The day that the massive wildfire started in Varybobi, north of Athens, in early August, Marios Giannakou was on an expedition to the Arctic Circle, exploring Norway’s fjords in a sailing boat.
The “Up In The Arctic Expedition” reached the North Cape, Europe’s northernmost frontier. “We had a smidgen of cell service so I was able to read the news but we didn’t have any internet coverage during the week that followed so I only learned about the destruction in Attica and Evia when we got home,” says Giannakou.
Up in the Arctic “we experienced something of what the people here in Greece were experiencing, though differently. We were on deck when we saw a massive section of a glacier, as tall as a six-story apartment building, come unstuck and collapse into the sea. It’s a scene I will never forget. The changes being brought about by climate change are more intense and more visible at the poles compared to areas closer to the equator. They occur three times as fast, according to scientists.”
I look at Giannakou’s face on my computer screen and see a young man on the cusp of his 30s who definitely stands out from the crowd. In his first year as a student of German literature at Thessaloniki University, he went from being an overweight chain-smoker to an ultramarathoner within a few months, running hundreds of kilometers at a time on ice, in jungles and in the desert.
But apart from this formidable achievement, he also embodies the sensibilities many men and women of his and younger generations have for the environment, and their readiness to adopt a different way of life which respects the planet and its human and animal occupants. It’s telling that one of the biggest challenges he has taken on, in October 2020, was carrying Eleftheriou Tosiou, a 22-year-old quadriplegic university student with a dream to scale Mount Olympus, up to its summit on his back.
Our interview could not take place in person after he returned from the expedition, as Giannakou went straight home to Thessaloniki, where he runs an advertising agency. Born (in 1992) and raised in the northern city of Drama and with roots in a nearby mountain village, he was taught to love nature from a young age by his grandmother, who loved long walks and treks, and his parents, who took him on excursions to the area’s many wonderful beauty spots.
But running in places like Rovaniemi in Lapland and the Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve in the UAE whetted his appetite for exploring wild landscapes. And his most recent excursion? “The trip to Norway was about recording some of the problems stemming from climate change and marine pollution. We covered 1,722 kilometers in a month, spending the entire time on the boat. We also want to produce a documentary that will raise even more awareness among young people on the protection of the environment,” he says.
“The trip was a revelation about what is happening to the Arctic Circle and how rising temperatures impact the landscape, flora and fauna. You see the toughest side of climate change there, glaciers shrinking or disappearing altogether. That’s where you realize that if we don’t take drastic action, our children will face situations we can barely imagine right now. It’s the same with the animals. We saw polar bears and beluga whales, species adapted to arctic conditions, struggling with the rapid changes,” says Giannakou.
“What I want to say after this experience, conveying something I saw with my own two eyes, is that the problem is no longer on our doorstep; it’s in our home. I feel that as humans we have done more harm than good to our planet. On the other hand, I see a ray of light in the awareness my generation seems to have about the climate and pollution,” he adds.
I couldn’t help playing devil’s advocate and asking how he expects young Greeks today to prioritize the environment when so many are struggling to find a decent job after a decade-long crisis and an ongoing pandemic. My pessimism does nothing to dampen his optimism.
“As a long-distance running buff, I can tell you that life is an ultramarathon. You’ll face injuries, bad moments, obstacles, exhaustion, cold feet. But there is nothing to do but keep going, growing stronger through every ordeal. These are the facts and they will not change. So instead of whining about it, let’s see what we can do instead of waiting for solutions from others,” he says.
“We need to focus on the solution instead of the problem; we need to rely on our own potential, however small it may appear. At least, that’s what I do.”
His life certainly is a good example of that philosophy. Before he decided to sign up for his first big race, he was overweight and smoking three packs a day. But he was motivated to change by the ordeal of a friend with a serious health problem. Instead of heading to his local gym, he discovered long-distance running and went on to relish pushing his body to its limits in extreme conditions. Now he is one of just 14 people in the world who completed the February 2018 150k Polar Circle Winter Race and one of 18 to cross the finish line in the 270K Al Marmoom Ultramarathon that same year – and he holds a world record as the oldest desert ultramarathoner for that effort. Last year, meanwhile, he ran 230 kilometers in the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica and also broke the age record in the 170K Rodopi Ultra Trail in northern Greece. And, as he turned his life around completely, his friend, Alexandros, recovered.
“It might seem contradictory, but I find long-distance running very relaxing. It makes me feel happy and balanced. Just to debunk a myth that may exist about the sport, I feel like I’m doing the same thing as someone finding their inner balance by reading or painting. Or, as the saying goes, every journey starts with the first step – all we have to do is take it,” stresses Giannakou.
But where does he find the strength to keep going after that first step?
“Anything that does our body and our soul good and brings out a better version of ourselves can drive our determination to go further – as long as we don’t give up at the start, when it’s hard. For example, I’m not always running or training. I may even gain weight every once in a while. But I start all over again, believing that if I did it once, I can do it again.”
Giannakou’s most inspiring accomplishment was helping Eleftheria Tosiou fulfill her dream of scaling Mount Olympus by carrying her on his back, in a specially modified backpack.
Tosiou also hails from Drama and shared her desire to see the mountain during a chance encounter one day. He organized the entire thing and made it happen.
“Eleftheria was so happy! As soon as we reached the top, she asked me to do a 360-degree turn so she could see the view. I don’t think anything is more wonderful than this. No medal from any race can give you so much joy.”