6 Kasım 2019 Çarşamba

2019 Spartathlon Race Report: Today We Die A Little!

The starting line of the marathon race at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics… British athlete Jim Peters, the world record holder, is the favorite to win the race. While Peters is warming up, a skinny, balding runner comes up to him and introduces himself as Emil Zátopek. Peters, of course, knows about Zátopek but this is the first time they meet in person. Having already won the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in Helsinki, the Czech runner is one of the greatest distance runners in the world.

An hour after the start, Zátopek catches up with Peters who has been running in the lead from the start. “Jim, do you think the pace is too fast?” he asks. “No, not fast enough.” replies Peters. He would later explain that the pace was indeed fast and he only said it to mess with Zátopek. But Zátopek, who is running his first marathon, takes him seriously and starts to push the pace. In the end, Peters falls back and Zátopek wins the race becoming the first person in history to win the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon distance races at the same Olympics– a feat that has never been repeated since.

In his biography about Zátopek titled Today We Die A Little!, Richard Askwith recounts the following story: It’s four years later and Zátopek is about to run the marathon at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. He’s now older and hasn't fully recovered from a groin hernia operation. The race is about to start at 3 pm with temperatures over 30 degrees celcius. As the athletes are putting vaseline on their shoulders to block the sun, Zátopek already knows that this will be a painful race. He turns to his competitors and says: “Men, today we die a little!”.
Sparta Photography Club

The sun is finally going down and I'm running among the olive trees on a winding road which leads to the village of Halkion at around 113 km. 

A few moments later, I come side by side with Dietmar Göbel from Germany. I remember seeing him almost every year. We start talking and I ask him how many times he has run the race. "I started 9 times and finished 6 of them. It's always the same race but every year it’s a totally different experience" he says. I remember his son Thore becoming the youngest finisher of the race in 2016 when he was just 18 years and 4 days old. This year they are both running again but Dietmar says Thore was very close to the cut-off at the 80K checkpoint.

As I'm talking to Dietmar I think about my brother Aytug, who is now also running somewhere further back. I wonder where he is and how he's doing. It's been 11 hours since we started our journey that would take us all the way from the Acropolis of Athens to the town of Sparta – 246 kilometers to be covered on foot in maximum 36 hours. On one level, I'm just trying to get my fifth Spartathlon finish in five attempts but with Aytug's presence, there's more at stake. As brothers, we are trying to achieve the rare feat of both finishing the same Spartathlon race. Plus, this is first time in race history where there's more than one Turkish runner on the starting line. Our friend Mert is also going for his second finish.

The three of us run the first few kilometers together until Mert decides to run a bit faster and disappears. I tell Aytug that we need to put in a couple of walking breaks during the first 10K. Even though the pace feels fine, I don't want to do something stupid when everything feels so easy. However, just after we enter the highway around 10K, my pace is just a bit faster than his. I don't want him to push himself this early because this could have catastrophic consequences later on in such a long race.

As we had agreed pre-race that each one of us would run at his own comfortable pace, I pick up speed and we separate, having promised each another once again to make it to Sparta no matter what. As I'm slowly moving ahead,  I have no doubt that this is the right decision for both of us. Aytug crewed for me in 2014 and 2015 and therefore knows this race well. He moved to Toronto 2.5 years ago and since then his sole training focus has been the Spartathlon. When he came to Turkey for holidays at the beginning of August, we ran 400 kilometers together in two weeks and I knew then he was both physically and mentally ready to take on this challenge. At this moment, the best thing I can do is to focus on my own race and do whatever is necessary to reach Sparta in under 36 hours.
Photo Budak Timuralp: Before the start at Acropolis. Aytug, Mert and me.

Turkish team logo by Kerem Yaman

 Around 12 km. Just after Aytug and I got separated. Photo: Sparta Photograhpy Club.
The crew. Caner, Suna and Budak .Just after the start.  
Just like Dietmar said, every Spartathlon has its own story. 

