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Alena’s journey to the trail is an interesting one: from the ups and downs of a professional Heptathlete with the Greek National Team, to eating Cheetos off the street, trying Kegeln - a German variation of bowling, suffering two Achilles tears, to the abandoning all sport, then to finally to finding solace on the trail in Germany.

“I hated having to go slow and even stop as often as every 200m going uphill in freezing, humid air. I hated slipping on the muddy surface getting dirt all over my gear. I hated feeling weak in my legs like I was running for the first time ever. I hated being out of breath and with every glance at my watch, I hated the painstakingly slow pace I was seeing. Until I turned a corner and there was the sun: cutting through the greyish atmosphere, rays of golden light slicing through the trees, fog beautifully floating by as I just stood there forgetting all about how much I hated this run. I will never forget that moment”.

If you follow @nordarun you will be immediately familiar with Alena Maria Pantis’ photos: a jaw-dropping symphony of pastoral adventures deep in the forest of Frankfurt Germany @run.silent_run.deep.

Alena’s journey to the trail is an interesting one: from the ups and downs of a professional Heptathlete with the Greek National Team, to eating Cheetos off the street, trying Kegeln - a German variation of bowling, suffering two Achilles tears, to the abandoning all sport, then to finally to finding solace on the trail in Germany.

Resilience flows through Alena’s veins. Not only is Alena an incredible athlete, she has a talent for capturing the essence of norda and the trail through her photos and her written word. Don’t miss this.

Here is her norda Q&A:

norda: Please introduce yourself.

Alena: I was born in the summer of 1984 to my German mother and Greek father in Frankfurt, Germany. Frankfurt is considered the financial capital of Germany and mostly known for its huge international airport and being a melting pot of many different cultures.

In terms of culture, German and Greek mentality are not exactly an easy match with Germans being known as hard-working, sombre and disciplined, while Greeks are famous for their laissez-faire and open-hearted attitude. This combination of contradictory attributes is something that I find reflected in myself as well.

I have a very loud and lively inner life, but on the outside I am mostly very quiet. I am rather lazy and love to sleep, yet I spend a lot of my time outside pushing my limits...

Physical exercise is a fundamental part of German mentality in a child’s upbringing, so I started getting into sports at a very early age. Although things were not easy for my family financially, I am forever grateful my parents always empowered and enabled me to pursue my passions! I explored lots of different disciplines, like swimming, gymnastics, horse-back riding, Kegeln - a German variation of bowling - but like I said the track hooked me for good right from the start… At the age of 13 I started training every day and eventually grew up to pursue a career as a professional Heptathlete with the Greek National Team. At 19, as soon as I finished school, I packed my things and it was through Frankfurt’s famous airport that I left for Athens, Greece to live the dream of becoming an Olympian in the Athens 2004 Games.

Like many a dream, it didn’t turn out quite the way I had imagined…I had only known my father’s village on the lush and magnificent Ionian coast, but Athens is a concrete jungle. I only spoke a few words of Greek - the kind of stuff you talk about as a teenage kid on vacation - but the people in Athens were nothing like the ones I knew from my childhood summers… I knew nothing of handling the responsibilities of adult life and being alone. Instead of becoming an Olympian, I remember eating Cheetos from a half-empty bag I found on the street, because I ran out of money two weeks into the month.

Sounds exactly like the total failure that it was… Luckily, I can be very stubborn and admitting defeat was not an option: I wasn't going to accept that I couldn’t make it on my own and move back home. Fate made me cross paths with a woman in October of 2004 who was to become my mentor and coach on the track but also in life. Today, 18 years later, I still call her “manoula mou”, the Greek word for “my little mother”.

For the next 8 years, I got to experience life as a professional athlete: Training six to eight hours a day, 6 times a week to master the seven disciplines of the Heptathlon. Traveling Greece, Europe but also the world to compete on an international level. Spending the winter months in training camps in South Africa, meeting elite athletes like Carolina Klüft or Merlene Ottey. I really had a blast and am ever thankful for these years that forged my character.

