This is a guest post by the love of my life, my wife Alexandra. Her passion for running is a great source of inspiration, as are her achievements! Our kids and me are enormously proud of her, although we begin to worry what on earth might be her next “running goal” ;)
As some of you may know, I have a passion for running – it is an essential part of my life. Any run will do to lift the spirit, whether short or long, easy or difficult. What makes running buzzy and exciting is setting a goal and pursuing it. As a matter of fact, running turned from mere exercise to a fun part of the day, when I started running with a stopwatch, and was able to benchmark myself.
Running a marathon (please read her post from last year) will always remain the ultimate challenge as not even the most experienced athlete can ever be sure of actually finishing, and even less of performing well. However during the year I stumbled across an event that intrigued me and I decided to go for it: Greece’s first and only mountain run during nighttime.
The run specifics read as follows:
Place: Mount Pelion (340 km north of Athens). Distance 16,1 km. Start time: 9pm. Max time to complete: 5 hours. Course profile: 8 km downhill – then 8,1 km uphill. Total elevation gain: 940 meters (or 3083 feet)
I am a city girl and admittedly I had no idea what to expect from a mountain trail or indeed an elevation gain of 940 meters. My perspective upon reading this was the following: I race 16 km in less than 1 hour 15 minutes. So I added another 15 minutes for the eventuality of having a bad day on the day and another 30 minutes to account for mountain difficulties. I sure ran up every Athenian ascent to train for it. I concluded that two hours would be an almost ridiculously generous estimate, for basically 8 uphill kilometers – after all, how hard could the first 8km be?
About 50 people signed up for the run. The communication, place and character of the event were all very low profile. I therefore presumed this to be an amateur happening, organized by local mountain run lovers looking for some fun. I envisioned the bib numbers being written up on A4 paper at the start line, latter being a chalk mark on the ground, medical care being restricted to a selection of different size plasters and the supply station actually being the forest fountain for water.
I enquired insistently about how the trail would be marked out. During such small events the crowd very quickly dissolves to everyone’s own pace, so you run mostly on your own, and I was terrified of the oversight of a turn in the darkness, amidst endless forest, at the top of a mountain, with no-one around to ask for directions.
Well, none of my expectations turned out right!
The organizer turned out being a celebrity in his field: Nikos Magitsis is the only Greek mountaineer having completed the Seven Summits. He is also a successful trail runner of international caliber – he has qualified and will to take part at the prestigious Mont Blanc Ultra Marathon on August 27th, 2010. He is nothing if not genuine – a very gentle man with immense love and respect for the mountains, nature, and trailing sports. He organizes such runs because of his devotion to the sport, and to give like-minded people the opportunity to experience such runs in a conscientiously organized environment. Professionalism and a deep sense of duty are evident already within the first moments of meeting him.
The starting point was almost at the mountaintop. For the start and finish line a gigantic bright orange blow-up gate had been set up, there were loud music, an ambulance, lots of helpers setting up the party afterwards and a euphoric running crowd warming up, with headlamps. It was dusk and the stunning views reached all the way down to the sea. For the record, my bib number was not handwritten, but was made of highly resilient, waterproof material, to withstand all mountain weather conditions – best quality bib I’ve come across so far.
Some runners carried the full range of available specialized gear for such events. Running rucksacks, camel packs (= drink bags), trekking poles, compression socks. The latter look quite funny. They are tight fitting, over-the-calf socks aimed at improving oxygen delivery to muscles and lead to greater muscle efficiency. I have no idea if it works. Apparently even compression underwear exists, but judging from the squeezy look of the socks, I would not really want to test that, and I am a woman.
Nikos answered my worries about getting lost with the well-natured quote he apparently has used before (and I was informed worriers have always been women): “There is absolutely no way that you will get lost – none! But if you DO get lost, don’t tell anyone because they will think you are an idiot.” I frowned at this, but during the run I had to laugh at myself. The markings were indeed absolutely idiot-proof. There were signs, reflectors and ribbons in the trees every 5 meters, as well as huge red arrows on the ground. In a trail not even known to Google Earth, it was an unmistakably delineated course. A fantastic achievement over 16 km in the dark!
