I spent the past week in the north of Greece, principally in Thessaloniki where I attended a conference for work. I have good friends in Thessaloniki, so was able to combine work with a personal visit. I should say that I’ve in my life spent a lot of time in Greece – my research relates directly to Greek culture and language, and throughout the decade I lived in Europe I would spend time in Greece at least once per year. Since moving back to North America, it’s been more difficult to visit, as the cost and time involved are much greater. This year in Germany therefore provided a good opportunity to return to Greece, a country and culture to which I feel very close. And it really was great to be back.
I set a busy programme for myself, as I also planned, apart from my conference, a three-day visit to Agion Oros (Ἅγιον Ὄρος), the Holy Mountain (also known as Mount Athos). The Holy Mountain is a peninsula located in Halkidiki, about 2.5 hours east of Thessaloniki. Having arrived on Monday afternoon in Thessaloniki, I set off the next morning at 6:15 on a bus from Thessaloniki to Ouranoupolis, from where I took a boat to enter Mount Athos, which is a self-governed geographical area home to Orthodox Christian monks. The roots of Christian monasticism on Athos stretch back to the early decades of Christianity and today there exist 20 major cenobitic Orthodox monasteries as well as a number of smaller communities across the peninsula, which is only accessible by boat.
Due in large part to its seclusion, Mount Athos is an area with remarkably pristine nature, although this has been threatened in recent years. It is also a holy place with a spiritual tradition of prayer so established that it is tangible in the air. On this trip, I visited Simonopetra, which was founded by Saint Simon the Athonite, who originally lived as an ascetic in a cave on the spot where the monastery now stands. The monastery is majestically, one might even say miraculously, built into the side of a rock face overlooking the Aegean.
I have visited this monastery several times before and know the monks there well. Simonopetra is very well known for its Byzantine chanting, a sample of which can be heard here. Removed (for the most part) from the bustle of the modern world, one finds time on Mount Athos to look inward rather than outward. It is a spiritually relaxing place to be. A quick trip to the Holy Mountain can, however, be physically tiring, as the journey is a long one, after which one has to adapt to the monastic schedule. The Matins usually begin at 4 a.m., which lead directly into the Divine Liturgy finishing around 7:00 or 7:30. The days are largely a time for work, and in the evenings the Vespers begin at 4 or 5 p.m.. One night while I was visiting this time there was a vigil service from 8 p.m. until 1:30 a.m., followed by the Divine Liturgy at 7:00 a.m., for the feast of the Pentecost. The services are deeply meaningful and beautiful, but the combination of long hours standing and the lack of sleep can leave the body fatigued. If one spends more than a few days, it is possible to adapt more to the schedule.
I therefore returned to Thessaloniki on Thursday spiritually refreshed but physically somewhat exhausted, with the prospect of a three-day conference ahead of me. In the end, I felt fine the next day giving my paper, which went well. But I still did feel tired. The week of rather special travel required a break from my triathlon training and I didn’t get any workouts in for a five-day period from Monday through Friday. This in itself made my body feel sluggish. On Saturday, however, I got out for my planned run, a relaxed 14kms at low heart-rate zones to get back into things, which I completed in a stadium in the north east of Thessaloniki, where a decathlon competition was just finishing up. On Sunday, I got out again for a short run, which included a few short sections at higher speeds.
I can’t say that I felt great on these first two runs back, as my body still felt drained from the travel and continued full-days at a conference. After getting back to Heidelberg on Monday, I still felt tired on Tuesday for my first proper run workout in a while – my coach had me run 15 x 200 easy/200 fast at a 38-sec. pace, and let me tell you this workout hurt!! I felt terrible. My muscles were so tight at the outset that, as I ran my 7th 200 quick I could see the noticeable lack of extension in my legs in my shadow at the side of the track! I took a couple of quick breaks, however, to stretch (one after the 7th set and then one after the 11th set), which really helped. And the good news is that, although I occasionally thought I might collapse, I managed to keep the pace at the planned 37-8 seconds throughout all 15 of the quick 200 sets with the exception of one at 40 seconds.
Amazingly, however, my legs didn’t feel tired the next day, and my bike and swim yesterday felt great. I’ve been eating well since getting back and keeping myself hydrated, which has also helped. Ultimately, the harder run workout seemed to wake my body up from its travel lethargy, and I’m now excited for a solid push in training leading into my next race at the end of this month.