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42.195 kilometres from Marathon to Athens

In a marathon there may be a winner, but there are certainly no losers. Because in terms of the course, all the runners are equal. In Athens, the international running community meets every year in November in the town of Marathon to overcome the historic 42.195 kilometres to the Panathinaiko Stadium together. 15,000 athletes and sportspeople follow the blue line on the asphalt, whilst thousands of spectators cheer them on. Whether you take eight hours or two: everyone becomes part of the story, with the ancient world connecting to the present.

Lines on the ground, stripes on shirts, shorts and shoes. Such a marathon run brings a lot of colours into the city and onto the ground with all the colourful sportswear. Some wear neon-coloured professional running shoes on their feet, others run in leather sandals or barefoot shoes with toe separators, and one gentleman even runs in just his bare feet. The distance from Marathon to Athens is 42 kilometres – 42.195 kilometres to be precise. The course is the original marathon – insiders see the mother of all marathons as the most difficult challenge. For hobby runners, it is the ultimate accolade if you conquer the original marathon – and reach the finish line. However, the general feeling is that, like nowhere else, in Athens the idea of having been part of it is the focus of attention. Running partners, running friends and running groups from Athens and all over the world come together every November at this historic location where, according to legend, the foundation stone for the longest Olympic running discipline was laid 2,500 years ago. Today, the running shoes squeak into the bends on the wet asphalt.

"If you set off too fast, you will hardly reach the finish line"

Jens, Marathon runner from Bavaria

The Athens Authentic Marathon sees itself as an institution that wishes to convey a set of values. That is why freedom and friendship are also celebrated at the opening ceremony in Marathon. The official speakers of SEGAS, the national athletics association, together with the mayors of Athens and Marathon, underline once again that this event is open to everyone: to all ages, all sexes and all skin colours. Since 1982, the Athens Marathon has been considered a "celebration of the human spirit, solidarity and fundamental values, a celebration that conveys the message of a better future at personal, community, national and international level". In front of the holy hill in Marathon, at kilometre four, Greek dancers interpret the tragedy of the messenger runner, Pheidippides, in a performance: according to legend, in 490 BC, after winning the battle, he hurried from Marathon to Athens with the message of the Greek victory over the Persians. Exhausted by the exertions of his run, Pheidippides is said to have collapsed on the Areopagus, a rock to the west of the Acropolis, after bringing the good news. He died there on the spot. Whether truth or just a dramatic, tragic invention of the ancient writers, the myth about the messenger's run still fascinates people to this day. During the first Olympic Games in 1896, the first modern-day marathon race was also held, at that time exclusively among professional athletes. As a "meeting of the youth of the world", the Olympic Games serve to promote sporting comparison and international understanding. In 1982 the Greek Athletics Federation, SEGAS, proclaimed the first Athens Marathon.

Today, this competition no longer only inspires professional runners, but increasingly also ambitious recreational runners, families and groups – and does so internationally. The fact that over two thirds of the 20,000 start numbers for the 37th edition in 2019 had already been allocated six months in advance underlines the growing popularity of long-distance running. "The atmosphere in Athens is really unique, especially the run into the stadium," reports an enthusiastic American woman who is still waiting near the finish line for her mother. She is not out of breath after her finish, on the contrary: like many other marathon runners she looks surprisingly fresh. It is just the thighs that are tired, forcing the athletes to walk like a cowboy – or to lie on the ground. At the edges of the fenced area, which is only accessible to the participants, they sit and lie on the closed section of the road between the fences and palm trees. Some marathon runners stretch their muscles, others stare into the distance and recover from the strains of the last three to four hours. An elderly runner with grey hair strides through the crowd and helps a young athlete, who has obviously overdone it, to stand up. She gives him her hand and pulls him off the curb. Being part of it is everything!

