Monday, 5 October 2015

Spartathlon 2015, GREECE : 246km


ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ
MOLON LAVE
("Come and Get It")





HISTORY OF THE RACE :

In 490 BC an Athenian messenger, Pheidippides, was sent to the city of Sparta to seek help against the impending advancement of the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. Pheidippides, according to an account by Greek historian Herodotus, arrived in Sparta after running for 36 hours. For many years, historians believed that Pheidippides’ feat was one of myth, exagerated over time and the numerous retelling of the story. Based on this account, a British RAF Wing Commander, John Foden, and four other RAF officers travelled to Greece in 1982 on an official expedition to test whether it was possible for someone to cover the nearly 250 kilometres by foot in a day and a half, like what Pheidippides was alleged to have done. Three runners were successful in completing the distance within that duration and in the following year, a team of enthusiastic supporters (British, Greek and other nationalities) run the first Spartathlon Race. Nobody could ever imagine that this ‘historical curiosity’ would eventually lead to the birth of one of the most prestigious and toughest ultra-distance event in world. 

Spartathlon is a 246 kilometres (153 miles) non-stop race from Athens to Sparta, where participants run along the Greek coastline and across several mountain ranges (the toughest being a 1,200-metre mountain pass negotiated in the dead of the night and after 160 kilometres!!). This challenge has to be completed within a strict 36-hour time limit, with intermediate cut-off times at each check-point along the course (75 in total). If you arrive outside the specified cut-off times, you are automatically taken off the course. Not surprisingly, with such a strict rule, the drop-out rate of participants is approximately 50%. Finishing the race is a dream come true to most runners, some of whom return year after year to try to either complete the course (for those who had failed on previous attempt(s)) or to better their completion time. 

Every participant aims at finishing the gruelling race under the imposing statue of Sparta’s King Leonidas at the city’s main square, who stands tall and gazes out at the horizon towards any impending attacking forces who dare to defy him. A sign, under the statue, reads simply: "ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ" - MOLON LAVE  ("Come and Get It"). 



History has it that this was the phrase used by King Leonidas in response to the Persian armies who had demanded that the Greeks surrender their weapons at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC). Instead of giving in to this demand, the Greeks held on to Thermopylae for three days and although they were eventually defeated, they delayed the Persians' progress to Athens, and in doing so, provided sufficient time for the city's evacuation to the island of Salamis. Though a tactical defeat, Thermopylae served as a strategic and moral victory, inspiring the Greek forces to crush the Persians at the Battle of Salamis later the same year and the Battle of Plataea one year later.

With the recorded historical origin of the phrase, ‘MOLON LAVE’ has since became an accurate expression and/or motivation for every runner at the Spartathlon to be determined and not to surrender so easily when faced with difficulties during the race. Without any materialistic motivations and encouraged only by genuine personal incentives, runners from all over the world committed themselves to run in this race, in pursuit of their own limits.



FINDING OUT ABOUT SPARTATHLON :

The first time I heard of Spartathlon was in 1990, when I read an article about the legendary Yiannis Kouros and his supernatural performances in the race. Kouros is considered to be the greatest ultra-marathon runner of all time, setting the world records for races ranging from 24 hours to 6 days! This ‘Running God’ competed in four Spartathlons and was the winner in all four, holding the (still unbreakable) record time at 20 hours and 25 minutes!!!! 

In 2005, he surprised the ultra community with his decision to run the ‘Feidippideios Feat’. Arguing with the Spartathlon’s organisers that the most historically accurate route should be the one going through the Parthenion Mountain rather than from the Artemision (which is the Spartathlon’s route), he decided to run all the way from Athens to Sparta and back to Athens again (500 km). According to his sources, he did this without any night-rest on the way to Sparta, or to Athens! He completed his unconceivable challenge in 53 hours and 43 minutes, after a short break in Sparta…just to give a quick interview, followed by a speech to the Spartans who had gathered to cheer him on!!!

Reading all these astonishing facts in 1990, when I was only 18 years-old and a novice runner who could only complete a maximum of ten kilometers run, I was struggling to understand all the above figures. It looked to me as something extraordinary, crazy, out-of-this-world, whatever you want to call it. Something achievable by either extremely gifted runners, or for those suffering from mental illness…!!

The hilarious thing is that even as close as two years ago, I was still sharing the same view, despite having run and being exposed to ultra races. I was firmly convinced that running 250 kilometers on tarmac is a suicide mission for the body and a torture for the soul. Preferring running on trails and loving the calmness of the countryside, I was incapable to imagine myself participating in this event. 

