Mission Accomplished: How I Survived the Athens Marathon to Fundraise for Plan UK
Apologies that it’s been a little quiet over here on my blog recently amidst a whirlwind of activity, trips and travel plans! But for those of you who don’t follow me on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram, the good news is that I survived the 2015 Athens Marathon on Sunday 8th November and I’m able to walk again!
I thought a bit of a race report was due, which is probably only of any interest to fellow runners, so I’ll try to keep it brief. For a full report take a look at Jon Collins’ blog post who is a cousin of mine and also ran the marathon.
My mother, father and sister (my most faithful supporters!) and I headed over to Athens on Thursday night before the race, to spend a few days exploring the city of Athens and we stayed in a fantastic Airbnb penthouse apartment in the historic centre of Plaka, overlooking the Acropolis, for a mere £89/night for all 4 of us. The flat had the most incredible terrace that caught the November sun all day long, which to our surprise was a hot 22ºC and a great spot to catch the sunset each day with a drink. That same heat that was provided such a lovely sunny breakfast spot turned out to be a curse in the actual marathon itself, but more on that later!
We found Athens itself to be quite small, with not that much to visit, making it perfect for a long weekend. Wanting to keep walking to a minimum and keep my legs well-rested, we steered clear of the Archaeological Museum and the Acropolis Museum and instead headed up to the Acropolis itself to walk around the Parthenon and other small temples in the ancient complex. I only vaguely remember my prep school lessons on the Ancient Greeks, with the mythological tales of Greek Gods and Goddesses and of course the Disney film Hercules jumping to mind. I vividly remember that at age 7 of prep school everyone in my class was given a different god/goddess to research and even dress up as if I remember correctly, and I was very happy to be given Helen of Troy – what a babe. However beyond visually appreciating these ancient and impressive buildings, my nerves had begun to build and I couldn’t really concentrate on the history in front of me…
The trip became more about relaxed alfresco lunches and dinners in scenic squares, with the odd temple or remains of a forum to look around, and a short 4km family run around the National Gardens, which are like a maze, where we promptly all lost each other! But my main concern was how flipping hot I felt after just 4km of running, and how bright the sun was. My thoughts were all-consumed by the impending marathon 2 hours ahead and I couldn’t help but cursing myself for choosing that particular marathon. From speaking to my cousin Jon I found out the reason why only 2,000 of the 16,000 registered runners were women. I didn’t think running was a particular male-heavy sport, as when I watched the London Marathon there were virtually equal numbers of men and women. Jon and his two friends had all run multiple marathons before and it turned out that virtually no one runs the Athens Marathon as their first marathon! What was I thinking?!
The reason for this is that half of the Athens Marathon is uphill, making it much tougher than your average marathon. Apparently women mostly only run one marathon and do so for charity (I’m a case in point), so women are by nature more inclined to run the more popular, well-known marathons such as London, Paris & New York that they’ve heard of, as opposed to an obscure one like the Athens Marathon that they haven’t heard of. Men on the other hand run mostly for the challenge and for their own fitness, meaning they are more likely to run multiple marathons and know more about the world of marathon tourism, a field in which the Athens Marathon is well-known for being the original route, from the town of Marathon to Athens following the 26.2 miles that the soldier Pheidippides ran in 490 BC to announce the Greek victory against the Persians, before promptly collapsing and dying. As a result, the idea is that if you can survive running a marathon distance without dying, then you’re doing pretty well! To cut a long story short, it’s a hard marathon that relatively few women enter and I confirmed that during the run as I ran alongside predominantly male runners.
