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Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Here's a panoramic view from the Acropolis!

On Sunday I completed the Original Marathon in Athens, Greece! It took a grueling 4.5 hours and turned out to be the most challenging, painful, exhausting, exhilarating, I’m-actually-going-to-die experience of my life, but I survived! Thanks to everyone who followed along and wished me well, and thanks for reading, too!

Last week Chris, Bethany (our PCV friend who lives in the north of Albania), and I took an overnight bus to Athens, arriving in the crowded capitol around 7 a.m. Greek-time, and began exploring the city via metro. A metro, really! After 8 months in Albania it was a surreal experience to be thrown forward in time to modern transport… ;) We arranged to meet a couchsurfer host whose floor we could crash on; he is a university exchange student from Lithuania, and a metal-head. The first day and night we went to the National Archaeology Museum, full of the oldest pottery, metalwork, and statues from Greece and its many islands (except the Cycladic, which is another culture and museum altogether), wandered around the touristy but beautiful Plaka district (which is full of expensive restaurants and endless shops of kitsch), and even dined on sushi!

Despite Athens’ urban sprawl and inner-city feeling, I fell in love right away upon noticing that on every single street corner sits a giant green recycle bin for paper/aluminum/plastic/glass, in addition to several larger machines that pay back for household waste and even batteries!! Oh if only Albania will look to Greece for inspiration…. ;)

The following morning Greg, Monica, and Amanda arrived on the bus and after settling them into another couchsurfer’s home (two volunteers from Budapest, very nice slightly Bohemian girls) we set off for the Acropolis and general wandering of the city. Sitting on the top of the hill we took in a 360° view of Athens, which stretched out far beyond our eyes could see; an unavoidable yet frightening display of rampant urban-sprawl. Virtually every square foot has been overrun by development, mostly in the form of enormous concrete apartment blocks squeezed together, giving the appearance of modern Los Angeles blended with Cairo’s density. The few areas of green space left now are the ruins surrounding the Acropolis, the Church on the Hill (opposite), and the National Gardens.

After wandering through the beautifully lush National Gardens, which is deceptively moderate in size, but seems much larger because of the many twisting pathways encircling numerous fountains, gazebos, an outdoor zoo, a café, etc., we found our way to the Byzantine Museum. We decided not to go into the museum because no one wanted to pay full price for the entrance fee (yeah! Peace Crops Albania!), but instead toured the “special exhibit” housed across the courtyard. It was a total bust—titled “Un-Built” but really just an excuse as to why the building was under construction. The pieces of “art” downstairs were disappointing to say the least, sa keq.

Otherwise, we hung out mostly around Syntagma Square, a central and lively open space at the foot of the Greek parliament building and at the head of the shopping district. Surrounding the square is a large, fancy hotel (where we sought haven and toilets, and conveniently found a secluded downstairs lobby with plush couches to play cards on), a McDonald’s (I won’t name names but there were McFlurries afoot), and an awesome 4-story electronic/music/book store called Public. We took several mental-health breaks to sit and browse the literature and art books (oh I miss Borders/ Barnes and Noble).

One of the best things about Greece is the food! Granted, Greek food is pretty similar to Albanian food in terms of suflaçё/suflaki, byrek/spanikopita, and salad, but at least here in the capitol there are zillions of bakeries with fresh pastries, sweets, breads, and best of all: baklava! We do have baklava in Gjirokastёr, but it’s only considered a Christmastime treat so you have to buy it from a package in the grocery store. In Athens it sits proudly displayed in the shop windows; crispy layers smothered in thick honey and nuts, and formed in at least a dozen shapes and sizes. My mouth waters every time I pass by a display, but for the week before the marathon I restricted all sweets so I could only vicariously enjoy them through Chris and Bethany. [Though they promised they would have a post-run baklava party with me too! ] Another fabulous food here is the fresh sesame pretzel ring, sold by street vendors on every other block. While pretty much just a cheap ring of bread, during my pre-run carbo-loading phase they really hit the spot. 

