Virtual London Marathon runners. (Photo by Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto)
Artillery Row

The Gentleman’s Marathon

ASH Smyth recounts his one experience of ‘running’ 26.2 miles

Yesterday morning, October 4, some 45,000 long-distance runners from 109 countries set off to attempt the (somewhat modified) 2020 Virgin Money London marathon. The fools.

I ran a marathon once. It was a horrible experience. And not just any ‘marathon’: the marathon, at Marathon – memorial to, and in the footsteps of, Pheidippides, the Greek messenger (i.e. professional runner, ahem) who, according to Lucian, brought the victorious news from the 490BC  Battle of Marathon, over the Persians… and promptly died as a result.

It came about like this. A fellow Trooper in the Honourable Artillery Company (TA) dropped out a week or two before the event, leaving a paid-up place on the team vacant. At the tender age of 31, I had no intention of ‘getting into’ marathoning (the time, the tedium, the miserable weather?), let alone with winter just around the corner. I am, however, unhealthily susceptible to all types of shenanigans, and it struck me that it would be rather raffish just to knock out 26.2 miles sans the slightest training.

My previous longest effort, though, a paltry half-marathon, had been over three years before, just at the end of my recruits course. Back then I’d been (as one might hope) perhaps the fittest I have ever been, and acquitted myself reasonably, coming in, if memory serves, at 1h37m. But since then I’d had two years of boozy indolence near the equator, and now I was genuinely curious to know how hard it would be to simply finish. (I know what you’re thinking: someone in the Army would be, by definition, very fit, right? Well, let’s just say that that’s a matter of continuing debate. And anyway, as is surely plain from watching them on TV, running a marathon successfully is hardly a matter of mere general fitness.)

More pertinently, though, I was just – quite predictably – not physically prepared to run 26 miles

So I paid the change-of-name fee on the plane ticket, and promptly got my joining instructions from the thrusting young first lieutenant in charge of organising. The stipulations naturally included raising some sponsorship (I took the precaution of not announcing my participation until after the event); only taking hand-luggage (to spare the tax-payer Easyjet’s more egregious gougings); and yet having to pack trousers, shirt, tie and shoes because said subaltern decided – the race being held over the weekend of Remembrance Sunday and the Lord Mayor’s Parade (and the runners thereby bunking off a range of admin-heavy spit-and-polish events) – that we should pay a visit to the nearest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, and lay a wreath for a departed Gunner of the regiment.

Last in, Muggins, of course, landed the job of picking up the wreath. I didn’t mind; but mobilising, as I was soon to be, for a tour of Afghanistan, I was a bit perturbed to find my own name on the box.

We assembled at Gatwick, on a November Friday afternoon, under a punchy major I had never met before (the keen lieutenant now nowhere in evidence). The team consisted of 6 men: a media manager, an F1 chef, a PhD student, a yacht insurer, a chap whose father had once been CO of the regiment, and a freelance writer – all but one of us of private soldier rank (no Henrys, though, unusually). Our baggage made it clear that almost all had turned a blind eye to the dress-regs.

Landing in Athens, we schlepped in from the airport, registered ourselves at the race admin point, then plonked ourselves down at a cafe in Syntagma Square, and set about the typical marathon-runner’s elite preparation ritual of eating several kebabs, washed down with two or three fat-bottled beers. Carb-loading, I believe it’s known as.

It soon transpired out that as many as 4/6 of us had never run a marathon before, so while we ate, there was much boisterous chat by way of keeping expectations low, and demonstrating that we weren’t taking the next day’s ordeal too seriously. To the accompaniment of anti-austerity protests at the Hellenic Parliament, I mentioned my fave bit in Chariots of Fire, where Lord Lindsay trains with champagne glasses on his hurdles. Rankers in the HAC sometimes not-quite-accurately being referred to as ‘Gentlemen Troopers’ (during my subsequent deployment one wag sent me a parcel addressed thus, which got some looks among my fellow soldiery), we raised a glass to the idea that the somewhat unimaginatively-named ‘Athens Classic Marathon’ might, for our purposes at least, be more appropriately re-christened ‘The Gentleman’s Marathon’.

Libations and offerings of burnt meats duly over with, we repaired to our accommodation, which was – in quite inevitable army style – the floor of some Greek friend of somebody.

Still, we didn’t have to sleep on it for long. Long before dawn stretched her rosy fingers over Athens, we were up and on a bus, first to the finish line to stash our kit (some sideways glances when I tried to check a wreath of poppies), and then another to the starting point, in Marathon. At every stage we were absurdly early (because military), resulting in nuff hours of standing around in chilly autumn air, in shorts, and nervous peeing.

Big races all have staggered starts, more or less directly correlating to the staggered finishes. The two of us who’d done a marathon before – the major, and Andreas, the nauseatingly-talented all-rounder and PhD Classicist – were in the first few batches. Andreas is what army types calls a ‘racing snake’, and I’d once made the mistake of going running with him round the City. The major, also, had a pretty serious track record (in both senses), having done interesting things in Bosnia and Iraq during his younger days.

The rest of us started with all the other rookies near the back. But even allowing for all the irritating jostling and jouncing that the first few hundred metres of these things entail, it was obvious within about five minutes that I was not going to be able to maintain the pace of my three comrades.

After a lightish, even slightly downhill start, the course diverts off Leoforos Marathonos (Marathon Avenue), to quickly pilgrimage around the mock-Homeric tumulus housing the dead Athenians from the eponymous battle. I remember grumpily noting that this could hardly have been part of Pheidippides’ original route.

The road then continues south alongside the Aegean Sea for a few more miles – or, rather, kilometres (see below) – before it turns west, through a pass between the Penteli mountain and Venizelos international airport, then comes down through some nondescript suburbs of Athens.

