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Monday, August 16, 2004
Updated: August 17, 12:03 PM ET
My big fat Greek marathon

By Jim Caple
Page 2

ATHENS, Greece -- The marathon takes its name from the legendary run by the messenger Pheidippides, who raced from the Battle of Marathon to Athens in the year 490 B.C. to announce the Athenian victory. At the end of the run, he shouted, "Rejoice we conquer!" and collapsed on the spot and died in the dirt, quite likely a victim of heat stroke, his body so dehydrated and his temperature rising so high that his organs simply shut down.

I know exactly how he felt.

I'm midway through the marathon course and I feel as if I've been lugging Rulon Gardner on my back the whole way. The hot sun is beating down on me so intensely that someone must be holding a giant magnifying glass over my skull. My feet are throbbing like Fred Flintstone's after he drops a bowling ball on them. I've been sweating so profusely the past five hours that I can smell my toes.

And I'm not running the course -- I'm walking.

Why am I walking 26.2 miles in the brutal midday sun from Marathon to Athens' Panathinaiko Stadium when there are perfectly good buses whizzing by every half hour? Because it is the most famous marathon course in the world, the route that gave the event its name. Even walking it is like getting a chance to take batting practice in Yankee Stadium, only no one is shouting that I suck.

And, as it turns out, the town of Marathon has certain similarities to the neighborhood around Yankee Stadium as well. It's a small town with a lot of broken pavement, faded paint and very little greenery. The potholes look so old they might be from the battle. There is an abandoned lot directly across from the starting line.

But Marathon has one thing going for it. The name.

"You go up there and you see the signs for Marathonus and it just really hits you," U.S. marathoner Dan Browne told me on the phone. "This is Marathon. They really had a battle here. This is where Pheidippides started out on his run.''

"That's why I tried the marathon over the 10K because of the origin and the history behind it," American marathoner Meb Keflezighi said during the same phone call. "To be able to run the same course is an honor.''

Pheidippides
A statue of Pheidippides, who Jim Caple can thank for his journey as soon as he recovers, line the marathon route.
I know the feeling. I had two main goals for the Olympics. One was to see the original site of the ancient games in Olympia, which I plan to do later this week. The other was to cover the entire marathon course. I run six miles a couple times a week but have never run more than eight at one time. I know I can't run the entire course, especially in this heat. I need to pack my own water supply, plus a notebook and a video camera for ABC. So I'm resigned to walking instead, even if it takes all day.

"Yes, it is not impossible," one of our Greek office assistants tells me when I ask about the route. "But what you are doing is a very big thing."

Other people tell me the same thing, only they use the word "stupid" instead of "big."

9:38 a.m. -- I'm at Marathon. I've got four bottles of frozen water. I have the video camera. And I've painted so much white sunscreen on my legs and arms that I must look like the Michelin Man. I'm ready to go.

Walking alongside the four-lane Marathon Avenue, I begin following the blue line that is painted on the roadway that winds its way between the surrounding hills and all the way to Athens, some 26 miles away.

"I never thought much about the route but the story always intrigued me,'" said Alan Culpepper, the third American marathoner. "I did a book report on that story in middle school."

And somehow, after writing an essay on how a man died running the marathon distance, Culpepper decided, "That sounds good. Let's do that."

Marathoners are insane.

"Our number one goal is that we don't have anyone keeling over," Culpepper added.

10:11 a.m. -- The historic route is not as scenic as some marathons. In fact, I can't imagine an uglier route. It's just a long, four-lane road bordered by occasional clusters of stores that have aspirations of developing into strip malls. There is even one small section where organizers mounted a mesh barrier with the Olympic logo to hide the rusting hulks of a junkyard. It's like walking through the outskirts of Mesa.

The Athens Olympic people planted some trees and shrubbery along the route to beautify things, and judging by their knee-high height, I think it should look very pretty for the 2096 Olympics.

11:04 a.m. -- Athens is famous for its ancient ruins. The Acropolis. The Parthenon. The Temple of Zeus. The Hephaestum. But I am staring at perhaps the most famous and revered of all the Greek sites. The golden arches of the McDonald's outside Marathon.

I will pass four of them before the day is done.

11:57 a.m. -- Here's a discouraging thought. I've been walking just over two hours. If the actual marathon runners had started at the same time as me, they would be finishing right now. Browne's personal best is 2:11. Keflezighi's is 2:10. Culpepper's is 2:09.

Meanwhile, I've probably got six hours ahead of me.

Pheidippides
"Hi, I'm Venus! Would you like to Super Size that?"
That's just a guess, though. The worst part of this trek is not knowing where I am or how far I've come. There are no distance markings on the road, no mileage markers on the road signs. I could be as many as 10 miles into the journey or as little as six. I could have 16 miles left or 20.

"They changed the distance of the marathon, you know about that, don't you?" Browne told me. "It's true. It was during the 1908 London Olympics. The Queen wanted to have them finish the race in front of one of her manor houses so she could watch it from her window. And the only way they could have it end there was to add 1.2 miles to the distance. So they did. The Queen said, 'I can't walk 1.2 miles myself but I want all the Marathoners to run 1.2 miles extra after they have already run 25 miles.'"

