Sunday, May 27, 2012

Spring Running Report


Race report Olympia Ultramarathon


In the foot-steps of the ancient Olympic runners

Yes, I can! I can run 180 kilometers or 112 miles with no stops longer than a couple of minutes, including an elevation gain of 3.700 meters or 12.000 feet. On 19 May at 10:46am, after 20 hours and 16 minutes of running, I happily crossed the finish line of the historical “Olympia Race”. A unique and internationally certified ultra-race connecting the two biggest stadiums of Ancient Greece, from Ancient Nemea to Ancient Olympia, with its eternal Olympic flame, now on its way to London. So far, my longest run was 100km, 3 months ago in Psatha-Alepochori (see my Winter Running Report). On the last day of March, at the old airport of Athens, I tried to run my first 24 hour race in which the athlete tries to cover as much distance as possible. However I ‘dropped out'(1) after about 12 hours and 100km or so, due to knee-pain and a lack of motivation to break through the pain barrier, as I did during the Olympia Race, which is a point-to-point race in a (literally) Arcadian landscape, with no comparison to the concrete ‘desert’ of the 600m lap at Ellenikon airport, the scene of the 24 hour race. The magical Olympic stadium of Olympia worked as a huge magnet to keep me going and pull me to the finish line, right in front of the most historic running track in human history. I do not entirely exclude the possibility of running another 24 hour race (or for good measure a 48 or 72 hour race), but I will have to trick my mind to keep going that long, lap after lap.

Further in the preparation of my first ‘real’ ultramarathon - according to ultrarunning legend Yiannis Kouros, anything below 12 hours of running is not to be considered as ‘ultra’ - and since my Limassol marathon in Cyprus (see Winter Running Report), I also ran the Antwerp marathon (in 3:05) as well as two half marathons, both in Athens in around 1:30. Of course I’ve kept on training nearly daily and threw in a couple of so called Back-to-Back runs - basically a long run on Saturday, followed by another long run on Sunday - but I never exceeded lets say 100km of training per week, which is my ‘normal’ peak training for ‘normal’ marathon racing. In other words, apart from the 100km races, I didn't train excessively more miles than usual, while I tried to keep up with some interval and tempo-training in order not to entirely lose raw leg speed. So in the weeks leading up to the Olympia Race I felt rather undertrained in terms of endurance, but I knew this was to be preferred than being overtrained towards race-day.

So on raceday, 18 May, with fresh legs but uncertain about the feasibility of running that far, I headed to Ancient Nemea, together with 82 runners competing for the 180km race and another 80 or so aiming for the ‘fun-run’ of 62km. While most participants were Greek, 13 other nations were represented, mostly European countries as well as from the USA, Israel and even from Hong Kong/China. I was the only Belgian runner, although I was wearing my Greek club-shirt of “Grigora Kordonia” (“Fast Laces”). In the last edition of the Olympia Race (2010) a Belgian ultrarunner, Wouter Hamelinck, finished 3rd in 22:51. A ranking and time I could only dream of before the start…

After a joint lunch and final briefing all runners gathered in the Ancient Olympic stadium of Nemea, where the first games and runs took place in 573 BC, and with a capacity of around 40.000 spectators. After listening to the Greek national anthem, runners were called one by one to line up. At 2:30pm sharp, we started our epic race, albeit with less spectators and soon leaving the stadium behind us. The tension in my calves soon disappeared and the running became more smoothly mile after mile. The weather was ideal - at least for me: overcast and cool temperatures of around 16 degrees Celsius; unusually low for the time of year. We ran the first 20 km or so on a smooth asphalt road through the famous vineyards of Nemea, one of Greece’s finest wine areas. I knew I had to keep a conservative pace but I find it difficult and rather unnatural to run at a pace below 5:00 per km, or 12 km/h.

After the first 20km, a trail section took us to the top of a hill from where we could enjoy impressive views over a small valley with crops and wild flowers. More dirt tracks followed, of which some rather challenging and climbing to the Olighyrtos Mountain pass at 1.200m altitude, where my friend Dimitris from the organizing committee (and our running club) greeted me. Then there was a fast downhill section to Kandila and CP4 at 48km. From there on a long asphalt road leading to the first big station, the village of Levidi, CP7 after 62km and at 1000m altitude. I arrived in lovely Levidi after 6 hours running in a surprising 4th position; still feeling relatively fresh and strong. Dimitris was very helpful in changing my running gear for the night and I ‘savored’ a plate of pasta with yoghurt, while being massaged by 4 hands while standing. This all took no longer than 5 minutes after which I headed out for the night and to the mountains ahead.