The reason Spartathlon is legendary is not only because of its 246 kilometers distance. There is also the fact that it has imposed strict individual cut-off times at each of its check-point. Runners must pass through all the 75 checkpoints along the way regardless of whether they need to eat/drink/rest. Each checkpoint has a huge board with information of the checkpoint number, the distance you have run (from Athens), the distance to the finish at Sparta, the distance to the next check-point, the closing time of that particular check-point, and the closing time of the next check-point. This last number is the most important for many runners. If you arrive beyond this closing time, you know your race is over, no matter how many kilometers you have run, and you have to climb on board the infamous “death” bus, which “menacingly” snakes its way along the route, looking for exhausted runners to pick up. This, if it happens, will be the worst nightmare for any of the participants who failed to run as fast as the organisation requires.      



DECIDING TO RUN SPARTATHLON AND MY ‘TRAINING PHILOSOPHY’ :

‘Never say never’ … matches very well to what had happened to me after my last 100-miler race in Leadville. I learned from that race of my handicap in mountain races, having lived and trained in a flat country like England. I thought it was perhaps time for me to go back to tarmac, which was how I started when I first run as a teenager. Initially, I was a bit apprehensive of the idea of running at the edge of the road, with cars and heavy vehicles passing by so close to me. Having to inhale the horrific vehicles’ exhaust was also putting me off the idea. 

In order to discipline myself to train in all these unfavourable conditions, I devised a plan to run from Home to Hospital and back (24 kilometers in total) for my shifts. This, I decided, was the only way to ensure that I do my training without any excuses!! I started this regime from January, and progressively, I managed to run five out of seven days during summer. It was amazing to see how my body began to gets used to the distance I was putting in, and how all the nagging pains disappeared progressively. 

Since June, I was able to run 120 kilometers a week without any problem, but this was achieved with a big price. I sacrificed all my interval training workouts and tempo paced sessions. I was experimenting for the first time to go for the volume of training and not for the quality. Combining both would be impossible, considering my working lifestyle (70 hours on average spent every week at the Hospital). In the past, I had always concentrated on fast workouts. In preparation for Spartathlon, I was experimenting to see what difference can a training which is centered on volume (instead of speed) make to my overall performance. To attempt such a long distance race on tarmac for the very first time, I was not aiming for a super fast finishing time or even position. I was realistic and my only ambition was to finish the race fit, without any injury. 


SUDDEN LOSS OF CONFIDENCE :

To run in a race like Spartathlon, in my opinion, you need 2 traits - Confidence and Insanity. I have often been described by those who know me best as to be a lunatic - it has been a permanent trait of my personality. So, I know I have the second trait nicely tucked under my belt, but I cannot say the same for the first. I have always had to work very hard in my life to achieve Confidence. 

With the BIG DAY getting closer and everything regarding my training going smoothly, I was happy and excited for the race. Suddenly, during my tapering period, I started feeling more pain than usual on a dull ache in my left buttock. Despite reducing the number of kilometers drastically, the dull ache was getting sometimes sharp and stabbing, even to the extent of affecting my walking. The fear in me began to grow in lightning speed – am I even able to start the race??

Before recruiting strategies to calm myself, an EXCRUCIATING TOOTHACHE began to appear, making my life a total nightmare! It was then only days before the most important day of this year for me, and everything was collapsing around me! The dentist I visited told me that it was a very complicated case because the source of my pain was coming from a dental crown, cemented into place, and that she would have to refer me to an Orthodontist for further investigation. In any event, she said it would not be possible to have any procedures ( I need at least 2 visits) done so close to the race. Due to my unusual working hours and the limited period of time we had before we leave England for Greece for the race, I was only able to visit a local Physiotherapist (instead of the professional team of physiotherapists whom I often visit in Leeds) who only palpated my buttock for half an hour without providing me with any useful conclusion! 

That night, I was unable to sleep due to these frustrations and I decided to do some research on internet myself regarding the pain on m left buttock…and guess what??! Exactly seven days before the race of my life, I self diagnosed my pain as the ‘Piriformis Syndrome’!!!

My eight months of amazing ‘journey’ was coming to an end, with total loss of my Confidence. I was not sure whether all these pain I was suffering from will remain as they are or whether they will become worse during the race and deprive me of the achievement of the personal challenge I have set for myself.


MOMENTS OF PARANOIA ONLY TWO DAYS BEFORE RACE :

By the time we arrived in Athens for the race, the pain in my buttock was getting even worse. During the night, I will wake up because of it. I went for a very gentle run with my nephew near my home’s local trails and experienced a very sharp pain whenever I rotated my hip. The following day, I decided to get an appointment and see an experienced Physiotherapist who had worked with runners. He told me that I needed an urgent MRI scan done to rule out stress fracture! Even though I was convinced that this scenario was very unlikely, I was looking forward to get a definite answer to determine whether I am fit to run such a gruelling race.

