This report is long overdue. But since it was only my second DNF in about 200 marathons and ultras, and my first DNF at Spartathlon — my favorite race — I think it's still worth writing up, so I'd better do it before starting on my 6 Jours de France report. (Plus Amy Mower is still clamoring for DNF reports for her new book!) It will be a new kind of writing for me. The short version is that I started the race injured, got a bit too confident and then started crumbling early, held on for as long as I could, but finally threw in the towel at mile 136 (of 153). Not too surprising, really. The long version is, well, a lot longer, and a lot more painful.
BackgroundFor background on Spartathlon, see my 2015 report. 2022 was a year of injury for me, also the first year since I started running in 2004, at age 38, with no PRs. It had to happen sometime. Still, it was a disappointment. I can't hold back Father Time forever — he is coming to call. It began with a lower-back injury, I think left over from being overloaded with baggage at Spartathlon 2021. But that didn't resolve, and the MRI showed lots of degenerative stuff going on. I thought for a while that was it — I was done, just after my best race ever, the 2021 Vol State 500K. How cruel. But the second cortisone epidural was magic, and I could run again. 6 Jours de France, in May, left me with a foot tendon injury that took all summer to mostly resolve. I would enter Spartathlon undertrained, so it would not be a PR year, but I would still finish. The Burning Man 50K, which I always use as an indicator race, four weeks before Spartathlon, was my slowest finish there by half an hour — not good. Much worse, later in the week I pulled my hamstring (let's not discuss how). I could not run a single step. It shortly became clear that this was damage to my left hamstring upper insertion, where I had torn it nine years earlier. Since then I'd been diligent with PT exercises to prevent reinjury, but clearly it hadn't been enough. These tendon injuries take months to resolve, at a minimum. How could I even contemplate running Spartathlon now? But after two weeks I was able to run some again, slowly and painfully. This was not as bad a tear as before. I managed a total of 31 miles in the four weeks before Spartathlon. A bit more of a taper than I'd had in mind, especially since there had been no real training to begin with! I flew to Greece feeling 50/50 on whether I should start the race, or switch to crewing someone.
Pre-raceI had more than Spartathlon to look forward to this year: my friend Pantazis Houlis was organizing a puzzle conference on Kastellorizo, the easternmost Greek island, a beautiful but pretty inaccessible place. I always like to arrive in Greece early and spend some time unjetlagging and unwinding on some islands. But this time I would be hosting a puzzle table and giving a talk, and the extra travel to get there was a bit taxing, so there wasn't much chance to unwind. I did a little bit of painful running, and we had an amazing astronomy night, with some of the darkest skies I've seen outside of eastern Oregon.
After that I had a couple of days on Rhodes, which I had also never been to, known for its amazing medieval old town. Then it was on to Athens. Once more I was overloaded, this time with a backpack full of mechanical puzzles. Ah well! On the flight to Athens I ran into Dean Karnazes — last year I'd run into him on Hydra before the race. Small world! But he was not running Spartathlon this year; he was here to help launch a new half-marathon on Santorini.
I arrived on Wednesday; the race started Friday. So I had some time to settle in and hang out with the rest of the US team, and the British team as well, in the same hotel as us this year, the Athens Coast. This was a new Spartathlon host hotel, kind of on the other end of Glyfada from the others, so it was a bit of a walk to the Oasis, where check-in was, and which seemed to be the nexus for runners. After running Spartathlon four times previously, and crewing once, I know a lot of people, so this is valuable socializing time for me. I knew many on the US team — some from previous years, some who I had interested in coming — but there were unfamiliar faces too that I was eager to meet. We had no real podium contenders on the men's side, but among the women were Marisa Lizak (4th in 2021), Micah Morgan (US 24-hour team member), and Camille Herron (needs no introduction). Their main competition would probably be Latvian Diana Dzaviza, last year's winner. If there was a men's favorite it was probably me, having finished four times, all under 30 hours. But I was just as likely to DNF, this year. Noteworthy also was US team organizer Andrei Nana, going for his 9th consecutive finish — apparently even less trained than I was. The British team is my second family at Spartathlon, so it was great to be in the same hotel with them. I did a shake-out run with Brit David Bone on Thursday.
