Sunday, October 4, 2015


My whole year of training has been leading up to this...and in the end, it was all worth it! I finished the Spartathlon in 34 hours, 6 minutes, and 14 seconds. There were 374 starters, and only 174 finishers in a race that already required qualification to enter. Although I would have preferred to finish closer to 32 hours, to be the 93rd finisher and 11th woman, among some of the top ultrarunners in the world, is something I am incredibly proud of. This was by far the most challenging race I have ever done, and at one point I came very close to DNFing, which makes my finish even more rewarding.

Alec and I flew into Greece via Istanbul on Tuesday night. It was a long overnight flight, but I was able to get around 5-6 hours sleep so it didn't seem so bad. However our flight out of Istanbul was delayed, so with the time difference it was about 1am Thursday Greek time when we finally got settled into our hotel. After another short night's sleep I had some breakfast and did a short shakeout run around Glyfada, the Athens suburb where we were staying. I was feeling a bit jet-lagged, but nothing too terrible. Later that day we walked around the Parthenon and Acropolis, which was surprisingly taxing in the heat, but definitely worthwhile- coming from the U.S. it's almost unbelievable how old everything in Greece is! After some delicious chicken souvlaki and a lot of water I got to bed early, although of course I didn't sleep too well the night before such a big race.

In the morning I met up with some of the USA team while I had my protein bar and coffee, along with some delicious Greek yogurt and honey. Then it was on the bus to the race start at the Acropolis. I sat with Traci Falbo and I was so happy to finally meet her and tell her how much she inspires me- it was such an honor to represent the US alongside so many amazing runners! After taking some pictures and milling around a bit (and peeing in the bushes of the Parthenon, lol) we were off!

The first 10 miles or so were through Athens, taking us out to the coast. I had heard it wasn't too nice, but I didn't think it was too bad, just more like running an urban marathon than a typical ultra. I settled into a nice groove at a steady 9:00 pace and zoned out a bit. Despite the "big climbs" not coming until the second half, there were plenty of small hills throughout the race, but in the early hours they didn't bother me. By around 13 miles in we were at the coast, and it was absolutely beautiful...the water was so incredibly blue and clear, and the sun was so hot and bright that at times it was torturous not to be able to jump in! Apparently Europeans are weird about ice- they don't really like it I guess, so not every checkpoint had it. They did have buckets of sponges, so I kept squeezing lukewarm water on my head. It wasn't the Aegean, but it helped.

The first crew checkpoint came at marathon distance, which I hit in 4 hours, a bit slower than I wanted, but still 45 minutes ahead of cutoffs. It was great to see Alec again. He got me rolled out and made me eat (I had been just grabbing a few raisins and chips at the checkpoints, along with cola). After filling my rundanna with ice and applying more sunscreen I was off. 

As it was about 11am the heat was getting worse. I was glad I had been wearing Orlando (my floppy hat) all morning, but although I kept drinking water and cola I wasn't able to eat in the next section. I had slowed down some from my 9s, but I was still maintaining a decent pace through the heat and hills. I hit the next crew checkpoint (50 miles) in 8:15, which was just what I wanted. But I almost fell over from heat exhaustion once I got into the shade. Alec made me stay a good 10 minutes, and after eating some yogurt and a bowl of rice (so incredibly delicious at that point!) I felt much better. From this point on, I would see Alec every 10 miles or less, which definitely helped my morale!

It was also around this point that I started running with my friend Bruce- although he was representing Korea (where he was born), he lives in Florida so we had met at several previous races. Anyway, we leapfrogged each other for a bit, but in the end we ran close to 100 miles together- I can't express how grateful I am to have had his encouragement and company for so many hours! I think Alec also enjoyed getting to crew alongside Bruce's wife, Brandi- gave him some company with all the waiting around.

Honestly, things sort of blurred together after the first 50 miles. We ran past a lot of vineyards, along winding, rolling countryside. We ran through ancient Corinth. We ran into small Greek towns full of cobblestones and old stone buildings. Bruce and I had some crazy conversations, the kinds you only have when you're punchdrunk after running for hours together. Alec kept rolling me out and refilling my Tailwind bottle at checkpoints. By nightfall I was about 2 hours ahead of cutoffs, and I was starting to feel more confident about finishing.

We were close to the halfway point when it got dark. I wore my headlamp around my chest (I hate actually wearing it on my forehead), but the moon was so big and bright I didn't actually turn it on half the time. The terrain was getting hillier, and now I was powerwalking the uphills. I do think my hillclimb workouts have made me faster at this, but I am still a pretty slow uphill walker. If I do Spartathlon again in the future I will definitely do more hill training!

