Saturday, October 15, 2016

Spartathlon 2016: My Greek Odyssey

It's been a long time since I have blogged, but if I am going to revive it, it may as well be for something big, and Spartathlon was epic!

The truth is, Spartathlon was never a "dream" race for me, more like a "eh, that might be interesting some day" kind of race. But my friend Bob Hearn ran it last year and was enamored with it and my running partner Dennis was also quite interested in it and spent time talking about how cool it would be to do.  So when the application period opened in January and Bob told me I had till May before I had to commit any money, I thought I would throw my name in the hat. Well, that was a very slippery slope! Sending in an application meant spending time on the website and learning a bit more about the race, so that by the time the lottery results came out, there was no way I was turning down my spot. (I met the auto-qualification standards by being at least 20% faster than the regular qualification standard of 24 hrs for a 100M run, so it wasn't exactly a shock that I got in, but I was still super excited to see the "Congratulations, you have been accepted to Spartathlon" email!). Well, on to Greece!

For those who don't know, Spartathlon is a 153.4 mile race from Athens to Sparta, recreating the journey Pheidippedes made in 490 BC during the battle of Marathon to ask the Spartans to send troops to help defend Athens from the Persians. Herodotus stated he left in the morning and arrived by evening the next day. And no, he didn't die when he got there! (that Marathon myth comes from a play written 500 years later, where the author took "artistic liberty" to make his play more dramatic). In 1982, Jon Fodden, a British RAF wing commander and lover of Greek history, set out to see if the feat was possible along with 4 other men. Three of the men covered the distance and the following year, the official race began. While the race takes place primarily on roads, one of the gnarliest features of the race is climbing the 4,000' Mt. Parthenion on rocky trail with 20% grade at mile 99. The race also covers two other hilly passes for a total elevation gain of more than 10,000 feet - paltry by trail standards, but when you are running more than 50% farther than a hundred miler, you feel that gain A LOT more!

Besides being steeped in history, Spartathlon is a smoking deal when it comes to racing. For 520 Euro  (about $580) you get 5 nights of hotel (plus a sixth night running!), all your meals, race entry, a nice luncheon with the mayor of Sparta, and a very nice Gala awards dinner with unlimited drinks included, plus some race schwag as well (finisher medal, trophy, 2 shirts, Greek food stuff, a race poster, free race pics and a race DVD). Crew can pay slightly less for the same room and board option. Mac and I kept a watch on airfare for quite a while and managed to get flights to Greece for $850 each. I'm not going to call it a cheap trip, but probably not terribly far off from what an East coaster would pay for themselves and crew going to Western States and definitely cheaper than Badwater! For us, traveling half way around the world is a big deal, so we decided to make the most of it and added an extra week to get the full Greek experience (cheap hotels are around 55-70 Euros/night). And in retrospect, getting there a bit earlier was good for getting over the jet lag.

After a lovely red eye flight on my birthday, we arrived at our AirBnB apartment in the Plaka (old town) of Athens. We spent three days in Athens, a day on the island of Hydra, and a day at the Oracle of Delphi. After an amazing week of touring, it was time to get into race mode!
The old Roman agora
 Athens, from the Acropolis
The original Olympic stadium
 The theater at the Acropolis
 The Caryatid columns
Hadrian's Gate
 Isle of Hydra


Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, picking Bob Hearn's brain on the race!

Bob and I ready to race
Team USA at the start
Starting at the base of the Acropolis was amazing with the marble all lit up in the still dark morning. Despite the fast paced "Euro style" ultra start, I stayed true to my plan, which put me in a whopping 99th place (out of 370) by mile 10. Sharing the streets with Athens traffic wasn't too fun, except it was cool how many people cheered and honked as the race progressed. I actually found myself a bit bored starting so easy and not having much scenery to distract me, so instead I occupied my mind with the names on runners' bibs, amused by things like Kevin Whyte dressed all in GREEN and coming up with song lyrics to fit the names: Luca ("My name is Luka"), Olaf ("let it go, let it go") and Chou Chan ("Ching Chong, it means I love you"). I hit the marathon mark in Megara perfectly, right between 25 and 26 hour splits at 3:46.

