Owen Davies: Where it all began. My first months in Greece: a retrospective - Part 1

By 08 Ιουν 2023

These last months have been a real mix of highs and lows for me. In February I took a step up to compete on the international stage at Transgrancanaria, where I managed 4th place in the highly competitive Advanced race. On the back of this and other performances I was selected for the Great Britain team to run the long course race at the world championships in the Austrian Alps. My ITRA performance index now tells me I’m “elite” (whatever that means) and I have signed my first contract as a runner. I have never run for external validation but I can’t deny all this felt meaningful. However, these “successes'' have recently been tempered by an injury that has forced me out of the world championships. All this has caused me to reflect on where I’m going in this sport, what I want and what actually matters. It’s also given me the chance to reflect on where my journey in ultra-trail running began. So for the first time I will share that story, as it relates very much to Greece and may be of some small interest to readers of this site.


In the early Autumn of 2008, I decided to take a sabbatical and set out on a bike trip with no fixed destination or route. After years of teaching in the Basque country, my job had become repetitive and unfulfilling, I needed a new environment and new challenges.

For several years cycling had been my way of travelling. I liked nothing better than spending all day in nature, moving at my own pace through changing landscapes and terrain. Travelling this way created a more meaningful connection with the land and people I met. Bicycle touring had taught me simplicity, how to reduce life to the essentials and what actually mattered. It also showed me the good in people that we so often miss. There’s something about a bicycle strapped with luggage that provokes curiosity, openness and kindness in others.

The previous summer I had cycled from my then home in Pamplona, across France, Italy and down the Balkan peninsula, finishing in Igoumenitsa. Therefore it seemed logical that Greece was the place to resume my travels and that the direction would be east. After Greece, I thought I would explore Turkey, Iran and Central Asia, but I was wary of creating an itinerary, counting kilometres and having expectations. I wanted to be open to adventure, to allow myself the luxury of time, to take detours and to change my mind. In fact, when I began my trip in early September, I had just one commitment planned: a trail running race on the Olympus massif, a step up from anything I had done on two feet before.

                                           The view south from the lower slopes of Olympus above Litochoro.


I had discovered trail running a couple of years earlier while living in the Basque region of northern Spain. Life in the mountains is an integral part of the Basque culture; hiking and mountain running are probably more popular in this part of the world than anywhere else. During the spring and autumn there are local races every weekend and the level of competition is high. After enjoying some success in road races and Duathlon, I naively jumped into the mountain running scene thinking I could emulate these performances in the mountains. Let's just say it was an education! I lacked the speed, skills and experience of the top runners. My pacing was particularly bad, as was my descending on technical terrain. However, I loved the whole experience and like many I quickly became enamoured with the sport.

The sense of freedom, the connection to nature and the possibility to go to places my bike could not take me, made more sense to me than anything I knew. With time and practice I improved my mountain running craft and increased the distances I ran. Many weekends were spent cycling to races, competing and then cycling back, sometimes I would ride 200 kilometres or more in addition to running. By the time I arrived in Greece, the practice of combining cycling and running was second nature to me. What was less familiar was the ultra distance. However, I had participated in a couple of mountain marathons and felt ready to step outside my comfort zone.

Lost Trail was just that. 56 kilometres and 4000 metres of climbing awaited me. I have warm memories of those first days in Litochoro. The evening before the race I set up my tent under an old walnut tree behind Lakkos. The presence of a foreign athlete with a bright red bike and huge tyres drew friendly curiosity from the participants. Some invited me for beers at the bars along the river. I recall the terraces being so full that I couldn’t find my new friends, so I retired to my tent in preparation for the early start.

One of the first people I met in Litochoro was Monica at 55 Peaks. She has always greeted me warmly and shown kindness and hospitality to me and many others. Another dear friend who exemplifies Xenia at its finest.


