I Ran the Athens Marathon with EF Ultimate Break and It Was Legendary
Yeah, running a marathon is cool. But have you ever run the OG marathon in Greece with a bunch of new friends you met three days earlier?
December 22, 2023
I ran the Athens Marathon with EF Ultimate Break—a sentence that would have made little sense to me a few years ago. How do you run a marathon with a travel company? It’s surprisingly easy, minus the whole running 26.2 miles part.
Now, I didn’t travel all the way to Europe just to run—not that there’s anything wrong with that. I traveled on EF Ultimate Break’s first-of-its-kind trip, Run Athens, a week-long adventure to Greece’s capital with a major focus on…wait for it…running! They took care of all the planning, so I could focus on the fun parts, like eating my body weight in souvlaki and, of course, running the marathon.
This wasn’t my first marathon, but it was, without a doubt, the most memorable. If you’re a runner, this race belongs at the top of your bucket list. And if you aren’t a runner, start running just so you can put this race on your bucket list. I’m serious—go.
The Athens Marathon is no ordinary road race. And to explain why, we’ll need to go back in time about 2,500 years, to 490 BCE. According to legend, after the Greeks defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, a messenger named Pheidippides ran 26.2 miles to Athens to announce their victory. And yes, some of the more dramatic versions of the story say he collapsed and died moments after delivering the news. And you know, after finishing the marathon myself, that’s not not believable.
Fast forward to 1896. Athens hosts the first Modern Olympic Games, and, inspired by the story of Pheidippides, 17 runners participate in the very first organized marathon race. 127 years later, Athens continues to host the marathon, honoring both human endurance and the connection between ancient and modern.
Some of you may read this and think, very cool, Kev, but I’m simply not interested in running a marathon. First of all, you’re missing out. But hey, if it isn’t in the cards for you, you’ve got options! After you book Run Athens, someone from EF Ultimate Break will reach out to ask if you’ll be running the marathon, the 5k, or the 10k—all of which happen during the marathon weekend.
Okay, let’s talk a bit more about the whirlwind trip itself. We all arrived in Athens on a Thursday, ran on Saturday or Sunday, and flew home on Tuesday. Apart from running our own races, we squeezed in as much as we could. We toured the Acropolis with a local guide, spent a few hours at the beach, ate our way through the city on a walking food tour, and cheered on other runners (with some gorgeous homemade signs) when we weren’t participating in our own race. Our hotel was centrally located in Athens, just steps away from the metro, making it easy to get around on our own. And none of it would have been possible without our amazing Tour Director, Panagiotis. He kept the trip moving, shared his passion for Greece, and he even organized a pasta dinner for us the night before the marathon.
The marathon took place on Sunday. And because the race began in Marathon, about 26 miles away from Athens, it was an early start. Luckily the hotel provided an earlier-than-normal breakfast between 5 and 6am. Those of us running sipped our coffee, munched on some last-minute carbs, and talked about how totally not nervous we were.
We hopped on a bus near our hotel (organized by the race) and made our way to the starting line in the town of Marathon. The bus ride to the start followed much of the course we’d be running, which was exciting and also mortifying. I’d heard about the hills, but hearing about them and seeing them are two very different things.
We made it to the drop-off area. I high fived my fellow runners and found my corral. With 30 minutes until go time, it started getting real. I popped in my headphones and started to visualize what I hoped would be a good run. My main goal was to finish the race. My ambitious goal was to finish the race under 4 hours. I say ambitious because the last few months of training had been less than ideal due to a few minor injuries. And instead of letting those minor injuries turn into major ones, I pumped the breaks and took time off. My weekly mileage took a hit, as did my confidence. Nonetheless, I was excited to be at race day and determined to do my best. This was the Athens Marathon, after all.
Cut to: the starting gun. We were off! It’s easy to get carried away early in a race—adrenaline is high, legs are fresh, and thousands of runners are going faster than you. I tried to start slow because I knew I needed to save my strength for the *gulp* hills from miles 11 to 20. The energy level was HIGH, both from the other runners and the spectators along the course.
If you weren’t running a marathon this day, the 60s and sunny weather was lovely. For a runner, that sun starts to take its toll after a few hours. Even so, 11 miles in, I felt great. The hills came…and eventually, they went. I made it to the top, around mile 20, feeling tired but not terrible. I was on pace to run well under 4 hours and felt like I could sprint the last 6 miles. Silly me, ’twas only a bit of hubris. Because one mile later, I hit the one, the only, the marathon wall. My legs were shot, my heart rate was high, and my tank was empty—I knew it would be a mental battle to the end.
But then, out of nowhere, I saw five of my fellow travelers jumping and shouting my name from the side of the road. I was hurting, but I couldn’t help but smile. And for a few minutes, I forgot about the pain. It was the motivation I so desperately needed to keep going. HUGE shoutout to them and all the Run Athens 2023 travelers for supporting each other as every one of us destroyed our bodies…for glory.
The last 4 miles were rough. I slowed down, poured several bottles of water on my head, and did my best to put one foot in front of the other. After some grueling mental math (nearly impossible after 3 hours of running), I figured out I could still hit my ambitious goal if I kept my pace around 10-11 minutes per mile. After the longest 40 minutes of my life, I turned a corner and found myself entering the Panathenaic Stadium—easily the most epic finish of any race I’ve ever run. I crossed the finish line, a shell of a human being, in 3 hours and 55 minutes, a new personal best. I’ve never been happier…to stop running. Obviously I was thrilled with my time, but I spent the next hour sitting on the ground, groaning. I was exhausted, dehydrated, and wondering why I continue to do this to myself. But as cliché as it is, pain is usually temporary. And today, I can look back and be proud of my achievement.
The truth is, I’m not sure I would have hit my goal without the support of my fellow Ultimate Break travelers. And this wasn’t just my experience. Talking with people after the race, everyone was beyond thankful for the cheer squads along the way. The outpour of support and encouragement over the course of the weekend was inspiring.
This was my sixth EF Ultimate Break trip, and probably the most unique. I love to travel, I love to run, and I loved this experience. Now, in the spirit of Greece and its history of great philosophers, I’ll leave you with one question:
If you run a marathon and don’t write a blog post about it…did it really happen?
Why trust Ultimate Break
Kevin McGraw is a Boston-based creative working at EF Ultimate Break. After graduating from Wake Forest University with a degree in Communication, Kevin went all in on three things and made them his entire personality: traveling, writing, and running. He’s run 5 marathons, 15 half marathons, and yes, even a few turkey trots. In 2023, Kevin had the chance to combine his passions and run the Athens Marathon, a surreal experience that he and his mom are very proud of.
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