Saturday, October 03, 2015

Slow Recovery

It's now been one week after crossing the finish line touching the toes of Leonidas and I can say that without a shadow of a doubt that race really brought me up to my absolute limits.

The day after the race my calf muscles were both swollen and the right one was very sore to the touch. I don't know how close I had come to a race-ending injury but something was definitely not right and I was correct to be concerned during the last few miles. That swelling and the soreness went away after 2 or 3 days only to be overshadowed by two grotesquely swollen feet. I've never seen misshapen hobbit feet like that on a human before and instead of getting better it actually got worse, especially on Tuesday, the day we travelled back to Ireland. I guess sitting in the aeroplane did not do my feet any favours, not that it could have been avoided. On Wednesday morning it was back to work and sitting in the office chair for hours wasn't ideal either. Still, after Turin my feet were swollen as well but after 3 days or so everything started going back to normal.  It has been a full week now and the swelling has only just started to recede, still leaving the feet in a bizarre shape. It took until Friday evening that I could finally make out something remotely resembling an ankle.

One toenail on my left foot is dark and may fall off but it had gone the same colour after Turin and still never came off. My left calf is now hurting quite a bit (that's the other one, not the one that had given me troubles in the race) but all I can do is rest. I have no idea when I'll start running again, Right now I still have no desire to hit the road any time soon but going on past experience Niamh will soon kick me out of the house, throw the shoes after me and tell me not to even think about coming back for at least an hour.

Just before the end I felt a sharp pain in my right foot and thought a blister had burst. However, when I inspected the area afterwards there was a blister in exactly that place but it had not burst. It's since healed just fine.

I have been really tired all week and I still have not caught up yet. I am perfectly aware that I have to recover properly before starting training again - anything else and I'm headed straight for burnout and overtraining.

As for the race, of course I am chuffed that I finished it, which was always the main aim. However, there is that little voice in my head that tells me that I did not do myself justice and I should be able to cut a minimum of 2 hours off my time, quite possibly more. Of course I do wonder what I would have been able to achieve had I been able to train through the summer, while at the same realising that it was the previous 11 years of training that got me through, not something I would have done in the last few weeks or even months.

I spoke to Jan Uzik afterwards, who had an absolutely amazing race until he mashed up his feet coming down the mountain. He thinks I should have a sub-30 time in me. That seems a tad ambitious but then again, you should never set yourselves limits, I think I have proven that a few times already.

Thomas K and me are 25 seconds apart in the official timing. Looking at the photos I can see that I stood on the timing mat at the foot of the statue and he stood beside it. It obviously took 25 seconds until he finally happened to step across the mat. I don't care what the timesheet says. We finished together and we touched the statue at exactly the same time and as far as I'm concerned we both finished equal in 73rd position.

Basically we did pretty well for 200k but the last marathon was the one too far. Others fared a lot better. Isobel Wykes, who overtook us right at the start of the climb for mountain number 2, finished in 32:33 - basically she put an entire hour on us over than one marathon. I know Isobel is a class runner but there is definitely room for improvement. Thomas K could have finished at least 10 minutes faster had he gone ahead on his own. Over the last 10k I was definitely holding him back but he refused to go it alone.

This year saw a better than average finisher race of 46%. I think it's mostly down to the fact that they changed the entry criteria so that runners who exceed the qualification mark by 20% get an automatic entry, ensuring a greater percentage of runners of higher quality.

My own automatic qualification mark will still be valid for 2016, so I could avoid the lottery if I ran it again next year. However, next year my main target will be to qualify for the 2017 world championships and for that I need another good 24 hour run, which would in any case renew my automatic qualification (assuming they don't change the criteria).

Spartathlon was my 25th ultra, and obviously the longest as well as toughest.

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 kept calculating what pace would be required and I figured it was about 11-minute miles. Not enough to qualify as walking pace just yet, I guess. Better keep running.

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.

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.

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

Though the 1000 words will follow eventually, I promise. We're still in Athens and will be flying home tomorrow, Tuesday. I'll start writing my long-awaited race report then.

In the meantime, this will do.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Oh The Pain!

