Spartathlon 2009 by Mark Steven Woolley
Failure is the golden opportunity to learn and grow. Without failure we can never know where our true limit is and never get to completely understand what we are really all about. This is precisely how it was with me for my first two attempts at Spartathlon, during which, for different reasons I failed to make it to the finish. In my first attempt I made it to the 115 km point, not even half way, where a race official pulled me out because I was outside the time barriers. I was running so slowly it couldn’t really be described as running, on an empty body, my energy having been spent completely on the road before and then fried up under the furnace of the Greek sun. From this experience I learned that I had to be much, much faster on the road and had to be in much better shape if I ever wanted to finish this incredibly difficult race. I also learned that I had to be completely adapted to the heat, and be prepared to run, run hard under a blistering sun without imploding. Me, a humble mountain runner was under the false impression that this road running stuff was easier than the mountains but I was very, very wrong, and under the intense heat of the Greek sun I received one of the most punishing but valuable lessons in my whole sporting life.
But from failure we learn, and I set about training on the road with a vengeance and participating in all of the classic ultra marathons in Spain that I possibly could. I started to run the 34 kms to and from work; almost on a daily basis but above all else I started to train regularly under the blisteringly hot afternoon Andalusian sun in the middle of summer. I followed an extremely demanding training plan of some 200 kms a week, week after week, month after month but I noted a significant improvement in my fitness and my ability to cope with the heat. People used to wish me luck before a race, and I would chirp back that luck starts at 5 in the morning. I wasn’t lying. Little by little I was actually becoming an ultra runner.
For my second attempt I was much better prepared and arrived at the half way point with about one hour to spare against the time barrier. But I made a huge blunder and failed to eat. The final consequence of this error was hypothermia leaving the Sangas Mountain at km 170. The race officials bundled me into a van with the heat on full until I came back to normal, but then it was too late; I was out of the race. However, it was not all lost, I fixed intensely on the athletes around me that actually finished and I left with just one important observation: they all had a support crew or a person that controlled and thought for them during the race.
So, for my third attempt I travelled to Greece with my close friend José Luis Rubio Gallego. José’s job was to control me in the race and make me follow the race plan that we had previously developed. It may seem bizarre, but after 24 hours of constant running, and running hard, your neurons become completely fried and even simple decisions like “I should eat something here” become impossible to think through. Having someone that can take control of these details is a huge advantage, but not just anybody will do. José is my racing partner for orienteering competitions. We have competed, climbed and mountaineered together for some 20 years. 2 years ago we ran most of the UTMB together and when José was at his best he came 4th in the world Adventure Racing Championships. Not only does he understand extreme sports competitions, but he understands me; and more importantly I trust his judgment completely.
At the start line, just underneath the ancient acropolis in Athens, at 7 in the morning on Friday the 25th of September 2009, we found ourselves among 330 other athletes all dreaming of touching the feet of the dead Spartan king Leonidas, each one dreaming that they would run like Pheidepides did some 2500 years ago when he ran from Athens to Sparti to ask for help from king Leonidas and his Spartan army, because the Athenians were under attack from the invading Persian forces. Pheidepedes is the oldest known ultra runner in our history and all of the athletes were dreaming of repeating his incredible feat, something truly spectacular. According to the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, Pheidepedes set out from Athens with the first light of day and arrived in Sparti with the last light of the following day. In other words: 36 hours in modern terms. Therefore, the modern Spartathlon has exactly 36 hours to cover the 246 kms, including the crossing of 2 mountain ranges between Athens and Sparti. It is really demanding, not just because of the distance or the heat but also because of the strict time limits and cut offs. To give a rough idea, the first 100 kms must be passed in about 12 hours, 170 kms in 24 hours and the full 246 kms in 36 hours. Clearly there isn’t much time you can spend resting or walking. You have to run.
I started running and for the first 50 kms I ran alongside Vicente Vertiz from Mexico. I met Vicente in my first attempt 2 years ago and since then we have remained in touch. Running through Athens amidst the rush hour traffic was complete madness but I loved every second of it weaving our way between the traffic with the help of the Greek traffic police. Upon leaving the city the race enters an industrial area that cannot be described as particularly attractive and then enters a coastal section that is truly beautiful. On one side you have the Aegean Sea and the other a typically dry Mediterranean scenery of low growing dark green pine trees set against a back drop of white limestone hills. During this stage we were constantly looking at our heart rate monitors and slowing down. It was just too easy to go faster, and although our legs were crying out to be let off the leash we were constantly reining them in. This requires a lot of self discipline but I knew that controlling the pace at this early stage was crucial to having something left for later and subsequent success in the Spartathlon. I seem to remember crossing the marathon point in about 4 hours which was exactly the pace José and I had planned. I thoroughly enjoyed these kilometers with Vicente but when it started to get hot Vicente started to suffer and had to slow down. Fortunately for me I live, and have been training in a hot part of the world and although the mid afternoon temperatures hovered around 33/34 ºC I didn’t feel particularly uncomfortable and didn’t dehydrate at any moment.
