Sunday, October 16, 2016

Spartathlon 2: The Quickening

Pic by Sparta Photography Club

A note to the reader: I write these reports mostly for myself, to get down everything I can remember that might be relevant to me in the future. Hopefully the detail is also useful to others preparing for the same race. But as an entertaining read, they tend to come up short. Or, rather, long. If you want to skip ahead to the good stuff, start reading at It Seems Like a Hundred Years. And if you want to know more about the history of Spartathlon, and what it's like to run it, see my Tolstoy-length race report from last year (twice as long as this one). The essentials are that it's a 153.4-mile race from Athens to Sparta, following the route that Pheidippides ran in 490 BC, as he recruited the Spartans to help defend Greece from the Persians at the battle of Marathon – a turning point in the history of democracy. The race respects the day and a half that he ran it in with a 36-hour time limit, which in most years the majority of the highly qualified field is not able to meet.

This report is more about my goals and mental states, and less about the scenery and experience, which I think I covered pretty well last year. Also pardon the Highlander puns. I couldn't resist.

There Can Be Only One

There is nothing else like Spartathlon. Last year, I ran it for the first time. It was an incredible experience, and I knew almost before it even started that I would have to come back. It is, indeed, The Greatest Footrace on Earth. Last year, I set an aggressive best-case goal of under 30 hours. I had some rough patches, but managed to pull it together and run 29:35, which I was absolutely thrilled with. Only a small handful of Americans have ever run under 30 hours. Problem: now what? How do I improve on what went better than I could possibly have imagined? Well, a lot has happened in the past year. I think I've improved as a runner. I've set two age-group American records (24-hour and 200K, for over 50), and my Spartathlon training peaked at 110 miles per week this year, vs. 90 last year. I wrapped up my training without even the slightest niggle or iffy muscle anywhere, for perhaps the first time ever, thanks to more diligent core and strength work (and a fair amount of luck, no doubt). Also there were things I did wrong last year I could try to fix. My dream race, this year, would be sub-27, and/or a top-10 finish. However, on the down side, I had Achilles' surgery in December, and a long slow recovery. I felt completely healthy, but my running had been limited to mostly flats, per doctor's orders. I didn't have the hill training I did last year, and success at Spartathlon relies on downhill speed and especially endurance. Added to that, I developed a blood clot in my calf after the surgery, which was still there. I'd been symptom-free all year, after starting on blood thinners, but still, it was in my mind. On balance, I decided 27:00 was really too optimistic. I worked up pace charts for 27:00, 28:00, and 29:35, based on the splits I ran last year, and what I thought I might tweak. My plan was to start by following the splits for 28:00, re-evaluate around halfway (Ancient Nemea), and speed up or (more likely) slow down. Of course, finishing at all is the main goal at Spartathlon, but my training motivation all year long had been to go back and run faster.

So – what did I do differently? Last year, I had a big low spot halfway through. Then when I was tired, I got blisters and had to stop and treat them. I lost a lot of time. But then I recovered and ran strongly for the rest of the race, with lots of positive energy to carry me through. This year I wanted to avoid or mitigate that early bonk if possible. I thought maybe it was a combination of dehydration and getting a little behind on calories. So I made more of an effort to drink, stay cool, and get enough calories (though still much less than typical for ultrarunners – my training to fuel primarily with body fat is a big advantage for me here). Also last year I chafed badly; this year I wore compression shorts. For shoes, I went with the Hoka Clayton, vs. Clifton 2 last year. The Claytons are lighter, but more importantly, wider in the forefoot; hopefully I could avoid last year's toe blisters. Also lots of little things, aimed at minimizing time messing with gear and running as unencumbered as possible. One big change was that last year I had a crew; this year, I would be without. I would miss the moral support, and the sense of shared experience, and the help they could provide if something went wrong. But looking at last year's split data, I saw I could also perhaps shave some time in checkpoints chatting with crew. Finally, last year I went off course and lost about 15 minutes; I'd be more attentive this time.