It was Wednesday, less than 48 hours before the race and instead of relaxing, I was trapped in Athen’s downtown traffic to get to the MRI clinic. While waiting to do my scan, I met other people who were there for the same purpose. Among them was a young boy, with secondary lesions into his cervical spine, and another man who was just diagnosed with tumor in his liver. At that point, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and snapped myself out of my pathetic self-pity. In those moments, I counted my blessings and made note of all the positive things in my life. I reminded myself that my “nightmare” was really nothing compared to what the others around me were suffering from.

Being grateful for my good life, I got less anxious regarding the outcome of my MRI, and less obsessed with my participation in the Spartathlon. After a few hours’ wait, my MRI scan came back clear and the Physiotherapist gave me the go-ahead for the race, with a strict advice to stop if the pain gets unbearable.




What a relief!! I realised then that my dream was still achievable. I started calling my Support Team to tell them the good news and it was as late as that time that I started to get excited all over again at the thought of me really running the race.

With the excitement slowly building up, we headed to the race check-in and briefing the following day. I love coming back to Greece for races (which does not happen very often for me) and I look forward to meeting all my ‘old runner-friends’ to catch up and share some experiences together. I was really impressed with the number of international participants of the race. The atmosphere was simply fantastic!!



My official two crew supporters (good friend Harris, owner of UltrAspire Greece who provides me with their reliable products and Helen, who has been supporting me all these years for my Greek races), and my precious wife/photographer, accompanied me to the briefing. 


We discussed our logistics, race, gears etc for the race and after, had to rush to the supermarket to get all the food/snacks that I will need to supplement my strength during the race. 


We had not prepared anything up until that day because before the MRI scan, I was convinced that I would not be able to run the race. So, as you can imagine, we were running around like two headless chickens trying to get everything organized within such a short time. 


THE RACE :

With only two hours of sleep, I finally find myself standing at the start line, ready for the toughest challenge of my life. Everyone was so happy and excited. The atmosphere was simple euphoric despite the fact that all of us who were running the race know fully well of the suffering, pain and misery which are ahead of us in the next 36 hours. Not one of us seemed to care and all were just so excited to get on with the ‘journey’! For the last few months, we have been living and breathing by dreaming of this moment. Unaware of how well or bad this race can go, all of us long for a glorious finish in Sparta.

My wife, mother, and good friends came all the way to see me off and to wish me well.



At precisely 7am, 387 runners from 52 countries, headed off for their journey to Sparta from the foot of the Acropolis. The first two kilometers were downhill on cobblestones and it soon went flat, and we were then running along the busy streets of the city. This was definitely not a scenic route to be enjoyed, but at that moment, I was simply focusing on my plan to relax and keep a comfortable pace. My body was quite happy with a pace of 5:30'' -5:45''/ km, and I knew I had to get some fast kilometers before the heat really kicked in. Unlike many of my other races, I made sure to eat and drink at each aid station, and kept myself in good shape.

From the first kilometer, I met and run with Nikos Petropoulos (#8), one of the best Greek runners expected to have a good performance at the race. I had known that he always starts all his races with a very comfortable pace and I followed his pace as far as I comfortably can. We talked for a long time and it seemed just like any Sunday long, leisure, training session with a good friend!

Reaching Elefsina (23K), the atmosphere began to get even more fantastic! Runners were greeted by lots of children who had come out to cheer us on, with lots of hands slapping as we ran past!

Few kilometers later, when we reached the Saronic Gulf, the course began to open up and became quite beautiful. This section was defined by incredible beauty (we were running along cliffs that overlook the sea). Looking down at the beautiful blue sea was so relaxing and lifted my spirits. At this stage, I began to feel that Nikos’ pace was getting faster and I fell back in pace and let him go.

The course became incredibly dull after that and I was running through a succession of factories, before finally reaching Megara (42K). This was the first check-point where Support Teams were allowed to access to help their runners. As I had felt that I would not be needing any help or support at this early stage of the race, I had asked my team to stay home and have a good sleep and rest, before heading to the Korinthos check point at the 80K. This way, I reckon that they will be stronger to help me later when I would be weaker.

The atmosphere was like being in the Tour de France. Cars were parked on both sides of the road with hundreds of people cheering us on. I saw many of my friends here and this gave me a lot of strength to continue for my next marathons (….another 5 to go!!!). After leaving Megara, I was greeted by yet more children who were standing under a bridge. More hand-slapping and banners with encouraging messages. At this stage, I was overtaken by Giorgos Tasios (#350), another strong runner expected to be a top Greek finisher. Before starting the race, I had reminded myself not to fall into the trap of speeding up too quickly to catch up with other runners. I was determined to run my race, with my own pace, convinced that this would be the safest way to reach the finish line.

