- “Alea iacta est” (Latin: The die has been cast)! Nov 5, 2015
Well, tomorrow is the day to catch a flight to Greece! This is not a relaxing vacation trip. Far from it. I will be in and out of the country for a particular event on Sunday.
In spite of running for over 10 years, I had never been inspired to run a marathon. I had done a few 30 KM runs. I was sure that I could push myself to do another 12 KM. But somehow it never caught my fancy. Not for want of encouragement, mind you! Most of my runner friends – Lia, Lara, Heidi, Russell, Roger, Bob VanderMeer often pushed me to think about it reassuring me that once I did one, I was going to get addicted.
About two years back, when I was exiting my previous job, I started refreshing my bucket list items (or as Sharmila calls it – what makes me “quirky”). Something got awakened at the back of my mind and I was like “Wouldn’t it be cool to put one marathon in life?”. I figured – okay, let’s it get it done as I turn 50.
But the challenge was that I was not going to do the usual marathons. Since it was going to be my only one (so that I can checkbox my bucket list item), it had to be “quirky” and unique. I started thinking about how marathons came of being and started reading up about how the Greeks beat the Persians inspite of being outnumbered 1:4 and how Pheidippides was chosen to run the distance from Marathon to Athens to give the message of victory. That was whole five centuries before Chris was born.
I got fascinated by that history. A little more research on the internet and found out that they actually have a race on that route. That was it!! I decided then and there – that was going to be my marathon. Certainly I prayed for better results than Pheidippides who died after giving the message “Nikommen” to the rulers in Athens. (Athens was already a democracy then). In his defense, he had to run for 300 miles from Athens to Sparta and then to Marathon before joining the fight and then had to run to Athens.
One fine day, in an obvious lapse of judgment, I signed up for the race. This is in a country I have never been to in my life and that was on the verge of economic collapse and is only doing marginally better now. Evidently, you are rationed how much cash you can get from the ATMs everyday (I understand this is not true for foreigners). If that was not enough, I had never run a marathon before. Let alone the long uphill run for the first 32 KM of the run. (The next 10 KM is relatively easy as you start getting into the valley). The first attempt at a practice long run a few months back did not result in spectacular results either. Some of you might remember from my posts a certain paramedic ambulance had to get involved 🙂
Right now, I have drawn up my priorities:
(*) Don’t die
(*) Don’t lose a limb
(*) If at all possible, finish the whole 42 KM
I am not sure how I managed to get myself into this mess. Except to remind everybody that any idiot can run. It takes a special kind of idiot to run a marathon for the first time in a completely unknown country.
- Packing for my first marathon… putting my best foot forward… Nov 5, 2015
- Giving credit where credit is due.. Nov 6, 2015
You know I named many of my runner friends for continuously encouraging me to try my first marathon. But I forgot two guys who were actually the biggest contributors. Did I mention I am going to hit 50 soon? Age induced forgetfulness is my only excuse 🙂
It was actually Greg Jones and Dan Parzych from my previous job that kept pushing me to try a marathon. Every time I ran into them in the running trails, the first question – especially from Greg – used to be “So, when are you signing up?”. He even sent me a four month training calendar that he wrote up in an Excel spreadsheet!!
I am not saying I left my previous job because of them, but certainly, I used to get worried every time I saw two guys without any shirt on coming like the wind from the other end of the trail. Eventually, they wore off on me. And that is how I landed up signing for the Original Marathon.
Regardless of whether I bust out or finish it, now I can legitimately tell them I gave it a shot! (my first shot, if I bust out – because I am so going back there next year to finish it if I can’t this year)
- I did not get a laptop! Nov 6, 2015
I was one of the first guys to get into the plane and after a brisk walk up the stairs, I settled down in my seat. About five minutes later a young lady came, stood near me and started checking out the bins above. I politely asked if I could help her with the suitcase. Which, she readily agreed to but asked for a couple of minutes to get a few things our of her bag. I waited till she went thru all sorts of stuff and when she was finally done, I put the suitcase up and she settled down in the seat next to me. Well, in British Airways, it is a little funky – next to you means actually you face each other with a rather uncomfortable couple of feet between you. A little weird, if you are strangers. A few pleasantries were exchanged and all was quiet on the upper deck.