We Will Feel an Irresistible Pull Towards a Far Away Land, to Fight for The Prize

As before, I arrived in Athens on the Tuesday before the race, which starts on Friday; most people arrive Wednesday. This is a bit of a catch-22. Coming from the U.S., I wanted an extra day to get over the 10-hour jet lag. But arriving earlier also allows more time for a cold caught on the plane or in a new location to incubate. As it turns out, I probably was fighting off a cold during the race, though I didn't realize it until afterwards. Lacking a crew, I was put in a shared room this time in our hotel, the London, in Glyfada. As chance would have it, one of my two roommates was Rob Pinnington, a British runner, who had graciously offered to share his crew with me last year. This year he too would be going without crew; we would both miss Nick and Yiannis, and I'd miss Liz as well. My other roommate, also British, was Paul Rowlinson. I think I caused a bit of amusement with my pre-race prep of using my NormaTec compression pants (aka "The Wrong Trousers"). Eventually Rob had to try as well.

Pic by Paul Rowlinson

I met the rest of the US team over the next few days, those I didn't already know. One addition to the team this year was Pam Smith, whom I'd helped interest in coming. I expected her to certainly podium, and perhaps win. It depended on Katy Nagy, who had shattered the course record last year. She was back, but returning from injury, so a bit of a question mark. The previous women's record holder, Szilvia Lubics, was not running this year. That meant a likely 1-2 placing for the U.S. women again (last year it was Katy and Aly Venti). On the men's side, the pre-race U.S. favorites were Phil McCarthy and myself! Phil holds the U.S. record for 48-hour, and has been on the national 24-hour team five times. He's someone I very much looked forward to meeting. I don't have anywhere near those bona fides, but I was the top American male last year, and I had the course experience. Also returning from last year were Andrei Nana, going for his fourth consecutive finish (and an attempt at sub-30), and Chris Benjamin and Amy Costa, who had run but not finished last year. New were Regina Sooey, David Niblack, Mosi Smith, Paul Schoenlaub, Scott McCreight, Wyatt Hockmeyer, and Bradford Lombardi. Finally Brenda Guajardo was returning after finishing in 2014, and skipping last year. Somehow I never wound up meeting her.

With Mac and Pam at the Temple of Poseidon

At Last. The Gathering...

Race morning finally arrived, and we bused up to the Acropolis for what is far and away the most impressive and inspiring start in ultrarunning, in the shadow of the Parthenon. This is no ordinary race. Here we celebrate the birth of democracy 2,500 years ago, by recreating Pheidippides' incredible run before the fateful Battle of Marathon. You can't help but feel a part of the history yourself.

Pic by Mac Smith
Pic by Shannon MacGregor

Pic by Sparta Photography Club

A year had been a long time to wait since last time. Yet it also seemed like I'd just been here. 7:00 am, and we were off through the streets of Athens. As planned, I started by following my 28:00 splits. That would be an hour and a half improvement if I could hold it, really quite a lot to aim for. But I found it hard to run that slowly. Pam was nominally following splits for 26:00, and I caught up to her after a few checkpoints. She was running a bit slow, because her Garmin was off, and she was going by its indicated pace – something that, I admit, shocked me; she's a world-class runner, whose top strength is running smart. I have to sometimes remind myself that not everyone is as anal about pacing as I am. Running by pace and feel, and checking splits say at only major checkpoints, as I think Pam was doing, seems a lot more reasonable than trying to stick to a pace chart for 75 individual checkpoints. But I take comfort in the mechanical details here. I know the precision that I feel is illusory, but it still gives me a system that works, and also helps keep my mind occupied and engaged.

I was a bit fast here. But it was much cooler than last year, or so it seemed anyway, so I wasn't enormously worried. (Later I was told this year was typical, maybe slightly on the warm side, and that last year had been "very slightly" warmer the first day. Seemed like night and day to me. I thought it hit mid-80s this year, mid-90s last year.) Pam soon pulled away. I found myself close to the 27:00 splits, feeling great, having to take every opportunity to walk even to go that slowly. I know how easy it is to get sucked into starting too fast. But the cool day made me eventually decide that sticking with the 27:00 splits was reasonable. I tried to be diligent about keeping cool, even though it was cooler than last year. Unlike last year I didn't put ice down the front of my shirt. Last year it melted and ran into my shorts, aggravating the chafing. So I kept my checkpoint routine to squeezing a sponge down the back of the neck, eventually down the chest as well, on my arm sleeves, ice in hat, sometimes ice in sleeves. It was enough to stay cool.

