This was my third Spartathlon; I previously ran in 2015 and 2016. My 2015 race report is fully detailed, if you are looking for all the intel you can get on the race, and what it’s like to experience Spartathlon for the first time.
This one will focus on what was new for me, and on the freakish conditions we all found ourselves in. But, warning, it is still a very long way from Athens to Sparta, both on the road and on the page! If you want to skip ahead to the good stuff, scroll down to “Disaster”. Background For a full background on Spartathlon, see my 2015 report. In a nutshell, it’s a 153-mile race from Athens to Sparta, with a tight 36-hour cutoff. Most years, most runners do not make the cutoff. The purpose is to recreate the fateful run of Pheidippides, as he was sent to recruit the Spartans to help defend Greece from the Persians at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC.
Spartathlon is my favorite race, and I had thought I might try to run it every year, but injury kept me from the start line in 2017. So I was chomping at the bit to get back to Greece and try to improve on what I felt had been a very solid effort last time.
This was a busy year of racing for me, and after my performance at Badwater did not match my expectations, I was feeling burned out. Much as I love Spartathlon, day after day I would lace up and head out only to feel that my legs were moving through molasses, and I would say screw it, turn around, and tell myself I needed a little more recovery. Whether the fundamental problems were physical or mental I’m still not sure. But with only nine weeks between Badwater and Spartathlon there was only so much time available for the real training to kick in – not to mention for losing those extra five pounds I’d carried through Badwater, something I couldn’t do without high mileage. In the end, my training cycle was pretty unsatisfactory. For Spartathlon 2016 I peaked at 110 miles per week. This time, somehow the most I managed after Badwater was a paltry 77. And those pounds weren’t going away.
Add to this that I’m now 53 instead of 51, and logically I should temper my expectations for Spartathlon, right? But I was not willing to do that. Spartathlon requires a huge effort. That effort can only be put forward if there is motivation to match. In 2016 my goals had been to run under 27 hours and/or place in the top 10. I vacillated mid-race between pacing for 27 and 28 and hit it in the middle, but in 16th place. In some past years 27:33 would have been a podium spot, but with more interest and tougher qualifying criteria, the times at Spartathlon have gotten faster. It would take more than that. I was going to have to go back with a more solid focus on sub-27 and hopefully top-10. Never mind that my training and my weight were not as good as in 2016; somehow I had a certain positive feel about these goals.
Ultras are mostly run in the head. I now had twice as much personal Spartathlon data as before to draw on for my pacing plan, and twice as much familiarity with the course, as well as a significant (pre-race) nutritional improvement that I expected to alleviate the mid-race energy lows I’d had in the past. I ran a decent 50K tune-up race at Burning Man, comparable in time and effort to 2016. Moreover, as Spartathlon approached the forecast was for a cool year. This would certainly help my chances for sub-27, but probably hurt my placing: in a cool year I knew 27 would not be top-10, but I just did not dare to try for more given my fitness. My gains, if any, would come from optimizations over last time, not from running at a dramatically faster pace.
On the other side of things I also had twice as much experience with the pain and effort Spartathlon requires. Normally as runners we are good about forgetting, after the race, just how much it hurt, and our firm mid-race resolutions to never, ever, do that again. But I had made sure to get it all down on paper, and I knew that toeing the line with a challenging goal would mean a long journey through the pain cave. I think it takes a certain kind of perverse personality to do these things, knowing how much they will hurt, perhaps a kind of lack of emotional intelligence as we discount the cost involved. This helps us do incredible things, but can also be a liability. In that regard, Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse” will figure prominently later in this report.