Welcome to Hydra, a Greek island a couple of hours off the coast of Athens. This is a place that holds a special place in my heart for two reasons.
- It’s car-free. So no douchebags speeding around with their crotch rockets or in their military-sized vehicles as if their fragile masculinity gives license to pollute our air and clog up our streets! (I have thoughts about this, if you couldn’t tell.)
- It’s the last place we visited before the COVID lockdown began, so memories of that trip kept us going at a time when it seemed like every cough was a deathly omen.
While on Hydra, we saw an advertisement for a trail race. We thought “Hey! We loved it so much, let’s come back next year for the race!”
Next year didn’t happen. But in the year of our pandemic, 2022, Hydral’s Trail Event, as it’s very literally called, was a go.
Back on Hydra
We ferried onto Hydra on a Friday evening, giving us plenty of time to put our bags down, get reacquainted with the island, and relax before I threw myself at 38 kilometers and 2,000 meters of elevation on Sunday.
She was exactly as I remembered. The smooth cobblestones, the countless quiet alleyways wrapping around the hillside like spaghetti thrown against the wall, the sun-kissed mountains teasing from beyond, and more mules and well-fed stray cats than people.
It’s easy to see why Leonard Cohen found such inspiration on the island, writing songs like “Bird on the Wire” after spotting a bird on one of the island’s recently installed phone lines back in the 1960s.
There are more wires these days and perhaps even more drunks singing in their midnight choirs, but the spell of this place hasn’t worn off on me. All those worries on your mind — big or small — float away like pollen from a flower brushed by a breeze.
A day before the race, Melanie wisely pushes us to shake out our legs with an easy afternoon run along the end of the course. I’m having a hard time imagining that I’ll feel anything but absolutely miserable when I get back here tomorrow. But holy Hell, I’m starting to feel giddy for race day. Time to stuff my gullet with some pasta and spend nine hours staring at the back of my eyelids, because God knows I won’t be able to sleep.
It’s a small crowd on race morning, so I get that last nervous pee out at the hotel, walk up to the starter’s line on the harbor, and before I know it, there’s what I assume is a countdown in Greek and we’re off to the mountains.
Few things have pleased me more in my life than rounding that corner into the heart of Hydra with passersby applauding, little children demanding the sweetest of low-fives, and somehow running across that finish line to add yet another participatory trophy of masochism to my wall.
As always, the race plays back like a montage. The casual start, early risers cheering us on, and flashes of the course play through my mind like flickering film from an old reel.
Our marathon pack ambitiously ran the initial incline, though I knew most of us would come to regret it later on in the race. But it didn’t take long for runners to spread out along the course. The next thing I know, I”m on the southern end of the island, hiking along gray rocks and the sun beaming down on me with the fragrant scent of wild oregano filling my nostrils. It was as pleasant as I felt for the rest of the race –– until about two-and-a-half kilometers were left and I could finally run again.
My legs felt strong but my cardio just wasn’t trained for these mountain treks –– nor was I willing to speed through the downhill and risk snapping an ankle. I took my sweet ass time. I wasn’t in it to win it. That ship sailed when I was born in flatter than flat Northeast Ohio. I was just in it to finish the damn thing, which I did all the while feeling surprisingly strong (all things considered).
I felt surprisingly fine the next day. Only sad to leave Hydra once again. But like the last time we made the ferociously stupid decision to leave Hydra, I know we’ll be back. As Cohen sang, like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free. And on Hydra, I am free.