Crossing Mount Menalo and 23 km to the next Check-Point was quite an intimidating challenge after 62km of non-stop running, but I decided to ‘take it as it comes’. While hiking the steeper uphill sections in total darkness and with only my flashlight as companion, I was actually happy to hear 4 faster runners nearing me. They were clearly more experienced ultrarunners and I took the risk to follow and mimic their running style by alternating running and walking on the ascent to Mount Menalo up to 1400m. Yet, three of them were too fast for me and I saw them fading away in the darkness. On the descent to Vytina I was on my own again and was delighted to find my way to CP8 at 84,4 km; leaving the aid-station while spooning a delicious ‘fat’ local yoghurt to keep a base in my stomach.

Once out of the village, glowing light sticks in trees were the only visible markers to find our way, now heading to Magouliana, the highest village of the Peloponnese at 1450 m. It was now getting cold with temperatures dropping as low as 5-6C, so it was time to put on my windproof jacket and gloves. I came through CP9 at 97k in 9:58, still at a good pace and in relatively good shape, however ‘only’ just over halfway. At that point it’s hard to believe you have to keep your legs and feet going for another 83km, so its crucial to think mainly about getting to the next CP. Easier said than done as there was another long unsupported section of 19km between CP 10 and CP 11. It turned out to be one of the longest 19km ever in my running life; it seemed endless and I never felt so lonely on a completely bare mountain with a narrow track full of pebbles and rocks, yet accompanied by billions of stars. It was too cold to drink or eat with a stomach in sleeping mode, and I had to force myself to eat at least some of the tasty and fresh Santorini tomatino’s I had brought with me.

It was 4 in the morning when I finally reached the outskirts of Perdikoneri village, and I thought I was hallucinating when I saw a tall figure with open arms running towards me. Dimitris! My friend also happens to be responsible for CP11, 124 km or two-thirds into the race. He’s the savior of many runners arriving there!  Once more he helped me with refueling and changing gear, this time including fresh socks and shoes. This took a while and required some sitting, but I thought it was important to keep the feet dry and blister-free, which is far from evident in my case (but it worked!).

I anticipated that the last third would be the most difficult part, as I entered completely unknown territory, far beyond my ‘previous’ limits and still many challenging tracks ahead before Olympia. It was good to hear that the next CP was only 3km ahead, so I would certainly make it to that point, and then would see again. At CP12 I asked for a hot tea but it was so hot I had to carry it with me, not to loose precious time. It’s quite a challenge to drink a hot tea while running downhill, believe me. Local people take care of these invaluable aid-stations and have to be praised for their free-of-charge services and support. From there a rough track led to Doxa and further on an easy and charming asphalt stretch I got to Kastraki, CP15 at 145 km.

 Just before the fading of my headlight, a new day started to dawn which recharged my mental batteries to keep me running. I was getting more and more amazed with my own body and mind, as I still had no urge to walk anything other than steep ascents. Just out of the village a trail led to the river Erymantos, hidden by a nebulous bubble due to contact with the cold early morning air. To my great surprise, I over-took two of the three runners that had passed me on Mount Megalos, 70km ago; these were two German runners that had won previous editions of this race. I couldn’t believe it and I guessed that they would probably over-take me again before the finish line. However, I still felt strong and started to believe I could also get back to the third runner who overtook me on Mount Megalo. And indeed, just before crossing the river, I saw him - Konstandinos - on the other side of the second river bank. Just before CP16 in Koklama, I over-too him but at CP16 I had a drop-bag with another pair of dry socks and my beloved minimalist Nike Free 3 shoes - in the (wrong) assumption the last section would be smooth asphalt - to get me through the last 30km. It took me quite a while to change and by that time Dinos, in fourth position, was again out of sight. I had to dig deep to catch up again and for a while we played Tom and Jerry. Sensing that this was a tricky game that far in the race, we silently ‘agreed’ to support each other for the last 25 km, as the distance was stretching out towards the end and the sun started heating up the air and our brains. I believe it was the right decision, as the last 20km were far from easy going; to the contrary.

A long muddy and hilly trail was a real ‘pain in the ass’, especially for the screaming quads that suffered already too many downhill runs. Only our joined will-power propelled us forward and we kept on running relentlessly when not ascending.

After what see  endless we finally reached Mouria, the fore-last CP at 175km. Less than 5km to go but on dead legs and under an increasingly hot sun. More will-power was needed to get those legs running once more after a last pit-stop, but we could still squeeze out a pace of around 5mins per km, or 12km/h,  step-by-step closing the gap to the magical finish line at the entrance of world’s most famous running stadium, in 20 hours and 16 minutes, with my feet crossing the line some feet in front of my co-finisher Dinos, placing respectively 4th and 5th, less than 2 hours after the iron-man winner, Stergios Anastasiadis.