Towards the 55K point, we started running through undulating roads where the sea was on our left side. There were several hilly sections in this second marathon and the temperature was by then, reaching 30 Celcius. I still felt good, and I was trying to keep myself hydrated. In this hilly and hot session, I met Stergios Anastasiadis (#26), a legend of the race with several past participations and amazing performances. He was telling me that he was not enjoying the rising heat, and he preferred to slow down his pace at that moment. Before crossing the Isthmus of Korinthos, I met another expected top Greek runner, Christos Mavrikios (#178), walking along a hilly session. I asked him how he was feeling and he shared the same sentiment as Stergios regarding the rising heat.


Despite the fact that two top Greek runners were struggling with the heat, I was still feeling surprisingly pretty good as I came into the Korinthos check-point (80K) in 7:45’. This was another amazing check-point to be at, with the rapturous applause from supporters and people coming to follow the race. It looked almost like a finishing area. There were chairs everywhere, food and water, massages, cameras and medics. My Support Team, together with my nephews and more friends, started cheering me up and encouraging me. They were very happy with my performance, but the most important thing was that I looked fine, without any signs of exhaustion or the expected pain. I spent about 5 minutes eating/drinking and getting advice for the next part of the race. I would love to spend more time with them, having my cold drinks under the shadow… but time was precious and I had to go.



Up until that point, my race plan was going perfectly as I had planned. I was running this endless race by breaking it down into three parts: 

The first 80K had to be like a ‘warm up’. Without pushing, I was hoping to reach Korinthos in less than 8 hours. This way, I would have more energy and time to deal with the most difficult part of the race, which is the next 80K. This second part of the race includes most of the 3,500m of altitude elevation, and I know very well that I was going to suffer a lot in this part! As for the third part of the last 80K, it was mostly flat or downhill, and I was feeling optimistic that this would not pose such a problem for me.

Me, at the point when I was still feeling good!!
I left Korinthos, and the course switched quite drastically from urban to countryside, with more scenic turns going through vineyards. 


The runners were spaced out by now and most times, I could not see the runners ahead of me. The highlight of this part was the village of Assos (100K). A big group of kids, under the supervision of their teacher, were holding a big banner, giving a warm welcome to the runners. Some of them would come asking for autographs. It was so difficult to refuse them despite the wasting of time and the slowing down of pace. I tried to sign as many as I could. All seemed really grateful, and thanked me several times. This genuine emotion and passion pouring out of the kids, put a smile on my face, and gave me more motivation to run the rest of the race.   

In all my ultra-races, there is always a first ‘happy-time’, which is going to disappear sooner or later, only to be replaced by frustration – tiredness – weakness. I was almost reaching the half point of the race; the Ancient Nemea check-point (123K) when this happened. Everything was going smoothly up until that point. All my paranoia about the pain in my buttock proved to be unfounded and my body was tolerating well to the heat and my tarmac run was very satisfactory.

Suddenly, just before reaching the said check-point, the climbs became steeper and longer. Looking at the race’s graphic, they look gentle enough, but in reality, it was a completely different story altogether. I started slowing down and was overtaken by many runners.










The daylight was fading and very soon, I would run through the toughest and longest night of my life. Reaching the Malandreni check-point (140K) after a long climb, my initial excitement was finally over. My legs were starting to feel the distance and my brain was almost prone to bring up all the negatives. Even a very long and easy descent of 9km into the Lyrkia check-point (148K) after that did not seem to make me feel better. I was starting to feel troubled. There was a crescendo of bad mood and less determination to fight building up in me and this did not help; especially when the hardest part of the race was coming right ahead of me in the middle of the night!! Over the course of the next 14km, I was climbing more than 1,000 meters, much of it at a 20% gradient!!!





Initially, there was a pretty steep tarmac section leading to the base of the mountain (critical point marking the end of two thirds of the race!). I was unable even to walk fast, while several runners could overtake me easily. Once I arrived at the Base of the Mountain check-point (160K), I had a good, long break, trying to recompose myself on how to cope with the tricky mountain pass climbs, the only non-road section of the course. 

Leaving the check-point, I went on to run an almost 3km of vertical climb on a barely visible path, with flashing lights provided by organiser, making it look like a Christmas tree. At the summit (1,200m), there was a small check-point, which I did not bother to stop, as I carried on to start one of the most painful mountain descents I have ever had to make in my life. I find the downhill to be tougher than the uphill. The path was steep, made by thousands of loose rocks scattered all over like mushrooms. One single careless step, and your toes will hit these damned rocks, causing you excruciating pain. 

