Runner's Rag

Volume 17 Issue 6

Official Publication of the Winner's Circle Running Club

November 1996

Petrakis Represents Circle in Athens Visits Ancestral Homeland for 100th Anniversary of First Olympic Marathon

From the pen of “Lord Byron” Petrakis For me, the act of running from Marathon to Athens was my way of becoming part of a cultural and historical continuum, stretching from 490 B.C. to the present. As a Greek-American whose father and both sets of grandparents were born in Greece, I felt connected to the legendary Pheidippides, the soldier who ran to Athens to tell of the Greek victory over the Persians on the plains of Marathon in 490 B.C. I also felt that I was following in the footsteps of Spiridon Louis, the Greek shepherd who won the first modern Olympic marathon in Athens in 1896.

One hundred years later, on October 20, 1996, I stood next to a field near the starting point in the village of Marathon. Apart from the busses with their loads of runners, little seemed to have changed in 100--or 2,500 years. There were no “restrooms”, portajohns, check-in tables, water bottles or loudspeakers. Just an empty field, some shrubs, and the already warm Greek sun. There was also a line drawn across a road, around which milled the 2,000 men and women waiting to begin their trek to the Olympic Stadium in Athens.

I felt as if I had stepped back into time when the word “amateur” really meant something. For there would be no prize money in this race, only olive wreaths for the winners and medals and certificates for all the finishers. There were not even any T shirts, except for the American runners from Marathon Tours who paid to have them made.

Byron Petrakis prepares to retrace the footsteps of Spiridon Louis, the first modern Olympic Marathon Champion.

After a half-hearted attempt to herd all the runners behind the line, the official starter surveyed the disorganized scene, shrugged his shoulders in a characteristic Greek gesture, and fired the gun for us to start. The first few seconds were chaotic (“chaos” is a Greek word), as runners bumped into each other on the narrow road, not sure where the start was. Soon, though, we were off on our odyssey. With the exception of a loop around the tomb containing the ashes of the ancient Greek soldiers, there was one road--the main highway into Athens.

The first 8-10 miles were remarkably similar to Boston--gradually downhill, except for one good uphill around 8 miles. Miles 10-20 were hilly, though, especially 17-20. On the course, there were water stops every 5k, along with markers graphically showing our progress in 5-kilometer increments. Later on, the water stops had orange juice, but no gatorade or energy replacement fluid of any kind. (We had been warned about this beforehand, so I carried along some gatorade as well as packets of “gu”). I felt like a mule, carrying supplies for battle. (Earlier, I had read that the Boston Marathon course was modelled on the Greek one. The members of the American Olympic Marathon team were all members of the B.A.A. Impressed with the Greek course, they set up the original Boston route of 24 miles upon their return home.)

On a couple of the steep hills, I caught a glimpse of the ocean to my left, and I thought of how Pheidippides must have glanced over and seen the victorious Greek ships in the bay outside of Marathon. Besides some interesting topography, the sounds along the way provided some distraction, relief, and even inspiration. Clusters of supporters from many of the European and Asian running clubs were scattered along the route, shouting encouragement and unfurling their colorful banners. The bemused Greek natives, if they bothered to pay any attention at all, wondered out loud why anyone would want to tire himself out on such a beautiful day!

About half-way through the course, just at the top of a hill, Sunday service was taking place at a church on my left. As the loudspeakers carried the familiar strains of the Orthodox service to all the passerby, I broke out in goosebumps. The words “praise be to God” wafted through the air just as I crested the hill. I felt that my efforts would be blessed and that by running to Athens I was both a man in control of my own actions and an agent of divine destiny.

Soon after the hill, we began our descent into the city around mile 20. The environment had changed from rural- commercial to commercial-industrial. Traffic became intense, the air becoming clogged with fumes from cars and busses. This was modern Athens--bustling, crowded, impatient. (Five million of Greece’s population of 8 million lives in metropolitan Athens).

Horns blared, police whistles shrieked, and angry motorists vented their frustrations at the delays. (Traffic control was excellent. Had it not been, we all would have suffered the fate of Pheidippides long before we reached our destination).

The sun together with the traffic became bothersome, but I was being carried on a wave of emotion that did not recognize external distractions. The closer I got to Athens, the lighter I felt. Off in the distance, 515 feet high above the city, lay the Acropolis, the “high city” built by the ancient Athenians to house their most sacred treasures and works of art. I felt that the goddess Athena was watching over me from the small temple on the Acropolis called “Athena Nike,” or “Unwinged Victory.” Like a ship at sea looking for a beacon to guide her to port, I fixed my gaze and thoughts on the distant hill as I approached the Olympic Stadium.

When I finally turned the corner and approached the large plaza outside the stadium, I felt a surge of emotion and strength. I thought that I could continue running almost indefinitely. Up two steps from the plaza, and then two more to the track. Once on the track, only a lap to go. Ahead, the finish banner and the end of the journey. When I crossed the finish line and looked up to see the Olympic rings on the banner above, I felt as if I had entered sacred ground, a real and mythical place called the winner’s circle. Weeping, I fell to my knees and kissed the ground.

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