Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Iliad

I had heard of the Spartathlon well before most people. A magazine had a feature about the race from 1983, detailing the run of the athlete who ended up in fourth place. It must have been the first time I had become aware of the fact that there were races longer than even a marathon. I never once imagined I would ever be on the startline of any such race but the fact that I still remember the article 30 years later shows that it must have left a deep impression on me.

We were following in the footsteps of Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger who had been sent to Sparta to ask for help fighting the Persian invasion in 490 BC (and he did NOT drop down dead at the end). The race route was a reconstruction of his original route and even the fact that there was a 36 hours cut-off was down to the historical connection as Pheidippides had left Athens in the morning of one day and arrived in Sparta the evening of the next, which was interpreted as no more than 36 hours,

Thomas B, Thomas K, Don, Anto, Brian. Photo by Sparta Photography Club.
As you might now, my preparation had been severely hampered. Just as I was about to increase the intensity of training I injured a muscle in my hip that meant I missed all of July and half of August. I did a fair amount of cycling but as soon as I was able to start running again I realised just how much fitness I had lost and the 4 or 5 weeks or training I had left were never sufficient to make up for the lost time. Still, 5 or 6 weeks ago I was convinced the race would start without me but the next few weeks went very well, so making it to Athens with a reasonably trained body was actually a minor miracle in itself.

With Stelios. Photo by Niamh Swan.
There were plenty of Irish and Austrian team mates (I'm never quite sure what I can count as "my" team so I just include both - it's even better this way) and I knew a fair few of the British contingent as well, plus my friend from Taiwan, and I really hoped the best for every single one of them. We arrived at the foot of the Akropolis about half an hour before the start and upon seeing the fuss that was made about the runners commented to Brian and Don they should enjoy the celebrity lifestyle for the next 20 minutes. 10 seconds later a local man approached me, introduced himself as Stelios and told me that he had been following my running career for years and knew me better than any of the Greek runners. Talk about receiving an ego boost just before the start!

The start itself was rather low key (something like 3-2-1-go) and we went off without much fanfare. I hung back towards the end of the field and took it very, very easy. I had a few words with Anto but soon found my own rhythm. The first mile took 9:30 despite being rather steep downhill - excellent! One full mile into the race and I still had not done anything stupid!

The first few miles lead us straight through the centre of Athens. The police had stopped the morning commute traffic for us and if the drivers minded then we did not notice it. Some people waiting at bus stops shouted "bravo, bravo" for encouragement while others had that typical commuter-zombie stare into nothing.

Photo by Niamh Swan.
The elevation profile for the first 50 miles looks reasonably flat but that is entirely misleading. There is an early hill, still inside the Athenian suburbs, that is higher than the Hell of the West, though with fresh legs nobody was having any troubles yet. After the residential areas came more industrial ones and then the major dual carriageway leading us out of the Greek capital. So far the scenery had not been much to look at but after 10 miles it gradually changed into a much more idyllic landscape, we got off the motorway onto the old coast road and things improved significantly. Local school children were waiting along the road, excitedly holding out their hands for a high-5 and shouting encouragement. I had heard that this race means a lot to the Greeks - it sure showed!

Of course the sun rose behind us and after a couple of hours the rise in temperature became very much noticeable. The forecast had been for 28 degrees, and while this wasn't too bad for this latitude it sure seemed rather hot to someone used to half that during the lousy Irish summer we've just had. What was a problem for everyone was the unusually high humidity of 80%. It had been raining a couple of days before and now we got to feel the aftermath.

When running a race I never make pace charts. I always run by effort and with so many years of running in the legs know my body pretty well. I kept things very easy. Looking at the chart I can see that I never ran faster than 9 minutes for a while except for one single downhill mile that felt even easier. I don't know where I was in the field but I'm sure it was well inside the lower half. I had done the same in the World Championships in Turin before gradually working my way forward, and the field today consisted to a very large degree of the very same runners, with the overall quality being very much comparable.

Somewhere around the half-marathon point I caught up with an old friend, Ken Zemach from California, who 5 years ago had used a holiday in Ireland to run the inaugural Dingle Ultra (as you do) and we ended up running most of the first 30 miles either together or in close proximity to each other before he pulled away to finish strongly. It was really cool to run into him again in this race and we chatted for a little bit before I went ahead again on the next climb (just like the old times!). I was reasonably sure I would see him again soon enough.
Photo by Niamh Swan.

