Why Greece Is an Amateur Runner’s Paradise

An inside look at the sport that makes friends of strangers and helps participants appreciate their natural surroundings. 


I shake hands with Thomas Daskagiannis outside his home in the Zografou neighborhood of Athens early on a bright Sunday morning. It is only five days before Christmas, but the mild temperatures and blinding sunshine are a tonic to this sun-deprived northern Europe-dwelling runner, more accustomed to rain, mud and darkness in December. Daskagiannis is to be my guide today as I join him and the “Thomas Group” for the Run the Lake 10km race at Lake Vouliagmeni, some 20km south of the city center. Situated on the coast, the lake is fed in part by thermal springs that maintain a constant temperature of 24°C. A spa, yacht basin and resort are all to be found on its shores, but none of this is of any interest today to Daskagiannis, a trim civil engineer whose 63 years are belied only by his gray hair.

After the briefest of introductions, we’re in the car and on our way. “We must leave now because parking will be difficult!” Now in its fifth year, Run the Lake has grown rapidly in popularity and attracts more than 1,800 runners. This level of participation in a “local” event stands as a testament to the explosion of interest in recreational and competitive running across all of Greece, where on any given weekend several race events are taking place in every corner of the country.

We arrive at the lake in plenty of time for the 9AM start, but parking, as predicted, is scarce. He successfully negotiates his car into an impossibly small space on a road close to the lake, and once outside we strip off our outer warm-up layers to get ready. As we make our way to the starting area, Daskagiannis darts across the road to greet a strikingly athletic woman. Returning a few minutes later, he tells me that he just wanted to say hello to Maria Polyzou, “the Greek women’s record holder in the marathon.” I am speechless until I notice Polyzou chatting casually with any number of runners heading to the starting line. It is a striking image to someone more accustomed to the hyper-competitiveness of events in many major cities, where elites remain walled off from recreational runners.

RECOMMENDED EVENTS

ATHENS MARATHON THE AUTHENTIC 11 October 2018. Held in early November, the race attracts more than 50,000 participants to run the 5km, 10km and the full 42,195m distance. The Athens Marathon was established at the first modern Olympics in 1896 to commemorate the feat of Greek soldier Phidippides, who in AD 490 ran from Marathon to Athens to bring news of the victory over the Persians.

CHIOS HALF MARATHON 27 August 2018. Scheduled for the last Sunday in August, the race takes place in the Campos District of Chios, its route passing alongside fragrant citrus orchards and historic mansions.

NAVARINO CHALLENGE  12-14 March 2018. Half marathon, 10km, 5km, 1km swimming and Stand Up Paddle Boarding. Endorsed by legendary Greek- American ultramarathon runner Dean Karnazes, and with the goal of raising awareness about the benefits of healthy living, the Mediterranean diet and childhood obesity, the Navarino Challenge is set amidst one of the most breathtaking and historically-rich landscapes in Greece and accessible to athletes of all abilities.

We finally meet up with the rest of our team in time for the start of the race. The group expands and contracts depending upon members’ time commitments; age and ability is no barrier, and the only requirement is the desire to run, to be healthy, and to have fun. This morning, there are nine in total from a wide range of backgrounds: along with us are civil engineer Hara, mathematics teacher Fotis, electrical engineer Yiannis, insurance broker Dimitris, mechanical engineers Thanasis and Thodoris and architect Praxiteles. Thomas gets everyone’s attention and issues a stern command: “Remember – we run for fun!” We nod solemnly and pair off into groups of three, based on age and running experience. Hara explains, “Thomas doesn’t want anyone to get left behind, so we run in groups to keep morale up when we get tired.”

This, I come to see, is a common theme of running in Greece: you are not just partaking in a sport; you are a member of a community, a brother- and-sisterhood of fellow runners that come in all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities. Running training laps around the secluded, Aleppo pine-scented campus of the National Technical University of Athens in Zografou, I had already been struck by the number of nameless “friendships” I’d struck up; fellow runners who took to the course at the same time every evening. With each lap, there would be smiles, nods, thumbs up and briefly uttered words of encouragement. I shouldn’t have been surprised that a recreational runner like Daskagiannis would think nothing of approaching a national champion and celebrity. What connected them was not first place finishes and split times, but simply that they were both runners. That was enough.