A few minutes later came in an elderly couple who gingerly moved from seat to seat looking at seat numbers. Not really having much else to do, I asked them what their seat numbers were. Turned out they were right across the aisle from me. Again, helped them with their suitcases and exchanged pleasantries. The elderly lady was very talkative. She explained that she had never flown business class before and her son had paid for their tickets to go on a cruise from Venice for 19 days. Further, she was very afraid of missing her flight from London because she was told that she had to switch terminals. I checked her boarding pass and explained that I will be going to her terminal too and that my flight was before her flight and that there was no way she was missing her flight. In fact, I went to the extent of promising them that I would accompany them all the way once we reach London.
And with that, I thought, everything was settled. Little did I realize that the fun had just started.
I was deep in my book when I thought I could discern some excitement going on across from me. I lifted my head up and sure enough the old lady was ecstatic as she found out every new feature of the business class seat and started telling her husband about it. Her husband, on the other hand, seemed like he was pretty happy with his lot. He did not need any more features in his seat. He just wanted to sit there and enjoy a glass a wine.
I went back to my book.
And then looked up again because the old lady was really excited. She was almost yelling to her husband by now (remember it was only four of us still upstairs) – “Wow! They give you a laptop in business class. This is how I like to travel. You never took me anywhere like this”. At this point I was more surprised than amused. Then I realized what had happened. But in the meanwhile, the old lady was urging her husband to find his laptop in his seat. Once again, he did not care. A few seconds later, she opened up her laptop, stared at it completely perplexed and then looked at me – “Do you know how I can get the password for this laptop?”
“No, ma’m!”, I replied truthfully.
“How did you start your laptop?”. She asked and then looked all around me to realize that I had none. “You did not get a laptop?”.
“No ma’m!”, again, I said truthfully. But this time I kept smiling at her… It worked!!!
“This is not meant for me, right?”
“I think you might be right, ma’m”.
Around this time, one of the stewardesses came helping a passenger find his seat. As the old lady tried explaining to the stewardess that she found a laptop, I asked them to hold on for a second. Looking to my other side, I gently nudged Lucinda – the young lady.. After apologizing for waking her up, I asked her if she was, by any chance, one laptop short 🙂 A few seconds of blank stares all around later, the problem was solved. Lucinda had kept her bag on the seat while rifling thru it and forgot to put the laptop back. The three of us became great friends thru this. Did I say three? As we clinked our wine glasses the elderly gentleman stood up and clinked too!!
A few minutes later, I was again interrupted. “What now?”, I asked myself as I looked across the aisle. Turns out the elderly gentleman had found out how to raise the privacy screen (the airlines does give one in case you think the couple of feet apart is too uncomfortable for you) and had made the most use of it. His wife was yelling from this side to lower it but he just kept saying he did not know how to do it 🙂
The exasperated wife helplessly looked at me and said “He always messes up things like this at home”. I was so amused by now that I ventured “Ma’m! I am going to go out on a limb and guess you two have been married for a long time?”. “Thirty four years”, she said.
I knowingly nodded. And then putting my finger on my lips – so as to tell her not to make noise, I pointed to the button on my side of the aisle that she needed to press to get the screen down. You could see the glint in her eye as she got the signal and after some fidgeting with her fingers trembling due to the effects of age, managed to get the screen down.
Much to the chagrin of her husband. Who caught me smiling as he glared at me.
I quickly went back to book and casually flipped the page to Chapter 2!!
[At the time of going to press, as I try pulling the blanket over me and go to sleep, I can still hear them bickering. And I think that is in fitness of things. After thirty four years of marriage, you need some friction to keep the spark going in your relationship. By the way, full points for their gracious and grateful son.]
- After a long long time… In London airport Nov 6, 2015
- This is the anti Kentucky Derby Nov 6, 2015
- Athens by foot – the Parliament Nov 6, 2015
Walked in to the hotel. Finished office calls and home calls. Then hit the road. It was dark already. First place to see – the Parliament. Amazing history. This city introduced democracy five centuries before Christ was born. This is where the simple concept (still denied in many parts of the world) that we will be ruled by those who we choose was birthed.