As instructed, I stocked up on pasta the day beforehand both at lunch and dinner and tried to get an early night. Fate wouldn’t give me a rest though, as I actually dreamed that I was running the marathon, meaning I woke up feeling mentally exhausted! All four of us left the flat at 5:45am to head to the buses, eating a bowl of cereal with banana as I walked. I caught a bus with Jon and his two friends Stuart and Alan, and to be honest I couldn’t have been more grateful to have their company at this point. My starting block didn’t set off until 9:30am so there was a good 3.5 hours to kill in between and had I been on my own, the nerves would have destroyed me! Arriving in the town of Marathon shortly after sunrise we started stretching, limbering up, eating and sussing out the other runners. After what felt like forever, my starting block was finally given the green light to set off at 9:33am and I began at a rather slow pace, keen not to run out of energy too early on after a warning from Jon not to underestimate “the wall” later on, which I hadn’t really experienced during training.
Having never run a marathon before, I was placed the last starting block with all the other amateurs, meaning that my entire run was an exercise in overtaking other people, which is really quite fun actually and very motivating! I ranked 3,105 of the 11,826 who reached the finish line, which by my calculations means I overtook approx. 7,000 runners over the course of 4 hours! It really was an exercise in setting my sights on the next person I wanted to overtake, and then the next, and the next… I was very worried about the two injuries I suffered during my 5 months’ training, but to my delight I felt absolutely no troubles whatsoever from those pesky injuries, so my confidence grew and I picked up the pace, keeping my mind focused on calculating timings and when to eat the next energy gel. We reached the first hill around the 10km mark and I found myself still managing a solid 5 mins 30 secs per km pace and still overtaking other runners, and I was coping remarkably well with the heat compared to some of the sweatier men I saw! I managed a 10km personal best at 49:07, a whole 12 mins / 20% improvement on my first 10km back in September 2014 in London.
The route is rather monotonous through the Greek countryside and small nondescript Greek towns, but to keep it interesting there were locals by the side of the road passionately cheering and waving, with little children even handing out olive branches and their tiny hands for encouraging high fives! To my enormous surprise I managed personal bests at the 15km and 20km points and reached the half-marathon point at 21 km with a personal best of 1:50:20, beating my Hampton Court half marathon time in February 2015 by 4 mins / 3% improvement. The hill was tough but really not as bad as I’d feared, although I confess it looks horrendous on that elevation graph. To be honest I think it helped that I’d never run any flatter marathon before, as I had nothing to compare it to. After a quick loo stop at the half-way point, I calculated that if I maintained a sub 5:30 pace then I could “potentially” manage a sub-4 hour marathon, an ambition which I’d long ago abandoned when I injured myself in August and missed a month of training. That decision to aim for the sub-4 really was the root cause of a hell of a lot of pain I experienced that day!
To those who don’t know, a “sub-4” is something lots of runners strive for the simple reason that only the top 25% of runners can manage it, supposedly. Having fallen victim to this ambition to run a sub-4 and somehow managed it, I can safely say that it is a ludicrous concept and means absolutely nothing at all! Had I run the marathon 6 minutes slower than I actually did and missed the sub-4 milestone, it would still have felt like an amazing achievement, and the cut-off point of 4 hours is merely a stupid concept that places unnecessary stress and strain on runners, and even sadder, disappointment in those who don’t manage it. Which is ridiculous! The Athens Marathon is by far the hardest thing I have ever experienced in my life and reaching the finish line with any time would still have been a big achievement. The fact that I managed it in under 4-hours was purely for vanity and it meant that the last 8km of the race were literally hell. Sheer agony. 45 minutes of ridiculous amounts of physical pain, mental strain, psychological stress, actual tears and unfortunately for the other runners around me, loud panting and grunts for a whole 8km! Near the end of the marathon the grunting got so bad that runners in front of me would even turn around as I approached them, to work out what on earth was wrong! Had I not been striving for a sub-4, I would have enjoyed the last quarter of the marathon infinitely more and avoided the nightmare that actually took place.
