Friday, October 02, 2015

The Odyssey

Exhausted already
I left the Nemea CP shortly before 9 o'clock. I was now on the second half of the race and took stock. It had taken me just under 14 hours to complete the first half. I was over 2 hours ahead of the cut-offs and I had 22 hours to complete the second half. Even with the mountain, the night and the fatigue of the second day all still to come, surely, surely, SURELY I was going to finish this race. Even with my comfortable cushion the cut-offs were still messing with my head.

I didn't know it at the time but I was now in 91st place, having made my way past three quarters of the field after starting pretty much at the back. Even had I known, I would not have cared. My goal today was to finish, everything else was merely a bonus. I would have been absolutely delighted with a top-100 finish but that really was a very minor concern. Coming DFL in 35:59:59 would have done me just fine, thank you very much.

We crossed a hill towards present-day Nemea but did not enter that town itself. Instead we were led onto a dirt road that led us deep into a very dark valley, with some high mountains looming far ahead of us. What worried me most were the flashes of light I kept seeing in the sky. I knew rain had been forecast but I had heard nothing of thunderstorms. Crossing the mountain in the middle of a thunderstorm was just about the worst nightmare I could imagine - during the Hardrock 100 race this year in Colorado one runner very nearly had been killed when lightning struck very close to him high on a mountain pass. I had no wish to put myself in a similar situation. However, I reckoned since it would still require me several hours to reach the mountain the thunderstorm had plenty of time to blow itself out. I wondered if the lead runners were running right through it right now, though.

still able to run
When being transported back on Sunday we could see that this area was stunningly beautiful, absolutely breathtaking. In the middle of the night, however, this was kept a secret from us. It's a shame, really, that we had to run through those ugly industrial areas near Corinth and Athens in bright daylight while this gem was kept hidden under a veil of darkness. Actually, it wasn't quite as dark any more. The thunderstorm might have been raging further on but I was now running under a clear sky with the almost Full Moon providing plenty of illumination. In Kerry I would have turned off my headlamp under such conditions but here I was afraid I was going to miss a turn if I ran without my own light source. The course marking was still excellent with yellow (in places orange or even pink) markers on the road and a few glow-sticks every now and then showing the way. It really was pretty much idiot proof.

The miles dragged on but I was entirely on autopilot and barely noticed the time passing, just kept putting a foot in front of the other while taking the occasional walk breaks to give the tired leg muscles a rest. I remembered back to my first marathon, almost 11 years ago, when I had to stop running after 18 miles after being hit by some violent cramps and run/walked the final 8 miles into the finish, which I always described as "NOT the most fun I've ever had". Today I had been run/walking since about mile 60, not because of cramps but of exhaustion, which meant a whopping 93 miles of exhausted run/walking was in store, which is on an entirely different level altogether. However, I had never expected this to be easy!

The dirt road meant I was once more getting grit into my shoes and the feet didn't particularly like it, but stopping and shaking out the shoes here would have been pointless, I had to get off that stretch first. Thankfully things were progressing nicely and I was feeling reasonably good, quite in contrast to 2 or 3 runners I was passing, one of which told me that her race was over.

Eddie Gallen
I was just about to run into the village of Malandreni when without any sign of warning my headlamp suddenly went dark. It's a new headlamp that I had bought only 4 weeks ago, specifically for this race, after some recommendations on facebook. My previous headlamp had been a €3.99 job from Aldi that had been entirely sufficient for all of my winter training (and even the Connemara 100) but I did not fancy heading into the mountains in the middle of the night in a foreign country with such a cheap piece of equipment and purchased a supposed quality piece of equipment. However, it meant I was not used to it. My old headlamp would gradually dim once the batteries started draining and there would literally be hours of use left once you noticed the dimness. My fancy new Led Lenser was different: as soon as the battery output dropped the damn thing just shut itself off! I went through shock, confusion, anger and despair in very quick succession, desperately trying to come up with a solution. So far I could not even open the battery compartment, still being unused to the thing. After a minute on the roadside I decided to make my way into Malandreni without extra light, the moon being exceptionally bright and the markers clearly visible even without headlamp. Once in the aid station I sat down, eventually managed to work out the opening mechanism and was ecstatic that it started working again when I took out and re-inserted the batteries, only to be crushed when the light stopped again after 10 seconds. I asked around for spare batteries but had no luck. Eventually I decided to run on regardless. The mountain was still 20k away and maybe some solution would present itself along the way. As long as I was on the road the moonlight was sufficient to keep going and I flashed the light on for a second every time a car appeared, just to make sure the drivers would be aware of my presence (having it on for more than a few seconds would require opening the compartment and re-inserting the batteries to revive it, something I managed to work fairly quickly). The sky was brilliant, but I had a metaphorical dark cloud hanging over me. How would I get over that mountain?