The event was clearly not a competition. Everybody was in it for the challenge of finishing. The only rival was oneself and possibly the forest life we were warned about with the sentence: “if you hear anything running next to you and it doesn’t have a headlamp, don’t’ worry, it’s just a wild boar.”
For many – as for me – it was their first mountain run, and for everyone it was their first run in the darkness. We turned on our headlamps and off we went. Very soon, we were in the deep night. And soon after that, I was on already running alone.
Upon arriving at the first supply station, I found it to be a small oasis: there was light, a guy cheering up all runners as they arrived, music, nuts, crisps, energy drinks and gels – you name it, they had it. I wouldn’t be surprised if they handed out a whiskey if asked for one. Incidentally, there was no fountain in sight. It was all bottled stuff. Nikos took care of us.
I don’t know if there are adequate words to describe the trail and the feeling during the run. The course itself was made up of 30% dirt road and 70% mountain trail. The trail varied from dried up rivers that one could barely walk through because of the huge rocks to narrow paths that were less than 30 cm wide, where one could only do small steps not seeing their feet as vegetation was up to the waist.
I reached the bottom in 54 minutes. On a flat course I am already in my 12th km at that time. But the descent was, at times, so steep that I could either only progress sideways almost fearing the release of a landslide, or slowly slide-down the path because of the boulder. My thighs were sore from the strength it took to support me during this part.
I then commenced the climb, and it was literally that. Every so often I had to heave myself up from the surrounding tree branches. The concept of “running” was a joke, as even just walking was barely possible. Due to the complete darkness there was no indication of what was to come in the trail and where the end of a trail section was. On top of that, there was an utter lack of feeling for how much a distance one had covered, because no steady pace was possible.
At a forest plateau after what seemed like hours, a guy appeared completely unexpectedly and asked: “everything alright?” I was so concentrated on my effort, that it took me a moment to orientate, and to place him as one of the organizers, just checking on runners. I asked: “how long to go?” And he said: “3 km…..” My mental state was alert enough, to deduce that this meant I was just at 13 km – I honestly felt more like having done 33 km.
I did not experience the last trauma in this run, though: When I finally saw afar the finish line I started my homerun. There were noises to my right, and I turned to check them out. Hundreds of bright yellow spots reflecting on my headlamp light faced me, and immediately a huge noise followed, as the completely shocked goat herd started fleeing all at once in random directions. They must have wondered, what on earth was going on in their forest, that night!
The first woman to cross the finish line did so in 2 hours exactly. I followed second, not a minute too soon, in 2 hours 35 minutes and was just thrilled to have made it. The last runner came in after 5 hours 8 minutes.
When I arrived, the party was already going on, as lots of the runners’ families had come to celebrate their achievement with them. The atmosphere was wonderful; the crowd was relaxed and joyful, the mood easygoing and there were food and drink in abundance.
Nikos had even organized a winner’s ceremony with medals and cups. The great thing about that was that my kids thought their Mami (mum) was the greatest, for bringing home such a huge, shiny “second place” cup.
Upon leaving I genuinely thanked Nikos and his whole team of volunteers for everything. He assured me that the pleasure and fun were all his and that was his reason for doing it, every time. As a matter of fact, he would be getting married in September and was trying to convince his wife-to-be to just do a running event followed by a party like that one, instead of organizing another cliché reception.
Now, that’s original thinking, but quite a hard qualifier, to get to see the bride! I don’t know if under circumstances possibly requiring you to run up Mount Olymp in order to attend the ceremony, you really want to be on the guest list :)
I left Mount Pelion with the lingering feeling, that this was without a doubt the best organized, warm, friendly, intimate and definitely most fun event I have ever taken part in. It’s in such moments, that I am immensely proud of being Greek and of having such compatriots. Niko, kick butt at Mont Blanc! See you next year.
Many other stories about life in Greece can be found in the only in Greece column.