One of us is not where we're supposed to be!
The first 50 miles it's mostly a game of not running too fast, where too fast means you will pay for it the rest of the race. Of course you won't know until you get there, so it's a little nerve-wracking. Most people run the first 50 too fast, in an unwise attempt to build a buffer on the tight early cutoffs. But I was cautiously optimistic of my pacing. Early I met Eoin Keith, Irish 24-hour runner, and ran with him a bit, chatting about 24-hour races and the upcoming World Championships in Belfast, where I hope to represent the U.S. Then I pulled away. Later he caught up and passed me, never to be seen again (he ran an impressive 26:37, finishing 8th).

At Megara, the marathon point, Pam's husband Mac was there; Pam was 5-6 minutes ahead of me. He said maybe he'd see me again at Corinth. I was pleased here to note that I had not a hint of chafing. Last year, it had been beginning to get bad already.

Pic by Kati Bell

A bit later, I met Australian Martin Fryer, and ran with him for an enjoyable few miles, also talking about 24-hour (and longer) races. Martin was also someone I'd been really looking forward to meeting. He holds the over-50 world record for track 24-hour, and is a prolific multi-day runner as well. I was pleased to discover some consonance in our approaches to pacing. Paul Beechey from the UK was running with us for a while here. I think he said he was following Paul Ali's splits for 32-33 hours. Then he pulled away! (He finished in 33:37.) Well, my pacing plan does have me starting much slower than most runners, relative to my planned finish. This is one of the best things about Spartathlon – it brings together talented runners from all over the world, and offers the perfect format to get to know them. Andrei and I then played leapfrog for a while, running together a bit before coming into Corinth. I walked the big hill approaching it; he ran it. Funny, last year I commented that the grade was so shallow it was hard to walk. This year it definitely felt like a walker, apart from the fact that my pacing chart had me walk it.

This will help the report make a bit more sense.

I hit Corinth (mile 49.7) a couple minutes ahead of pace, about 7:53. Much faster than last year. Would I pay for it? I was still feeling good. Time to evaluate. Andrei was ahead, but not much. Pam and Katy were ahead. Also Brenda, whom I'd still never met, was supposedly ahead, though I might have passed her. Phil McCarthy I had not seen since the start. He'd been secretive about his goals and pacing. ("Can I ask what you're thinking for 50 miles?" "I'm thinking about Corinth for 50 miles.") And David Niblack had pulled ahead of me a while back. I had no idea how he would do, but my expectation was that most people ahead of me at this point I would eventually reel in. So maybe five Americans ahead of me, wow. I'd had hopes of repeating as first American male again, at least, with Phil the big unknown there. He certainly had the background and skills to be able to run a fast Spartathlon. But I had the Spartathlon experience, and recent results. So that would be interesting. I was also kind of racing Pam – it was a rematch from a 24-hour race in May, where she beat me – though if we each ran what we planned, she'd be way ahead. Katy was an unknown this year. So there was an outside chance I'd be first American overall. But at this point all that was outside my control; I just had to hold steady with my pacing.

In Corinth David's crew were there. Somewhere before Corinth it had occurred to me that there was an interesting goal under 27, if I was having a great race: Aly Venti's time from last year, which I think put her third behind Jurek and Nagy as the fastest Americans ever at Spartathlon. But I didn't remember the time. 26 high. I was going to ask Mac at Corinth if he could find out before I saw him again, but he was already gone – Pam had pulled too far ahead. Later, I realized I could have asked David's crew. I saw them again in Ancient Corinth. They were so positive and supportive all day. But I didn't see them again after that until much later. So, David was doing well! Coming out of Corinth I soon passed Andrei, stopped with Claire working on some gear or something. This was the part of the course last year that was the hottest, where people started really suffering. It was definitely still cooler, but I was trying to be diligent about keeping cool anyway. Any heat at all means an increase in effort. Andrei caught up, and we ran together again for a while, into the Peloponnese countryside, through olive groves.

Eventually we hit 100K, Assos, and began the long, gradual climb, over the next 15 miles. This is where I started slowing last year. How would it go this year? Here I left Andrei behind again. In Zevgolation, where I'd left my headlamp last year, I signed a few autographs for children. Kept moving well. I was getting tired, but not as tired as last year, still holding closely to my splits. But I did have one problem. For a while now, my right calf had been getting increasingly tight and sore. I didn't worry much at first, but eventually, on the long climb, it reached the point where I thought it would cramp. Logic said to slow down, I guess, but I didn't at first. Then I began to imagine that the right calf was swollen, or that the blood vessels were protruding more than on the left. That's where I got my blood clot in January, and it was still there, as per ultrasound a week before. Was this a sign of a problem? I was getting worried that if there was really something going on related to the blood clot, I would have to stop to be safe. A pulmonary embolism can kill you, and at the least would be supremely painful. I had taken a single salt pill earlier, hoping it might somehow help the calf; it hadn't. It might have helped prevent dehydration a bit?