Just before the marathon point Niamh was at CP10, her bus taking a little break. I was feeling pretty good but the heat was starting to get to me. Cyril, Anto's dad, was here as well before they had to jump into the bus as it was leaving. CP11 in Megara marked the first marathon in 4:09, pretty much what I had expected, maybe a couple of minutes fast. It was at that point that I noticed that my shoe choice might not have been 100% ideal. My Skechers GoRun shoes are very light with very little cushioning, the way I prefer it, but as I found out here on dirt roads they let grit come into the shoe itself. I had only every used them on roads where that is not a problem. As I did not have a second pair (I never change my shoes in a race), I just had to get on with it. A mile or two outside Megara there was an empty portaloo and I went inside. I wasn't desperate for a pee but I sat down and got rid of the unwanted little stones inside my shoes - a blister was the last thing I needed at this point with 200k yet to come! Since I was in here anyway I did use the loo and noticed that my urine was rather dark (and if you think that is TMI then you don't know the first thing about ultra running - monitoring the colour of your urine is just about the most crucial thing you do outside running and nutrition). Most runners ran with either a backpack or a water bottle. I did not. I hate running with extra weight and every ounce counts, so I ran without. The CPs were on average 2 miles apart and I figured I could easily make do with what the race provides at these points. In the heat of Friday, however, I was obviously getting dehydrated and I resolved to drink more from here on.

Eddie Gallen. Photo by Niamh Swan.
The course was getting very hilly but I really enjoyed this jog along the beautiful Mediterranean countryside. I did, however, look left a few times across the Aegean sea and had to think of those poor people who were paying with their life savings and far too often their lives to cross that very stretch of water. Was what we were doing here entirely self-indulgent? Was the pain we were about to go through voluntarily a sign of being pampered by too many trappings of civilisation? Well, there are worse things than trying the lead a fit and healthy lifestyle (ok, healthy apart from when we're running an ultra, probably) and there is nothing shameful about trying find your own limits. And anyway, just by running here in this country we were supporting people that needed and deserved support in rather troubled economic times. I put my mind back to the race.

I had an ingenious idea to deal with the heat by putting ice cubes into the bandana I was wearing. They usually lasted until the next CP where I would replace them with new ones, at least on those CPs that had ice. Apart from that trick, I could feel that the heat training I had done in the previous 3 weeks was working - Ireland might have been cold but running with 4 layers had simulated hot and humid conditions very well and I could see that I was coping with the heat better than many others around me.

On a downhill a lady running just a few metres ahead of me stumbled and fell over. Three of us helped her up and she was fine, just said "that was rather silly of me" in a very English accent. It wasn't until the CP just around the corner that I saw her name on her bib - this was Mimi Anderson, the record holder for the run from Malin Head to Mizen Head. I told her I was a fan of her since that run and she thanked me but when I mentioned that I would have expected her to be far ahead of me she said how much the heat was getting to her. To be honest, she did not look good and I did not feel too optimistic about her finishing.

Just a few minutes later I passed an older runner walking/running rather slowly and his bib gave him away as Eric Clifton. Wow, imagine, meeting two legends within a few minutes of each other! He told me that he was used to the temperatures but the humidity was killing him. The fact that we were over half an hour ahead of the cut-offs clearly did not fill him with too much optimism. He made it to CP28 before sadly having to end his race.

The cut-offs. Spartathlon is often described as the toughest race on Earth. It's not the terrain, though that is indeed challenging. It's not the heat, though it is indeed hot. It's the cut-offs. There are 75 CPs along the way and every single one has a closing time and if you're late at even just one of them your race is over. To make things worse, considerably worse, the cut-offs during the first third are particularly tough, leading to many runners ruining their race by storming off far too fast and running out of energy well before the end. To be honest, I was never too worried about having to cover the first 50 miles in 9:30 even in the heat and humidity, and then having over 27 hours to cover the final 100 (ok, 103) miles seemed eminently doable. But I was well aware that the average finisher rate is about 30% and that just about everyone who has run both Badwater and the Spartathlon has said that finishing the Spartathlon is tougher.
Photo by Niamh Swan.

