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|
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.
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|
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|
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|
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!
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|
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|
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