07 October 2009

Thank You

Thank You, originally uploaded by Ryan Runs Europe.

Before I left for Europe, I had spent years dreaming and months planning a trip such as this. Back then, it was just a dream...but a dream that I wanted to try to fulfill. Throughout the whole thing, even up until the very end, I never completely believed that I could do it. I halfway expected something to go wrong just about every day. Athens was always so far away, and the odds just didn't seem to be in my favor. Somehow though, I would just look at each day like its own adventure and it would pass on by. Getting to Athens was the goal, but not really the goal. The goal was to live each day for itself, and to get the most out of each place I saw. Somehow though, each day passed by, and after 130 of them, I found myself at the finish line of my big dream.
I guess that now I can say "I did it." Though to be honest, that wouldn't be a fair statement. "We did it" would be much more fitting. I could never have completed this crazy voyage without you. I didn't really do anything much, I just ran and smiled and fell freely into a world that gave me much more support than I could have ever expected. People encouraged me. They read my words. They wrote me comments and emails that I read on lonely street corners while bumming unlocked wi-fi. They searched for places I could stay. They donated. They gave me food. They gave me care. They gave me culture. They gave me friendship. They gave me advice. They took me into their homes and gave me a place to sleep. These things surprised and baffled me, and for them I am inexpressibly grateful.
When I left for the trip, I had expected to sleep outside on a regular basis...at least a few days a week. I had expected to get worn down and broken by a lifestyle of sleeping on park benches and going for days without having a shower. I had only a handful of places figured out in advance, but in the first 80 days of my trip I didn't sleep out in the open once (OK...once in the Blackforest, but there wasn't really anyone to ask). I was constantly amazed by the hospitality that I found, and by the people who opened their doors to help out a complete stranger. In a world where the news is overrun by violence and crime and people are taught to fear the vices of humanity, I discovered so much kindness, friendship and hospitality. I would meet a person on the street, and an hour later I would be in their home...often feeling like we had known each other for years. I have taken so much from these people, and from the world on this trip. I hope that I can give a fraction of it back in some way, and that I can inspire some others to recognize that there still is magic and good in the world if you look for it.
So to those that helped me along my way, to my friends and family, to the readers and followers of this blog, to the people who spoke to me when I was alone in a foreign place, to the people who offered me a bite to eat, to those who wrote me comments and messages, to those who donated, to those who opened up their hearts and homes and gave me a place to rest my weary head, to those who gave me a shower and a place to wash my clothes, to those who showed me their culture and their humanity, and to God:
Thank you. We did it.

Days 132-

Tired, Coming home, originally uploaded by Ryan Runs Europe.

Whatever it is, I'm measuring it in miles from here on out!
The past few days have been very busy, just as the past few months have been and I'm sure the next few months will be...but all in very different ways.
In the very early morning, Vicky drove me to the Athens airport and I checked in for my long flight. According to the person running the check-in counter, I was the only person on the flight without checked baggage. Strange considering that I was coming home from over four months of traveling. It was just me and the same twenty dollar blue backpack that has been with me through so many crazy days and nights.
The whole flight home thing was a very last minute arrangement. Throughout the middle, and up until the last several days of my journey, I had always wanted to try to find a ship back to the United States. I figured that I should take the slow way across water, as I had taken a pretty slow way across land and gained a lot from it. As I got near to Athens however, I got wind that my brother was planning to visit my dad with a few mutual friends in the coming weekend, so I started daydreaming about a sudden reunion. I talked with my mom and my friend Alex from school, and we worked out my ticket back to Seattle, and his ticket there from the east coast as well. I would fly into Seattle, meet him, my mom and sister at the airport, spend the night in Olympia (Washington, not Greece!) and then drive down to my dad's ranch in northern California the next morning...where I would surprise him with my arrival, and my brother and some more friends would meet me soon after. It all seemed a little bit impossible...seeing much of my family and friends halfway across the world in a matter of days, and at such short notice. It seemed almost too crazy to try, and while I'm sure I could have spent a little more time in Greece and making my way home, I was starting to get a little bit tired. I missed a lot of things back home. Some things that are obvious, some that I wouldn't have ever thought of before leaving. I wanted a real American breakfast, a burrito, to run without a backpack, to eat ethnic food, to go up to a stranger and know that they could speak my language, to wear deodorant and an outfit that didn't consist of the same two t-shirts and two pairs of shorts that I have been wearing for 132 days, to make something with my hands, to work in Rhino/CS/CAD/Processing, and to see a face or a stretch of road that I had seen before. These things were waiting for me in my home, the United States of America...and that is where I was going.
A stop in Madrid, and a stop in Chicago. 21 hours of travel time, and amazingly everything went according to plan. In one day I traveled several times the distance that I had traveled in over four months. I met my mom, sister and college roommate at the airport, and about 24 hours later I knocked on my dad's door. He sure was surprised to see me: it wasn't long before that he had heard about my arrival in Athens. My brother came in the next morning, and the past few days have been spent living the life in small town America. Waking up early, eating a good breakfast, shooting guns, riding horses, drinking, arguing and laughing. I've gotten a couple easy runs in as well. It feels a little strange to be back home...but not as strange as I had expected. It seems like I've been here forever...but every time I take off my shirt and see that ridiculous backpack tan line, I'm reminded that I just got back from one very long adventure.
So, what are the plans for the future? Well, I'd like to say I've got it all covered, but really I've only got the vague outlines at the moment. Kind of like having an itinerary of European towns but nowhere to stay. I'll go back to Washington for a few days and visit with friends, and then I'll make my way back to the east coast. All of my stuff is in a storage container in downtown Manhattan. I've got to go there and very quickly find some sort of job that will give me enough money to pay the rent in a cheap room (that I have yet to find) while I finish my architecture portfolio and do all of the work for my applications for graduate schools in architecture. Those are due in December, and after that I'll be looking for a more committed job in what will hopefully be an insane design firm. If everything goes right, I'll be going back to school next September. Three more years of that, and then...well...something else more exciting.
I expect to keep running, and I'd like to eventually train for a real marathon and get back on the track. For now I'm happy to think that I'll at least be running with other people once again.
Wherever I go though, I've got a lot of new friends and experiences to help me on my way. I'll try keep in touch here and post an update from time to time with somewhat relevant changes.