- Observing Athinians… Nov 6, 2015
After the Parliament, I went to the bOG market and shopping area – in the heart of Athens. Here are a few observations:
- At least in Central Athens, you will have no idea that the country is in economic trouble. All the brand stores are teeming with people.
- People are very courteous. Many are not fluent with English. But they will go out of their way to help you with directions.
- They call Marathon “Marafonos” (the best I could figure out). If they get to know that you have come from abroad to run the Marathon in their country, suddenly you are a hero. They talk to each other in fast language – with the end result you can (I did) get a free drink
- Remember the proverbial Greek nose – straight, pointed nose? I am yet to see a Greek with a Greek nose!! Chatred up a local guy at the bar and asked him what’s up with that – he let me know that Greeks have the most number of nose surgeries. Apparently Greeks are not into Greek noses.
BTW, I was checking up on Google this guy’s assertion. He is wrong. You want to take a guess which country has the most number of rhinoplasty (nose surgery). Take three guesses and then let me know how far were you from the answer!!
- View from the breakfast table Nov 7, 2015
- Old technology meets new technology Nov 7, 2015
I stepped closer to the edge of the roof top terrace where I was having breakfast to take a picture of the Acropolis when suddenly I was struck by the duality of technology. There on the left is a specially constructed building on a hilltop going back over twenty five centuries. And on the right is a specially constructed spot to take “selfies”. I especially love the helpful diagram put there how to take a selfie… Except that the phone is pointed the wrong way!!!
- This is where we will finish tomorrow! Nov 7, 2015
The Panathenaic Stadium. Built nearly six hundred years before Christ. The very first olympics were held here in 1896. Marathon was one of the first events in that Olympic. (In modern Olympics, almost always marathon is the ending featured event). I believe this is the only marble stadium in the world.
It is only 64 degrees but the direct sun is making it really warm on the skin! If I can manage thru the heat, hills and distance tomorrow, then this is where I will land up at the end of it all!!!
- Picking up bib number and T-shirt was a little chaotic Nov 7, 2015
The good news is even if the airlines had lost my suitcase, I could have bought here anything and everything a runner will ever need. It is a huge expo – the local crowd has shown up in full strength…
Interesting name – “Ergo Marathon Expo”. Roughly it should mean “There is a marathon. Therefore this Expo” 🙂
- Acropolis in brilliant evening hues Nov 7, 2015
- One more observation about the Greeks Nov 7, 2015
At eight pm I went around yesterday all over the crowded shopping streets. I was looking for a place to sit down and have a glass of wine. All I could see are coffee shops and pastry shops. Anywhere you turn around in Athens, there is a Cafe or a pastry and cake shop.
With this much caffeine and sugar in their system, no wonder they come up with crazy ideas like “Maybe we should run for 42KM” 🙂
- That is my competition today. Nov 8, 2015
- All of us piling on to buses in the dark Nov 8, 2015
- We arrived at Marathon!! Nov 8, 2015
The place where the Greeks beat the Persians! Where Pheidippides fateful run began!! We are still a couple of hours away from starting. Right now, I am shivering in the cold and talking to all the runners here. Meeting people from all corners of the world – must have talked to people from at least fifteen different countries.
But in my own mind, I am a Kenyan right now!!
- Making as many friends as I can… Nov 8, 2015
Talking to as many runners as I can. Asking them where they are from and how they got started running. I also told them that this is my first marathon. And that if they recognize me laying down on the side of the road, could they please hit the Pause button on my Garmin watch and THEN call for medical help? A heftily build German guy asked me if they could just drag me to the finish line.
I let him know it would work better that way 🙂
btw, I am yet to meet an Indian…
- Sea of humanity… Nov 8, 2015
- Couple of more minutes and off we will go… Nov 8, 2015
- 18 KM done. Now comes the toughest part… Nov 8, 2015
- Drawing up to the 21km mark Nov 8, 2015
- Reached the top of the mountain! Nov 8, 2015
- Finished it!! Nov 8, 2015
Last 5km was a blur. Entering the stadium was a goose bump raising moment. Incredibly beautiful stadium. To a person, everybody is standing and yelling “Bravo” to each and every runner!
