If the miles behind me could be put into words before you, you would feel my efforts, my struggles, my desires. Most of all you would see my joy. Watch me from afar run the trails and hills and miles upon miles and you will see ...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Spartathlon

I guess it only makes sense that the longer the race, the longer the race report, right? Suffice to say that no amount of words will ever be able to convey all that we went through before, during, and after the race. How do I describe every detail of emotion that someone and their crew goes through over almost 28 hours? I'll try and not make it too epic. I have to first of all say one more big thanks to someone I neglected to mention in an email I wrote before we left. That someone is Colin McKay, my Active Release Therapist from Precision Health in White Rock. He was instrumental in getting my IT band back to a somewhat normal state which enabled me to make it to the start line with more confidence than I would have had.

Let me say that I never really knew what was going to happen in this race - there are so many factors that can come into play like weather, distance, stomach issues, foot problems, shin splints, IT band tightness, and just simply would I have what it takes to continue when it got tough. Before and after the race I had so many emails from people saying that they knew I could do it and that I'd do well, but deep down I wasn't sure if things would fall into place or if I'd crash and burn. Luckily it worked out but with the amount of training in the three weeks before the race, I was skeptical.

We arrived at the Athens airport Wednesday and picked up our rental car. Armed with no map, only instructions to "follow this road" (pointing away from the airport) from the rental guy to get to our hotel, overtired and overconfident, we set out. We made a bunch of wrong turns on the highways which led to four unnecessary trips through toll-booths (3 euros each), sometimes twice, until we finally grabbed a map and realized we were going north instead of south. Once that was settled we got closer to the hotel and asked one last person at a store for directions but by that time we needed to turn around to pick up Ian at the airport. We drove around for two hours trying to get to the hotel and in the end once we figured things out it was only a twenty-five minute drive. All this done while navigating the roads with no signs and the crazy Greek drivers flying up behind us, horns honking, scooters and motorcycles whipping in between cars through traffic. You didn't want to be doing 90 in a 50 zone in the left lane because there were still cars wanting to go faster than that and they let you know it!!

At the London Hotel in the area of Glyfada we picked up the race package and checked in only to find that there weren't any more rooms at this one and we were to try one down the road. Off we went to the Emmartina across the street but they only had a triple room with one spot in it so that's where Ian stayed. I believe he got the better deal as we were sent next door to the Lost in the Sixties Hotel Mirada. I haven't mentioned the fact that nearly every Greek citizen smokes and being twenty years behind our regulations, they can smoke pretty much anywhere. "No Smoking Rooms"? Never heard of 'em. You could smell the stale cigarettes in this place - in the lobby, halls, room, sheets. It was everywhere. As a side note I'm down to only one pack a day now from the two a day habit I picked up there. Anyways, it was only for two nights at this place as we were off to Sparta on Friday. We only had Thursday to sleep in and then after a pre-race meeting it was up early on Friday.

There were buses to take the athlete's to the start and even though we had the car I thought it a safe bet to be on the bus in case everything went south and we couldn't find the start. The Acropolis is a big place and a fair ways away so it wouldn't do to not be able to get to the starting line on time. Carrie and Ian and a bunch of other support cars started following the buses but I knew after thirty seconds they could be in trouble. We were doing 70km/h after one block and speeding up. The bus was running yellow lights and I could only imagine the chaos going on behind us. As it turned out, a bunch of the cars ended up running a few red lights to stay with us. When I finally met up with Ian and Carrie, Ian described the trip as something out of The French Connection. Well done, Carrie!!

What a sight at the start line with the Acropolis lit up in the background. You could really feel the history coming from everywhere, not just the race. With very little fanfare we started at 7am. It was mostly downhill for a mile or so and we started spreading out along the course. I chatted with Stacey Bunton, from Oregon, the eventual second woman to finish. I have to say that the first two hours of this race were unlike anything you'd ever see in North America. Most of our races, road or trail, are done on a Sunday morning where if roads need to be closed down it's for a short time and doesn't interfere with the all-important daily commute. Here we were running in and amongst traffic on Friday morning with not all the drivers being very fond of it at all. There were plenty of police but at times cars were pulling out in front of us, almost brushing us with their mirrors, and generally making it a little scary at times. There was plenty of horn-honking going on that's for sure. We ran in the same direction as traffic for this time which I don't like because too many cars never gave us any room. The Greeks don't like pedestrians to begin with so this must drive them crazy.