"A marathon like this is basically decided over the first two kilometres," explains an experienced runner who is starting his 23rd marathon in Athens. He has great respect for the course, because it is not only considered the very first one but also the most difficult. The first ten kilometres from Marathon heading south start relatively flat, the runners circle the burial mound of the Athenians who fell in the battle of Marathon and continue towards the town of Nea Makri. From here on, the topography takes its toll for the first time and from here on leads the athletes further on uphill and downhill. "If you set off too fast, you will hardly reach the finish line," says Jens from Bavaria as well. He meets his international running friends in New York, Chicago, Tokyo and Berlin. In Athens, he is particularly pleased that his running partner from his hometown is accompanying him once again – in pairs or in a group, you can motivate each other, but also rein each other in. "At the start I always hear that I'm running too fast and then I have to slow down immediately," says the man in his mid-fifties. If you don't always know your limits, you need someone at your side who can slow you down.

"Downhill is the worst," says Mario. The 44-year-old from Brandenburg is not only running the Authentic Marathon in Athens for the first time, but also his very first marathon ever. A lost bet with his brother-in-law at first, but now a new hobby. The next marathon in New York 2020 is already booked. Mario laughs. The excitement turns into adrenaline, after the finish line into endorphins. "I don't feel anything right now," he says before picking up his clothes bag in the marked area, "but maybe that will still come." His thighs are shaking.

A few hours before: the sun is still hiding behind dark clouds, rain is pattering on the asphalt. Whilst all the runners were still dry at the start between 9 and 10 o'clock in the morning, they are now being refreshed by the weather gods and are grateful. In the middle of November, at 24 degrees it is much too warm for this season in the region around Athens: some wind would be great. All participants were brought by bus from Athens to the hilly landscape of Marathon, starting at 06:45 am. The feet are still tired, the mind too, the excitement grows by the minute. The starting numbers had to be collected the day before, and the 20,000 registrations are divided into 11 blocks, which start off at ten-minute intervals one after the other. The tightness is enormous, the atmosphere is rising. "Running is a washing machine for the soul," as the saying goes. On this Sunday, between Marathon and Athens, many souls will be washed, some even in the spin cycle. The ground between the start and finish line connects all the runners.

The ascent at the end of the course is a challenge even for the pros but going downhill is usually even more difficult. After the suburb of Pallini, the athletes reach the highest point of the course at kilometre 32, the blue line on the highway always marks the ideal line, whilst the wide yellow stripes define the lanes on the highway. From this point in Pallini, the last ten kilometres are almost only downhill towards Athens and into the Panathinaiko Stadium: the finish. Along the last five kilometres there is also an increasing number of spectators at the edge of the course. The shouts of bravo and clapping from the spectators help the marathon runners to keep up their pace over the final kilometres, some of them really pick up speed. "Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! You're all fantastic!" On the sidelines, the fans cheer, spur the athletes on, applaud, cheer and dance. Stages line the last few kilometres of the race, where bands and DJs provide a good atmosphere with music: on Marathon Day, Athens is transformed into a party city where everyone dances and runs. Every 2.5 kilometres volunteers have also positioned themselves to hand out small bottles of water to the passing runners, as well as bananas, chocolate bars or other snacks.

Shortly before the finish line, opposite the Hilton Hotel, the pros and amateur runners sprint past a glass sculpture; the finish line is not far away now. Meanwhile the sun is shining, and only small clouds pass by. The abstract statue of a runner points the way to the stadium, the "Kallimarmaro": Athens' megastructure, not far from the National Garden. In this gigantic setting, thousands of spectators are waiting for their fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, partners, friends and mates. Some get lost, find each other again, but also stumble over old acquaintances they met at another marathon – running is now done all over the world.

Sudden cheers in the left-hand stand as an elderly man crosses the finish line and raises his arms into the air. His running group has been waiting for him for quite some time and is happy that he too has managed the original marathon – and so did the whole travel party. Solidarity among sportspeople is very important. They are on first-name terms, help each other, give each other tips and always support each other. Friendship is the greater motivation for many participants, only then comes pride and happiness. Those who set off on their own will certainly make new friends on the gruelling course, because extreme situations like this weld people together. Forever. And the Marathon myth lives on.

How it all began

Marathon – a story

From Greece to the world: marathons are extremely popular, with every capital city in the world, from New York to Tokyo, from Cape Town to Helsinki, now hosting at least one marathon a year. The place of the same name, where it all began 2,500 years ago, can be found a good hour's drive away from Athens city centre.

