Saturday, October 8, 2011

Spartathlon Race Report!

Obviously the Spartathlon didn't work out as planned last week. My training and fitness were better than ever heading into the race (seriously, I was in stellar shape), but as soon as we started running from the Acropolis, I knew I was working with a super-low energy level. The most likely culprit was the fact that I didn't sleep at all the night before. Sure, I forced myself to stay in bed with my eyes closed for the better part of 8 hours, but the jet lag that only allowed me a couple hours of sleep each of my other previous two nights in Athens was still messing with me on night #3. I just had a really hard time convincing myself to fall asleep when my internal clock thought it was 3 p.m.. Couple that with the excitement before a big race like this, and the hope for me catching any useful rest before the run went crashing down like so many columns of the Parthenon. Of course, once we started running, I did my best to convince myself that the fatigue would go away and I began executing my race plan as if everything would be fine. I wasn't giving up without a fight. If I was going to die out there, I was going to die with my boots on.

Anxious runners pose with the Starting Banner at the foot of the Acropolis
The field awaits the sun's arrival, and with it, the start of the race
Focused while stretching before the start
As the race began and we left the cobblestone paths of the Acropolis for the busy rush-hour streets of Athens, I shared a few miles of delightful conversation with Brit Peter Foxall. I knew Peter from his stout reputation, and I smiled at my good fortune of being able to run a few miles together amongst the crowd of runners. Peter has 8 Spartathlon finishes in 13 attempts, which pretty much makes him the leading expert on the race, and I used some of our time together to pick his brain about various parts of the course ahead. Regardless of my dead legs, I was still focused on making it to Sparta in these early miles.

After about 10 miles, we were still running on the very busy and fume-filled streets, but our 'runners only' traffic-cone lane went away and we were left to fend for ourselves on the shoulder of the road. I had heard the course heading out of Athens was pretty much horrible all around, but I figured it would only be for a few miles. As it turned out, the cars, exhaust, factory smokestacks, and the oil refinery (this one killed me, really) made just about every step of the first 50 miles less-than-appealing to me. I couldn't even fully appreciate the sections on the coastline with their beautiful views. While those roads had less traffic, they also had no shoulders to run on, so the cars that did come careening around the tight turns were definitely something that kept me from relaxing and enjoying the moment. I'm sure the course was much more enjoyable after the 50 mile mark in Corinth, but for that 1/3 of the race, I was hard pressed to think of a worse combination of conditions in which to run.

I do, however, credit the insane traffic for allowing me the opportunity to dust off my language skills and share a bonding moment with two Portuguese runners after the three of us nearly jumped out of our shoes at the sound of a Fiat's screeching tires about 10 feet from us (it just missed smashing into a bus). I was just behind the two men at that moment, and when I saw the Portuguese names on their bib numbers, I knew they would appreciate me saying a few 'Hilarious but Not Safe for My Blog' comments in their native tongue. I did my best to pretend I spoke more Portuguese than I actually do (which is very very little) over the next mile or so before I needed to let them move ahead. That moment, along with running through the occasional group of school kids high-fiving and cheering wildly along the road, was my favorite part of the race.
Everyone got a boost (and probably 100 communicable diseases) by high-fiving the dozens of school kids out on the course
Regarding the current traffic/pollution issues on the course, when you think about it, it's really nobody's fault. When John Foden and his crew used the ancient writings of Herodotus to map out this course 30 years ago, I'm sure there was about 10% of today's trucks and pollution along the roads. Even more importantly, since this is the route Pheidippideis ran 2500 years ago, it's not like we can just re-route things today to meet our aesthetic appeal. It is what it is, so I'll stop whining now.

Back to my race, after about 20 miles I was already fighting a level of fatigue that I usually don't experience until 80 or 90 miles. Had we run by an auto mechanic's garage at this point, I would have asked them to kindly remove the engine block I apparently had strapped on my back. Without that option, I figured the only thing I could do to keep my energy from totally failing was to increase my calories. I'm usually a 250 kcal/hr runner, but I upped that to 350-400/hr for a couple hours to see if it would help. It did not. What it did do, predictably enough, was make me very nauseous.  Couple that with a moment I shared with a German runner that will go down in history as one of the all-time 'Hilarious Moments in Truck Exhaust Inhalation History', and I suddenly found myself buying two tickets for an immediate ride on the Vomit Comet. No waiting in line for me on that ride. I had the SpeedPass and everything.

