Why I Travel: Lessons From the Athens Classic Marathon

With a 5:00 AM flight the next morning and plenty to do, it seems this battle, lost to jet lag, may not have been a complete waste. I take my time on the last jaunt to the metro station. “Maybe I’ll walk a few stops down,” I think. “I’d like my last view of Athens to be above ground.”

As I stroll past the capitol building, a man about my age is taking a rest on the steps to snort some coke up his nose. The guards don’t seem to mind. As police lights start to flicker in the distance, a small group of prostitutes run around the corner to hide.

A few more blocks down and a gentleman strung out on who knows what approaches me for a conversation. He’s half bent over, rambling incoherently, and having a hard time walking straight. I ignore him for a minute; he keeps talking. I offer him a euro, but he pushes it back towards me. I guess this guy just needs someone to talk to.

Very well then; carry on. For the next ten blocks, we have a completely meaningless yet somehow entertaining conversation. I liken it to the way I talk to my cat when she won’t stop meowing, pretending she’s a person with an opinion about something. “Yes, I know it’s important, Madeline, but I just don’t want to talk politics at dinner.”

This latest character in my live production exits stage left without a word as I reach the station. Is this what I’ve miseed out on all these sleepless nights?

Adventures in Economy Class

For once it was an afternoon flight, and almost non-stop no less—10 hours straight from Portland to Amsterdam. Had I finally figured this travel hacking thing out once and for all? Well, no, actually I paid cash for this ticket. Nevertheless, I was ready to settle in for my cattle-class trip across The Atlantic.

In just a few days time, I’d be running the world’s oldest marathon in Athens, Greece, starting in one of the civilized world’s oldest towns, running down one of the civilized world’s oldest roads, and finishing in one the civilized world’s oldest stadiums. And before that I’d spend days wandering around looking at some of the civilized world’s oldest other things. On hallowed grounds, the poets would say.

If you’re a travel hacker yourself, or aspire to become one, it’s important to know the value of your frequent flyer miles so as not to waste them. Ever since the United States Mint shut down my free ride to thousands of miles each month, I’ve looked more carefully at how I spend my hard-earned points. In this case, paying for a 1-stop, afternoon flight from Portland to Athens was only a little more expensive (after taxes and fees) than booking a 3-stop, red-eye from Seattle—a case in which I’m happy to pay the difference and save the miles for something more exotic.

As I settle into seat 30C, I survey my surroundings. An older plane. No seatback entertainment. This is going to be a long flight. Never mind though, I have a book and plenty of work to do. Then I notice the woman in the seat next to me has gone from a slightly awkward stare to actually attempting to talk to me over my headphones. I take them off and introduced myself. This is going to be a really long flight.

When flying economy, I employ a strategic seat-searching policy: Always choose an aisle seat—in the center column if available, and towards the middle of the plane. Avoid exit rows and anywhere near the front or back of the cabin. Check-in online as late as possible and adjust accordingly.

People seem to fight for crowded space at the front of the plane or accidentally end up in it anyway while trying to avoid it in the back. Everyone ignores the middle. This simple policy usually affords me at least one adjacent seat for a comfortable flight.

In this case, I’m sharing a middle seat and, subsequently, a lot of conversation with Joan, who’s actually a very interesting woman. Joan is heading back to South Africa to a missionary she helped found many years ago. I’m always amazed by the people I meet on airplanes all over the world. That’s why I have another policy: Avoid conversation like the plague, but once you’ve been sucked in, try to learn something. In a short 10 hours, I learn a bit about the world of charity from Joan. Nice woman.

The Wonder of a New Place

As the plane descends toward the runway in Athens, I look out over the sea, the islands, and the clay-roofed houses along winding streets whispering to myself, “Greece,” in that sort of way where you prolong the vowels: “Greeeeece.”

I do this almost every time I arrive somewhere new. “Aaaafrica.” “Ruuussia.” “Daaaallas.” Okay, maybe not that last one.

