Thursday, October 13, 2011

You Get What You Ask For

"You get what you ask for". Not that I don't believe it but how true it is was hammered into me during the incredible Spartathlon.

What an experience it turned out to be. I now understand why people go back to run it year after year whether they've finished it or not. I will be going back next year and the year after and subsequent years too (assuming I qualify to run it beyond 2013).

Let's start with the days leading up to the race. I flew to Athens a few days before the race to get over jet lag and get used to the heat and humidity there. Surprisingly, unlike last year, it was not very humid this year and it proved to be a saving grace for my race.

I picked up my race packet around 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Sep 28, and met a few people I know.

(75 Checkpoints, 75 drop bags if you like!)

Dinner that evening was with Mimi Anderson (she was the 3rd. woman overall), her husband Tim, their friend Bridget, Allan Rumbles and his wife and Matt Mahoney and his wife. They are all British and I know Allan from the GUCR earlier this year.

Friday, September 30
My Mom's birthday. She would have been 74 had she not passed away earlier this year in May. I had dedicated the race to her.

I got up around 3 a.m. in order to shower, tape my feet and eat breakfast. The hotel was across the street from the London Hotel from where buses were to depart at 6:00 a.m. sharp for the Acropolis. I went inside the hotel to use the restroom one last time and I met last year's winner, Ivan Cudin, there. I wished him good luck and found out that he had been ill the past 2 months and had not been able to train as he would have liked. He went on to finish 7 minutes faster than last year, in 22:56, and became only the 3rd. person ever, after Yiannis Kouros and Scott Jurek, to run the Spartathlon in under 23 hours! What an amazing runner he is - check out his picture later on in this post.

I found myself sitting near Mark Woolley, an Englishman who has been living in Malaga (Spain) for the past 20 years. He had run the race thrice before and finished once. He was hoping to even it with a finish this year (he did finish!).

The Acropolis was a beehive of activity. Runners from so many nationalities were swarming around taking pictures or videos and the air was thick with excitement intermingled with nervousness.

I met up with my British friends - James Adams, Matt Mahoney, Allan Rumbles, Peter Leslie Foxall (he was starting his 14th Spartathlon; he has finished the race 9 times!). I even managed to get a nice picture with them.

With my British friends before the Start. L to R: Philip Smith,
Matt Mahoney, Mark Woolley and James Adams)

I had to run off into the bushes at least 3 times in order to pee. A sign of things to come!

The race started promptly at 7 a.m. and the first mile was all downhill. My last 2 runs had been 5-milers on Monday and Tuesday. I had gotten rest on Wednesday but had climbed all the way to the Parthenon the day before to do some sightseeing.

The early miles felt wonderful. My legs were opening up and my Garmin showed me to be maintaining a pace between 9:45-10:00 mins/mile. The first urge to pee came around 7:45 a.m. Good! If correctly hydrated I pee around every 45-50 minutes. I ran off to the side of the road into a deserted lot to relieve myself. A minute gone right there. The first 2-3 hours I peed every 35-45 minutes.

We soon found ourselves on the Iera Odos, the road used 2500 years ago to make the religious trek to the festival in Elefsina. Lined with shops and buildings it would appear alien to an Athenian transported forward to the present.

We soon left Iera Odos and made the left turn onto Leoforos Athinon. I remember a Greek motorist shouting angrily at the policemen standing in the middle of the road. Traffic along this busy highway had been stopped to let the runners through and the motorists were irate at the prospect of waiting at the light for 10-20 minutes.

This road was probably the least attractive section of the entire race. Cars and trucks whizzed by belching exhaust fumes and it was a relief to branch out to the right, away from the busy road, onto a smaller road with much less traffic.

I had decided to put in 200 - 240 calories every hour. For the first 50 miles I had made use of just one drop bag, at Checkpoint# 13 (30 miles), in which I had put 8 gels. I was carrying 12 gels in my waist pack and the pouch in my hand bottle. I dutifully ingested 1 100 calorie gel every 30 minutes and it kept my blood sugar even. I had taken a salt tablet just before the Start and waited until 2 hours into the race to take the next one.

My initial plan had been to skip every other Checkpoint but it turned out that I went through all of them just to have my bottle either filled or topped up. These visits never took more than 10-15 seconds and I was very pleased with those rapid transitions. I needed every second - I had never run a 50-mile race in under 9:45 and here I was being asked to do it in 9:30!

The Half marathon point went by in 2:10 and it was starting to get toasty warm by now. We passed a factory and the road climbed a bit past it. This was around the 16 mile mark. We soon hit a stretch of the road that was beautiful. It hugged the coast with the Saronic Gulf on the left. The sun glinted off the water, ships went about their business and ahead of me I could see the coast stretching off into the distance. It reminded me a bit of the Big Sur marathon course.

I was still running well and had not walked at all. The road veered off the coast and started to see more traffic once again. It got very busy around the 25 mile mark as there seemd to be construction work up ahead. Before I knew it I had reached Checkpoint #11 (42.2K or 26.2 miles). 4:23 is what I took to run the marathon. I made it out of there 22 minutes ahead of the 4:45 cutoff. First part of the mission accomplished!