After a while we veered off the main highway and onto a less busy but still quite well-used road. Every one of the 73 checkpoints had a sign that listed the distance travelled, distance to the next point, distance to Sparta, the closing time of this and the next checkpoint. I loved this because you could really keep track of your fluids and what you would need until the next one. It also was a mental help when the race wore on because I could figure out how long it would be until I saw the crew again. I can't imagine doing this race unsupported. So many times I changed my needs and shoes and clothes. If you miscalculated something or needed to eat differently you had no choice if you dropped things off at certain aid stations. I can't remember at which point it actually was but I saw the cutoff for it and I don't think I was seeing things but it said that it closed in twenty minutes!! I thought, holy crap I'm cutting this pretty close!! How are all the other people behind me going to make this point in time?!?! I actually sped up at this point because I wanted a bit of a buffer once I got to the first crewed checkpoint. Running fast through the next little town was just nuts. Like I said, it would never happen over here. Try and imagine a narrow roadway with cars parked on each side. Then imagine a semi-truck trying to maneuver through them, all this while trying to run between it and the parked cars. I was bouncing off mirrors and barely avoiding going under vehicles. And amidst all this, townspeople were clapping and cheering for the runners too. Only in Greece.

I had planted my one and only drop bag at the 40km mark and had planned to change shoes and refill my CarboPro 1200 container. My socks felt pretty good so I figured I'd go until 81km when I saw the crew and do it there. What to do with my socks then? I stuffed them into my waistband and didn't give them much thought until I got to where Ian and Carrie were waiting at checkpoint 22, Hellas Can. Just before this point we crossed a bridge and I looked left and right and saw the canal which had been carved out of the land to allow ships to pass through. I stutter-stepped as I slowed to have a look at this marvelous creation. At the station I changed socks, did a bit more taping to the toes, re-fueled and was off. I had passed the marathon point in about 3:30 and the double at around 7:15.

From here the weather was heating up. I saw on one electronic sign for a bank that it was 32 degrees. Did the sauna training help me? I hope it did after all those weeks of going there plus wearing extra clothes during training runs. This whole time I was drinking only a bottle with CarboPro powder in it and getting a big drink of water at every aid station, around 3-4km. I was sipping the 1200 every twenty minutes but for some reason my stomach wasn't liking it. I think I wasn't getting enough water. I had to take a whole cup at the aid station which I'm not used to doing and it took a while to digest. Usually I carry two bottles, one being water, and take turns sipping both. Anyways, long story short, I switched to a solution of just CarboPro powder, still drinking water at the aid stations and having a Thermolyte electrolyte tablet every thirty minutes. All this must have been effective because I never had any leg cramping issues the whole race, not even a hint that they would seize up on me. Could have been the excessively slow speed in which I was moving. The only thing was that I was CRAVING a huge gulp of something cold. There was never any ice at the stations until around 100km when I just happened to ask at this one and low and behold they had some. Oh it felt good. I arrived at aid station, 26, Ancient Corinth where I interrupted the crew's lunch at a small restaurant. They hustled over, offered fries (which I declined) and filled the bottles. They asked if there was ice anywhere and someone from the aid station ran over to a store and came back with a bag of ice for us. This was a cool spot that we stopped back at on the way home from Sparta because there was lots of souvenir places. The ruins were okay too :)

I changed into my newer shoes around the twelve hour mark, hoping they would offer a bit more cushion until the finish. The small blisters I had been feeling were getting worse so at station number 35 (124km) I was looking for medical staff but there weren't any there and would have to wait until number 40 (140km). They didn't feel too bad, just getting big. I met with the doctor and sat down on a mat. The guy, along with probably twenty onlookers, promptly drained them and covered them with some gauze. I wasn't thinking straight or I would have put some second skin on them because all that the gauze does is make more friction. Anyways, after a fifteen minute hiatus I changed shoes and continued painfully on. It got bearable a few kms down the road. This was around 9:30pm.