It's a Kind of Magic

Finally I hit my first drop bag, in Soulinari, two stops later than last year. By now I was beginning to fall behind my 27-hour splits by a few minutes. Here I had my headlamp, but also the first of four staged HotShots, a new supposed cramp preventer. I don't generally cramp, but I like to be prepared. I downed it, and within a minute, the calf pain and tightness were gone. Wow! Maybe it was the result of sitting for a minute to deal with my drop bag? But no. It stayed fine. In fact it was fine the rest of the race. I did drink the other three as well. Thank you, HotShot. Your marketing sucks, but your product may have saved my race.

Andrei caught up again somewhere in here, and we had a conversation about neurons and cramping. Finally, somewhere between there and Ancient Nemea, I left him behind for good. I saw Kostis Papadimitriou, president of the International Spartathlon Association, at one of these checkpoints, and high-fived him. Saw him again at Ancient Nemea (mile 76.6), a major checkpoint. Here I was feeling good and was in and out quickly. I finally turned on my headlamp (so again, staged too early). Last year I'd turned it on in Halkion, three checkpoints earlier. So far, so good! This is where I was really hurting last year, chafing, tired, and about to blister, losing lots of time. I think I began to catch back up to 27:00 splits here this year. This is when the mental game starts to get pretty important. Last year after I recovered, I was energized, flying down the hills. How would that work this year? I got through the next downhill stretch OK, started the long uphill on dirt road. Definitely tired. Was I ready to start cranking? Finally the big downhill into and past Malandreni started. I was running OK, pretty fast, but I didn't have the same energy as last year. This worried me. I would need that energy if I wanted to hold to the 27:00 or even the 28:00 splits. Looking back now at the data, I was actually running faster here this year. Huh! By this point I had another problem as well. I was fueling just with Coke, as I did last year. But starting even before Ancient Nemea, I was having to pee every mile or two. This didn't start until the last 20 miles or so last year, and had never been an issue in 24-hour races. What was going on??? I was wasting a lot of time. I figured it was the caffeine, though I didn't know why the effect was different this time. But I started taking some crackers for my calories every 2-3 checkpoints instead of Coke. It might have helped a little. In the end I think I spent 20-30 minutes just heeding nature's call. Also somewhere in here I caught up to Ian Thomas, 57, running strong. Again, he said, he had started too fast, after swearing he wouldn't. But he would go on to run a sterling 29:14, the first British finisher. Coming into Lyrkia (mile 92), and especially from there to the mountain, I definitely felt slower than last year. But the splits were actually pretty close. However, I was supposed to be running faster this year, so I did begin losing time on my 27-hour splits; I was 7 minutes behind by the mountain base. There, I had staged trail shoes, with more Hokas on the other side, because the descent last year had been brutal in the Hokas. But the Claytons were working well for me; I had no real issues, and kind of didn't want to spend the 4-5 minutes it would probably take to swap shoes, and timing chip, twice. So I just kept on the Hokas. I regretted that pretty quickly going up; parts were slippery in the Hokas. I had grabbed a longsleeve and tied it around my waist, but didn't feel the need to wear it. Also I switched headlamps at the mountain base – faster than swapping batteries, which I'd done last year. I hit the mountain top, 100.5 miles, at 18:05, vs 19:44 last year. Coming down the mountain on loose scree, it was not fun, but somehow not nearly as bad as I'd remembered. Last year I had toe blisters, which hurt like hell. I felt like I ran faster this time, but again, the data doesn't back me up; I was a minute and a half slower from the mountain top to Sangas! Odd. On balance I probably would not have saved enough time in the trail shoes to make up for switching twice. At Sangas, I made a mistake, ditching the longsleeve. Why not? The mountain was warmer than last year, and the second day was supposed to be warmer, and I had been comfortable last year even in the rain in just my singlet. Oops.