I know, because I am speaking from experience!! The first when it happened, I started screaming, the second, I was crying, and after few more times, I was lost in a very miserable position of pain coming from the detachment of my nails! Initially I was thinking that by walking, I may get rid of this nightmare. But by then, I was even struggling to walk. Every single movement I made seemed to be pushing my partially detached nails against my shoes. Desperation was the only word to express my state at that critical moment…Just when I thought that things cannot get any worse than that, the torrential rain began to pour, and this lasted for almost 12 hours!

I kept putting my head down and trying to push myself harder to get over it. All my concentration was on every foot landing I made as I was walked and limped into the final section of this torture. Legend has it that on this part of the route, Phidippides met Pan, the God of mountain wilds (apparently, he was getting hallucinations at that point, due to his enormous effort and sleep deprivation). Unfortunately in my case, I was getting the most horrific pain, with both feet screaming to be let out from my shoes, while the bottom of the mountain seemed to never come into my sight!!! 

The torturous downhill that we did in the middle of the night, as seen in daylight

Once I arrived on the tarmac after an incredibly long battle, I was greeted by another long section in a very dark area without any villages. All these elements were constantly present to keep testing my limits. After what seemed like the longest time, I finally limped my way into the Nestani check-point (171K). 





I was so grateful to find shelter from the persistent rain, which was getting even heavier by then, and I was enjoying being “smothered” with love and care by my Support Team, who offered me soup and pasta. Most previous runners had stated on their blogs that if you make it over the mountain pass, you are pretty much home but to me, being at that stage of the race and thinking that I have another 76km to go, "home" still seemed like a long way to go!!! 


I had lost all trace of determination and will to go out in the rain and to carry on suffering every time I put my feet forward. The torrential rain had transformed my Hoka shoes into swimming pools, I knew even without looking that blisters were building up on every surface of my feet. I was terrified by the idea of removing my shoes and changing into new and dry socks and shoes as suggested by my team. I knew then (and now) that if I had removed my shoes and saw the extent of damage of my feet, I would not have had the courage to carry on and the psychical sight of them will create excuses in my mind to give up the race. 

After a very long break, I left the check-point to run (or rather limp) on the flattest section of the race (for almost 30km). Even in this favorable condition, I was unable to find a decent running pace and was moving only at a pac of 7 km/h. Every time I tried to speed up, the pain would get unbearable. For almost two hours, I was running alone on endless straight roads flooded by unstoppable rain.

When the sunrise finally came, I found myself to be at the Zevgolatio Arcadia check-point (186K). I tried to drink some milk and suddenly, I felt nauseated and sick which almost made me faint. My team quickly inflated a mattress for me to lie down for about ten minutes. This was my lowest moment at the race. For the very first time, I felt doubtful of whether I will be able to finish the race. I could feel my body abandoning me slowly, while my brain was shouting to me to stop killing myself. By then, I had been sleepless for 48 hours, drenched wet and I had lost half of my nails. Even walking felt like an extreme feat. 

How far could I possibly go on in this sorry state? And even if I could cross the finish line, would I be satisfied with my time? 





Surprisingly, my principle of not giving up on any race if there is not any serious injury was still ringing loud and clear in my ears despite my body and brain not functioning very well. I was crying only to think of having to surrender after so much pain and stress, and after having covered 186K!! I tried to stand up and do some steps. I was still unsteady but I slowly got the pace. By then, my good friend Stergios (#26) had just arrived and he looked much better than the last time I had seen him on the hilly sections just before Korinthos. He proposed for us to run together but unfortunately, I could not keep up with his more decisive pace and I had to him go. My torturous pain continued for another 10km, when I met up with my team at the next check-point (195K), who informed me that there were almost 90 runners still behind me. Initially, I did not bother. I was already very fed up by then and my only purpose was to finish the race. 

However, when I continued with the race and was overtaken by a few Greek runners, the competitiveness, pride or egoism in me began to light up my dying ‘engine’. Despite the rain getting heavier again by then and the road leading into the last hilly section, I somehow found unimaginable resources to speed up and start overtaking at least a dozen of runners. I managed to maintain this pace for almost 13km and I was surprised by this hidden energy coming out of me so near the end of the race. However, this was achieved with a big price of pressure and stress, as you can imagine.


The last 45km of the race was on a highway connecting the cities of Tripoli and Sparta. As the day progressed, the highway was getting busier, and we were running against the traffic, with cars and big trucks passing by literally by our sides, at speeds above 100km/h. Many of the drivers sounded their honks to encourage us. As I was pushing myself to move faster, a lady driver who had pulled up on the side of the road shouted to me from where she had parked her car and asked me where we had run from. I had about a 10-second period of time from my position to where she was and as I was running and heading towards her during that time, I WAS UNABLE TO ANSWER to such an obvious question! My brain was in such deprivation of food, sleep and oxygen that I was struggling even to form an answer to her question. In a very embarassing way, I smiled and apologised by stating that “I’m sorry but I can’t remember!!!” 