(Drinking a sports drink in the 26.2 -mile CP)

Pretty soon after the marathon CP the road got back along the coast again and started to rise up. This is where I walked for the first time, about 0.7 miles. As soon as it started to get undulating again I started to run and I ran all the way to the 30-mile CP, a checkpoint perched next to a hotel 60 feet above the ocean.

(30-mile Checkpoint)

My only drop bag in the first 50 miles was in this Checkpoint and it contained gels. I stuffed them into my waist pack and got out without wasting too much time. I had reached 30 miles in 5:09 and the 31 mile point came and went in 5:19. Not bad for a slow, old geezer like me! :-)

The road now wended its way a bit away from the ocean past homes and stores. It was really hot now and I was starting to slow down a tad. 30 miles in 5:09 is 10:18 mins/mile. The 40-mile CP came in 7:10 i.e. 10:42 mins/mile pace. I was still not worried for I had 10 more miles to do and a good 2 hours and 20 minutes to do them in though I did want to get to the 50-mile CP in 9 hours or under.

(Approaching the 40-mile CP in around 7:10)

I eventually rolled into CP #22 at 9:09 into the race.

Even though I had only 20 minutes before the Checkpoint closed I still decided to get a 10 minute massage for both my legs. I downed a chocolate milk and changed into Brooks Racer ST shoes. These weigh around 7 ounces and felt so comfortable once my feet went in. I started from CP #22 at 9:21 into the race and promptly got into a rhythm of sorts. Walking and running, when I could, got me to the next CP. I was not feeling all that great. My legs were starting to slowly deteriorate but I was determined to plod on.

I eventually got to the CP before Ancient Corinth and then past the ruins of Ancient Corinth into the next CP.

(Ancient Corinth)

(Ivan Cudin, the winner, flying past the ruins)

In and out of there in a flash, I set my sights on the next CP which was to close at 7 p.m. (12 hours into the race). My pace slowed terribly after this and I basically made it into the that CP at 7:00 on the dot! I still had half a bottle full of water and only 1.8 miles to go to the next CP. I blasted out of that CP and ran sub-7:30 mins/mile and made it to the next CP with 5 minutes to spare. It's noteworthy that I had now done a 100K in 12 hours during a tough, tough race. I was proud of myself.

That bit of fast running was the last I did until the CP where I stopped. My legs were really hurting now and I did not want to take a Tylenol just to make it from CP to CP for, deep down inside me, I knew that one of the Checkpoints ahead would be my last one i.e. I would reach it too late. CP #31 it was where I reached 11 minutes late. It was still open and one of the Race Directors, the one who had let me leave the previous CP 5 minutes after closing time, was there again. He was perfectly agreeable to letting me continue but I decided to stop just because I knew that I would be getting to each CP later and later and there was no purpose to subjecting my body to more pain when there was an infinitesimally small chance of anything different happening.

Back to Athens it was the next day and then the flight back to San Francisco on Monday, Oct 3.

So what did I learn from the Spartathlon?

(a) I am faster than I have given myself credit for recently. It's been a long time since I ran a race hard and the Spartathlon kind of forced me to do so. Had it not been for the increasingly frequent pee stops in the last 20-23 miles I would have reached the 50-mile CP in under 8:50.

(b) The race is hard but not unconquerable for someone like me. I will have to train harder and smarter to get to Leonidas's feet next year.

(c) AMAT VICTORIA CURAM - "Victory Loves Preparation". I will have to prepare really well in order to emerge victorious next year.

Now coming back to the first line in this blog - "You get what you ask for". Since applying for the race earlier in the year I have been talking just one kind of talk - I am so very grateful for being able to start this amazing race and anything I achieve will be far more than I could ever hope for. Just getting to 50 miles in under 9:30 will be wonderful. THAT'S ALL I focused on - 50 miles in around 8:45 or so.

Guess what I got? 50 miles in under 9:30 and then kaput! The brain had decided that that's all it was going to give me since I did not truly believe that I could run 100 miles in the Spartathlon in under 23 hours. I had violated my own first principle that I try to teach the people I coach - have belief in yourself and focus on the moment AND entire race..

(d) The biggest confidence booster was the fact that I DID reach 50 miles in around 9 hours. I know that I can reach the same point in next year's race, with good training and proper hydration management during the race, in 8:30 or faster. If I do so and my legs are still feeling good, my chances of making the Base of the Mountain CP with ample time to spare are very good.

Heartfelt gratitude to Tim, and Bridget (Mimi's crew) and, especially, to James Adams and Robert Treadwell for helping my crew navigate the maze that is Athenian roads in the first 50 miles and continuing to encourage me on repeatedly in the miles between 50 and 68.

Kudos to all of the volunteers, from the Race Directors down to the people manning the Checkpoints, for a fantastically run race. They made it easy for me to get in and out of checkpoints in a flash!

Onwards to the Javelina Jundred on November 12 now.