The Yukon River Trail Marathon is considered a grueling course that challenges competitors to overcome hills, grabbing roots, rough terrain and even a foot bridge, usually during August heat that can approach 30 C. Having finished that half-marathon in August as a training run for the Klondike Road Relay, I was certain of my ability to casually run and enjoy the 21-kilometre Skiathos Trail Race, taking photos and enjoying the morning. Reality, however, can be a jarring experience; because while the Yukon River Trail Marathon is a tough course, the Skiathos race makes it look like an easy jog along the Millenium Trail. I would categorize it more of an adventure race.
The paved portion doesn’t last long as the town isn’t large. Runners are then directed down onto the beach for a short stint, running along the sand, dodging the waves and sunbathers along that narrow stretch. Runners are then directed back to a paved incline that turns into a path near the outskirts of town. The incline is steep and the path itself is made up of uneven rocks and loose scrag material, creating unsure footing. I lost count of the switchbacks criss-crossing the 300-metre ascent. I was forced to walk most of this, partially to conserve energy and also to ensure I didn’t lose my footing on wobbly legs. The forested hillside presents fantastic views along the west coast of the island from breaks in the foliage.
There were small breaks of even ground, but these were short-lived and the trails seemed to go on forever. I had planned to rely on aid stations for water, which were thankfully handing out full bottles. The heat had risen to about 30 C by then and I carried a bottle with me from then on. (Big mistake not taking my own water bottle.) There was a small reprieve at the first of the four monasteries that the course tours, but the climb continued from there.
The never-ending ascent eventually summits at a beautiful plateau of olive trees, with fantastic views of the mountainside. I was already looking at 45 minutes of time. The hill climb was like multiple versions of the steepest hills in Whitehorse, stacked atop each other, kilometre after kilometre. In addition, parts of the “trail” were a shin-deep groove, only wide enough for a single foot at a time. It was time-consuming to carefully place feet, particularly for fatigued legs.
At this point of the trek, several groups of guided day hikers were making use of the trails to the north side of the island as well. They all helpfully moved aside on the narrow trails to let runners pass and even cheered us on. The trail became a rolling path. It was one of the more pleasant sections; up and down, but no horrific climbs. The views were excellent and often provided shade from the hot sun. This portion concluded at the second monastery, where they were checking runners. I was asked if I had seen anyone behind me, and was relieved to find that I wasn’t last (there were three runners behind me), though I was disheartened to learn this wasn’t halfway, but only about 7.5 kilometres into the course. The next portion became a shaded creek bed heading downhill. There, I saw an opportunity to make up some time on a less strenuous portion of the course. This treacherous trail betrayed my brave plans, as the leaf-strewn ground hid the dangers of an uneven surface. There were also no fewer than five creek crossings (only one by bridge) with footing slick and uneven, so I almost slipped and fell a couple of times. Unable to speedily descend, I reconciled myself to safety over pace. At the bottom, a long multi-kilometre climb began again on a gravel road, devoid of any shelter from the sun. I had been finishing bottle after bottle of water from checkpoint to checkpoint in order to survive the heat. Near the top of this second grueling climb, I checked my time. “I’m not sure I’ll make the four-hour cutoff mark,” I thought as the two-and-a-half hour count passed on my wristwatch
This climb brought runners to the third of the four monasteries and then a long run downhill on another gravel road, that was interspersed with rough cobblestones. Other than the paved bits, this portion proved the best on the entire course to open up and run freely on.
The dirt road again began the third major climb, before shifting on to a path to navigate around several farms. Weariness was starting to set in and hill after hill seemed to blend together. As well, the pressing matter of time burned in my head as I feared failing to finish after traveling so far. The climb plateaued out and I met a checkpoint in a field where a boy told me the distance left was about five kilometres away. With just under 45 minutes to go, and hopefully only downhill, I hoped to make it. The checkpoint was in a field, but quickly turned onto another dirt road with downhill, and this one had traffic to observe, including tourists riding ATVs. My hopes of only downhill were dashed when the course again veered onto a trail that began climbing over the final hill that rested between me and Skiathos Town. I had hoped to skirt around it, but true to form, the course went over the top. The long climb arrived at the final monastery, where the surface became cobblestones. The sure footing on pavement provided an extended downhill run. I began to feel that the ease of paved running would guarantee a finish, but yet again, the path veered into the narrow, rocky trails leading downhill towards town.
I could see Skiathos Town in the distance. I moved as quickly and safely as my wobbly legs could carry me. Along the back trails, farms with goats, donkeys and sheep whirred by and suddenly the trail emerged on the road. Cheers from the trail monitors encouraged me and I was told it was only 500 metres to the corner and then turn right towards the harbour. The road into the harbour was slightly downhill and I opened my stride as much as possible. As I recognized the landmarks, I knew that the finish was close at hand, and a quick glance at my watch showed that I would barely finish under the four hour deadline!
A few runners were seated at benches and gave words of encouragement as I ran along the harbourfront. I could see that the race officials had already started dismantling the finish line and had dispersed, but I came across the line and felt massive satisfaction. The finishers’ medal and several bottles of water were a welcome reward.