The next morning excitement overcame my sleepiness as we set off to the sound of ringing bells and exclamations that didn’t need translating. After a hundred metres of cobblestones we were on singletrack path weaving our way along the river and up into the dense pine forests that characterise the lower slopes of the Olympus mountains. Despite the steepness and length of the climbs and descents, which I was completely unused to, I loved every moment of the race. Compared to what I knew, It felt like a pure, unadulterated mountain experience. Almost the entire route was on singletrack paths, demanding total focus and testing my abilities from start to finish. Little did I know at the time that I had chosen some of the best mountain running paths in Greece for my first ultra experience. Nor did I know the preferred aesthetics of race director Lazaros Rigos and his reputation for creating challenging races.

As strong as an Ox and as stubborn as a Mule. Thank you Lazaros Rigos for your hospitality and the work you do in the mountains. Here we climb through the cloud en route to Livadaki, whilst recording the data for Olympus Mythical Trail, November 2018.


Early on I found myself sharing the front of the race with two competitors. Eventually we had an opportunity to exchange a few words and make introductions. Stavros Baliotis and Theocharis Lezpouridis seemed to know each other and I hoped they knew where they were going too. ‘Do you guys know these trails?’ I called out.

‘Oh sure, we get lost in these mountains all the time!’ Haris cheerfully replied.

Theocharis Lezpouridis at the high point of Seih Sou, Thessaloniki. I was always impressed by Haris’ intimate knowledge of the forest and his ability to devise a route here that avoids any stretch of flat terrain. October 2018


Inwardly I groaned. Getting lost in races was a habit of mine but I was determined it wouldn’t happen today. We ran together as a three until the attrition of the race caused separation. In the last 20 kilometres, the heat of the day began to take its toll. Years of cycling had taught me how to manage hydration and nutrition well, however, I was less prepared for the relentless demands of the mountain terrain. There was no respite to be had and finding myself in second place I had no intention of slowing down.

At the final aid station I was told Stavros was just two minutes ahead of me. My desire to push on the final technical descent from Hanoulia was limited by my downhill skills and the scorching afternoon sun that broke through the forest. I crossed the finish line full of satisfaction for having run further than I had ever done before and for the experience of running through such a wonderful place. The mountains and forests of Olympus had touched me in a way that I did not fully realise at the time.

Lost Trail, September 2018. The satisfaction of finishing my first mountain ultra-trail race and the start of something great. Photo credit: Faidra Rigou


There was an aspect of the experience that immediately left an impression on me: the warmth of the community of people I met. Coming from the Basque culture (where people are friendly but generally closed), Greece was a world apart. That evening I sat on the wall by the river drinking beer and talking with other participants as the final runners finished. I soon began to collect recommendations and invitations: places to go, races I should run and people I had to meet. In one almost sliding doors moment. Haris suggested that I should run a race the following month in the Rodopi mountains.

‘The forests there are beautiful in the Autumn.

‘How long is the race?’ I enquired.

‘Not long, about 110 kilometres, you’ll be fine.

I could have laughed, but something about the way Haris talked, his confidence in me and perhaps the achievement of the afternoon made me think that it might be possible and not just crazy. Could I really make the jump to a race double the distance of what I had just run?

I stored the idea in the back of my mind, there were too many things to do first. First, Lazaros Rigos pointed me in the direction of another mythical Greek mountain: Pelion.

A few days cycling brought me to Portaria where I had the good fortune to meet and be hosted by Marianna Gagaki and her family. She was busy preparing for the Ultra Pelion Trail race that would take place in early December. I began to get an insight into the amount of time and work that is required to organise such an event. While Kostas Tsantos spent long days alone on the mountain, building and clearing paths, Marianna dealt with administration, hospitality and generally organised the logistics. The number of tasks seemed countless and for the first time I really appreciated what it took to make these races happen. I chose to hike the route over three days, stopping frequently to read, swim and just enjoy the beauty of the mountain forests and charming villages along the way. I gorged myself on a whole variety of seasonal fruits and slept each night under the stars.

