THE MOST ACCOMPLISHED RUNNER OF CRETE, GREECE
Emanouil Nektarios Sifakis
It was March 18th, 2012 when I first met this tall, calm and humble man. I was on my wa to the first row of the starting line of the Limassol Marathon in Cyprus with thousands of runners in attendance and mysteriously I got attracted by charisma as he was sitting there peacefully in a tent smoothly massaging and rubbing his thighs while everybody else was nervously jumping around. He had a long beard and was talking very kindly and gently after politely having made his acquaintance. At that time I didn't know
that in that very year his father had died which was one of the reasons for the long beard which is a Greek tradition in case of a family member's demise.
Then I urged to the front row to secure my pole position for the race. A few weeks later
I saw a video of the start of the race realizing that he had missed it and just picked up his pace a few seconds after showing how lost he was in his thoughts. He was 38 at the time, but it was to be his best year in Marathoning of his entire running career which he had only started in his early 30s. As far as I'm concerned I was in a perfect shape and ran one of my best Marathons ever, but the temperatures were too high to run a personal record. He, however, managed to set one in that very race. While Jebel Kassahun from Eritrea took the lead and later won the race for the 2nd time he got closely followed by me, Michael Keenan and Manos who quickly closed the gap after the start and settled to a strong pace of 3:47 min/k for the first Half. After 30k I lost my contact of Manos who himself had lost contact to Michael who finished 2nd. Manos came in 3rd in a PR of 2:44:23 closely followed by me in 2:46:43.
After that I never saw him again for years, but I kept searching for him online cos I was so touched by this encounter that I kept up my quest for over 4 years until someway, somehow we got hold of each other via the internet. In the meanwhile I had found out he could once again improve his PR that same year to a 2:38:14 at the Athens Marathon 2012 which is certainly one of the toughest known 42k races worldwide.
So I made up my mind to also join him for the Athens Marathon 2016 after having searched for him for so long. The reunion at the Athens Marathon Expo was very special and it was a true honor to race with again on the road of the authentic Marathon, the mother of all long distance races.
He described to me the course in detail which was of great advantage for me.
Right upon the start of the race he disappeared right away and I never saw him up to the 36th kilometer where I was surprised to not only catch him, but also to leave him behind as you can see in the Athens Marathon video below at the 4:40 minute mark.
Being faster than him was special, but it didn't mean thaat much cos he had finished this race multiple times in the low 2:40s including his 2:38 PR, so that my 2:53:15 weren't that special except for myself as I finished as the fastest German and he crossed the Kalimarmaro stadium finish line in 3:04.
He was quite depressed after that race, nevertheless he returned stronger than ever before as he won the Greek National title in his age group many times again and returned with a 2:42 the following year.
After that race we stayed in touch and he invited me to his village Agia Varvara so I can
explore and enjoy his sweet home. In the meantime he managed to win tenths of other small races all around Greece including winning the Crete Marathon 3 times in 2016, 2017 and 2019. In 2018 he just missed the win by 36 seconds behind the great Paul Marteletti from New Zealand, a 2:16:49 Marathoner who is 6 years younger than Manos.
He also manged to build the first apartment in Agia Varvara and to open it in 2019 which is the place where he invited me to stay at. So I decided to make my honeymoon with my wife right there in his hometown in October 2019, just in time for the Crete Half Marathon in Arkalohori. So after knowing him for over 7 years I finally got to visit him so we can run together for the 3rd time.
As soon as we arrived with our son we were truly impressed not only by the beauty of the isle of Crete and the hospitality, but also by his apartment, his factory his home , but above all his humbleness after having achieved so much in life and after clearly being by far the most accomplished and successful long distance runner in Crete even though he is not the fastest one, according to his age group and by using a age graded calculator plus the fact that he only started running in his early 30s he is on a whole other level in comparison to his fellow Cretan runners.
When I take a closer look at the performance of former elite runners and even Olympic Champions for example as in Stefano Baldini's case, they were no longer able to run a Marathon sub 2:45 at Manos' age which once again ephasizes his greatness and longevity.
I stayed with him and his family for a week and learned to understand the Cretan life, the Cretan quisine and his style of training which I don't want to reveal in detail, but one thing I can say he is running at an enormous pace multiple times a week from which a normal human being cannot recover properly, so in other words he is theoretically having even more potential to improve if he just didn't love speeding up that often.
So in that racing week he did the same thing by doing two tough training session prior to the Half Marathon which was almost certain to cost himprecious minutes in the race.
Me in turn, I only did my 3x 1.5 k routine sub Half Marathon pace 4 days prior to the race,
which gave me a true advantage over him.
We had a wonderful time together ending our days at his place, dining and drinking "beer recovery", as he called it himself. His wife is a wonderful cook, but I'm more than
certain all Cretan wives magical cooks. He didn't seem to take this race very serious in particular as his full focus was as always on the Greek Marathon Championships a month later. On Sunday we toed the line together and he disappeared as he always does in the front pack. Unfortunately my assumptions came true as I could suddenly see Manos from a distance at some point after 11k. I kept approaching him quitly while the scorching sun was shining hard upon all of us on those dried fields around us which were decorated by thousands of olive trees. Seeing Manos however, gave me real confidence that I was right on a great pace regarding the fact that it is one of the toughest official Half Marathons out there with an elevation gain of 251 meters plus the heat. I sneaked up on him at around 13k and he was surprised seeing in his tail. We were in fact a pack of 3 guys including a young, strong upcoming Greek long distance runner Marinos who was also preparing for Athens. He kept running together for the next 6 kilometers after which me and Marinos managed to leave Manos behind, but only by a couple of meters. At 20k I somehow manged to get rid of Marinos I sprinted all the way up and down, passing the hypnotizing muses right ahead of the open theater in Arkalohori where every year the runners reach a glorious finishing area filled with people, music and ancient Cretan quisine.
Even though I felt super strong eying a 1:21 finish Manos was not far behind givig me an extra boost as he also passed young Marinos to save his honor.
So as expected I could bring home an advantage of maybe 16 seconds both of us clocking a 1:21 finishing 12th and 13th overall respectively.
It is truly a sweet story being right next to each other in the rankings just the same way as in Limassol 2012 when we met and succeeded 3rd and 4th overall.
This was one of the very rare occasions where Manos did not win his category, but still made the podium in spite of having trained like a mad man, which in turn for him, was nothing special. My advantage over him wasn't worth much in the end except the nice memory that we fought together for the pleasure of running. In addition my feet were boosted by a Vaporfly Next% which he only acquired himself later that year, right upon my advice, which in turn helped him pump his results once again at age 46. Nevertheless, his best time over that course was 1:18, without a Vaporfly, just to make clear how strong he actually is.
All in all it's hard to describe his greatness cos he has so many incredible records as you could also see by his medal and trophy collection from his living and dining room from the photos above.
From around 500 races he could win at least 300.
Of his 30 Marathons or so, he managed to win 3.
5k PR 16:32 -- 10k PR 33:55 -- Half Marathon PR 1:16 -- Marathon PR 2:38:14 h