My First Time in Salonika 2011

Article published on May 16, 2011
community published
Article published on May 16, 2011
By Daniel Jianu It was almost one month left before my first marathon and questions were swirling around me like flies on a hot august night: will I be ready to finish it or not?

I started running in mid-May of last year and only around the house and only at night, almost as was embarrassed by the idea of running, frightened every second by the image of a Marlboro Reds chain-smoking, scotch drinking semi-overweight suburban dude running in short pants for a paltry 5 min of heavy panting and muscle spasms. Well, well, things do change even for people like me. I started with 1 km, then 2 km, and then a week later I managed almost 3 km and it seemed glorious to be able to run 3 km all by myself. It suddenly seemed that I was already half-way to achieve my spectacular and till then unattainable goal of reaching 10km of running non-stop. To backtrack a bit, only a few days earlier I had decided on a spur of the moment and completely to be blamed on a Google-imbued drunken lack of judgment decision, to register online for the Athens Classic Marathon 10k Race taking place in November of 2010. I am not quite sure or even remember why, but once I made that epochal decision, I had to do the deeds to live up to the promissory registry to the 2500 year anniversary of the Classic Greek Marathon. Only the 10k race, mind you!

So, 196 lb on the first day of running and 1.2 km in 9 min. Wow, good start! Second day, 3.3 km in 22 min and 194lb and on and on like this for the next 3 weeks. Yes, I was finally running but at night though and still with a chip on my shoulder, but running. Then things stopped to a screeching halt; personal responsibilities and other obligations put a stop to my burgeoning plan of running a 10k. After about 6 or 7 weeks, I was able to get back to it and run again; this time I was running outside on a football field during the day in the daylight for all to see my legs trying to catch up with my growling, sprawling googlish mind as it was making brainy notes and plans for how my heart, my muscles and blood oxygen will be lock, stock and loaded barrels ready for my race. 

August was making its presence felt and running became a night affair again as the heat of the day shoot me back right into the darkness of shame and self-doubt. August was good to me though as I managed to run twice 10k without completely collapsing and in only 1 hour and 10 min. Hope springs eternal right into September and my running continued smoothly with 3 or 4 times a week running hard and getting into the zone of happiness and calmness. Then October came and things got serious. Only one month left before my race, things got a bit flaky and me a bit nervous and anxious. Running did continue unabated though. And the day came and all my training went out of the window as I couldn’t sleep the night before the race. In the morning I was a nervous wreck trying not to go to the bathroom more than 5 times before starting the race. Of course I started too fast, of course I couldn’t listen to my music; the crowds were great and funny, people were talking to each other in all languages possible and we were off and running in a beautiful weather of sunny 10 degrees Celsius. 

One hour later, and only about 4 min ahead of the Greece’s Prime Minister who was running the 10k as well, I reached the end of the race which I have to admit was spectacular. To understand and to believe what I mean by ‘spectacular’ is to know only two facts: one is that the idea of me running or for that matter doing any other exercise is anathema to my snobbish human being and so finishing some athletic official competition was like Gorbachev realizing that the Soviet Union was actually US disguised as Berlusconi’s Italy. 

The second and most significant fact is that the finish line is inside the old marble Stadium built for the first modern Olympics in 1896. It’s a vision to enter that marble shining mass of people catcalling and supporting the other mass of runners. It makes you happy and emotional as a teenage girl watching the last moments of the Titanic. You feel proud of yourself for no other reason that you finished in front of all these strangers inside this beautiful work of art Olympic stadium. And that’s when overwhelmed with all these emotions, you suddenly feel like an athlete and decide that next year you will enter the stadium at the long end of an actual marathon race. Smart, isn’t it?

So, yes I start training for marathon races now, buy the necessary clothes, read the necessary magazine and books, change the diet habits, join a gym, read more about the marathon and on and on. Now back present day and running in training for the marathon....42k. March 4, Saturday, Friday only 5km and weights lifting...i discovered in the process NPR podcasts...are great when bored and lacking enthusiasm for running....nice getaway from all...running in that sense is sometimes, at least it feels sometimes as like any other chores in life...80% drag and turd, and then that 20 percent gets under your skin and makes all the rest worthwhile...