In 2007, I tore my left Achilles tendon but with a good recovery plan and determination, I managed to come back strong in 2008 and qualified for the Beijing Olympics. The dream was finally about to come true and I was stoked getting measurements done for the custom fitted track suit they get made for you as an Olympian! A few weeks prior to departure for the Games, I tore my right Achilles tendon right off the bone. And that was it. Full stop to the dream. but more horribly to the essence of what my life had always been about since forever. After a few years of struggle, I officially retired from being an athlete in 2012 - followed by an 8 year period of complete abstinence from anything sports-related. Kind of like a bad break-up…

In 2018, I finally decided it was time to come back home to Frankfurt, where I am also living at the moment - in a way coming full circle and back to the place where everything once started. Maybe it was this energy paired with the pandemic restrictions that drove me back to the primal form of athletics in 2020: Running!



norda: Tell us more about Germany and trail running culture. Is trail running popular there?

Alena: Germany traditionally loves sports and also has a quite strong connection to nature rooted in its culture. While my generation has been focussed a lot on technology and media, losing touch with this aspect of German culture, I feel that during the past two years many have come to appreciate nature again and the serenity it brings to life. In the course of that development, trail as well as ultra running are becoming increasingly popular.

More and more runners leave the urban routes and venture onto the trails, even if it's just the ones in the local city park or suburban woods. While everyone used to smile upon the joggers hopping up and down at red traffic lights, people are now inspired by bad-ass trail runners rocking the dark woods before dawn with their headlamps. It seems to me that the runner’s reputation has changed a lot, from a boring leisure activity to something exciting and admirable; a kind of cool life-style even.

People run-commute or even move away from the cities and into the mountains to be able to be on the trails every day. They’re starting to choose simplicity over making money and abundance. It’s very interesting to see how this passion ripples through all generations and cultural segments. I genuinely admire those who have the guts to leave it all behind and just live the life.

norda: Tell us about your journey into trail running.

Alena: Essentially, it was grief over the loss of my beloved grandmother that drove me onto the trails. I just had started running again a few months earlier, but had always stayed on the roads in and around Frankfurt thus far. Grandma always loved being outside, especially climbing mountains - the steeper the better! So in an attempt to create a connection transcending life or death, I went on my first trail run on November 25th 2020. And I absolutely hated it - until I suddenly loved it! Sounds like an unreconcilable contradiction? Yes, I told you I have a lot of those anchored in my character.

I hated having to go slow and even stop as often as every 200m going uphill in freezing, humid air. I hated slipping on the muddy surface getting dirt all over my gear. I hated feeling weak in my legs like I was running for the first time ever. I hated being out of breath and with every glance at my watch, I hated the painstakingly slow pace I was seeing. Until I turned a corner and there was the sun: Cutting through the greyish atmosphere, rays of golden light slicing through the trees, fog beautifully floating by as I just stood there forgetting all about how much I hated this run. I will never forget that moment.

On the roads I am always obsessed with pace and running fast. “I have to stay below 5min/km”, “I need to run every 10k below 50mins”, “I must not drop in cadence” or whatever else performance driven compulsion you can imagine… On the trails I just get lost. It’s not about results anymore. It's just about being me and running for running’s sake!

My time on the trails, is the time that heals me. It helps me see beyond my momentary ailments on a physical as well as on a spiritual level. I talked already repeatedly about contradictions and how I find myself reflected in them. For me trail running is full of them. A true oxymoron and I feel completely at home in it. There is black mud and white snow. Hot skin, icy air. There is comfort in discomfort. Enjoyment in suffering. Serenity in hardship. Pause in motion. Sanity in insane projects. The farther I run and the heavier my legs: the lighter my heart! The louder my lungs scream: the quieter the demons in my mind! The more exhaustion weighs me down: the lighter I float through nature who strips me off my burdens!

I still hate the up-hills and the fact that they still defeat me every single time, no matter how slow I go or how solemnly I promised myself I wouldn’t stop this time until I get to the top… but I do love hating the up-hills even more!

I love the possibility to get away from it all, take an early morning and lose myself in their lonely stillness. I love the darkness of the forest before the sun rises, and listening to the day slowly awaking from the night. I love the sensation of freezing just before the first warming rays of light cut through the crispy air that streams into my lungs. I love the flowy single-trails when there is no one around to see me hopping along them like a little kid.

Trail running makes me feel like there are possibilities for me to pursue again, boundaries for me to push, limits to expand, a new self to conquer on each run. I get from it a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that cannot be replaced by anything else.

norda: Favourite places to trail run? Do you have any running rituals? Any tips for beginners?

Alena: In a way, my favourite place to trail run is the place that my mind goes each time I am on a run out there. And I hope that I haven’t run my ONE favourite trail yet… I am still in that phase where every time I hit a trail, it feels like "this is the best run on the most beautiful trail I’ve ever had”.

