Every time when I return to Greece for a race, the magnitude of excitement and happiness I feel is hard to be described. My connection with the local people, the mountains, the valleys and even the unique smell of the Greek countryside, all of which will always bring back all the precious memories of my younger days when I spent my leisure youth exploring every corner of the country.
My recent unfortunate DNF at ROUT last October (2013) has somehow spoiled these feelings and I was looking forward to return again for another race and to delete all the negative “ghost thoughts” which has been chasing me ever since.
The Olympian Race provided me with this opportunity. I have been thinking of participating in this race for a long time due to the unique locations that will be crossed by the runners during the 180km of the race. All the places and villages are full of history and tradition, connecting the present with the ancient Greek athletic era. The race route has been divided into trail parts and asphalt road in rural areas, almost in equal percentage, with total meters of ascent of 3,800.
The most exciting aspect of the race has to be the fact that it connects two of the most ancient stadiums of the country (Nemea and Olympia) and the participants will run mostly over mountainous areas, with the highest point reaching 1450m. The prospect of running through peaceful and lovely landscapes that are far from any disturbing human activity is another inviting aspect.
The Starting Point, which is the Ancient Stadium of Nemea, had a capacity of 40,000 spectators when the first Nemea Games took palace in 573BC. In 1974, when the stadium was excavated, an architecture masterpiece was discovered. A crypt (stone built arched passage), which led the athletes into the Stadium, was found. Visible on the walls of this crypt are what the ancient athletes had engraved (their names and emotions/feelings) while waiting for their turn to enter the stadium to compete for their races.
|The remnants of the once grand entrance before the crypt|
|The crypt leading to the stadium|
|The ancient stadium of Namea|
I was so excited to attempt in making another of my dream come true. (I say ‘attempt’ because one can never be sure when starting an ultra that one can actually finish it without any risk of injury). This time, I will have the biggest support team I have ever had in any of my races. Apart from my ever-loyal wife following me like she has always done in all my races, I will also have my good friends Tasos and Helen doing the same. All three of them will drive along the asphalt road which I will running on and try to meet me at every check point (19 altogether), helping me with food, drink, equipment, and giving me all this psychological encouragement to go beyond my limits.
|Tasos, Helen & Me going through the map|
|Tasos & Elena familiarising themselves with my new vest|
For the very first time, my parents have also decided to follow my race during the day. I was very happy with their presence because unlike previous times, when they only had the chance to listen to what I had to say about my experiences at my races, this time, they will have the chance to see and experience for themselves the different emotions that gripped runners and supporters alike in a similar event. In addition to all the above, I also had my Auntie Rena and my Godparents there to support me, making a BIG fun support team! To say that I was spoiled was clearly an understatement!!
|L-R : Aunt Rena, Dad, Me, Mom, Godparents|
With all this amazing support, and all the calls that I have received before the race from good friends, I was feeling a little stressed to perform well and to not disappoint all my beloved supporters. Without any doubt, my main priority was to finish the race, but to be very honest, I was also aiming for a place on the podium. I had looked at the list of participants and knew most of the Greek runners. I knew that I will face tough competition from at least 2 of them; Mavrikios and Athanasopoulos. However, there were another 40 or more runners from abroad whom I knew nothing of and I was therefore not able to gauge their level of ‘danger’ towards me.
|Me & fellow UltrAspire team member, Athanasopoulos|
Despite Tasos’ persistent advice to me to start with a slow pace, I found it really difficult to do so and found myself to be in the leading group with Mavrikios and Karavasilis (a good runner-friend who was running the shorter race of 62km). The first 10km seemed more like a group training for me, with a lot of talking and joking going on.
|Me, Mavrikios & Karavasilis|
Karavasilis and me ran a more comfortable pace, and during our run together, we talked about many different things, despite Tasos scolding me and asking me to save energy and focus on the race!!
Indeed from the 20th km, when we started the first climb (Platani), Karavasilis kept up a faster pace and he soon disappeared from my vision. From this point onwards, I started a lonely run for the rest of the race (160km). It was only me alone against Time, surrounded by an amazing landscape of mountains, olive groves, and vineyards (Nemea’s wine is one of the most reputable in the country).
I was suddenly gripped by fear. I knew for certain that what my body was feeling then was definitely not a good sign. Thinking about the distance of km still to go, I began to have some serious doubts about my outcome at this race.
While all these thoughts were engulfing me as I started on the second steep climb (Skotini), I turned back and noticed a runner very close to me!! His face was not familiar to me and I thought to myself that he is most likely one of the foreign runners. With this new sighting, I felt more pressure and more negative thoughts began to invade my mind. At the end of the long climb, I saw my support team ahead, faithfully waiting for me. I smiled and pretended that I was fine, and I asked Tasos to find out who was the runner behind me.