Thomas Klimas
Going deeper and deeper into the valley we passed a succession of pretty villages, Sterna, Lyrkia and Kaparelli, all with their aid stations and street life. It was now past midnight but the race would go on for much, much longer. At each aid station I would ask if they had spare batteries but no luck. One Dutch runner had one spare AAA battery but I required 3 and had to decline. The crew for one of the British runners was a bit rude when I asked, something I could have done without (I guess they were tired, but still!). I passed a lady running rather slowly, eventually recognising her as Sharon Law. She told me she was toast and it had taken her ages to get here from the last aid station. We got into the next CP together and the first thing she told the crew was that she was done, and my assurance that we were over 2 hours ahead of the cut-off cut no ice with her. As they tried to talk her out of it and I was sorely tempted to ask if I could borrow her headlamp but thought the better of it - I moved on while they were still arguing if she should drop. Looking at the results now I can see that unfortunately she did.

Then the climbing started in earnest, but still on road for a good while. We were making our way up the steep serpentines, climbing steadily higher. After feeling very much alone during the last hour or two I don't know where all those runners (ok, walkers on this section) suddenly all came from but there was plenty of action going on. The legs hurt, even when walking and the effort showed. I passed a few runners (walkers - ok, I'll let go) and got passed myself a few times, sometimes by the same people again. We could see the bright lights of the motorway that went on the other slope and eventually, after what felt like at least an hour, the two roads almost converged, with the motorway passing on a bridge overhead and heading for a tunnel and us still climbing higher and higher. Eventually, after an age, we reached the last CP before the mountain, which was seemingly manned by a British ex-pat crew. I sat down and played my last desperate card, asking once more for spare batteries, having pretty much given up all hope. The guy, I think he was the station captain, thought he might have some and sent his daughter to look through a box. I could see her coming back empty-handed and my heart dropped but she went away again and then again once more. I ate or drank something small (I can't remember), wondering if the race was over here and now, or if I should go on regardless. Then, after maybe 10 minutes but what had felt much longer, she returned with an entire packet of spare batteries, and just the kind I needed. I could not believe my luck! I inserted the batteries and lo and behold, I had light again! I could not thank them enough, I was so grateful but I had to go, entirely unexpectedly I was back in business and now I had a job to do. I was about to head further up the road when I was directed to my left instead. My jaw dropped. Oh f*ck! That stony, barely visible mountain path that was heading straight upwards, was our route now. When they said there was no road, they had really meant it!

Brian Ankers
Just to emphasise the task at hand, this mountain pass we were ascending was higher than Carrauntoohil, Ireland's highest mountain! Pheidippides apparently had run into the God Pan here, though the thing I wonder most is how he got over this path without a headlamp in the middle of the night, something I had gotten dangerously close to emulating. As a road runner I did not feel entirely comfortable on this stony path, badly lit with our headlamps. I worried about falling off the mountain because after 100 miles I wasn't entirely steady on my legs any more and I worried about dislodging a stone that might injure a runner further down the mountain (for some reason the idea that I could be hit by a stone from above never crossed my mind). The legs hurt and all you could do was to keep going and ignore the pain. I was just thinking "I would not fancy that in the rain" and 5 seconds later I felt the first drop! Sorry about that, it was clearly my fault. At least there was no sign of any thunderstorm.

Actually, the top came sooner than I expected. I caught up with Eddie Gallen right there. He had gone past me when I had been waiting in the previous CP but my climbing legs had been in better shape apparently. However, once we started the descend on the other side he soon came flying past me and disappeared very quickly.

Would I have attempted the climb without a headlamp? I honestly don't know! When my light started failing I had pushed out that decision for as long as I could and in the end I never had to make it, close thing as it was. In any rational circumstances, would I think that climbing a steep stony path in the middle of the night would be a good idea? Of course not! But at that point, having already covered 100 miles on foot and with a single minded determination to finish this race I may well have decided to risk it. When I told the guy at the CP "you are a lifesaver!", who knows, it might even have been literal! Anyway, it shows that if you're lucky enough you can get away with being a complete and utter idiot.

