I like Greek gods. The crushing banality of monotheism’s stultifying myths leave a trail of misery. Humans are but nothing and suffering is holy. Greek gods however suffer with their human subjects. Give me a Greek, Viking or Celtic myth any time. I can relate to them. These ancient peoples were not arrogant enough to think themselves special, and created myths with an immediacy to explain the hard lives they lived. Greek gods were just magnified people, flawed, marvellous and equally relevant as any other.
My journey to run the Alónnisos Challenge, on 27th May, began last September, when buoyed by a week on the island, warm sunshine and a little wine, I committed myself to run this year’s race. No 10km for me. Oh no, I committed to the 30km run – that it is 31.010km did nothing to change my mind. In my head I was 30 again, remembering 2:49 marathons, 78 minute half marathons and cruising along at 6:30 pace wondering what all the fuss was about. By December that 31km over hot trails and hills looked like a serious endeavour.
On 1st January I began what turned out to be quite an odyssey. I gave up meat. I gave up alcohol. I started training, using a schedule set out with the optimism of a man with his eye on a goal, though not seeing possible pitfalls befitting a Greek myth. Odysseus set sail to Ithaca the same way, but he did not see the possibilities of the gods’ interference. It took him 10 years to get home. I have written about the troubles I had to face, but like all good tales, somehow I may just reach Alónnisos ready to run.
I got the all clear two weeks ago. I do not have cancer and the Prostatitis has gone. My health is nearly back to normal, and only a dull ache in my right, second toe reminds me of those awful Ciprofloxacin tablets. Through all this I kept running, but at a lower level. To survive the Alónnisos Challenge I needed endurance, so that is what I concentrated on. I could not physically do speed work, and have had little time left to do extensive hill training – I lost too many weeks, and felt too ill.
In my odyssey, the lightning bolts of Prostatis and Ciprofloxacin cut me down just as I was feeling the best I had, running wise, for years. I will come ashore at Alónnisos, my Ithaca, older, wiser but capable of taking up the Challenge. Yet my Greek friends will see a plodder not a racing snake. In the last 4 weeks I have completed an 18, 20 and 22 miler to give me an indication that I can get through the distance. I aim to survive the heat, hills and trails without being bound to the clock. This will free me to run within myself.
Yet I may be overthinking things. This is no eyeballs-out competitive event. Alónnisos is a friendly, scattered isle, it’s people smiling encouragement whether one runs, staggers or walks. So, in a way the odyssey to get to my Ithaca may have been a trial, but I will view the run as a dance in the garden of the gods. No matter what happens, I know the evening will be full of smiles, laughter, good food and a break in my no-alcohol policy. The people on Alónnisos laugh more freely than most I’ve met, and that makes things easier. Alónnisos gave me this journey.
Oddly, this is reflected in a poem that my friend, Captain Pakis gave to me – Ithaca, by Constantine P. Cavafy. (I have subsequently bought a book of Cavafy’s work).
As you set out for Ithaca
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaca always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.
Constantine P. Cavafy