It’s not all about mountains! On my second day of hiking the Ultra Pelion Trail, I descended the kalderimi from Tsangarada to arrive on this deserted beach. September 2018


Next I cycled inland towards the southern Pindus. I had read about Bike Odyssey, a long distance mountain bike route that traversed the Pindus mountain range from south to north. It sounded ideal. Each day I travelled revealed more of the colourful tapestry of Greece, her land and culture. I crossed the arable plains and climbed high into the mountains on rough forest roads. The further I went, the fewer people I saw. Except for an occasional shepherd minding his goats, these mountains seemed empty. I passed villages in various stages of dereliction and struggled to find food. In comic episodes I relied on mime and gestures to communicate my needs to whoever I met, usually an Albanian shepherd or elderly villager. When they understood I was hungry, I was moved by their generosity and would often leave with a bag full of vegetables and fruits from their garden.

The remoteness and beauty of cycling through the Pindus filled me with peace, but as the days passed the idea of running another ultra-trail race in the Virgin Forests of Rhodope grew more appealing. What’s more there was another race about to happen, just a day's ride east in Meteora. I was curious to see this place I knew only from photographs and thought it would be something special to climb to those monasteries that sat perched on top of their sandstone pillars. The thought of racing through this dramatic landscape ultimately won me over and pulled me down into plains of Thessaly.

                    Camping on the east shore of Lake Plastira after a wet day of cycling in the Pindus. October 2018


That weekend was my 30th birthday and although I told no one, I had a great time. I walked, ran and raced, but I also played the tourist and marvelled at my surroundings, sat on cafe terraces for an inordinate amount of time (like a true Greek), met other travellers and made new friends. Among them was Thedoros Ziakkas (Tuff Akis) who would later introduce me to the mountains of Tymfi. Like myself, Akis was vegan and we shared the same ethics. In a country where veganism is not widely understood and much less practised, it felt particularly good to make such a friend.

I led the Meteora Trail Race from start to finish and set off the next day for Rhodope and the 110 kilometre Nature Trail Race with much excitement. To my delight Haris had told me that he would also run the race and invited me to join him; I was beginning to understand the concept of Xenia Greeks are famed for.

       Exploring the scenic landscape of Meteora at a more relaxed pace, before the Meteora Trail Race. October 2018


The Virgin Forests of Rhodope were resplendent in their Autumn colours. After Olympus the terrain was comparatively smooth and the climbs were much gentler in their gradients. A dark haired runner shot off at the start at a speed that seemed absurd for the race distance. Later I would learn this was Evangelos Noulas, one of the top Greek distance runners. At the time I expected him to come back to us once he had destroyed himself, however, when I asked at the aid stations how far ahead he was, I was told to forget about him. That was easy to do in such a beautiful place.

For the first 5 hours Haris and I ran together sharing the forest trails, occasionally chatting and managing everything well. Then disaster struck. In a lapse of concentration, I tripped and fell, cutting my leg but also losing the contents of one of my water flasks. It was the hottest part of the day and we were in the remotest part of the race, many kilometres from the next aid station. Haris helped me to my feet, but my leg was in pain and I couldn’t run as before. I persuaded Haris to leave me and continued alone alternating between running and walking.

As the temperature increased I soon ran out of fluids. I contemplated drinking from a river in the valley below, but I thought better of it. At some point I realised I hadn’t seen a sign or marking for some time, I cursed my stupidity and realised I had left the course. I turned around and tried to increase my speed but now I was in a bad state. Dehydration and physical pain were compounded by a slew of negative thoughts. I lost my appreciation for the forest and mountains to toxic rumination.

Eventually I found the course again and reached the main aid station of the race. Usually in races I pass through aid stations as quickly as possible, never exchanging more than a few words or taking more than fluids and occasionally a banana or some dried fruit. For the first time in my life I now experienced and appreciated what an aid station actually was.

What do you need?’ asked one of the volunteers.

Everything.’ I said as I collapsed onto a chair.

First I drank and then I began to eat, sampling the buffett of snacks and dishes I would usually ignore. Meanwhile I was cleaned, bandaged and had my bottles refilled. I was struck with gratitude for all the people helping me and encouraging me with kind words. None were paid for their time, all were there in service so I and others could have this experience.