Due to another joint-finish of the second and third runner, we were both ranked at position 3. Very rewarding and simply amazing! I started the race with no other ambition than to finish and maybe to finish in around 24 hours, and could simply not imagine to finish on the podium in a time 8 hours in advance of the cut-off time. The crowning with a wild olive tree wreath, the same as for the ancient Olympic victors, made me feel like a modern Olympian athlete.  

Aethlios was the first king of Ilis, an area of ancient Olympia, son of Zeus and Protogenia. Aethlios became the protector of the races in Olympia and from his name came the word ‘athlete’ to define the endless endeavor of man to conquer his natural barriers. That day in May, at the Holy Temple of Athleticism, I certainly pushed my limits far beyond my own imagination and dared to believe that I could run beyond this new barrier. Out of the 83 Olympia runners, 58 finished within the 28 hour time-span. The previous winners finished nearly one hour later than Dinos and I did, and only 13 runners finished below 24 hour, of which the first female runner, Amalia.

The award ceremony, the 4-star hotel with swimming pool, the dinner and the visit to the Olympia museums and a winery in Nemea over the following days were all very nice, but my supreme moment of joy was the popular party in the town-hall of Nemea with local food, wine, dance and above all my wife and daughter, my foremost important power-stations.

Stiffness in the legs only lasted for 2 days and I resumed light training on day 3. A good race apparently results in a smooth recovery. Although knee-pain occurred about halfway into the race, knee-support helped me through and it didn't cause any lasting injury. It was good to be prepared for the worst to happen, including pre-taping my feet to keep them blister-free, which - to my sheer joy - worked very well, even better than in most of my ‘normal’ marathons and certainly better than in my first 100km race. Another lesson learned was that it’s good to run according to your feeling and not according to an anticipated race-strategy or race-pace. I also learned that heading out pretty fast does not necessarily have to backfire later in the race, as long as you take it relatively easy on the uphill sections. Although I intended to run with a heart-monitor, I was actually lucky that I took it off just before the race, as the battery was depleted. Wearing the monitor, I might have been over-cautious and may have unnecessarily held back or become stressed about a low heart-rate. Nutrition-wise - a big concern during my previous ‘ultra’s - I finally found a better balance between isotonic drinks and ‘real’ food such as pasta, tomatoes and the ever-delicious Greek yoghurt, even in the middle of the night. Also, water with gas and coke helped to trigger the stomach. Candied ginger helped to calm my gut when needed. The only point of further attention is the upper body, with too much tension in my neck, shoulders and lower back, so I should learn to run more relaxed and loosen up from time to time.

Running a real ultra is so much more than running a race; its more like a journey, paraphrasing the great Dutch ultrarunner Jan Knippenberg. A journey to discover the Arcadian landscapes, as well a journey to discover your own body- and mindscapes. Ultra-running definitely requires a healthy - if not a slightly obsessive - mind to command a well trained body. I believe this is the true spirit of an Olympian athlete, ancient and modern.

 As I already said, I resumed training for my next goals. On 22 June I will run the marathon of Torhout, better known as the ‘fabulous’ Night of Flanders, with also a ‘popular’ and fast (but sadly "last") 100km run. Although I’m tempted to run the famous 100km of the Night of Flanders, I will save my energy for the 100km Olympus Mythical Trail on 7 July, a grueling mountain-trail-race to and around the summit of Greece’s highest mountain (2917m), with 6700m elevation gain in total. This one might turn out to be more challenging than the Olympia race. Only mighty Zeus knows as I will be among the first humans to try it (first-time race). Check it out on I just hope I will be timely recovered for the baptism of our baby girl on 29 July in Mesta/Chios. On 9 September I will compete in the Jungfrau-marathon in Switzerland, as the last training before the ultimate challenge of this running season, the Spartathlon on 28 September, which according to many is “the toughest race on earth”, covering 246km in a maximum of 36 hours.

Zeus, here I come!

Frankly Runner

PS: special credits go to the organizers of this great Olympia Race and in particular to Sotiris, Anastasia and Vicky; to Jan from the International Association for Ultrarunning (IAU)- not only for their positive energy throughout this event but also for a great race photos; to my friend Dimitris and other running friends of Grigora Kordonia (“Fast Laces”) for their support; to the new friends I have made during this race - Chris and Dinos in particular - and last but not least to my family for their endless support.

[1] Interestingly, technically you don’t drop out of a 24 hour race as the only thing that counts is the distance covered in 24 hours, no matter how long you actually run. That’s why I also ended up in the ‘finishers’ with ‘only’ 96,5 km, but which still placed me far away from the last place. As a matter of fact, I ran the first 60km or so in the first position; a clear indication of heading out too fast, also given the sun and heat during the first 6 hours of the race. At least there was a lot to learn from this event.