Monthly Archives: November 2013

MSF boutique

Few days ago, I received a letter from the NGO “Médecins Sans Frontières” which I especially liked for two reasons:

  • it included a couple of interesting infographics worth posting due to the ease with which they conveyed information,
  • I got to know about the existence of an online boutique where one can buy useful items and support MSF at the same time.

See the images below, especially what can be afforded by the purchase of some of the items from the boutique (e.g. a teddy bear pays for 18 vaccines against meningitis!)

What can be afforded

What can be afforded

Use of funds.

Use of funds.

As you can see the source of the information for the second infographic is the yearly report of MSF 2012 [PDF, 3MB], I only wonder why they don’t include such kind of self-explaining graphics in the report.

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Pricing beer in Greece

There is something puzzling that we constantly found in the different restaurants we dined at in Greece: the inconsistent pricing of beer. Or rather, the consistent pricing of it in a different fashion as it is done in other places in the West.

Take a look at the menu below.

You may see that Alpha draft beer is sold in two quantities:

  • 300mL for 2€ and,
  • 400mL, for 3€ euros.

That yields a price of 6.7€/L for the 300mL and a price of 7.5€/L for the 400mL.

Read the previous line again.

Then, who would buy the larger quantity if it is sold at a higher price per litre (12.5% higher)? Normally, one would expect some discount linked to volume. Well, not in Greece with beer :-).

Pricing beer in Greece.

Pricing beer in Greece.

We found restaurants in which the differences in pricing were more striking but only took this picture.

Another puzzling fact which we didn’t record was that for a same beer (say Alpha) in most places they sold the bottled beer cheaper than the drafted one (for a same volume). Again this was surprising, as we normally see draft beer sold cheaper, and there are certainly cost advantages to selling draft beer. But then the difference in pricing strategy versus how it is done in the West could have been explained from the demand side (not the supply) if the Greeks value much more draft beer.

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Battle of Thermopylae

During our recent trip to Greece, on the way back from Meteora to Marathon we decided to make a short stop at the Thermopylae. Many battles have been fought at that place, but perhaps, the most known today is the one fought in 480 BC between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I. I was curious to visit the place.

That is the battle in which the movie “300” was inspired (*). We saw the movie again right after returning from the trip.

As it usually happens, the movie puts some more drama to the story. In the movie the battle field is a tight pass close to a cliff, whereas the Thermopylae are not such tight, and certainly there are not cliffs, rather plains from the mountains to the sea.

The movie has Leonidas as the very last Spartan to pass by in the fight, whereas in the explanation panels at the Thermopylae it is stated that he died in the very first phase of the battle, far from Kolonos hill (reading the Wikipedia article it seems that he could have survived to the last day).

Description of the battle.

Description of the battle.

That Kolonos hill is a small promontory where the last Spartans retreated to fight the Persians till death. Several arrow heads were found in the hill-top in a 20th century expedition. Today, there is an epitaph by Simonides which reads as follows:

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
That here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.”
Kolonos Hill.

Kolonos Hill.

In the place there is a statue of king Leonidas, with the now famous inscription ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ (“Come and get them!”) which was Leonidas response when he was asked to turn their weapons. Today those words are used as a motto in several armies.

Statue of King Leonidas.

Statue of King Leonidas.



There are many other sentences supposedly used by Leonidas that are repeated today, if only by the impact of the movie 300.

Leonidas: Spartans! What is your profession?
Spartans: HA-ROO! HA-ROO! HA-ROO!
Persian Emissary: […] Our arrows will blot out the sun!
Stelios: Then we will fight in the shade.
Leonidas: Spartans! Ready your breakfast and eat hearty… For tonight, we dine in hell!

I expected to have found some more merchandising or tourism-related business created around the battlefield but we only saw the epitaph and statues, not a single selling post. Possibly in high season, during, summer time there are some, but not in late Autumn. I searched through the web and there are indeed Greek businesses which sell memorabilia related to the movie and the battle, it is only that they sell online and we didn’t encounter them at the place (compare that with the setting up of a food franchise business out of the movie “Forrest Gump“).

I encourage anyone travelling through the Greek A1 on holiday to make the brief stop, as it doesn’t require a long detour from the highway and lets you quietly (and free) contemplate a place charged with History. 

(*) A sequel of that movie will be released in 2014, “300: Rise of an Empire“.

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Athens Classic Marathon

I heard about the modern Athens Classic Marathon from Antonio, a colleague at the office. Ever since, I had wanted to take part in it. Last week, two friends (Jose and Juan), my brother and I completed it.