 Unfortunately, I did a terrible job holding the same conservative pace in the next 24 miles. I think several things conspired to get me a bit antsy and cause an uptick in pace: I was feeling good and warmed up after the slow start (yes, it takes me a marathon to warm up - ha!); it was joyous to run alongside the turquoise water with its cool breezes; bumping into Bob Hearn just before the marathon and having him tell me that our Garmins were reading long; getting greedy and wanting to be closer to 25 hour splits than 26; and finding out SIX women were ahead of me, when I had my sights set on a podium finish. I came through mile 50 at 7:14, going 12 minutes faster than my "best case scenario" splits for the 24 mile section. While I don't think the pace was taxing on my musculoskeletal system, I do think it started to tip my stomach for the worse. And with 100+ miles yet to go, you do not want your stomach out of line!

A scolding from Mac and the heat of the day helped me to rein it in and the next 40 miles passed in a blur of fruit and olive fields, views of the distant mountains, the long rays of the setting sun and the first bits of darkness with a million stars and just my little headlamp in the countryside. I moved well through this section, passing all but a dozen people, but it was getting harder and harder to take things in. Two pudding cups at mile 85 helped me on the climb to the base of the mountain and another pudding cup had me feeling good for the steep and rugged trail climb that starts at mile 99. As far as I can tell, I had the second fastest split of the entire race up the mountain trail- you can take the girl off the trail, but you can't take the trail out of this girl! I summited at mile 100.5 just below 16:20, still 20 minutes ahead of my "best case scenario."

 Miles and miles (and miles!) of Beautiful Greek countryside

And that is right about the time I was ready to be done!

I am sure a lot of it has to do with fuel intake. A couple 100 calorie pudding packs can only get you so far and by that time my stomach was just done. My legs were just one big ache going downhill and a huge blister on my left big toe popped mere steps over the summit, adding to the agony of the descent. I pretty much limped my way into Nestani at mile 106. Medical at Nestani had some magic fairy blister tape that was amazing. Seriously! - it went on like clear tape but absorbed water and formed a cushioning gel. If anyone knows what product this is, please let me know! But even with the toe taped and feeling much better,  I was in a super low. I couldn't take anything in, but also the mental load becomes so big at that point: you still have almost FIFTY MILES to go. Everything combined seemed like a crushing burden, an impossible feat and I was reduced to a slow miserable walk with a lot of self pity. Alone in the dark and cold with no idea where I really was and fixating on the ache in my legs, legs that would have to keep moving for another 13 hours at the pace I was going, I was seriously struggling... I spent more mental energy fantasizing about how to get a ride or a short cut to the finish than I should admit, but I just wanted it to be over. 20 hours of running seemed good enough! Yet, I knew I would never quit (or get a ride to the finish!). But somehow that was the opposite of comforting, like I was stuck in this Hell and I had no choice but to continue the torture.

In the late night, the fog settled in the valleys and the still damp air coupled with my sluggish pace left me chilled to the bone. I came into mile 115 shivering uncontrollably. I changed into every article of clothing I had, including my post race sweats. I got a thorough massage which helped with the muscle aches, but I was still shaking like a seizure victim and completely unable to drink any soup as I was spilling it all over me as my convulsing hand tried to bring it to my lips. When I left, I had no choice but to run (shuffle!) to warm up, which actually worked well, minus the two puke breaks! And then we hit the last long climb and I was back to suffering and walking.

Actually, at 4:30 in the morning it was more like stumbling. I have never had the "sleepies" before in a race, but it hit me big time in this one, likely the cold, lack of food and accumulated mileage taking its toll. Instead of blinking, I would take seconds long "eye rests" and I remember focusing on the white line of the shoulder trying to keep myself from weaving off my course. When I complained to Mac, he told me "No resting. Suck it up for another two and half hours and you'll be fine when the sun comes up!" That's some tough love! But stopping for a coffee helped and being able to sip juice again perked me up bit, too, so that when the sun did come up, I was indeed feeling much better...right until Mac told me, "the third place girl made up  huge amount of time and is only 17 minutes behind you!"

NOOOOO!!!! I din't want to have to "race" at the that point! 
"Well, then she is going to pass me," I told him. 
"Hold her off as long possible," Mac fired back. FUCK!!!

But I started to run. And it was terrible and not terrible at the same time. It didn't feel good, but it was doable. By the next crew stop, I learned I had clawed back another five minutes on the gap.  Well, just keep moving. And so I did, cutting across the highway multiple times trying to "run the tangent", eating up ground, and counting down the kilometers to Sparta. When the wheels come off, you have to somehow change the tires!