The plain of Marathon lies on the Gulf of Euboea. The current community was formed during the administrative reform of 2010 by merging the larger neighbouring community of Nea Makri and the small rural communities of Grammatiko and Varnavas with Marathon. The coastal community of Marathonas lies ten kilometres above the Mediterranean Sea and would perhaps have been forgotten if, according to legend, the battle between 100,000 Persians and 10,000 Greeks had not taken place here in 490 BC. The tradition of the ancient, heroic run and the victory of the Greeks over the Persians is therefore commemorated every year with an official ceremony before the famous long-distance race. Then the sleepy landscape plains with their picture book hills surrounding the Greek community are besieged by buses and cars. Meanwhile, 20,000 runners, among them the international elite of athletes as well as enthusiastic hobby athletes, travel from Athens to Marathon in the early morning hours of Sunday, the day of the competition, to run the reverse route of the original marathon together. A new stadium was even built for this purpose, where the Olympic flame is lit before each marathon run.

One day before, the current protagonists of the marathon community meet in the shade of the gnarled olive trees at the birthplace of the marathon. The runners still like to tie olive branches into their hair to this day. Ancient history still accompanies the place: the inhabitants of Marathon are proud of the legend of the messenger runner, Pheidippides. A smaller hill, which is covered with ochre-green grass, is considered sacred – nobody may walk on it, ever. It is the burial mound under which, according to folklore, the Athenians who died in the battle of Marathon are supposed to have been buried. Not far from other burial mounds, visitors today make a pilgrimage to the Marathon Museum to view the archaeological finds from the surrounding area. Today, Marathon is also closely connected to sport besides the marathon run. Since the Olympic Games in 2004, for example, regular rowing regattas and canoe races have been held here on a specially constructed course, and diving and snorkelling is possible on the nearby coast. For Athens, Marathon is not only the place where the annual race originates, but there is also a reservoir here that supplies the metropolis with drinking water. Surrounded by olive groves, the lake is now a popular destination for excursions – especially for the Athenians themselves. Even though the place owes its importance to a military conflict, Marathon is today a symbol of peace, freedom and friendship, as Mayor Stergios Tsirkas announced at the opening of the 37th Marathon.

Beautiful marble

Of old and new sports heroes

As early as 7 o'clock in the morning, the first people start their training, some come every day. The Panathinaiko stadium is not only a popular venue for runners in Athens, but also seen as a highly symbolic building for a city, for an entire nation.

Although the marble stadium, which rises today at the foot of the holy Arditos hill, is "only" the reconstruction of its ancient predecessor, the Kallimarmaro (Greek: beautiful marble), as it is called by the Athenians, has lost none of its imposing appearance. If the origin of the arena goes back to the year 330 B.C., when the sacred rounds of the Panathenian Games took place here, it was converted into the Herod Atticus hippodrome just 500 years later, around 140 A.D. On the ancient foundations, which were excavated in 1870, the impressive stadium was rebuilt for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Since 1982, the stadium has been used every year as the finish line for the Athens Marathon. The construction became world famous in 2004 when the Greek national football team became European champions. The 250 meter long, white shimmering horseshoe looks gigantic in the urban fabric of Athens, even from the Acropolis.

With exactly 50 steps, the marble grandstands surround the inner oval and are divided into two tiers. Because each tier begins with a massive platform, the first steps have a double step size, which gives their ascent a certain humility. Visitors encounter exciting details everywhere, starting with the playful iron railings on the side staircases, the built-in water basins, the numbers on the staircases that lead the spectators up to the prominent premium seats with the decorated marble cheeks on which everyone is allowed to sit today. Tourists can learn about the Panathinaiko Stadium by audio guide, whilst an attached museum offers further information and Olympic trophies, a collection of advertising posters and the torches used for all Olympic summer and winter games of modern times. A gang of stray cats guards the stadium and lives under the pines. The runners meet in the park, which is laid out around the horseshoe arena on the hill. Until 10 pm you can go hiking, running, jogging or just relax – many Athenians love the forest for a walk with their dog. Sportspeople and athletes meet on the gallery to train in semicircles and enjoy the view over Athens. From below you can only see their heads, which are bobbing up and down in a regular rhythm. From the front, you look directly at the proud columns of the Acropolis.

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