In a previous post I wrote about the legend of Pheidippides and the origin of the modern marathon. In this post I will focus on my experience and will share some of the pictures that we took during this trip.


Volume of kilometres run per week.

Volume of kilometres run per week.

To prepare for this marathon I followed a 16-week training plan provided by Garmin (Level II). Each week it included between 4 and 5 days of running and often 1 day of cross-training. I fulfilled most of the plan, missing not more than two or three days of running and some more of cross-training. I did not skip any series session or long run. In all, I ran over 780km in those weeks, excluding the 42km of the race (an average of just over 50km per week).

During this training season I beat my 10k and half marathon personal records. I had not experienced any serious injury that prevented me from training during whole weeks or months as it had been the case in previous years. According to a running calculator that I use sometimes, had the race been in similar conditions as those 10k and half, I should have been around 3h30′. The profile and conditions were not the same, and despite of that I started with a pace towards 3h30′ just to see how far would I reach maintaining it and if I could be under 3h45′, thus achieving a new PR.

The day before the race we went to the marathon expo which was held at the Taekwondo pavillion of the 2004 Olympic Games held in Athens. This way we also visited the beautiful small port at Piraeus close to Faros (just past the Stadio Eirinis & Filias, where Olympiakos bastketball team plays).

At the marathon expo.

At the marathon expo.

Before the race

Marathon beach.

Marathon beach.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the race goes from the village of Marathon to Athens, replicating the route followed by Pheidippides to announce the victory of Athens in the Battle of Marathon. The Persians landed at the bay of Marathon in their attempt of invading Attica, thus Marathon is almost at sea level.

From Marathon, the race goes South more or less parallel to the sea-line for about 17 kilometres and then heads to the West to climb up the hills before the valley where the city of Athens is located.

Route of the Athens Classic Marathon.

Route of the Athens Classic Marathon.

The last part of the race is a descent from the hills to the centre of Athens where the Panathinaiko stadium is located. But by then, the damage is already done to the legs after a long climb.

Profile of the Athens Classic Marathon.

Profile of the Athens Classic Marathon.

The morning of the race, we were transported from Syntagma square to Marathon by dozens of buses early in the morning to be able to start at 9:00. Everything ran smoothly (in that and many other aspects the organization of the race was superb).

We changed clothes in Marathon, where we could take some pictures, go to the toilet, warm up and slowly get into the racing mindset.

Urinaries panoramic view.

WC panoramic view (at Marathon, picture by Jose).

We took one group picture and set for the departing line.

Pre-race group picture.

Pre-race group picture.

The week following to the race I went back to Marathon to visit the place with time and see the different spots (some of the pictures in the post are from those other days).

In the village of Marathon there is a small athletics stadium at the end of the national road from Athens to Marathon.

The 1896 Olympic marathon race started at “… the brigde at Marathon Plain”, or “… at the bridge near the entrance of the sacred city”, according to “Olympic Games 776 B.C. – 1896” by A. K. Bech, or “… The starting point will be at the 40th stadion on the Marathon – Athens national road”, according to the Athens daily “Olympia” on March 9, 1896 (as can be read in the milestone below). That point, the “40th stadion” of that national road, is marked by the milestone below.

Today, the Athens Classic Marathon starts a bit ahead at the mid-point of what is now a kind of majestic avenue at the beginning of which one can find a marble stone indicating the starting point of the olympic race, a milestone indicating that 40th stadion, and the tower where the Marathon Flame is lit after being brought from the Marathon Tomb (just 5km away).

1896 Athens marathon start

1896 Athens marathon start

40th stadion milestone

40th stadion milestone

Marathon flame tower.

Marathon flame tower.

Boston 2013 marathon memorial bracelet.

2013 Boston marathon memorial bracelet.

Just before the race start we observed 1 minute of silence for the victims of the attack at the Boston marathon earlier this year. This minute counted with the presence of president of the Boston Athletics Association. That was the 3rd such minute I had observed as during my honeymoon trip I had taken part in two races in the USA, in San Francisco and San Diego, from which I got the memorial bracelet that I wear often lately.

The race

At 9:03 our group departed and there we went my brother and I trying to pace ourselves at a bit less than 5′ per km. That was comfortable for the flat part at the beginning. Another positive point of that beginning: with less than 10,000 runners taking part the running was possible from the start.

Milestone of the km 1 of the Athens Classic Marathon Course.

Milestone of the km 1 of the Athens Classic Marathon Course.

