By: Jim Bamboulis
Along the 42.2 kilometre route, there are several small villages where only a few hundred people live. Not many young people, more grandmothers and grandfathers who’ve raised families and endured through both good and horrible times. People who’ve owned their small piece of property, have tended to it and lived off it for decades.
Each November, dozens of grandmas and grandpas living in those small hamlets along the historic running route between Marathon, Greece and Athens gather to clap. To show their respect for what you’re doing. You see, to them, you’re doing everything to keep history alive. They’re clapping because they know what you’re putting your mind through, your body through. They gather to clap and celebrate the unity of humanity, the unifying human heart beat, your perseverance, challenged, mounting motivation, your pain. They gather to clap your being, your presence, your essence, your character. They gather to clap, you and the 50,000 of your newest running mates who have gathered in Marathon to run the original route, the original marathon, The Authentic. On the surface, spirits are high as runners understand the significance, the celebration involved in running and replicating this historically significant event – the 42 kilometre run made by Pheidippides in 490BC to announce to the Athenians that the Greeks had defeated the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. Beneath the surface, they’ve come for any number of personal reasons. For me, running Athens was very much personal.
And, for the first time, after long, deep doubts as to whether I should even write something like this, I decided to do it. Hopefully, it inspires even one person.
Humble beginnings…VERY humble
If you go by the statistics, kids who grow up in poorer neighbourhoods, often times filled with drugs and gangs, are more likely to suffer from mental and physical health problems. Some even have vulnerabilities when it comes to language and cognitive development. Looking back, I’m sure I was expected to be just another kid who proved the stats right.
From an early age, the deck was stacked against me. When I was two, my Dad left the family. It was just Mom and I from that point on and for the next 28 years, we lived on the 19th floor of a depressing, soul-sucking, office-grey government-funded high-rise in the West Hill area of Scarborough in Toronto’s east end. It was full of people living well below the poverty line, the kind of neighbourhood where seeing someone urinate next to you in the elevator was the norm, hearing women get physically abused in the apartment next to you on a nightly basis was typical and where gang symbols on hallway walls always reminded you who ruled the land. In my teens, I found out that politicians described it as one of the ’13 disadvantaged areas of Toronto’. Made sense, I guess.
I’m not a special case, not looking for pity and I’m not playing the victim card. My goal is to inspire, to give hope to others who feel stuck in a dark place but feel strongly that they have the power deep inside them to change their environment, themselves.
My neighbourhood was on the news a lot. In fact, I often joked with friends about how I knew cops’ first names by the time I was eight – and not by accident. But I knew it wasn’t a joke. Sometimes, entire floors would be taped off because of a stabbing or murder and occasionally the entire perimeter of the building would be taped off because of a jumper. I remember my buddy’s Mom wouldn’t dare enter my apartment building without a baseball bat and the Pizza Hut down the street always offered me a 10% discount if I just picked up the pizza. “Too many of my guys have gotten stabbed, come pick it up”, they’d tell me.
Sure, I may have grown up Greek, but my family wasn’t big, fat and didn’t own a diner. Mom had it especially tough. It’s hard enough to raise a child but to do it alone, protect it from strangers and make sure it gets a proper education was, well, let’s say the deck was stacked against her too. Doing it in that particular neighbourhood brought other, expected and difficult challenges. Jobs were tough to come by but we managed, immigrant resources like resume help and English-as-a-second-language courses were still a long way away but we managed and dealing with racist bigots who told us to go back to where we came from – because we were speaking Greek in Toronto – was a daily occurrence. But we managed.
As time went on, I realized that I was exposed to more things, had grown up faster than most kids my age. My experiences also made me realize early on that I had two very clear paths ahead of me. I was either going to replicate, and in turn become the product of my environment, another expected statistic. Or, I was going to work at creating my own environment, filled with hope, success and happiness, an unexpected and a more positive statistic.
I chose the harder option.
There was one defining moment that made my path clear. It was a sunny day. I walked out of the building and found a body lying next to a Forensic Identification Services truck. Next to it was a playground. Kids were on the swings, making sand castles. They knew a body lay there but seemed to be completely unaffected by it, desensitized. They kept playing, even laughing. As if they were on a beach somewhere. I stood there, studied the scene and realized that this was not going to be my future.
So I set my sights on studying hard in school and playing sports. I had so much bottled up energy that I tried out for every team. I was always much better at pick-up basketball and baseball than I was on formal school teams. Hockey wasn’t an option for me as equipment was far too expensive. I was always running around playing sports but it wasn’t until the sixth grade that long distance running started to become my unofficial official passion.
Every morning, our teacher, Mr. Glendenning, would get all my classmates together at 8:30am. We’d meet at the track and he’d make us run for 30 minutes before school started. Somehow my 11-year-old legs averaged about six laps around the track each day.
I was never a morning kid – who is at age 11?? – but I rarely had a problem heading to the track that early to run. I don’t know what I did to show my enthusiasm for running but Mr. G saw something in me. It definitely wasn’t the ability to sprint – to this day, I’m a very slow sprinter – but he must have seen a drive to run. He suggested I try out for the long distance running team. Back in those days, an 11 year didn’t choose stuff. You just did what you were told (like play the flute instead of the clarinet…because…well, I guess to my teachers, I was a flute person). So I tried out and made it. Little did I know that this event would jump-start my formal love of long-distance running, a turning point into a world that would help keep my body fit and would help give me the mental therapy I would desperately need down the road.
