October has been a month of marathon contrast for me. In early October, I experienced one of the most enjoyable and relatively easy marathons in Chicago followed three weeks later by the hardest marathon I have ever run in Athens, Greece. It seems only fitting that my hardest marathon would be run on the original marathon course where the sole participant died after completing the distance.
Running the Athens Marathon was truly a great life experience but in many unexpected ways. As a refresher, I ran this marathon as part of the 2010 World Military Marathon Championships. Each year, these games are hosted by a different country with member countries sending their best active-duty military marathoners to compete. The USA uses the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) as the competition from which to pick its team, and I won the military competition at MCM in 2009 earning my spot on the team headed to Greece.
Every military event is steeped in tradition, military ceremony and lots of time spent mustering. We were housed at a military installation near the town of Marathon, and the accommodations were fine--much better than the barracks we stayed in Belgrade, Serbia for the 2009 Marathon Championship race. This one had its resident pack of stray dogs and cats, a common theme throughout the city, supposedly the result of a government official firing all of the dog catchers in Athens decades ago. This led to the release of all captive animals, precipitated a breeding frenzy and ensuing population explosion. Our military “resort” was right on the water and, aside from overgrown weeds and trash scattered about, it was perfectly livable.
|Me and my buddy Joanie.|
The opening ceremony for the 43rd military marathon games brought a particularly wonderful surprise for me. As we were standing in formation, listening to the Master of Ceremonies ramble in Greek about something unintelligible but very important, I heard the name, “Joan Benoit Samuelson”. My ears perked up, and I craned my neck to get a better look. Sure enough, Joanie was walking hand in hand with some other woman carrying the Olympic flame up the stairs and lit a larger torch in the stadium. Her escort was Constantina Tomescu-Dita, the most recent female Olympic marathon gold medalist. So, the race organizers decided to bracket the short span of time that women have competed in the Olympic marathon event by having the first and last Olympic gold medalists light the torch for our military ceremony. Holy crap. I was beaming like a star-struck kid and immediately began plotting my plan of attack for the perfect photo opportunity.
It turns out that getting my picture taken with Joanie was a piece of cake. I armed one of my teammates with my camera and approached Joanie with a big smile and outstretched hand, kindly reminding her that I had run with her for a short time in Chicago. She, of course didn’t remember me and probably thought I was somebody that she had passed along the way. She told me that she was also running the Athens Marathon, but this one was for fun. She had also run (at least) one 10k and half marathon since Chicago, so I felt like a serious slacker having only run one marathon in the last three weeks. I couldn’t stop smiling all day thinking about this crazy encounter as I stared at the picture of me and Joanie locked safely inside my iPhone.
|The course elevation profile.|
I knew this course was going to be a bitch, and I was mentally prepared for it. According to Wikipedia, it is one of the most difficult major marathon races in the world. The Marathon Start Venue was the actual start of Pheidippides historic run. The course was pretty much a straight shot all the way into Athens from there. It is marked with a faded, solid-blue line that snakes along the roads leading from Marathon to Athens. This is actually a pretty cool thing, because you can simply run on the blue line all the way into Athens and be assured that you’re running pretty close to the 42.1 km distance as measured.
What the course lacked in turns it made up for in hills, both up and down. I knew this was coming, having downloaded the course elevation profile from the web months earlier. I was actually less worried about the 10-12 miles of constant uphill in the profile compared to the 6-8 miles of unrelenting downhill, with 6 of those miles at the end.
I was mostly concerned about this in the week leading up to the race after an overzealous long run the Saturday before the race left my left IT band sore and me limping. I rolled out my muscles and stretched with feverish dedication, but could not seem to loosen up this tightly-wound band of connective tissue. Every run I did last week, though they were all slow and short, aggravated this new niggle.
I am typically a nervous nelly when it comes to niggles, always conservatively fearing the worst and doing everything possible to keep the niggle from leading to full-blown injury. This one left me especially worried. It got better with rest, but flared up with running. I knew exactly why it had happened, what I did wrong and couldn’t do a damned thing to make it heal faster. Even the day before the race, when I ran a 20 minute shake out, I could feel the tightness around my knee. I tossed and turned all night on the race’s eve worrying that I would not be able to finish due to either catastrophic body failure or not being able to tolerate the pain that was sure to set in at some point in the race.
This was absolutely uncharted territory for me. I typically shake my head with a “tisk, tisk” when I hear of other runners that run races when they clearly have an injury or at least the makings of one. I have always prided myself in not being that runner. I think I better understand the type of thing that might motivate a runner to do something so foolish. An all-expenses paid trip to a world championship race commemorating the 2500 anniversary of the original Marathon being held in Athens, Greece could be one of those things.