The course of the marathon race is marked, not only by ad-hoc signals for the race, but by permanent posts along the road, such as the one of the picture for the first kilometre.

At about the km. 5 the course takes a small detour from the national road to round the commonly known as Marathon Tomb, or Marathon Tumulus, a park with a small hill where each year the Marathon flame is lit. Close to the park entrance, there is a small statue of Miltiades, credited as the one devising the tactics to defeat the Persians at the Battle of Marathon.

Statue of Pheidippides km. 18.

Statue of Pheidippides km. 18.

At the return from the tomb, already 6km had been passed. The road continued to be flat until about the 11th km, where the road started to pick up until km. 16, where there is a short and steep descent up until km. 17.

At the km. 18, there is a small statue of the legendary Pheidippides. From then on the road continues to climb more or less continuously until km. 31.

Up until the 20th km I was still at the pace of 3h30′, but in the beginning of the climb I was already feeling that it was going to be very tough to run kms at below 5’50”.

I have checked the Garmin records afterwards and I had already surpassed 167bpm at some points by the km 20th, which experience tells me that is the barrier that makes me feel fatigued.

Statue of a runner at km. 21.

Statue of a runner at km. 21.

During the race, not having read about heart rate, just by the feelings I had I decided to forget about the time and continue the climb at a more comfortable pace. With that, the 3h30 and the sub 3h45′ were gone. In the end I completed the race in 3h53’18”, but the profile nor the day (temperatures from 14ºC to 21ºC, on the hot end) were the best to attempt a PR.

At the km. 21 there is another statue of an anonymous runner.

I crossed the half marathon at slightly over 1h47′, but knowing that the following 10km would take about a full hour and not knowing how I would be for the remainder 11km.

The heat of the day called for lots of hydration, and at that point the organization was again terrific, with water posts every 2.5km and with isotonic drinks in most of the posts, plus energetic gels in some of them.

One hour later, and having reached the top of the hill I remembered the sentence one of us had read describing the race “from km. 31 you can fly down to the end”. Well, I was not fit for flying. When I tried to speed up I felt muscles starting to cramp, thus I couldn’t run any faster than 5’45”, which I tried to keep, drinking and eating well at each supply post.

Panathinaiko stadium from Acropolis.

Panathinaiko stadium from Acropolis.

Once in the centre of Athens, there were still some 3-4 kilometres to cover. I kept myself just for the last kilometre where the atmosphere close to the stadium was great, starting with the descent by Irodou Attikou street.

The last turn to the left, climbing up the ramps to enter the Panathinaiko and covering the last meters inside the stadium was overwhelming. One of the best marathon endings I can recall.

See in the panoramic below a view of how the stadium looked that day.

Panathinaiko stadium panoramic view.

Panathinaiko stadium panoramic view (picture by Jose).

I remembered then when I first visited Athens back in 2002. That time, we visited the stadium and took some pictures as if running in those tracks. Now, 11 years later, there was I, sprinting to complete the Athens Classic Marathon (my 10th), where it all began, no less.

2013 Athens marathon medal

2013 Athens marathon medal

Post-race groupe picture.

Post-race group picture with a great marathon team! Juan, Jose, me and Jaime.


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Καλημέρα, Marathon!

Καλημέρα, Marathon!

(Good morning, Marathon!)

At the time this post is being published, two friends (Jose and Juan), my brother and I are starting the Athens Classic Marathon; the marathon starting in the town of Marathon, in the East of Attica region, and finishing in Athens.

Today, there are hundreds of marathon-distance (and longer) races organized around the globe all along the year. The trend is growing. The numbers of people running such races is increasing year by year. But it all started here, in Attica.

Pheidippides, the legend

The basic traces of the legend are widely known: a courier named Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the result of the battle and perished after the arrival. However, there are some confusions in relation to the legend, as it is well explained in the respective Wikipedia article.

The first record from the legend comes in a text from Lucian:

… The modern use of the word dates back to Philippides the dispatch-runner. Bringing the news of Marathon, he found the archons seated, in suspense regarding the issue of the battle. ‘Joy, we win!’ he said, and died upon his message, breathing his last in the word Joy … – Lucian Pro lapsu inter salutandum (translated by F.G. and H.W. Fowler, 1905) 

Statue of Pheidippides along the Marathon Road (picture by Hammer of the Gods27).