It Seems Like a Hundred Years

Now the tough part of the race, for me, begins. You've had an exciting, and social, first day, all leading up to the big challenge of the mountain. Now, that's past, and it's a long, flat, dark, boring, isolated 20 miles from Sangas to Alea-Tegea, and you already have more than 100 miles on your legs. It is hard to hold focus, with no stimulation and no imminent goal beyond the next nondescript checkpoint. I did not run this stretch as well as last year; I walked more. I was tired. I fell farther and farther behind the 27:00 splits. Well, those were supposed to be unrealistic anyway. I was just hoping I could keep ahead of the 28:00 splits. Even those would require me to run the last 13 miles pretty fast. The stars kept me company here, as I watched Orion rise. I became a little philosophical about how the race was going. I was ahead of last year, but I might finish "only" an hour ahead. I figured the weather alone was good for that. I had trained so hard to improve, and be in better shape, this year. Yet I did not have the energy in the second half that I had last year, especially past the mountain. This race is a hell of a lot of work and pain and suffering to go through; there needs to be a reward. Maintaining the status quo was not enough. Also, I was lacking something of the excitement of last year. It was all new then. This year, I felt like, wait, I already ran this stretch. I already did all this hard stuff; I remember it like it was yesterday. I already earned it. I have to do it again? Why on Earth would I choose to do that? And this is something I'd been thinking I'd have to do every year?! These were negative thoughts creeping in that had not crept in last year. Well, different negative thoughts, in different places, I guess. No race of 100 or more miles is without them. You just have to not let them hurt you. I decided that my pacing plan was crap. I'd taken the splits I ran last year, tweaked them to make them a bit more sensible, and then just scaled them down from 29:35 to 27:00 and 28:00. But you can't really do that. Not all paces or terrains scale equally. In particular, one big change is how many hills you run vs. walk. Easy flat running was not that much faster this year than last year, so I was falling behind. Pam was following my 26:00 splits, scaled the same way, which would be even worse. She was going to kill me. The Garmin got low battery at 20:00 this year, vs. 22:00 last year. 40 hours in ultra-trac mode, yeah right. I turned off the GPS. Still slipping. There was one checkpoint where I somehow lost 5 minutes on my target splits! Damn. That would be a problem if it became a pattern. At this point, with the checkpoint numbers up in the 50s, I could afford to give up a minute or two per checkpoint and still do well. At about 115 miles, I finally caught Phil, sitting in a chair. I had thought he was out, actually, because the guy at the mountain top was asking everyone's nationality. He told me I was the second American man, and the first one had a white shirt (must be David). Phil had a green shirt. Well, here he was, not out! But he was having his calves worked on, and didn't look like he would be catching me. I wished him luck and moved on. OK. Now where was David? Pam? Katy? I was assuming here I'd passed Brenda somewhere, but still wasn't sure. Finally, coming into the major checkpoint of Alea-Tegea, I made sure to pay careful attention to the course markings, as this is where I'd gone off course last year. I stayed on the course this year, though oddly, I couldn't identify the intersection where I'd gone wrong, even though it was burned into my brain. I had strong, but not completely accurate, memories. (This would become a pattern after the race; just ask Pam and Mac.) Last year it was almost dawn here, and I'd dumped my headlamp. Not this year! I had ditched my water bottle when it got dark, also my belt and hat, running unencumbered. It was time to start re-encumbering. I picked up a new bottle in preparation for heat the second day. During the night I'd attached my clip-on shades to the back of my headlamp band. I think this un-encumbering strategy worked well. The problem is there was uncertainty about where I'd be when it got light. So I had one drop bag here with a bottle and a hat, and another later with a visor. I was running towards the fast end of projected, so I wouldn't need a hat for a while, and left it there. Now, about mile 121, I was in a sense already smelling the finish. I know the course very well. I had to just walk up a big, long hill, then start picking people off on the long rollers, then downhill into Monument, one more big uphill, then fast finish all the way to Sparta. If I could hold it. It was a lot thinner here than last year; I was seeing very few people. I thought maybe that meant I was in the top 15ish? (No.) Again, I walked the entire long uphill, though I was afraid I would lose more time. Indeed, 27:00 was now far out of reach, and I was rapidly losing my cushion on 28:00.