The next stop I'd see the crew, Ian said, was at the base of the mountain we were to climb - a rustic, narrow goat path that climbs to around 3000 ft. Funny enough, as I was running along I could see these lights way up this mountain and cars going along switchbacks. I wasn't sure we would be going up these but then I started climbing. These things went on and on and although I was running them, they took forever. When I finally met up with Carrie and Ian, I said, "I thought I'd see you at the BASE of the mountain?!?!" This was like a halfway point with the most rugged part to come. On with my long sleeved shirt and a change back into my older slightly larger shoes and up I went. It was pretty cool with all the glow sticks and flashing lights leading the way up. I was surprised when the walk to the top was over because I was expecting a much more difficult and longer endeavor. Coming down the other side was fun with my blisters and knees crying out in protest. At the bottom was a tiny little village with no one around because of course it was after midnight now and cold out. It didn't feel that cold but the crew said it was only 4 degrees at the top of the mountain. I think this was where I put on my jacket at a tiny little aid station in the tiny little village. I was so messed up that I initially put it on over my tank top (which had my numbers on it) and so had to remove the jacket, take off the tank top, then put the jacket on with the tank over top. Whew. It was tough fumbling with the zipper and cold hands. Soup was a blessing and I had some at every station that offered it. Running at this point was a bit eerie. There was no one around and at every intersection I would stop and look for arrows painted on the ground to make sure I wasn't going the wrong way. The markings weren't abundant, but they were there when you needed them.

The next time I saw the crew was at CP 52 (172km) and I needed to get rid of my orthotics I'd been using. I had run in them for up to four hours in training and had no problems. For whatever reason the arch of my right foot was getting aggravated by it big time. I felt like I was running on a golf ball. Anyways I ditched them but the damage was done. Even as I write this it's still pretty tender and after the race it was literally swollen like there WAS a golf ball inside my foot.

Carrie wrote some notes about when I arrived at certain stations and they show me going from 172 km to 186 km in about 1.5 hours. Must have been a lot of hills. From 186 to 195 was an hour and a quarter and the notes from 195 km read, "arch of foot very sore". That was the truth. It's funny how fast the night went. I guess I was focussing only on the next aid station by
calculating doing six minute kilometers. It helped because I could figure out if I needed to refill my bottle or if I'd make it to the crew before I ran out. I remember during the day around 1pm thinking that there were only four or five more hours of heat then it would cool down when the sun went down. Then at 10pm I was thinking that I had nine hours to run in the dark but that didn't phase me for some reason. Even at 2am it didn't seem like the end of world. When I did the Bighorn back in June I couldn't wait for the sun to come up. Here though the hallucinations weren't so bad when the sun finally came up. Was it because I was better fueled or just not that much to look at other than the road? In the dark I kept thinking I was hearing something rustling behind me in the bushes and it took hours to figure out that it was the brim of my hat that I was wearing backwards rubbing on the back of my nylon jacket.

At CP 65 (211km) I knew I would make it. The 200km mark was a big mental breakthrough. My longest run was 160km but I didn't seem to notice breaking that mark. At 200 it seemed so manageable - only slightly more than a marathon to go, wha-hoo!!! I also started calculating how long it would take me to walk the rest of the way. I don't know why I was thinking this because in the back of my head I had no intention of doing that. It worked out that I'd still be under thirty hours doing fifteen minutes per mile but I wanted to be done sooner than that. Not just finishing in a certain time but just to be DONE!! Carrie wrote at CP 65 that I had said, upon seeing more hills coming, "What else could they possibly do to us?" This was at the 24 hour point and she observed that my hands and lips looked swollen. Maybe SHE was hallucinating because all I felt was cold.