This year’s main storyline quickly becomes obvious: Heat! It looks like it will be a hotter than average Spartathlon and, more importantly, it'll be hot for two days straight.  For the first three hours, there are some clouds to give us a little bit of breathing room but as I'm approaching the town of Megara there's nowhere to hide. The town signifies the ending of the first of the six marathons that we need to complete and I run the last kilometers with IanThomas. Going for his 5th consecutive finish, Ian is a good friend and one of the most experienced members of the British team. As the race clock shows 3:39, I see my crew for the first time. I take my handheld water bottle, some gels, and continue without stopping.

Suna is once again in the support crew. This is her fifth time and she knows the race inside out. Every year she gets ready with time charts, various lists and everything as if she's running herself. Caner is an old friend who's crewing for the first time. He's an experienced ultrarunner himself and also the RD of some of the biggest ultra and trail races in Turkey. He has quite a bit of experience on both sides of the sport.

Since Aytug was running for the first time, it was important for him to have an experienced crew. So according to the original plan, Suna and Caner would be supporting Aytug and I was going to run solo this year. But as the race date approached, my best friend Budak told me that he'd like to come to crew for me. On paper it looked like a risky decision so close to the race but since we knew each other well I knew it was going to be great. He came to Sparta with his family to watch my first finish in 2014, but he wasn't a runner at that time, so I don't think he fully understood the significance of this race. But he started running since then and has finished a number of long races, including his first 100 miler this April. He plans to run the race in the future so it was going to be a good learning experience for him, too. 

Just after leaving the CP at Megara, there's a long uphill section. 

Towards the end of this part the heat starts to really hit me hard. I take off my shirt and pour some water on myself. It's only11 am and it becomes clear that this is going to be a long day.

Despite the weather conditions, I'm feeling relatively good and for some time everything seems to go according to plan. At some point we're running just a few meters from the beach, and I'm so hot and the sea looks so enticing that for a few moments I think of how good it would feel if I just quickly jumped into the water for a few minutes. But this  idea doesn't last long and I'm back to running and suffering in the heat. I start to feel the first signs of strain on my right hamstring around 55 km. First there's a dull pain when I’m running the uphills or when my stride length increases on the flats. I walk for some time and gently stretch the leg but notice that the pain is there even when I walk with long strides. I never had such a problem during any of my training runs so I have no idea where this is coming from. I also know that this is not the time to dwell on this. Instead, I need to figure out a solution quickly before it gets worse.

I start to run with shorter steps and with a higher cadence. I never like to change my natural form and force things but at this point I feel like there's no other option. I also start to have longer walking breaks and try light stretches a few times. I tell myself that in the big picture this is not important and that it's probably even better because it forces me to go slower. As I enter Hellas Can at 80K in 7 hours and 44 minutes, there are still more than 100 miles to go and I know I have to deal with this issue properly.
Approching 80K. Yes, it's hot. Photo: Sparta Photography Club

Photo: Sparta Photography Club
For hours you dream about reaching the next CP. But as soon as you arrive, you’re anxious to leave it as quickly as possible. 

This is the reality of these races. Budak gives me some ice in a bag and I put it on my aching hamstrings. I lose 12 minutes here but I know I need to sort out this problem so I don't care that much. Mert has arrived a few minutes before me and when he's leaving I tell him I need some time.

After the icing is done I'm on the road again. The first 5-10 minutes I'm optimistic. But it's now the hottest time of the day and it quickly becomes obvious that my hamstring problem is not much better. But the good thing is, it's not worse either. I can still run with a shorter stride and as long as I take it very slow on the uphills I'm fine. I decide to continue icing at each major checkpoint to keep things under control as long as possible.

The village of Zevgolatio is next, at 102 km, and I catch up with Mert here. Like most people today, he also got hit by the hot conditions. He says his legs feel like blocks of concrete. We run the next 8-9 kilometers together as much as we can. We both have problems of our own and since we have both finished before, we both know what's still ahead. At one point it becomes obvious that I can't run the uphills without irritating my hamstring too much so I tell him to go on alone. But after some time there's a slightly downhill section where I pass him while he's on a bathroom break and I reach Halkion village at 113 km.

It's now about to get dark soon. 