Just 23km before the finish, I was faced with the ultimate challenge of the race - to overcome a 1km very steep climb. Once this was done, I began to push myself harder, trying to finish this torture as quickly as I can. For a while, I had to slow down my pace despite running on a nice downhill. I was going through another ‘dark zone’ again, where disappointment, tiredness and weakness managed to snake their ugly heads into my brain and tried to dismantle my whole being.

Thank God, this time, it lasted only for a short while. Looking at the horizon, I could see the city of Sparta sprawling right before my eyes and this fired me up! I started running with a pace 5’/km and overtook at least a dozen runners, most of them were walking by then, before entering the city.

My final approach to the finish is going to be the highlight of my life for a long time to come, leaving the most powerful memory for me to treasure forever. As I was running through the city, the support I received was amazing. Almost every single person that I saw was cheering me on to finish my journey. I saw people cheering me from cars, balconies, cafes. They made me feel like an Olympic winner of a marathon who is about to enter the stadium! With a glowing smile on my face, I waved my thanks to everybody who shouted and cheered as I passed. 

All of a sudden, a little boy on his bicycle came up to me and offered to accompany me to the finish. I asked him how far it is to the finish but he was too young to be able to answer me. As I continued to run aimlessly, I carried on asking those around me how many blocks do I still have to run in order to reach the King Leonidas statue and was answered by different answers. Some said 3, later 4, and finally, 5 blocks! I was starting to get very frustrated by then as I seemed to be running along a very long road!! I must be the ONLY runner in this race who had not been to Sparta and seen the King's statue before the race.

Suddenly, after having run another block along this very long road, some police officers directed me to turn right! When I finally did, I could see the multi-coloured flags of all the countries waving at me and the imposing King Leonidas’ statue waiting for me about 400 meters ahead. The total racing time is recorded only when the runner touches the foot of the statue. As I began to run towards the statue with new-found energy, I passed through hundreds of people who had gathered outside the bars and restaurants, all clapping and cheering, on both sides of the street. When I was only a few meters from touching the statue, I stood immobilised for a few seconds. I looked at it and was overcome by emotions. All my pain seemed to have been momentarily washed away, leaving a feeling of bliss – ecstasy. I tried to take in that few seconds as much as possible - to live in the moment, soak in the atmosphere, and make memories to last a lifetime!

Then I took my few last steps to approach the base of the statue. I reached the foot, took it in my hands and kissed it. The chronometer was stopped at 34 hours, 5 minutes and 1 second. I drank the water from River Evrotas given to me by the Spartan girls, and an olive wreath was placed on my head. 



After the euphoria had died down a little, I was taken to the medical station by two volunteers, who removed my shoes and socks to reveal my horrendous blisters. They drained all of them and dipped them in iodine. I was then given a pair of hotel slippers. From this point on, walking was going to be a big problem. With half of my nails partially detached and more than 6 blisters on my toes, every step I made caused me agonising pain. Later in the night, at the comfort of our hotel room, with my head torch over my head, I did what I normally do for my patients. With a scalpel and my wife’s eyebrow tweezer (we did not have the right equipment!!), I found the courage and strength to completely remove some of the nails, before falling asleep with my two feet high up on a stack of pillows.







The following day (Sunday) was even worse. My feet became swollen like an elephant’s, and most of the blisters had formed again, despite the earlier drainage. We attended the luncheon sponsored by the city’s mayor where all runners were presented with bags of gifts.


On Monday evening, I attended the official award ceremony at a very elegant venue with a superb view to the city of Athens. This was the first opportunity I had to mingle with other runners and to share our experiences, memories, emotions, and thoughts. Each finisher was presented with a medal, certificate showing their cut-off time at some of the major check-points and a race DVD. Dinner followed soon after and once hunger has been satisfied, the party started in full force the Greek way – dancing to the music from the latest hits to the music of Zorbas!!



EPILOGUE :

To finish Spartathlon, you need to arrive at the start line possessing two of the following two pre-requisites.

The first is a very fit and well-trained body, one who is able to deal with a tremendous volume of kilometres on tarmac.

The second is a mental attitude to cope with stress and desperation. 

Spartathlon is not like a Hollywood movie, where the script is written and the ending is already pre-determined. It is not a race where you can see yourself finishing from the start line (the 246km distance in between certainly does not help!!). In reality, it works quite differently. It requires determination, strength, and endless tolerance to misery. If you have come to do it from a relatively easy life - full of comfort, and less of hard training, you will surrender to your inner voices - the ones who constantly beg you to give up.