I left the aid station feeling rejuvenated in body and mind. At 65 km into the race, I realised this was the furthest I had ever run. The least I could do now was to continue and do my very best. Somehow I was still in third place and the competitor inside me wasn’t prepared to surrender that position. The aid station had been a transformation as I found I could run again and even push. 20 kilometres later and I had caught back up with Haris. Now he was going through his own ordeal, as stomach pain forced him to walk. Together we slowly hiked up Oxia, the steepest climb of the race, occasionally stopping to listen to what we thought might be a bear nearby. At the top of the climb it was my turn to leave Haris behind, somehow despite the distance in my legs, I felt strong and wanted to run. However, there was one thing nagging me. I was beginning to feel a blister forming on my foot and with each step the discomfort got worse. Eventually the discomfort became a pain which was soon intolerable. I could no longer run and I sat down on the side of the trail feeling defeated. So this was how my race would end it seemed. Soon Haris caught me up, he was running again and feeling much better. He told me that the aid station was near and that I should get there where the medics could help me with my foot.

At the aid station I tried with help to fix my feet. Alas, when I got up to walk the pain was just as great as before. I took some painful steps before turning back. It seemed that this was where I would end my race. There was no way I could continue in this state. Just as I was about to quit, a thought occurred to me. The problem was the blister on the sole of my foot, not my muscles, tendons or bones, so theoretically I could still run. What if I really ran, not just tentatively walked or shuffled along in pain? So I ran and I ran hard. For about 20 seconds the pain was excruciating, but then something happened that I can't explain. The pain just disappeared.

I couldn’t believe it. In fact I was elated. I could run again! And what's more I felt good, better than good. I didn't feel the fatigue of the last 10 hours of the race, I was running at a speed I’d use for a half marathon effort. I soon caught and flew past the competitor who had overtaken me at the aid station when I was tending to my feet. The sun was setting now and as twilight set in I felt a sense of harmony with everything around me.

A little further along the trail I caught back up with Haris. I told him what had happened and I think my revived spirit and energy lifted him too. Together we pushed on through the night. We were going to finish and finish strongly.

In the last kilometre as we entered Paranesti, children cycled and ran alongside us. We made them chase us to the line, which we crossed together, arm in arm. After everything we had experienced that day it was the only way to finish. With big grins we hugged and basked in the satisfaction of our achievement.

After such a dramatic race of highs and lows, to finish a race so strongly and together with a friend was something truly special. I had travelled 110 kilometres in one of the remotest parts of Europe, but I had also travelled in my mind. I felt like I had experienced a broader spectrum of human emotion than I ever had before. The whole experience felt more human and real than anything I knew, yet it was impossible to adequately describe in words what had happened.

Of course those reading who are familiar with the ultra experience know exactly what I’m talking about. I suggest this is the reason so many of us are drawn to this particular discipline. In a society that prioritises comfort we need to be tested and challenged. So in absence of actual challenges that once characterised our existence, we almost need to force ourselves to be vulnerable and to go outside our comfort zones to feel such emotions and explore such uncomfortable places both physically and mentally.

Sharing a beautiful place with friends. From the summit of Haidou, the Rhodope mountains stretch to the horizon, covered in their Autumn colours. With Natasha Theoharidou and Kontantinos Papadopoulos, in the days after the Nature Trail Race, October 2018


And that is why I’m writing this today. My first months in Greece, the people I met and these ultra-trail experiences changed the direction of my life and firmed my decision to explore more of this country and what I could do in this sport. A few years have passed and I almost no longer think of running as a sport. Running has become something greater. It has become a lifestyle. I run to explore the physical reality around me but also to explore and understand myself better. As I train my body, I also train my mind.

In the stillness of the forest and mountain we focus on the trail beneath us. A respite from the noise of thinking, a chance for clarity and peace.

                                  Taken in by wolves. Thank you to my ΛΥΚΟΙ friends for everything. October 2018


To be continued ...

Owen Davies