Due to the pressure of having a runner so close to me, I did not stop at the CP and continued running. A long downhill on asphalt then drove me fast to the next CP (Kandyla). By then, Tasos had already did his research and he gave me all the information regarding the runner behind me, who was Lowie Steenwegen, a Belgian runner without any known previous background of Ultra. I felt a little relieved with this new found piece of information but later in the race, when the terrain got flat and a heavy rain started, Lowie overtook me with a very confident pace. I did not try to catch up with him and continued to keep my pace. I was not feeling comfortable to increase my pace at that point as we were still less than one third into the total distance of the race.
|Lowie overtaking me in a confident pace|
I then approached Levidi (62km), one of the most popular and lively villages of the area. There was a gentle climb on tarmac before the CP and I noticed that Lowie was walking instead of running. We arrived almost together just a few minutes before sunset and by this time, the rain was getting heavier. The atmosphere in this village was completely opposite from what organizer had described on the website “ ….many people take to the streets to welcome the athletes. All the street lights are on and there is music from the loudspeakers. The village mayor Mr Athanassios Kavourinos is present, ready to offer his help if needed…." When we arrived there, there was no people on the streets to welcome us, no music and no Mr Mayor but thank God, I had my big support team there to attend to all my needs :-).
|My support team waiting for me at Levidi|
|Me arriving at Levidi|
After a quick 3-minutes ‘dinner’ and catch-up with my support team, I prepared to leave the CP while Lowie was still warming himself up and getting something to eat. I bid everyone farewell, feeling more determined and confident for the challenging and lonely part of route which lies ahead of me - 22km on the mountain with a steady steep climb for 12km, reaching the highest altitude of race (1400m). It was one of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the route, with very tall fir trees on both sides of the track. Before the end of the climb, the “kingdom of darkness” arrived, changing the rules of the game and my psychology. By now, I was again feeling less confident. It also did not help that my orientation was disrupted by the change of light to darkness. There, in the middle of nowhere and with VERY sporadic ribbons to mark the route, I fell into the trap of my insecurity. I was running for more than 1km without seeing any sign/marking and the path I was running did not match the description of this part of the route at all.
My panic alarm was instantly activated! I turned back for almost 1km to check if I had missed any sign/marking and I confirmed that I was on the right track. I was relieved but also at the same time angry with my own nocturnal insecurities. I turned back again, this time more concentrated and determined to come out of this dark forest.
I next arrived at Vytina (85km), one of the most charming village of Menalo Mountain, where again my support team (with parents-godparents-and auntie) were waiting for me with a yummy hot pizza! This time, I was looking better (my body got used to the torture!) and all in my team was happy to see me smiling again. My father was waiting for me a few meters before the CP and he actually accompanied me by running!!! I was really touched by his gesture.
I know that I can be misunderstood by talking about all these ‘tender’ family moments when I am supposed to talk about more ‘serious’ stuffs about running, but please take into consideration that this was the FIRST TIME ever (after so many years of me participating in races) that my family members were ‘participating’ in my passion and from this experience, they could finally understand what makes ULTRA such a special thing.
I had four pieces of pizza quickly and I left again by saying goodbye to everyone. From that point on, only my wife, Tasos and Helen were to start a long, sleepless night following me by driving through endless mountainous roads with vertigo turns and constant ascends and descends. In the darkness, they will try to find all the rest of the CPs, to wait for me and to give the strength run through the cold night. It is really difficult to find any words to express my gratitude towards them. Both Tasos and Helen, had sacrificed their weekend and instead of staying with their families, had volunteered to “suffer” all day (and night) with me…I am so touched and grateful to have friends like them!
As I was leaving Vytina, I realized that Lowie was already arriving!! The 2 extra km which I have had to run in forest had made it impossible for me to escape from his chase! This time, without stress, but with a lot of confidence, I continued with a faster pace, determined to increase the gap between us. The road was climbing gently for the next 13kms before I arrived at Magouliana (97km). This is the highest village of Peloponnese, at 1450m. It was getting colder by now with temperature dropping close to 5C. Surprisingly, I was feeling better and trying to profit from this unexpected moment of wellbeing. I decided to save time and not stop at all. My team was taken by surprise with my decision and had to just pack and leave for the next CP as I did not even stop to talk to them!!
We soon met again at Valtesiniko (105 km). This time, I stopped for about 2 minutes. Tasos told me that I have by then gained almost 15 minutes of difference from Lowie, and this gave me more energy to deal with the second most challenging and lonely part of the race. For the next 19km, I ran through a mountain track with superb view to the Ladonas Lake. Despite the cold weather, the clouds gave way to the almost full moon and starry sky.
