My 5th marathon took me to Thessaloniki in Northern Greece for the Alexander The Great Marathon in early April. Although not a really well-known race (approx 1700 runners) it is in fact a Bronze IAAF course and one of historical significance as it starts at the birthplace of Alexander The Great in Pella and ends at the landmark White Tower by the coast in Thessaloniki. Prior to the race I managed to reach Lefteris, an ME sufferer of over 20 years who told me about what it's like to have ME there -click here. Although I was unable to find an ME association or charity in Greece and managing to get local press for my trip was fruitless, I did get some tweets from the marathon organisers and gained some Greek followers to the challenge as well as hitting the £3000 mark for Invest In ME on the morning of the race.
A 4.30am wake up call, stretch, rushed breakfast of bananas and cereal bars followed by a mile or so walk to the buses leaving for the start line. I'm on the bus for a 45 min drive through pitch black industrial land, the only Brit and wondering what on earth I've signed myself up for! The other end, there's an hour of waiting about in the village of Pella until it gets light, doing some stretching and calming my mind ready for the noisy start. I meet a guy called Steve who was British and chat to him, it's his first marathon and I'm delighted to read later that he beat his target time of 4hrs 30. We begin the race in front of the Alexander The Great statue to the sound of drums and a decent crowd of villagers, with an immediate declining route out into the Devon-like countryside.
After a mile of jostling, it spaces out and the first 3 or 4 miles are quite scenic and I've had a good start. The field is nearly all natives but I spot two scousers nattering and veer over for a quick chat. One is wearing a '100 Marathon Club' t-shirt, he's in his mid-50's and is going at a steady old pace (he'll finish in sub 3 hrs 45), inspiring. We're now on the motorway (groan) with an equal amount of undulating mini-hills and disgusting roadkill of all varieties. I'm doing OK, on track for a sub 4-hr race, a little bit bored as we've not seen a non-running human for a long time but well fuelled and in control as I get to 10 miles in around 1 hr 25 mins.
Into the halfway point and David Bowie and some jellybeans have got me to a solid 1hr 52 mins. The sky is brightening above me and a light wind picks up through the small satellite town of Agios Athanasios. There's plenty of refreshment stops along the way to be fair to them, they give out bottles without caps on which is quite annoying as I like to run with a bottle in hand and it's sloshing all over me. Next stop I duck down to pick up some discarded bottle caps and feel very smug at my ingenuity. There's a few locals out on the street clapping us along; 'Bravo' although most look at us like the crazy folk we are.
I'm passing more people than are passing me (always nice) as we approach 17 miles and my Garmin tells me that I'm clinging on to sub 9 minute miles. The views around me are mostly of petrol stations, boarded up shops and houses with some occasional greenery, most unusually of all, there's actually a standalone 'Gentlemans Club' on this route, erm. Also every few hundred metres there are what look like birdhouses with lit candles and Jesus pictures inside; classically Greek, I've seen these before in Corfu. Mile 17 brings a steep incline over a bridge and it proves to be a bit of a beast as my average miles start to dip into the mid 9's. As I hit 20 miles I'm on 2 hrs 56 and thinking that grinding out 6.2 miles in 54 mins is pretty possible.
The road signs are showing less than 10km to Thessaloniki which is great news and I'm stuffing my face with more jellybeans, gels and bananas through to mile 23. My hips are starting to tighten and I need to stop briefly to do some stretching but get going again without too much issue. A lot of people around me are walking and there's some folk who have tapped out to watch under foil blankets on the pavement. I feel for them, it's something I know out of 28 races will happen to me at least once but today I'm determined to get to the White Tower at all costs. Another brief stop at 24 to sort out my calf and I'm away again, lost running form a bit and it's turned into more of a jog as the top of my thighs are burning.
Midway between mile 24 and I can see the port (near to our hotel) and I know I'm not far out from the promenade down to the finish which I'm expecting to be hugely uplifting. I'm not disappointed as huge crowds spill out of coffee bars to cheer and shout alongside the samba band. Earphones out now and the buzz is fantastic. I've lost my sub-4 hours but I'm not especially bothered, it's my first of the year and probably the earliest race start I'll encounter. What I think is the finish line by the White Tower is in fact an arch from one of the sponsors, there's still another 200 metres to go. Expletives fall out of my mouth as I try to spot Cat wielding her camera in the crowd. I smile (grimace) and I'm over the line, clutching the medal and about to fall over.
Some alcohol free beer and loads of Powerade are thrust at me and I collapse on the grass before a few more triumphant photos. It wasn't my best race and probably not the most enjoyable to run but I'm happy to have it ticked off and more money in the bank for my ME patient friends. I walk back to get a shower and a big lunch(time pint), we've got an afternoon boat cruise in the sun lined up and I'm looking forward to a week off running before the start of Stockholm (Marathon 6) training begins!
Gallery Pics Here
Video (1 hr 21 mins)
Overcast and 10C at the start rising to 18C with sunny intervals in the middle of the race. Strong headwind from mile 15 onwards.