Regarding the fitness of my body and the amount of training I have put in, I had tried to do my very best, considering my heavy professional schedule. I have been disciplined enough to clock up more than my usual kilometers per week. Certainly, my weekly 120 kilometers might not sound very much compared to the 200 and 300 kilometers per week clocked up by many other runners, but I still believe that it is a decent volume of training to bring me to the finish line. If, however, you are looking for a better performance, you will definitely have to dig deeper and work to get a bigger volume.

Having said that, however, I am of the opinion that what really makes the difference in this race is the mental attitude rather than the psychical fitness. It is the way how your brain receives/accepts all this torture and how it chooses to react to them. It is fair to say that at some point of the race, the average participant will reach that unavoidable moment where he/she feels totally broken. The endless movement of the body, legs and arms throughout the day into the night, coupled by the intolerable heat, torrential rain, sleepiness, hunger, pain, exhaustion, can all gang-up to make you feel so helpless and in despair. 

My brain was shouting ‘STOP!’ and ‘ENOUGH!!’all the time. And while I was trying to resist these negative voices inside me and to keep moving with a decent pace, more and more runners were overtaking me. Some of them are known to me and I was faster than them in previous races. Runners I know I should be ahead of, were all well ahead of me. Others, like women who are not known to be top finishers and men who are older than me, were also overtaking me. All these helped added weight to drown what little confidence I still have left remaining in me.

For someone as competitive as myself, it is very hard to understand (in the beginning) that the whole idea of joining a race like Spartathlon is not to race against other runners. After having the experience of running the entire race, however, I now realize that that the real competition here is actually against those “little” annoying voices inside my head that persistently urge me to get into the comfort of my support team’s car and quit the race.

And during these moments of despair, many runners will expect those "magic moments of resurrection" we often experience in many of our previous races. You remember those times when you were fighting with ghosts and demons, and suddenly everything turned positive and your body felt lighter and more determined to go on for the rest of the challenge? Well, this time, those magic moments came to me too late into the race and lasted for too short a time. My first 120 kilometers of the race has been a very smooth and happy one but the second half that followed was nothing but an endless period of repeated punishment.

My strategy in any ultra race has always been one where I avoid spending too much time at check-points. For Spartathlon, the implementation of this strategy is even more important. With its 73 check-points in total, I have calculated that if I were to stop for 2 minutes on average at each one, I will be wasting almost 3 hours of my already very limited time. That was why I got really concerned this time when I realised that I was spending my precious time at the stations where my support team was at, waiting to help me. The fact that I was allowing myself to stop to replenish and rest, was the proof that my competitive spirit was not present at all in this race. 

Perhaps this time, my feet-nails injuries have contributed significantly to my weakness to deal with it. This was also the very first time I was getting ready for a race with all the uncertainties and stress relating to the pain in my buttock. The last few days before a big race are critical for every runner. This is the time for us to relax and recompose our body before a big battle. Instead of doing this, I was spending my time by driving through the traffic across Athens, trying to solve the mystery of my pain. 

I usually do get very excited during the days leading up to a big race. After months of training and sacrifices, I would be so looking forward to verify how worthy my preparation was. This time, though, I was not feeling any of that. In fact, I was feeling like I had to go to work instead!!! I knew then (and now) that this psychological state was definitely going to affect my determination to dig deep and fight hard at the race. Even though I have stated before the race that I will be happy to just complete the race, in reality, my expectation was to finish in a time close to 30 hours. At that time I believed I would be able to do so. Not anymore.

Disappointed but not discouraged, I will carry on with new challenges I have planned for, around the world. Many people I have met have told me that very soon, I will be back to run Spartathlon again. I just laughed because I thought, how little these people know me. As a principle, I never go back to run the same race again. With so many wonderful races all over the world, I am actually short of time and would like to experience different emotions at different races. I am exactly the opposite of Hubert Karl, who has run the Spartathlon for the 19th time this year..! 

I am still, until now, trying to find an answer to why so many runners keep returning and running the Spartathlon, and by doing so, putting themselves through all that misery again and again. I cannot figure out why anyone who had beaten this race would come back to prove themselves again. Is it the legend/myth of the race (“One of the toughest race in the world”)? Not so, if you consider there is also a race called Tor de Geants. Is it the historical background and the promotion of its high ideals? It is difficult to say. Probably the high risk of failure (more than 50%), works as a personal challenge? Every time the runners touch the foot of the statue of King Leonidas, they discover themselves and their spiritual and physical limits? Like a sort of purification, but achieved through a race? Surely, there are other races which can offer this kind of feelings? 

In summary, Spartathlon is an amazing and very well organized race, with a strong field of international runners who had trained very hard for it. Participating in this event is certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Everyone will find the answers to his own questions while running the endless distance, and when he/she finally arrives in Sparta, he/she will be a different person. He may become a better person but for certain, one who is more grateful for everything he has in life.

