5 Life Lessons From Completing The Athens Marathon
Updated: Jan 22, 2019
The Athens Marathon: A humbling, painful, and immensely rewarding life experience.
On November 12th 2018, I completed the Athens Marathon.
I ran the race with 3 good friends, one of whom (Constantine) I ran the entire race alongside. It was one hell of a battle, and we made it through all 42.2km in 4:08:53.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about the race itself in this blog post. While the stories are compelling (and amusing!), the most valuable insights I took from the marathon came from my reflections after the race. Here are 5 life lessons that I feel we can all benefit from.
1. Adapt expectations to reality, and you’ll enjoy the experience regardless of the outcome.
Before the event, Constantine and I wanted to run the race in less than 4 hours, a challenging ambition given the specific demands of the Athens Marathon. This was made even tougher by certain adversities:
Injuries: I’d been fighting shin splints, Constantine had a quite severe foot and thigh injury.
Illness: I got a cold 3 days before the run. Not ideal at all – and very disheartening to think I couldn’t perform at my best given the training I’d done.
Incline: The Athens Marathon is notorious for being one of the toughest marathons in the world. It includes 20km (just under half the race!) of inclines. While none of them are intensely steep, 20km of running at a 1-4% gradient is utterly horrific…
Weather: Running with the hot Athens sun beating down on us would fatigue us and dehydrate us quicker.
Grimy Toilets: We spent 2 hours before the run in a stadium filled with portaloos. Imagine 15,000 people with nervous pre-run stomachs…not cool, not cool at all.
A Crazy Taxi Driver: Our driver almost hit someone on the way to the race. It was the pedestrian’s fault, but I’m still glad we ended up running a marathon and not running to a hospital (or police station!).
In particular, Constantine’s injuries and my cold meant that we would be unlikely to perform to the level we needed to reach the sub-4-hour goal.
This was a disappointing realisation; we’d trained hard for the past three months, but circumstances meant it would be very unlikely that we could achieve the outcome we desired.
The extent to which we felt disappointed showed us that, while our sub-4-hour ambition had initially been something we hoped to achieve, it had sneakily evolved into an expectation. In other words, our satisfaction and happiness had become conditional on achieving that specific outcome.
The night before the race, we made a decision to adapt our expectations to match our reality.
Our reality was that we weren’t at full fitness, and if we tried to force ourselves to meet our expectations, it may come at a significantly high cost (his injuries and my cold escalating into something more serious).
We decided to downgrade our past expectations and desires back to hopes. We hoped that we would be able to run the race below 4-hours; but we promised ourselves that our satisfaction wouldn’t be conditional on doing so.
We set new goals: to run the race together and enjoy the race for what it is, not what we wanted it to be. This meant that instead of being slaves to a stopwatch, we could allow ourselves to be present and enjoy the race, regardless of the outcome.
In the end, our 4:08:53 time didn't leave us feeling disappointed, despite not meeting our initial goal.
We were proud of ourselves for running each half-marathon split in almost equal times, and furthermore for resisting the temptation to push so hard such that we risked compromising our health further.
But more importantly, we were proud that we stayed together and fully immersed ourselves in what very well may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
As I learnt in the 10-Day Silent Vipasanna retreat I did in August 2017, expectations are the root of so much disappointment and suffering. Stay aware of them and continuously update them to match the reality of your situation.
It is only when we accept our reality that can we find joy in our reality, learn lessons from our reality, and even begin to change our reality.
2. If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
At the start of the race, I was exhausted. I’d had a few too many nervous visits to the porta-loo and felt very dehydrated!
On the other hand, Constantine felt great; so great, in fact, that he asked if we could pick the pace up only 5km into the race!
I laughed and told him that he was free to go ahead if he wanted to. After all, if he felt that the sub-4-hour mark was within his capabilities, I didn’t want to stop him.
He decided to stick with me at my pace.
Around the 7km mark, I felt a bit better. At the 12km mark, my energy came flowing back. At the 17km mark, I was feeling unstoppable. On the other hand, Constantine had faltered. I noticed that he was struggling and suggested that we slow down. He told me the same thing I told him – if I felt that the sub-4-hour mark was within my grasp, he didn’t want to hold me back.
I laughed and slowed down anyway.
We had a time of 2:04:55 at the half-marathon mark (21.1km). We only needed a 1:55:00 second half to break the 4-hour barrier, which wasn’t unrealistic. Constantine suggested picking up the pace to see if we could make it, but again I told him I would prefer to wait. After all, the last 10km of the race were downhill or flat, but we still had 10km of the worst uphills to come!
He decided not to speed up.