04 October 2009

Day 131

Parthenon, Day 131, originally uploaded by Ryan Runs Europe.

1 Kilometer.
(I stopped counting at the Parthenon)
I woke up around 9 am alone in Vicky's apartment. I packed my things as I have always done and put up a blog post before heading out the door to catch the train that I had come in on the night before. I went back to Monastiraki, and the place that I had left off on foot, and made the short trip to a place I have been waiting a long time to see: the acropolis, and the Parthenon.
I paid a huge 12 euros at the ticket booth, and excitedly made the climb past swarms of people. Up the hill...through the main portal...and there it was (not quite in all its glory): the Parthenon. I couldn't stop smiling and laughing to myself, to the point that I got worried about straining a muscle in my cheek. There it was, the primary example of great classical architecture--a testament not to the perfection of imperfection, but of a calculated deviation from rectalinearity and symmetry. The Parthenon deceives the viewer through slight modification of what is perceived as parallel regularity, evoking a sense of scale and rhythm beyond physical possibility. If the ancient architects wore square framed glasses and skinny ties, they might call it "distorting the grid."
Anyways, with all the hype, expectation, slides, plans, elevations, perspectives, etc...it was pretty much just like I expected it to be...except for the scaffolding, tourists and amount of unoriginal stone (the caryatids of the Erechtheon, for example, have been replaced with concrete casts).
I went around, gazing up and snapping photos. I took one photo of my shoe with the Parthenon that one of the attendants told me to delete (you can only take photos with people as subjects?). I very earnestly worked away at my phone, pretending to delete the photo...and eventually they left. I was kind of frustrated by their lack of understanding, and in a way, it spoiled the rest of my visit (a bit like my experience at Ronchamp).
I spent the rest of the day in the new acropolis museum (which I won't review here) and at the nearby Plaka market area. I bought some of the only souvenirs that I have purchased on this trip: two cheesy Marathon-Athens t-shirts. I figured it was time to expand my wardrobe a little bit.
Around 5 pm I met Vicky and her friend Zoe (and for a brief moment Stefano, who came to give my my own magic "Panathinaikos" jersey). We walked together to Kalimarmaro, the classic Olympic stadium. It was a beautiful track, and I couldn't resist the urge to hop the fence and run a "victory lap." I made it about 20 meters down the first straightaway before I had whistles and shouts close behind me. I knew that if I turned back there was no way they would let me run the rest of the lap...so I just kept going around. The security attendant cut me off on the other side of the straightaway and gave me a serious talking to. I don't think it helped that I was grinning the whole time. We walked back to the edge of the track and he told me to hop over the fence (he would follow). I hopped over, and Vicky, Zoe and I walked away very quickly. Awesome.
In the evening, I went to dinner with Vicky and some friends at a restaurant near where she lived. She, like many others before, was almost too good of a host. I went to bed well fed and excited for the coming morning. I would be going home.

02 October 2009

Day 130

Plaka, Athens, originally uploaded by Ryan Runs Europe.