What is less known is that according to the story Pheidippides (530 BC–490 BC) was first sent to Sparta to request help from the Spartans when the Persians landed at Marathon. Thus, he already had run 240km to Sparta (and back). Right afterwards, he was sent from Marathon to Athens (another 40km) to announce the victory in the battle.

To the ones having completed a marathon race this makes sense, as: how it can be that it all started with the one supposed gifted runner collapsing after completing the 40km if thousands (about half a million) people each year complete a marathon? The catch is that Pheidippides had come from twice running what today is known as the Spartathlon, a 246km ultramarathon race which is also organized yearly in Greece, between Athens and Sparta.

Thus, the feats of Pheidippides have yielded two modern running race distances and hundreds of events.

The Olympic Games

Spyridon Louis entering the Panathinaiko stadium at the end of the marathon (public domain image, author Albert Meyer).

More than two thousand years passed until the sport of marathon was established on the occasion of the first modern Olympic Games held in 1896 in Athens.

The idea of including such a race in the programme of sport events was from Michel Bréal, a friend of Pierre de Coubertin. The proposal was accepted by the Olympic committee and that first marathon race had a distance of 40,000m (the current 42,195 distance for marathons was established years later, in 1924 , based on the distance of the 1908 London Games).

That first marathon was run on April 10th of 1986.  Only 17 runners took part in that race; of which only 9 of them finished, one being disqualified after his arrival (as he had completed part of the race on a carriage) and the other 8 retired at different points of the route. The race was won by the Greek Spyridon Louis with a time of  2:58:50.

Athens Classic Marathon

From 1972, the Athens Classic Marathon is organized yearly following the route of that first marathon race in 1896 and the legend of Pheidippides (490 BC).

Today in 2013, 117 years after those first 17 runners and 2503 years after Pheidippides, the 4 of us will try to cover the distance between Marathon and Athens, to say ‘Joy, we win!’ at our arrival and this time, not to collapse.


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Born to run

Born to Run cover.

Born to Run cover.

I recently finished the book “Born to Run“, by Christopher McDougall a runner and author who has collaborated with several magazines including Men’s Health. The book, published in 2009, has recently become a classic reading for runners.

The main thesis of the book is the support of what is called the Endurance running hypothesis, which explains some human evolution traits as being adaptations for long distance running, suggesting that early humans hunted down animals by running after the prey till it died of exhaustion.

Prior to reading the book I had watched some years ago the following TED talk [15’52”] from the author in which he explains the same thesis.

I have to admit that after listening to the talk I was quite sceptic and became somewhat reluctant to the reading of the book. It has been only years after that I was curious enough to give it a try. Now, having completed it, I have to say that the book is quite entertaining and the writing style of McDougall makes it enjoyable.

The other main theme of the book is the approach to the Tarahumara people, native American indians living in the North West of Mexico, which are known for their endurance running.

The book ends with the first Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, run in 2003 over 51 miles, organized by Micah True (Caballo Blanco) and gathering several Tarahumara natives and some elite American ultramarathon runners. In previous chapters, the author introduces all of the characters that ultimately will take part in the race along some other thesis such as the vegan diet and barefoot running, which I continue to be sceptic of.

What I appreciated most about the book was the vivid description of epic races that took place in the past like some editions of Leadville Trail 100 or the already mentioned Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, the getting to know those races or the Western States, the Badwater Ultramarathon (through the Death Valley), being introduced to both some legendary Tarahumara runners (Manuel Luna, Arnulfo…) or Western ones such as Scott Jurek, Ann Trason, Matt Carpenter, etc.

Thus, I would recommend the book as an entertaining read and motivating one for someone who is into running even if I remain sceptic of some of the thesis if defends.

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According to Walk Free foundation there are almost 30 million slaves in the world. Of those about 14 million live in India, the country with the highest number of slaves, whereas in Mauritania about 4% of the population are enslaved. According to the same foundation slavery generates up to 32bn$ of profits for slaveholders around the world (about 1k$ per slave).

I came across this foundation and their figures (compiled in the Global Slavery Index) in an article from The Economist. You can see the following graphic published in the newspaper:

Graphic from The Economist, source: Walk Free foundation,

Graphic from The Economist, source: Walk Free foundation.

About at the same time I received a letter from the Africa Programme coordinator of another foundation I contribute to, Anti-Slavery (of which I have written before).

The letter tells the story of Ibrahim, a former slave from Mauritania. He was born a slave and found himself alone when his mother and siblings fled from their holder. When Ibrahim grew older, the master brought a woman-slave to mate Ibrahim so he would find it more difficult to leave a family behind. He nevertheless escaped. Ibrahim has tried to free his family without success. He found little help from local authorities and was beaten up in one of his tries.

