ALEXANDER THE GREAT MARATHON 2014 THESALONIKI
Not life, but good life, is to be chiefly valued. – Socrates
Socrates couldn’t have said it better. It is no doubt the leitmotiv of the local inhabitants and the holidaymakers who frequent Thessaloniki
A vibrant city with an exciting night-life and rated fifth party capital in the world, the second largest city in Greece is also rich in history and culture. Present day capital of Macedonia on the Aegean Sea, it was founded in 350BC and was named after the half-sister of Alexander the Great.
And more importantly it hosts the second largest marathon in Greece – the Alexander the Great Marathon, which took place on Sunday 6 April.
Exploring the City
I arrive in Thessaloniki on Friday as the plan is to visit the town and get a little pre-race sightseeing done. Flight time is just over 3 hours from London and Thesaloniki is GMT + 2. I check in and feeling ravenous I make my way to a small Greek restaurant behind the hotel, sit on the terrace and take a look at the chalk board menu which looks all Greek to me! The Greek owner and his wife are very friendly though and recommend a 3-course 11€ menu including wine. I order local freshly fished sea-bream and a glass of local dry red Greek wine!
Replenished I take a stroll down the sea-front boulevard towards the White Tower to look around the marathon expo. The weather in April is ideal for a spring marathon – between 14°C and 18°C. The open-air expo is bustling with runners picking up their numbers. A quick look around and I decide to have a coffee.
The locals have perfected the art of café culture – the city never sleeps. During the day the cafés lining the seafront boulevard are crowded with beautiful trendy youngsters donning fashionable sun-glasses and skinny jeans enjoying the local specialty – the café frappe, an iced instant coffee drink with a frothy top. In the evening these same cafés stay open until late, turn up the volume and serve Greek draft, Retsina a traditional white wine flavored with pine resin and cocktails.
Byzantine churches and street art
I decide to explore the city behind the boulevard and am amazed at the number of churches, each one more beautiful and ornate than the next. These tiny Byzantine havens of peace in a noisy bustling city are definitely worth the visit. One I really loved was the Holy Church of Megali Panagia formerly a monastery of the 12th century. Another one worth visiting is the Hagia Sophia a World Heritage Site on the UNESCO list.
Another thing that struck me about the city was the proliferous street art. It is absolutely everywhere. From common graffiti and tag to talented pieces of art it covers most buildings and even some monuments.
Dining Out in Ladadika
To eat and drink without a friend is to devour like the lion and the wolf.
Dining out is a real experience in Thessaloniki. The city boasts a multitude of restaurants with great Greek cuisine at affordable prices.
A great little find was Marathos, in the popular Ladadika area with its cobbled streets and typical tavernas. It is located 5 minutes from Artistotle Square near the port. The word Ladadika means the shops that sell oil and its products and used to be the central bazaar during the Ottoman occupation.
On the menu great mezes – dolmades, grilled sardines (to die for) and a “special sausage” (local specialty with veal and lamb). Dessert in Thessalonian restaurants is usually on the house.
Lena’s café is also one to tick off on your list – great Greek wines by the glass and free wi-fi!
In the evening the tavernas in Ladadika serve Retsina and if you stay until past midnight you might end up dancing on the tables………
The Flame Ceremony Zorba style
On Saturday I attend the flame ceremony. Giorgios Karagiannis the Race Director explains the symbolism behin this very well:
“It’s all about peace, sharing, bringing people together especially in times of difficulty. It symbolizes the true Olympic spirit”.
The day before the official marathon a relay of runners carry the flame from Pella to Thessaloniki and they are welcomed by the city’s officials and press at the finish. This year there was some great Greek dancing in costume after the ceremony with dancers representing all the Greek provinces.
Needless to say I did not get much sleep pre-race with the local hectic night-life, retsina and dancing on the tables! And the fact that I’m not particularly run fit at the moment doesn’t help. Well one consolation is my fate can’t be any worse than poor Pheidippides!
Wake-up call at 5am, breakfast of luscious Greek yoghurt and I catch the shuttle to the race start in Pella, 42km from Thessaloniki, the birthplace of Alexander the Great and ancient capital of Macedonia.
I arrive at the start and it begins to rain. The other runners gathered at the start rush for shelter and almost immediately the race organization hand out plastic cloaks to all the runners. I hand my kit to the baggage truck at the start.
At 8am the rain has stopped and we are off! The course is exactly as I expected – very flat and for those who are aiming for a PB ideal. The weather this year was cool although a little windy. Having said this at my pace it wasn’t an issue!
The route takes the runners from Pella to the city of Chalkidona (8km), across the Axios river, to the village Gefyra, over the Gallikos River (28km), to Kordelio (35km) and the finish at the White Tower on the seafront of Thessaloniki.
Refreshment stations are every 5km with sponge tables in between. The tables are well-manned with very efficient volunteers handing out bottles of water and isotonic sports drinks. At KM 30, gels are provided as well as halva bars – a local Macedonian specialty made from sesame seed oil and sugar.
What is impressive is the number of red-cross staff manning the route at feed stations and in between feed stations.
Struggling a little I appreciate the crowd support from villagers and locals who come out to cheer the runners on especially on entering Thessaloniki – onlookers clap, cheer and shout “Bravo, bravo”. Even if you feel like walking at this stage because you’ve hit the wall, you just can’t!
And the cherry on the cake and compensation for doing my personal worst the medal at the arrival…… a proper customized medal featuring Alexander the Great!
I definitely recommend this marathon and as the Race Director says all the ingredients for success are there: Greek food, Greek hospitality and a lot of fun…….
For more info on the Alexander the Great Marathon:
Official race site: