This piece was featured in issue #31 of Like the Wind Magazine. Words by Constantine “Dean” Karnazes – Photography by Angelos Zymaras.

Nike! Nike! Nenikekamen!” “Victory! Victory! Rejoice, we conquer!”

490BC. Pheidippides, a messenger, finally arrives at the end of his 26-mile run from a battlefield in Marathon to the Acropolis in Athens to deliver news of an unexpected Greek victory over Persian invaders. It was a glorious moment of celebration for the human race… and then he heroically collapsed and died from exhaustion.

This is the familiar origin story of that most egalitarian of sports, the marathon. But Greece is also the birthplace of democracy. Both marathon and democracy lend themselves to a certain personal liberty and self-determination that have become bedrock principles of Western thought.

How did this cultural revolution in ideals and beliefs awaken? Ancient Greek literature holds some of the answers. In The Odyssey, Homer describes “swift-footed, God-like Achilles”, a warrior unmatched in speed, agility and endurance. But while athleticism and running ability were prized, Greece was a land of warring factions and demoniacal plots for power and prestige. There were hints that this was no way to live, but deceit and backstabbing still persisted.

Then, in 776 BC, the Olympics were born. Conceived as a way to elevate humankind above trite divisions, running and sport were seen as sacred, above the rifts and tribalism of human nature – a time for individuals and communities to lay down their arms, put aside differences, and join together in unifying and pure activities. Those were the original Olympic principles and, to this day, there is still something divine about the Greek notion of sport uniting humanity. Of course, the modern Olympics have become somewhat sullied by the rise of flagrant commercialism. And, perhaps worse, unschooled politicians threaten boycotts, or use the Games as bargaining chips – the very thing the Greek founders sought to transcend. But despite this, thousands of years later, the Olympics remain a pre-eminent global phenomenon.

A small country with big ideals, throughout history Greece has had to fight to defend its land and principles. In 480BC, the Persians invaded once again; the Greeks were again horribly outnumbered but stood their ground. When the Persian army ordered the Greeks to lay down their weapons, King Leonidas responded defiantly: Molon labe (“Come and take them”). No Greek would give up without a fight. In a largely tyrannical world, the nascent idea of demokratia (rule by the people) was something the Greeks thought worth defending – with their lives, if necessary.

After defeating the Persians for a final time at the Battle of Salamis in 480BC, democratic governance in Greece lasted for roughly the next two millennia. But in the 15th century the Ottoman Empire marched into Greece and seized control. The Philiki Etaireia (Friendly Brotherhood) was a secret society that became the impetus for gaining Greek freedom.

In 1821 this band of revolutionaries decided “no more”; Ottoman occupation of their homeland would no longer be tolerated. This meant war, of course, and taking on an entrenched, well-funded and well-armed adversary. But the Greeks knew their land better than the interlopers, and that was their strategic advantage. They took to the mountains, where they could use their cunning and athletic prowess to evade the intruders, sneaking down to attack and then retreating back into the craggy and cavernous highlands.

That was 200 years ago, yet some of the revolutionaries’ trails and pathways still exist. I know, because I have run on them.

The Run for Freedom was organised to commemorate the bicentennial of Greek Independence. Ten marathons over 10 consecutive days, all began and ended at historic monuments or battle locations in the Peloponnese region of Greece – not only the birthplace of the revolution but also the genesis of my ancestral bloodline.

Beginning at the Square of the Immortals in Areopoli, along the fabled Mani peninsula region of Messinia, the first marathon runners set off with commanding views of the Ionian Sea to one side and the towering Taygetus mountain range to the other. Two of us, Vassilis Koumanakos and myself, intended to run all 10 marathons.

Everyone has heard of Greece, yet few have ventured into the rural backroads, byways and footpaths that form the network of conduits connecting small communities and villages throughout the countryside. Yet these are some of the most enchanting places on earth in which to run. I was reminded of this on the Mani coastline. The aquamarine water shimmered like sunlight through a jewel as we made our way along a route that has been documented throughout history, yet has changed little over time.

The early autumn sun was piercing; by mid-morning, temperatures were already warm. We were supported by a small crew yet it felt, at times, as though we were waging our own battle against the elements as the hardworking stewards tried desperately to provide us runners with fresh water and food in the sweltering heat, in a place with limited access to shops.

I wasn’t the only runner who resorted to foraging along the roadside. I’ve run on all seven continents, twice over, yet Greece is the only place in which I have run that delivers an abundance of wild foodstuffs, seemingly sprouting from every available plot of soil or crevice in the earth. As we ran past a fig tree, five-time Spartathlon finisher Ioannis Dimopoulos plucked a fig and handed it to me. I inhaled it in a single swallow, the way an iguana gulps down a bug – it brought life back to my parched palette. Next came roadside bundles of grapes, pomegranates, tangerines, walnuts, quince and nectarines. Our crew kept promising they could restock somewhere up the road, but I was quite content to live off the land.

We finished in the coastal hamlet of Kardamyli, near the Mourtzinos Tower, where the Greek revolutionaries held a clandestine gathering with nearby villagers to help to galvanise the liberation movement in 1821. Nowadays Kardamyli is mostly a subdued township that caters to retired European tourists. It has a quaint and calming demeanour that seems juxtaposed to the heaviness of the revolt that began two centuries ago. Curious passers-by snapped pictures as the finishers congratulated each other and received commemorative medals..

Run for Freedom organiser Akis Tsolis wanted to honour the Greek freedom fighters appropriately: each of the 10 medals was distinct and uniquely designed. The first was a glorious piece of hardware, and hopefully the start of a complete set of 10.

Watching the sunset after a cliffside meal of grilled fish, Greek feta salad, roasted vegetables and local red wine, I’d never been more thankful that Greece was still Greece. It was a supremely poignant moment – one that, had the revolutionaries failed to liberate this land, might never have been.

Prying myself out of bed on day two was taxing. My tender, aching muscles felt the ramifications of day one. I was no stranger to multi-day events – I once ran 50 marathons in all of the 50 United States in 50 consecutive days – so I certainly understood the prudence of pacing oneself. But, in my revolutionary zeal, I’d let my passion get the better of me and charged too gallantly. On day two I would pay the price.

While the fresh crop of runners were raring to go, Vassilis Koumanakos and I looked a bit haggard. We clanked fists and started running. We were now brothers in battle, aiming to complete all 10 runs in 10 days.

The path we followed wove along the coastline; the morning sun, backlighting Mount Taygetus cast a massive pyramid-shaped shadow on to the sea, the rippling water giving it an eerie, ephemeral quality, like a vaporous liquid mirage. Once out from under the mountain’s shade, the piercing rays of sunlight could immediately be felt on one’s skin. Today would be hotter than yesterday, and mostly without shade. Again our small crew was having difficulty procuring fresh provisions; there were few options along the roadway and ice melted quickly in the heat. Inside the van of our head crewmember, Yorgos Makrydakis, looked as though a wild animal had torn loose. It was total chaos. Thankfully his right-hand man, Leonidas Labiris, was cool and collected. A skilled archer, Leo operated with precision and few wasted movements. The two of them formed quite a team.

By the end of the second marathon, all of us were exhausted – crew and runners. And the heat had been unforgiving. The run finished in the charming municipality of Kalamata. Renowned for its coveted olive oil – liquid gold, as it is known – Kalamata is the most developed city in the region of Messinia. Thankfully Kalamata is also home to beautiful beaches and calm waters. I wasted little time stripping to my shorts and jumping in. Floating on my back, watching the colourful, albatross-like paragliders circling overhead from Mount Kalathi, there was no shortage of gratitude for the freedom fighters who liberated this place during the War of Independence. Humans aren’t always prone to appreciating what we have.

Perhaps because I was something of an outside (my family immigrated to America during the early 1900s) I seemed to appreciate the glory of Greece a bit more than my fellow Greek runners. Relaxing in those tranquil Ionian waters, the bliss, the enormity of the gratefulness was felt in the totality of my being. Drifting sombrely in the warm afternoon sun, water gently lapping over my skin, my eyes softly shut and I fell asleep. When I was a boy, I remember my grandfather Constantine, my namesake, swimming out past the breakers in Southern California – his newfound home – and falling asleep. I thought it was a trick. Now, many years later, I realised it wasn’t a trick at all. I’m not sure how long I dozed, but it was the most rejuvenating rest of many years.

A new life force emerged within me for marathon three. The steep climb out of Kalamata into the surrounding mountains was arduous, yet little did I fatigue. The spring was back in my step, my fighting spirit renewed.

We were joined by Georgia Mitsiou, the event’s first female runner. An engineer by trade, Georgia was soft-spoken and reserved, and unbreakable as steel. A Badwater finisher, she intended to run the next eight consecutive marathons.

The women of Greece played more than a supporting role in the War of Independence. Many fought bravely and were fiercely defiant. An Ottoman emissary once told the leader of a local Greek insurgence that if he did not surrender, his village would be pillaged and the children and women taken captive. “Ha!” the Greek scoffed, “You do not know our women!”

As we climbed the steep mountain pass, the Bay of Kalamata disappearing behind us, we noticed the distinctive splotches of white chalk and metal bolts fastened to the surrounding cliffs. These were the marks of rock climbers, yet there were no climbers to be found. The setting was strikingly dramatic – epic, in fact. But where were all the people? If this were Yosemite, there would be lines of cars, food trucks, photographers, drones buzzing overhead and busloads of iPhone-wielding tourists. But this wasn’t Yosemite; this was Greece. The beauty was comparable, yet largely untouched.

It was in these steep ravines and lofty summits that the Greek freedom fighters would hide and refortify. The Greeks knew the topography intimately – a confusing mosaic of gulches, chasms, peaks and narrow valleys – but the Ottoman invaders had no idea where to look, and little hope of chasing down these rebels who had the endurance of camels and the agility of mountain goats.

As we ascended further into these mountains, multi- coloured wildflowers grew along the roadside, the smells of oregano and sage wafted in the air, fruit and nut trees looked as though their limbs would buckle under the weight of their bounty, and spring water flowed from numerous rivulets and tributaries. Songbirds sang, accompanied by a chorus of stridulating grasshoppers. Nature was in orgy, as the Greeks like to say.

We finished the marathon in the remote village of Alagonia. Rustic and quaint, the entire township had come out to greet us in the main city square (I say city, but we’re talking about fewer than a dozen structures). The inhabitants had put out tables of fresh food, all made locally, by hand. Two large containers of locally harvested mountain tea were steeping. It was an amazing spread, and the tastes were otherworldly. Alagonia is one of the larger villages in the area: its population is 146.

The mayor, fresh from milking a goat, thanked us for visiting. Thanked us. Most runners would kill for such an experience. Among the small group of townsfolk I noticed a freckled, fair-skinned lad who spoke Greek with an Irish accent. I had to get his story. Evan Walsh was passing through Kalamata in the midst of a global bike trek when someone suggested he explore the nearby mountains. He rode into Alagonia, met a nice Greek girl, and fell in love. The two married. That was eight years ago; the rest, as they say, is history. He couldn’t be happier, he told me.

Two more female participants joined the procession for the fourth marathon: Vicky Karpouza and her partner Angie Terzi. Both were tough as nails, and pleasant as hell. You might wonder why I keep mentioning female athletes? The sad fact is that Greece lags behind other developed nations when it comes to gender equality in running. For instance, nearly 43 percent of marathon finishers in the United States are female. In Greece, that number is 12 percent. The good news is that, thanks to trailblazers such as Vicky, Angie and Georgia, things are changing. On each subsequent visit to Greece I see more and more female runners. It is a welcome sight.

The fifth marathon ended in the village of Paloukorachi, at a large cylindrical cobblestone structure perched atop the highest point in the region and originally used as a Greek lookout tower. During the course of the day, we had run past several forced labour camps where shackled and chained Greeks were put to work for the Ottoman Empire. Conditions were atrocious and many lost their lives to hunger and exhaustion. There was discontent and revolutionary stirrings among the Greeks, but the Ottomans ruled with brutality and intimidation. They took control of the tower in Paloukorachi, bored holes in the structure, and tortured Greek escapees inside. The openings amplified the screaming, so all the surrounding townships could hear.

Word of the Greek plight spread east and west. Many freedom-loving Russian Orthodox citizens travelled to Greece to help to liberate the enslaved, as France. James Williams, a Black former slave from Baltimore, sailed to Greece to join the freedom fighters. He fought nobly alongside the Greeks, ultimately giving his life at the Battle of Navarino.

Lord Byron travelled from England and fell in love with Greece and its people. He studied Greek history and wrote impassioned poetry that spoke to the heart and to the imagination.

The mountains look on Marathon
And Marathon looks on the sea
And musing there an hour alone
I dream’d that Greece might still be free

The Greek War of Independence was waged with both weapons and words… but also endurance. Unlike many revolutions, where outcomes are determined swiftly, the fighting here continued for many insufferable years. The Greeks lacked the infrastructure to support large and well-organised offensives, so they relied on nimble, roving, tactical militias. In a peripatetic military structure such as this, little could be done for the battle-wounded. Death by infection was often gruesome and protracted. The Greek fighters had a saying: “May the shot that hits me be a good one.”