Don't Lose Your Head

As I walked up the long hill, about 800 feet of gain over five miles, it was still dark. And now very, very cold. With just my singlet, I was freezing, wishing for dawn to come. I had no warm clothes staged past the mountain. My breath was visible, hands were numb. The problem was the long stretch of walking, which last year had been in daylight. I began to lose mental focus, and to hallucinate. Again, the same road signs looked like runners, and even knowing this, it was very hard to shut down the perception. I was definitely mentally not as together here as last year. Why not? Pushed myself harder? Effects of low blood sugar, that I was supposed to be immune to? I didn't know. The most interesting hallucination was the white line on the road. If I looked straight down, it was clearly a hugely intricate artistic creation, with overflowing filigree and detail. It was marvelous, with exuberant colors. How amazing, that Greek public works would go to all that effort. Looking ahead, it was a painted white line, chipped, with dirt and stuff on it. It took a lot of concentration not to get lost in that beauty, and keep my grip on reality. This was kind of scary. I needed to hold it together for quite a while longer yet. Finally, the top of the hill! A guy in a car made sure I knew it was the top. "Downhill now! Run!" "I'm working up to it!" This was I guess my low point this year, though not nearly as low as last year. Because this was where I was supposed to unleash it, start flying on the flats and downhills and pick people off left and right. Well, first of all there were no people to pick off. But the real problem was, the instant I started to run, the right TFL screamed in agony. It said, no way. You cannot do that. I limped along for a bit, trying to ignore the pain, but to not much avail. It looked like my race might be over. Oh, I would finish, which is after all what counts, but if I had to walk it in I could forget about even beating last year's time, or sub-30, let alone 27 or 28.

Why Does the Sun Come Up, or are the Stars Just Pinholes in the Curtain of Night?

So yeah, I can't run. A little later, and the right tib. anterior also begins to hurt quite a bit when I try to run. What can I do? Finally a lightbulb goes off. I have Advil in the pocket of my handheld! I'd never used it in a race before, but now would be the time. Unfortunately I came to this realization just after leaving a checkpoint. My bottle was empty, because it was still dark, and I was getting enough fluid at the checkpoints. So I had to wait another couple miles for water to get the pills down. Maybe I should have tried to choke them down dry. Now, maybe I was already feeling a bit better, but somewhere in here, before or after the Advil, I began to be able to run again. So run I did. Gradually, I ran faster and faster. The sun finally rose. Almost immediately, it was blasting heat. This was going to be a hot day. On the rollers here, when I started running, I kept expecting to see David, as I'd caught Ken Zemach last year. Nope. I did pass one or two people, but not the hordes I was passing last year.

Eventually, I reach the downhill into Monument checkpoint, 68. I am excited now, but mentally starting to lose it. Thoughts are becoming uncoordinated. This is way beyond the simple visual hallucinations I had last year. I was TIRED. This does not happen to me in races. I was going places, mentally, I'd never been before. Well, that's what ultrarunning is all about, right?

At Monument, the volunteer told me I was #22. Huh. I'd thought I was higher up than that. Definitely faster performances this year, all around. Time to hike up the last big hill. Now I was feeling good, physically and emotionally, if not mentally, but still not sure about times. Tracking the 28:00 splits, I'd been steadily losing time. 12 minutes ahead, 10 minutes ahead... as I'd started running again, the leak had slowed and turned around. Yes!!!! But I still had to earn it by running the last 13 miles fast. Here, my Garmin appeared to die for good. But evidently it just restarted. So I could still track my splits. But it began giving me low battery alerts increasingly frequently. On the uphill, I passed at least one guy. Finally, the top of the hill. About half a mile before checkpoint 69, I think. 13 miles to go, almost all downhill! But as I reached the top of the hill, I was terrified, because my mind could not hold onto the logic of the simple mechanism of checking my splits. Lap in, lap out, compare lap in time to 28:00 split on my pace chart for that checkpoint, note how far ahead or behind. I was falling asleep, and my mind was wandering into dreamland. This simple task became enormously complicated, and I couldn't figure out what to do. Fortunately, when I started running again, it was better, for a while.

You Have Power Beyond Imagination

It appeared that I could hold my 28:00 splits if I could run 9-minute miles to the finish. Last year I'd needed to hold 10-minute miles. Downhill, yes, but with 140 miles on their legs, most runners are not running anything like 9- or 10-minute miles at this point. If I could actually run faster, as I did last year, I had a shot at beating last year's time by two hours, 27:35. I would be pretty happy with that. But after another couple of checkpoints, the Garmin died for good. I was flying blind now. I'd put so much work into this, I couldn't risk not accomplishing my main goal, sub-28. I figured that meant I just had to run as hard as I could for the finish. So I did. Like last year, I was skipping checkpoints here, in and out, no time to stop.

