David Owen

When it comes to marathons, I am unashamedly snobbish, or perhaps I mean romantic.

For me, the only true marathon is the one that retraces, as closely as feasible, the steps of Pheidippides, who is believed to have brought Athenians news of their against-the-odds victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.

I have nothing against the other races that have proliferated in recent decades, from Anchorage to Antarctica; on the contrary.

But Athens is the only marathon I have ever, or will ever, run.

So it is pleasing to see that Greece and the local region of Attica have really started to put their weight behind this extraordinary cultural asset - I know, they have a few - and are transforming it slowly but surely into a mass participation event worthy of its unique heritage.

When I first took part 15 years ago, stealing out of my hotel in the pitch black to catch the bus to Marathon 25 miles away, there were about 3,500 of us, enough to kick up quite a racket as we padded off towards the distant capital, but no great number by international marathon standards.

The clatter of rubber on tarmac set off numerous neighbourhood dogs, who serenaded us as we passed; indeed I was once startled to glance over my shoulder and see a canine intruder loping along happily enough with the pack just behind me.

More disconcerting were the cars which, by the time I made it to Athens with the other laggards, were snarling impatiently at major crossroads, like caged tigers, waiting for the road to reopen to traffic.

Nowadays, the thoroughfares along which the race, labelled "the Authentic", passes remain safely shut for thirteen hours, until 7pm.

There are five times as many runners as in 2003, as well as a full portfolio of shorter races, taking total participants on the day to 55,000, with plans to increase this further to 80,000 over the weekend within four years.

Runners depart Marathon en route for Athens in Sunday's race ©ITG
Runners depart Marathon en route for Athens in Sunday's race ©ITG

Events related to the race have been added, and stretch over three days.

There is a flame-lighting, a glittering gala at which the best marathon runners of the year are crowned, a marathon symposium attended by race organisers from around the world and, as of this year, a specially composed hymn, performed for the first time by the Greek Radio Symphony Orchestra as the leading runners neared the finishing-line.

Marathon-related programming is shown live on national television for three days running, including more than five hours on the day of the race.

The start area, among the orange trees and olive groves of the Marathon district, has also been completely, and I would think quite expensively, remodelled so as to be able to accommodate so many extra runners and the ancillary services they need, which these days are first-rate.

In 2003, I noticed queues of Soviet proportions building up before the start at the portable toilets that had been made available, with supply and demand so out of kilter that a nearby hillside was doubling as a latrine.

Last Sunday (November 11), the athletics track in an adjoining sports stadium was ringed with dozens upon dozens of portable loos.

The transformation over a decade and a half has been enormous, with the impetus largely instilled by the force of nature that is general manager Makis Asimakopoulos and his friendly, super-motivated team.

Watching Asimakopoulos choreograph the final minutes in the finishing-zone before winner, Brimin Kipkorir Misoi of Kenya, strides into view is like watching the conductor of an orchestra in full flow: it is his domain and his authority appears absolute.

The setting for the final few metres of the runners’ ordeal is nothing short of magical: the white marble Panathinaic Stadium also entered by Spyridon Louis when he won the inaugural Olympic marathon in 1896.

This remains, for my money, the world’s most beautiful sports venue; it will always be one of the holy places of world sport.

A runner dressed as an Ancient Greek soldier and running barefoot goes on his way in a race that is rooted in the legend of Pheidippides and the Battle of Marathon in 490BC ©ITG
A runner dressed as an Ancient Greek soldier and running barefoot goes on his way in a race that is rooted in the legend of Pheidippides and the Battle of Marathon in 490BC ©ITG

With the exception of this stunning arena, you would have to acknowledge that the course is far from an ideal of Classical beauty.

I would describe it for the most part as hotch-potch suburban sprawl, with kick-boxing schools and Asian street food cheek by jowl with traditional Greek cafes and car dealerships.

One of the landmarks I used to use was a Carrefour hypermarket signalling the end of the long haul up from the coastal plain; today, though, in another sign of the times, Lidl outlets seem more noticeable.

There is also much graffiti, especially in the yellow and black of AEK, one of the local football clubs.

I am doubtless in the minority here, but I think all of this adds to, rather than detracts from, the race’s character.

For one thing, while the event will always be anchored in legend, the unprepossessing backdrop means that the runners, who descend on Attica from every continent, cannot stay entirely cocooned in a historical bubble.