So at half-marathon point I was feeling great, with lots of energy left, well-hydrated as I carried water bottles throughout, with a fantastic Spotify playlist to push me forwards, so I decided to focus on this elusive sub-4. Ugh. Worst decision ever. The race continues uphill until the 31km marker and each time you think you’ve conquered the last hill and are finally on the downhill stretch, you discover it’s just a short dip before the next hill. Torture! There’s a total elevation gain of 372m from the 10km point to the 31km point, and it’s that 21km long uphill stretch that scares most people about the Athens Marathon. After conquering the highest part of the race, I was facing a 10km breeze downhill into central Athens. I had banked on the downhill propelling me forward and being a welcome break on my poor quads. Sadly not! Having only run a 30km once before, in flat London, I had never reached the much-feared “wall” and this was clearly it. My thighs were on fire, as the temperature had actually reached 25ºC and running for 3 hours tends to get you pretty hot! I was surprised not to be sweating at all, and later realised it’s because the sun instantly dried the sweat on my skin and hair, meaning I was covered head to toe in dry salt. Still, at least I didn’t look sweaty in the photos… After the 30km point the “wall” arrived and I panicked that if I stopped running for even a second to take a short break, then I’d never be able to start again. I got that very same fear at the Hampton Court half-marathon back in February. Meaning that I ran the entire 42km without walking once, except for one loo stop halfway.
I also started to doubt my mental arithmetic and whether I’d correctly calculated my timings and whether this sub-4 was actually within reach, so I picked up the pace to under 5 mins per km to be on the safe side. I feel queasy just thinking about it, it was such hell endlessly questioning my calculations. It didn’t help that Strava was telling me I’d run 30km when the roadside marker said 29km. So I actually ran 42km in 3 hours 50 minutes, but still found myself with an agonising extra kilometre to run because of the sideways deviations I’d made to overtake people. Entering Athens was motivating as more and more people cheered from the sidelines, and I was overtaking people who’d slowed down or had to walk, and to be honest what motivated me the most were 3 things: (1) Overtaking all the men – very satisfying I can tell you! (2) The idea that no one ever expected me to run a sub-4. (3) The knowledge that if I managed a sub-4 then I’d never ever have to experience this torture again! I am not a keen runner, I don’t really enjoy running and I hadn’t told anyone I was aiming for a sub-4, because honest to god I hadn’t been expecting to manage it. So much so that I told my family to watch me from a certain part of the race based on a 4 hour 30 min marathon, except I ran past it before they’d even arrived! However the endless bends in the course as I reached Athens were agonising, as you never knew which was the last one. Approaching each bend, you’d hope to see the finish line in the Panatheniac Stadium once you reached the bend, yet it never seemed to arrive! Legs on fire, panting like crazy, tears rolling down my cheeks, overtaking like a mad woman, frantically calculating timings, I’ve never felt such mental stress and sheer pain.
Reaching the 42km marker and the stadium at long last was seriously emotional. It’s in the exact location and architecture of the ancient Greek stadium and there were thousands of people cheering and shouting, with lots of loud music, and yet I could think of absolutely nothing other than placing one leg in front of the other. Despite seeing from the timer that I was safely within my sub-4 limit, I crazily sprinted the final 200m at 4:38 per km. Completing forgetting to shout “nenikikamen” at the finish line, echoing the words of the soldier Pheidippides, I reached the finish line and finally reached a standstill after 3 hours, 55 minutes and 38 seconds, instantly feeling dizzy, sick and nearly tumbling to the floor. My tears suddenly burst into hysterical crying at the crazy emotions running through my entire body, dazed by the noise levels of the cheering, in shock that I’d managed a sub-4, in a confusion of exhaustion, surprise, relief, pride and shock. After a few minutes I pulled it together and turned on my iPhone’s 3G data to find Whatsapps and Facebook messages of encouragement from various friends to supplement the motivational texts my family had been sending me throughout the race. It all got a bit overwhelming and I literally cried my heart out!
I did a pitiful job of stretching then collected my medal, met up with my dear family, paid €10 to have my name and time engraved onto my medal and eventually crawled home to our flat in Plaka, leaning on them for support. My body soon started to cool down and my mother (who is very helpfully a consultant anesthetist and pain specialist) dosed me up on some seriously strong painkillers that left me very light-headed and hazy, and she massaged my shoulders, lower back and entire legs.
