Runners tackle Mount Olympus

MOUNT OLYMPUS – Zeus fired lightning from it and his messenger Hermes scaled its heights with winged sandals. But runners tackling myth-shrouded Mount Olympus yesterday relied on mortal attributes: sweat, grit and courage on mud-slick paths. «It is the marriage of adventure and athletics,» said Lazaros Rigos, a runner who participated in the first «mountain marathon» in 1986 but was unable to join this year’s 138 runners because of an injury. The event on Greece’s tallest peak, 382 kilometers (237 miles) north of Athens, has attracted greater interest as the country prepares to host the 2004 Olympics in their birthplace. The race to near the summit of 2,917-meter-high Olympus may get additional notice for its sheer agony in the first stages. Runners start with a 15-kilometer (9-mile) climb up paths to the Plateau of the Muses at 2,650 meters. Then relief: downhill to the finish. The 35-kilometer (22-mile) course is seven kilometers short of the classic marathon, but the rough terrain makes times much slower. The sky cleared halfway through the race, but the paths were slick and treacherous from earlier downpours. Many runners tumbled and one of the eight women in the race broke her wrist. The winner, defending champion Dimitris Hatzis, 35, finished in 3 hours, 51 minutes, 15 seconds – a few minutes off the record. He couldn’t finish his first attempt at the event four years ago. Vassiliki Karpouzi, 38, was the first woman finisher. Her time of 4:37:45 broke the women’s record set last year by almost half an hour. Only Greeks competed this year, but organizers hope for a more international field in the 2003 race – the last before the Olympics. The idea for the event was born when a group of friends, who had been scaling Olympus for more than a decade, was looking for a different type of summer fun. «We came up with it between rounds of tsipouro (a potent Greek drink) and beer,» said Panayiotis Theodorou, one of the founders. «That summer we didn’t have money to go on vacation to the beaches or mountains, and we thought, why not have fun on Olympus? And Olympus sells,» he added. «It is a mythological mountain with deep gorges and pointy tips. We thought it would be interesting.» The Olympus race is one of several Greek sporting events linked to antiquity. The Athens marathon – held each November – was inspired by the legend of Pheidippides, the ancient messenger who collapsed and died in 490 BC after running from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persian invaders. The race ends in Athens’s horseshoe-shaped marble stadium – where the first modern Olympiad was held in 1896. An almost identical route will be followed at the 2004 Summer Games. In 1996, a group led by American archaeologist Stephen Miller revived the ancient Nemean Games in southern Greece. The athletes participated barefoot and wore togas. Winners received a modest honor: a wreath of wild celery.