Pic by Τούμπουρα Βάσω

Once the Garmin died I started losing it again. I thought I was at least keeping track of which checkpoint was which. But I was wrong. I flew down the hill, passing a couple more people. Finally I came into a checkpoint and saw David's crew. I asked how he'd done. "He's just a few minutes ahead of you!" "Oh, wow! I'd better go then!" I grabbed a Coke and was off, feeling like a jerk, as his crew had just aided the competition. Well, it didn't really matter, I was going to be pushing hard as long as I could anyway. I was still flying. It felt like even faster than last year. Now, I noted that this was checkpoint 73. That meant just one more, in Sparta, then the finish. That's what my brain perceived, and that's what it told my body. That's how it measured out remaining resources. A few minutes later, sure enough, there's David, running with someone else. I fly by both of them, giving him a hearty congratulations on an excellent race. Really, I don't think he was on anyone's radar, and here he is running a sub-28! Fantastic. But, will he try to catch me? No. No one here can move anywhere near as fast as I am running, it seems. And 20 miles earlier I'd thought my race was over, unable to run at all.

This is the most mysterious thing to me about this year's race. Where did that come from? I was pretty much toast, physically and mentally. Muscles had been pushed too far; no amount of willpower could overcome that. Well, I guess the Advil probably helped. Still, boom, I was ON. I was 100%. I was FLYING. After feeling more drained, more damaged, than last year, I was outrunning even those very fast splits. Looking at the splits now, I averaged 7:06 pace down the hill. There is nothing like the glory and sense of accomplishment of finishing Spartathlon. And I was feeling it, reveling in it. But. After I passed David, the road kept going... and going... and going. Sparta didn't look any closer. I knew the last checkpoint was in Sparta, in the flat. Something wasn't right here. Finally, after a very long way, I came into the next checkpoint. But it was still not in Sparta. "How far to the finish?" "5.5k." "WHAT??? This is checkpoint 74, right?" "Yes." And the sign said 74. I swear it did. Leaving, I was incredibly confused and frustrated. I know how this race ends; I've run it before. This was not right. I know the checkpoints didn't move this year; I'd checked every single one in my spreadsheet vs. the official checkpoint plan. Was I hallucinating so badly that I couldn't read 74, that I heard them say 74, when it wasn't true? My perceived reality was inconsistent. Was I even awake at all, running Spartathlon? Was I lying in a ditch somewhere, dreaming? All I knew was here I was expecting to crank it in and FINISH, and I had to run another three miles. Well so much for my goals. I began to lose motivation, and slow down and walk here and there. I'd given it all I had, and expected to be done. Eventually I came into Sparta, and there was ANOTHER checkpoint 74. They swore that no, the previous one was 73. Well. Obviously something was really wrong, but here at least I recognized where I was. There was just one thing. How much time had I lost running through the Twilight Zone? I asked the time: 10:18 am. OK. 2.5k to go before 11:00. I have my sub-28. I couldn't even do the simple math beyond that to think about 27:35, though I was thinking that was gone.

So Now it Ends...

I ran what I could the rest of the way, but there are some hills here that I walked, flanked by kids on bikes who couldn't comprehend why I'd be walking there. Finally, at long last, the final turn. 400m to Leonidas!!! Now I had it, I was thrilled beyond words. Everything had started to come together as I flew down the hill; I'd been thinking now, if I could only catch David, that would be icing on the cake. Oh well. Yet there he was; I'd caught him. Catching Pam would be too much to hope... plus I was thinking she had a very good shot at winning, depending on how Katy fared coming back from injury, and I really was pulling for her to do well. There is nothing like that final 400 meters. Finishing the Boston Marathon doesn't even come close. Like last year, I finished strong. I kissed Leonidas' foot and I was DONE. Mac was there, taking photographs. I received my olive wreath; I drank my water from the river Evrotas. The finisher award this year turned out to be golden olive leaves on an acrylic base. I guess they are changing it every year now, after doing medals for so long. I hadn't heard my finish time or place, and asked. After I got to the medical tent, I was told 27:33, 16th place. I had thought 16th, if 22nd had been right, and I'd counted correctly as I passed people. 27:33!!! After all that, I JUST beat last year's time by two hours. In the end, a nearly perfect result. It sure didn't feel that way when it was happening. 