The slow climb up to mountain base began around mile 92. Bruce insisted that the uphills weren't actually uphill, so I should be running them. I countered that uphill was uphill, these weren't especially steep uphills, but I was still planning on walking them. I started getting frustrated at myself, and felt bad at holding Bruce back- I told him to go ahead of me, but he said he would stick with me until we were over the mountain. I was getting so exhausted and sleepy (it was about 2am), but I was afraid of taking caffeine as I was also nauseated. Bruce suggested I lay down with my feet up for a while instead, and I resolved to do that at mountain base.

Around mile 98 we started steeper switchbacks up to the mountain, and it began to get cold and rainy. I grabbed a long sleeved shirt from my dropbag and we power hiked up. Bruce wanted to get over the mountain before the rain got worse, but I needed to lie down. We reached mountain base (about 100 miles) in just over 20 hours. This was slower than what I had ideally wanted, but I was still over 1.5 hours ahead of cutoffs. I lay down for about 10 minutes, Alec made me eat some crackers, then I put on a hooded windbreaker and headed onto the trail.

The trail wasn't really a was a bunch of switchbacks marked off with reflective tape and glowsticks. I had to stop and stretch my screaming calves a few times, and nearly panicked as I slowly dragged myself, half crying, up the mountain. I kept looking up and seeing more headlamps twinkling up the mountainside, reminding me I still had a ways to go. But as it turned out, we didn't actually go all the way up the mountain, so once I calmed down that section passed relatively quickly. Going down was in some ways harder- it was all switchbacks of wet scree, and steep enough that I felt I needed to be super cautious not to fly off the mountain. Usually downhills are my strength, and despite my caution I did pass a few people- plus I caught back up to Bruce! We ran together to the next crew checkpoint (around 106).

This was a high point in the race for me. It's funny how that works in ultras- after 106 miles and about 22 hours I felt better than I did at 4 hours in. Part of it was finishing the mountain and realizing I had actually gained time on the cutoffs (I was back to around 2 hours ahead). But the human body and mind are also just mysterious.

Alec had bought some delicious meat on a stick, and boy did it hit the spot! It was especially nice to eat something hot in the cold wet night. Bruce was having some issues so he stayed on the massage table a bit. I went ahead at that point in order to keep going while I still had high spirits. Spoiler alert: that didn't last long.

The next section was kind of boring and industrial, and running alone in the rain started getting to me. It began getting light around the 24 hour mark, but it didn't make me feel better. I ran down an access road that had been used as a dump, probably the grossest part of the course in my opinion. On top of that, my left contact was feeling blurry and I kept having to squint to see straight. Perhaps that contributed to my starting to hallucinate. I felt nauseated and cold, I was completely soaked, and I couldn't get myself to run at all for a mile or 2 going to the next crew checkpoint (about mile 115). Everything just felt wrong.

This was the absolute low point. I came in crying to Alec about all my problems, most especially the cold. Unfortunately I had come prepared for heat and rain, but not cold, so I had no pants, no jacket (other than the light windbreaker I was wearing), and no hat or gloves. Alec gave me his drier windbreaker to wear, but I walked off only a few steps before I came back shaking. I just can't, I cried, I can't, I'm freezing! Alec helped me change into dry socks and shoes (thank goodness I brought an extra pair), and I sat down and tried to eat. My body rejected the ginger cookie and I began retching onto the cobblestones. Alec had me lie down on a mat inside a store and wrapped his arms around me. I kept crying how it was just like C&O, and I came all this way but I was going to DNF. Someone brought me some hot water and I sipped at it a bit. Alec told me to wait there, but I was watching time slip away (less than 45 minutes ahead of cutoffs) and knew if I didn't move soon I would have no options left. 

I told Alec I wanted to try to get to the next checkpoint. It wasn't a crew checkpoint, but it was less than 3k away, and Alec could drive there to see how I was doing, and if necessary pick me up to DNF. So I started moving again. I counted my steps and alternated 9 strides walking with 9 strides running. I told myself I would have to drop if I couldn't at least maintain my 45 minutes ahead of cutoffs. I made it to the next checkpoint having gained a minute or 2- thankfully the pace you are forced to maintain becomes slower and slower as the race progresses! So I kept going to the next checkpoint. I continued my run/walk intervals and steadily began gaining time. The rain was coming down heavily, but I was able to increase my running interval (3:1) and I was slowly warming myself up. 

I came to a very hilly section, which was a bit scary because it was on a major road with no shoulder and cars would fly past. But I continued my intervals and passed quite a few people who were no longer running at all. By the time I got to 200k I had over 1.5 hours on the checkpoints again, and I had caught back up with Bruce! We resolved to stick together for the last section, which was mainly uphill until the last 20k. 

This section wasn't too eventful. We kept our lead on the cutoffs, but I was only taking in a few bites of banana and some Tailwind here and there. I was pretty much ready to be done. One nice thing was I had made some "fans" with my comeback...a lot of crew members were sure I was going to DNF back at mile 115, and were really impressed to see me passing other runners a few hours later. One British guy kept yelling out his car that I was a machine and "you're my favorite!" Aside from his own runner, I'm sure!

