Saturday, 2 June 2012

Psiloritis International Mountain Race 2012, ISLAND OF CRETE, GREECE : 35km

The island of Crete has always been considered as one of the most unique places in Greece, due to her beautiful mountains, gorges and beaches. Besides being blessed with some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes in the world, Crete is also famous for her mouth-watering cuisines, mostly cooked with natural ingredients and products grown in abundance on the island itself.

A lesser-known fact to the world at large, but well-known among us Greeks, is that the Cretans are extremely generous people. They are a proud clan who has kept their traditions through the generations and they give extreme importance when it comes to hospitality to their guests. We were treated so well during our time on the island that we had to tear ourselves away by the end of our stay!  

In the Greek mythology, the Greek god Zeus is sometimes referred to as Zeus Xenios, meaning the God of Hospitality to Travelers (Xenia is the Greek word for the concept of hospitality, or generosity and courtesy shown to those who are far from home). So, it is no surprise that according to legend, Zeus was brought up on the Psiloritis Mountain of Crete. Ideon Andron is the cave where Zeus was said to have grown up and it is located at an altitude of 1,500m. Recent archeological excavations have discovered and shown that the cave was one of the most important worship sites of Ancient Greece.

Ideon Andron, the entrance of which was half-covered by snow

Based on this legend, a group of Cretans who were brought together by their passion and love for their island and running on the mountains, conceptualized the PSILORITIS INTERNATIONAL MOUNTAIN RACE. It is a demanding 35 km route of 1,655m of ascent to the summit of the mountain (Timios Stavros 2,425m), “following the paths of Zeus”.

I have been to Crete several times in my younger years and during those times, I had explored some of her most remote parts, climbing the wild gorges and swimming in her pristine waters, mostly on the southern parts. Little did I know that my connection with this beautiful and idyllic island was going to be strengthened in 2011 when I serendipitously met Padelis Kabaksis (a legendary runner of Crete) at the Eco-Trail Race of 80km in Paris. Having met him for the very first time in Paris, we have bonded very well over our love for running and during the short period of time we have known each other, our friendship has grown from strength to strength and we have participated in many races together. Apart from this new-found friendship, I have also become a member of the local association of Marathon Runners of Crete, and I have since then started running representing my new friends.

Me and Padelis

Arriving back to the UK from my participation at the Atacama Crossing in March 2012, I have been contacted by the organizers of the Psiloritis International Mountain Race and had the honour of being invited by them to join the race. Despite my very busy schedule at work and a recent trip to India, I found it very difficult to decline the kind invitation. So, on 25 May 2012, we flew back to my homeland for a new adventure!!

From the very moment we landed on the island, I was able to smell the ‘naturalness’ of Crete – it could be from the wild herbs or simply the Cretan air, but it all brought back beautiful memories to me. It was already 23:00 when we landed, but Stelios Dimitrakopoulos, one of my best friends from school, and Padelis with his 2 sons, were waiting for us at the airport. Despite the late hour (even by Greek standards!), Stelios and his wife, Christina, took us for dinner at an amazing restaurant on a hilltop overlooking the spectacular surrounding mountains and we were treated to a sumptuous meal, complete with the compulsory raki at the end of it!! For once in my life, I broke my usual strict diet regime (with the race coming up in just almost 24 hours), sat back, and truly enjoyed the good food and excellent local red wine!

On the following day, we travelled with Padelis and another friend of ours, Dimitris, from Heraklion to Rethymno, where the race will begin. Rethymno is one of the best preserved old towns in Greece, built entirely by the Venetians. It is very easy to be transported back in time when one walks through the narrow streets of the town, with cosy restaurants and shops lining on both sides. Venetian and Byzantine architecture can be seen on most of the old buildings around the town.

A well-preserved wall in old town Rethymo

We attended the briefing of the race after having registered ourselves in the evening. We attended the pasta party thereafter and mingled with the other competitors at the local square of the town centre. By midnight, we were back to the hotel to catch some well-needed sleep before having to meet very early the following morning, for the busses to transport us at 05:00 (about 2 hours’ drive) through the mountains to reach the Nida Plateau (1,400m) where the race was to start.

