For many long distance runners, there may be just one marathon: the Boston Marathon, coming up April 15.
But not for me.
Being Greek, there is another: the one I ran at age 17 — from Marathon to Athens.
While the Boston Marathon is one of the most prestigious and storied races — since John J. McDermott of New York won it on April 19, 1897 — the first organized marathon, which was inspired by the legendary run of the messenger Pheidippides in 490 B.C., actually occurred in 1896 at the inauguration of the modern Olympic games in Greece.
Although Pheidippides’ run from Marathon to Athens is mostly a myth, it was my boyhood dream to recreate it.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with doing a few certain things before I die. Many of them — I’ve since discovered — involve hard work and good luck.
When I told my mother of my plan to run, she was totally opposed — petrified I’d get hurt. Even so, she bought me brand new running shoes and sewed the emblem of my school, Athens College, on my shirt.
How did I prepare for the race?
While I loved to ski and often ran up to a quarter of a marathon (6.55 miles), I “trained” only once, running less than a half-marathon.
The day of the race in October 1978 was sunny and warm. I was excited, determined to finish. But, early on, I discovered that racing in brand new sneakers was not a good idea. My feet hurt and my socks were soaked in blood. I ran the rest of the race painfully on the sides of my feet.
When I saw a really steep hill ahead and seriously wondered if I could finish, luck intervened when a policeman took pity on me, offering me a ride on his motorcycle. I declined. But his offer lifted me up and kept me going. Then, I saw a school bus full of kids from my school waving and yelling, cheering me on. Finally, I saw my Dad with my two step-brothers. I was astounded. I didn’t expect him. They were cheering me on, too. So was my mother.
I’ll never forget finally getting to the ancient marble stadium in Athens where the finish line was.
I was one of the youngest to finish and it took me over four hours. I was very happy, but I could barely walk. The next day, my classmates had to carry me up the steps into the school building.
Why do people put themselves through this ordeal?
Some people run marathons to improve their running times. Others run to raise funds for worthy causes. Spiridon Louis ran and won the 1896 Olympic race for the glory of Greece.
I just wanted to finish.
And, though my knees have never been the same, I am glad I did it. In addition to being one of the greatest moments of my life, it gave me the confidence to tackle the next goal. As it turns out, that has not been such a bad way to approach life’s challenges.
Since then, I haven’t seriously considered running another marathon, but I was thrilled and proud when my daughter Marina decided to run the Boston Marathon in 2011. I relived the whole experience with her. She trained much more thoughtfully than I, starting with short runs in the winter and gradually increasing to 14 miles. Unfortunately, she injured her knee and couldn’t train the last month, but she persevered as I did and ran the race on an injured knee
My advice to those considering running a marathon?
Train well and don’t wear new shoes.