The race ends too soon, with sunshine glinting off the lake. Some runners jump into the water for a soothing soak in the warm thermal spring adjoining the finishers’ area.

RECOMMENDED EVENTS

NAPFLIO MARATHON

4 March 2018. Early March. Expect perfect weather and a course that combines both the historic city and the coast road. 

LEFKADA GREEN HALF MARATHON

9 July 2018. Half marathon, 10km and 5km races take place on this scenic island along routes incorporating regions of international ecological significance, including the Lagoon of Lefkada.

INTERNATIONAL THESSALONIKI NIGHT HALF MARATHON

13 October 2018. Join more than 20,000 runners who take to the streets of this historic city, cheered on by the festival atmosphere. A 5km event is also available.

SPETSES MINI MARATHON

5-7 October 2018. There are 25km, 10km and 5km runs, youth races and 5km/3km cross-channel swimming events. Running course takes in beautiful coastal vistas and pine forests. 

As all runners know, the individual reasons for putting one foot in front of another are as numerous as the steps taken in completing a marathon. The benefits of running have been well-documented. A 2014 study of 55,000 adults in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that running even a mere 50 minutes a week resulted in a 30 percent drop in mortality rates. But as any committed runner will tell you, running isn’t simply about physical well-being. The real reason running becomes an addiction is the psychological changes that occur while you run. You literally get a kind of “high” from the mere activity of putting one foot in front of another.

One shortcut to the “runner’s high” is to do your running somewhere beautiful. At Lake Vouliagmeni on this sun-drenched Sunday morning, my fellow 1,800 runners only have to glance over their shoulders at the shimmering blue water a few meters from our path. It is easy to forget the pain of the gentle uphill stretches when surrounded by such natural beauty. It is also astonishing to find such unspoilt nature on the doorstep of the congested center of Athens.

Interest in running among Greeks has been growing at an almost exponential rate. In 2005, there were only 800 Greek entrants in what is known as the Athens Marathon – The Authentic. By 2015, that number had grown ten-fold. The Spetses Mini Marathon had a mere 700 entrants – all Greek – when it was first run in 2010; today, that number has grown to more than 10,000, with 40 percent coming from abroad.

Petros Bouchoris came late to running, but has now completed five marathons to date, qualifying to compete in the Greek Marathon Championships at the age of 40. With a background in consumer research and a love for travel, Bouchoris saw a business opportunity and founded Running Greece three years ago as a specialist travel agency serving international visitors passionate about running and fitness.

In those three years, Bouchoris has seen a year-on-year doubling of bookings. He found that foreign visitors’ needs were not well-served by traditional travel agencies. The absence of fitness-related travel services was compounded by the simple fact that information about the vast majority of running events only existed in Greek. Something as basic as providing a comprehensive English-language race calendar suddenly opened up a world of possibilities for exercise-minded travelers. The value-added component to Running Greece is its expertise, being able to guide visitors to running events in out-of-the-way corners far from the well-beaten tourist path, augmented with bespoke touring and travel arrangements.

The opportunities for running in Greece are almost limitless in their variety of distance, difficulty and setting. Among  Bouchoris’ personal favourites: the 21km Meteora Trail Run, for the otherworldly beauty of the towering rock formations dotted with monasteries clinging to the sheer rock faces; the Ioannina Lake Run, for revealing the lesser-known alpine beauty of northwestern Greece; and lastly, the Chios Half Marathon, because the island and the course together encapsulate the most iconic elements of Greece’s beaches, hills, villages and culture.

RECOMMENDED EVENTS

 METEORA TRAIL RUN

28 October 2018. Offering both a half marathon and a 6.6km distance, the Trail Run is set amidst the rock peaks and monasteries of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, with participation capped at 500 entrants.

IOANNINA LAKE RUN

September 2018. A 30km paved course around Lake Pamvotis, ringed by mountains, combined with the vibrant university city of Ioannina, makes this event irresistible.