Also this year I had the responsibility of advertising the "Spartan Mile". This is run the day after Spartathlon, on the track in Sparta, only for Spartathletes (those who started the race). It's nominally a mile, nominally naked, as the ancient Greeks ran — in practice it's one lap (400 m), in underwear (but barefoot). This was started by the Swedes several years ago. Somehow I had inherited the job of organizing it. It's not an official race function, so can't be advertised on the website, but it's become a popular tradition. I made a few trips to the Oasis to hand out info cards to those in line for check-in, and left a stack on a table.
The RaceAs usual, I finagled a ride to the start line in Athens, half an hour away, on race morning — avoiding the buses — this time with Amy Mower and crew. We arrived to find that this year, there were no portapotties at the start. In a race of this caliber, that's something I can't understand! As I have said in previous reports, this is the most dramatic start in ultramarathoning, at the Acropolis, in the shadow of the Parthenon. However the start is now a bit lower down the hill than it used to be; I'm not sure why.
|Incomplete US team photo
My plan this year was simple: run to the comfort of my hamstring. I assumed my streak of sub-30 finishes would come to an end; I would be happy with anything under the 36-hour cutoff. Nonetheless, I'd printed out nominal splits for 30 hours, just in case. I'm an eternal optimist, and wasn't going to let go of this bit of ego easily. I told myself that my experience here would be the most important factor. I know how to run this race, and I know every part of it, what to expect, very well. I ran a mile or so with Marisa, but as she gradually drifted ahead, I knew it was unlikely I'd see her again. She disappeared for good when a train crossed the road, and I was the first person stopped. A minute lost, oh well!
As the first few checkpoints flew by (there are 75 of them, each with its own cutoff, spaced a couple of miles apart), I found that my comfort level had me actually running a bit faster than my 30-hour splits. Here I made my big mistake. I kept running to feel. My best performance ever came at Vol State 2021, where I threw out explicit pacing and ran by feel. Since then I've tried to incorporate this more into my racing. My brain should know by now how I should feel at various points in Spartathlon. About 15 miles in, I felt enormous waves of gratitude flow over me for being there then, still able to run my favorite race. It brought tears to my eyes. I ran with the flow. By the marathon point I was about 15 minutes ahead of where I should be for 30 hours, but I was not putting on the brakes. I began to have delusions of sub-29, maybe 28. My long-standing goal at Spartathlon has been to run sub-27 and/or top-10. I've run 27:01, and placed 16th. I was not so delusional today as to be thinking of those goals, at least.
And then it all came crashing down. My left calf cramped around mile 29. A cramp? This early?! That was ominous at best. I slowed down and alternated walking. But things did not improve. I had made the most basic mistake of all: starting Spartathlon faster than my fitness justified. I have always started slow here and finished strong. I don't regret trying something new, but this was not the year for it. I had misjudged the situation. The weak link was not my hamstring, but my training.
By mile 36 I'd fallen behind my 30-hour splits. Any thought of that was now out the window; it was all about survival. By Corinth, mile 50, I was in pretty bad shape. I asked for someone to tape my calf, but there was some miscommunication, and instead I got a calf massage. Which was great, but when I then asked again for taping, I was told it was too late, due to the massage oil. Oh well! Unfortunately I saw Amy and her crew here — she had already dropped, due to foot issues, and was now flitting around helping people. I asked for my phone, which I'd left in her crew car. I don't normally run Spartathlon with a phone, but this was no longer normal. The next major phase of the race is from Corinth to the mountain, mile 100. My calf was not improving, and I continued to bleed time. Somewhere in the hills before Ancient Nemea (mile 76) — the region of the race where I generally begin to feel tired — I was really down on the thought of slogging out the rest of the race. It was now apparent I'd be running well into the heat of the second day, something I avoid by finishing in under 30 hours. And this was a hot year, with the second day supposed to be hotter. Also 30 hours is about my limit for running without sleep. I know full well that finishing in 28 hours does not present nearly the challenges that the 35-hour runners face. Well, this year that was going to be me, and I was not happy about it. I saw that I needed to get out of this negative mindspace, so I called Amy. I had thought to ask her to start crewing me, actually, as she'd offered to earlier. When things are going well you can run Spartathlon with no crew, but things were not going well. But by then she was already in Gytheio, at the hotel, which was actually well south of Sparta. It would mean a couple hours' drive. So I didn't ask. But unloading my negativity helped. She reminded me to just keep going, that things would change. I knew that and was doing it; still, hearing it made it easier. For a while. Fortunately, somewhere around mile 80-85, I connected with Arthur Moore, a South African runner here for his 4th finish. He was a big fan of my race reports, and we had a grand time running and walking and chatting together for a few hours. I felt I was holding him