Brian and his reflection
Anyway, those problems were now behind me and the light was bright and shiny. I did not run on the path down, partially because my shoes did not have much grip and I was sliding barely within control as it was and on three or fours occasion very nearly lost my balance and fell, but also because I did not want to fry my quads. I still had to cover over 50 miles and another mountain range. I eventually got to tarmac again, which marked the end of the mountain section. At Sagkas village, the first CP past the mountain, I was surprised to see Thomas Klimas in there. His 100 mile PB is over an hour faster than mine and I expected him to be way ahead of me. We had a little chat, I left slightly ahead of him but he overtook me not much later. I did not expect to see him again before Sparta.

The next major CP was Nestani and I realised that I really had not thought things through. I had left my second drop bag here so that I would be able to deposit my headlamp instead of having to carry it all the way to Sparta but it was still pitch dark here and would remain so for several hours, so ditching the headlamp was not an option. Instead I picked up a new top, namely my orange club t-shirt that I intended to wear at the finish, and a bottle of my sports drink. I also had another light meal, potatoes, but they were fried and nowhere near as edible as the boiled spuds I have personally made so popular as ultra endurance food in Ireland.

It was now raining heavily. In no time at all the roads were waterlogged and with the difficult lighting conditions I could not see the puddles properly and stepped into several of them, completely soaking my feet. It was not particularly pleasant and greatly increased the risk of bad blisters. So far my feet had held up admirably and I sure hoped that would continue. On one section I could not see a road marker for at least a mile. I was still doing my run/walk thing - can you imagine how hard it is to force yourself to run when you're not sure if you're heading into the right direction and might have to backtrack? I had just told myself "if I don't see a marker very soon I'm going to panic" when, to my intense relief, I spotted the next one.

Heading through the region of Arkadia in the pouring rain just before first dawn was weary work and the miles dragged on but they still passed. At about half past six I got another shock when my light started failing once more! That's when I finally clicked what was going on. My lamp has a mode where it automatically adapts to the external light conditions, and since it was pitch dark the lamp beamed as brightly as possible, thereby eating into the batteries much faster than anticipated. I think it's a design fault because there is no indicator on the lamp itself to show what mode it is in, you have to tell from the behaviour of the lamp itself, and since it was brand new I was not used to it. I never ran long enough in training to drain the batteries and was not aware of the setting. It goes to show the dangers of using very new equipment for such a race, it can catch you out in completely unexpected ways. Thankfully dawn was about to break and I managed a couple of miles even without lamp just fine and then it got bright enough anyway. Jesus, I really had gotten away with that one but I had cut it mightily fine!

The final mountain
I kept calculating in my head what pace I required to make the final cut-off, 15, 16 then 17-minute miles and when I was at 20-minute miles I knew I was going to make it bar injury because even when completely and utterly exhausted I can still walk faster than that, even over the second mountain range. Somewhere around CP56, much to my surprise, I saw Thomas Klimas again, and once more I got ahead of him by leaving quickly. That was not a ploy to pass him - I always tried to minimise my time in those stations. With 75 CPs in the race, even if you average less than a minute per CP you're still wasting over an entire hour. Stay for 5 minutes and you can probably kiss your chances of making the cut-offs good bye. I had done the same in the World championships in Turin where I beat a lot of runners who were nominally faster than me but who spend less time on the road than myself.

However, Thomas quickly caught up again but this time, instead of disappearing beyond the horizon once more, he started running with me and suggested we work together. We were 60k from the finish and I readily agreed. After close to 24 hours of lonely running I welcomed company, and misery clearly loves company.

At first this was working really well. We pushed each other and definitely spent more time running than walking than we would have on our own. We were three hours ahead of the cut-off and save as far as making it to the finish was concerned but we wanted to get this over with and worked fairly hard. The next major CP was at Tegea, just as the next mountain section was about to start, and according to the road book there were meals available there. I was starving and really looking forward to that but when I asked for food all they had were the usual fare of biscuits, crisps and fruit but no "real food". My heart sank, I ate what I could but was mightily sick of the standard fare. I had some soup (not sure if that was here or at a nearby CP) but that contained too few calories to make a difference and I think from here on my energy levels plummeted and never recovered. What did not help was that the road started climbing again.

this is what total exhaustion looks like
The first mountain is tough but it's the second one that breaks you. With 27 miles to go we were overtaken by a strongly running Isobel Wykes who quipped "nearly there". Shocked pause. "I can't believe she just said that, with over a marathon still to go!" Another pause. "For F*ck sake!!!"