I think this is healthy, especially after an extended period when the whole of Greece has been required to demonstrate its resilience in the face of economic crisis.

For another thing, the ordinariness of the roadside scenes makes the spell cast by the Panathinaic Stadium all the more powerful.

This year, the course also bore witness to the savage summer fires which cost 99 people their lives in adjacent communities and destroyed many houses.

Fittingly, the 2018 race sought to raise money to replant trees in the affected areas, in an initiative called "Runners’ Forest".

Should you wish to contribute, you can donate here www.act4greece.gr .

The race went through areas in Greece savaged by the summer's highly traumatic wildfires ©ITG
The race went through areas in Greece savaged by the summer's highly traumatic wildfires ©ITG

Participants were also handed green bandanas to symbolise the re-greening that needs to take place.

For all their efforts, there is one characteristic of the Athens marathon Asimakopoulos and his team are powerless to do anything about.

Since it runs from the coast to the capital, there is a lot of climbing, to around 230 metres, or the equivalent of going about two-thirds of the way up the Eiffel tower.

This makes it exceptionally tough.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this: conditions are the same for all competitors.

But it means that the crème de la crème of marathon runners, who typically will take part in only two, perhaps three, of these gruelling races each year, tend to give Athens a wide berth, preferring fast courses like Berlin, Chicago and London.

The best men’s time in the Greek capital stands at 2 hours 10min 37sec, run by Felix Kandie, another Kenyan, in 2014; Misoi’s time - just 19 seconds slower - was the third-fastest ever.

On the women’s side, the five fastest times to date were all set in the same race - the 2004 Olympic Marathon, won in 2:26:20 by Mizuki Noguchi of Japan, in the contest that ended so distressingly for Paula Radcliffe, whose world record, set 15 years ago in London, still stands.

Last Sunday’s Athens winner, Kenya’s Shelmith Muriuki, got nowhere near Noguchi’s time, crossing the line, the 17th finisher overall, in 2:36:46.

The winning time of Kenya's Brimin Kipkorir Misoi was the third fastest in the history of the Athens Marathon ©Athens Marathon
The winning time of Kenya's Brimin Kipkorir Misoi was the third fastest in the history of the Athens Marathon ©Athens Marathon

Yet Athens, the original marathon course, to me, should be the gold standard, an essential destination for the world’s finest runners, with the same sort of aura as the Monaco Formula One circuit in motor-racing or St Andrews in golf.

So, is the Athens marathon ever likely on a regular basis to attract a field of comparable strength to those that line up year in year out in their domains for the Monaco Grand Prix and the Open Championship?

Alas, for all the recent progress, it still seems a long shot.

With the very best runners able, I am told, to command six-figure appearance fees when selecting the events they will compete in, it seems a massively tall order for  Athens organisers to contemplate following a financial route to pre-eminence, ie by making their race so lucrative the best of the best will decide they cannot afford to miss it.

If you cannot cross palms sufficiently with silver, the only other way of achieving the same end, so far as I can see, is to make at least some of the races contested on the course so prestigious the best athletes, once again, will not want to miss them. 

Persuading the International Association of Athletics Federations to accord special recognition or status to the record times set on the course might go some way to attaining this goal, although I fancy more might still be needed.

I do have one inkling of a thought, which is to convince the International Olympic Committee to insist that either the men’s or the women’s Olympic marathon race be staged on the Athens course in each edition of the Summer Olympics.

After all, if it is now okay seemingly for a Winter Olympic bid emanating from Stockholm to contemplate holding some events in Latvia, why not return every four years to the cradle of Olympism for this one special event, irrespective of where the Games as a whole are being held?

If you were to adopt that blueprint, it would mean that the actual Host City would still have a marathon to stage; but, equally, most of the very best runners, male and female, could be expected to race against each other from Marathon to Athens at least once in their careers.

It is not a perfect fix, I admit; but it is the best I have been able to come up with.

Meanwhile, this gem of sporting endeavour, set in a context that encourages you to reflect on history, geopolitics and the organisation of human society, goes from strength to strength under the impetus injected by Asimakopoulos and his doughty troops.

I would heartily recommend that anyone with the slightest inclination to subject themselves to the peculiar and profoundly searching ordeal of a twenty-six and a quarter mile run consider registering for the Athens Marathon, the Authentic at least once in their life.