When I am able to admire natural beauty while running, it is always a good sign. It shows that I have achieved an internal balance within myself in the total absence of frustrations-problems. I had been running for 13 hours by then and I was still feeling great. My gap with Lowie was increasing progressively while Mavrikios was doing one of his best run, simply unbeatable, with many minutes of difference ahead of me. My target then was just to maintain the second position and most importantly, to finish the race without any injury.
From Perdikoneri (124km) to Kastraki (145km), I ran with the same mood and energy, while my support team was continuously giving me the good news that Lowie was by then far behind me! At that point I was almost ready to believe, ironically, that the race was done, and my first 180km will end very smoothly. So very silly and arrogant of me!! I forgot that Ultra is L-O-N-G and it is made of exciting moments of Ups and unexpected moments of Downs. Up until that point, I had been lucky to be blessed with so many Ups moments for so many kms until I reached the 30th km before the end of the race….
At the 30th km before the end of the race, we were to cross River Erymanthos. It was only 30cm deep and we were offered by organizers to use black bin bags to keep our feet/shoes dry. Not wanting to waste any precious time having to fiddle with the bin bags, I chose to cross the river without them.
When I reached Koklama (150km), I saw Tasos holding a glass of fresh milk for me. I could not believe my eyes as just about an hour ago, I was having a paranoiac craving for milk!! As if having some kind of telepathy connection with me, here he was, responding to my craving with the milk (nicely warmed by a nice villager nearby) in the middle of nowhere! It was 7am by then and the night was finally gone! The sun had risen and the temperature was getting warmer. I decided to take out my contact lenses because my eyes were completely dehydrated and my vision was getting blurred. This has always been my nightmare every time I run an Ultra. Most of the time, I was not able to take out my lenses as I did not have a support team who would meet me during my long run. This time, I was really privileged.
My support team informed me that the gap between me and Lowie was then 40’ and with that information, I very calmly started to complete the last 30km of the race. Little did I know that this was to become the biggest challenge of the race for me. I had not expected to face any major difficulties so near the end of the race…
The first 18km proved to be a cruel test of my resistance and patience with the alternate short and steep tracks of ascent-descent. My legs were starting to get tired and my stomach was closing in on me. I was unable to eat or drink anything. Consumed by tiredness, I started to stumble against small stones and rocks, and getting sharp pain on my toe nails.
For 10km, I was running in a labyrinth of fields with very sporadic marks and I was concentrating very hard to ensure that I do not take a wrong turn. After so many hours of run, I sensed that my ability of concentration was diminishing and I knew too well that in moments like these, the danger of getting lost is high. I put myself on the highest alert level which I could afford at that time and tried my hardest not to get distracted. My vision was still slightly blurred, making the whole effort a little harder. The temperature was also slowly rising by then. I then arrived at a very critical T-junction and found out to my dismay that there was not any ribbon/sign/mark to indicate where I should go. I made a hazardous guess by turning left and after a few meters, was relieved to see a mark which reassured me that I had taken the right direction. I found out much later that many fellow runners got lost at that junction and had lost precious time getting back to the right track.
Coming out of this nightmarish labyrinth, I was finally on the National Road to Olympia, leading me to the finish line in another 10km. I found my team waiting for me at Mouria (173km).
|My support team did not look very stressed about me finishing my race at this point!! Look at them enjoying their Greek coffee and basking in the sunshine when I was half dead already!! Hmmmph!|
I was so tired and in pain due to my nails’ injuries that I knew that if I had stopped, it would be really difficult and painful for me to restart. I could feel the first signs of hypoglycemia coming, and my stomach was still refusing to take in anything. The mere idea of consuming food/drink alone was causing me nausea. So, I did not stop at that CP and simply waved a weak greeting to my team (my parents/auntie/godparents had by then joined the other three after a restless sleep).
My moment of ‘salvation’ came when I saw the road sign for OLYMPIA. The idea that I was FINALLY approaching one of the most renowned sanctuaries of the ancient word and cradle of the Olympic Games filled my soul with pride and powerful emotions. I know that in just a few minutes, I will walk through history and be at the venue where some of the most famous Greek philosophers, politicians, poets, writers, sculptors, (Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Alchiviades, Themistocles, Alexander the Great) had been as this was the place which had housed their largest audience who had gathered to see and hear their works and ideas. This was THE place to be heard and had your ideas be known in those ancient times.