Once again I ice my hamstrings for over 5 minutes. I get my headlamp and reflectors for the night. Budak has prepared some soup and rice but my stomach is not in the mood for anything. I see that Mert is having a few things to eat so I leave the CP on my own. It's a lonely run until Nemea at 123 km and I'm certainly experiencing the effects of not getting enough calories during the last few hours. I sit again for some time to let my stomach settle but it doesn't really seem to be working.

Budak gives me some soup and mashed potatoes. I expect things to get better as it’s now cooler but a few minutes after, just as I leave the CP, I throw up everything. I think a British crew member offers me some napkins to wipe my face. This has been a classic throughout my years at the Spartathlon, but this year it happens at a much earlier point in the race, probably due to the hotter conditions. As the race goes on, I will be seeing a lot more people having the same problem, either on the road or at the checkpoints.

It'll be almost 2 hours till I see my crew again at Malandreni, the 140K CP. 

This is not the easiest section to run after throwing up. And as expected, everything becomes much harder. I feel lethargic even on the slightest uphill so I force myself to go faster on the downhills. A few kilometers later after the long downhill I catch up with Andrei Nana from the U.S. team going for his 7th consecutive finish. We go back and forth for some time but just a few kilometers before Malandreni I feel dizzy and have to stop on the side of the road for a few minutes to collect myself. When I finally reach Malandreni things get even worse.

All the members of the support crew are here, waiting for Aytug and Mert who are behind me. I know I need to stop for some time but even then the nausea and stomach cramps continue. I need to get some calories to start moving, so I try taking a few bites but can't keep anything down. As a last resort, I decide to lie down on a blanket for 15 minutes to settle my stomach. I'm not ready to sleep so I just lie down and close my eyes for a bit. I always find it easier to fight with negative thoughts while running but it becomes much harder when you're lying down and stay awake.
140. km. Stomach cramps continue. Photo: Budak Timuralp

As a last resort I lie down to settle my stomach. Photo: Budak Timuralp

Cracking the password.

In computer terms, a brute force attack takes place when a hacker systematically tries all possible passwords (sometimes billions, trillions, or more) until the correct one is found. A weak password can be hacked in minutes with a home computer while a stronger one may never be hacked with this method as it would take years to figure out. 

Sometimes people ask how we convince ourselves to continue in races when everything seems to go wrong. I think there's no simple answer to that question which works every time. If there was, then everything would be so easy! But this challenge reminds me of a brute force attack. When your brain tells you what you're trying to do is really ridiculous and backs it up with very good reasons, you need to find the correct password very quickly to convince yourself otherwise. So you start by throwing all the arguments at it that you think might work. Of course, what you really need to do is try to make this a weaker password during your pre-race mental training. If not, it'll become impossible to crack that password under physical and mental stress in a limited amount of time when things get tough (and they will surely get tough at some point).

I guess it's fair to say that you get better at cracking passwords as you run tough races and gain experience. But the problem is your brain is also getting better as it creates tougher and tougher passwords! That's why you can never rely on previous solutions. Every race presents a unique challenge and you need to find it before you throw in the towel.

I slowly get up and take a few bites from the mashed potatoes before I start to move again.

After the race, 21-time finisher and Spartathlon legend Andras Low would tell me that when he saw me lying down in Malandreni he thought I was done. But the reality is I lose 45 minutes here. Those were hard earned minutes and that's a huge amount of time at the Spartathlon. But there's one other way to look at it and maybe it saves my race. I don't know how to look at it. But considering another hot day is ahead, I'm aware that I've already lost my chance to have a good finishing time like last year. But I just don't care about the time right now. I just want to finish.

It's still warm enough to run with a T-shirt but I try to run fast after being motionless for so long. I feel just a little bit better now in terms of nausea. I notice that my hamstring feels fine, too. How did this happen, when did it heal? I have no idea. Maybe it's the periodic icing or the cooler weather. Or maybe the muscles got a break when I stopped for so long. Who knows? I always say that if you're having a problem in the first half of a long race, don't worry. There'll be much bigger problems in the second half and as a result you'll most likely forget the previous one!

Approaching 150 kilometers, I get a call on the "hotline". 

