In November, Vasilios Stayeas ran the Athens Classic Marathon. The storied race, which links Marathon with the Olympic Stadium in the capital city, commemorates Pheidippides, who, legend has it, ran 26.2 miles to deliver the good news that his fellow Greeks had vanquished the Persians at the Battle of Marathon.
Finishing the course, which featured some of the steepest hills in the sport, meant Stayeas had completed his 107th race in activity that’s spanned more than 30 years.
“I’ve run in Marathons in all of 50 states, plus DC,” he said with that reassuring, familiar smile in his voice that floods every corner of the room. The dozens of 10ks and half-marathons he’s participated in cities like Sydney, Australia, round out an impressive resume.
Not too shabby for a guy who’s faced his share of medical challenges, but who preaches setbacks are merely comebacks in disguise.
Over the years, Stayeas had an aortic heart valve replaced. That was prompted by atrial fibrillation, a common condition that occurs when the heart’s upper chamber beats irregularly. Earlier on, he suffered from painful varicose veins, brought on by the 12 hours he would typically spend standing on the job. And it was the varicose veins, he recalled, that prompted him to start walking at 42, gradually building up his distance, his speed, and his confidence. Today, at 73, he’s slowed his pace to a fast walk, he said.
One Saturday morning at his business, Seven Locks Barber Shop in Potomac, MD the Germantown resident talked about running and how it’s informed his life and helped to shape his character. If you didn’t know you were in the midst of the bustling business he’s owned for more than 40 years, you could imagine you were a customer in a joyful, free-wheeling taverna in Athens.
Spying Stayeas’ radiant countenance was transformative, bathing the long, narrow room with warm feelings.
There he was, playing the role of maitre d’, taking phone reservations with one hand while using the other to pencil them into a well-worn appointment book.
Stayeas would greet each customer like an old friend, because, that’s what they were in so many cases. Then, with a bounce in his step and his hospitable nature on full display, he would escort them back to one of the eight barbers. The only thing missing from the scene was a bouzouki and dancers tapping out the rhythm of the hasapiko, a traditional Greek dance. Much life Stayeas himself, the daily drumbeat unfolded into an elevated sensory awakening for all to immerse themselves in.
“Sure, 12:30 is good,” he chirped, his voice dripping with merriment. “But you know, you can come in now if you want.”
“I’ve got a 1:15 or 3 o’clock,” he informs another caller. “See you soon!”
Awaiting his next patron, Spiro Tsianakas sat in a barber chair, watching TV on his cell phone. “He has a good heart,” said the Kentlands resident, who is Stayeas’ great nephew. “Having a good heart goes a long way. That’s pretty much all you need.”
Pivoting, Stayeas said in Greece, he met people from Turkey, from South Korean, from Ukraine. “You make a lot of friends by running all over the world. I met a guy who has run barefoot in 200 races.”
I asked Stayeas if he’s a big spender when it comes to finding the right running shoe. Surprisingly, he explained, he’s never sensed an urgency to drop more than $80 on a pair of New Balance or Brooks shoes. “As long as they’re comfortable. I’ve seen people run races with nothing but sandals.”
Returning to his native land, Stayeas rhapsodized, was a deep, sentimental experience. He knew much of the route was uphill, which didn’t bother him. The day over the Greek capital dawned sunny, the mountain temperature reached into the 60s, he said, adding “I found my roots.”
Along with the photos of his wife, two children, and five grandchildren taped to the mirror at his station, it’s hard to miss the seemingly endless line of bobble head figures of pro athletes brimming from the overhead shelves. All of them were gifts from his customers. Dominating the vast collection are bobble heads of players on the World Series champion Washington Nationals.
“They’ve been doing it for six years,” said Stayeas, as he fields yet another call from another customer who wants a haircut. “They know I collect them so they bring them in.”
After Stayeas showed longtime customer Ernie Oser to a chair and draping a black apron around him, Oser paused to offer his thoughts about Vasili.
“He’ a great barber, but a better friend,” emphasized Oser, 77, who practices internal medicine. “He shows consistency, patience, and he’s easy to talk to.”
Then it was Dee Herman’s turn for a haircut and some precious, fleeting face time with his pal.
“Bill’s the best,” intoned the lawyer. “You won’t find a nicer human on earth.” Then, pointing upward to the bobble head collection, he added: “If I bring him a bobble head, I’ve got to get here first thing, because people have already brought him three.”
With the winter sun at its zenith, Stayeas kept jotting down reservations, while greeting more guests, more friends.
His advice for those toying with the idea of getting off the sofa and exercising is simple: “Walk a little bit at a time. Build up. Push a little more, go a little faster.” He still rises at 4:30 AM to get in his four-mile walk.
“It’s always packed,” said Andrew Norris, a letter carrier, as he surveyed the scene. “Once they come in, they don’t leave.”
Yet one more testimonial directed at Stayeas, the happy warrior, who grew up on a farm in the hardscrabble, mountainous Central Greece that had goats, and donkeys and wheat to harvest – but no electricity. The kid who sold yogurt at 14 and played soccer using a ball made out of old rags tied together.
“Everybody OK?” he asked, leaning over to make sure the three little boys who came in for cuts were happy.
Then Stayeas offered each of them a souvenir confection.
“Who wants a lollipop?” came the rhetorical question, as he tugged on the handle of a low drawer, uncovering a vast and colorful stash.
Seconds passed before Stayeas unleashed the same helping of adrenaline that fuels his passion for running. Welcoming another youngster into the festive and unscripted environment, the boss, in appealingly theatrical style, issued an order for the entire world to hear. “Give that young man the best haircut!”