Run time: 4:45
Gun time: estimated 5:17. (Waiting final results; this includes water breaks, Facebook time, taking picture time etc 🙂
- That was a lot of work for a medal, some aluminum foil and a free banana! Nov 8, 2015
- Marathon race – seen thru the eyes of my Indian parents Nov 8, 2015
I had just finished my race, collected the aluminum foil, banana and the all important medal. After a few customary pictures from the authorities, I started walking towards a corner of the stadium to settle down. “Walking” is overstating it. The feet were hurting so much that I was more or less waddling like a penguin.
Found a sunny corner, wrapped the foil around me to keep myself warm and sat down slowly eating the banana and sipping water. Called up Sharmila, my mother and then my brother to let them know that I had finished my run. Sharmila and my brother, who are both runners, had the expected congratulatory and somewhat relieved responses. My mom, on the other hand, was a different story. Lest there be any doubt, let me clarify here and now that neither my mom nor my dad runs. And they are not particularly excited that a lot of family members run.
My mom’s first question was “how long did it take?”. Instead of complicating the answer with run time and gun time, I just told her over 5 hours. “Certificate dilo”? Pat came her followup question asking if I got a certificate. Now, you have to understand the Indian parent context here. Unless you got a certificate for doing something , in their mind, it is as good as not doing it. “Ki abar debey?”. I tried to make light of the situation by saying that “nothing much”.
“Tobu, ki dilo?”. She insisted on knowing what did I get at the end of the day. For a moment, I thought of explaining the advantages of aluminum foil and banana but I was too tired – so I just said “They gave a medal”. Silly me. I completely forgot that I was dealing with Indian parents. Medals trump certificates. Medal means you have come first, second or third. Before I could make any amends, she was talking loudly to my dad that I got a medal. I did not even get a chance to mention to her that the guys who came first, second and third could have run back to where we started from and they would have still finished earlier than me.
Consequently, I was accosted by my dad’s voice on the other side – “Bacchu, medal peyechho? Baah Baah. Ki rank holo?” He, of course, was profusely congratulating and then wanted to know what my rank was. I explained there is no rank-shank for me. I got a medal for finishing the race. “Maaney?”. He was was totally flummoxed. I told him that whoever successfully finished the race would get a medal.
He thought for a while and then said “Eta abaar ki?”. He basically trashed the whole idea. I asked him why he thought that way, rather peeved at this point. His classic answer – “Je porikkhatey bosley prize pa-o-a jaabey, se porikkhar kono mullyo hoy naaki?”. Apparently, if you get a prize for just sitting in a test, then that test has no value.
I told him I needed to talk to my brother 🙂
- It is like my worst fears have come true!! Nov 9, 2015
- Looking back… Nov 9, 2015
I crossed the starting line at 9:20am and just as I was getting used to people around me, the Garmin beeped to say that the first mile was up. I was like – “Already? I can do this another 25 times”. Second mile came a little later. Third mile was noticeably later. By the time I came to the one third mark, I was wary – but still full of energy.
The one-third to one-half mark seemed long. Annoyingly long. But that was nothing compared to what happened after the half point. It was a long uphill plod. Every mile was getting more and more painful. All those kids by the street extending their hands so we would handslap each other was not getting cute anymore. All those old ladies standing outside and clapping and yelling “Bravo” was being appreciated but I was not smiling back to them any more.
I was waiting to hit the wall anytime after the 16th mile (25 KM). I knew the sun was getting unbearably hot and it was going to be a thin line between keeping myself hydrated with sips and getting sick with too much water in my stomach. More importantly, I was losing salt and electrolytes quickly with the salt. So, I kept on sipping my Tailwind mixture by instinct.
At 17th mile (27km), I thought I got dizzy a little. But there was absolutely no shade – just barren mountains and small towns. Finally, around 18th mile (29km), I pulled under a bus stand in a small town and gave myself a break. I knew I needed to keep my chemicals in balance but the mouth did not want any more sweet tasting Tailwind. It just wanted to taste simple water.
Pulled back into the road, felt a little dizzy for the next couple of minutes but plodded on. At the next water station, grabbed half a banana, very slowly ate it, careful not to take in too much air or choke myself. And then grabbed a bottle of water. Throwing training to the winds, I decided to run with two bottles in two hands – Tailwind in one and water in the other. The dizziness went away slowly.