So I run 5k, 10k, 20k  and weight lifting and crunches and leg lifting and running outside and running inside on the treadmill...Running while listening to NPR shows, while listening to music, and especially the long runs inside on the treadmill, running while reading the New Yorker Magazine. Yes, thank you new yorker...you are the best combination of supple body easy to fold and flip on the treadmil while at the same time stable enough not to fall off the treadmill when this world athlete runs at higher speeds shaking the whole damn apparatus...Thank you New Yorker for your long and fascinating stories that make you lose track of time and forget for a while that you’re running nonstop for 2 hours and still have at least another one to run and your legs and arms, and your lower back and the inside of your brain cells scream for you to stop but you do not, you keep going not because you need to finish this particular long run, but mainly because your need to know how this or that profile or long feature ends. So thank you new yorker for making my runs interesting, i am your loyal and faithul reader and the only one ever to read you inside a Greek gym and i believe with certainty that i will stay the only one for a long, long time....

You also start losing weight which by the way helps a lot with the speed thingie. You lose about 20 lbs. and running is lighter and easier...and then you get lighter with changing the shoes and buying the new Nike Free. And these days, you run only with the Free...great, light shoes.....thank you Nike....i also run in your shorts and t-shirts and socks....kind of stuck with you, nike....

Unfortunately, with one month left before the marathon, it seems that i hit a psychological wall so to speak. It just seems hard to enjoy the runs, am not looking forward anymore to the high that i used to get while running, i don’t miss that wonderful portion of the run when it seems that you are in the zone---running in a state of very bearable lightness of being--and actually in the last few weeks i stopped getting the high completely. It is possible that i am experiencing a mission creep. Maybe i am spending too much time in the gym, maybe running only inside in the last month or so, maybe running everyday with only one day rest per week, maybe all these new developments, maybe running in the winter as opposed to running in spring when i first started running, maybe, maybe...all these maybes must mean something because i do feel a little demoralized and the all excitement of running my first marathon has evaporated.

Maybe, oh, again this word, but it is so convenient....so, maybe i just need to develop a new approach; a more scientific one, something that can be tested and adjusted along the way, something that can be considered a challenge to overcome; i just don’t feel that i am getting better, and it seems that my improvement in speed and fatigue resistance has hit a plateau.  

Besides my long runs, my weekly training schedule has been a bit unorthodox, a combination of interval training and Hal Higdon's training guide mixed in with gym training. For example, I run 5k almost everyday at different speeds, starting with 8km/h for 2 min, then go up to 10km/h for a longer portion of the run, and then dependent on how i tired i feel that day, i can easily go up to 11km/h and comfortably 11.5..and finish the run with 13km/h and once in a while even more, like 14km/h. This means that I run at a Threshold Pace of heart rate max somewhere between 162-170 for about 15 min, two to four min of Marathon Pace of HRM  between 148-166, and then for anywhere between 2 to 4 min i can ran at Interval Pace of 180 heart rate max. With this combination i managed so far the fastest 5km in 26 min and the 10k in 56 min. Every other day I ran 10k, but i had a couple of weekends that for different reasons i couldn’t do the long runs. 

Honestly, some of the long runs have been extremely punishing, physically and psychologically, testing my commitment to this project few times along the way. But you have to persevere and find different motivational sources of inspiration. For me is talking and asking advice from a friend who has done the marathon not too long ago. Another source of information and comfort and i might say even inspiration is the book Lore of Running.....absolute the bible of running; it has everything all the way from the science of running to the art of running. It’s a must read for anyone wanting to pursue this hobby. 

Why run though? I’ve always been jealous of people running and even these days when i go to the local park and i see people running around me i still feel jealous and catch myself thinking ah, how i wish to do that someday, they look so happy and content and full of goals, their faces glowing with a mission-accomplished look....but i am running for almost a year now.....i am doing this...so why do i still feel as an outsider? I think i need to finish my first marathon to consider myself a runner, to feel that l belong. i think i need to lose some more weight, i think i need to run faster, at least to feel comfortable running for 5 or 10 min at least with 14-15 km/h, that’s when i can consider myself a runner. back to the daily grind...