33:29, 73rd place.
I have no idea why anyone would want to do that to themselves!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Last Minute Preparations

I started running slower than 9-minute pace. I know at least one ultra runner who thinks I should be doing more training at ultra-pace but my view has always been that running 10-minute miles after more than 100 miles has absolutely nothing in common with running 10-minute miles on fresh legs, and I'm better off training at an effort level that will actually produce some fitness gains. Like previous long ultras I am only practising the shuffle the last few days before the race when there is no more extra fitness to be gained.

I did one more heat adaptation run, on Tuesday. Due to the lower effort I did not produce anywhere near as much sweat and the lower distance (6 miles vs. the usual 8) made this much easier as well as it's usually the last few miles where the hard work (and therefore most of the adaptation) happens. However, this was merely a last-minute top up to make sure whatever adaptation I have built up will not have eroded by Friday.

I created a new "ultra" mode on the watch. In Turin the battery died after 18 hours. I created a mode that does not use the HRM and only checks the GPS at 10 second intervals. Hopefully this should see the battery last for 25 hours. It still won't see me all the way into Sparta. In theory I could try using a re-charger on the road but I've got a serious race to run and I'll be damned if I let myself be distracted by fumbling around with cables and connectors. A complete GPS track still won't make me run faster, you know.

I stopped drinking coffee on Monday. It came as a shock to the system - I'm sure the headache I had all Tuesday, and which is still not entirely gone Wednesday morning, is caused by that.

I have packed my bags. I have checked my bags to make sure everything is packed. Then I checked my bags in case I had inadvertently removed anything while checking the bags. Yes, I started getting nervous.

I know Niamh is a bit worried. "Will you know when to stop?" "Yes, when I reach Sparta!". I know that's not what she meant but that's what I have in mind.

We'll arrive in Athens very late on Wednesday (probably not ideal but it's the best connection I could find, seeing as there were no direct flights). Sign-up and race meeting will be on Thursday.

And on Friday we run.

For anyone interested in following me and my fellow runners, the Spartathlon website mentions there will be a live video of the race broadcast on the net, and there is an athlete's tracker as well. My race number is 195.
21 Sep
5 miles, 45:57, 9:11 pace, HR 129
22 Sep
6 miles, 55:17, 9:13 pace
   heat adaptation
23 Sep
5 miles, 45:35, 9:07 pace

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Taper Madness

On Monday my right ankle hurt.
On Tuesday my left knee hurt.
On Wednesday my left calf felt very tight
On Thursday my left hip hurt.
On Friday my right hip hurt.
On Saturday my left hip hurt.
On Sunday my calves are both tight, my right hip hurts and my hamstrings are feeling tight.

Goodness gracious me, I do hate tapering!

On Thursday I did yet another heat adaptation run. It was hard work but I could tell there was some progress being made, so I was pleased with it.

On Friday I intended to run 10 miles. I got up in time and got ready, only to decide at the very last minute to cut it down to 8. The Spartathlon was only a week away, which must have been on my mind I guess. That was when I mentally accepted that I was tapering, I guess but I had been taking it reasonably easy for a while already.

On Saturday I once again donned the 4 layers for my heat adaptation run. I can definitely tell that my body is adapting: my HR is lower, my pace is higher and the required effort level well down. Heat adaptation is supposed to last for about a week; I'll do one more just to keep it all topped up.

I went up to Windy Gap on Sunday morning. Ideally I would have swapped the weekend runs around
but I did not have time for a mountain run on Saturday, real life not taking a break just yet. The weather was pretty wild when I left home and on the first climb up to Treanmanagh I was wondering what it would be like once I approached the Gap but in actual fact it calmed down considerably over the next few miles and it was almost pleasant. I took it easy and ran most of it on autopilot. If I can run that brutal climb up to the Gap on autopilot I must be in good form, I guess. On the way back home my calves felt unreasonably tight but when I tried to work on them with The Stick afterwards I could not feel any sore points.

This was the last run resembling a workout, I suppose. In 3 days we're flying out to Athens and in 5 days ...

17 Sep
8 miles, 1:05:32, 8:11 pace, HR 155
   heat adaptation
18 Sep
8 miles, 1:05:05, 8:08 pace, HR 139
19 Sep
8 miles, 1:04:52, 8:06 pace, HR 150
   heat adaptation
20 Sep
10.7 miles, 1:39:46, 9:19 pace, HR 142
   Windy Gap