Upon arrival at Hellas Can, the first of the major checkpoints, José was waiting with a cured ham and tomato sandwich. Yeah! This really was the good life and I ate it ravenously, following up with several drinks of water and fruit juice. A quick chat with José followed and then back to business and on with the race. The mid afternoon heat meant that I had to ease up even more on the pace and we were now almost half an hour behind in the race plan. It didn’t matter though; we readjusted the plan and carried on. The main idea was to arrive at this point with fresh legs and I could hardly believe that this indeed was the case. The rigorous disciple of controlling the pace, taking salt with every drink and eating well was actually working.
At this point in the race the journey takes us inland, amongst an endless array of vineyards and fig trees. The smell from the vineyards was particularly perfumed and rather strong and I became engrossed in the lost world of the ancient Greeks imagining Pheidepedes running amongst these very same plantations some 2500 years ago, carrying with him his important message to Leonidas. Arriving at km 100 I met up with José again and was met with a surprise. Luis Guererro from Mexico was laid out, flat on his back in the support car. Luis, besides being a truly likeable person, is a great runner, that at the moment is leaving his mark in the big 100 milers in the USA, but it appeared that he had underestimated the brutality of the Spartathlon and had crashed and burned. (Later on in the race, the organization had to pick him up in a very dangerous state. His pulse had dropped to 40 and they rushed him off to hospital where he had to spend the night and the following day.) I ate a little, had a quick chat with José and without losing much time left my friends behind and continued running.
I arrived at Nemea, the midpoint of the race at km 124 with approximately 1 hour to spare before the cut off. More importantly was the fact that I was completely intact. My energy levels were still high and my legs although a little tired were not the slightest bit over loaded and were completely free from any pain. But here I had another pleasant but sad surprise. Vicente, my good Mexican friend was in the support car with José. He had finally imploded under the intense heat of the afternoon sun and was eliminated by the race officials at km 90. Fortunately Jose had seen him on the “death bus” and had picked him up. Poor Vincente! He was completely destroyed as this was his 5th attempt. Vicente is a very strong athlete, he has done the 100 kms in 7:15 (Mexican record), but Spartathlon is brutal and does not forgive even the slightest weakness or the smallest mistake. Vicente joined José as part of my support team and at least appeared to be enjoying this more than being on the death bus. Now I simply couldn’t fail under any circumstance. I had two friends looking after me and all I had to do was run. After some soup and some pasta I got dressed with some warmer clothes, put a head torch on my head and set out running into the black of the Greek night. Half way through the race and I was still intact.
This is also where I started to talk to a few friends on my cell phone. I can’t remember exactly who (sorry) in that by the end of the race I had spoken to lots and lots of people. The support that I received was simply amazing and I actually felt quite humbled by it all, by having such good friends that they would call me in the middle of the race, in the middle of the night, when they themselves would normally be fast asleep just to give me moral support. With that kind of support it was impossible to fail.
The remainder of the night passed without incident and at about 4 in the morning I found myself at the base of the climb that leads to the Sangas pass. José and Vicente gave me some soup and biscuits, and in spite of my protests made me take a fleece jacket with me. “Don’t be stupid” said José, “It was here that the hypothermia killed your race last year”. José was right of course, and I took the jacket. The route follows a goat track that twists and turns up the mountain to 1200M above sea level and then drops down the other side. Many of the other runners dread this part of the race as it is quite exposed and technical, and with 160 kms in your legs it is easy to stumble, fall and do yourself some serious harm. For me on the contrary, it is my favorite part of the whole race (I was a mountain ultra runner before coming to Spartathlon) and whilst climbing I passed quite a few other runners that weren’t quite as comfortable as I was in the mountains. Upon arriving at the summit, the wind was blowing strong and although it wasn’t 4ºC like last year it was still cold. I was nice and warm in the fleece jacket, thinking that it was a good job that my friends had insisted that I take it.
I came down from the mountain very carefully; it could even be described as rather slowly for me, but I had a good time margin and I was paranoid about slipping on the loose stones and causing an injury. I was conscious that I still had some 80 kms to cover until I reached Sparti. When I arrived at the track that leads to the Sangas village I started running again and didn’t stop until I had passed the spot where the hypothermia had finally dragged me down last year. In 2008, at km 160 I had started to shiver, at km 170 I no longer had any energy left to shiver and my vision started to close into a dark tunnel that was becoming ever and ever smaller. I couldn’t run, just stumble from side to side and I couldn’t talk. Fortunately the race officials were vigilant and they bundled me into a van with the heating on full, probably saving my life but finishing off my last attempt at Spartathlon. But this time was very, very different. I still felt full of energy, and thanks to my friends, I had a fleece jacket that kept out the cold.
