The morning of the race dawned hot and red in the east. It had been a long night. A scops owl had decided to broadcast ownership of his territory by “chlanging” from the tree outside my room. He rhythmically goes “chlang”, or perhaps “pioo”, hard to write it down phonetically, every 4 seconds for hours. Now, I love these small owls, but even I was becoming stressed by 02:00. Just as I’d closed the glass doors behind the louvred shutters the swine stopped! Then somewhere a loose shutter went “kerrlump-bump” at irregular intervals. I was awake before my alarm.
This was my first race since 1998, so the nerves I felt were fresh but well-remembered. I kept busy, ate a blueberry and honey oat bar, then got ready. Nip-ease patches on; body glide on; number 3019 on; and at 07:20 walked in my yellow kit down to the rather deserted start.
I put my rucksack in the Alónnisos Café, ate an SiS caffeine gel, then bimbled about meeting other runners before the mayor gave us the countdown: “Tria dýo mía kínisi!” We were off and straight into a 1km climb from Patitiri harbour. I was near the back with a couple behind me and a couple just ahead; the rest were young, fast and gone! I was the only 60+ in the race. The hills were mad, and the heat was unrelenting. I wore my white Inov8 cap at my Passepartout’s suggestion, and it was the best advice I could have had. Finally the course turned down to Milia Beach and I caught up with a 34 year old Athenian chap called Krónos – he held the name of the god responsible for the length of the lives of mortals. He was the Reaper Man! Actually he was nice, steady, faster going up, but I was much quicker on the downs. We chatted for a bit then I left him as I dropped to the beach. Then came Killer Hill, a 1.5km climb. Here Krónos pulled ahead, both of us fast-walking on the insane trail and switchback road.
The drinks stations were every 2.5-3.0km, the people at these were truly lovely, encouraging and helpful. I loved them all and gave my biggest grin at each. As the road levelled I reached Cat Bin Junction (wheelie bins and cats always here) took a drink, asked the chap where the cats were, to which he replied, “In da foorest!” The undulating main road stretched away before me and I saw Krónos walking a steep bit ahead. I had to walk a bit here too, but it was something I had learned: fast walking is as quick as a shuffle run, and more efficient. The next drink station was at the 18km junction and the road I’d have to take later went straight up! On I plodded past 8km, 9km then down the Steni Vala road – another drink, then up a zig-zag just beyond Roller Junction (saw a European roller there last year on the wires). Over the top and finally I could relax. Steni Vala was below and I knew where the turning was. My shuffle changed to a proper fast descent, and I overhauled Krónos again. Right turn onto the rougher trail I had driven down last year, but this time I was running up. Drinks, Krónos was back and we speed walked and ran together through 12 and 13km. Eventually he pulled ahead though I could always see his relentlessly progressing figure. The dust, heat and never-ending climbs put me in a reverie and it was such a relief to reach the road again.
I knew I was covering ground evenly, effort wise, but Krónos was using a GPS watch and was keeping at a certain ‘power figure’, I thought my method was less draining. I ran up the long stretch in insane heat. The dreaded 18km turn loomed and I’d caught Krónos, but he was up the steep hill before I’d taken on water, and some isotonic drink, as I had a crampy left calf. This stretch was even more brutal – hot, dusty and stony. I was turning my water-wetted hat constantly so the peak would either cover my face or neck, depending on where I was in relation to the sun. It worked well, and even though it was manically hot on the still, tree-lined trail, I was not bothered by the temperature. I passed a chap around 20km where YOU ARE DOING GREAT was written on the road – a nice touch, and kept my steady plod going. 22km, 23km over the Tsoukalia Road, then up a rough, steep trail and I could see Krónos high above me.
I knew I would make it now but had no idea of the time and gave it little thought. I guessed 4 hour’s 30 minutes would be about right. Now came the mother of all climbs so far, up, ever up, then onto the main road above Gialia. I was wrecked at the drinks station, but turned down the new zig-zag towards the desalination plant and relaxed down the hill, running quickly. This was short lived as I turned off to the next trail which was even steeper! Dirt, dust stones, only relenting as I came out onto the road just below Chora. 25km had gone as I shuffled into the lofty town, running through the narrow streets and steps, then onto the descending tarmac road to Megalos Mourtias Beach with its steep zig-zag. Up ahead I could see Krónos was walking. I asked how he was, and he said his quads were numb. He waved me on with a smile and I was away.
27km and to the turn on the beach, took a big drink, left, along a path…stone steps! Up, up and I was dizzy with effort, pushed on and finally reached a drop, drinks, 28km and out onto the road to Patitiri. There was no let up as road is steeply undulating and my downhill speed had turned into a plod. 30km – that nasty 1010m was to come. From nowhere a chap in an orange cap caught me and eased ahead. He could run up the rises, but I could not, so I let him go. Alone I dropped into Patitiri, down past Archipelagos (a cheer from Vasilis in Archipelagos) and along the final straight, doffed my cap to the cheers and finished in 3:57:56! Wonderful. And 15th too – but I think there were not many behind me. Medal, certificate and waited for Krónos. The Reaper Man appeared, held his little daughter’s hand and jogged in to my applause some 4 minutes behind me.
And thus my first race in 20 years is over. I loved it! I realise that running for fitness is fun, but training for an event adds need. It all makes one healthier if all the elements are applied correctly, with thought. Yet, above all that there is Alónnisos. Ancient Ikos. A place to slow down, ponder life and, with open eyes, find a bounty of creatures and plants, birds, beasts and people. All sun drowsed and magical.
As I ran I had been captivated by swallowtails, brimstones and a new, large brown butterfly with orange edged wings, that turned out to be two-tailed pashas: lizards, hover-flies and the smells of sun warmed wild herbs. Now my legs were heavy and my body caked in dust. I went back to the lovely Paradise Hotel with rebelling thighs to wash my kit and myself. I was seized by a sudden desire for choccie ice cream, so went down and ate one at the Alónnisos Café. Back again to doze off unexpectedly.
Later I sat with my friend, Captain Pakis, at Archipelagos – we shared wine, fresh fish and conversations on Homer, Odysseus, Kazanzakis, Papadiomantis, and how the Greeks see us.
I smiled at my quest to Race the Reaper Man and how, today, I ran with a super Athenian named Krónos. The analogy was clear and in it I could see a firm link with the Greek gods and my own odyssey. So I wrote this:
Built by Hephaestus
Friendly island sitting in azure,
Colours brushed by golden Helios,
Watches as new hemerodromes,
Make shadows on the road.
Setting out with hearts,
Nervous as a bird,
Held in a giant hand,
Then the hills,
Slowly take hold,
And under the heat,
Hephaestus forges automatons,
Gone is fear,
Gone is weariness,
All that is left is heat,
Mind and the sound of being.
Road and trail passes,
Under dusty shoes,
And bodies shine,
Alónnisos soothes them,
Her Naiads quenches them,
And Her smiling children,
Watch as the magic takes hold,
These freshly forged creations,
Built by Hephaestus,
Carry their shadows into Patitiri,
They receive their laurels,
To become true Olympians.
Below is the results table for the 30k. It’s the kind of race where everyone is a winner.