morning, when I tried to figure out how to get from my Airbnb in Athens, about a mile south of the Parthenon, to Marathonas. I had half-heartedly planned to do it in the morning, but by the time I woke up, around 10 (still sweating white wine), it was already 80 degrees. It was July 1, and a heat wave was sweeping across Europe—just another headline until it’s the morning of your solo marathon. I decided to wait until the evening.
Meatballs at Noon
So I set off in search of a hearty breakfast and the best running store in Athens. I planned to buy a Gatorade, a Nike arm sleeve for my iPhone, and a pack of gels, those electrolyte-replenishing shots you’re supposed to take every 40 minutes or so to stave off the inevitable bonking. But it turned out there are no specialty running stores in Athens, at least none that I could find, and no one I talked to even knew what a gel was. Fair enough. But even Gatorade left people scratching their heads.
As for a healthy pre-race meal, I found myself eating spaghetti with lamb meatballs at noon with a group of seemingly unemployed 30-something men in vintage tracksuits who found it somewhere between funny and worrying that I was trying to run the original marathon. They had never heard of someone attempting such a thing.
It was then that I began to suspect that Greeks, broadly speaking, feel no real pride about having given birth to the world’s most iconic footrace, none of the ownership that the English have for soccer or the Scottish for golf. These men weren’t even sure about how to get to Marathonas on public transportation. Plans for a train had been stalled. A bus seemed to exist, although the route and schedule proved elusive online. As for a healthy snack, they directed me to a corner store, where I bought something resembling cashew brittle and a 12-ounce bottle of water.
Thus fortified, I went back to my Airbnb and put on my purple singlet, my black short shorts, my fancy running socks, my Garmin smartwatch, and my freakishly springy Nike Vaporflys, racing shoes that have become de rigueur for any marathoner willing to burn his paycheck to feed an obsession with marginal gains (about two out of every three marathoners, in my very unscientific estimation). I hoped the 4 percent improvement they promised over the next fastest shoe on the market would offset in some small way the massive hole I’d dug with my lack of preparation.
And, with that, I hailed an Uber to Marathonas. Forty-two euros: not terrible. It was 5:03 p.m. My two-day hangover was subsiding. The meatballs were digesting. The temperature had dropped to the high 70s, and it was not terribly humid. As we left the stretch of strip malls immediately outside Athens and came into the countryside, I felt my first flash of optimism. My challenge, I felt, was roughly equal to Pheidippides’s. I just hoped that, unlike the Greek, I would live to write the story.
Flags in the Wind
We arrived in Marathonas at 6:05 p.m. It was dusty and desolate, like a de Chirico painting. There was a marathon museum with flags of many nations fluttering outside, but it had closed at 3. I went into an internet café to charge my phone. There were a few dogs in the street, a few old men in plastic chairs on the sidewalk looking at me, an American in short shorts asking if anyone knew where the starting line for the marathon was. No one did.
I wandered down the road and across a bridge to an abandoned soccer stadium that seemed weirdly large for a town with a population of 7,100. More flags fluttered in the wind. I looked at a giant plinth with stairs to the top for at least a minute before I realized what it was: the 2004 Olympic torch. I took a photo and then began to shuffle down a chalky white road lined with trees, past a statue of Pheidippides, and onto Leoforos Marathonos Way, also known as Greek National Road 83. I poured half the bottle of water over my head and started my Garmin. My marathon was underway.
The first stretch of road was smooth and straight, and I felt relaxed. There was even a footpath with each kilometer marked out. (My mind works only in miles, and I had my Garmin to do that anyway, but still, the signposting was reassuring.) A few bushes protruded into the path, but the purple bougainvillea was so beautiful that I forgave the intrusion. The first miles passed smoothly, my splits 7:16, 7:09, 7:06. Maybe I had over-thought things in the Uber. If I kept the pace right there, never pressing the accelerator, I would be fine, wouldn’t I?
The previous November I’d run the New York City Marathon in 2:42, an average of 6:11 per mile. Aiming for a minute slower per mile today gave me a lot of leeway. I would be fine. I thought back to that race, soldiers leading us from our waiting area to the starting line, on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, Mayor de Blasio waiting for us. It was, he said, the greatest day of the year for the greatest city on earth. Then a cannon was fired, and the strains of Sinatra’s “Theme from New York, New York” led us across the bridge, the island of Manhattan shimmering in the distance, as though we were encountering it for the first time.
I was so lost in this reverie that I missed a turn at about mile 3 of the Marathonas course, where it makes a detour around a memorial to the Greek soldiers who died at the Battle of Marathon. Going back felt like it would detract from my momentum, so I decided to forge onward and add a little extra distance at the end. By this point, the course was beginning a gradual climb—17 feet in mile 4, 27 in mile 5, 90 in mile 6. It was also here, around six miles in, that I came to where the sidewalk ends.
I crossed to the left shoulder of the road, so I’d be running against traffic rather than with it—common practice, at least in the U.S. But I’ve only followed this advice on neighborhood roads and the occasional rural two-lane highway. This was different. I felt as though I was racing on Toad’s Turnpike, the course in Mario Kart 64 where the cars come at you. I spent these miles jumping into the bougainvillea every time an Opel semi played chicken with me, which was every single time.
The Twilight Zone
At this point, I became certain that Greece had no national running culture—had a bear been unicycling up the median, he would have been no less out of place than I was. At mile 13, the halfway point, I stopped for a cup of water at a gas station outside the village of Pikermi, having discarded my water bottle miles ago. The attendant, a young man with a goatee, looked at me with sad eyes and muttered, “Marathonas,” shaking his head as he refilled my little cone of water.
Then I hit the road again, continuing the climb, my pace drifting into the 7:30s. By mile 18, I had reached the top of the mountain and the end of the glycogen my body was able to store and convert into energy. I stopped at a supermarket, where I was stunned to find that most coveted of all grails: a red Powerade. I chugged it on the mountaintop as I looked down on Athens, the violet evening light descending all over the city.
Descending, too, was my ability to run. My legs were scraped from all the diving into bushes, and after clutching my iPhone for the last two hours, my left hand had become a mangled claw. I’d come to the point in a marathon I call the Twilight Zone—a dimension where time and space cease to exist, where simple math becomes impossible, where charley horses commence and dreams are silently aborted. In the New York City Marathon, it comes as you pass The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the Boston Marathon, it’s at Heartbreak Hill. In Athens, the Twilight Zone arrives just as you begin to descend from the mountains into the city itself. Miles 19 through 25 are downhill, which is easier on the lungs but harder on the hamstrings. As I gingerly shuffled down to the outskirts of town, I came across a park where children played soccer and men played chess. No one acknowledged me, but I have never been so glad to see civilization.
Running in Circles
When the marathon distance—and this very course—was resurrected for the 1896 Athens Olympics, the favorites of the 17 runners were the Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux and the Australian Edwin Flack. Among the dark horses was a 23-year-old water-carrier named Spyridon Louis, a former soldier who had entered the Games only at the behest of his commanding officer, who was overseeing the marathon. As the legend goes, after running behind Lermusiaux and Flack for the first 18 miles, Louis encountered, in Pikermi, a vision he could scarcely believe: A beautiful girl he’d always pined for appeared at the roadside and fed him half an orange. Then her father, a shipping tycoon, came out of a nearby inn and offered young Louis a shot of brandy. Louis downed the shot, overtook Lermusiaux and Flack, and entered the Panathenaic Stadium to shouts of “Hellene! Hellene!”
He finished the 24.85-mile course in 2 hours 58 minutes and 50 seconds. (The marathon did not become 26.2 miles until the 1908 London Olympics, when the length of the race was adjusted so that it could start at Windsor Castle and finish in front of the royal box at a London stadium.) Instantly transformed into a national hero, Louis was offered everything from a lifetime of free barbershop shaves, which he declined, to the girl’s hand in marriage, which he accepted.
Alas, no beautiful girl materialized in the final miles of my marathon to slip an orange slice into my mouth. But the Powerade was my shot of brandy, and I rallied as I ran through the noirish streets of downtown Athens, the omnipresent alley cats the only witnesses to my gloriously resurgent final miles.
Just as I decided I might be lost, a dark avenue shot me into a city square, and there it was: the Panathenaic Stadium, the ancient marble arena refurbished as the birthplace of the modern Olympics. The 45,000 seats of white stone glowed gold under the lights, and I imagined myself as Spyridon Louis, waterboy turned marathon god, a nation’s new hero striding into the arena, the crown prince joining me on the track, flowers raining down on us, boaters being tossed in the air, a maiden’s heart aflutter, my future father-in-law nodding approvingly from the grandstand.
But the gate was locked, and my legs were too full of lactic acid to jump the fence. Unable to properly conclude my marathon with a lap on the track, I ran around in circles for a quarter mile, then expired on the stone steps. There were some kids skateboarding through the plaza, and I asked them to take my picture. “For the Instagram,” I said. They obliged, but I looked too ridiculous to post it. Parched, I drifted to a nearby street vendor’s cart, where I asked for a glass bottle of Coke. From the pocket of my running shorts I pulled a sweaty euro note, too depleted to be embarrassed. I was shaking. I needed sodium. It was just after 10 o’clock. I explained that I’d just run from Marathonas. “Forty-two kilometers,” I told him gravely.
“Marathonas,” he replied, turning the strange idea over in his mind. There was a pause. “So,” he finally said, “you are a hero? ” I took a sip of the Coke. It tasted divine. I didn’t correct him.
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL RUNNING
Many in-person marathons have been canceled this year, but that hasn’t stopped runners from pounding the pavement on their own. Those looking for a little camaraderie—and competition—would be wise to join the Rock ’n’ Roll Virtual Running Club, a new online offshoot of the popular Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series.
Normally, the series stages raucous races, complete with live bands and cheerleaders, in locations all around the world, from San Diego to Dublin. In recent months, however, the events have been converted into virtual runs, with weekly races and challenges that participants can complete on their own time and in their own city, all while charting their progress against that of other runners. The musical element is still there too, with heart-pumping playlists posted every Monday.
This fall, the virtual club invites participants to “sneaker travel” for races in cities such as Chicago, Denver, and Seattle, so that when the regular marathon series is back on, they’ll be ready to hit the ground running.