And then I was on the last turn, escorted by boys on bikes and kids that ran alongside. The sidewalk cafes were packed with people cheering as I deftly bounded up the stairs to kiss the feet of King Leonidas (the statue), all pain having left my body at that point. I MADE IT!!! Suddenly, the lows seemed so worth it and I was overcome with emotion. For 30+ miles I hated this race and everything to do with it, but at the end I had an amazing sense of accomplishment and I remember thinking specifically, "There are no limits!" 153.4 miles scared the shit out of me going in to this race, but afterwards all the longer stuff made sense - things like Joe Fejes running six straight days, the guys doing 3,100 miles in New York, Karl Meltzer on the AT, Pete Kostelnick running across the US (not that I want to do any of those things!). In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda tells a frustrated Luke Skywalker that there is no difference between levitating a stone and raising his space ship from the muck, that the difference is only in your mind. Spartathlon was my Yoda and it taught me that if you have the strength to get through the lowest of lows, you can DO anything! 
 Spartathlon was my Yoda! :)

In the end, I finished Spartathlon in 27:13, second female and 13th overall. That was definitely overshadowed by Katy Nagy's remarkable 25:25 win, but still the 6th fastest female time ever, 3rd fastest female "rookie"time and 2nd best women's masters time. While lovers of gnarly trail will balk at descriptions like "the world's most grueling race" for a road run with only 10,300 feet of gain, it was by far the toughest and most grueling thing I have done and it challenged me more than I even expected. Only after running it can I see why it has chewed up some of the best ultra runners in the world and why it has such a low finish rate (historically less than 50%). While running the race, I wanted nothing more than to finish and be done with it forever, but this is a race with a steep learning curve and I know I can do better.  And taking on a big challenge with the goal of achieving my best always gets me fired up, so don't be surprised if you see me on the starting line for this one more time! 
It's not super high mountains, but it is still super tough!

A big thanks goes out to the race organization for putting together this epic race and to the volunteers who staff 75(!) aid stations for hours on end. Also thanks to my mother-in-law for watching the kiddos and making the trip possible. But the biggest thanks goes to Mac, my super crew once again, who said this was also his hardest assignment to date and who slept a lot harder than I did when the race was over! Don't tell him I want to go back!
Podium!- The Sparta awards: starting at 8:30pm the day the race finished was a test of endurance in itself!
Athens awards gala
The post race Gala with Bob and race director Kostis


Unknown said...

Congratulations on a fine race, one of guts and determination, the only things that get most people through to the finish line. In the early years, only one in three finished. The roads have improved and times have gotten faster, but that knarly mountain trail at Sangas Foot still remains. I too thought it was a once in done, but missed the podium by one place, returned to get sixth and finally on the third try earned the 3rd spot. Returned another time and got 4th again, then thought I'd go back, but found other challenges. It remains in my sub-conscious, so one never knows. I had the honor in 2010 to place some of my race things in the Museum of Marathon, in Marathon, Greece and I placed my first Spartathlon shirt, along with my first USA team uniform and a Boston Marathon finisher's medal. Quite an honor! Thanks for your report and see you in a few miles...roy

Jackie said...

Thanks for the race report. You are so inspirational. So glad to hear that you are healthy and are taking on new challenges!

Tony C said...

Very awesome Pam! 16:20 at 100.5? That last 53 miles really had to hurt! Way to persevere. I love the last picture where you are holding up the American flag!!!

Anonymous said...


Nattu said...

Those tapes are called Hydrocolloidal dressings. I believe Compeed is one brand that makes those blister tapes.

Pam said...

Thank you! That stuff was the best blister treatment I have ever seen. I will look into that product to have in my crew kit for the future!

Trisha said...

A very impressie stort. Great work! Natte is right Aboutaleb the blisterdressings. Make sure you puck the Compeed brand. Thet are the best.

Bob Hearn said...

Pam, congratulations again on a fabulous Spartathlon debut.

Roy, I saw your things at the Museum of Marathon!

Thomas said...

Pam, congratulations on a huge effort! I find it absolutely amazing that you managed to keep going so strongly despite pacing yourself so aggressively in the first hours - that is superhuman!

All the best - I might see you at the start line next year? :)

Pam said...

Thank you, Thomas. Even though I averaged 8:46 pace through 50 miles instead of the 9 minute pace I had planned on, that is still slower than what i have run a couple 100 milers at, so even at that pace, there was gas left in the tank! During the race, I said "never again"; a couple days later, I thought "someday, but not next year." Now more and more I am thinking "hmmmm, I wonder if I could swing it next year." so yeah, a maybe. 2018 may be more likely - it is just a big time/money/family commitment.