back, but he insisted not. He told me that the three runners he was sure would finish this year were myself, Andrei Nana, and Aykut Celikbas (from Turkey). Well, sorry to disappoint you, Arthur! Somewhere in here was my first puking episode — I thoroughly and completely emptied the contents of my stomach. From there on, I pretty much wasn't getting any calories in. Arthur and I stayed together until the mountain base, then I sent him up the steep trail ahead of me while I took my time with my drop bag. The mountain ascent, a 1,000-foot climb in a mile and a half up technical trail with steep drop-offs in the dark, is known as one of the more challenging parts of the course. Balance can be tricky here on tired legs; I'm amazed there have been no serious accidents. But it has never been a real problem for me. It's a chance to walk, and generally the top arrives before I expect it. Not this year. It took all I had to slowly, painfully make it to the top. I thought it would never end. I was totally spent, and sat down in a chair at the aid station, legs shaking. Just when I felt about ready to stand up again, someone started smoking, and that sent me over the edge. Round two of thoroughly emptying my stomach contents. The mountain descent, down loose scree, is always my least favorite part of the course. My feet were trashed by the bottom. For the next few miles, Andrei, American Jess Hardy, and I were running near each other. Jess eventually pulled ahead; Andrei and I would play leapfrog for quite a while longer. The horizon began to lighten, far earlier along the course than it had any right to in my experience. Scarily so, promising dozens of miles of blast furnace ahead. The 20 miles between the mountain and Alea-Tegea, on back highways, are always a no-man's land for me. I've gone off course twice here in the dark. Well, it wasn't dark this year. I slowly began baking, and began struggling to stay awake. I had to sit for five minutes at CP 56 (mile 113). After Alea-Tegea we are on the main highway to Sparta for the rest of the race. There's an 800-foot climb over five miles, then several miles of rolling before the final climb and long 13 miles downhill into Sparta. The climb was wringing everything I had left out of me. I sat for four more minutes at CP 63 (mile 127), around the end of it. As I was now approaching the cutoffs, they urged me to be on my way. I started down the road, but immediately emptied my stomach for the third time. That just about did it for me; I was considering turning back. But then Andrei came up behind me, still moving. I didn't see how he was doing it. But if he was still going, I would keep going too. At this point it was one CP at a time, inching closer and closer to the cutoffs. I didn't see how I could make it to the next CP, but I did. I was baking in an oven, barely awake, my body not responding. Finally at CP 67 (mile 136), with 32 hours elapsed, I sat down in the chair and didn't get up. I could still see Andrei in the distance ahead. It was five minutes 'til the cutoff, but I told them I was done. They took my tracker, and, I'd forgotten, both bibs as well. That stung. Time expired, and a few minutes later, Americans Tom Jackson and Zandy Mangold arrived at the CP. They were over the cutoff, but allowed to continue if they wanted. I learned later that by this point in the race, the policy is to let runners continue if they want to. Tom and Zandy wanted to. I thought they were crazy — clearly from here it was impossible. So that was that, my race was over. Funny thing, in my mind, the very next CP, 68, signals the beginning of the end. After that it's a slow hike up to CP 69, then 13 fast miles into Sparta. Did I give up just too soon? Maybe, but I don't think so. Had I continued, I think it's very likely that, like Chad Ricklefs, I'd have been pulled at CP 68, a major medical station. They gave him an IV, then sent him on to the hospital, where he was stuck for the rest of the day. That could easily have been my fate too. Or maybe not. Somehow, Andrei, Tom, and Zandy all finished. The next order of business was to get to Sparta, so I could at least watch the others finish. I tried to call Amy, or any other American, to come get me, but the cell service was too flaky. So, it was to be the Death Bus, the fate of most who miss a cutoff. I didn't have to wait long. I boarded the bus, and we started down the highway... and stopped at CP 68. Um, how long would we be waiting here? Oh, maybe a few hours. Um. No, that was NOT OK. I was not well and needed to get back to the care of my American teammates. Thankfully, they put me in a taxi to Sparta, for which I was very appreciative. Once in Sparta, I connected to a group at a restaurant near the finish line. But I was too hot and faint and decided I needed to see medical. Probably I needed an IV. However they didn't have time for me at medical; that was for finishers. I got hold of Amy, and she took me to her car and ran the A/C for a while. We commiserated about our DNFs. After two DNFs in a row, she told me she was now content in her awareness that Spartathlon did not suit her strengths; she wouldn't need to return. But she had finished in her first try, in 2019. (It was no surprise to me when this stance softened a day or two later — she did apply for 2023.) I barely stayed awake, but stayed at the restaurant long enough to see the last finishers — including Andrei, Zandy, and finally Tom, who I believe now has the record for the slowest official finish at Spartathlon: 36:10:35. This is possible because the start was 15 minutes early this year, with the cutoff and finish clock times unchanged, to make up for early course detours.