Me, Padelis and Dimitris registering for the race

Andreas Androulidakis, the Race Director

The journey on the bus was itself a treat. We were feasted with breathtaking sceneries of the mountains, with deep gorges penetrating through them. Alighting from the bus, we were further mesmerized by the stunning landscapes surrounding the plateau and the blue skies, while at the same time, being entertained by a group of Cretan dancers maneuvering some very agile movements to the beat of the local music.

Deep gorges penetrating through the mountains

The Start Point

The Cretan dancers

The landscape surrounding the Start Point
Unlike my participation in other races which I usually planned in advance, this race was totally unplanned for. Despite that, I was feeling very excited and blessed to be there with the other runners. The beauty of the mountains with the accompanying perfect weather conditions, and the idea of climbing the highest summit of the island, generated the euphoria which was slowly building up in me.

Normally, I get quite stressed regarding my performance before my races as my mind goes into overdrive to figure out how to give my best to my performance. This time, I was feeling completely different. Despite knowing the fact that Manolis Sifakis (the local favourite tipped to win the race) has the benefit over me in the route and terrains after having participated in the last two editions of the race, I did not feel pressured and stressed at all.

I was able to enjoy and mingle around with the other runners while enjoying the allegro rhythm of the Cretan music and having my photographs taken with friends before the start of race.

Me, being interviewed by Ysbrand Visser, a Dutch journalist
 from World Runner's Magazine 

Dimitris, me and Padelis, discussing the route

At 07:30, 80 runners, most of them from Crete, including 10 foreigners from France, Belgium, Ireland, etc. started the race which will bring them through an unforgettable experience, following ‘the steps of Zeus’.

Padelis, me and Manolis : at the start of the race
The runners 'following the steps of Zeus'
I find the first 6km to be extremely tough. We were running on the Nida Plateau and I was trying hard to keep up with the fast pace of Manolis (3:50’’/km). As soon as the inclination changed and we started climbing the slopes of the mountain, our pace slowed down and I had the chance to get distracted for awhile, looking at the famous cave of Ideon Andron. At this time, Manolis was only a few metres in front of me, trying to gain difference.

Manolis Sifakis, on the ascent towards the Ideon Andron cave

Me, a few metres behind Manolis on the same ascent

Manolis and me, making a U-turn at the Ideon Andron cave

The dirt road which climbed up the slope gently became a very steep uphill ‘couloir’, and this made it impossible for us to run. At that point, I managed to ‘catch up’ with Manolis, and from that moment onward, we started to run together, chatting and getting to know each other, while enjoying the very picturesque route. None of the other runners can be seen near us and with this comforting knowledge that we were both in a safe distance from the others, I began to enjoy my run with Manolis.

Me and Manolis climbing up the steep 'couloir'
I have to admit that most of the time, I am very competitive when it comes to races. I will always strive and try my best for the first position. In this race, however, I find myself adopting a very different strategy altogether. Despite feeling very strong on the ascent, and knowing that I could have run away ahead of Manolis and thus gaining a difference from him before the start of the downhill (which is his forte. Trust me, he can practically ‘fly’ downhill!!), I find myself taking it easy, preferring to enjoy the scenery without ‘killing’ myself. The memories of my tough rivalry and fight with Zandy Mangold at the Atacama Crossing were still fresh in my mind, and I was not willing to suffer the pain again. Not so soon, anyway!!
The route of the race was getting more and more stunning as we were approaching the summit. We saw lovely snow-covered slopes and the views were simply indescribable – very unique. The wildness of the landscapes was giving me a kind of serenity despite my accelerating heart-rate due to the climb. At the same time, Manolis was reciting ‘mantinades’, ie. Cretan rhythmic couplets, having love or satire as their topics!!! The combination of his recital against the unbelievably amazing backdrop made the whole experience so surreal.
The unbelievably beautiful sky of Crete