Finally reached the top at 20 miles. Then started the downhill run. The slope was welcome. The sun – by now, it was well past 1PM and for the last two weeks, Greece has been having an unseasonably warm advent of winter – was seemingly merciless on the skin. Especially on my shaved scalp – inspite of the cap. Slowly but surely, the energy was draining. No wall yet though.
By the time I pulled into the penultimate water break station on mile 22 (37 km), I could barely think. I was having difficulty converting miles to kms. (I trained in and my watch showed miles, but the markers for the race were in kms. Sometimes 13 km seemed a long ways to go. But when I thought about it as 8 miles – I was like – okay, I can do this). Everybody had slowed down. We just needed to play safe and finish up the last 3 miles (5km). My mind was a total etch-a-sketch at that point. I knew I was low on salt and sugar if I could not figure how to multiply or divide by 1.6.
I grabbed a bottle of water at the station. Told myself – it is downhill – go with the rest – one way or the other I will make it. Just don’t fall down, trip up or pull over. (at this point it was more painful to stop than to just keep going). Sitting down was a no-no. I would get dizzy the moment I attempted to get up and then no one knows what would happen.
But something did happen at that moment. And there is no way I can describe the exact onset of the moment. In fact, till that point, I can give you a continuous description of the great experiences I had had. After that, though, all I have been able to do is stitch together some distinct memory points I can recall. As I was saying, after a flurry of bad possibilities went thru my mind, it was like a beast mode came on. All I know was the last 5 kms were a blur. I remember returning the bottle of water after one long swig and ran the rest with only my electrolyte bottle. I remember that instead of keeping steady pace or even going slower…. I SPEEDED up.
I remember watching my Garmin which was steadily pacing at about 11 min/mile go to 10:45.. then 10:30… 10.15… 10.00…9.45 and then I stopped checking. If there is ever a thing called a Runner’s High, I must have been on it. I remember weaving thru many many runners – almost tripped on one of them. Astonishingly, I now realize that I skipped the final water station. Apparently, I must have blithely sailed thru. But more as a man possessed than as a man who knew what he was doing. Everything I was doing at that time is exactly what I will tell somebody not to do. But, frankly, I am not even sure I know that “I” that seemed to have taken over.
With 2 km to go, I remember gliding thru the city crowds. Five hours into the race, they were still five people deep on the sides of the street. I was still weaving thru the runners. I remember that unlike the rest of my run and all the runners around me, I was not running with my head down and bent torso. I remember my head being up and the torso being straight and the ankles hitting high like they say you are supposed to do. That posture gave me a lot of confidence in the run. However, in one moment of consciousness, I suddenly realized what I was doing and told myself to slow down. It is precisely then I saw the first glimpse of the stadium. I went back into my stupor again.
The next thing I remember was taking a left turn to get into the entrance of the stadium. An amazing spectacle of history, architecture and thousands of citizens cheering on is what met my eyes. And I also remember speeding up again. I could feel no pain. I could only see the arch that marked the end point.
Even more surprisingly, once I finished the run and my consciousness came back, I expected to droop my head, sit down on the side and catch my breath. But nothing like that happened. In fact, my first action after finishing the run was to help a runner take a picture of herself with the stadium as the background. Evidently, whatever had possessed me was taking time to leave me.
For the last twenty four hours, I have been trying to drum up some logic into what happened to me. Clearly, running a minute or so faster per mile for the last three miles wasn’t exactly going to make me look like a hero when the whole race was going to take me nearly five hours. I was not trying to beat any other friend that I was competing with either. I have no idea what the heck happened to me.
I did find the answer to one question I had woken up to that morning. Remember, that picture of myself as the competition – my mind versus his body – who would be the better man?
Looking back at that moment when I gave back the water bottle – that was precisely the moment and place where that decision was made….
The rest was just about keeping one foot in front of the other repeatedly.
- How an iPhone almost failed a ninth grade student… Nov 9, 2015
Way back… and I mean way back… I had read a poem by Lord Byron in my ninth grade:
“Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swan-like, let me sing and die:
A land of slaves shall ne’er be mine-
Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!”