When the sun started coming up I got a burst of energy. I don't even remember turning off my headlamp because sunrise came on so fast with no clouds in the sky. I neglected to mention how brilliant the sky was at night and how many stars could be seen. I'm glad there was no moon or we would have missed out on an amazing show. We just don't see that around here with all the city lights. My energy burst must have been short-lived because Carrie wrote at 222km that I was feeling, "exhausted and defeated". Around 230km the road took a big turn for the better in terms of elevation. There was so much downhill I forgot about the pain from the ups. They felt good and the quads weren't protesting like I thought they would have. I remember thinking that I could easily break twenty-eight hours and started increasing my pace. When I saw Ian again I told him I was trying to go under 28 but then said why am I bothering? I really don't care, it's all about finishing now.

With a few kms to go I picked up a police escort on the downhills. I felt obligated to go fast as a fair amount of traffic was being held up seeing as I was on the right side of the road. After about fifteen minutes, though, I looked back and he was gone! Over to the left side I went. When the ground leveled out just outside of Sparta, I was paced by another car and then by a police motorcycle and several kids on bicycles. The last checkpoint read 1.2 km to Sparta but the way I saw our crew car head off in the distance I didn't think this could be right. It went as far as I could see through town and turned right. I asked the officer beside me how far it was and he said two kilometres. I love when things don't add up. We turned right and again I just barely saw the crew car off in the distance turning right again. I was getting a bit defeated here. It must have taken me thirty minutes to run the final two klicks. One final turn and the trip down to the end of the street and the statue of King Leonidis was in the distance. There were a ton of people lining the street and a bunch of kids still following me on their bikes. I took my Canada hat Carrie had given me and wore it for the last few blocks. Then it was up the steps to kiss the foot of the King and I was done. 27:51 for 246km, an average of 11 minute miles. See, anyone could run that!

They led me to the med tent which I didn't think was all that necessary, I actually felt pretty good. They took my shoes off and tended (painfully) to my blisters. I took my IT band strap off and saw a few blisters under there also. Never even thought to put anything under there to prevent them. Once my big toes were bandaged up we were off to the Sparta Inn in a free taxi courtesy of the Greek medical system. I had a shower and laid down on the bed around 1pm and woke up at 7:30 when Ian announced it was dinner time. We (I) hobbled down to eat something then made our way over to the awards. With my knee so swollen it was tough to walk and curbs seemed like mountains. The awards were well done. The names of every finisher were read out and the top three men and women received flowers and plaques.

The following day was back to Athens where we dropped Ian off at the airport and returned to get a WAY better hotel room at the Emmartina. On Monday we walked for miles around the Acropolis and several other historical sites. I actually had tears in my eyes when I looked up at the Acropolis for the first time just thinking about how magnificent it looked from down there. We continued with our morning tradition by getting chocolate croissants for breakfast and loading up on local cookies to last throughout the day.

At the main awards night on Monday in Athens we were treated to a great dinner and received our medals and finisher's certificates. Then it was all done. We checked out Tuesday morning and Carrie and I spent the next three days touring around the coast, getting lost countless times, checking out some great ruins and sampling the local cuisine. All in all it was a great experience, definitely going into the books as one of the best of all times. I know there is are so many details I left out but after almost twenty-eight hours things got a little blurry to say the least.

Now to get ready for Italy in four weeks.....

Some pictures of the race are posted here:

Spartathlon Photos

Ian took most of the still pictures while Carrie did the video. We're waiting for a disc from Ian, then ours will be put on as well. When we figure out how to put video on we'll do that too.

3 comments:

don said...

These two statements crack me up.
1. "Only a marathon to go"
2. "See, anyone could run that!"
LOL!
What an amazing adventure. Thank you for sharing it with all of us in the blogoshpere. And most of all, congratulations on an amazing accomplishment!

Scott said...

Wow that was awesome!! I developed a blister on my finger just moving the mouse to read it.
All joking aside, great job. That was an amazing story (blog), I can only imaginewhat it must have been like for you.
You are wicked, awesome (spoken in a south Boston accent).
Scott

Anonymous said...

I'm training to do it in 2012, thank you for such a great account and congratulations, It must have been a life changing experience.