That evening I discovered that I’d finished 287th out of 2,218 women, in the top 13%, and 3,105th overall, in the top 26%. I was postively beaming and eternally grateful to have got it out the way. NEVER AGAIN. No chance. Why anyone would experience one marathon and actively choose to repeat such hell is a complete mystery to me.
The next few days were taken at a snail’s pace. I’m naturally a fast walker so I found that I mis-timed every journey I made. I also became an extreme lightweight, getting drunk after a single G&T and suffering horrendous hangovers. According to Strava I burnt 3,273 calories during the marathon and I would have seriously dehydrated my body as well.
My generous sponsor Urban Massage had kindly offered to massage me back to health upon my return to London, so 2 days later I was treated to a sports massage within the comfort of my own living room, by a therapist called Laura. When booking the massage on their iOS app, I’d been given the option of choosing the therapist as well as the type of treatment, which varies from classic to deep tissue, from calming to energising. You can review the bios of each therapist and I discovered that Laura had a 4.9* rating as well as more than 5 years’ worth of training specialising in Sports Medicine, Injury Rehabilitation, Sports Therapy and Running Coaching. Perfect! She arrived on time with the massage table in tow and set up in the middle of my living room, asking me about the marathon and where I felt the most tightness in my muscles. The sports massage really broke down the knots I had developed, realigning my muscle fibres and connective tissue, flushing away the toxins. As such it was relatively painful at times and in particular on my quads, but I felt confident I was in the hands of an expert, as Laura works specifically in a clinic for professional runners.
Seeing as I have experienced injuries in the past, that sports massage was particularly important in order to aid my recovery, to release tension and restore balance in my musculoskeletal system, rehabilitating my injured muscles, tendons and ligaments. The human body is simply not designed to run marathons and the strain has a huge impact on your body. The post-run regime is not be ignored! An hour-long massage with Urban Massage costs £65 and the beauty of it is that, after getting off the table and wrapping myself up in a fluffy dressing gown, I could sink into bed and fall straight asleep, without the hassle of a normal salon where I’d have to get dressed and brave the stress of London’s public transport, which often has the effect of canceling out any relaxation you obtain from the massage in the first place!
Next morning after my fantastic sports massage, I woke up feeling much much more nimble, and over the next few days my walking returned completely to normal, and I even managed to don a pair of high heels on the Thursday for a black tie dinner with dancing, 4 days after the marathon. I am so, so grateful to Urban Massage for their generosity, after massaging me back to health in September 2014 after my first 10km run and also for providing a £15 gift voucher to every single person who sponsored me in this marathon! As you probably know, I’ve been fundraising for Plan UK and I’ve raised nearly £1,200 from over 50 separate donors, and I promised to send each and every one of them a postcard from Athens and also a £15 gift voucher for Urban Massage! That offer is still open if you’re yet to donate, and it really would mean so much to me. My JustGiving page is here: https://www.justgiving.com/Virginia-Stuart-Taylor/. Plan UK are hugely grateful and have told me that the £1,200 I’ve raised is enough to keep 10 vulnerable girls in Uganda in school for an entire year, providing school fees and study materials, so if I can raise anything additional then just imagine what a difference each donation could make!
Having stated at the beginning of this post that I’d keep my race report short and sweet, I now realise that I’ve practically written a dissertation! So I will post again soon with further news from Plan UK and their main campaign to support vulnerable children, especially girls, in developing countries, called Because I Am A Girl.
In the meantime, let me close with a big thank you to my family for coming along to support me in Athens, to my two generous sponsors Urban Massage and Switch Fitness London (look out for a full report on my marathon training with Switch Fitness soon), to my kind 50 donors, to Plan UK’s fundraising team for their great support, to friends who trained with me around London, Stockholm & Lake Como, and to everyone else who’s provided support along this 5-month journey to the finish line in Athens. There were several injury-related doubts and wobbly moments, and I am just so relieved to have completed the challenge I set myself, to have exceeded my original fundraising target of £1,000 and to have not let anyone down! Thank you!!