I had always had this dream that if I ever went to Greece, I would want to see what Byron saw in Sunium (now called Sounio). So, ignoring all advise I got from my friends and well wishers on what to see when I am in Greece, I told my tour cab driver Alex (tagged here) to take me to the Temple of Poseidon in Sounio. I wanted to see what Byron saw and also where Aegeus jumped into the sea upon a misunderstanding of the color of his son’s sails (or was it the flag?) of the ship. Upon researching the internet, I had found that Lord Byron had scratched his name on the walls of the temple. [Note that some scholars are not sure whether it was him who put the name there]
Over the course of the day, I became great friends with Alex – but more on him later. One thing I learnt from him was that archaeologists in prior centuries had always thought of the Temple of Poseidon to be the Temple of some Queen (the name escapes me right now – it is all Greek to me 🙂 ). Once they recognized “Byron” on the writings in one of the columns, they recognized that to be the Temple of Poseidon. (the Temple of that Queen was found nearby later but nothing remains today but the base stones). Also, on his iPad he showed a picture of that inscription of “Byron”. He was not sure about the authenticity but gave me a rough idea about which pillar and where in the pillar it was.
We did reach Souniou eventually. It is a beauty that can be only beholden, not described. The southernmost point of mainland Greece, it was a sight to be seen. Pristine clean waters of the Ionian Sea, green islands in the distance and the setting sun…
But what had intrigued me was that reference of the inscription of “Byron”. I kept on searching for that inscription where Alex had told me. Which was not an easy exercise – because we were chained off at least fifty feet off the temple on every side. And when I say “temple”, I mean whatever remains of the temple – which is basically a few pillars. To make matters worse, I did not have a camera (with proper zoom lens) on me. All I had was my iPhone.
But lo and behold – I did find the word “Byron” inscribed – with my naked eye. If anybody has any doubts about what scores between God’s invention – the eye – and man’s invention – the camera – has not yet tried to take a picture of an engraving from fifty feet with an iPhone. The beauty of nature that drove Byron to write a poem took me less than an instant to find. The engraving of the same poet on the walls too me ten minutes to find. The constant adjusting of my iPhone to capture an inscription from fifty feet away with the sun behind? – that took more than thirty minutes 🙁 How I wished I had my DSLR with me.
The unfortunate part was that I was the only other tourist there. If you discount the fifty odd Japanese tourists that had come in a bus. How do I know that they were Japanese? By the number of times they said “Hai”, “Aligato”, the impressive long zoom lens DSLRs they were carrying and their refusal to understand my English. All I wanted them to do is use any of there sophisticated cameras to take a picture of the spot I wanted and then I wanted a take a picture of their camera screen on my iPhone. All I heard for the next ten minutes was “No English”. So, I tried talking to the guide – and he said “No camera”. Go figure!!
Anyways, I did take a lot of pictures on my iPhone from different angles and different focus points and lighting and I think I might have finally captured enough to show the inscription.
What a great way to thread thru so many moments – Greek mythology of Aegeus, pillars that you see that were built in around 450BC, Byron visiting around the beginning of 1800s, a ninth grader reading a poem in 1981 and NOW!!!
- Nature and Man… with their own versions of Red Green Yellow… Nov 9, 2015
- Restroom sign in my hotel in Greece… Nov 9, 2015
- The crystal clear waters of the Aegean Sea Nov 9, 2015
- View of inland from the Temple of Poseidon Nov 9, 2015
- Lake Vouliagmeni Nov 9, 2015
Fascinating lake. In spite of being literally a few hundred feet from the Aegean Sea, it has nothing to do with the sea water. In fact, the lake came to light when there was a large collapse of the rock in the Middle Ages exposing a hidden cavern. The source of water is unknown. All modern technologies and human beings that have gone thru the cave that leads to the source have come a cropper (and divers have lost lives).
It is believed that the water has some connection to a volcano system given the constant temperature of 75 degrees throughout the year. The lake is filled with Garra Rufa fish – the ones that is supposed to eat your dead skin tissues. In fact, if you carefully watch, you can see a few tourists with their feet in the water enjoying the natural pedicure.
The rock itself looks golden with the sun reflecting off it…
- Now I know why Pheidippides died after the marathon run Nov 11, 2015