Digital Champions Blog: Lessons from the Home of the Marathon

By Rachel Dewan
Toronto August 25th, 2016

If you had told me a year ago that I would be training for a marathon, I would have been skeptical. If you had told me a year ago that half of my marathon training would take place in Greece in the summer, I never would have believed you. Who would ever want to make training more difficult than it already is? As a student of archaeology, I have been fortunate enough to spend the last five summers excavating ancient sites on the island of Crete, but while the warm climate is a welcome escape from a long Canadian winter, the sun and the heat make for grueling conditions, far from the ideal running weather.

Yet, nearly one year after running my first half-marathon, here I am, finishing up the final week of two and a half months of marathon training and archaeological study in Crete. You see, that first 21.1 km race at the 2015 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half-Marathon led to another in the winter, and then another in the spring. When friends started to talk about running the full marathon at this year’s STWM, I joked about it with them, but figured that my summer field work in Greece would make training too difficult. Then I learned about the Scotiabank Charity Challenge. Being able to use the marathon as an opportunity to fundraise for a charity that I care about seemed to me to be the best way to complete my first marathon and I couldn’t pass it up. I registered for the race, dedicating my first marathon experience to Matthew House, a refugee shelter in downtown Toronto, stuffed my luggage with energy gels and electrolyte tablets, and took my training across the ocean. After all, as the home of the first marathon, Greece seemed a particularly appropriate place to embark on this adventure.Rachel Dewan Blog Photo 1

Now, as the Greek part of my training comes to an end and I prepare to fly home to Toronto, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Training this summer definitely wasn’t easy, but no one ever said it would be. In fact, I have learned more than I ever thought that I would, and about far more than just running. I should’ve known that the country which has already taught me so much through its history would have just as much to share in its present. After countless miles over Cretan soil, here are five lessons that I think apply to every run, whether you’re exploring the olive groves of Greece or the streets of Toronto.

1) You are always stronger than you think. I’ll be honest: that first 10k run on Crete was probably the hottest, sweatiest run of my life. But it broke whatever mental barrier I had built, and encouraged me to push myself, one training challenge after another. Each run was an accomplishment, and showed me just how strong the human body truly is. Runners, never underestimate your body’s ability to adjust to its surroundings. While the heat could be tough and the howling winds of East Crete became my nemesis, I put one foot in front of the other and told myself that sweet baklava awaited my return to the village.

2) Keep things in perspective. Of course, there were the inevitable days when a run was particularly tough or I was lacking energy after a long day of work. It was on those days that I needed an extra kick to get motivated; it was on those days when I reminded myself why I was doing this. For me, running the marathon isn’t just a personal challenge, but also a way to support Matthew House. The refugee crisis has hit Greece particularly hard and the effects of this global emergency run deep. Yet, it is places like Matthew House and the incredible people behind it who offer hope. So when I was exhausted from poring over books or studying ancient pottery and wanted to skip out on my training, I turned my thoughts to those for whom I was dedicating my marathon; those who are facing hardships I cannot even begin to comprehend – and persevering.

3) Encouragement is key. If you’re a runner in Greece, you will inevitably get asked, “But what are you running from?” Of course, it’s a question asked jokingly, but at the same time, let’s just say that running for running’s sake is not all that common in this country. That does not, however, mean that your running will not find support. In fact, quite the opposite! Memories of my summer runs are littered with little moments of motivation, from the supportive wave and nod of a lone fellow runner I might pass on the road, to the two elderly men who stepped off the curb to let me pass, broke into applause, and cheered me on with a chorus of “Bravo!” They may never know how much these little actions meant or how they helped me to finish that run strong, but I will certainly pay it forward, never underestimating the power of encouragement.

4) Appreciate the great outdoors. Even if nothing else had gone as planned, my runs would have been worthwhile for the scenery alone. If you’ve never been to Crete, add it to your list; blue water and glistening beaches abound, but more than that, there is an untamed beauty in the environment of this island, and nothing is more satisfying than reaching the perfect hilltop lookout with your own two feet.  Running gave me the chance to explore this natural environment in a unique, very personal way, and taught me to appreciate my surroundings at any speed. This is a lesson I will take back to Canada with me. We too often take the beauty of our home for granted; Greece has reminded me to look up from the road or the trail and take in the world we run through and live in every day.

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5) Honour tradition. The Greeks have given us the marathon and the Olympic Games, so I’d say they know a thing or two about athletic traditions. This spirit of tradition and the idea that athletes are following in the footsteps of the ancients lives on today, and the Greek people proudly commemorate their ancestors’ legacies. In fact, I began my summer training in Greece with a 7.5 km race at the ancient sanctuary of Nemea, where the finish line was set-up inside the ancient stadium! So regardless if you are running the traditional 42.2km, conquering a new half-marathon challenge, or running your first 5k, follow the Greek example and celebrate the fact that you are a part of history.

About Rachel Dewan: After running my first half-marathon at last year’s Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, I knew that it would not be my last. Three half-marathons later, I’m excited to mark another first at this year’s STWM: my first full marathon. It is an experience made all the more special by the Scotiabank Charity Challenge and the chance to support the amazing work of Matthew House, a refugee shelter right here in Toronto. Although my training plan is uniquely divided between the intense summer heat of Greece where I conduct archaeological field work, and a Canadian fall, I am continually motivated by the incredible spirit of the residents of Matthew House, my fellow Nike+ Run Club runners, and everyone training to run their best on October 16th. I can’t wait to share in this experience with you! Connect with Rachel on Twitter and Instagram