Monday, September 20, 2010

40 days until Athens!!

Day 1, Lesson 1: History of the Marathon

Among all the Olympic sport events, the Marathon Race stands out as it was born by a true historic and heroic event.

It was a true triumph accomplished by a news-bearing foot soldier from ancient Athens, who announced - with his last words - the victory of the Greeks against the Persians during the Marathon Battle in 490 BC.

The 42,195m Marathon Race became one of the most competitive events during the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896. A Greek athlete named Spyros Louis, running what has ever since been referred to as the Original Marathon Course from the ancient city of Marathon to the Panathinaikon Stadium in Athens, won the gold medal of the first modern Olympic Games and became a legend of Greek and International Athletics. The Marathon Race has always had a prominent place in the hearts and minds of sports enthusiasts, as it represents the highest effort where the human body, soul and mind are tested to their limits as the runner presses himself/herself to reach the finish line.

SEGAS, the Hellenic Athletics Federation, has the honour and the historic responsibility to organize annually the Athens Classic Marathon on the Original Marathon Course. Since 1982, the Athens Classic Marathon has been dedicated to Gregoris Lambrakis, the athlete, scientist and Member of Parliament, who was murdered in the 60s and, by his death, became a symbol of Human Rights.

Thousands of runners from all over the world are expected to participate in this year's race. Apart from the sporting experience, they will have the chance to enjoy the traditional Greek hospitality, discover the fascinating landscape of our country and explore a city which is constantly improving its standards.

2500th anniversary of the Legend of Marathon

Every time someone runs a marathon, they metaphorically retrace steps taken during one of the most momentous events in world history, the Battle of Marathon in 490BCE. A few thousand Athenian and Plataean soldiers, led by the warrior Miltiades destroyed a huge force of invading Persians on the plain of Marathon, a victory widely acknowledged to have ensured the democratic legacy of Western culture.

The significance of the Hellenic victory has not gone underestimated, either then or now. The poet and dramatist Aeschylus fought at Marathon (his brother was one of the 192 dead, compared to thousands of Persians). But when Aeschylus died, not one word of his literary achievements made it onto his tombstone, only the fact that he had fought at Marathon.

Similarly, though every schoolchild in the UK knows how the Battle of Hastings in 1066 altered the course of British history and culture, the celebrated 18th century philosopher and political theorist John Stuart Mill maintained that, in the grand scheme of things, ‘Marathon’ was a far more important event to Britons than ‘Hastings’.

However, the tale that most people know about events in 490BCE is that a messenger named Phillipides or Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory, then collapsed and died. Out of that legend, the marathon race was born.

But the original legend, whose first report was 600 years after the battle (thus highly questionable) was that the messenger first went to Sparta to ask for help, was rebuffed, and ran back to Marathon, before going to Athens to announce victory. Dying after a trek like that made far more sense, since the round trip, across impossibly rough, hilly terrain (and no tarmac roads 2500 years ago) is around 500 kilometres, and he did it allegedly in two or three days.

Which is why every long distance runner in the world should want to run from Marathon to Athens at least once.

And if you haven’t done it yet, or even if you have, then next year is the year. For 2010 is the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon. And the organisers of the Athens Classic Marathon, on October 31, 2010 are preparing for another invasion, but a friendly one this time.

The race has had a chequered history since effectively being launched with, not the inaugural modern Olympic race, but with a trial race on the same course a few weeks before, in spring of 1896. But while the Boston AA launched their own race the following year, and have staged it in one form or another (a relay during wartime) for a century and a dozen years since then, Athens has had a history of hiccups, ie on and off, and on again. At one time, there were two a year, one in Spring, the other in Autumn. But in its latest incarnation, next year will be the 28th edition of the Athens Classic Marathon.

The elite race has been relatively low-key until recent years, getting a pre-Olympic boost in 2000 by sponsorship from Alpha Bank, who still remain principal sponsor nine years later. But overall marathon numbers have stayed relatively small, due partly to restricted space at the start area in Marathon, and for reasons of safety at the marble Panathinaiko stadium, built for 1896, in Athens.

There were around 3,600 finishers in 2009. But a provisional limit of 10,000 (roughly the same as the Hellenic army in 490BCE) has been mooted for 2010 with a possibility of up to 13,500.

If you’ve not run the course, be warned, it’s one of the most difficult of the modern popular marathons. After a relatively flat first 10k, which takes runners on a detour around the tumulus (burial ground) of the Athenian dead - the Parthians have their own burial ground - the course rises until around 32k.

So half the race is uphill. But then the last part is downhill all the way.

Bit like life, really.

This and more info is available on the race website.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Gran Fondo

Gran Fondo. Translation: Big Folly? Perhaps. Big Ride? More accurately.

My friend Renea has reccently gotten me into road biking, and as I have to take everything up a notch, I decided that we should do something spectacular with it. Now, she rides in foreign countries and does 100 mile weekend rides, and plans on riding the Continental Divide this summer, so I knew I would have to find something amazing to impress her. My solution was the 2nd annual Gran Fondo here in San Diego.  Gran Fondos are long distance, mass-participation cycling events – not races – that have become immensely popular in Italy. There were 3 events to participate in...32, 53, and 100 miles and I of course suggest 100 miles. Renea, slightly more practical than I, suggests 53 miles as we've only done one ride together  (an my only ride on a non-beach cruiser or foldable bike in the last 6 years) and it was only for 36 miles. (Only.)

How was I to know we here in SD would have the wettest winter in years and that the day of the race, it would pour? As I left my house at 5:30 (on a Sunday no less) and headed to Renea's I tried to tell myself that the deluge of rain (that we've had for the past 2 days) would soon in. Instead in continued. Thankfully, Renea had brought rain pants (MC Hammer style on me) and an extra jacket. As we parked and rode the mile to the start line, we started to second guess ourselves. Then it started raining harder and we decided we were possibly totally insane. While we waited for the start, and joined other riders hiding in the awnings that lined the streets our helmets dripped with water we stared at each other definitley thinking the same thing, "What the HELL are we doing here?"

It took about 30 minutes for our wave of riders to start - there were some thousand or so idiots/zealots with us, and then we were off for our 53 miles of fun and adventure. It poured, with intermittent misting for the next 5 hours. We managed to go unscathed for about 49 miles around the San Diego county area ...that was until my tire tweaked in a train track and I got thrown off my bike. Again I had to thank Renea for the pants and jacket as I think that is what helped me keep most of my skin as I bounced then slid across the pavement. Undaunted (or slightly daunted perhaps) I got some help back onto my bike and we finished the last 4 miles of the race, crossing the finish line together and smiliing despite the pain, wetness, cold, and hunger and proudly held our metals up for a photo.

Now that I am again dry, warm, and not on my butt, I can say that I feel quite accomplished. Despite the banged up right side of my body and sore booty I just want to say, "How did you spend your Sunday?" :)