The Agony and the Ecstasy

It is rare, even after more than 20 years of writing about international sport, that I have felt total kinship with a top athlete. As a journalist, you tend to record the facts and imagine the emotions. But there was one morning in November 2005 when I knew exactly how the Kenyan marathon runner Paul Kanda felt.

Kanda had just come in third in the Athens Classic Marathon. He smiled, waved at the crowd and then disappeared up the tunnel at the side of the Panathanaic Stadium, the hallowed venue for the 1896 Olympic Games.

I walked with him, microphone in hand, asking him about the race. He managed a few staccato comments and then suddenly doubled over and vomited on the marble floor.

Once. Twice. Then a pause as he rested with his hands on his knees staring at the ground. Slowly he straightened up, wiped his mouth with his shirt and looked at me. I recognised the dead look in his eyes, the total exhaustion.

“That was tough – very, very tough,” he whispered before continuing with the curving uphill trudge to the changing rooms.

That was tough. He said it. And in that moment I felt kinship with him. I knew exactly, down to the last gut-wrenching “I think I am going to die” feeling, what was going through his mind and his body.

Yes, his time for the 42.2 kilometre course was a little quicker than when I had foolishly pitted myself against history three years earlier – just under two hours 17 minutes compared with my four hours 40 minutes. And yes, he had also collected a little bit of booty for his troubles, while I just had sore nipples and a couple of black toenails that subsequently fell off.

But when it came to the nausea and the pain we were joined. We both recognised that the Athens Classic Marathon was a mean son of a bitch, the kind of course that – as the myth mistakenly claims happened to poor old Pheidippides once he had delivered news of victory to the citizens of Athens – would kill you if it could.

And that, perversely, is also what makes it one of the world’s great marathons. Apart from being the oldest – forget Pheidippides for a moment for his story has no historical basis and trace the race’s history from the 1896 Olympics when Spiros Louis necked a glass of wine en route to becoming the first Olympic marathon champion – it is, as Kanda so rightly put it, tough. Really tough.

Even truly great runners like Paula Radcliffe can underestimate the toughness of the Athens marathon course

One of the most compelling images of the 2004 Olympic Games was the sight of Britain’s Paula Radcliffe in floods of tears after pulling out of the women’s marathon just five kilometres from the end.Radcliffe was, and still is, the world record holder. But she made the mistake of underestimating the course.

“I met her in the Pyrenees in May 2004, just before the Olympics and I told her she should not go too fast at the start the way she normally does. I said it wasn’t right for the course,” says four-times ACM winner and Greek record holder Nikos Pollias.

“On the day of the race my brother was a volunteer and I gave him a message for her, just saying that it was going to be a very warm day. I told her not to hurry, be patient. But she ran her race, she went off fast at the beginning and she paid the price.

“This course is not like other courses. It is very difficult and if you don’t respect it, then it will punish you.”

This Sunday – November 11 – sees the 30th ACM, and around 5,000 people are expected to compete. This is way more than when I ran a decade ago when we barely reached 2,000. Pushing the date of the race back a week so that it doesn’t clash with New York has certainly helped with the race’s visibility.

The ACM gets underway from the plains of Marathon and winds its way through the hills and into Athens

Unlike other marathons, such as London or New York, there is little in the way of charity runners. No Elvis impersonators, no rowing crews running with boats on their heads, no giant teacups to sneak up and embarrass you at the finishing line.The lack of charity runners is a shame especially when you consider that the London Marathon, which admittedly has many more runners, brings in millions of euros every year for every good cause under the sun.

Nor are there in the ACM the pavements crowded with well-wishers – in London half a million people crane their necks to catch a glimpse of a loved one or a workmate as he or she staggers by with a brave smile on their face – or the bands playing outside pubs and cafes.

For the time being, the ACM is a serious matter. It is about running, the agony of completing a tough course and the ecstasy of crossing the line and maybe, just maybe, achieving a personal best.

That does not stop people from all backgrounds, nationalities and age groups from taking up the challenge of following in the footsteps of  Spiros Louis and Stefano Baldini, the Italian who won the 2004 Olympic marathon.

Paul Samaras is a Greek American who every year brings over dozens of runners from the US to take part in the race. He remembers vividly the case of a 71-year-old who made the trip.

Perhaps the greatest sight for any runner: the finish line at the Kalimarmero Stadium where Spiros Louis won the original Olympic marathon in 1896

“This gentleman had never run a marathon but he knew his Greek history and he read that in ancient times runners would carry weights which they would drop at some point in the race to give them an edge. Like shedding a few pounds,” says Samaras.

“He had done all his training by running around his dining room table. We were a bit worried, but he said he was okay.

“He then walked all the way with the weights in his hands. It took him nine hours. I walked with him towards the end and when we got to the stadium it was empty except for the people tidying up.”

I have a feeling that Paul Kanda and that septuagenarian would have understood each other pretty well.

©Barney Spender 2012 (versions of this story have previously appeared in Athens News and