I like a run that finishes in a stadium. It can bring a sense of grandeur, of occasion, to any race. The crowds banked up high. For a fleeting moment you can pretend you’re Mo Farah or Jessica Ennis-Hill.
As stadium finishes go, few can match the experience of entering the almost 2,000-year-old Panathenaic stadium in Athens. Made of marble and with a seating capacity of 50,000, this epic structure was the setting for the opening ceremony of the first modern Olympics in 1896. It was the finish of the 2004 Olympic marathons. Long ago, it hosted naked wrestlers and gladiators.
Stepping off the road and into the stadium with 100m left to run, it’s hard to focus on a sprint finish when there is so much history to take in. On top of all this, Athens is of course the birthplace of the marathon. It was here that, according to legend, the Greek soldier Philippides (or Pheidippides) collapsed and died after declaring victory in the battle of Marathon in 490BC, after running from the town of the same name.
It was lucky I was only running the Athens 10K and not the marathon on the same day, or I might have been too overcome with occasion to finish.
November is a good time to be in Athens. The baking hot days are over and the crowds of tourists are thinner. You can visit the Acropolis without having to spend hours queueing in unbearable heat or getting up at 6am. The cooler temperatures are also good for running.
When I line up at the start of the 10K, it’s perfectly pleasant in my shorts and T-shirt, with no need for silver foil blankets. Everything feels remarkably well organised. It’s a big field of about 8,000 runners, but the route follows the wide avenues that wind around Mount Lycabettus near the centre of the city, so there’s no bunching and I’m soon settled into a good pace.
My biggest problem is the fact that I’m slightly hungover. I came to Athens with my 12-year-old daughter and, the night before, we decided to head out into the city for a pre-race meal. We ended up in a low-lit restaurant with chandeliers, cool wallpaper and a bar, which my daughter said reminded her of something from Bugsy Malone. I guess I should have known Otto Resto Bar wasn’t the place for a quiet pre-race meal. But it was still early and the restaurant, in the building where King Otto used to have his summer residence in the mid-19th century, had an irresistibly laid-back feel about it.
The food was great, even for two vegetarians. The problem was the cocktails. They brought us two multi-coloured affairs on the house when we first arrived, clearly not realising that my daughter was only 12. She, being British, insisted that, rather than facing the embarrassment of leaving one untouched, or explaining ourselves, I had to drink hers, too. I, being British, did just that.
Two cocktails may not sound much, but added to the two digestifs they brought us at the end (both of which, of course, I was also obliged to drink), it was enough to have me feeling a little light-headed.
But within minutes of starting the race the next morning, the very act of running hard in bright sunshine soon clears my head. The course climbs gradually for most of the first half of the race, before turning and tumbling back down to the finish. About a mile from the stadium, we pass Dromeas, a giant glass sculpture of a runner, which was built in 1994 to inspire those taking part in the Athens marathon – which finishes along the same stretch. For those running the full marathon, it’s their sign that the end is finally near.
I run by, feeling good on the downhill section, and a short while later I’m bursting into the stadium. Bursting is perhaps overstating it, but here I am, my moment in the spotlight.
It is more a polite ripple of acknowledgment that greets me than the roar of a crowd baying for blood, but what else can I expect – we 10Kers are merely the warm-up act for the marathon runners, who are still out on the course, making their way from the town of Marathon. They are set to get – and they deserve – a more raucous reception.
With the racing done, the rest of the weekend is happily spent recovering, with some essential sightseeing and a luxurious meal in the rooftop Galaxy Bar restaurant at the Hilton hotel, which is one of the few tall buildings in Athens and has a 360-degree view across the city. Because, you know, sometimes you just need to treat yourself. It’s what the ancient Olympians would have done, I’m sure.
• Adharanand Finn was running the Athens 10K. He travelled to Greece with Aegean Airlines and stayed at the Athens Hilton.