So pals, some of you may have noticed from my insta posts from the 6 (and an adorable video my mom posted of me and the cutest dog in the world) that I’m back in Canada. I thought about making a giant post with my life update and then also my marathon and vacation in Greece, but I decided against that, because Greece deserves its own post, and I’ll hit you with a life update shortly on this week.
So, Greece! I was there primarily to run the Athens marathon, so my first few days in Greece were not as active as I normally am when travelling. I actually arrived the night of my 26th birthday, so I went to a Michelin star restaurant, obviously (with the Canadian dollar in its state, you really have to take advantage of EU countries that aren’t as ridiculously expensive – Netherlands, I’m looking at you). So that was an incredible food experience, and a great start to the constant eating that was my time in Greece (when I wasn’t running). But, other than eating, I managed to hit the major Athens highlights.
So, beyond the ruins and the delicious food, Athens is not the most attractive city. Obviously if you go to Greece, you need to see the history there, and there is something spectacular about seeing the Acropolis lit up at night, but I would recommend seeking out other parts of the country – obviously the islands, but also, Northern Greece was fantastic, and Thessaloniki was a super cool city. But more on that, after I talk about running for an essay.
So. Running a marathon. It’s a thing. Honestly, it was a very cool experience, and I’m so glad I did it. I started training specifically for this in June (I was already in pretty good shape and running fairly frequently before June, I would advise more time if you’re just starting out), and I took it pretty seriously – I was running three days a week with a running group, twice on my own, and one day of cross training. Honestly, the training is terrible. It takes up so much time of your life. I would go on vacations and go run through the different cities, which, though a really cool way of exploring various cities, is a hassle. I had friends come to visit and I forced physical activity and early nights upon them (which is not the worst influence). So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone who went for runs/bike rides with me, and who listened to me go on and on about running and food and shoes and tights and all the annoying things that you cared absolutely nothing about. Having support during this endeavour was so tremendously helpful, and your well wishes throughout the process and on race day were appreciated so much more than you know.
The race itself was insanely challenging, and I’m not gonna lie, considering it was my first marathon and the level of difficulty… I kind of crushed it, finishing in 4:28:04. People have asked me if I’m happy with this time, and I have such difficulty responding to that – it’s an amazing time, for a first marathon, on that course. But, because I’m insanely competitive with myself, I always want to do better, and there’s part of me that wishes I had pushed myself harder on the day to get down to a sub 4 hour 20 minute time. But, I keep trying to remind myself it was more important that I finish comfortably enough to be able to function and continue enjoying my holiday in Greece.
The history of the course, is obviously, the COOLEST EVER. I don’t know if I’m just like a huge Olympic nerd (ok, I know I am, shout-out to my undergrad thesis supervisor/fellow treeplanter/amazing professor Charlene for making me that way), but the amount of people that I’ve had to explain the significance of this course to baffled me. Which, it shouldn’t, I spend an excessive amount of time thinking about the Olympics and its history; so, to the uninitiated, this course was that of the original marathon. As in, I ran the race that started it all, which dates back to 490 BCE. So yeah, for someone who literally loves the Olympics more than any other sporting event (despite my misgivings with the institutions of it, but that’s for another day), this experience really was the coolest thing ever.
The course, as I said, is super old, starts in Marathon, and ends in Athens. The legend is that, after the battle at Marathon village, the soldier Pheidippides ran to Athens to announce the victory of the Greeks over the Persians. Pheidippides arrived in Athens, shouted “Niki!” (victory) …and died. I know, it’s a downer of an ending for him. The course was also used during the 2004 Olympics, so to get to run on a course graced by Olympic athletes… I literally have no words.
The course finishes in the Pananthenaic Stadium, which (more insanely exciting Olympic trivia) is the site that hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. It’s also the only stadium made entirely of marble and is the oldest in the world, dating back to 140.