Before the race when I was talking with Suna and Caner, I asked them to notify me if Aytug gets close to the cut-offs and/or starts to have a negative state of mind. This call is about that. I learn that he's just 50 minutes ahead of the cut-offs and quite stressed about it. I call him and basically say three things.

First, I tell him to remember all the tough things he had done and that I fully believe he's capable of reaching Sparta. Then I tell him to think about all the people who ran Spartathlon in its 37 years of history. I tell him that everyone, from Kouros and Jurek to mere mortals like us, had suffered to various degrees in order to finish the race but no matter what it'll be worth it in the end when he reaches Sparta. Of course, he knows all of this very well. But I think it's still important to hear it from someone who is close to you, especially when you're under immense stress and pressure. 

Then I tell him the third thing which I think is the most important one because I acknowledge that he's having the same problem that I had during my first Spartathlon back in 2014.

When you start any race you have a certain amount of physical energy as well as some amount of mental energy. When you quit a race, most people think that it was physical. I think this is rarely true. I believe most of the time your mental energy is depleted first and it gets harder and harder to counter all the arguments your brain presents. So at some point you fail to crack the password and then slowly but surely convince yourself that it's physical rather than mental and quit. 

One of the unique aspects of the Spartathlon is that each of the 75 checkpoints has its own cut-off time. What's more interesting is that the people who are qualified to run this race are faster than the average ultrarunner (they have to be faster in order to meet the qualification criteria). So they don't have much experience when it comes to the stress of fighting the cut-offs. Therefore, if you're running it the first time and find yourself close to the cut-offs, you're mostly in uncharted territory. This really takes a toll on you because constantly making calculations in your head deplete your mental energy very quickly. All of a sudden panic sets in and you lose your ability to think rationally. I tell Aytug that I know exactly how he feels but all he needs to do is forget about the past and not think about the future. Focus on the now. "Don't think, don't make calculations. Just run!". In the end, I'm convinced that he understands what I'm saying. So at that point I'm confident that he'll do what it takes to finish. 

In a way, talking with him helps me too. I may have different problems which affects my speed but in the end the outcome will mostly depend on how I control my mind..

I'm now at the 155k point on the course and the 5 kilometer long uphill section starts.

It's dark, very quiet and monotonous. I need to get some calories but even the thought of food is enough to give me nausea. Towards the middle of the climb I get so sleepy that a couple of times I literally fall into sleep for a few seconds. It starts to get dangerous so I stop and splash water on my face from my handheld bottle. At the next CP, I can drink a bit of tea, too, and that helps. 

It's now close to 3 am and I start the mountain ascent from the trailhead. In most years, this is where I take a windproof or waterproof jacket with maybe a buff and light gloves. This year it's still warm so I don't take anything and just march on with a T-shirt. It's not an easy climb but at least it's not monotonous. I need to really focus on the footing, this is not the place to get sleepy. I mostly manage to go fast and steady. I drink some more coke at the top and start running down the slippery terrain. Adrenaline is now in full effect and despite a few dangerous moments I'm able to run most of it quite well and pass a few people on the way. I reach Nestani (171.5K) and get some good news when the crew tells me that Aytug and Mert are very close to each other and doing well.
Climbing the mountain. Photo: Sparta Photography Club 

 Photo:  Sparta Photography Club 
I have only two hours before the sun comes up.

Now my goal becomes covering as much ground as possible while it's still cool. At one point I sense someone close at my back. At first I think I may be hallucinating but when I turn back I see a dog following me. Looks like he wants to run with me, which is weird, because even though I have often run with stray dogs during daytime, I don't remember seeing one running with people at night. He goes in front and I tilt my headlight so he can see a little further. He's not much of a talker but I have to say he looks like an experienced pacer. He stops for a few seconds to check on me when I slow down. We cover a lot of ground together in half an hour but he decides to leave me when volunteers offer him some food at the next CP. He was probably sick of my slow pace anyway. 