I seem to travel a lot more these days, but there’s still a sense of wonderment that comes over me when I land in a new place. The prospect of understanding life from  a new point of view is an exciting one. I hope this feeling never goes away, and I suspect that as long as I never start to take it for granted, I’ll be okay.

Whatever you do, and however you do it, never live on auto-pilot. There’s a lot of life that will pass you by as you nap at the wheel.

At the airport, I dutifully pay my fare for the metro into town as the regulars walk right past the ticket station and through the turnstiles. Athens is another one of those cities where the only people who pay transit fares are the tourists. With their financial troubles, though, I suspect they might begin investing in stronger gates.

It’s a short walk from the metro station at the capital building to my fleabag hotel. I’m a budget traveler to the extreme and while I’m too pretentious these days for the youth hostels, I have no problem staying in the cheap hotels next door to them so long as the only person walking around naked on their cell phone at 2:00 AM is me. I justify my choice by reminding myself that nothing interesting happens in a $200/night hotel. Interesting, of course, is exactly what’s to be avoided in those places.

I don’t mind the afternoon walk to the hotel. My legs need a good stretch after 13 hours on a plane, and I get a chance to meet two of Athens’ most prominent inhabitants—stray dogs and protesters. Both are friendly.

I find it somehow comforting that the inventors of democracy are still using their own creation 2,500 years later. Then, a passerby tells me that the demonstration is lead by the communist party. Hmm. This is what democracy looks like.

Finally at the hotel, I lay down to a one-hour nap while me neighbors in the room across the hall chain smoke with their door open. When the alarm sounds at midnight, I realize the grave time-zone mistake I’ve made. I guess there’ll be no dinner tonight. No sleep, either…

Doing the Tourist Thing

At 9:00 AM, I’m finally ready for bed and lay down for a nice morning slumber. I’ve officially lost the battle with jet lag. “No worries,” I think to myself. “This will fix itself come race time.” Foreshadowing.

It’s Friday now, and the only goals today are easy targets in Athens:

  • The Parthenon
  • Greek Gyros

Both goals are quickly satisfied. These days, I try to stay away from tourist attractions as much as possible, but a former architecture student doesn’t go to Athens and skip The Parthenon. In third grade, I wrote a report about the structure, and I needed to fact check it. As it turns out, my paper from nearly 20 years ago may have contained a few critical errors.

Interesting fact about The Parthenon: It took only nine years to complete the first time, but today the city’s been working for about 27 years to keep it from falling over. And they aren’t even close to finished. In any case, it’s had a good run.

I subdue my embarrassment over factual inaccuracies with lunch at a Greek diner, where I taste the finest gyro to ever cross my palate. I decide then and there that this diner will have my loyalty for the rest of the trip.

Later that night when I return, I learn that the place across the street serves their gyro with french fries on it. Presented with such a discovery, my loyalty is immediately swayed.

On Fear and Understanding the World

Another sleepless night. In the morning, I drag my sleep-deprived body from bed where, for the last 6 hours, I’ve been playing solitaire on my phone and watching pirated copies of T.V. sitcoms to pass the time.

The kind of tired you experience during a bout with jet lag is one of the worst. You’re too tired to get any kind of meaningful work done, yet you’re equally too awake to fall asleep. Much like insomnia, it’s purgatory for the frequent traveler.

After embarrassing myself by refusing to give money to a man on the street who, as it turns out, was only asking for directions to the square, I blame it on jet lag. The truth is that my tendency to stereotype has gotten me in trouble again. He was a little dirty (because he was a construction worker). When he approached, I took him for a beggar and immediately dismissed him.

This comes from an internal defense mechanism while traveling in a foreign place. When I’m not familiar or comfortable with my surroundings, I tend to assume that anyone who approaches me wants money—either as a gift or in exchange for something I have no interest in.

But the more I travel, the more I learn that appearances are often not what they seem and that my beliefs are often wrong. Each time this happens, I get a little better at suspending mistrust, but this will be a lifelong effort to truly change.