As an only child with a single parent with very little money, running was an easy option to keep a kid like me occupied. Sure, my mom must have always been worried sick about where I was running to but other than running shoes, which I had, it didn’t cost anything to run. As an only child, I was always used to being alone and didn’t think of alternatives. Running was a solo adventure and over time, it became a way to take a break, even escape from the stresses of my internal and external environment. Running became my passion and distraction from the lurking external and internal demons that seemed to be creeping closer to me.
I’ve always been able to feel other people’s’ emotions and energies. And because I was constantly surrounded by hopelessness, I started to realize that I could feel people’s sense of desperation.
I didn’t know it but looking back, I started to feel the onset of depression and anxiety starting in my late teens. I knew hope was a beautiful thing but sometimes I felt that hope was a dangerous thing; hope was sometimes hopeless. At one point, it became easy to think and feel that way. The vicious cycle of destructive thoughts soon took root. I don’t know whether it was because of my environment, family situation or a combination of things but I began to realize that I had a mental issue.
I didn’t drink or do drugs to escape my reality. I guess one benefit of growing up in the environment I grew up in was that I often saw first-hand what drugs and excessive alcohol did to people, slowly destroying them over time. Working part-time at a pharmacy also solidified my belief that drugs and alcohol weren’t for me. I realized that running was an alternative, maybe my only way of combatting the demons.
So I kept at it. Every day after work, I’d run 20 laps around the track. In a way, I was programming my mind. Running wasn’t curing my depression but it brought a level of happiness, more than a runners’ high. So I ran as much as I could, as often as possible. I knew that running was keeping me on the right track.
My Mom and I have long since moved out of that area but to this day, whenever I happen to visit, a rush of anger and bitterness rises within me. They’re automatic sensations, I don’t mean to feel that way. It’s almost like I can feel a horrible energy emanating from that building. I don’t feel like that in any other area. Tough to shake off the intangible, I guess.
Got a degree, started a career. But at 28, anxiety, depression and the overwhelming drive to tirelessly work more, do more, provide more for myself and for my Mom took a toll. I took a break from work and everything else for a while, took time for myself. I had saved up a bit of money over the years and decided to spend it on something I didn’t have the courage to spend it on in the past. A trip. But not just any trip.
I decided to confront something, someone I had in mind for many years. I decided to meet my Dad for the first time. Just me and him. My Mom and I lived in Canada, dad moved back to Greece when I was two. At 28, I felt that it was time to ask questions and hopefully get answers as to why he left, why he didn’t come back.
I headed to Athens and bought a bus ticket. My dad lived in Larissa about a five hour ride north of the capital. I had managed to get his contact information from the Greek consulate in Toronto before I left so I had an address and a phone number. Usually when people are going through Greece, they can’t get enough of the sights, hoping to take pictures of everything they see. I was in a different head space altogether. The sights didn’t interest me in the least. My mind was obsessed, running through hundreds of scenarios of how meeting my dad, for the first time in my life, would go down. Would he be happy to see me? Upset? Would he even want to meet? Was he even alive? At this point, everything and anything was going through my mind but there was no doubt about it, something was going to happen really soon.
I managed to make a video of my journey. Watch it to see how this became one of the most heart-wrenching experiences I’ve ever had. I faced it alone and got through it alone. I haven’t seen him since.
Two big takeaways from all that was, for one, a destination and what happens when you get there can sometimes be disappointing, not what you thought it was going to be. So the importance of enjoying the journey is integral. The other was the fact that I came back to Toronto feeling as if I could conquer anything. After all, I had just done something that in the past seemed impossible. I came back with a chip on my shoulder, a point to prove, someone to prove wrong. I came back with the feeling of setting higher goals. You see, I’ve always felt like the underdog and I always cheer for the underdog. I relate most with the underdog. I didn’t want to be the underdog anymore.
Running the marathon was a symbol of accomplishing a dream, envisioning a goal, working at it and doing it. Actually doing it! It was a symbol of survival, perseverance, raw resilience and fighting angrily into the light.
I went back to the one thing I knew could help. Running. This time, I set a goal that I previously thought was impossible for me. I set my sights on a full marathon. I figured running helped me get though some of the roughest times, helped alleviate pain, darkness. With focus, determination and a touch of outrageous ignorance, I’d prove that I can do more, be more, worth more than the world sometimes determines me to be. I’d show the world and more importantly, I’d prove it to myself!
So I trained for months. Daily. Signed up for the Toronto full and at 30, completed my first marathon in a very unimpressive 5 1/2 hours. I remembered reading about when Oprah ran the Marine Corps Marathon in DC in 4 1/2. Did she take a cab or something? Good for Oprah, not so good for Jimbo. But I didn’t care. I got a medal and hobbled home proudly.