If only we didn't have to run by those smoke stacks at the Oil Refinery in the background, the coastal road sections would have been much more enjoyable!
Naturally, the sun started to heat things up at this point, so Mr. Dehydration came out to run with me over the next couple hours. It's always a treat to share a few miles with him. I was pretty much as miserable as I've ever been on a run at this point, and my exhaustion only exacerbated my feelings toward the traffic and fumes out there. I really wanted to punch Henry Ford, Giovanni Fiat, and Doug Suzuki right in the kisser for what their legacy was doing to me out there. Cars and trucks (and Greece's apparent lack of emissions laws) were not my friends on this day.

There was safety in numbers when running on the side of the highway, too bad I couldn't keep up with anyone all day
It wasn't all bad, though. One positive of running on busy streets was the occasional bus shelter I could stumble into for a few moments of shady protection from the anger of the Sun Beast. Even funnier than my moments with the Portuguese and German runners was around mile 35 when I staggered under a bus shelter with two people already sitting inside. While I always try to be respectful of the personal space of others, I was pretty wobbly when I crashed down on the far side of the bench with my legs sprawled out in front of me. The poor people in there immediately got up and left while mumbling something in Greek and shaking their heads at me. Even in my delirious state I realized I must have looked like a sweaty drunk guy to those unaware I was running a race through their city streets. Sorry, Nice People, I hope you didn't miss your bus because of me!

By the time I stumbled into the Oil Refinery aid station around mile 40 (located literally in the parking lot of the noxious refinery), I was in 100% survival mode. I knew I needed to make it 10 more miles to cross the canal in Corinth and make it onto the Peloponnese. There I'd find my parents for the first time all race and at least collapse among those who are legally bound to care for me. I don't remember much about those last 10 miles other than I couldn't even run the downhill miles for more than 2 minutes at a time before needing to stop, stretch, or otherwise lay prostrate under the sweet shady relief of the occasional highway overpass. Mercifully enough, the canal finally appeared after 9 hours of struggling from the start.

Reaching the tiny gap between the mainland and the Peloponnese was a HUGE victory for me.
Once I crashed down on the ground by my parents, I technically still had a few minutes on the official cut-off time for the check-point, but at the pace I was going, making the cut-off at even the next stop down the road was out of the question. My day was done 30 miles earlier, quite honestly, and the miles between 20 and 50 were really just me making sure there wasn't a miracle buried deep in my legs somewhere. Given that I fought as hard as I could from the start and still ran the slowest 50 miles of my life (seriously), I wasn't really upset at having my dream of reaching Sparta come crashing down before I even really started the race. Sometimes it just isn't your day.

Mile 50. Can I get some sleep now? Please?!!
After resting for a bit in Corinth, we made the drive back to Athens to crash for the night. Naturally, I slept pretty well this time, and I did my best to ignore the fact that my legs felt fine when I woke up in the morning. Unlike my experience last year in Canada when I had to stop 50 miles into a 24 hour race due to soul-crushing fatigue in my legs from over-working them all summer, this time my muscles were not even remotely stressed during my 50 mile shuffle to Corinth. The fatigue I struggled through must have been based entirely on the lack of sleep leading up to the race. If only I didn't have a day job and could have flown over a week earlier. No wonder guys like Jurek head out two or more weeks before international races, it's just the best way to handle such a dramatic time change before a big run.

It wasn't all frustrating/bad news out in Greece, however. After resting for the night back in Athens, the following day we drove the course to Sparta to cheer in the final few hours of runners. The scene there was fun and festive with fellow runners joining the townspeople up and down the main street leading to the finish line at the statue of King Leonidas.

With a bicycle escort from the local children, every runner received a hero's welcome in Sparta!
Truly a fantastic finish line!
It's not over until you touch the statue and drink the water from the river
Team USA reunited to cheer on our fellow runners. Sadly, none of us made the finish line ourselves this year. L to R: Me, Chisholm Deupree's handsome back, Oz Pearlman (sporting a Yankees-defeating Detroit Tigers hat under those glasses!), and Mike Arnstein who made it the furthest of us all at ~115 miles.
The Spartathlon is a brutal race the allows no room for error. For those who do make it all the way to Sparta, the emotions and fatigue are worn clearly on their faces
That evening a huge crowd gathered in the town square for a cultural music ceremony with the Mayor of Sparta

