From as far back as he can remember, Stavros Michael has always been fascinated by long-distance running.
Working full-time in the banking sector, much of his spare time has been spent following his self-researched and designed fitness program.
But friends and family didn’t realise how deeply his passion ran, until he signed up to compete in one of the world’s hardest marathons at Mount Olympus, Running with the Gods.
“Funnily enough, I came across the marathon because my mum (Member for Calwell, Maria Vamvakinou MP) showed me a clip of it. You see all these Greeks and people of different cultural backgrounds running on the mountain, up in the clouds and I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to do it’,” Stavros tells Neos Kosmos, unaware of the fact that he would be embarking on the most challenging psychological experience of his life.
Despite his experience and excellent physical condition, the 23-year-old first had to qualify.
Entrants were required to have completed a marathon in the last two years, with Stavros’ most recent at the time being the Melbourne Marathon, and two trail marathons – either half or full – at the altitude of 1,500 metres, “because it’s not enough just to be able to run distance; you have to be able to deal with the terrain” – a concept he would fully come to understand on June 26.
After venturing to Kilcunda and the You Yangs to fulfil the criteria, it was in January that he finally received his letter of acceptance. With a lot on his plate, the thought crossed his mind to give the race a miss, but he felt an unwavering pull.
“I thought, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, so why not? I booked my flights, started saving up and working over time so I could go,” he tells.
A part of the Sky Events, Running with the Gods is considered the hardest in a series of challenging runs undertaken by hundreds of people from around the globe. In its 13th year, between 80 to 90 per cent of competitors are from Greece, with Stavros the first Australian to ever compete.
After following a rigorous training program, the young runner arrived in the picturesque village of Litochoro, greeted by the Mediterranean summer and a two-day festival of events and carnivals in the lead-up to the event.
“I felt like I was in ancient times,” he says with a smile. “I’ve never seen a village like that. It was in the mountains, so everything was green; an old town surrounded by the valleys of Mountain Olympus.”
Bounding with excitement, it was upon meeting with his 800 fellow competitors – the majority of whom were experience mountain runners and hikers – that the doubts started to kick in.
“I was one of the youngest, and they were all shocked at what I was wearing; runners, a singlet … these people were wearing hiking running shoes, gloves, they had energy gels, and all this thermo stuff. They said ‘you’re not going to finish this’.”
Returning to his hotel room alone, and far from his support network, he had to dig deep to get his confidence back, but in hindsight he admits “I wasn’t prepared for what was coming”.
The following day, the Greek Australian joined his fellow competitors at the starting line, Stavros setting off strong.
“The first five kilometres you’re running outside the village and everyone’s cheering you on, so you’re thinking ‘this is good, this is great’. But once you enter the five kilometres, you enter a valley. There are a few spectators on the way, but that’s it and you’re just climbing and you’re with all these people. But about two hours into it, it’s just you and yourself; everyone separates. It’s very lonely,” he recalls.
Unlike usual road marathons, where the sole concern is often whether one’s legs will give out, with no running track in sight, Stavros found himself focusing on his breathing and strategically navigating where to run and climb so as not to fall.
“The pinnacle of the actual run is 300 metres in altitude, so it’s kind of hard to breathe. You have to focus on where to save your energy, and temperature-wise it was about 36° at sea level. When you get to the top of the mountain you hit three degrees with snow.”
But as Stavros reached 22.5km, the halfway mark and the mountain’s pinnacle, all worries evaporated.
“It was beautiful; it was unreal,” he enthused, still beaming two months later. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
“When you get there you see Zeus’ crown and the clouds circulating above a meadow. There’s no noise, just wind; it felt a bit like heaven and I thought ‘I’ve gone delirious now’,” he adds with a laugh.
No stranger to competitiveness, it was this moment that set the run apart for the young competitor, which would come to serve him as a life lesson.
“Everyone stopped and soaked it in,” he says, the mythological and historical significance of the site taking over.
“It was very weird – as in I’ve never been in a race where everyone just stops like that. It was no longer about beating each other, just enjoying the experience.”
But the serenity would well and truly be left behind on the mountain top, with the real challenge emerging for Stavros on his run down. Two-and-a-half kilometres in, he slipped, falling 30 metres and busting his knee – where he admits “technique and the right shoes” would have come in handy. With 20km left to go, it was at this point that he started to give up hope of ever crossing the finish line.
Paramedics rushed to nurse and numb his knee, and were keen to send him back to the village to rest; but it would seem Stavros had other plans.
“I thought to myself ‘I’m just going to run and I’m going to forget about everything; I’m just going to close my eyes, focus on my breathing and embrace the run’,” at which point he reveals “I ran this marathon for my late grandfather”.
“I ran it for him, so I started to forget about all my training and everything I put into it and just thought about him for the last two hours,” a touching sentiment he kept to himself until well after the race.
Eight hours later, 45 minutes of which was spent nursing his knee, and Stavros had completed the race against all odds, the victory made all the more sweet to be greeted at the finish line by his father and extended family.
But he says no-one was more impressed by his achievement than the locals he passed at the kafenio, who had doubted the young Greek Australian’s ability to conquer the great Greek mountain.
“I swear I could see their ciggies fall out of their mouths and they were just cheering; I felt the warmth and acceptance,” he tells.
Sitting with Stavros as he sips on his short black and reminisces, it’s clear to see this was far more than a marathon for the 23-year-old, which he admits was more a test for his mentality and maturity.
“I basically had to drop my pride and ego. That’s how I toughened it out – by giving up my thought of being better than the person next to me and just enjoying the journey,” he says, a lesson that filtered down through the rest of his life.
“The people that I encountered and everything along the way taught me that everyone’s an equal and that everyone’s running their own ‘race’. Instead of bringing negativity and slowing them down, why don’t you just help them?
“And it taught me patience; just go with the flow. Do what you can do, but just keep going and do your best.”
Would he recommend the run?
“Definitely,” he says. “Personally I think anyone can do it; if you’ve got a good pair of legs and you want to experience something, do it. Because at the end of the day, it’s not a run, it’s kind of something that helps you find yourself; it’s a lifetime experience.”
Armed with a renewed sense of mental strength and belief in his ability, the young runner has set the Japanese capital in his sights, having already registered for the Tokyo Marathon in February 2017.
Though a 42km stretch awaits him, he emphasises that it’s mostly flat, something that is still daunting for a novice runner like myself.
“I threw myself in the deep end, but I did it. From now on, every race that I do, I’ll think back to Running with the Gods and think, if I can do that, I can do this.”
For more information on the Running with the Gods marathon, visit www.olympus-marathon.com/