I run relatively well until 195K but my stomach is again revolting. At the crew CP, Budak offers me a variety of foods but I throw up in a bag once more as soon as I take a few bites. 3x Spartathlon finisher and 24 hour specialist Bob Hearn from the U.S. team is here, too. After running a 6-day race at the end of August, he's crewing for Amy Mower this year. I think he makes a joke saying something like "Looks like you're going to have a PR".  Haha! He, of course, means a personal record for throwing up which sounds quite right! He asks how Aytug is doing while I get information about Amy and other friends. As I leave the checkpoint it's about to get light and another hot day awaits.

The next 25K section is a real grind.

 I can still run reasonably well on downhills but not on the uphills. Running on empty in hot conditions is not easy but my hamstring has totally healed itself, so I have no excuse at all. My mood changes a lot. I feel lethargic and miserable on the uphills but 5 minutes later I'm grateful that I can still run the downhills. This year before the race, Suna and I exchanged quite a few articles about Sparta and the Spartans but for some reason all I can remember is this quote. "Pain is your friend. Pain is your ally. Pain tells you when you have been wounded badly but you know what the best thing about pain is? It tells you you're not dead."

I'm not dead yet. I repeat that idea a few times. 

When I finally reach the crew checkpoint at 223K I'm really overheating. I quickly take a full sponge bath and get going again. At the last long climb I catch Johnny from Denmark. I think he asks me how many kilometers left to the finish. Just a little over a half marathon, I reply. I made some good friends from Denmark during my previous Spartathlons, including a roommate in 2015, so it turns out that we have some mutual friends. He tells me it's his first time running the race. When he learns it's my fifth time he doesn't hide his feelings at all. "Why?? Are you crazy?!" Haha. I tell him at the moment I totally agree with him but in a few days/weeks we'll both forget about this. We laugh. After some time, the long downhill starts and it turns out that I'm just a little bit faster, so I go ahead.
Throwing up in Tegea, before the sunrise. Photo: Budak Timuralp

Somewhere between 200-220. Photo: Sparta Photography Club

Photo: Sparta Photography Club
I reach the last crew CP, change into my team shirt and start running the last 10K. I'm really happy because barring a catastrophic injury I know I'll finish. But I couldn't get any news from Aytug and Mert for a long time so I don't know what's going on with them.

When I finally reach Sparta it's around 3 pm in the afternoon. I ran the downhill but it's mostly flat now for the final 3-4 kilometers and I'm back to walking. I'm totally depleted now. A few minutes later my escort arrives: A ten year old boy on a bike. He starts leading me through the town. Now I have to run! I ask his name and thank him for escorting me. A few kids on bikes join us, too. Then we make the last right turn. Last 500 meters to the statue. Last year the street was deserted due to the hurricane. This year the fantastic atmosphere is back. Budak joins me and records the final minutes which you can see below. 

Sparta Photography Club

Photo: Budak Timuralp

Sparta Photography Club

Sparta Photography Club

Photo: Sparta Photography Club

32:14 is the official time. Forgot to stop at the finish.

As always, I'm taken to the medical check after finishing. 

Sometimes people ask me when I'm running the race what I dream of doing after the finish. The answer is easy. I dream of going to this medical tent, lying down on a bed for a few minutes as I close my eyes and take deep breaths. No greater feeling. The only hospital in the world that I'd like to go voluntarily!

I talk to my crew and learn that Aytug and Mert are coming to Sparta together. After calculating the remaining time and distance, I'm pretty confident that they'll finish. They do finish together in 35:33 hours. That's 3/3 for us in a year that had an overall 50% success rate. In total, Turkish runners have a track record of 8/8 since 2014. Yes, I know it's a VERY small sample size and that there are quite a few number of countries that have more finishers in just a single year but I think maybe it shows that we did our part to lay out a solid foundation for future Turkish participants. 

The next day is the day of the Spartan Mile. 

The Spartan Mile race is held on the athletic track just behind the statue. Last year I took part for the first time but this year the number of participants increased maybe by threefold thanks to the efforts of a few people, especially Jan Spitael from the Belgian team. Jan was promoting the race for months and he was even handing out flyers during the registration saying that running the Spartathlon would be the best training for the Spartan Mile. Haha!

The race is basically a 400-meter fun run where everybody runs barefoot and in their underwear. If you still want to run more you can also do the full mile afterwards by running four laps. This year I ran 400 meters in 1:35, an improvement of almost 40 seconds over last year. The race video from crew member Caner is below.