I have only one thought when he tells me this. @#&% the Queen.

12:35 p.m. -- If I squint, I can just see the waters of the Aegean Sea lying several miles to my left. This is my first -- and as it will turn out -- only opportunity to soak up some scenery. I would be more impressed if my shoes weren't melting.

12:42 p.m. -- The distance of the marathon isn't that daunting. Even the heat isn't too bad. It's the unrelenting sun. There is absolutely no shade along the route. None at all. Every step of the way is under the sun's fierce glare. "You need to bring your own shade," Browne said. "Maybe I'll just run behind some tall marathoner."

The marathon will be run in the evening so the sun won't be as much of an issue. Still, Browne better find himself a really tall guy to run behind. And fat. Because this is like walking through the core of a nuclear reactor.

12:59 p.m. -- Driving out here, I didn't even notice there was any slope to the road. I do now.

1:21 p.m. -- Culpepper told me that when they held the first marathon at the 1896 Olympics, "It was a curiosity to see if they could do it, to see if they could duplicate the distance.I think only six guys ran it. I don't know how many finished."

Meanwhile, as I pass a bus stop, that whole Rosie Ruiz thing begins to make sense.

1:30 p.m. -- I'm getting out of the sun briefly by crouching under some sort of dog shelter, perhaps built specifically for Athens' famous packs of stray dogs. Seriously. The roof is too low for me to stand up all the way and there is a bowl of dogfood in the corner.

If there was a bowl of water as well, I would drink it. I mean, why not? I'm already on all fours.

1:52 p.m. -- A Greek in a beat-up truck just pulled over and asked if I wanted a ride into Athens. I turned him down.

I hope I don't regret that decision.

1:59 p.m. -- The Greeks, as they love to tell us, gave us mathematics, medicine, recorded history and democracy, just to name a few. Great. That was all more than 2,000 years ago. What have they done for us lately? More specifically -- could they possibly put a friggin' sidewalk along the marathon route?

Apparently not, because I've spent the past couple hours walking along a mix of red clay, dirt and rock on the side of the road. The clay absorbs the heat more efficiently than the old Astroturf at Busch Stadium, then conducts it directly into the soles of my feet.

Concrete, my Athenian friends, concrete. You might want to look into it.

Marathon stadium
Jim Caple made it to the stadium just in time to help build it.
2:07 p.m. -- The temperature in Athens this afternoon will reach 37° Celsius, which converts to roughly 188° Fahrenheit. Or at least I think it does. I'm not thinking real clearly at the moment. I'm wearing a pair of nylon shorts and a light blue dry-weave running shirt and I still feel like Michael Moore at the end of a triathlon. I can't imagine being any hotter or more uncomfortable.

"To get acclimated to the heat," Keflezighi says, "I've been running in a long-sleeved shirt and in sweat pants. I also sit in a sauna."

Let me repeat. Marathoners are insane.

2:24 p.m. -- I had visions of a lunch break spent sipping ouza while nibbling on fried octopus under an umbrella at a quaint seaside tavern. Instead, I'm standing in a grocery store, cooling my body in the frozen food section. Right now, I prefer the frozen food section.

3:05 p.m. -- The sun is now pretty much directly overhead. I don't need sunscreen, I need White-Out.

3:20 p.m. -- I'm really beginning to regret turning down that truck ride.

3:37 p.m. -- I keep drinking and sweating and drinking and sweating and drinking and sweating. And the odd thing is, the sun is so hot my shirt dries almost as quickly as I sweat into it. So many salt stains from the sweat are spreading over my shirt and shorts that I look like I have a terminal case of dandruff.

3:56 p.m. -- Great news. I've reached Pirini Station on the outskirts of Athens. I miscalculated my speed -- I've been averaging close to four miles an hour instead of three. Gauging by the map, I'm only nine miles away. Or about three hours.

The crazy thing is, while I'm happy to be averaging a four-mile pace, the Olympic marathoners average just under a 5-minute mile. Think about that. The record for the mile is just under 4 minutes and the marathoners are going just a minute slower for 26 times the distance. It's insane, absolutely insane.

"The race is all about getting to the 20-mile mark," Browne said. "If you can roll after that, you can catch a lot of people there."

4:48 p.m. -- Athenians are fleeing at the sight of me. Or should I say, the smell of me.

5:32 p.m. -- The Queen must be in town. Because I think they've moved back the finish line.

6:46 p.m. -- Rejoice, I've conquered! I've made it to the end of the course at Panathinaiko Stadium, site of the 1896 Games. It only took me 9 hours and 8 minutes, or 7 hours longer than it will take the marathon winner to run the race.

"Holey Moley," Browne said when I give him my time. "I hope I can beat that."

My tale of the tape: Six ½ liter bottles of water, seven 1/3 liter cans soda, one liter of fruit juice. And I'm still so thirsty I could outdrink David Wells.

Or I could if only I could get off this park bench and walk the 10 steps to the bar. I may not be clinically dead like Pheidippides but that is just a technical distinction.

"It all sounds good ahead of time, doesn't it?" Browne said. "But the reality is life is tough and the course is tough and that's just life. So you just do your best."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com