At the 31km mark, we finished the final brutal uphill. We flew downhill, feeling completely revitalised. I calculated that if we did a 5:10/km pace for the next 11km, we would break the 4-hour barrier. Not a challenging feat for us if we were fresh...
Deluded by our joy at finishing the uphills, we kept running at a blistering 4:20/km pace…until the course flattened out and Constantine was hit by cramp a kilometre and a half later. He told me to leave him and keep going if I felt I could make the sub-4-hour marathon, and that he didn’t want to be responsible for holding me back.
I told him that we’d come this far together, and there was no way I was leaving him behind (since despite my smiles, my legs felt like a block of lead being impaled by thousands of needles laced with hydrochloric acid).
We finished the race running together, suffering together, smiling together.
If you re-read the above section, you’ll notice a common theme.
Throughout the race, both of us were tempted at the prospect of beating the sub-4 hour barrier, even if it meant pushing ourselves beyond what was healthy. And neither of us wanted to be held responsible for holding the other back.
This is the work of pride; the work of ego; the work of insecurity...
And Constantine and I have been battling these demons for more years than we can remember.
On one hand, ego and insecurity have driven both of us to achieve so much. We both graduated with 1st class degrees from Cambridge University. He’s an ex-city lawyer, I’m an ex-management consultant. And while I merely played tennis at university level, Constantine was once the top junior tennis player in Cyprus – an incredible achievement that shows dogged determination, persistence and commitment!
However, our drive to achieve and push ourselves is a double-edged sword.
It’s easier for us to push to the brink of exhaustion, than for us to slow down and risk ‘falling behind’ in some imaginary race. Willpower and discipline are second nature to us – if we can see that we’ll receive rewards for applying them.
Unfortunately, this means that we immensely fear failure, rejection, losing control and anything that invalidates us…
Ego is what commands us to keep striving to be better than our past selves – but also chastises us ruthlessly each time we fall short of our own expectations. And at its worst, ego needs to find a way to also perceive ourselves as superior to others. And if ego can’t be superior, it never wants to feel inferior by limiting others, holding them back or being treated like a charity case.
Because of this, in life, ego compels many of us to go alone when we could be going together.
Back to the race; yes, perhaps if Constantine and I had separated and focused purely on ourselves, we could individually run a faster race. Even though we weren’t competing with each other, we would feel proud for breaking the sub-4 hour barrier and achieving a huge milestone. And even if we didn’t make it, we would feel proud for pushing ourselves to our limits trying to break the sub-4 hour barrier.
And at the finish line, we’d be celebrating this feat alone.
Here’s the truth. Races don’t last long.
But friendships last lifetimes.
I’m so grateful that Constantine and I chose to silence our egos and emerge victorious against our insecurities. We cemented a beautiful friendship through lifting each other, supporting each other and running alongside each other amidst the uphills and downhills, the peaks and valleys, the tears and smiles.
In life, death awaits us at the end of the race. The finish line is the same for every one of us – and we’re all going to reach it at some point!
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how quickly we get there; what matters is how much we enjoy the journey along the way.
And taking that journey with loved ones and close friends is a decision you’ll never regret.
3. Gratitude is the purest form of energy.
I mentioned earlier that at the 12km mark of the race, my energy came flowing back.
It wasn’t thanks to my positive thoughts. If anything, it was in spite of my negative thoughts! I was frustrated at my body for letting me down with a cold and my injuries. Although I was doing my utmost to let go of those negative thoughts, my energy still felt blocked.
And then we ran through a part of Athens that was destroyed by the 2018 forest fires…
The land was desolate and dead. The trees were white skeletons, stripped of leaves, branches, and vitality. Charred remains of houses and huts remained…
And on the side of the road were the locals, all garbed in black clothing, as if in mourning for all they had lost.
And they were cheering.
Cheering fiercely. Cheering passionately. Cheering as if their lives depended on it.
I was utterly humbled.
These people had lost everything. And here I was, complaining about a cold.
I shifted my focus away from what I had lost and what was wrong, to all the blessings I had and all that was right with my life. My family. My friends. My loved ones. Overall health. Food. Water. Shelter. Opportunities. Lessons. My purpose. My impact. My dreams.
I shifted my focus to Doostan charity, the cause I was running for, and how this run would contribute to building schools and providing education to so many underprivileged children in remote areas of the Middle East.
I shifted my focus to the local people. I wasn't running for me. I was running for them. A significant amount of our entry fee was being donated to them by the marathon organisers - every small step we took was helping them to rebuild their lives in a small way.
As I said, I was humbled.
I let go of me, and made space for we. I let go of I, and made space for us. I let go of wrong, and made space for right. I let go of scarcity, and made space for abundance.