And now for the marathon run:

We had moved to a different couchsurfer’s home-- a young, female DJ studying to be a sound technician at the university, also into an alternative music scene and our first Greek friend. Chris and Bethany went out for dinner and drinks with Touf (our hostess) while I went to bed early; I woke at 5:30 to double check my belongings, cram down a bowl of cereal, and run out to the metro in order to meet Monica and Greg at Syntagma. Along with thousands of other eager runners we boarded the shuttle bus taking us to the starting line, 42 km away in Marathonas. Our nervousness grew as we realized how steep the hills were that we would have to climb. Gathering at the start were thousands of people, some in normal clothing but most in chic athletic wear, brightly colored running shoes, Powerade belts… Several teams wore matching shirts and jackets, one man wore a blue spandex/ red cape “Marathon Man” outfit, one woman wore a toga with a tiara of olive branches…

At 9 we were off! All runners were issued a chip for our shoes to record our times as we stepped across the floor markers. It took me 2 minutes just to get to the starting line. Monica, Greg, and I pinned bright red and black Albanian flags on our backs, proudly showing our support for Shqipariё. We started out really slow, being carried by the thick crowd, and were aided by water stations every 2 km. Every other station doled out Powerade, which I tried hard not to guzzle but desperately needed the caloric help to keep my legs going. [Our trio split up right away and I wouldn’t see the others again until well after the finish line.] The route seemed much longer than anything I prepared for, which I chalk up to the fact that I did not train for hills and there were many steep inclines we had to crawl over. There was one very sheer downhill drop that I put all my concentration into not tripping and quickly flew down, whizzing by a few hundred runners and giving me an adrenalin rush. The day was pretty hot—I usually run at 6 am, but the afternoon heat was bearing down here—so I kept my hat on most of the time (thanks Cam and Donna!).

For the first hour or two I was listening to a fast music mix. Sometimes Brandon’s band (The Munchausens) would come up and I would think of him and all the people who I knew would be so proud of me. Eventually I switched it to Democracy Now! and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me! podcasts, catching up on the post-election news and thankfully distracting attention away from my exhaustion.

At km 30, which didn’t come fast enough, Chris, Bethany, and Amanda were waiting on the sidelines to cheer us along. I stopped briefly to say hi and throw some bars and gels into their hands, treats I had gathered from the water stations but couldn’t eat without fear of throwing them up right away. [I’ll try to post the short video of our rendez-vous on youtube] There were bystanders in clumps along the entire route, clapping and cheering for everyone, but it was so uplifting to finally have my own team there-- though by that point I was so delirious I could hardly think.

From km 30-38 my entire body went numb; I could hardly feel the pain, just concentrate on climbing each progressively larger hill. At this point we were back in the city, running up the highway. Unfortunately, during this period a man directly in front of me fell face forward and I witnessed him suffer a heart attack. A group of us stopped to try and help him, but we couldn’t do anything except get the paramedics to him as soon as possible (medics were stationed every quarter mile or so)—scary!!

The last 4 km were the absolute worst. I felt so sick and tired I couldn’t think straight. Just one foot and then another. I think I was almost in tears because I wanted it all to end so badly. But eventually the crowds and buildings became denser and I saw signs pointing toward the stadium. I steadily carried on, pushing through the barricaded path up into the arena, crossing the finish line at exactly 4 hours, 29 minutes, and 16 seconds. Every runner was awarded a medal, a gold emergency blanket (I thought this was a decorative congratulations cape! Ha!), and a recovery bag with Powerade and bars.

Monica and Greg came in a few minutes after me--- I don’t know when I passed them but I was just as thrilled to greet them at the finish line. I had been ok after the run-- stretched for a bit and caught my breath, but as soon as we sat down I became nauseas and couldn’t stand up or eat/ drink anything. In retrospect, I probably should have forced a few bites of something during the run, because for the next 3 days my stomach retched in pain and I couldn’t eat all those tasty sinful foods (like baklava) that I had been excited for. I’ll have to check up on marathon sites to seek advice on how to prevent this if I ever run again…

So there we were! Our trio completed the run in less than 5 hours, and spent the rest of the day recouping. Chris, Bethany, and I went out for a late night dinner with Touf at The Food Company, enjoying some of the most delicious food we’ve had since leaving America. On Monday we took the metro to the sea side—the port of Piraeus where dozens of cruise ships dock. It was dirty and kind of bland, so we came back and hung out at Touf’s for awhile before rushing off to the bus station.
And then we flew back in time. Literally. Albania is one hour behind Greece, so we gained a little more sleep before another day as a PCV. But we also, once again, said goodbye to advanced technology, international trade and ideology, racial diversity, and generally a more global and open mentality. We had a really good vacation, and are a little more inspired to help bring Albania closer to its neighbor.

Hope you all had a great weekend! I posted photos from the trip on my web album:

** These were ripped right from the website:


Max S said...

Congrats Courtney! And to Monica and Greg too!

becca said...

I am soooooooooooo proud of you guys!!!! This is really amazing. I'm glad you had a good time. You rock!