80 Kilometers.
To Athens.
I woke up at 7:15 to Babis, Stefano's older brother, coming up the stairs. We had agreed that we would wake up at 7, but I had done that "I'll-just-close-my-eyes-and-enjoy-the-wonders-of-bed-for-a-few-more-seconds thing." When something other than my alarm woke me up, I jumped up in surprise and made a little shout (to indicate "no, no...I wasn't sleeping"), thinking that I had slept much later...and how could I travel 80 kilometers through Marathon to Athens today if I had slept late?!
It was only 7:15.
I got out of bed and went downstairs, where a bowl of rice pudding had been left out for my breakfast. I ate, took my time packing up my things and hit the road...walking back to the place where Stefano had picked me up the day before.
I bought and ate a Snickers bar as my GPS found signal...and then, well, I started to run.
I ran the first half-marathon continuously. As I ran through one town a man hailed me. He had seen me running as he drove out of Oropos.
"I am going to Athens" I told him, "I came here running from Amsterdam. Today is my last day."
It felt good to say.
On my way, I passed by some signs that pointed towards Athens. They had numbers that were less than forty. Those roads weren't for me though...I had to go to Marathon first, and my mileage for the day was going to be a bit higher.
I stopped in a village at 21 kilometers or so to get a little more to eat. A chocolate croissant, a bottle of water and a bottle of chocolate milk. From there, I walked. My left calf was still tight as it had been the day before, and I had a long day in front of me. I walked for about 9 km before picking myself up and easily running the last leg into Marathon.
Marathon. Sick. For those that don't know, the original marathon was run from Marathon to Athens by Pheidippides following a great battle in 480 BC. The Athenians had won a decisive victory over the Persians, and Pheidippides had run to the city to announce victory. He arrived fatigued and on the edge of death, and he proudly announced "we won" with his final words. From this seed came the marathon of the Olympics and the (slightly longer) standard distance set by the Queen of England in 1908. This historic run would be the end of my day, and the end of my 4,090 kilometer journey...but now I had to play the waiting game. My legs were tired, and I needed to rest before hitting the second 40 kilometers of the day.
I got an apple and and a big bottle of water and sat out for a while letting my feet have some air and my legs have some rest. I got some fast food in one of the only places that was open--two pita/sandwich things that were the chicken version of the souvlaki I have eaten so many times over the past two weeks in Greece. Not the best kind of pre-run food, but I've developed a bit of an iron stomach on this trip.
I killed some more time, and around 3 pm I decided that I should start heading towards Athens.
As I got ready to leave, however, I noticed a building devoted "to the promotion of the marathon" and went in to see if it was open. By chance, it would turn out that it was, and inside was Maria Polizou, the national record holder for Greek females in the marathon. After hearing about who the other was, we were both happy to have met. Maria gave me a tour of the museum, which includes the stats of every Olympic marathon and just about as much marathon history as you could care to know. By the end of the tour, I was all rallied up and ready to run. Maria pointed out where the official marathon start was, and I headed over there to begin the final leg of this very long journey.
4:00 PM. 29 September 2009. On the mark. Get set. Go.
My leg was still bothering me and I was generally fatigued...but I just cruised along at a 2:45 marathon pace. I was running mainly along the side of a busy highway. As the hour mark rolled around, I focused on relaxing my face, which was transitioning from an expression of pain and fatigue to the biggest of grins with a sinusoidal rhythm.
Somewhere in my hoping on and off the road as cars passed by and my pounding of pavement, I stopped to get a few sips of water from a garden faucet (Potable? I hoped so.).
Around 90 minuted in I started to feel some hurt, but told myself that I would have to make it at least to the two hour mark before I could make any amends. I kept thinking (forgetting the name "Pheidippides") "Would that dude who ran from the battle be such a wuss?!"
Well, I made it to the two hour mark, and I kept on going at the same pace. Maybe ten or fifteen minutes later though, I hit it...the wall that was Athens. Call it the 30-something kilometer wall, the 70-something kilometer wall, or the 4,080-something kilometer wall...but whatever it was, it hurt. I was struggling to maintain movement. People were swarming around me and cars were congested in the street. I collided with several car mirrors, traffic lights and people before deciding to stop running under a bridge that, to me, marked my entry into the city of Athens.
I was dead, but thankfully not quite like Pheidippides or Kleobis and Biton. I still had more work to do. I stumbled across a couple intersections with legs that were ready to give way.
I had always expected to arrive in Athens jumping and shouting with excitement...but this wasn't the case. I only had enough energy to stagger to the nearest "Milko" vending kiosk with a big smile on my face.
I bought both a carton and a bottle of chocolate milk, and sat down on some steps to drink them. I poured out the first sip onto the ground in libation, and drank the remainder with greedy thirst. Delicious.
I got up from the steps in a daze. My legs didn't want to function, and each step was brutal. I kept taking pictures of my legs, like it would be possible for you to see in a camera how badly they hurt. Too bad photos don't quite work that way.
One step...another step...keep...moving...forward.
As I rounded a bend in the road at sunset, I got my first view of the Acropolis. It was beautiful. Seemingly so far away...but sure enough, there it was in its illuminated glory: the Parthenon. Athens. I was here.
There was no crowd to celebrate my arrival, and no cameras to capture it...like always, it was just me, in a foreign town with nowhere to sleep.
A couple people who I had spoken with earlier were out of Athens (in London, Cairo) and couldn't host me on such short notice. But Vicky, who had contacted me after reading my story on a Greek blog could. I took the train from the center of Athens to a stop near her house where she picked me up. At her place, I took a shower and she put my clothes in the washing machine. I ate some pizza with Vicky at a nearby friend's house before falling asleep completely drained.
I had one more short stretch of road to do in the morning.
Did I mention I was in Athens?!