Run The Marathon Of Heroes And Gods

Those who take on the Athens Marathon take the road trodden by ancient heroes and Greek mythological figures

By Pamela Chow

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The Athens Marathon covers about 42.2km and finishes in the Athens’ Panathenaic Stadium, where the first modern Olympic Games was hosted.

Considered by some to be the Holy Grail for runners, the original marathon, which takes place in Athens, Greece, aka the birthplace of the modern Olympic Games, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not to be missed.

The original marathon

According to tradition, the annual Athens Classic Marathon covers the same route that the Athenian herald Pheidippides ran to deliver news of victory from the battlefield of Marathon in 490 BC. He ran over 40km from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persia with the triumphant declaration, νικῶμεν (pronounced “nikomen” and meaning “we have won”).

Before the battle, when the Persians first landed in Marathon, Pheidippides is said to have run to Sparta (made famous by the movie 300) requesting help, covering a whopping 240km in two days.

Participants of the Athens Marathon will purportedly run in the footsteps of Pheidippides and end the race in Athens’ magnificent Panathenaic Stadium, where the first modern Olympic Games was hosted in 1896.

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Bronze discobolus from the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens (that hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896).

Running the course

The Athens Marathon, which normally takes place in November, covers about 42.2km and its main terrain is asphalt. It is often considered one of the more difficult major marathons in the world, thanks to the uphill climb from the 10km to the 31km marks.

The course begins in the town of Marathon, passing through the tomb of Athenian soldiers and near the coast of Nea Makri. As a final burst, the last 11km slopes downhill towards the finish line in Athens’ Olympic Stadium.

However, if you find 42km daunting, the marathon has also been split into 5km and 10km categories, and there is also a race-walking contest option.

Though the marathon is open to public participation, it has also served as a competitive championship since 1990. The current course records are 2:10:37 hours for men and 2:31:06 for women.

To experience the Athens Marathon yourself, you can choose from a number of Greek tours that specialise
in marathon tour packages, such as Apostolos Greek Tours and Athens Authentic Marathon. Registration for
the 34th Athens Marathon 2016 begins this month.

A marathon for Spartans

For more serious runners, here’s another marathon that’s a must-try, especially if you happen to be a history buff as well. The Spartathlon is an ultra-marathon race held annually since 1983, tracing the route that Pheidippides took between Athens and Sparta.

This course is labelled extreme because it covers a challenging distance of 246km over more than 20 hours. It typically begins on the last Friday of September at the foot of the Acropolis.

At 159km, the race climbs to the top of Mount Parthenio, and hits the main Sparta highway just before the 200km mark. In total, runners must pass through 75 checkpoints before specific cut-off times.

Unlike the Athens Marathon, the Spartathlon has strict prerequisites to enter. Participants must have fulfilled at least one of many requirements in the last three years, such as finish a 100km race in 10 (men) or 10.5 (women) hours, and finish a non-stop 200km race within 29 (men) or 30 (women) hours.

Whether you’re a marathon enthusiast or an semi-pro athlete, embarking on the original marathon in Athens will definitely be an experience of a lifetime.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of Weekender, Issue 150, April 15 – April 28, 2016, with the headline ‘Run the marathon of heroes and gods’.