Post-raceI learned that Camille had unfortunately dropped, after a run-in with a crew vehicle. Diana had repeated her win from last year, with an incredible 25:03, the second-fastest women's time ever — in a hot year, no less. Marisa was second with 25:34, the fourth fastest woman ever at Spartathlon, and the fastest American apart from Katalin Nagy. And Micah took the bronze with a very impressive Spartathlon debut of 27:24. On the men's side, the results were truly shocking. Not one, but two men surpassed two of Kouros' top-four finish times, for the first time ever. Like Diana, Greek runner Fotis Zisimopoulos repeated his win from 2021, but this year in an otherworldly 21:00 — which included going off course by seven kilometers! What might have happened if he had not? Kouros' best is 20:25. And Somiya Toru of Japan was not far behind in 21:18, a mark that would have easily won in any other non-Kouros year. It must be said, though, that we live in the era of super shoes, and also the course had much less support on it in Kouros' day, so a direct comparison with his performances is not possible. Sunday morning, we headed back from our hotel in Gytheio to Sparta in time for the Spartan Mile. It was a huge success this year, I believe the biggest crowd ever. The finish was hard-fought, with Israeli Chanan El Cohen winning with a time of 1:06 (one lap), as his neck-and-neck competitor face planted just before the finish line. After that we did a full mile for the die-hards, won by American Alex Ramsey in 5:58 (he gets bonus points for doing a literal mile, literally naked!).
It seems frivolous, but after the tremendous exertion of Spartathlon, the Spartan Mile is just the fun, light-hearted, joyful chance to connect that we all need. I rode back to Athens again with Amy and her crew, with the obligatory stop at the Isthmia Bridge Cafe (highly recommended). Monday evening was the awards gala, always a highlight of the trip. This year would be bittersweet, as I would not be called up to receive my finisher's medal and certificate. That was going to be hard. The gala was in a new location; it changes every few years. This is a nice venue. However as we settled in and proceedings began, there was nothing to eat or drink... the buffet dinner is always after the awards, but usually there are at least cocktails and then wine. A few of the Americans got a bit impatient and went out, bringing back pizza, wine, and other drinks.
The presenters go through each country in alphabetical order, calling up that country's finishers to the stage. It would be very strange to be a US non-finisher for once. But this year, now and then, an occasional non-finisher would be called up as well, an iconic runner from that country with several finishes, just to be part of the event, in honor of cumulative accomplishments. I began to wonder... did I have that status? It would mean a lot to me to be asked to join the team on stage. Well, I wasn't. And somehow, as I saw the US finishers on stage, and I wasn't among them, it all finally hit me like a load of bricks. I was losing it, crying uncontrollably. This was a part of my identity that was now irrevocably lost. I had some sympathy from my table mates as they guided me up to the buffet afterwards. After dinner, Sarah Moore (US runner) and Sarah Siskind (Julie Kheyfets' crew) plied me with some wine and a fair amount of tsipouro, an unassuming but potent Greek liquor I will have to beware of in the future. When the dancing began, the emotional rawness combined with the alcohol allowed me to participate fully and energetically — the most uninhibited dancing I've ever done. Usually here I sit on the sidelines until Zorba the Greek starts. That's relatively simple to participate in; just get in a line and jump up and down with everyone else. This year I must have danced a couple of hours, including up on the bar. It was exactly what I needed. Yes, there are videos. No, I'm not posting them here.