Pic by Sparta Photography Club
Pic by Sparta Photography Club
Pic by Mac Smith

Pic by Ina van Delden
Pam was there in the medical tent too. How did she do? Turns out she'd come in just 20 minutes ahead of me, 27:13. So, no 26:00. Katy had won again resoundingly, though not quite as fast as last year. Pam was second. Podium!!! Also the sixth-fastest female finish ever. I tried to express to Pam and Mac what I had just gone through, but failed. My mind was well and truly gone here. The race officials put me in a taxi all the way to Githio, even though Mac was also driving Pam – I was not allowed to go with them. I was fading in and out of consciousness the entire way. About those checkpoints. I think what must have happened, suggested by Pam or Mac, is this. Every checkpoint has lots of info on the board. The checkpoint number in large digits, distance to the next checkpoint, and the next checkpoint number, smaller. So somewhere around 72-73 I must have latched onto the next checkpoint number on the signs, instead of the current one. That's the kind of lapse in focus I can plausibly see happening. I still don't think I can have completely hallucinated the wrong numbers -- or being told I was in checkpoint 74 when it was really 73. Maybe a language issue there.

Patience, Highlander. You Have Done Well.

I told Mac and Pam that this was my biggest race effort ever. It felt like 3-4 races, or 3-4 lifetimes. "Hardest" race ever? In a sense I guess. But overall the thing is that it was just a huge effort. I've had lower lows, I think. I just didn't give up. I put a massive amount of energy and suffering into it, and I survived, and got the payoff. Pam said it was the hardest thing she'd ever done. And yeah, was not happy with those splits I'd given her for after the mountain either. But then, it turns out she'd actually picked up to 25:00 pace at some point – she hadn't told me she'd even generated those splits. I made up a lot of time on her after the mountain. A little longer and I'd have caught her. You're up 2-0 now, Pam. Bring your A game to Belfast (if I can get there!). Martin and Phil finished 41st and 44th, with solid times, under 31. I'm still not sure where I passed Martin. The whole way, I was thinking first finisher over 50 was out, as he was ahead. But no – I was the first finisher over 50. This is a race I have to be really happy with. Still, there's not much glory for 16th place. I'm a different runner than I was a year ago. I see myself in a higher tier at this kind of race, when I make it my training focus for the year. But I'm still 50. Well, 51, now. I'm probably kidding myself if I think I could ever, e.g., podium here. Yet I still have to ask myself, how did 27 slip away? Did I run the best race I could? The race has three roughly 50-mile stages: start to Corinth, Corinth to the mountain, mountain to finish. In comparison to last year, this year I ran those stretches 40 minutes, one hour, and 20 minutes faster than last year, respectively. The middle segment is where my down patch was last year, so that's no surprise. But the most important number is that 20-minute improvement over the last 53. Last year I went off course here 15 minutes, so it's really only 5 minutes faster. Also, as fast as I flew down the hill last year, faster than all but one other runner, this year I ran it 11 minutes faster: 1:44 vs. 1:33, from checkpoint 69 to the finish. I really cannot comprehend where that came from. But what that means is that apart from going off course last year, I was actually 6 minutes slower this year from the mountain to the top of the final hill. That's not good. What can I do about that? I think it comes down to focus, attitude, and mental toughness. I just wasn't as positive here this year as I was last year, and it showed. Finally when I could run it in, and I had the solid result in my grasp, that made enough of a difference. But there's a simpler, more mundane, answer as well. Why did I have to pee so much? Why was I so tired and unfocused, more than I have been in any other race? Why did I lack the energy I had last year, until I could smell the finish? All of this is explained by the fact that I was evidently fighting off a cold, which hit me hard after the race. It's not always all about grit and deep soul-searching. Sometimes it's just something stupid. Other than that... if I want to do significantly better here, say an hour faster, I think there's nothing for it but to train harder. A better mental game, or not being sick, might have gotten me 27:00, but I think not much more. Fortunately, I don't think I've yet hit my limit in training volume. It's all about not getting injured, and stringing together enough high-mileage weeks. Well, it's not all about that, but that's a direction I can move in and aspire to further progress, anyway. I can't wait 'til next time.

With Martin Fryer and  Phil McCarthy

With ISA president Kostis Papadimitriou and Pam Smith. One of my favorite pics.