ANDROS TRAIL RACE

6-7 October 2018. Choose between 22km and 10km distances run along ancient Venetian mountain trails of outstanding natural beauty.

HYDRA TRAIL RACE

31 March – 1 April 2018. Early April. Set on the tranquil, car-free island, this competition offers five different events, ranging from the iconic 26.3km, 1,250m altitude-gain trail race to the unique “downhill” mountain race, the fastest of its kind in Greece.

OLYMPUS MARATHON

Running with the Gods in late June. This marathon is held on the historical and UNESCO World Natural Heritage Monument of Mount Olympus.

ZAGORI MOUNTAIN RUNNING 

July. 80km Ultra, 42km, 21km and 10km mountain trail events cater to everyone, from elite pro runners to first timers. The course traverses Vikos Gorge – one of the deepest canyons in the world – as well as ancient villages and the extraordinary ancient stone bridges for which the Zagori region is famous.

For novice runners,  Bouchoris recommends the Athens 10km in November. For those looking for a first attempt at a longer distance (perhaps with their eye on eventually running a full marathon), he recommends the Nafplio Half Marathon held in March. The early spring weather is ideal in this jewel of a Venetian port that makes an optimal base from which to explore the Peloponnese and the nearby ancient sites of Mycenae, as well as the perfectly preserved theater at Epidavros.

Daskagiannis, too, lists the Napflio Half Marathon as one of his favorite events, as it was his first attempt at such a long distance. He ran with several others from the Thomas Group, each providing moral support for one another along the course, something which he credits for his finding the will to complete the 21km distance. “The cheer from the crowd as I crossed the finish line was unforgettable!”

Like Running Greece’s Bouchoris, Daskagiannis agrees that the iconic Athens Marathon (and its related 5km and 10km events) is a must-do for any serious runner visiting Greece, combining as it does the majesty of history with the fantastic atmosphere bursting with Greek pride for the event’s dual origins, one in a battle fought 2,500 years ago and one in the first modern Olympics held right here. Asked which race he would recommend to a first-time visitor looking to run in Greece, he replies, “Without question, Thessaloniki.” After a pause he reconsiders, “No, definitely Spetses. It was stunning.” Another pause. “But Run the Lake at Vouliagmeni is beautiful, too!” Clearly his answer will change with each new race, and that’s high praise indeed for what Greece has to offer the visiting running enthusiast.

RECOMMENDED EVENTS

ATHENS HALF MARATHON 

18 March 2018. This easy, 21.1km race along main avenues in springtime Athens is a popular option for those looking to take part in their first half marathon. The race starts and finishes in Syntagma Square. On the same day 5km and 3km events are also held, as well as a 1km event for disabled individuals.

13th INTERNATIONAL MARATHON ALEXANDER THE GREAT

01 April 2018. More than 20,000 runners take part in this 42.195 km race from Pella, Alexander the Great’s birthplace, to Thessaloniki. The long straights and relatively low difficulty of the route make records and personal bests more likely. 10km and 5km races are also held, as well as a 1km event for kids.

CRETE MARATHON

15 April 2018. This circular and level 42.195km route links the beautiful city of Chania with the village of Maleme. This is a marathon that lends itself to personal bests and for 16.8km participants run by the sea. On the same day 10km, 5km and 2.5km events are also held.


Read More

Health

The Roots of Holistic Health

How Ancient Greeks built a connection between body, soul and...


Health

The “Sons” of Hippocrates

Eight Greek scientists who changed the course of modern medicine.


Activities

The Authentic Marathon Experience

On 8 November, thousands of runners from around the world...


Health

Greece, a Paradise of Hot Springs

Soaking up a long tradition in healing, from ancient water...


Greece Is Blog Posts

Storm in a Coffee Cup: My Tasseomancy Experience in Thessaloniki

BY Amber Charmei

  “I see you have two… boys (?)”...

read more >

The Anthropogeography of a Greek Ferry Boat

BY Pavlos Zafiropoulos

They say that to truly understand what lies...

read more >

Xematiasma: Getting Rid of the Evil Eye

BY Amber Charmei

read more >