Athens Marathon and the elusive sub-four

5 a.m. and I have been awake for some time, that annoying habit I have of outpacing the alarm. I check my phone and Stuart has already texted. “Are we all up?” he asks. “Reporting for duty,” responds Alun. I get up, try for a shower but the water is cold. Not the most auspicious start. Cup of tea and congealing instant porridge, the latter a forlorn attempt at recreating what is already instant in its usual form. Won’t bother next time, I think. Oh no, I remember. There won’t be a next time.

This will be my fifth marathon. The first ended in disaster as I broke the only rule you need to know – stick with what you have trained for. Having set of at 9.30 pace and maintained it for 15 miles (deciding en route I was clearly untroubled by such mortal considerations), the pain started to set in about 18. By mile 23 it felt like someone had inserted boiling skewers into my legs. I finished it – in 4.43 – but it took me several weeks to recover.

I’d put it to bed in Paris, taking my time and running a steady 11 minute mile pace to come in at a perfectly reasonable 4.42. Then Mark had suggested London, which I managed in 4.55 with only 11 weeks’ training. I didn’t want to leave it there so, heck, why not Rome, which I prepared well for and came in at 4.36. Hmm, I thought. What if I really, really tried? Perhaps one last marathon? If so it would have to be a classic race… what about the classic race, from Marathon to Athens? A Friday night conversation later and the die was cast.

I knew I’d been running faster. A visit to an osteopath with an interest in sports performance and a bit of acupressure magic had released my diaphragm, which had given me a significant boost to my pace. As any marathon runner knows, the mathematically arbitrary threshold of four hours is held in some esteem. To achieve that was beyond my wildest dreams, a barrier only real athletes could cross. Impossible or not, it was the only goal in town.

So I trained. I enlisted the help of a personal trainer. I read the books, I ate the food and drank the shakes for a year. 20 weeks before the day I started a schedule aimed at 4-hour runners. Then the bad news – a cursory review of the route told us it had at least 800 feet of ascent, over a distance of ten miles.

We took it on the chin and carried on, the Cotswold Hills more than adequate as a training ground. We found that my wife Liz’s cousin’s daughter, Virginia, was also running and we exchanged notes. And, to my surprise, our longest training run of 21 miles took place in 3 hours exactly. it looked like the fabled sub-four could be in our grasp.

Despite the usual minor injuries (including, for me, a bollard-based face plant on the final taper) and bugs, we all made it to Athens. It was only as we arrived – marathon running has always been a family trip – that I realised my long training journey was finally over; Stu and Al had picked up my registration so I had nothing to do but attempt sleep. Game on, gloopy porridge notwithstanding.

5.40 and I met Stuart and Alun in the lobby of their hotel, wearing traditional Greek slippers with pride. Everywhere were runners, Chinese and other nationalities. All bore the international expression of quiet expectation. The three of us headed to Syntagma Square, meeting Virginia and her impressively awake family on the way. By 6.15 am we were on the bus, hardly pausing thanks to the well-organised queues.

45 minutes later we had arrived at the small training ground at Marathonas, leaving plenty of time for morning routines, stretching and warming up. The rest was familiar – being herded into pens like cattle (leaving Virginia to a different pen), being blasted by poor quality, though upbeat music, multicoloured lycra and menthol bombarding the senses. And then the klaxon, the walk forward, the sensor across the road, the break into a jog surrounded by a horde of others.

Setting off was typically crowded but before long we were able to settle into a decent pace. The sky was a piercing blue and the sun already hot, and spectators were few. All the same, the first miles went past relatively quickly, the main sound being that of a thousand people running in near step. A few miles in we turned left and headed towards Pheidippides’ tomb, itself disappointing as it was somewhere in the middle of a circular olive grove. Taking my cue from others I grabbed an olive branch and wove it into my belt.

After 6 miles, flat gave way to undulation. There were as many welcome downs as there were ups, none of which were too daunting though the sun was getting hotter. We passed through a conurbation and saw some more crowds, the first having been round the tomb loop. Pace still strong: 8:25's. Keep it steady, keep it slow we were telling each other as the hill started to kick in some more. 10 miles down by now, we gritted our teeth for what we knew would be a big ask.

Mile 11, mile 12, mile 13. We were half way. The road went from town to country and back, with people at junctions. We passed a group of dancers accompanied by traditional Greek music. I joined in, briefly, even as my inner voice said I should be conserving energy. The sun grew hotter – a pharmacy sign said 23 degrees, and we were only half way up the hill. A drop in height gave us a fast mile and a welcome respite, then we were back on it.

Strangely, and in hindsight crazily, the route followed the right hand side of a tree-lined dual carriageway, from East to West. Which meant that the left hand side was shaded. But we were in full sun. The race pack had included a peaked cap which Alun and I were both wearing. All the same we were starting to feel the heat. Drinks stations, which were frequent, could still not come fast enough.

