Sunday, November 16, 2014

And Athens Makes 50

I’ve been running marathons for the last ten years and with this, the grandaddy of them all, I mark the milestone of 50 races. What better way to mark the occasion than with the event that started it all, The Authentic Athens Marathon. Now all I had to do was have a better finish that the man, Pheidippides, who inaugurated this crazy obsession so many of us have.

For those who have been following my blog posts, or at least their dates of publication, you have undoubtedly noticed a significant lag in postings in 2014. This is because I have been fighting an emotional and physical battle with running this year which had me doubting myself and unwilling to document this year. In fact, I wasn’t sure this day would come as planned because of it. The year 2014 started with a sense of mortality for me, a partial injury that set back my running, put me at risk of potential season-ending surgery and dispelled a false belief I had in myself and the human body. Over the past six years or so, I had been running injury free as I slowly adjusted my body from traditional running shoes to thinner and lighter shoes as preached in the book “Born to Run.” I felt its teachings were a revelation, as I was logging longer and more frequent runs with greater love and appreciation for running. With each success, I took its teachings farther but never to the true barefoot running it spoke of so highly. I had run in Vibrams and even XeroShoes but never for longer than 6 or so miles. Beyond that made my feet hurt and I felt I needed more cushioning. Good thing because a lack of cushioning bit me in the beginning of 2014 as I learned I had slowly eroded away the natural cushioning in my knee and was risking bone-on-bone contact at this point. Make it worse, and my running career was over. 

Every athlete faces the mortality of their athletic career when they push it too hard or too far and I had hit that mark, unknowingly at the end of 2013. I was facing possible knee surgery at this point and that’s what put my Athens milestone at risk.

Eleven years ago, a coworker at Sun Microsystems and I were out for a run in Dallas, Texas, during a business trip when we got to talking about taking running beyond the warm up event to a business trip. She challenged me to take on a half marathon which I accepted in January of that next year. It nearly killed me. I finished that race with a great sense of accomplishment but vowed to train better the next time so the feeling of complete exhaustion didn’t accompany it. 

That led me in late 2003 to join Team in Training and push, not for a half marathon, but the full thing, in Anchorage, Alaska in the spring of 2004. I finished that race like many first-timers do, sore, exhausted and asking when can I do this again? I was a wreck for the next two hours but the following day was ready to take on the next challenge. This turned into a passion bordering on obsession. And that fall, when I turned 40, my great friend Stephanie suggested I make it my goal to run 50 marathons by the time I turned 50. I accepted her challenge knowing it would mean 4 to 5 marathons per year for the next ten years. A lofty goal but I love a challenge. 

Seven years later (three years early), here I was, arriving in Athens, Greece after a two-week business trip in Europe for what would be that lofty milestone. 

Athens was more than a racing milestone for me, it was also the very first place I had come for a beachfront vacation with the women who would a year later become my wife. Reesa and I had met in graduate school and both signed on for a European studies program that summer. I shyly failed to approach her with my admiration during our initial two weeks in London but got up the courage in the capital of romance, Paris. We kissed for the first time along the banks of the Seine - all too poetic - and after the program finished up in Switzerland, traveled together down the boot of Italy and across to Greece. 

Everyone knows the history of the Athens Marathon, so I won’t recite it here. It is for this reason the race serves as a key milestone for so many marathon fanatics like myself. In fact, while touring Delphi, a key historical site in Greece, I shared the bus with a man from the US East Coast who had come for his 100th marathon. 

While it is unlikely the race course is precise to the steps that Pheidippedes took that fateful day the Athenian army beat back the Phonetians, the course does run from the village of Marathon to Athens. What makes it doubly historically significant is the fact that it starts on the track in the Marathon Arena where the marathon flame is lit each year in honor of the sport and finishes on the same track where the 1896 and  2004 Olympic marathons finished. 
For me, this race was an additional milestone in my charitable work for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and its endurance racing program, Team in Training. through ten years with the society I had helped raise over $60,000 in the fight against blood cancers including a $10,000 campaign in 2010 when I ran the entire Rock n Roll Marathon Series. This year would prove especially important however, as my best friend John was hit very close to home by the disease. His young granddaughter (his first) is a beautiful young girl named Liana who just two weeks earlier Reesa and I had met for the first time. John was planning to come to Greece with me to run this historic race but called, in a panic, to let me know that he wouldn’t be able to make the trip because little Liana had been diagnosed with childhood Leukemia

What initially was a personal milestone, quickly turned into a fight for her and all children like her. I had been planning to raise funds for the LLS once again purely in honor of 50 marathons and the role TNT has played in my life but I had a higher calling now. By race day the generosity of so many of my friends, work colleagues and those in our industry had helped us raise over $17,000 in her name. This alone, I knew, would be all the strength I would need to cross that finish line.
Race day started at 6:15 in the morning in front of the Greek Parliament building in downtown Athens. We weren’t running to Marathon but boarding a bus for a half hour ride to the village. I rarely sleep well the night before a marathon but this evening was an exception, so I boarded the bus rested and ready to run. The trip gave me a preview of the course I was see later that morning which proved very fortuitous, because as the kilometers built up, I would pass a building or storefront I had recognized on that bus ride to the start.