Friday nite i did ran 20km in 2.8 hours, that’s March 18 with HRmax at 175 at the end of the run.

No running either Saturday or Sunday....feel very, very, very guilty about it as i am approaching my race and suddenly i gained 6 lbs. in one weekend...can’t screw things up so badly with only 3 weeks to go, i just can’t...have to get back on track....from reading over the weekend about training for the first marathon, i should be ok with i have done so far even though i do not feel ready at all and feel like a failure and in the worst physical shape ever for such a long run....but i am thinking that worst comes to worst, i ran the 150-180 min i know i can run for sure, then walk a bit, 5 or 10 min to recover and stretch a bit and then run for another 5-8 km and then walk a bit again to finish running...or alternatively or maybe including small breaks every 10km for stretching, drinking, eating, bathroom breaks etc...will see, just afraid of the wall thingie that i keep hearing and think i hit it only once before in my lifetime...hard to overcome it though with a bit of walking i do believe it’s possible to finish the race, and even finish it on a strong note.....at least this weekend, i might not have run, but i am almost done with the book and went shopping for the last things that were needed for the race i.e. belt, headphones...guess you can say that i ran intellectually, which in my case is as good as it gets sometimes or i should say as important as the actual physical training as if i do not find an intellectual challenge in running, i would get bored very easily...as they say, running is like biking and sex, once you learn how to do it you and your body will never forget how to do it even after a long, long time of inactivity...your subconscious is trained/shaped and ready to go when the time comes. I sure hope this is right when the time comes on april 10.... 

so i finished it, my first marathon....all in all, it was an inspiring event. The course was completely unspectacular, open road with no shade, lots of wind and strong sun and nothing to look at, but nonetheless it was my first marathon. A small one by any standards with only about 700 runners...the start was very slow and the race was ok till the 30k mark...after that was a bitch...my ankles especially absolutely killed me and I am not sure if this wasn't my own fault as i decided to run the race in Nike free shoes, very light but minimal support to the ankles i think...other than that i had a cramp too on my right foot but all in well i was happy i didn't stop much, just a couple of times for stretching, and ran 99% of the time...finished though in 4:44 but again think i made the mistake of starting way too slow...ran the first 20k very, very slow strategically with the idea of making it up at the end, but at the end my legs were shot and couldn't run too fast...need to work on my beginning pace, think i could have finished comfortably in 4:20 if not for my first 20k. My time for the first 21.1 km was 2:21h and my time for the last 2.21km was 2:23h. 

My usual training pace, a comfortable one, is about 2:00h for 20km so i think i could have done better, maybe even something closer to 4:10hours. I did eat lots of banana, one gel and drank almost 2 powerade bottles along the way and at least one liter of water; that it itself was manageable and without problems; as well as my heart rate, never went much beyond 150-160 range except for the last 5 km or so when i tried to make up for the lost time at the beginning. 

Finishing was very nice indeed as the last few km passed by so slowly, the time seemed to have stopped in the salonika tracks, every km seemed like 10 km....while at the beginning, the first 3.5km went so fast i had no idea how to it happened...music didn’t help much at the end of the day...the only thing that really helped is talking to people running along side, especially the ones who were running either the first or second marathon...that was a welcome distraction indeed....the first 26km are a breeze so to speak, no pain, no effort, they go pretty fast and are quite enjoyable...although at some point while running on the highway and all by yourself with some people in front and some behind you, far but close enough you feel them in the corner of your eyes, you start wondering and questioning yourself as to what in earth are we doing; it just seems ridiculous to see people running slowly and purposefully looking but really for no discerning reason other than finishing 42.2 km of grueling pain and self-punishment. 

Well, maybe that’s the real reason for running, moral and especially physical punishment for some unspeakable acts committed in the past or maybe  for acts or decisions not taken--the roads less travelled- or maybe to build confidence in yourself through running to take those long-postponed decisions that you keep avoiding....punishment for paths not yet taken. Running a marathon is both a punishment for the past and a hopeful new start for the future sandwiching between them a grueling and tough 4hours of ‘running’ present. But it’s all worth it in the end. So, please go run a marathon!