23 Jan

Soil, Soul, Society: Running a marathon after a wildfire

On November 11 2018, I ran my first marathon in Athens, Greece after the Attica wildfires. Here's what I learned about the state of our planet today.

Trigger warning: This post contains images of the 2018 wildfires in Attica, Greece. They are mostly images of the burned landscape and survivors.

On November 11 2018, I ran my first marathon from Marathon to Athens. I trained for 16 weeks and for eight of those weeks, I was lucky enough to run in wild areas –  across hills, along canals and through woodlands. I grew to fall in love with the outdoors. Encased between trees, nature helped me discover the sacred rhythm in long distance running. I stopped listening to music and podcasts as the training distances grew longer.  I wanted to be present to all of it – all here for all of it. 

Image above: Taken during my marathon training, Surrey, England.

Runners’ Forest 

The Athens marathon is the original marathon route. In 5th century BC, a messenger, Pheidippides, ran from the village of Marathon to the capital city, Athens, to deliver the news that the Greeks had won the battle against the Persians. The distance he ran, 26.1 miles/42.2 kilometres, is the official distance of all marathon races.  

On July 23 2018, a series of wildfires swept through the coastal areas of Attica and killed 100 people. It was reported that the increased intensity of the fires and an overwhelmed/under-prepared disaster response contributed to the number of casualties. People burned to death while running to the Aegean sea, trying to escape the wildfire. The Attica wildfires were the second deadliest wildfires recorded this century.

PHOTO: A firefighter tries to extinguish hotspots during a wildfire in Kineta, near Athens, July 23, 2018.
A firefighter in Kineta, Athens

Before the race, all marathon runners were given a green band to wear to commemorate the survivors and the people who lost their lives in the wildfires. By wearing the green band, we were recreating what had been lost. They called it a Runners’ Forest.

Approximately 13 km into the race, we entered Mati, an area that has been wiped out by the wildfires. I ran past crowds dressed in black, some visibly moved by the rows of green bands. It was an emotional experience, moving past faces still remembering, still making meaning from the unexplicable loss. Families who had lost loved ones and generations of history wiped out overnight. 

Still from Ellia Kallis’ video, showing survivors on the coast of Mati, escaping from the wildfires (AP). Source. 

As I ran past the crowds into the open land, it hit you. Acres and acres of earth burnt to crisp. Trees as high as 14ft had fallen over. From afar, the earth was covered in ashes. Up close, it looked like an oil spill, the scorched earth glistening in the sunlight. The scenes were as if they came from a dystopian novel but I know from my work in sustainable development, these scenes are becoming a frequent occurrence.

Aerial view of Mati. Source.
Burnt cars after the wildfire in Mati. ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

The new norm

Globally, the scale and impact of wildfires are increasing due to a changing climate. In the summer of 2018, there were a series of wildfires across Europe. Factors such as prolonged and high temperatures, lack of annual rainfall leading to dried vegetation (an accelerant for wildfires), and poor urban planning, complicate wildfire management responses.  

The recent IPCC report on climate change presents a sobering picture of the world in 2030 should we carry on at the current rate of consumption and carbon emissions. If we cannot meet the 1.5 degree target, it is unlikely that we can adapt or mitigate the impacts of climate change. 

So what can we do? 

In addition to implementing the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, we need a new model of development for our society. I believe sustainable development is the only effective response to the crisis the world is facing.

We need a society where people take up roles other than labour in the supply chains and end users of public resources. The social movements of the 21st century have already shown us that people are ready to be active co-creators of our world. We need a society where nature is counted in our economy.  And we need an economy that does more than trace the flows of consumption and production; an economy that acknowledges well-being and dignity as its purpose and measure of success. 

If you have five more minutes, check out:

-This visual from UNDP which gives a picture of the state of the planet today

-This summary of the Sustainable Development Goals, an agenda agreed by 193 countries, to achieve a sustainable world by 2030. 

-and donate to the Runners’ Forest!
The Runners’ Forest is an ongoing public engagement project, co-ordinated by Hellenic Athletics Federation, the National Bank of Greece and local authorities. Funds raised through the crowdfunding campaign will be used to buy seeds which volunteers are planting to restore the plants and trees destroyed by the wildfires in Mati (between 12th and 16th km of the Marathon route). You can donate here until 28 February 2019

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below or reach out to me on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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