The fans were also the best ever. A lot of the race wasn’t all that awesome scenically, but this race is a huge thing to the Greek people, so in the towns we ran through, everyone was along the road cheering us on, and during areas that were less inhabited, random Greek farmers were standing on the sidelines handing out olive branches and yelling bravo. People would also look up your name on your bib and start yelling your name if you started struggling. I also mentioned the Canadian guy I met; I also met some other guy who was running his first marathon, and we had about 5km together where we just made sure the other kept going. Very supportive group of people, and having people like that really makes the experience of the race so incredible.
People have often asked me how you talk when you run a marathon – honestly, it’s not that bad if you’re well-trained. The goal is not to sprint for 42.195km, and especially with it being my first race, I wasn’t going to go out and end up collapsing at kilometre 15 (and trust, people were. The forecast was for 17 degrees and cloud coverage, we ended up getting 21 degrees by 9am and full sunshine). But mentally and physically, I was very prepared for this. I have a weird sense of disappointment, because I feel like it should have been worse (which is also some of the driving sentiment behind me wishing I had pushed myself harder and gotten a better time).
Anyways, bottom line, awesome experience and I’m overall proud of myself.
Post race, I did feel quite worse for wear – they were offering free massages but they were 500m in the opposite direction of my apartment, so I decided to just walk back there (and by walk, I mean shuffle/hobble). Once I got there, I laid down in the bed, DISGUSTINGLY SWEATY, and I wish someone had captured on video the grace in which I removed my clothing while lying in bed. It was a lot of noises and peeling and snake shimmying. Super attractive, obviously. I then slept for a while and woke up with the hunger of a thousand beasts, so I managed a shower and crawled my way to the closest tavern, ordered an entire block of saganaki, a giant souvlaki wrap, fries, and a litre of beer. They asked me if I had run that day. I don’t know what gave it away.
The following day I headed up to northern Greece. It was another early day – my train left at 8.00 and arrived in Meteora at 13.30. I honestly had been so focused on my race that I didn’t prepare all that much for the rest of my time in Greece, so I really had no idea what I was going to see in Meteora, other than that travel blogs highly recommended going, and that it was beautiful.
It’s amazing. Literally translated, the name “Meteora” means ‘middle of the skies’ and is one of the largest and most important Greek Orthodox monastery complexes. There are six monasteries built on natural rock pillars, and it looks like that… so you should probably go sometime in your life.
To get up to the monasteries, it’s easiest to drive (there are roads now making them all accessible). But if you like hiking/can’t afford a rental car/don’t realize what a terrible idea that is the day after running a marathon, you can hike to all the monasteries. It’s roughly 8km with a 650m ascent, but the ascent is essentially done in one quick steep bit, so the majority of it is fairly flat walking.
The area around Meteora has been inhabited for roughly 50,000 years, and the presence of monks dates back to the 9th century. Initially, the monks lived in caves and fissures in the rocks, occasionally at altitudes of 550m, which allowed them to live a pretty solitary life. In the 11th and 12th centuries, a monastic state developed in the area, and in the mid-14th century, the first monastery was built on top of the rocks. It was only accessible by a ladder, which was drawn up whenever the monks felt threatened.
I, unfortunately, did not get to visit the interior of any of these monasteries. It’s hard to find current information regarding when to visit, and the monasteries are subject to close as their inhabitants see fit. So I was informed by an official tour guide that they would be open until 17.00, by the official Meteora map that they would be open until 16.00, and upon my arrival at the largest monastery at 15.00, was told that they were just closing. I only had the one day to explore, so not getting to see the interior was disappointing, and if you ever go and have time on your side, try to schedule at least two days to explore! The exterior views were definitely worth the trip though, so in the end, I’m happy with what I saw, and to have an excuse to go back again.