As we were nearing Corinth we had to run past another industrial area and the oil smell from the
refinery wasn't particularly pleasant. Here I passed Harald, an Austrian team mate. He was suffering from cramps and I gave him one of my s-caps, in case the cramps were caused by a lack of electrolytes, before saying good bye. He later confirmed that the tablet had really helped and he managed to get all the way past the mountain but his race was over at CP52 in Nestani.

I had been hoping to meet Niamh in Corinth, the first really major CP and the end of the first section. Before the CP we had the treat of crossing the Isthmus canal on the bridge and my God, what a sight! I deliberately walked the bridge without running a single step, not because I was feeling tired but because I wanted to get as much a view of this spectacular sight as possible. The prize we had to pay to get to this were about 5 miles of running on the side or inside the concrete drain of a busy dual carriageway while the traffic was zooming past us - definitely my least favourite part of the course so far. Unfortunately Niamh's bus had left Corinth early and I did not get to meet her. I knew it would be Sparta until I saw her again, still over 100 miles away.

When I asked for ice for my bandana trick the lady obviously misunderstood because she handed me a tub. When I opened it it was full of rice! My first instinct was to go back and asc for ice but then I realised that I was actually quite hungry - no wonder, it was getting close to dinner time and I had not eaten lunch, except for small bites of fruit or biscuits along the way! However, my body was not too eager to accept solids. I ate a little less than half of the meal before giving up; any more and I risked getting re-acquainted with the content of my stomach, something I'd prefer to avoid. Corinth also provided a slightly disappointing encounter, team mate Tony Gschiel confirming that he had had to pull out.

Photo by Niamh Swan.
Once you leave Corinth, the cut-offs immediately become a lot softer. I had built up a solid 70 minutes cushion by the time I left that CP and even though I slowed down a bit, especially with that food in my stomach that I found hard to digest, within 3 or 4 CPs that had expanded to 2 full hours. The terrain had changed significantly, after the constants ups and downs of the Attica peninsula the next 15 miles were completely flat. I could feel the exhaustion building up and started introducing regular walk breaks into my routine as I was making my way towards Ancient Corinth and its spectacular temple. Around the 60 mile mark, I had a very much expected encounter as Ken Zemach caught up with me. I made a joke about only 93 miles being left and eventually he pulled away. He confirmed later that I wasn't looking great but good enough to suggest that I would definitely finish, though personally I find it impossible to predict at this stage how a runner would cope. Sometimes you would pass a runner that seemed dead on his/her feet only for them to pass you again a few miles later bouncing along happily. Sometimes someone you would be overtaken by an incredibly fresh looking runner only to see them looking half-dead at a CP in the not-too far future.

Jan Uzik. Photo by Niamh Swan.
Sparta is to the south but the road had turned northwards to get us into Ancient Corinth past an impressive looking mountain, a route choice that had infuriated the legendary multiple Spartathlon champion Yannis Kouros who insisted Pheidippides had turned southwards here. A shorter Spartathlon route would have done me just fine, to be honest, but I know that great care had been taken to reproduce the roads the antique messenger would have taken 2500 years ago and whoever had agreed upon the most likely road had disagreed with Kouros.

The little village of Assos had turned the Spartathlon into a major party and the local support was
brilliant. The next CP, and the next street party, was at Zevgolateio, where I learned that Anto's race had not gone to plan as he was standing at the CP sans bib but at least the other Irish were all still in it. Shortly afterwards the long climb into the central highlands of the Peloponnese peninsula begun and from here we definitely headed southwards, and would be doing so for a very, very long time. The road rises very gradually but steadily and many, many miles of constant elevation gain were ahead of us. The landscape changed and soon we were surrounded by mountains and civilisation often seemed far away.

The rural roads were supposed to be lonely but there were plenty of cars. I had long ago realised that the vast majority of traffic were not locals but crews of runners. The rules of the Spartathlon were very clear, crews could only support their runners at a handful of major CPs along the way but that rule was clearly ignored by many. I could see runners being handed goods on the road on countless occasions. The rule makes a lot of sense. The way it is being ignored causes a lot of traffic as we were overtaken dozens of times by the ever same cars as they kept leapfrogging us a hundred times. I wished they stopped doing that. I prefer running on roads without constant car encounters.