In contrast to the other mountain we stayed on a major road for this one and it wasn't pleasant. Some drivers were driving very fast and much too close to comfort to us. "I can't believe nobody ever got killed in this race" said Thomas K, and I agreed. Several parts of the way, including the one we were on just now, did not feel safe.

Every bend in the road revealed nothing but another climb and by now we had stopped pushing each other and just kept moaning and complaining to each other how tired we were and how much this was hurting. We discussed what new hobby we would take up as soon as we would reach Sparta because neither of us was inclined to run another step in our lives again, ever. Too bad neither of us likes fishing.

We could see some lightning right in front of us and the thunder reached us within a few seconds, so this was maybe a mile ahead, much too close for comfort and to make things worse we were heading right into that direction. And indeed, 10 minutes later we were making our way through the pouring rain while watching some lightning strikes right above our heads. This definitely was not safe! The general idea was to get out of here as fast as possible, the only problem being that "fast" was not something either of us was still capable of, so we just kept going, ever so slightly worried, but eventually the rain eased and the lightning stopped and we had made it through!

matching strides
But Good God we were so tired! Somewhere around CP 60 Thomas had managed to sneak a look at the name sheet and saw us in about 63rd place (not entirely sure about the exact number). This was much better than expected and rather pleasing. On this mountain now, however, we were both dead on our feet and quite a few runners had passed us. We caught a few that were in even worse condition ourselves but we were definitely going backwards in the field, not that either of us cared too much. We were far too tired to care.

CP after CP we plonked our bodies into a chair for some time. The idea to get out of CPs as quickly as possible had lost its appeal, we were only living from CP to CP, never thinking further ahead, always groaning in disapproval when the sign noted the distance to the next CP being more than 3 km. At one CP a lady asked "what do you want" and all I could come up with was "I want to go home". My God, this was pathetic!

Eventually, after a long slog of several hours, the road pointed downwards and we could count the number of remaining CPs on one hand. "To the next sign" became the new mantra , which was as far as we would run before walking again, and the process was repeated countless times and progress was almost reasonable. We had lost a little bit of time with regards to the cut offs and were generally about 2:45 ahead at most CPs. I had thought that the cut offs were fairly easy at this stage but had forgotten to take the total exhaustion into account that would hit the runners on this final section. I was glad we had such a comfortable cushion; being only one hour ahead would have completely wrecked my nerves.

At one CP a lady told us "it's all downhill from here, no more climbing", which was great news. Alas, we went along for maybe a mile, turned the next corner and "you've got to be f*cking kidding me!!!", the lady had been lying, that definitely looked and felt like another climb to me. Thankfully, this one really was the last one.

Photo by Nikos Lamprinopoulos
A good thing too, because I was having real troubles with my right calf muscle. It had gotten really painful over that last couple of hours. This was not normal fatigue, there was something else going on and I really worried about an injury taking me out of the race so late, which would have been utterly heartbreaking. I told Thomas that it was really bad and that I did not dare to run on it any more in case I would injure it. He had the option of going alone and I would not have thought any less of him but he refused to leave me on my own and agreed to walk the last 10k or so into Sparta. What a friend to have!

The rain had completely stopped by now and it actually got quite hot again. We were glad it had not been like that all day. Running in the rain is something we can both cope with easily but a second day of heat and humidity might have been too much to take, who knows.

At one point we could see Sparta for the first time. It looked absolutely beautiful, what a stunning setting, but it also looked still very, very far away. The race course still has one more minor sting by leaving the national road and taking a slightly longer route, though getting off that road was definitely a positive development. The last CPs passed by reasonably quickly but two 4.7 km sections both elicited further groans and complaints. The last marathon must have taken us about 6 hours. I never thought I'd ever move so slowly!

