notes from: athens
a running commentary on thucydides
For a city-state that invented the sport of distance running (cf. Battle of Marathon), Athens displays a surprising antipathy towards runners.
It’s a summer evening—sun setting behind the Parthenon; al fresco hubbub in cafes; awestruck tourists; chattering cicadas; the whole nine yards—and we’re jazzed about doing a run so historic it would make any ivied Classics department proud: from the base of the Acropolis to the port of Piraeus, five miles southwest, along the route of the wall. This is THE wall: the Thucydidean wall—the one that was the spark for the whole shebang called the Peloponnesian War; the wall that will be discussed in every military strategy class until the end of time—but we have a problem! We don’t know what direction Piraeus is in.
The next, wholly unanticipated problem: No one will tell us. “You’re running to Piraeus? ON FOOT?!” (Shock, awe, opprobrium, etc.). A man kindly directs us to the nearest bus stop, where we can catch the 40 to Piraeus because “please,” he chuckles, “my children, it is too far to walk, let alone run.”
It is not. It is five miles.
Eventually we find the way, navigating off a laconic gesture—“Piraeus? Over there.” The run, while not exactly scenic—the view is foreclosed apartment blocks and graffiti-ed benches—awakes within us the flame of history and for a few glorious miles we are running with the ancient Athenians, running to defend the city walls, to defend the spirit of democracy and the Periclean majesty of our Sacred Rock and to get those murderous Spartans until we are stopped dead in our tracks. A woman, taking issue with our running attire, specifically my shorts and Patrick’s bare chest, screams in Greek while trying to pull down my shorts to cover my lower thighs and gesticulating ferociously at Patrick. So we’re basically like “See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya,” but she’s left us with a frightened, frenetic energy that becomes harder and harder to shake over the next two miles—a cloud of tradition and respect that dogs us through the city.
We’re dashing along the sidewalk, dodging spindly little café tables, and Athenians walking their spindly little dogs, and glares from spindly little women, and it becomes harder and harder to think—no, harder and harder not to think, to disentangle thoughts from action and from one another. It’s overwhelming, this city, packed to the brim with the detritus of a few hundred centuries and the acquisitions of the present generation; this city that never throws anything away but keeps it embalmed and enshrined, a testament to the glory of its citizens—an antique shop or a rubbish heap, take your pick—tumbling gently towards the sea, prompted now and then by earthquakes and financial crises to slouch even further in its worn, comfortable chair.
God! What we wouldn’t give for a breath of fresh air, an Alcibiadean vinegar to cut through the soup of stodgy self-indulgence.
We keep running, and running, and running, and a week later we find ourselves running in the hills of the Mani Peninsula, a handful of miles away from the city formerly known as Sparta and now known as Sparti, though it’s really just two streets and a flat place in the road. We never go inside because, what’s the point? We’re here for the cliffs and the trails; the goat paths lined with cobblestones meandering between one-room churches and sandstone monasteries, recent relics, only a few centuries old; pirouetting around brooks; dodging olive trees; slip-sliding over a carpet of eucalyptus leaves; whispering through the tall grass; always with the sea, far below, lapping against the rocky coast, to guide us. No monuments, no walls, no half-standing temples to the gods’ munificence. Just our breathing—in, out—in, out—and the sound of pebbles skipping down the trail as we pass. We’re machines now, arms and legs working thoughtlessly.
What do you think about when you run? That’s the wrong question. I run in a void; I run in order to acquire a void, Murakami said. What don’t you think about when you run?
We come to a valley-in-miniature, a wide crevasse, an indentation between two spiraling cliffs filled with pine and cypress shrubs and laded with damp. It’s dark and quiet, except for the whooing of doves, and so still. Even the wind has stopped. Nobody but us. Us, and whoever came before us. They’re in the glade too— there, and there!—heroes or helots, hoplites or who knows—whoo-WHOO, who say the doves—all of us there, in halcyon days.