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Overcoming the odds to triumph in an ultramarathon

YIANNIS PAPADOPOULOS

Amalia Matthaiou is one of Greece’s greatest long-distance and mountain runners, but her recent participation in the 215 km Euchidios Hyper-Athlos was uncertain after she underwent cancer surgery and radiation therapy in January.

TAGS: Health, Track & Field

It may have been just a few hours before she was due for surgery, but for Amalia Matthaiou, the morning of January 26 started like any other: She put on her running shoes and hit the streets of Thessaloniki. It was a habit she just couldn’t give up, even in the face of a potentially fatal illness.

The days that followed, when she had a malignant lump removed from her left breast, required patience. The threat may have been removed, her doctors assured her, but she still had to face a lot of post-surgical pain and radiation therapy. The doctors and fellow runners were not surprised, however, when, less than four months after the operation, Matthaiou was standing at the starting line of an ultramarathon – with the finish line lying 215 kilometers away.

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” the 49-year-old athlete told Kathimerini. “I didn’t care if I ran 50 meters or 100 kilometers. The last thing I cared about was what time I’d do it in. I’d been through an ordeal, but I bounced back and was there, healthy.”

The May 8-10 event was the Euchidios Hyper-Athlos, a race that crosses the western part of the prefecture of Viotia, starting in Delphi, going through Plataies and then looping back to Delphi.

Matthaiou has all the experience needed to take on such a challenge. She is the first Greek woman to have ever completed the Spartathlon – one the most emblematic ultramarathons in the world – and has successfully covered the distance from Athens to Sparta three times in five events. A few months before the race, however, nothing could be taken for granted. But even from her first visits to the doctor, she was concerned about when she’d be able to run again.
“Since sport gives her life, I told her to keep doing it,” said breast surgeon Christos Vrekas, who carried out the operation on Matthaiou at the Viokliniki hospital in Thessaloniki. He says that he advised her to desist for a few days after surgery but as she wasn’t doing chemotherapy and was having her heart checked regularly, she could continue doing sport, albeit cautiously.

Matthaiou’s comeback was no easy matter. “It was like starting from scratch after the surgery,” she says.

She rested for a few days and then gradually tried to get back into the rhythm of things. “It was tough at first. I’d lose my breath easily, in 10 minutes. My legs and my body ached and I could only run at a speed of eight minutes per kilometer when my previous performance was five minutes.”

She also had radiation therapy to deal with, having to undergo 25 sessions at Thessaloniki’s Interbalkan Medical Center, starting on March 6. Oncologist and radiation therapist Maritina Theofanopoulou remembers her as being “strong, reliable and cooperative.”

“It was a conservative, painless treatment. She asked me if she could train at the same time and I said she could, with care,” says the doctor. “It is touching to see an athlete with the persistence and perseverance to succeed. You need to keep them on a short leash sometimes, but there were no ill-effects in this case.”

The ultramarathoner also got a lot of help and support from Simos Galitsianos from the physical therapy and rehabilitation unit of the Interbalkan Medical Center, who kept a close eye on her progress to ensure that she was adapting properly to running again. Matthaiou was determined to get healthy and be prepared before she took on a race. She wasn’t about to leave the hospital and go straight to the starting line at any cost. “That’s not a chance you can take. You’re not alone in this life,” she stressed.

Runners believe in muscle memory and Matthaiou gradually improved, running without pushing herself too hard. She’d wake up before dawn and map out a route along the northern port city’s streets, doing 20 kilometers on some days, more on others, until she got her rhythm back.

“This is our psychotherapy. Some use sports to show off, for others it’s a way of life. I do it because I want to, not because I have to, but because it makes me happy,” she said.

All the hard work paid off and Matthaiou crossed the finish line in 35 hours, 22 minutes and 14 seconds, in first place among the women and 16th overall.

Theofanopoulou kept tabs on the athlete over Facebook and was touched to see the photographs Matthaiou posted of the race. “She’s a fighter,” said the oncologist. “And she makes you feel like a fighter as well.”

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