An Unlikely Win in Athens

All photos have been kindly provided by George Spyros

I went into the Eirindromia 10km race thinking I could maybe get a top 30 finish. It was going to be hot, though, about 25 degrees at 9am, and I could see there were  a good few athletes around me who looked very organised (warming up with purpose, in groups, in luminous running shoes). Then my friend Viktor, who knows many of the top local athletes, started to point to various people and say something like ‘Oh, he’s a strong runner, and that one is very famous…’ so that sealed it, I’d be lucky to get top 50.

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But Viktor was filming the race and he told me to stay at the front when the starters gun went off so as to feature in the footage at least at the beginning, so when the Mayor of the district of Athens we were in had finished her speech and fired the pistol I set off at a fast pace and tried to keep up with the 5 guys in front of me.

Now, because I don’t speak Greek I had no idea that the format of the race had been changed from what it should have been. I’d been told that the 10k would start at 9am, then the 5k at 9.10am, so I had this in my mind. But the reality was that because of an issue that I hadn’t been aware of both races started at the same time. So when I saw 5 guys race off in front of me, I didn’t realise they were running the 5k, I just thought they were really fast 10k runners and that I should at least try to keep on their heels for a while.

It was a hilly course and I passed a guy at the end of the first major hill, which then led into a nice downhill for a couple of kms. Here I was battling with the 4th place guy, he seemed intimidated by me and I decided to throw everything I had into crushing his spirit. So I really went full out on that downhill, and then when we turned into an uphill section and he was still with me I knew I had to keep the pressure on. Soon he fell behind and by the 4km mark I turned back and saw him about 30 seconds behind. That felt good. I had no chance of getting 3rd as the guy was way in front of me, but if I could hang onto 4th place that would be something.

I didn’t understand that all these guys where running the 5km, and that in reality I was in 1st place in the 10k race. I went through the 5km mark in just over 19 minutes, the crowds here were good as the 10k race was 2 laps of the 5km course, Viktor ran beside me for a 100 metres shouting what I thought was ‘You’re in 4th place, keep going!’ but what he really said was ‘You’re in 1st place, keep going!’

It was really hot now and I hadn’t drunk since I had my usual small bottle of chia seed water 2 minutes before the start. I looked back and saw a guy about 15 seconds behind me. Then in front there was the official car with the clock on top of it, and a police motorcycle and a couple more motorcycles clearing people out the way. I thought how nice it was that 4th place gets this treatment too. They must have 2 official race cars and this was for the field that was way behind the top 3 runners. A bit odd, I thought, but great for me as I git to experience the front of the race feeling. These Greeks are really nice, I smiled as I ran, they certainly know how to make a guest feel special.

So at the big hill I thought it was time to break the guy behind me. I didn’t want to lose 4th place. So I gave the hill all I had and when I got to the top I looked back and could see that he was further back now, and then I rounded the corner and really put the hammer down so that when he reached the top of the hill I’d be a lot further away than he’d thought I’d be and his spirit would be broken. He said afterwards that this was the point where he knew he wouldn’t catch me. Which was wrong, it was just that I’d made him think he couldn’t catch me, and he had believed me instead of having faith in himself to catch me. So my tactic had worked.

The rest of the lap was full of race volunteers shouting ‘Bravo’ and ‘Orea!’ (‘lovely!’) as I passed and the last of the 5km runners doing the same, and I made sure I gave them all the thumbs up and a smile. The final 2kms was a steady uphill and I started to feel the heat, I’d taken a bottle of water at the 7km mark and poured most of it over my head but it hadn’t helped much. I was lucky it was only a 10km race as I couldn’t have stayed out there at that pace for long. I really enjoyed the feeling of running behind the official race car and I kept imagining that this must be how Kenyans feel when they run marathons, with the car and police in front. It’s pretty good fun.

The timing clock suggested that I might beat my personal best time, so I resolved to try to empty my reserves and make it a day to remember. I may only get 4th place, I thought, but I would get a personal best time, if I tried extra hard.

I took to the shadows of tall buildings whenever I could and in this way I only ran in full sun for about half of the remaining distance, which was a relief as I was getting to the sort of temperature where I didn’t have long before I might not be in total control any more.

I felt like giving up on that final climb and being sick but reminded myself that at this stage of the race, everybody who was running hard was going to feel the same way and the ones who would do their best were the ones who would overcome themselves.

I thought of the great Greek champion Merousis, whom I saw running at the Athens marathon a few years ago. He doesn’t run like the Kenyans, as in, he doesn’t float over the ground, rather, he powers through the air, slightly leaning forward, looking like nothing will stop him. Kind of like when Daniel Craig walks forward when he’s acting the part of James Bond. Focused, powerful. And I thought, ok, I have to run like that. Power each foot backwards from every step and push myself forward and feel like nothing will stop me. So that’s what I did.

And then came the finish straight. I heard the announcer calling out my name and everybody was cheering, and the final 50 metres seemed to last a long, long time in a good way.

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I was busy waving and smiling to everybody and making sure the kids who lined the street got a view of a happy runner rather than a panting, flat out tired runner. Every time we finish a race in front of kids we’re setting an example, so what do we want to teach them? That running is a thing to be joyful about, is my answer, that it makes you feel good and smile, and bond with those around you, that it makes you want to celebrate life, give people high fives, thumbs up, spread positive feeling.

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As I crossed the finish line they had a banner held by 2 ladies that I had to break through, but I couldn’t break it as it was really more like plastic than paper and so I just stopped and smiled at everybody and then tried not to be sick, all the while thinking, wow, all this fuss for 4th place, this is really good, they were shouting like crazy along that home straight, that was great, I’m so lucky that they’re such an enthusiastic crowd.

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Over the next hour, as I sat in the shade of a tree cooling down and recovering, many locals came up and shook my hand, some asked to have their photos taken with me. Of course, I said yes. I’m a bit of an attention seeker so all this sort of thing pleases me. It was only when I saw Viktor again to speak to – he’d been busy filming the race – and he said

‘You must go over there, to the podium, to get your prize’ and I asked,

‘Prize? What for, old man age category or something?’ and Viktor said,

‘You got 1st place overall, you didn’t realise?’ and then it dawned on me, everything I had experienced made sense where before it was all confusing.

The awards ceremony was fun, and I could see that some locals looked at my shoes and my general appearance – I’m not a well-muscled guy and don’t cut the appearance of being much of a powerful athlete at all – and were a little surprised, I think that they couldn’t understand how I could win with such worn out shoes (both shoes have holes in the uppers) and thin legs. I understand, my shoes do look pretty beat up and like many modern people it’s normal among Greeks to put too much emphasis on how things appear and force themselves to have an opinion, rather than just leave any given situation alone if they’re not qualified to comment on it (and I guess I do see the irony in what I just had an opinion about, it’s something I’m working on…). Then there was more posing and photos and it was all great fun. I got a trophy which Mum will like and a voucher for some sports clothes. There were also some vegan vitamin tablets in my winner’s bag which I thought was really great; usually where I race in the UK or Canada the product you get given is either unhealthy-pretending-to-be-healthy sports junk nutrition or else product geered towards non-vegans. Which, bearing in mind current scientific and medical thinking, is pretty ridiculous really. So bravo to the Greek organisers for having advanced thinking in this respect.

All in all a superb day out and a most unexpected victory! If you’d like to know more about the event, or even race it yourself next year, please see http://eirinodromia.gr/

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