But I was nowhere near there yet. My brand new Merrell running shoes (classic newbie error), in which I’d done little more than jog around the Charlton parks and sidestreets in the previous weeks, were killing my feet. I was already bored, running (perhaps foreseeably?) alone, and having forgotten to bring anything to listen to. And it was (perhaps less foreseeably, in mid November), a bright and blastingly hot day.

More pertinently, though, I was just – quite predictably – not physically prepared to run 26 miles. And while all of those other things would have been problems anywhere, at any time, even when fit, the biggest problem with the Athens marathon is that, unlike my previous 13-miler experience on the almost mathematically-flat Silverstone (or this year’s closed-loop London event round St James’s Park), the road from Marathon is overwhelmingly uphill.

While checking this just now, in fact, I discovered that the Athens Classic Marathon is billed as ‘perhaps the world’s most difficult major marathon race. The course is uphill from the 10km mark to the 31km mark – the toughest uphill climb of any major marathon’ (emphasis very definitely mine). In other words, out of a fraction over 42km, half – and all in one relentless 21km stretch – was grindingly, relentlessly uphill.

Pheidippides had, in fairness, done a lot of running (several hundred kilometers, in fact) in the days before his last wee warm-down from the battlefield to Athens. And it was that that killed him, obviously. The Attic area in general, it might be said, is not ideal for distance running.

So there were several spells where, I must tell you candidly, I was not running. For all I know I may have walked a dozen times. I never felt I’d have to quit, per se, though the minibuses driving past with knackered drop-outs were increasingly appealing. But from the halfway point I knew that clearly I was going to have to ‘pace myself’. As I recall, it was the muscles round the tops of my knees that seemed most unwilling. But everything else goes too: brutalised feet, pinched shoulders, stinging eyes, headaches. The frequent med stands offered magic spray, tubes of high-sugar goop, bananas, all that stuff – but when you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ve no idea which of these aren’t the best idea.

And here I was in unknown physical territory. Everything I knew about the second half of marathons I knew from reading Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. A grand total of two things: 1) that marathon-running, like novel-writing (or vice versa), was a fundamentally simple, boring, matter of plodding on at your own consistent and established speed; and 2) that as the race – the actual running race – went on it would get exponentially worse. A marathon is not two half-marathons run consecutively.

So by the time we got to that ‘final’ 11km downhill section (still more than a quarter of the race to go, NB), a) I – and everyone around me – was too fatigued to enjoy it, or indeed anything; and b) our legs were now contorted and locked into a shunting-uphill shape, so actually coming downhill was just plain painful. (By then maybe everything would have been painful anyway. Who knows.)

Emotionally fatiguing, also, for me if not the mainland Europeans, were the mile-markers. Which weren’t in miles. At the beginning of the race this seems quite good, as you go striding past the numbered signposts faster than you’d have expected. But towards the end it is straightforwardly depressing, since by now you’re barely moving at all, in any measuring system, and it’s frustrating not knowing how far you have left til it’s all over. At this point in proceedings, that’s pretty much all you’re living for. (Google’s calculator offers the following helpful rule of thumb: ‘for an approximate result, divide the length value by 1.609’. Let me assure you, by this point I was not capable of dividing anything, let alone odd numbers in the higher thirties, by 1.609.)

Ultimately, I had to remind myself that my goal had been, bare minimum, to complete the damn thing. Still, I wasn’t exactly feeling bathed in glory

The friendly crowds were generous with their encouragements, and the water-stand volunteers and paramedics did their best to keep our chins above the level of the tarmac. Ditto one’s fellow runners, when they could spare the breath and energy – though I would note that having a weather-beaten pensioner, clad in toga and leather sandals, overtake you at the 35km mark with a cheery thumbs up isn’t necessarily the morale boost he may have thought it was.

It’s probably ridiculous at this juncture to suggest that I’d had any expectations whatsoever for my efforts that day. But human nature is what it is. I suspect I thought below four hours might have been nice, and broadly doable. But what with the beer, the new shoes, the night on the floor, the early, cold start, and, y’know, the total lack of training, perhaps attempting to put any sort of timeframe on the project was a little optimistic.

It’s possible that as I limped – if one can ‘limp’ with both legs – into sight of the Panathinaiko stadium, finishing point of both the 1896 and 2004 Olympic marathons, I might conceivably have been under the 4h30m mark. But by the time I crossed the line – sadly aware there would be cameras flashing (the results barely athletic, let alone heroic), the clock read 4h34m37s.

I was last of our group, and by some distance. Andreas – team victor by an unambiguous margin – had been sitting in his space blanket for almost an hour and a half. No doubt casually editing his dissertation, the bastard. The outright winner of the race, one Brett Raymond, finished in 2h11m35s. Andreas had only just missed out on making it into the top 100.

Ultimately, I had to remind myself that my goal had been, bare minimum, to complete the damn thing. Still, I wasn’t exactly feeling bathed in glory. So when I later checked the website, I found to my surprise that I – coming in at 3665th out of 6470 finishers – was only a little below halfway through the field. The man who came in last (age category 35-39) took over 8hrs.

And, well, I didn’t die. By post-battle standards, then and now, that’s not a bad result.

We got our stuff – bags, medals, T-shirts, and the rest of it – and set out south by tram to Phaleron War Cemetery, near the Piraeus. There, in the quiet, immaculate environs, we located Gunner Prosser (HAC)’s grave, and laid our wreath. As the sun began to set over the Saronic Gulf, we stood there in our shorts, wind-swept and wildly dehydrated, and tried to brace up.

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