By the seventh marathon, Georgia, Vassilis and I had become our own kind of fighters. There are flat spots in Greece… little ones in between mountains. Basically every marathon consisted of ascending one soaring peak after the next. Compounding the difficulties on this seventh day, intense storms blew in from the Mediterranean. The sky darkened, Zeus cast down lightning bolts, trees snapped, rivers overflowed and roadways were washed out. The destruction forced us to reroute. Our marathon that day was closer to 30 miles, not one of which came easily.

The eighth marathon started at a memorial to Theodoros Kolokotronis, one of the greatest leaders of the revolution. A towering bronze statue of Kolokotronis was erected in the middle of a prominent marble square; the panorama from this vantage point was expansive, with commanding views of the distant mountains and the lush rolling valleys in between. It was an impressive monument to behold. We were the only ones there.

Throughout the eighth day of running, not a single car passed us. This was an area that seemed all but forgotten by the modern world, yet it was magnificent from a runner’s perspective. The air was pure and intoxicating, pungent with the earthy aromas of wild herbs. Kaleidoscopic rainbows of flowers covered the hillsides, olive and fig trees were abundant, and tendrils of gourd vines twisted and coiled all over the ground like the arteries of a giant.

Ambling over to the roadside, I plucked a gourd from the soil and held it up to Vasillis.

“Muskmelon,” he informed me.
“Is it edible?” I asked.
He looked at me as though I were an idiot.
“Do you have a knife?” I asked.

Again, he looked at me as though I were an idiot. Then he took the thing from my hand and threw it to the ground, fracturing it into perfect bite-sized pieces.

“There is your knife,” he sneered.

Because they were so badly outmanned, the Greeks were forced to be clever and enterprising in their tactics. They couldn’t attack the heavily armed Ottomans directly, so instead they started rockslides along the remote access points that were used to fortify Ottoman positions, thereby cutting off supply chains. It was a war of attrition, one in which the Greeks could use their collective stamina and resolve that had been developed over many lifetimes. Endurance comes from enduring. And endure the Greeks did, for more than a decade of warfare, eventually driving the Ottoman off the land and into the sea.

Marathon number nine meandered from the mountains down to the shoreline, passing through an abandoned Byzantine fortress and finally concluding at the coastal enclave of Pylos, where Homer is said to have wandered. From Pylos, Nestor’s Cave is visible across the waterway. In Greek mythology, Nestor’s Cave is where trickster Hermes hid the herd of cattle he’d poached from brother Apollo. The cave hasn’t changed in 3,000 years. There are no tour guides, no fancy placards describing the history of the location, no announcements of any kind, just a narrow goat trail leading to a large, impressive cave on the side of a mountain. One that happens to be known throughout history.

The tenth and final marathon was glorious, though somewhat of a comedown. Finishing didn’t bring the satisfaction one might otherwise suspect. It was the journey that held the magic, and now that journey was over. Vassilis and I completed all 10 marathons, Georgia eight. Friendships – kinships – had been forged. Goodbyes are always difficult, this one particularly so.

Through running I’ve become something of a global citizen, and I’ve had the good fortune to partake in adventures like this around the world. But there was something uniquely personal about running in my ancestral homeland and visiting the places my countrymen gave their lives to reclaim. The outcome of the Greek Revolution was the pivotal point at which the whole geopolitical map of Europe tilted away from the 18th-century model autocratically ruled empires towards the 20th-century model of the self-determination of nation states. As with the birth of democracy in ancient times, this tiny nation once again exerted an outsized influence on the world with the revolution of 1821. The Greeks fought not only for their own freedom, but also for the noble principles of freedom and liberty as a way of life. My gratitude to these courageous women and men is immeasurable. May the words of my tribute outlast the flesh of my body:

The revolution was born on a whisper and a prayer, that the land that is Greece would once more be theirs. You fought in the mountains, in the valleys and the sea / your tombstones remind us freedom does not come for free. For days now I’ve relished the spoils of your pain / so know that your blood ’twas not shed in vain.

– Constantine Nicholas Karnazes Long live democracy. Long live Greece.

If you would like to learn more about the Run for Freedom, visit:

Leave a Reply