By Aki Bayz, Attorney
Growing up in Athens (Platia Mavilis during the high school years), visiting my family in Mati, on the eastern coast a few kilometers south from Marathon, was a regular ritual throughout the seasons. On the drives there and back I would fantasize about the hoplites trudging along rugged paths in full battle armor and the swift-footed messengers heralding news and commands between the fortified city center and the front lines.
After decades of DC big law firm practice and a cancer diagnosis, when my twin sons entered Gonzaga High School in 2016 I committed to run “The Marathon.” When I would share with others that I was training for The [emphasis added] Marathon, almost no one would guess the reference was to the Athens Authentic Marathon held annually on the second Sunday of November.
My initial enthusiasm for this new activity was tampered when my vigorous training with the wrong footwear resulted in a lesser metatarsal fracture that required a right foot boot for six weeks. Personal matters and the global pandemic facilitated my decision to retire in 2022, allowing time to pursue seriously the objective of completing the 42,195 meter trek.
I was never a runner (other than coaching my sons’ soccer teams), and no particular desire to be a marathon runner. It was the desire to complete the authentic course that was my driving objective. The night before my first run in November 2022 my son Constantine penned a text to the family group:
To many, retirement is just an excuse to sit back, put on a few kilos, and watch their favorite shows from the comfort of their own couch. For Aki, the mere thought of this idea would make him chuckle, as he laces up his tennies at 6am for an early morning run through the treacherous terrain of Washington DC.
Today, Aki stands in the blistering winds of Marathona beach, only 42 kilometers away from his dream of not only running a marathon, but reliving the sheer emotion, exhaustion, and exuberance of the mighty Pheidippides, an iconic moment in the history of Greece. Through injury, doubt, and even a pandemic, Aki has kept his cool, knowing his day would come.
Thus, at 60 I completed my first marathon, official time 5.06.09, within striking distance of my five hour target. Amidst the overwhelming exhaustion and euphoria of the race, my first thought crossing the finish line was the intense desire to run again, and committed to do so the following year.
The whole atmosphere of the competition was celebratory, beginning with the participants and fans gathering at Marathon Stadium starting at 6am, pumped along with quality rock & roll, pop-up dance parties, crystalline morning skies, and brisk air. The elite runners (i.e, the two-hour-and-some-minutes ones) kick off the race in the fist Block at 9:02 am; newbies like me are at the back of the 15,000 participant pack in Block 10, and wait for the final gun at 9.44 to start running. Crowds line the streets, and I expended a fair amount of energy sprinting from side to side of the two lane course to high five the childrens’ outstretched hands, accepting olive branches, and throwing kisses to the cheering crowds.
The same carnival scene was repeated this November 12, the 40th anniversary of the event, and my second run. Participation swelled to a record 21,000 runners. My prior time placed me in Block 8 with a 9.30 start time.
The experience of the first run and multiple childhood drives to the eastern coast of Attica on the same road as the course helped formulate my strategy: not burning too many reserves on the initial 12k run to Rafina (enjoying the sun rising above the Aegean) and anticipating the brutal steady uphill from km 17 to 31 across Pallini. From there, commencing in front of the ERT TV Station HQ where its full band plays for the front runners (only the instruments remained by the time I got there) the path rolls as a gentle downward slope that “moves the body on its own” as a veteran fellow runner explained. The crowds got bigger with each passing block, through neighborhoods where I lived and others I knew well. The official course signs designate each passing kilometer and further encouragement as the goal becomes closer.
An injury can occur at any second, and it is common to hear loud groans and even screams of a runner’s despair and pain at being forced to stop. For me the most critical component of the run is to listen to the body, and walk when a muscle or a joint is yelling for relief to prevent a potentially serious malfunction. The strategy worked. Passing the Running Man glass statute in front of the (under renovation) Hilton, I stopped for water and a selfie with my cousin who was among the crowd.
From there I turn onto Irodou Attikou and the final 700 meter stretch to Kalimarmaro, passing between the Prime Minister’s residence at Megaro Maximum and the National Gardens of Athens. All of my remaining energy (at this point running on fumes) goes into the final sprint. Fifty meters from the finish line I come to a near halt when my right hamstring cramps. A Serbian millennial picks me up and she encourages the final push, helping me achieve a new personal best time (a full minute and 16 seconds faster). There is plenty of time for improvement.