2019  Turkish Spartathlon Team

The Crew: Budak, Suna, Caner. 

We did it. Photo: Budak Timuralp

At the awards ceremony. 

Turkish team with  Kostis Papadimitriou. 

With 6x finisher Wilma Dierx from the Netherlands. She was influential for both of us. Read the story in full here

Our good friends from the Philippines. 4x consecutive finisher Rolando Espina and a strong first time finish from Jivee Tolentino.  

One of the most experienced members of the British team, 5x consecutive finisher Ian Thomas. 

With Johnny Wisholm from Denmark. 
The heat affects everybody to some degree and there's no surprise here. 

In most years, Spartathlon is a hot race and even though it was hotter than average this year there's no surprise there either.  (The real surprise was last year). The only question mark for me is whether I could have pushed myself harder during the last 50K or not. Not that it would have mattered much, it's just an internal evaluation for me to take some mental lessons from. The thing is, when I entered the last 50K stretch, time goals such as a sub-30 finish were already out of the window at that point. This meant that, unlike last year, I couldn't find a meaningful reason to push myself to the  limit. But maybe this really was my limit because I was cooking under the scorching sun and I noticed that I don't remember some things clearly during this last section. Maybe again at the back of my mind I was thinking of finishing with my brother so I always left a small safety cushion. Maybe this maybe that... It's impossible to have a clear answer to these questions when you're sitting comfortably in a chair a few weeks after a race where so many emotions are intertwined. The mental part of this sport always seems like a huge puzzle.  

I'm grateful and happy that I was able to get my fifth finish in five tries. I never take it for granted and having the chance to participate in this race is a big privilege. Finishing is one thing but every year there are other challenges you have to deal with such as having the necessary training, not getting injured, dealing with non-running related problems of life, having the right mindset and motivation and so on. This year all of those had to work for both me and Aytug simultaneously. That's why the outcome is really special for us.  

Mert, congrats. When you finish once it's not always easy to come for a second time when your brain knows what you'll be facing. You had problems but still managed to touch the foot, and in this race finishing is everything. Suna and Caner, thank you again for being such an awesome crew. Since I knew that Aytug was in good hands, I was able to focus on my own race. Budak, I knew you'd do a great job and I was right but more importantly Suna was impressed with your crewing and you know her standards are quite high! Kerem, thank you for the great T-Shirt designs. We got lots of compliments again. Of course, as always, huge thanks to everybody involved from organizers to volunteers and to my fellow Spartathletes who continue to inspire me. 

Aytug, we were dreaming about this for a long time and we finally did it. I know how much you worked for it and how much you wanted it. This race shakes everybody and you had tough moments like everyone else. When the moment of truth came you were tested to the core. But in the end you stayed strong and accomplished something you thought was impossible 4-5 years ago. I remember you telling two things: "There are no shortcuts to any place worth going" and "When you reach Sparta everything will be worth it in the end". You paid your dues to get here and you can be proud of yourself. 

Runners always say that immediately after the race they forget all the pain and the next year they register again. It's true, but I think at a subconscious level the brain evaluates the whole experience for some time. If the satisfaction you receive was greater than the effort you put in, that's when you decide to do it again.  

In that hot marathon in Montreal, Zátopek finished 6th and collapsed at the finish line. Most of us are obviously not close to his level, but I think standing at the Acropolis we all knew for a fact that we would die a little in the following hours. We still do it regardless, maybe because those hours are also the ones when we feel most alive. 

I think every experience in life has a cost attached to it. If you want to know who you really are under pressure, face your fears and maybe gain some insight about life in general, then this seems like a small price to pay. Most of us don't run in order to have a healthy life. Quite the contrary, we know we have to have a healthy lifestyle in order to be able to run as we'd like, so we try our best to do what's necessary. So, yes, we certainly die a little when running the Spartathlon but I think we also live it to the fullest just because of that. 

From where I stand, this looks like a good trade-off.   

Full results

Aytug is videotaping my first finish in 2014. At that time there was only one Spartathlete in this picture. Now, there are two. 

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