We arrived in Marathon about 90 minutes prior to the 9am start time - European marathons tend to start at this much more civilized hour. The start was in a small track and field stadium with Greek flags lining the arena. Off in the corner, high upon a pedestal sat the official Marathon flame, burning in an Olympic-style torch pit. That was my first destination upon exiting the bus so I could get a photo with this important symbol of my favorite sport. Runners ascended the stairs to the flame in pairs so we could take each other’s photos. My partner was a German man who had lived in the US, among many other countries in his work for a large hotel chain. We chatted a while, sharing race stories, then took our pictures, admired the view and returned to the stadium.

Here I found my Team in Training colleagues. Over 70 people had chosen this event as their charitable cause for the year, including yet another runner marking a key milestone of 100 races. We chatted a bit, walked the track and prepared of the race ahead. About an hour later we descended to our corrals and awaited the starting gun. The Greek national anthem played, a prayer for runners was said and then we were off. The race took us first past a park containing a memorial to the fallen soldiers from the battle of Marathon where the Athenians had beaten back the heavily outnumbering Persian army. Presumably it was in there, because you couldn’t see it from the road. Pheidippedes, by the way, hadn’t simply observed the battle and run back to Athens with the news. He had fought in this battle and then run 26 miles. No wonder he collapsed and died (myth/reality?). Such would not be my fate today. I was taking it easy, nursing my knee and would finish, for sure, and walk away proudly.

After the loop around the tomb, we got a chance to see the lead runners who were doubling back to the main road and on towards Athens. I got to this point too late to see the lead men, but saw a pack of women runners with their names on their bibs, instead of numbers. The leaders were African with a few Europeans just behind. 

The course mostly went in a straight line to Athens from Marathon but not a flat one. The first ten kilometers when up and down through low hills before beginning a very long, slow incline that kept climbing, literally, until kilometer 31. From this point on there was nary a downhill, let alone a flat section. I knew this going in and thus prepared myself for what I thought would feel a lot like a Kauai repeat. thankfully it wasn’t nearly as hot or humid as that island day. 

There were about 13,000 marathoners in the Athens race this year, mostly Europeans, which means you heard just about every language along the course. The most common phrase heard was “Bravo” coming from the locals lining the course and between runners.
One of the most courageous runners chose to honor history, literally, as he ran in full Athenian robes with a helmet, shield and sword. I lost him at the finish so never saw if he actually logged the full 42 km in costume; and was glad I wasn’t running next to him as he wielded that sword.

Where Kauai’s climbs and heat had forced me to walk parts of the course, Greece did not. I ran the whole way, stopping only to refill my bottle a couple of times after 26 kms. It was warm, clear and, by the end, hot on race day, despite cloud cover and threats of rain the week prior. Accuweather reported, up until hours before the race, warnings of thundershowers midday on race day. It must be nice to have a job where you can be wrong 100% of the time, for it was clear as a bell from Marathon to Athens that day.
After the long slog, kilometer 31 finally came, bringing with it a level race course that slowly turned downward. We crossed under a gorgeous arched suspension bridge around kilometer 36 and in the distance you could see ancient Athens before us. I was straining from the long climb but had wisely taken the hill easier so I would have energy for these last few miles. At 32 kilometers I began self-talk saying, “just a 10k remains. You can do a 10k in your sleep.” This refrain fell to “just a 7k” and then “just a 5k” and worked its magic on my brain. 

We reached the park before the Olympic Stadium and my legs started to gain much more energy. The crowds grew thick with supporters all yelling “Bravo!” and clapping enthusiastically. As the Olympic Stadium appeared before me I immediate
ly saw flashbacks in my mind of the finish of the Olympic marathon in 2004 that finished on this course. I would be following in their footsteps. When my feet hit the soft track padding, a turbo charger kicked in and I blasted to the finish with all the remaining energy I had. 

Up to this point, I had treated this race like any other, focusing on my form, pace, strength and endurance. But after crossing this historic line the gravity of this accomplishment set in. This wasn’t just another marathon. This was my 50th. I had done it. A ten year goal accomplished. And I felt amazing.

Even better, Liana had been with me the whole time. I ran with her picture clipped to my back so she, in spirit, could experience this incredible race. When the course got tough, I thought of her and her fight against blood cancer. She wasn’t going to give up, so neither was I. My 10 year milestone can’t possibly match up to what she will accomplish in 10 years - a key milestone for cancer survivors that I’m sure she will hit. And with any luck we will eventually arrive at a day in which children like her no longer have to hear what she heard this summer. A world free of cancer is the milestone we all should strive for. 

On to the next 50! 


David Bartoletti said...

Thanks for sharing this with all of us. So proud of you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you indeed, James. This post is classic James Staten. Understated amazingness. YOU JUST RAN YOUR 50th MARATHON, DUDE! Holy cow! We are inspired by your courage, compassion, and generosity. Big congratulations on your far, far milestone. May you run on for as long as it pleases you!