I usually run my local 890m mountain and its surrounding trails, which is a small yet wonderful oasis only a 30’ drive from where I live in Frankfurt City. It’s a welcome get-away that’s easily accessible to me on the weekends or sometimes even for a quick hit of nature before jumping into work.

There is this place though - a small village on Lake Lugano sitting right on the border between Italy and Switzerland, called San Mamete - that I call my "soul-mate-place”. I know there is no such thing, but the area brings such intense serenity to me that it just feels like my soul’s sanctuary. Do you know what I mean? A place where you just sit and without any effort, peace sinks into you? It’s just a perfect combination of alpine landscapes towering above the lake. Lush greens, cobble-stoned medieval villages, little chapels everywhere. Scraggly bridges across tiny streams that form natural pools of the clearest crystalline waters you can dip into when it gets too hot, harsh rocky trails leading up to grassy mountain tops and surprises waiting around every corner, like the cow that chased me up a tree last summer! Each year, I make sure to visit San Mamete at least once for a few days to recharge my batteries and it’s definitely one of my favourite places to go trail running.

As for running rituals, I am not sure that I have any in the traditional way.

When I’m running in the city, I usually listen to audio-books and psychological thrillers, which reminds me of being a kid, when my brother and I used to listen to detective stories before going to sleep on our cassette recorder. It’s a futile habit, because I usually tune out as I get into the running zone after a few minutes and end up listening to the same chapters many many times until I finally get what’s really going.

When I’m on the trails, I like to run in silence and just take in the ambience. There’s nothing better than the multitude of sounds nature produces. I reserve music for running short fast races or when I’m on the suffering end of a long distance for that extra kick your favourite tunes can give you.

In terms of weird running kinks, I have a strange compulsion that I can only ever run rounded up distances that can be divided by 5 - so 5k, 10k, 15k and so on - unless it’s an official distance like Half-Marathon or Marathon. I also break down the last 4k of every run into laps on the track in my mind, counting down until I’m finished. So at 3.2k left, I tell myself that it’s another 8 laps on the track. At 1k left another 2.5 laps and so on. It has a kind of meditative effect and carries me through the tough bits because I’ve broken them down into smaller units.

This approach helped me tremendously when I was new to running distances and it was hard to get through even 1k without stopping for breath or to give my legs a break. My mindset in general is still very performance driven, which makes it hard for me to be kind to myself and accept when I can’t do something perfectly from the get go. But for a beginner, it is so important to take out the performance aspect of running altogether. It should just be about running in itself. No matter the distance, time or pace. It should be just about the experience of running and the amazing sensations it brings to you if you are susceptible to them.

Start small with enjoying the process as the only goal. Just build a level of consistency and you will get to the longer distances naturally when you’re ready for it. I never aimed at running a Marathon, until one day I felt I could do it. And that was the first time that I actually wanted to do it, as well. If you are achievement driven, like me, get an app and collect award badges until you are so hooked with running for its own sake that you don’t need any other motivators anymore. I love to run alone, but others like to run in packs. Find out what makes you tick and follow that path, no matter if it may seem weird. It’s not!

But the two ultimate top pieces of advice I would give myself when I was a beginner are these: Go for a run ESPECIALLY on the days that you don’t feel like going for a run! - and do your darn stretching!

norda: What do you run for?

Alena: This is something that I realised about myself and running in 2021. I run for my mental health and well-being!

There are so many days that I feel terrified. Terrified of my thoughts… terrified of myself… Of the beasts living in my head… of the noise and the crowds… of the noise that roars even in the silence… Terrified that I will never get rid of grief… that I have hardened too much… that I haven’t hardened enough… that there will always be worry and never peace.

Through running in general and trail running in particular, I cleanse my mind. I get to dismantle one of those nagging terrors that make me shrink on every run for at least a little while.

I surely won’t ever get rid of my competitive mindset. I spent too many years forging it during my time as an athlete. But I now know that what I really love about crushing a goal once set, is the process of working towards it; most of all the hard moments.

When it hurts to keep going. When there seems to be too little oxygen in my lungs to keep breathing. When every minute feels like a lifetime. When my mind screams to stop the suffering. When it would be so easy to give up, because there is only myself around and no one would know I didn’t go through with today’s plan. When I rule my mind to overcome my body and conquer all the demons inside my brain in the process. When I get home soaked and spent, but elated as hell!