I’m pretty sure that the US military running uniform stylist drove a Delorean to the 1980s to procure our racing outfits. I expected to have something vaguely rockin‘ and comfortable to run in and was stunned to see the skin-tight Brooks shimmel top and ultra-long, matching 1980’s-style basketball shorts that went with it. I am honestly most surprised that Brooks makes those shorts and labels them as running attire. That’s why I believe Michael J. Fox had something to do with this outfit. My female teammates were much smarter than me and wore alternate bottoms with their uniforms. Had I looked at myself in a mirror or just felt the material of these shorts after they got wet with sweat prior to race day, I would have done the same.
Decked out in my basketball uniform, I lined up at the start with my teammates along with runners from around the globe, readying ourselves for battle with each other and this ancient course. My team did a little motivational huddle and, with the first gun for the elite athletes, we were off. I ran with two of my teammates for the first few kilometers, and held a nice even 6:30 pace. I had absolutely no race plan, no goal time, nothing. My only goal for this race was to try to place as well as I could in the military competition but to do so without literally breaking. I was running completely by feel.
Stray dogs paced us for these first few kilometers but quickly had race officials on their tails trying to chase them off the course. We passed a few small towns and circled out into a lollipop-shaped, 2 km course add-on that extended the original 25-mile course into the modern 26.22. As I entered the lollipop, I watched as the lead pack of men exited, and they were moving.
|Grabbing some water and on my way to 1982 to shoot some hoops.|
(Thanks to Pano K for the photo)
I was concentrating on staying loose and breathing easy. Mostly, I was trying not to think about my leg pain. Within the first 4-5 km, one of my teammates who was running along side me asked me how my leg felt. I was very irritated with this question, though I knew she was asking out of concern for me and for our team in case I wouldn’t be able to finish. I shot back a curt, “fine,” but also said ”I was trying not to think about it.” She told me she would only ask me once. I already had a nagging ache in my left knee and did not want to be reminded of it. I needed distraction.
Relief and distraction came as we started into the uphill section of the course a little after the 10 km mark. The uphills actually relieved the pain in my knee. I felt surprisingly strong on these hills and was quite happy to see that they were not the steep, steady uphill experience that I expected. They would go up for 1-2 km and then become less steep or even flatten out for a short bit, then head up again. I passed a lot of people on those uphills and was actually quite surprised when they ended just after the 30 km mark. I had in my head that I needed to make it through 32 km before the downhill started.
I would find out after the race that runners unanimously struggled with the uphills and thought they were brutal. I was just the opposite. I felt the best on the uphill portion of the race. I’m pretty sure this was because I was mentally prepared for worse than they were, I ran them by feel and refused to look at my Garmin or my kilometer splits while climbing. I also think that the massive amounts of uphill training Coach Nicole had me doing for the last 3 years paid off in spades on this course. Thank you, Nicole, for making me a strong hill runner--something I once dreaded most of all in races.
I mostly focused on hitting one km marker at a time and getting fluids and gu in my body. It was a warm day with a 19 degree C start, but I think it cooled a bit as we headed into Athens. I was not at all worried about the heat after my experience in Chicago.
For most of this race, I was in no-man’s land, rarely pacing with other runners. I did find a somewhat offensive use for the European male runners on the course. Early on in the race while briefly drafting off of a pack of sweaty, undeodorized Euro-runners, I discovered an alternative to smelling salts. My eyes watered slightly as the powerful essence of runner BO entered my nasal passages. It did perk me right up, while simultaneously making me throw up a little in my mouth. I thought this strategy of drafting off of smelly men might come in handy (ala Constantina Tomescu-Dita in the late stages of the 2008 Olympic Marathon) as a sort of smelling salt effect. I tucked that little brain child into the back pocket of my extra long and baggy shorts for use later on in the race.
As soon as I summited the last hill and started the downhill, I knew I was in trouble. My left knee and calf were absolutely screaming. I mean, on fire. I was in pain with every step until my leg finally became numb and rubbery. I started to feel concerning tightness cramp my left calf. I breathed into the tightness with hopes of averting a race-ending event. By this point in the race, I knew this was the terrain I had to battle for another 6 miles, so I better just suck it the hell up and press on with pride. The supportive, calamitous crowds along the course saved me in the last 10 km. I absorbed their energy and kept going. I needed the distraction of the little kids standing on the streets with their hands out waiting for someone to slap them. I slapped every hand I passed. I waved and pumped my fist as the crowd cheered me on to my own personal victory in Athens.
I could not believe the support for me in my USA-emblazoned uniform on this course. In the Belgrade Marathon in 2009, my Team USA outfit was met with calls from the crowd that “USA (pronounced oo-sah) sucks” and “Bush sucks.” In Greece, I was a superstar. Chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”, “Bravo oo-sah or (yoo-sah)”, “Bravo Bella”, and “Bravo America” were yelled from almost every crowd lining the streets. The crowds were unexpectedly big and loud in numerous locations along the course, increasing in volume and intensity as we entered the city of Athens. I was so proud to represent my country running in this race as I heard these cheers over and over.