My next running adventure is going to be in New Zealand (Tarawera 100). We will be spending two weeks of adventures around the South Island in a camper van before heading back to North for the race. We have been dreaming for a long time to explore this remote part of the world and we are so excited about the trip.

Before I sign off this blog, I would like to thank my support team who has sacrificed their time to help me make my journey from Athens to Sparta by running, possible. 

Harris - a good friend and owner of UltrAspire Greece, who has generously provided me with all the amazing UltrAspire products for all my training and races. He followed me all the way to Sparta, providing me with support and advice throughout my journey.

Helen - a longtime supporter and friend, who was always available to apply her Physiotherapeutic skills on my broken body!

Tasos & Maria – who have both unfailingly injected me with their boosters of optimism, when my mind was completely shut down. Thanks also, Maria, for your delicious Galaktoboureko, which has provided me with all the sugar I need to stay awake during the night!!!

My nephews Manolis & Dimitris - who have recently become my most loyal and trustful supporters, eagerly volunteering their time to support and follow me at my races.

My parents - who never failed to encourage me and be there at the Finish line to share my joy, (sorrow, and pain!!!). 

Last but not least, my trustworthy wife, who went through 8 difficult months of unseen preparation and sacrifices. Not only did she never once complained of having to share my time and adjusting my diet with my training, but she whole-heartedly shared my dream and enthusiasm, helping me in every aspect of my preparation (equipment choices – diet – massages – chores around the home - etc). Certainly, without her amazing photos taken in the midst of having to also attend to my needs during the race, this blog would be so boring….!!

A complete photo collection of the race taken by my talented wife can be viewed at her Facebook Page at : https://www.facebook.com/RunAndRaces

This photo touched me so much because when I looked at my father, I realised that he was crying, sharing my pain and agony.




12 comments:

  1. Nice report Argyris, and well done for your race. The end of your race was very emotional. Have a great time to your adventures around the word!

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    1. Thanks, Bill for taking the time to read my report. The whole journey was very emotional for me this time. I am glad I finished the race.

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  2. THANK YOU SO MUCH for this detailed description about your Spartathlon journey. I first heard of Spartathlon about a year and a half ago, and ever since, can't get it out of my head. Greek history has been my lifelong love and passion like no other, and boy do I understand why lord Byron gave his life for the freedom of Greek people. So far, I managed to run 21K races just for fun and to honor the memory of my deceased runner friend. But my fascination is playing tricks on me by wondering what if...so EUCHARISTO POLI for everything I might gain from this wonderful blog!

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    1. You are most welcome, Kardia!! Thanks for stopping by at my Blog. I hope it will inspire you to dream big :-)

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  3. well done my friend, hope you run again next year for another astonishing performance.

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    1. George, Run again, I will. But it will not be the Spartathlon again. I have many other races to consider. Thanks for reading my blog.

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  4. Congratulations Argyris for overcoming all the "ghosts and demons" and finally reaching to King Leonidas. Excellent article that covers many aspects.

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    1. Thanks, George, for taking he time to read my blog. I hope my experience can help future runners when they prepare themselves for the race.

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  5. Ka pai! (Means Good or Well Done in Te Reo Maori)
    I'd just like to say thank you for such a detailed blog about your Spartathlon Journey. I've only just found out about the Spartathlon, when my fiance told me that the name of the ancient country of Sparta possibly came from a princess/queen. Which then piqued my curiosity so much, as to make me add it to my 'bucket list'. I did my first ever half marathon on the Queen Charlotte Track (South Island, NZ) last year and I'm now hoping to eventually make it to the Spartathlon.
    As a New Zealander, I welcome you, in advance, to my beautiful country and hope your trip is as amazing as you hope it will be. My job, as a Department of Conservation Ranger, takes me to both the explored and not-so-explored areas around the country, so I do suggest doing the hikes & bike trails around the country and remember to bring your camera with lots of memory space. :)
    So again I thank you for answering a lot of my questions with this amazing blog, and I wish you much luck with your Kiwi Touring & race(s).
    If you have any questions that I can help with, do ask!
    Kia kaha (stay strong) and thanks for inspiring me to train again.
    Rita Hughes

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    1. Thanks, Rita, for your kind comments. I am glad my blog is able to answer your many questions. We are really looking forward to our trip to NZ and there will be an update on my blog after we return (and hopefully after completing the Tarawera 100). Good luck with your training!!

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  6. Wow, this is an amazing story. I am only just learning about Spartathlon right now. And I think this year's event happens this weekend. Congratulations on your amazing journey. I am the host of a podcast called Mile after Mile and I would be thrilled to interview you about Spartathlon if you are interested. Please email me at amysaysso at gmail dot com

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  7. What an epic story from an epic race. Thanks!

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