Mile 16 and exhaustion was starting to set in. I had set my sights on 18 miles, beyond which we only had another 2-mile push before the uphill would stop and we would start down into Athens. We stopped at a water station and regrouped before carrying on. We did the same at mile 18. Two miles to go, I said. On the horizon was an apartment block, which I fixed as the apex. Alun had been dropping behind, the Stuart was as well. I chose to keep the pace as the opportunity for a sub-four was rapidly fading.

Sure enough, the 20-mile mark signalled the top of the hill, itself marked by an underpass which meant a dipping, then a steep rise of the road. I can only guess the heat by now but it was hotter than before, 25 at least, the underpass offering a brief respite. Thinking of various advice I walked up the steep section, looking behind me but Stu and Al were nowhere in sight. Best press on, I thought. Then I was over the rise, the road stretching gloriously down and away from me.

With an hour to cover 6 miles according to my watch, I picked up the pace and was back at an 8.25. A minute in the bag, I thought. I knew I was running out of steam so I started to think tactically. 10 minute miles all the way and the sub-four was mine. I took a few walks in the following miles, through exhaustion but also in the knowledge I was within my time. Mile 24 passed. Two miles to go, that’s round the barn and back I thought. And all downhill, pretty much. Another underpass, another walk.

Half a mile later, a familiar voice. “Mr Collins, how the devil are you!” said Stuart, coming past me. He had got a second wind. “Just keep going, one foot in front of another!” I let him go, stopping again to catch my breath. I knew I had a mile to go, and ten minutes in which to do it. It was tight, too tight, but I was nearly there.

I rounded a corner, going under yet another inflatable arch, each teasing with a potential finish. Another, wooden arch was displaying numbers. Am I there? I wondered, a tiny ray of hope growing within me only to be quashed by the next sign I saw. “3 km” it said. I realised I was still more than a mile from the goal and I had less than ten minutes in the bag – I had been following my watch rather than the signs, so had misjudged the timings. The potential for a sub-four was lost, gone forever.

I was broken but had no choice but to carry on. A left hand bend led into a lush, wooded avenue, all downhill. It was beautiful but it stretched on for ever. I had already seen a man’s legs give way from underneath him, the crowd rushing to his aid. Would it happen to me, I wondered. Just how long was this road. And where was the bloody stadium. The road gave way to another, then perhaps another, I can’t remember. But then I saw another left bend, and I knew I was there.

I turned on to a plaza, a steep ramp appearing like a ten foot wall in front of me. I climbed it, then another, arriving on the track of the stadium full of people. Somewhere was my family, were Stuart and Alun’s families, were Virginia’s family perhaps. I looked but could see nothing but a sea of faces. And in front, so, so far away, the finish, looking like they had put it as far as possible away to create one, last, insurmountable challenge.

And there was Stuart’s wife Sharon and Alun’s wife Annabel. And there was my wife Liz, shouting my name. And there was the finish, looming up before dissolving in front of me, giving way to a cluster of runners slowing, falling to their knees, holding on to barriers or just walking in a daze, as if the concept of stopping had been lost to them.

The line of the track curved round some medical tents, which I followed. “Jon!” There was Stuart, looking as knackered as I felt. His watch battery had run out so he didn’t know his time. My watch said 4:03. I knew I should feel elated – it was 33 minutes off my previous best time – but I felt… nothing. Too tired. We sat in the shade by the edge of the track for a few minutes, saying nothing. Then Alun appeared and we shouted his name, hoarsely, eventually pulling ourselves to our feet.

“That is the hardest thing I have ever done,” said Stuart, a sub-four runner. “In all my years in the Army, we never did anything as hard as that,” concurred Alun. I could only nod. Not knowing whether to stop or move, we carried ourselves forward to get our medals, lining up together like Olympians. In the Olympic stadium. In Athens, the end point of the original, classic, authentic Marathon. And we laughed. And we swore never to do it again.

A half hour later we collected our bags, ate bananas, met our families (and shed some tears) and headed back to the hotel ready for what would be copious amounts of alcohol. The debrief was, simply, that we had done it – achieved some great times in challenging conditions. The race itself, half uphill along one side of a dual carriageway for 26 miles, was not the most attractive, nor would it be first choice for crowd participation. But it was most certainly one for the runner’s bucket list.

That evening, with a Metaxa seven star brandy and a cigar I could barely smoke, I looked up my official time – 4.02:57. Over the days that followed I smiled and laughed about how 3 minutes didn’t matter one iota, how it was only due to a series of arbitrary measures, how it was still an amazing achievement and nothing else mattered.

And I knew, in my heart: this ain’t over.