Breathtaking surroundings
When we reached the top of the summit, a breathtaking view of the whole island which expanded to the horizon greeted us with warm welcome. That actually stopped us momentarily and after taking in the view for a few seconds, we turned back to check on the other runners. As no one can be seen from the horizon, we took a small break and stood speechless, both taking in the admirable, unique view of mountain ranges and Cretan/Libyan Sea which were before our eyes.
From the summit, we descended through some lovely snow covered slopes, where the inclination allowed for fast rolling down the hill. Manolis fell on two occasions and I stopped to check to see if he was alright. Suddenly, the inclination of the slope became very steep and I found it difficult to control my speed. I was already running fast and I could see (as the end of the snow covered slope was coming closer) that there were some big rocks at the edge. At this point, I was furiously trying to figure out how to slow down. The only option I could think of was to fall on the slope and then try to use my legs to break the momentum, which was what I did.
Manolis, on the other hand, was 100m behind me and had adopted a less risky technique. When I looked back to see, I found out that he has cunningly chosen the option to slide down on his bottoms!! After having survived from this unforeseen challenge and by now, full of adrenaline, I waited for Manolis to reach safely. We then started the most demanding part of the route, a 3km of downhill on a gravely footpath with sliding sharp rocks. I realised that it was very easy to get a sprain on this terrain, if not worse. My right quadriceps was starting to get painful and a lot of my concentration was directed at trying to avoid getting an injury.
Finally, after about 20 minutes of struggling with rocks and gravels, we reached the starting point of a LONG descent of 13km. 10km of it was on a nice, dirt track and the last 3km was on asphalt. This was the part of the race where Manolis was to be at his element. There was no doubt that he will be at his fastest pace here, where he was the strongest, having trained in similar terrains every day. Until this moment, despite the fact that we have been running together and chatting, we have never discussed of the possibility of finishing the race together and sharing the first position.
Due to this, I was keeping up with his fast pace (3:30’/km) even though my quadriceps was crying out in pain. When we have reached the asphalt, I was already feeling very tired and was not keen to keep up with the same pace as Manolis’. However, the fighter in me refused to give up and was trying to convince my body to push as much as I can and to strive harder, while Manolis seemed to be in a very comfortable zone.
When we finally arrived at the village of Kouroutes and about 500m from the finish line, I was about just 1m behind Manolis, trying to keep my last energies for a sprint to the finish line. Suddenly, Manolis turned to me and slowed down while gesturing to me to run beside him, so that we could finish the race together. The Cretans’ generosity has been confirmed once again through his magnanimousness. His noble act went to prove that the principles and values of old Cretan times are still very much alive on the island, like their legends of Zeus. With that, we finished the race together, running hand-in-hand to the Finish Line in great sportsmanship.

Thank you, beautiful land of Crete, for this amazing experience.

Thank you, Manoli, for being such a noble and wonderful companion during the entire race.

Thank you, Padeli and Stelio, for all your generosity and hospitality, which touched me so much.

Me and Stelios

Padelis and his son, Giannis
Thank you, my dear wife, for the endless hours you spent on the mountains in your strife to capture these beautiful photographs.

Hannisze, my wife
 [Photo credit: Manolis Avramakis]
Thank you, Psiloritis Race's organizers, for giving me the opportunity to live another dream in my dear homeland.

We will definitely be back to this beautiful land for new adventures and further explorations of her beautiful, natural wonders. 


  1. Nice post Argyris!

    Hope see you a day in ROUT 100 miles AdvEndRun in Rodopi,Greece. I think this race (the scenery, the people and the trail) fits to your character!!!


    Christos D. Katsanos

  2. Thanks Christo, for visiting my blog and your kind comment! It wouldn't be long before I return to Rhodopi for your challenging race!

  3. Actually Argyris, you are a charismatic persona and we in Greece like you so much and enjoy sending you our positive energy during your advent(d)ures (see Atakama ...). Take care yourself, your family and live your life to the fullest!!

    P.S. Please consider about sending from time to time some of your ideas to!

  4. Christo, I really appreciate your kind words and I will always remember the support and encouragement which I received from all of you while I was at Atacama. I am always in touch with ttsog who gave such a great support to me by covering the whole event and I will I will continue to update him on all my future races for!

  5. Papas, all things are indeed possible. Nick