Around the 36-37 km mark, I looked ahead and saw another female runner. This gave me something to focus on since I hadn’t seen another female runner in the last 25 km or so. I was now starting to hammer the hills. I was running most of my km splits in the 6:20-6:30 range and I was gaining on this gal. As I got closer to her, I noticed it was one of my teammates and my heart sank. That was not the person I wanted to see coming back to me. I was now really concerned since she is a super strong runner (2-time Olympic Trials Qualifier) and the strongest runner on our team. It took me a couple of clicks to catch up to her, but I passed her quickly and told her that she looked good and strong. I knew that, if I were in her shoes, I wouldn’t want someone to linger and dote on me. It’s your own personal struggle at that point and you need to focus on staying in the game.
I picked up the pace even more as the crowds cheered me along toward the finish. I watched km markers 38 then 39 pass and knew that I was going to at least surpass Pheidippides‘ run once I passed the 40 km marker. I was so focused on keeping my legs moving and not letting the rubber chicken feeling get the best of me. I wanted to finish. I wanted that finishers‘ medal. I wanted to turn in a strong performance for the USA. With 2 km to go, I knew I would finish, even if I was reduced to walking. I also knew that, if I stopped running, I would not start up again. I was afraid I might collapse at the finish line. I kept pounding down the hills, around the corner, and then, finally, into the entrance of the Panathenaic Stadium, a structure first built in the 3rd century BC and most recently restored for the 1896 Olympic Games. I entered the stadium and the crowd roared. I had a wall of male runners between me and that finish line. I kicked it into a gear that I had no idea I could find in the last 100m of a marathon and passed the guys standing still. The crowd loved my sprint finish, and I truly felt like a hero crossing the line in 2:58:46. I stopped running and braced for collapse. It didn’t come. I gave a little “thank you” to my legs as they walked me away from the finish line in one piece. I had survived my Battle with The Marathon.
|What was Brooks thinking with this combo?|
I was ushered off to the left immediately and sent into a cave. It was literally this steep, marble encased tunnel that I imagined saw ancient athletes grace its walkway before and after ancient Athenian games. I felt it was a cruel challenge for marathoners to have to climb following the race, but I was relieved to reach the top, have someone unlace my shoe to remove my timing chip and get my sweet finishers‘ medal. Soon, the rest of my team joined me, all of them having run strong races and achieved excellent times. We met up with our USA mens' team and found out they had both run under 2:30 on that course. We enjoyed chattering on about how tough the course and race had been.
|Majors Potter and Marty in the Panathenaic Stadium with a view of the Acropolis between our shoulders.|
Joanie ended up finishing the race in 3:05 or there abouts. She ran in to the finish with one of my teammates and raised her arm up in the air as they cruised along the track in the stadium to a roaring crowd. This was a thrill for my teammate, Sue.
And the Gold Medal Goes To...
The closing ceremonies for the 43rd Military Marathon Championship race were held on Monday evening back at our base station in Nea Makri. For the third world championship marathon in a row, the American Women's Team took the gold medal. This is an especially gratifying and moving achievement in that only the team awards are given out at the event and the winning team's national anthem is played. We stood atop our podium (all three of us on a very small step) and saluted as the Star-Spangled Banner played. I have to admit to a few tears rolling down my cheeks as I breathed
|The 2010, gold-medal winning US Military Marathon Team.|
in the fresh marine air and the significance of this moment. While I had sacrificed my legs in this event to lead the team to victory, that moment made it all worthwhile.
In case you think that this competition was full of military slackers, the men's competition was even more fierce. The winning team from Poland had a combined time of 6:48. That's right, 6:48 for three team members, which equals a 2:16 average pace. Their lead runner was in his 40s and ran a 2:15. The next fastest military mens' team had a paltry 2:20 average. Crazy fast.
The Day After...
I could hardly walk without excruciating pain. The good news is that pretty much everyone else was in the same boat. The bad news was that Monday was our "cultural day" and we would be walking, mostly limping around the city looking at the fantastic ruins in the middle of the city of Athens. I am now on the beautiful, remote island of Santorini enjoying some run-free relaxation. I have a few weeks of healing to do before I start back into my training. In the mean time, I plan to fill my gut with good Greek food, drink lots of wine and get fat on life, enjoying the memories of this fantastic adventure.
|Me and The Genius at the Acropolis.|
Congratulations to all of the brave participants of the Athens Classic Marathon. Special thanks to the organizers of the Athens Marathon for a fantastic event and the Conseil International du Sport Militaire (CISM) and our Greek hosts for creating a truly extraordinary experience.