Anti-Slavery role in the story is to help Ibrahim and others in his situation seek justice, to support them and help them rebuild their lives. Ibrahim is now receiving legal assistance so he can file criminal charges against his former master.

I normally don’t like very much when I receive letters from the charities and NGO’s I already support. My first thought is “if I already collaborate with you, save those euros of paper, envelopes, stamps, etc., and direct them to either projects or outreach towards people who don’t support you yet!”. This time I thought it twice and decided to try to voice the cause further.

Two final figures from that letter: it costs £48 to provide emergency accommodation for a month for a family released from slavery, and as little as £6 to provide a training session for a local support worker.

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The mind in long distance running

Some weeks ago I came across the following article in the site Runner’s World Running Times, How Much Does Mental Toughness Affect Race Times?. The article discusses a study by John Hall, a performance psychologist at Staffordshire University (U.K.) in which he tried to find quantifiable evidence supporting the notion that mental toughness has a direct effect on race times (1).

Some excerpts from the article:

[…] Hall noted that there was little quantifiable evidence supporting the notion that mental toughness has a direct effect on race times, so he set out to see if he could put a number to it. 

Hall surveyed 706 ultramarathoners at six international events, including the Marathon des Sables in Morocco and the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. The sample included 539 men and 167 women from multiple countries ranging in age from 22 to 69.

For the study, Hall used a previously established tool to measure three components of mental toughness: confidence (self-belief), the sense of being in control, and constancy (concentration, determination, acceptance of responsibility, and stability of attitudes). Perceived effort, discomfort levels, use of mental skills and hardiness were also measured. Mental skills are actions like goal setting and refocusing. Hardiness is a personality trait tested in previous research.

Hall found that mental toughness greatly influenced subjects’ finishing times, and that among the variables influencing performance (fitness, weather, and nutrition), mental toughness accounted for 14%.

I read reactions to the article in Twitter from several runners criticizing the numbers, having reactions like “in long distance running the mind is everything”. I am also of the opinion that the mind has a great deal of importance in running, however I believe that the catch is in the what the study is trying to measure.

The study is already taking a group of 706 ultramarathoners and sees how much mental toughness is influencing the differences in their finishing times as compared to other elements. To that respect it finds out that the mind’s influence in the difference in times is 14%, other elements like heat and strong wind had more relevance in the final times.

What the study is not telling is that to complete the Marathon des Sables in a certain time having the correct mental toughness will contribute only a 14%… and I think this is what runners have in mind when hearing the outcome of the study and reacting to it.

When training for a marathon or an ultramarathon for months prior to the race, only the runner knows how many times he has to rely on that mental toughness to go out in a rainy day and do his series training, or wake up really early on a Sunday morning to squeeze a long run before some other family event, or to bring running shoes to every business or leisure travel he has during months, or to keep the pace up in all the repeats of a series training session… in all those situations, mental toughness plays a role and that is what runners have in mind.

Those 706 ultrarunners who took part in the study already had a great mental toughness (much higher than a sedentary person). The study looked at the slight differences between the toughness of some runners compared to others.

To end this post, I leave you with a few quotes on the different roles that the mind plays in running:

Yiannis Kouros (Greek ultramarathon legend holding every men’s road world record from 100 to 1,000 miles and every road and track record from 12 hours to 6 days):

“When other people get tired they stop, I don’t. I take over my body with my mind I tell it that it’s not tired and it listens.”

Emil Zatopek (Czech runner, winner of four Olympic gold medals):

“We are different, in essence, from other men. If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.”

Jacqueline Gareau (Canadian runner, 1980 Boston Marathon champion):

The body does not want you to do this. As you run, it tells you to stop but the mind must be strong. You always go too far for your body. You must handle the pain with strategy…It is not age; it is not diet. It is the will to succeed.

Frank Shorter (American runner, 1972 Olympic champion in the marathon):

“You can actually suffer a little bit more going slowly than when you’re going really fast. A faster marathon might even be easier than a slow one, in terms of what it takes out of you mentally.

John Bingham (American runner, No Need for Speed column in Runner’s World):

Marathons are about tenacity as much as talent.”

Hal Higdon (American runner and author of 34 books):

“Motivation remains key to the marathon: the motivation to begin; the motivation to continue; the motivation never to quit.

(1) The paper related to the study has not yet been published, as the author explained in the comments thread of the article in the Running Times online magazine.

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