During most of my 30s, my depression continued, got worse. Friends and family increasingly worried about my well-being. Both suggested I find help for many years. I didn’t listen. I wouldn’t seek help, didn’t want it. I felt that I could overcome this alone.
By my mid-30s, my mild depression would take a turn for the worse. The economy tanked and like many others, I was out of work for a long time. My savings dried up and I fell head first into a deep, dark, solitary hell hole. My feelings of unworthiness were strong. I didn’t feel as if I was being a responsible man, angry at myself for not being able to support myself more, to not be a burden. I thought of myself as a failure. For more than three years, I struggled to find value in anything, including the love of my family and friends.
Love led the way, eventually
Things eventually turned around but depression has a way of downplaying great things, including a new job, even a simple smile. My mind was stuck. This time, I took it out on the drink for a while. When I came back up, I followed the advice of those closest to me. I took a huge gulp, swallowed my pride and ego and sought help for my years of built-up depression. Another journey I now value taking. For those I know, and knew, thank you.
Looking back, my biggest regret during my 30s was not seeking help sooner. Too proud, too afraid. I knew I had to change, get out of my vicious cycle of destructive thoughts but I wasn’t ready to face whatever it was I had to face and ultimately conquer whatever it was I had to fight through. It cost me incredible relationships but over time, I became determined and vowed not to live with that type of regret ever again.
So I sought therapy, which immensely helped me get out of the hole. Over time, I saw the value in facing my fears and loving who I am. It also helped me believe once again that running is my vehicle, my way of moving towards the light of hope and promise again. For the next year, I made a commitment to work on me. To rebuild myself mentally, physically and emotionally. Running was to play a central role. Before long, I set another goal, a big one and I was determined to move towards it.
To think of where I came from, battles I fought and where I was now standing brought both tears of pain and happiness.
I wanted to celebrate my 40th, a new decade of renewed living, by running a long time dream of mine. Athens. The Authentic. The First Marathon. As a history major in university, running Athens was a chance to actually live history. As a guy with strong Greek roots, I felt it was my duty to run this race. As a runner, Athens was a monumental, symbolic rite of passage. So I signed up, trained.
I’ve come to realize that running isn’t for everyone. There’s a special kind of conscience yet ignorant bliss that comes with choosing to put yourself through a 26.2 mile long road, filled with physical stress and pain, mental walls and emotional extremes. And yet, here I was, with 50,000 other blissed out people from all corners of the world. To take part in a 2,500-year-old tradition. To run an ancient route and finish in Athens’ Olympic Stadium. I was actually here, living and breathing my dream. But it was more.
Standing here with all the others and setting off from our marks, was a symbol of a new era, a new Jim Bamboulis. It wasn’t about running to escape anymore. Now, it was to experience the euphoria, the feeling of being, the feeling of overcoming adversity, realizing where I came from, what I went through. This wasn’t just about living anymore, it was about thriving!
I ran the marathon with tears in my eyes. Both because it was an emotional experience and well, because it’s a mostly uphill marathon and I was in a lot of pain. I didn’t pay attention to my time but I think I finished it in just over five hours. Oprah would have beat me, again.
Grateful for the lessons, blessings
After a while, pain starts to subside. Adrenaline and reflection take over. I remembered the long days of training, the work it took to get here and most importantly, my Mom who endured so much. I imagined her as one of the short, frail and adorable Greek grandmothers standing along the route proudly clapping for me as I ran by. Celebrating her son, who he is and how he’s enjoying the journey he’s on.
Perhaps metaphorically, I always found comfort in long distance running. Maybe it’s because the road and journey ahead can sometimes be long and filled with all sorts of obstacles and emotions. I found the strength to put on my runners and face whatever long challenges lay ahead of me on the track but I somehow didn’t have that same strength to find help to cure my inner demons. Perhaps for me, running eventually gave me the understanding to find the motivation, courage and determination to lace them up and start on that road to facing and overcoming challenges and dealing with them properly, patiently and with self compassion.
Having my back against the wall and being pre-determined to fail by the so-called powers-that-be and many times from within myself wasn’t easy. Overcoming childhood obstacles, finding the courage and determination to fight through and seek help for depression wasn’t easy. Journeying to meet my dad for the first time and battling through a harder, thicker wall of depression was at times impossible. Hitting rock bottom in every aspect of my life was devastating. Swallowing my pride and finally asking for help was the absolute hardest. But in hindsight, it was a blessing. To those I know, and knew, I thank you again.
Over the years, I’ve come to learn that the journey is everything. The destination is not guaranteed – much less guaranteed to be what you expected – no matter if it’s a vacation or life itself. Enjoy the steps along the way and believe that everything, anything is possible. With support and love, I could overcome obstacles, move mountains, big and small. Battle through them and come out bright and beautiful on the other side. And be proud of the journey.
Sure, I’m still a statistic. I’ll let the politicians and sociologists figure out what type I am.
Hey y’all. I’m Jim. That kid went on to spend 16 years in the broadcast media before starting Travel Mammal, a media company dedicated to working with brands to promote travel, food and cultural experiences.
I’m a photographer, videographer and writer who believes experiencing the journey is as important as enjoying the destination. Happy travels, y’all.