I suspect I’m not the only one who experiences this. And perhaps it’s why I believe world travel is one of the most effective tools we have to become better people.

As I wander around Athens for the rest of the day—wandering is one of my greatest skills—my mind keeps going back to that construction worker asking for directions and I think to myself how many opportunities I’ve likely missed in my life by approaching people from a place of fear.

There are many good reasons to pass up an opportunity, but fear is not one of them.

Tonight, I stock up on store-bought croissants for the big race tomorrow. I try to pay with my card, but the clerk lets me know in no uncertain terms, like most other businesses I visit, that credit is not a preferred method of payment.

Rather than argue or make a scene, I take out some cash and leave with my groceries. I’ll need my Mickey Mouse cereal and croissants for an early power breakfast.

Time to sit sleepless in bed again. The race starts at 9:00.

A Legendary 26 Miles

It’s a bitterly cold walk from the hotel to the bus station and after being swayed for weeks by reports of how nice it is in Greece in November, I’m thoroughly unprepared for the weather.

On the charter bus to the starting line in Marathonas, I sit next to an older German man. I don’t speak German and he doesn’t speak English, but we still manage to have a nice ride, pointing out landmarks to each other. He shows me the U.S. embassy. I don’t see any German embassy, so I point to a McDonald’s instead. He smiles and nods.

At the starting line, I huddle with other runners for warmth as the sea of people around me partake in an age-old marathon-starting-line tradition that transcends all cultures: peeing wherever you damn well please.

As bladders empty, the starting gun sounds, and we’re off in the footsteps of Pheidippides who, as legend has it, ran this same course 2,500 years ago to deliver the news of victory over the Persians to parliament. He died immediately as the words left his mouth. Of course, he did this in a pair of sandals and carried a shield. This detail isn’t lost on all, though. Some dress the part.

If it weren’t for the legend it carries, the Athens Classic Marathon would probably be regarded as a fairly boring race; the course is nothing to write home about. But this makes no difference to me. I’m happy to be running in Greece and having a good time.

I think about all the people who will never get to experience this, and all the people who say they’d love to but won’t ever get around to it. I feel very lucky to have the life that I do.

It’s these kinds of thoughts, mixed with a healthy dose of mental challenges like “How many of the Smurfs can I name?” “What are all the capitols of the U.S.?” and “How many meters to the next damn water station?” that occupy my mind for the next four hours.

You see, I’m not really a marathoner. I just like to run, and I like to do it in interesting places, like on wild game reserves. Running is a type of therapy for me. It clears my mind, it makes me think about things I wouldn’t think about otherwise, and it gives me a sense of accomplishment.

Sure, there are lots of other ways to achieve this, but running is the way that I’ve chosen. While the true athlete perfect their pacing and carefully calculate their intake of fluids and carbohydrate jellies, I just run and think. It’s enough for me.

In Athens, sometimes I share this thinking time with stray dogs that seem fond of marathon crashing. One dog I meet runs with me for at least a mile. He didn’t have a collar tag, so I named him Gus.

You don’t need a good reason to do something fun. Fun is reason enough.

Towards the end of the race, I run into the same problem I do at any other international race—I’m bad at metric conversions. This leads to three dead sprints to the finish line that are not “just around the corner.” The results, of course, are a slightly faster finishing time and me puking blue sports drink all over the bushes to the side of the track.

And just like that, another marathon on my world tour is complete. Three down, four to go.

On the connecting flight home from Amsterdam to Portland, I find myself with no reading material, the same in-flight movie that I watched on the way over, and needing a break from writing.

I think about the guy I snubbed in the street the other day. Then I think about the great conversation I had with the woman I desperately tried to avoid on the way over. Missed opportunities are abundant.

I lean over to the stoic looking gentleman to my right and extend my hand in direct violation of Airline Policy #2.

“Hi, my name’s Tyler.”

Here are some more photos from the trip:

External images by: ericzchu, as.com