And then there were only a few kilometres to go and Sparta was right there! Thomas' hip started hurting and he had troubles walking while I still barely dared to run but was able to walks at a good pace so he would run slowly and I would walk fast and we still averaged the same pace. Under the bridge (unfortunately the "welcome to Sparta" banner was not on this year), over the bridge crossing the river and into Sparta itself. CP 74, the final CP was right here. (CP 75 is the finish itself)

Photo by Nikos Lamprinopoulos
"This Is Sparta!!" Did the guy make the same joke to every runner? Quite possibly, but it did elicit a smile from me, and there was not much that would have made me smile at that point! The last section is different. People are shouting at us from the balconies "bravo! bravo!", kids are cycling with us (I was actually worried they'd get hit by a car, That would have put a dampener on things). We could not see any markers but reckoned that those people cheering us on would let us know if we were headed into the wrong direction. Then a right turn, and not long after another right turn and the flags betray the proximity of the finish. A minute ago I had said to Thomas K "I don't know if I'll be able to run at the finish but I promise I will try". Turns out I did not even have to try.

Seeing the statue of Leonidas at the top of the hill is the most potent painkiller known to mankind. Pain, what pain? I have never felt better! We ran up the road, half of Sparta cheering us on, shouting more bravos. It is the best finish in the world! Nothing has ever even been close to that. I can't even begin to describe it. You'll have to see for yourself.

Niamh was there, time for a quick hug and a kiss and then on to the statue. Your race is officially finished when you touch the statue of King Leonidas and Thomas and me held hands as we touched his feet at the same time. This is Sparta indeed!

For the next 90 seconds we were at the centre of hero worship. We received a gift each from one of the local children, as well as a medal and a trophy. They put an olive wreath on our heads and we took in the acclaim of the crowd once more before the next runner appeared and it was his turn to be celebrated.

Pain? I felt no pain. There was no pain, just pure joy and euphoria, a solid 11 out of a scale from 1 to 10. As someone else has said "I don't need to tell you just how much it means to finish this race. When you get there, you'll know"

Don't tell anyone but ... I can't wait to do it again!

25 and 26 Sep
Spartathlon 2015
33:29:04, 73rd place
All photos by Sparta Photography club, unless otherwise stated.


  1. Epic race and report Thomas. Capture well how tough yet rewarding the race finish was.

    Can't believe you that last line though, seems you lost your sanity out on that mountain!

  2. Thanks for the amazing write-ups! Well done again!

  3. your finally getting good at this running craic!.... well done . Pm

  4. Love the last picture with Niamh looking on proudly. And yes you are a certified idiot for that last line (but totally in character). Very very impressed with your race and thanks for the awesome race report.

  5. Epic Thomas, just epic! Leonidas would have been proud!! Excellent report too BTW.

  6. Great run & report, some achievement!

  7. I also cannot believe that no runner has been killed in this race yet! Congratulations to both of you, especially for finishing way under the 36 hour limit!

  8. The best report you ever write.Masterpiece. Bravo, Thomas.
    Waiting for you next year.

  9. Brilliant writing, and running, as always. You would almost make a person do it themselves. Almost!

  10. Thomas, What a fantastic run report and by the sounds of it a brilliant event. My sincere congratulations to you. Well done.

  11. Enjoyed those two posts Thomas. I can promise you I'll NEVER get to experience that finish line -- unless it's as a tourist! Well done on not crying when you said "I want to go home". Hope you've started firing off emails to the headlamp maker asking for a sponsorship -- you could demonstrate how well they work at all the ultras you attend before next year's Spartathlon.

  12. Stellar reports, loved them. And massive congratualtions - what an acheivement !

  13. Congratulations Thomas. It was fascinating following the race over the weekend and seeing how you were getting on. Well done on a sensible pacing strategy and digging it out at the end and getting it done. I did laugh a bit about the headtorch! Maybe a cheap one from Aldi is just as good. I'm sure Sharon would have happily let you use her torch but I don't think I would have asked her at that stage either!!
    I hope you are recovering well. Congratulations again and thanks for sharing your story in your normal thorough style.

  14. Sincere congratulations to both the race and the excellent and exciting written report!

  15. Thx for your sharing and of your travel along the Greece... So exciting report this Odissea

  16. Congrats, great race and great report. By the way, looking at the fourth picture from the bottom (captioned: "matching strides") I see that it's me turning the corner. I'm on the right and Thanasis from Greece who finished under 35 hours is on the left. See you next year.

  17. Well done on finishing the race Thomas. Also well done on the blog. A superb read