Very soon I had arrived at Nestani, km 172 with the first light of day. José and Vicente were waiting for me with breakfast but my appetite had completely shut down. The thought of food just made me feel like throwing up and I said that I just couldn’t eat. José insisted and insisted. He said that he wasn’t going to let me leave the check point if I didn’t eat and in the end I managed to get some creamed rice and coffee down my neck. It wasn’t pleasant but it stayed down. The scene was like a parent with a baby child, but this was precisely what we had agreed before the race. I had left strict instructions to José that in spite of any protesting on my part he was to make me eat at all costs. This has always been a weak point of mine in ultra marathons.
This scene was repeated time after time during the following day. I ran faster than I could imagine and at each control point José would make me sit down for 5 minutes and eat, at times putting the food into my mouth. For every 10 or 15 kms I had gained 5 to 15 minutes on top of the one hour margin that I had and José would use this time to make me rest and eat. When the time margin fell to an hour again, Jose would tell me to run like a beast. I wasn’t in any condition to argue and I followed José’s instructions time after time all day long. During this time I received many text messages of support on my cell phone, just as much from my friends as my family and I couldn’t believe that I had so many good friends. I felt a truly fortunate person. I even became a bit emotional in the middle of a thunderstorm when I received a message from my friend Livan “No retreat, No surrender”. He had captured my mental state perfectly.
At 20 kms from the finish I was already tasting victory. I could even smell Sparti. I saw José and Vicente and they both told me that they were no longer going to impose any more discipline and that if I wanted to I could even run faster. As it was, I felt full of energy, thanks to their care and I started to run a little faster. I felt great, and in spite of some minor pains from my legs I was running smoothly and without problems. Little by little I started overtaking people.
Some 5 kms before the finish I met up with Mark Cockbain, one of the more well known British runners, and I pulled up alongside and walked a little with him. He was completely shot and hobbled and stumbled along as though he had just escaped from a war zone, but he told me not to wait for him, that the glory was mine and that I should just keep on running. I said goodbye, wished him the best and carried on running, but then without warning a strange and powerful sensation overtook me, that I certainly haven’t felt at this late stage in an ultra marathon before and I started to run without any effort at all. The speed that I was running at was quite considerable but everything became so incredibly easy. It was as if every tissue in my body, every cell was completely synchronized for the sole act of running. All of the pain in my legs disappeared; the spring and bounce of the early part of the race returned and my mind became completely empty; there were no thoughts as such other than a heightened sense of what I was actually doing. I don’t really understand where all this came from but after running for 240 kms I was running at some 12 kms / hour and it was just so easy. I was completely in the zone and enjoying every second of it but the people around me were broken wrecks of former runners, mostly walking or stumbling along with great difficulty and some trying to run but in obvious pain. I felt like the dog Buck, from the Jack London Novel, The Call of the Wild. I was born for this moment and in some mysterious way I was completely in tune with my deep ancestral past. At last I knew what it meant to be a runner.
And that is how I arrived at the feet of king Leonidas. When I was running through the tunnel of people just before the finish, I heard one of the British runners, who had retired shout that I was the first Brit and thrust the Union Jack into my hand. I would have liked to have the Spanish Flag too but we hadn’t planned for this so I crossed the finish as the first Brit, proudly waiving the Union Jack. However, it was with mixed feelings as I feel just as much Spanish as English, my wife and children are Spanish, José, my solid rock of a friend is Spanish, almost all of the telephone calls and messages that I received during the race were from my Spanish ultra running friends, the rest from my family and I would have loved to waive the flag of my adopted country for them too.
“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.”
Jack London Call of the wild.
Jack London Call of the wild.
Spartathlon is without doubt the toughest and most demanding race that I have ever done in my life. In this day there are many races that claim to be the toughest in the world and all I can say is that Spartathlon could be it. Many hold the opinion that it actually is.
In the end I did 34 hours and 30 minutes, and finished in 77th position from 330 athletes that started out from Athens. In total, 133 actually made it to the end.
It took two failed attempts before finding the formula that meant success in Spartathlon. I would have liked to say that I finished in pure Andalusian style; by just having big balls but that would be a lie. Success in Spartathlon was due to a very demanding preparation, followed by meticulous planning which was subsequently executed with military discipline. José Luis imposed the discipline and without him my last Spartathlon certainly wouldn’t have been the same. Maybe it would even have ended in failure. Thanks to him (and Vicente) I was able to finish, and I finished very strong. Arriving at Leonidas’s feet was pure delight and it was because my friends had looked after me so well during the previous 34 hours.