Running Fiesta

Writing and running in Austin, TX.

Running as a Way to See the World: Crete

I don’t know about you, but I like gross generalizations, so I’m going to make one now: People in the Mediterranean don’t run.

I’m basing this off two pieces of evidence:

  1. Seven years ago I did a summer study abroad in Spain, where a local told me that Spaniards like to mock people who go to the gym for having “fake muscles”.
  2. We just spent a week in Greece, birthplace of the marathon and the ancient Olympic Games, and I saw a grand total of one other runner the entire time we were there. (Okay, two, but the second definitely looked like an expat.)

This didn’t really surprise me. For one, the entire place is built on mountains. I’m not entirely sure how I missed this fact beforehand, but if I, like the legendary Pheidippides, had to zig-zag across 175 miles of this terrain just to inform Athens that the war with Persia was in fact over, I’d probably keel over dead, too.

Another issue for runners in Greece is that sidewalks are virtually non-existent, and they have some…unique ideas about roads, lanes, shoulders, etc. If a line is painted on a road, a Greek driver will position their vehicle directly over it. I’m not exaggerating this at all. As Handsome J’s Greek cousin told us, “We drive on the line because it is safer that way, so you see where you are at night.” (I have to admit, the more I contemplated this logic, the more sold I was on it.)

Of course it’s only the highways and major roads that have lanes. Everything else was built pre-automobile, so your average small-town road is roughly wide enough for 3 donkeys standing side-by-side. Here I am running up one such road toward our hotel:

2 Chrises = 1 Donkey

Luckily, what Greece lacks in running paths, it makes up for in scenery. We set up camp in the small town of Piskopiano, which only gets a mention on Wikipedia in the article “Lists of Settlements in the Heraklion Prefecture“. (Now really, Wiki-writers, I know Greece is having some tough times, but that doesn’t mean we have to downgrade their towns to “settlements”.)

Despite what it’s own tourist Web site says (“Piskopiano is the poor relative of Koutouloufari and Ano Hersonissos…“), the town itself, situated 25km from the Cretan capital Heraklion, features beautiful old churches, tavernas with extensive outdoor seating, and plenty of Mediterranean views. I think it can best be experienced by watching this YouTube video that the hotel sent Handsome J’s mom in response to her request for directions:

It’s really crucial that you turn the sound on for this. And maybe take a Dramamine.

As you can see, the place had its fair share of hills (and choirs), so I made a deal with myself. I would not obsess about every mile of my training program. For one thing, we were on vacation with Handsome J’s family, and I was pretty sure they didn’t fly all the way from Canada to Greece just to sit around and wait for me to get my tempo run in. For another thing, we were on vacation.

Don’t misunderstand me, when training for a marathon, sticking to a training schedule is important. However, when living in Europe and feeling burnt out on running in the cold, it’s fully acceptable to take a few days off to enjoy some sunny ancient ruins. (At least that’s what I told myself. The place at Knossos might still be standing 3,000 years from now, but no one will remember if I did my 8x400s before going to see it.)

In total, I ran four times in Crete – one 5-miler and three 3-mile jaunts. After the first one, I decided orange groves in full bloom, wild chickens, and avoiding death by motor scooter were more interesting than tracking my times up cobbled hills, so I left Garmin in the room. It was the running equivalent of going back to basics, and the results were phenomenal.

No, I didn’t set any land-speed records, but I did get to remember what it’s like to be in a place where strangers greet you on the street. (This is not so typisch Deutsch, and I’m out of practice. It alarmed me slightly the first time a lady smiled at me.)

And it was amazing how many people DID smile at me. Piskopiano is a very small town – only 450 residents, according to that aforementioned tourist Web site. Tourism appears to be the major industry, and we were visiting a couple weeks before the season truly kicked off. As the locals dropped what they were doing to watch me jog by, I couldn’t help feeling like the first swallow of Spring, a neon-topped indication of the return of foreign Euros.

I also got to remember how fun running can be when you don’t have a goal for every workout. How relaxing it can be. See, here’s me on our balcony post-run:

The image of physical fitness

I also got the rare opportunity to remember my pre-running life. And by “life” I mean “obsessions”. If you’re not related to me or haven’t known me since high school, you might not be aware that I used to be as much (if not more) obsessed with riding horses as I now am with running. Handsome J’s mom did some sleuthing and succeeded in finding a decently-kept stable just minutes from our hotel. (Naturally, the owner is German.)

Like runners dream about qualifying for Boston, riders dream about riding horses on the beach. Why? I have no idea. We just do.


And as I got back to a happier place in life – amazing how a good vacation can do that – I began to geek out a bit more about the fact that I was in Greece, the birthplace of the marathon! I made it a mission to see if I could find the marathon-themed T-shirt my dad had brought me from a previous Greece trip. I took me half the week, but I spotted it in a window in Agios Nikolaos:


With the exception of one horrible 20- turned 15-miler which I blame entirely on the pouring rain, my runs since we got home have been fantastic. I’m excited about the Antwerp 10-Miler that I’ll be running next weekend, and I’m even entertaining ideas of trying to keep up with the 4:30 pace group in Düsseldorf. (Okay, that’s probably delusional, but it’s the slowest pace group they offer.) =(

So, with only a month left until marathon day, all I have to do is hold on to Greece and remember that I’m ridiculously obsessed with this sport. Seriously, what would I talk about all day if I couldn’t bore people to tears with details of my training runs?

My sincere apologies to all my German friends and coworkers who will have to listen to me for the next month. It should quiet down when I cross the finish. =)

2 comments on “Running as a Way to See the World: Crete

  1. Emily
    April 11, 2011

    Holy Cow, girl! I can't believe you a) ran those hills in Greece b) made yourself run more than once on vacation. Both are true victories! May the strength from those propel you through this last month of training!! (Yes, I realize I rarely write sentences that don't end in !! but I guess I am just that excited) 😀

  2. Jeanine
    April 12, 2011

    I second Emily! CONGRATS! You have found your inner-athelete and she's bloomed into a force to be reckoned with. No go get em'! (and schedule another vacay afterwards where you DONT run)

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This entry was posted on April 7, 2011 by in Greece, motivation, travel.
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