After 19h and 45min, I finally crossed the Finish Line, surrendering myself to hugs and kisses from all my beloved. I was then crowned with a circular branch of olive, just like the victors in the ancient games, a tradition which has been practiced since 776 B.C. I then took some small, tired, painful steps to enter the ancient stadium.
|Me standing on the grounds of the ancient stadium of Olympia|
|The gate to the Stadium of Olympia|
|The Temple of Hera, where the Olympic Torch is lighted before being carried around the World|
|Me & Lowie in the stadium after the finish|
|My blisters and toes after the race!!|
After this euphoric moment, we checked in our hotel to get a well deserved sleep before having to attend the awards ceremony which was to be held at one of the hotels nearby. The buffet dinner-award ceremony was held at a restaurant in a very idyllic location; an outdoor space on the top of a hill with a superb sweeping view of the valley below against an amazing sunset. The organizers offered a very simple but atmospheric end to this unforgettable event. The food was super delicious (Thank God I could eat by now!!) and it was made more memorable as I got to meet many good old friends and runners. Everyone was busy trading stories and experiences from the race. Some were limping with pain, others looked like they have just been for a short jog at the park, like Mavrikios the winner!! Laughter filled the air and it seemed like everyone was talking at the same time!
The only aspect which disappoints me at this race was the atmosphere at the Finish Line. After so many hours of loneliness out there on the course and having battled against pain, tiredness and sleepiness, I was surprised to find myself crossing the Finish Line with only 3 people from the organization waiting for me. There was no music, no crowd, not even some food or drinks!! The local community of Olympia was completely absent from the event and I found out later that most of the locals were not even aware of the race! This is sad and the organizers should really consider improving this aspect in their future races. With so many foreign participants in the event, they have an obligation to move the standard of this race up the notch to level the international standards. Not many races get to finish at the birthplace of the Olympic Games and a little bit of fanfare at the end of a painful and well ran 180km run is not too much to ask, I think.
This was the first race I had run as a member of the UltrAspire Greek Team, recently founded by Harris Kanakis, who is representing this American brand in Greece. I have always been very cautious with offers of sponsorship from parties as I will only use products which I am comfortable with and not just because they have been offered to me free. After being offered some products by Harris, I tested the Alpha vest prior to the race and was impressed by its light weight (340gr), its abundance of space and easy access to the various compartments. The vest fitted me perfectly and it was so comfortable that I can hardly feel I had it on my back. At every CP where I stopped for water, my friend was able to refill the reservoir without having to remove the whole thing from the vest, thanks to the fact that the fastener of the reservoir is made of just a thick plastic rectangular slip which you can put on and take off just by sliding it to the left or right of the top of the reservoir. I think this saves a lot of time and trouble at refuelling time. I am so glad to have found a much superior product to replace my previous Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek vest. I had always been frustrated by the latter’s limited space for bars-gels and the difficulty to get access to them.
Another reason which made me join the UltrAspire Team was the other 3 fellow runners who made part of it (Athanasopoulos, Tsados and Petropoulos). All of them are well known runners within the Greek Trail-Running Community, with multiple podium places in a wide range of distances. They also happened to share an absolute dedication to running despite their busy professional commitments. I would like to thank Harris for his vision and the honorable invitation to me to make part of this amazing team which represents products with outstanding quality.
Talking about products, I find it difficult not to mention my first experience wearing my Hoka Stinson Trail in an Ultra Race. Even though I have not received any sponsorship for this brilliant product, I have to admit how impressed I have been by the fact that my feet-knees have been completely free of pain, even after a grueling 180km! If I did not have the nail injuries, I would be completely free of pain for first time after an Ultra. I will definitely stick to this product in future, testing it and perhaps Hoka’s other trail models, in different terrains.
As usual, all the beautiful photos on this post have been taken by my loyal wife ©Hannisze, who has been there with me at the race from the beginning till the end, like she always does. Thanks, babe, for doing it so well yet again, capturing all the 'stories' of the day so effortlessly. A more complete selection of her photos at the race can be viewed on her page at www.facebook.com/RunAndRaces
And finally, looking at my next ‘project’; another of my American dream is happening in August - the legendary Leadville 100!! This time, I will have the privilege to run and race with two of my best friend-fellow runners (Tsados & Kampaxis). I am planning to spend some time in Colorado before the race, to get acclimatized to the high altitudes of the race (Hope Pass 12,600 ft / 3,850 mt). In the course of my preparation, I have decided to go to Cortina d’ Ampezzo (Italy) in 5 weeks’ time to run the Cortina Trail (47km). I am not planning to run it with a target of a good position. To be there at the race is more like an excuse to meet up with some of my runner friends (who are all running the NF Lavaredo Ultra-Trail) from all over the world whom I have met during my previous races. It will be a great little reunion for us in the Dolomites! Can’t wait to catch up with you guys, Joel, Timo, Milan, Desiree, Linda, Mel and Steve! After the race, I will spend one more week on the mountains for more training and catching up with some good old Italian friends whom I have not met since studying in Italy.
As you can see, a lovely period of travelling and adventure lies ahead of me. Hannis and I are looking forward to just enjoying the purest happiness which comes our way from our exposure to nature and our relationships with other human beings. See you soon after my next adventure!