The last 20k was supposedly "all downhill" but there were a few decent climbs in the mountains before we really headed down into Sparta. They weren't terrible, but being told "it's all downhill" only to face a couple of real climbs is like being told "you're almost there" at mile 20 of a marathon...I guess it's all relative, but it still feels like I'm being lied to!

Anyway, the downhills were really starting to do a number on my quads. I love downhills and I'm good at them, but after 140+ miles nothing feels good! I kept whining (Bruce's term)/stating facts (my term) about my legs hurting. It had gotten nice out though- cloudy, warm, and dry, so I was comfortable in just a tee shirt and shorts again. We had about 4 hours left to do the last 10k, which sounds super easy (and I was confident of finishing), but I was so ready to finally be done! Brandi and Alec drove off to get a good spot to see us finish, and we began the final descent.

I did run the downhills continuously, but I couldn't seem to get as much speed as Bruce, so I waived him on ahead to handle the final 3-4k on my own. I had also been told that the last bit in Sparta had a few slight uphills, so I didn't want to completely trash my legs until then.

I was relieved to finally get into Sparta, but the race markings, which had been so well done throughout the race, vanished! I guess the race officials figured everyone knew the way, but that wasn't so. I followed the other runners I saw ahead (and passed a few), but I got more and more frustrated with no end in sight. There was an official car driving alongside me and videotaping me, so I asked them where the statue was- they said they didn't know! At that point I was really getting pissed at the 2k that wouldn't end, so I began to angrily powerwalk. I yelled out to a crew car, "where's the statue!?" The Brits knew- take the 3rd right and you're almost there. Thank goodness! I had hoped to finish under 34 hours, but the section through Sparta took longer than I expected.

I finally made the turn and saw a street lined with flags, and people cheering "bravo, bravo" as they had all race- but this was it at last! I began running as fast as I could, squinting my blurry left eye shut and laughing and crying all at once. I could see the statue ahead of me. "200 meters more" said the man videotaping me as he rode backwards on a skateboard. It seemed longer, but I ran. I ran up the steps and threw my hands down on the feet of King Leonidas, ending my race. I lowered my head to kiss his feet, and sobbed. Over 34 hours and 245k, the hardest, most challenging thing I have ever done...and in that one moment all the pain was worthwhile. There is no way to express how amazing that moment felt, but I will remember it for the rest of my life.

Alec ran up and wrapped me in a hug as I cried on his shoulder. A local woman gave me water from the river to drink and a plaque, and the race directer put a crown of olive branch on my head and shook my hand. A local child gave me a bag with a handmade ornament of my race number. There were a lot of pictures taken, and I just smiled.

I was led down the stairs to have medics wash my feet and drain my blisters. It hurt but felt wonderful. Bruce came over to congratulate me and we took a picture as Spartathlon finishers. I hobbled over to the med tent (where I saw at least 3 finishers pass out!) to have my legs massaged a bit. But then I began shaking with cold again and feeling dizzy. So I stayed there for a bit with an IV and a pile of blankets. Finally I got into a taxi with Alec to drive the 3 blocks to our hotel. I had the worst chaffing of my life but it felt so amazing to take a hot shower and curl up in bed. I could only doze on and off all night but it was a happy, hazy, comfortable evening.

The next day we enjoyed a big breakfast (I was starving!) and walked around Sparta a bit before leaving. We decided to skip the luncheon and go to a mineral lake outside of Athens instead. We drove back over some of the roads I had run only a day before, and I could barely recognize them- they seemed a lot nicer in the sun, and from the window of a car! We had a nice couple hours at the lake. There were little fishes that nibbled on your dead skin, and although the Greeks there were non-nonplussed, Alec and I (and a Japanese tourist) couldn't stop giggling. 

The following day we walked around Athens for a while, and visited the National Archeological Museum, which was amazing. I was pretty exhausted by early afternoon though, so we rested up a few hours before going to the final gala awards ceremony. It was a bit too late and too long for my taste, but I got my medal and finisher's certificate and DVD, ate some delicious food (and wine), and saw my USA teammates one last time in Greece, before heading home in the morning.

This has probably been the longest race recap ever, but then it was also my longest race ever. I think I may go back one day, although I doubt it will be next year- it's too major of an undertaking and too expensive a trip to do regularly, although some do. I don't plan on doing any more ultras for a little while, but I couldn't ask for a better one to lead into my "hiatus". But I'm only 31, and I think my best ultra years are ahead of me, so probably I will come back, and maybe even take a few hours off my time, now that I know what to expect!

My strength and stubbornness comes from within, but I also couldn't have finished this race without Alec- as always I am blessed to have his help, love, and support! I am just so incredibly grateful for this run in an international competition, in one of the toughest races on earth, with some of the best athletes from around the world...I am both humbled and proud!