Thousands of Spartans were in attendance...seemingly more than the actual population of the town
The next day we made the long drive back to Athens, stopping at a few beautiful/ancient sites along the way. My parents pose here on the shore of  the 'original' capital of Greece at Nafplio.
I did a little exploring down a 3,000 year old (and PITCH BLACK!) cistern at Mycenae
Oh yeah, and back in Athens the Parthenon was pretty cool too
You're standing on top of the (ancient) world up there!
The view allowed me to map out my next stop...a must see for any athlete in Athens...
The Panathenaic Stadium, only about 2,500 years old, and site of the original Olympic games!
It was pretty darn cool to run a lap on that beyond-historic track!
Sure hope the King and Queen were impressed by my time!
In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the combination of ancient history and modern hustle and bustle of Athens...
Oh yeah, and the food....I REALLY liked the food!!!
What's ahead for me now? Pretty much preparing for the arrival of Baby Rose, and running the sleep deprivation ultra that will be the first few months of his/her life this winter. I'll probably go out for a run once or twice a week, but it won't be much more than that. The overall running guidelines will be: whatever time allows, and whatever trails appeal to me. The experience of training so intensely for Greece definitely has me thankful that I'll only be running for pleasure in the foreseeable future. I look forward to getting back into the gym to throw some weights around for the first time in 4 years, and when I do have the time to venture out for a run in the mountains, it'll most definitely involve more plans to stop and smell the roses along the way. I may pop up now and then in a VHTRC Fat Ass race, but it'll definitely involve more chatting and cruising than racing...and I definitely won't be eating any gels. God knows I've had enough of those over the past 5 years!

As for this blog, I can't thank everyone enough for stopping by over the past 4 years. This thing was created to help inspire others, and the number of you who have contacted me directly with your own stories of struggle and triumph in not only running, but with fighting cancer or other illnesses, has literally given me the return-inspiration I've needed to achieve the (albeit modest) goals I've reached in this sport. We all make a pretty great team!  Even though I won't be posting much over the next few months (I won't bore you with lame posts, but I whenever I take pretty pictures on an adventure run, I'll be sure to share them here), I want everyone to know they should still feel free to contact me via email for advice on training or gear or whatever. I can't stress how much I've enjoyed having so many of you ask for help on training for your first marathon or 50 miler or 100 miler, and then watched you all put in the hard work to achieve those lofty goals. The community spirit is what ultra-running is all about, and I very much want to continue to play my small role in this great family!


Racingtales - Alison Gittelman said...

Sorry it didn't work out the way you wanted but can't blame you, given the jet lag and terrible conditions. Sounds like you made the most of the trip though! Good luck with baby's arrival and hopefully I'll make an appearance at a VHTRC run and see you there!

Ric Munoz said...

What a privilege it is to read your heartbreaking, funny, thorough, and deeply honest recap of your experience in Greece. I can only imagine how incredibly disappointed you must have felt. I seriously doubt any of us could have written as humble a report or as utterly lacking in bitter sentiment as yours does.

You gave the Spartathlon your very best shot. Now you'll focus on being a great dad to Baby Rose. We will miss your superb columns, of course, but we won't forget what a great friend and all-world advisor you've been to people like me who didn't know what the heck we were doing out there on those 100-mile courses until you helped us figure out the elusive knowledge it took to be successful at the distance and/or to improve our finishing times. Thank you for your generous spirit and for being you - it's been an honor to know and learn from you!

Ric Munoz

nmp said...

Too bad that the race itself didn't go as you wanted. Looks like you had a great trip with your family though!

Hope the next few years of relaxed running and parenthood treat you well.

Dan Rose said...

Thanks, Alison, Ric, and Nick! It's been great having the support of you guys over the years through this blog.

Alison - I look forward to sharing a few miles with you to pick your brain about how to be such a great running parent!

Ric - It's been a while since I've cheered in front of my computer as loudly as I did when I watched you rack up over 100 miles at Northcoast. Moments like that are why I've kept this blog going for so long! So awesome!

Nick - I'll be relying on you to fill the competitive racing void in my life over the next year. For those readers who don't know Nick, this past weekend he won his second 100 miler in the past month (Bear and Oil Creek), and that comes on the heels of being the top US finisher at UTMB in France. Talk about the future of this sport, you the MAN, Nick! Keep up the great work!!

nmp said...

Thanks for the kind words Dan! (although I was 2nd American at UTMB behind Mike Foote) I have certainly enjoyed following your running adventures the past few years so hopefully I can help fill your competitive void - just don't count on my joining the blogosphere/facebook/twitter anytime soon;)

My folks said congrats on Baby Rose!

Anonymous said...

Hello Danny!

I will miss your weekly updates and photos... maybe you can start a baby blog?



Runner Tammy said...


You are such a tough competitor and an amazing athlete. I am so sorry that your race did not end as you hoped but you still went really far considering the challenging conditions.

The only observation I made is that when you upped your calorie consumption why did you not do me when I say cupcake calories are awesome. And in fact having done cupcakes in many races and not bought tickets and jumped on the vomit train I believe they are a vomit free food.

I am super proud of you and am glad you were able to appreciate a bit of time in Greece.

See you on the trails,