As the sun went down and the temperature became more pleasant (it would remain over 20 degrees well into the night though) and the light begun to fade, I gradually realised that I had made a mistake when I had unthinkingly followed someone else's advice on facebook by depositing my headlamp at CP35, Ancient Nemea. This would be the halfway point of my race at 123 km. I had reckoned I would get there somewhere between 7:30 and 8 o'clock and reckoned the light would have easily been sufficient until then. It realised that not only would I get there later than anticipated, the light here in the South of Greece was fading a lot quicker than in Ireland and I would be surrounded by darkness much sooner than expected.

It was a pure stroke of luck that it was almost a Full Moon, so maybe it would not get too dark? But it was cloudy and the Moon was rarely fully visible, so that did not help. Also, the road was getting considerably more lonely. Until 100k navigation was never required, I could always follow the runners in front. From here on I would often not see anyone in front of me for long stretches and on the occasional crossroad I would have to check the markers myself. Thankfully the marking is excellent and navigation largely idiot-proof, but during the night it would be much easier to take a wrong turn. The main worry, however, were those cars. They knew the runners were around, of course, and mostly drove very carefully. It only takes a second, though, especially as the drivers themselves were bound to be exhausted in the night.

Photo by Niamh Swan.
There was one very steep mile of climbing into the little village of Chalkio. It was here that I saw that I was hiking very effectively. That runner must have been way ahead of me just a mile or two ago and but I left him in the dust striding past him with purpose while he was taking one exhausted steps after the other. CP34 was the last one with any semblance of light and for the last stretch into Nemea I just followed the light of the runner in front of me, American Bob Hearn. I ran about 5 metres behind him hoping he would not feel stalked but he never said a word. As we got into Ancient Nemea we were greeted by a dozen kids on their bikes. It must have been past their usual bedtime but once again a community had turned this into a street party and the CP was buzzing. As soon as I got in I was handed my goody bag straight away and it felt good to be able to strap on the headlamp after so many miles in the dark where I clearly felt I was doing this wrong. I also sat down for a few minutes and had some pasta to eat. I did not feel overly hungry but I figured I needed some calories. Unlike the rice earlier on I managed to eat the entire tub, though I did have to force myself to eat it. I also had a bottle of my protein/energy drink in there which I was going to bring with me and consume on the road over the next couple of miles.

It was still quite warm but Ken Zemach had warned me a few hours ago that the weather was going to turn overnight so I took out my rain jacket but left it in its pouch that I clipped on to my race number belt. I left the long sleeved shirt in the bag and gave it back to the volunteers. It would be transported to Sparta for collection on Sunday.

I was half a mile up the hill out of the village when I realised that I had left my spare batteries in the bag! They must have been hidden underneath the long sleeved shirt and I since I never saw them I never remembered to take them out. I wasn't too worried. I set the headlamp to the lowest setting that should last for days and was surprised by how bright it was, brighter than most other runners' light. I was unlikely to require the spare batteries and I certainly wasn't going back to the CP.

Click here for part two.


  1. Thank you for the photo,a minor correction i am dental technician not photographer,as for the race you were great. I saw you finish live streaming and i wrote you at once.MAGNIFICENT ACHIEVEMENT.

    My regards to Niamh.


  2. Great read Thomas. Fascinating story.

  3. Thanks for the nice long report as always Thomas. I don't know how you can remember all those little details like that; my brain would have shutdown after 20 miles along with my body! Can't wait for part 2!!

  4. Mt first thoughts are auld boots and nails, you're tough and hard and a resilient guy Thomas, great stuff, what a memory you have too... we await part 2 , all the best K

  5. I really appreciate your detailed race report, Thomas, as this is the closest I'll ever get to the Spartathlon! The traffic and the dark sound frightening, the humidity and the heat would be unbearable. Eating seems to be out of the question, and finding stones in the shoes would finish me off really fast. Huge respect on your achievement!

  6. Amazing - truly epic, & a fantastic read, well done, A

  7. I can't wait to read the Odissea, meanwhile thanks for post and best compliments for the "travel"

  8. So, it was you behind me using my headlamp, ha! For some reason I had it in my head that whoever it was behind me probably didn't speak English, plus I was struggling at that point, so I didn't strike up a conversation. But I had spare batteries, so I was not troubled at all by sharing my light.

  9. Many many congrats from here too.. I hope when you come over again to have more time to talk about running. Greetings from Athens and enjoy Christmas holidays with your family. :)