I let go of anger, and made space for gratitude.
And my entire race changed.
Expressing genuine gratitude is one of the most powerful, revitalising, sustainable and infectious sources of energy. And it’s limitless, bounded only by our capacity to express love, compassion and appreciation.
You can express gratitude for the same things every single day – as long as the gratitude you feel is authentic, so too will be the energy you receive.
Strengthen your gratitude muscle through daily practice. It won’t just change a race; it’ll change your life.
4. ‘You are a winner just by participating’.
These were the words of the announcer prior to the race. We smiled sardonically at the cliché quote – if only, right?
Many of us have been indoctrinated with the notion that the world doesn’t reward those who just participate; it rewards those who win first place, those who are better than others, and those who achieve success as defined by society…
But let me share an anecdote with you.
Throughout the marathon, I noticed people stopping mid-run. I noticed people walking. I noticed people vomiting on a corner of the road. I noticed injured runners being attended to by doctors.
Many couldn’t even finish the race.
I remember asking myself if these people were also winners...
Each and every person who started the race was a winner. Why? Because as I came to realise, the marathon isn’t simply a one-day event; it represents months of rigorous training.
Yes, I could see the destitute, demoralised expressions as people dropped out of the race. I could see the frustration etched on their faces as they pulled over injured. I could see their pain and suffering as they vomited in a corner.
And still, no matter what happened on the day of the marathon, it didn’t invalidate their months of training. It didn’t invalidate their discipline, commitment and persistence to strive towards achieving their goal. It didn’t invalidate their desire to help their chosen charity, and to help the locals who lost everything in the fires.
Every single person participating today was stronger, fitter and healthier than they were prior to beginning their marathon training journey – regardless of what happened on marathon day.
If that doesn’t classify as a win, I don’t know what will.
If you’re making progress towards something, whatever it is, you’re already a winner. Don’t ever forget it.
5. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.
We’ve all heard this expression. We all know the sentiment it’s meant to convey.
And yet, it’s ironic that I had to run a marathon to fully internalise its meaning and apply it to my life!
You see, in some ways, marathons represent a microcosm of a life well-lived.
There’s a start line, and a finish line. And in between, there are uphills and downhills. There are highs and lows. There are times we speed up, and times we slow down. There are times when we feel energetic, and times when we feel drained. There are times when we laugh, smile and celebrate. And there are times when we grit our teeth in pain as tears roll down our exhausted faces.
And you absolutely cannot run a marathon distance at the pace you'd run your fastest sprint. Slowing down isn't an option; it's a necessity.
Learning that it's okay to slow down in life isn't an optional lesson; it's something that we will all learn, through intense pain, suffering and burnout if necessary.
Nothing will be perfect in a marathon. The distance is simply too long. There's simply too much time for imperfection to manifest.
And that's perfectly fine.
Illness, injury and bad luck don't need to be feared. Up-hills and lows aren’t to be despised. The pain and tears aren’t to be suppressed.
Because these imperfections aren’t just part of the race; they make the race.
After all, without the downs, how could we appreciate the ups? Without the uphills, how could we appreciate the downhills? Without the tears, how could we appreciate the smiles? Without adversity, how could we appreciate the sweet satisfaction that can only be found in conquering adversity?
Marathons are about learning to accept our experience, instead of resisting it. They're about embracing the whole human condition, not glorifying the pleasant elements of it and suppressing the less pleasant elements. They're about learning to have faith in ourselves, when doubt and pain command us to give up.
They're about accepting that, no matter what has passed, what is to come, and what is now in this moment, all we can do is to keep putting one foot in front of the other...
Because yes, the race might be tough now - but it can also get better later. We may have to slow down now - but then we might find the energy to speed up later. We may be struggling to run uphill now - but there will be a downhill to enjoy later.
The less we resist our experience, the more we can accept our situation and create the space to transform our experience in the present moment.
Because ultimately, marathons are about the journey; not the destination. They’re about running at our own pace; not comparing ourselves to others.
The more we focus on the finish line, the less we appreciate the journey.
The more energy we expend fearing and despising the pain to come, the less energy we can spend observing the beauty in this moment.
The more we focus on others’ performance, the less connected we are to our own authentic pace.
The more we focus on proving ourselves, the less we appreciate those who run alongside us.
We can't backtrack in a marathon, just as life doesn’t let us go back in time. So, let’s actively seek beauty in the present moment, accept and embrace our own pace, express gratitude for the journey, and appreciate those we share the journey with.
In the race of life, we only pass through once.
Let’s honour this blessing.
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making motivational Instagram posts with in-depth captions that no one reads!