I had another early morning the following day – I had toyed with the idea of taking the train to Dion and wandering around the foot of Mount Olympus on my way to Thessaloniki, but was starting to feel a bit tired (shockingly) so I decided to just head straight to Thessaloniki. I arrived around noon, wandered along the pier for a bit, ate probably the best grilled eggplant I’ve ever had, and then fell asleep at 16.30 and slept until 7.30 the following morning (may have been a sign from my body that the day after a marathon, you shouldn’t do an 8km hike. Noted, body).
Since I was up early enough, I decided to head up to the Byzantine Walls and Trigoniou Tower to see the views of the city.
There are also a few old ruins up there, but honestly, they’re kind of just average – interesting enough to look at, but Thessaloniki isn’t a city to visit just for ruins (not to say there are no ruins worth seeing there, but I wouldn’t make them the highlight of the city). There are definitely cool spots for ruins outside Thessaloniki that are worth day trips (it’s Alexander the Great country – I unfortunately didn’t get to visit due to lack of time, but again, another excuse to go back), but I thought the city itself offered enough on its own vibe that I didn’t need ruins to get a feel for its history – it was enough just to enjoy the restaurants, the historical buildings, and overall vibe.
I honestly just enjoyed walking around the city. It’s so cool because it’s such an old history with a rich history (I’ve always been fascinated by the Byzantine empire – the history, the art, the blending of cultures, the tiles, the buildings, etc.), and walking through Thessaloniki, all you do is stumble upon various UNESCO heritage sites.
The interior of the churches are so cool to see – I visited the Osios David, which was founded in the late 5th century, and contains a mosaic of the Vision of Ezekial (it’s super rare because it depicts Jesus without a beard in a much more androgynous form, and is insanely well preserved). The mosaic was hidden during the 8th and 9th centuries under lambskin to save it from the iconoclasts (people who were destroying Christian and religious icons), and then was plastered over when the church was turned into a mosque. It was then forgotten until the 1920s, when an Egyptian Orthodox monk had a vision telling him to go to the church. When he arrived, an earthquake shattered the plaster, revealing the mosaic to the monk… who promptly died (another downer of an ending). But, not only are the insides awesome, just about every mosque/church in Thessaloniki had a courtyard where you could hang out and relax.
One ancient ruin I was impressed by was the Arch of Galerius, which is right downtown Thessaloniki. The arch was built in 299 to celebrate the victory of the Caesar Galerius over the Persians.
But, as I said earlier, the ruins and churches weren’t the highlight of Thessaloniki for me. The food was amazing, the temperature was perfect (it was 24 and people kept asking me if I was too cold and wanted to eat inside…), and there was a lot going on! I went for the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, and was able to get tickets to a couple movies (one of which, I accidentally slept through during my coma). But the Greek film I saw was so phenomenally shot, and really elicited an emotional response. It’s called Ursa Minor, and if you can get your hands on a version with English subtitles, I would highly recommend it.
I also spent about five hours my last night in Thessaloniki drinking wine, reading my book, and watching the sunset, which was probably one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve had in a long time.
Once you’ve finished sitting and thinking about how amazing it is that we live in a world with man-made creations that pre-date our grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents’, go and spend an evening watching the sunset, and come to the conclusion that whatever we do as humans will never be as beautiful as what we can find in nature.
Isn’t it amazing that literally EVERY DAY you could watch something this beautiful, and yet everyone in the world takes it for granted? I couldn’t remember the last time I just sat and spent hours watching the sunset – I think the last time was when I was in the Kgalagadi park in South Africa, more than two years ago (I fully realize what an obnoxious sentence that was). But seriously, regardless of where you are, it’s worth taking time to sit and do nothing but appreciate nature. Even though I love cities, I find it incredibly grounding and comforting to experience nature and to wonder in all the things that just occur in this world through the interaction of particles. Being a scientist must be so exciting.
But all that seems like forever ago, since it’s now snowing in London (cannot wait to get out of this weather again!). That’s all for now, and I’ll be informing you on my next move shortly (the blog will stay alive and hopefully I’ll be able to return to posting with greater frequency!)