Τρίτη, 2 Οκτωβρίου 2012

Spartathlon 2012: my view from the side lines

Living in Greece and doing all the running I do, it has crossed my mind several times to participate a the iconic Spartathlon 246km run from Athens to Sparta. So this year I was planning to follow the race to see as much as possible from the spectator point of view. My plan is to participate in the event of 2013, in the 31st edition of the Spartathlon. A couple of weeks before the race I was contacted by a group of friends who were planning to follow the race in order to report on-line the unfolding of the 30th Spartathlon. So, it was the perfect opportunity for me to jump in the scene. We got our press accreditations and we were there at the starting line under the Acropolis on Friday morning along with 310 runners.

On Thursday, the briefing was held at a hotel but it did not impress me much. It looked a bit chaotic, and the organizers did not have speakers to address the athletes. Also with the temp at 32degC the air condition was not enough to keep the room cool. Everybody was sweating the day before the big race!

The weather forecast was not favourable at all. Temperatures were expected to reach 34degC during the race and the sun would be merciless upon the runners. This Spartathlon was meant to be marked by the weather: Very high temperature and high humidity.

Our plan was to follow the leading group and report the standings online using twitter and facebook as our main media, while providing regular updates on the re-vamped www.advendure.com web site. Everybody was psyched at the start, as expected for this kind of race. Many runners came all the way from Japan, as every year, but also there was a high number of "returning" runners. Obviously people who do it once, tend to return to this race!

The race started at 07:00 Friday morning under the Acropolis. We moved on to the area of Elefsina which is around the 20th km on the route, and we waited for the runners to pass by. What I noticed right from the start, was the fact that runners were running in the traffic and you can guess that a Friday morning is as busy as any other working day! Did not like this at all. After all, in the early stages of the race, runners are quite packed and it would be possible to control the traffic along the route, at least for the first 20k till they get out of the busy areas. On the contrary, runners had to be cautious about the cars and trucks moving along the route.

There were some nice patches along the route like the crossing of "Kakia Skala", next to the sea. The temperature was already at 30degC. Crossing some small towns was also a bit problematic for the runners since traffic was blocking their way, and distracting them from their task. The 30th edition of Spartathlon was also marked by the participation of legendary female endurance runner, Lizzy Hawker. She was in the lead group, right from the start of the race. And the pace was quite fast especially for a hot day! They crossed the 30th km mark in 2h20mins!!! Lizzy, 2 weeks before Spartathlon, has won the Run Rabbit Run 100miles in the USA!

The part of the route till Corinth is not a pleasant one. High road traffic, no protection for the runners, and on top of that runners have to beat some quite narrow time limits. The leading group somehow was already established. Daniel Oralek (winner of RUN Winschoten 2012 100km on 8th of September!!!) was leading with very consistent style and pace. He seemed to enjoy the race regardless of the heat! The leading group also included, Japanese Kiso Tetsuo (7th at 2011 Spartathlon), Joao Oliveira from Portugal (2011 finisher of Spartathlon), Lizzy Hawker (1st time at Spartathlon), Greek runner Stergios Anastasiadis.

After Corinth, Spartathlon is following some nice rural roads (always on tarmac) away from heavy traffic. The temperature was up at 34deC and there were some uphills. Daniel was still leading, and Lizzy was closing the gap as the route was adding more ascent. Also at this point, Markus Thalmann (3 times Spartathlon winner and multiple times participant), and Thomas Stu (8th in 2011 Spartathlon) appeared in the leading group, while Oliveira started to fall behind. At Nemea, a few kms before the only really challenging uphill of the race (Mount Parthenion) Oralek was still in the lead, but he told me that he does not like night time. At the other side of the mountain, 4 hours later, Lizzy Hawker has improved to 4th place (at some point she was even 2nd!) behind Thoms Stu, Tetsuo and Thalmann. Daniel obviously meant it when he said that he prefers the sun! He spent about 1h & 10 minutes sleeping in two stations during the night. even though physically he did not look so exhausted.

The gap between them and the rest of the field was significant. Live results were not so... live! Very few check points had the infrastructure to report passings based on chip-timing (a simple computer with internet access should be enough). I also believe that check points should be segregated and no access should be allowed to spectators. Athletes were distracted by the spectators who were wandering around in the feed stations and some of them were getting some minor delays as well by people who wanted to pose for a photo with them... while the race was still ongoing! There were even some smokers!!!

Thoms Stu under at the finish line
At some point during the night Thalmann developed some stomach issues and started to slow down. Now Lizzy was running almost side by side with him. The two leaders, Stu and Kitsuo were maintaining their pace and gap over Lizzy. She was really determined though and eventually overtook Thalmann, about 20 kms before the finish. And managed to create a safety gap as well, pushing the pace till the end.

These runners were quite fortunate to finish early in the morning at Sparta, and not experience the road traffic on the motorway in this last part. Unfortunatelly, runners further back, besides the extreme heat (Saturday also had temps in the area of 33deC), had to keep an eye on passing cars as well. I am really wandering why the organizers have not thought of segregating a 1m wide lane (with cones) to protect the runners. It would be a great upgrade for Spartathlon, and save the organization from the risk of a traffic accident. I am pretty certain that local authorities can contribute about 1.000 traffic control cones!!!

The finish line experience is very intense. Hundreds of spectators are waiting to see the finishers who have to go and touch the warrior statue of Leonidas of Sparta. Thoms Stu from Germany won the Spartathlon in 26h 28mins and tears came down from his eyes as soon as he saw the finish line. Amazing effort and very good pace from the German runner who was in the lead for the last 100kms and never slowed down even a bit!

2nd arrived Japanese runner Kiso Tetsuo. He also run a very consistent race. He was in the top group right from the start, and he was smiling throughout the race. He tried to close the gap with Stu at the last kms and he was only 8 minutes behind him at the finish, while in most part of the race he was 12-15 minutes.
And then it was time to see Lizzy arriving! The crowd was waiting to see the super-woman who was changing everything we knew about Spartathlon for the past 29 years. She was the first lady to finish among the top 10. And she did it by finishing 3rd overall!!! She achieved this with a new course record for women, on the most difficult year of the Spartathlon. Lizzy was also the winner of Run Rabbit Run (100miles) less than 2 weeks before Spartathlon. You want more? This year only 25% managed to see the statue of Leonidas at Sparta.
And this was the year that Dr. Elizabeth Hawker destroyed the previous record by almost 40 minutes. To get an idea of how she appeared in the eyes of all the Greeks at the finish line, I must say that no Greek woman finished this year, and usually female participation rates in local running events (talking about "down to earth" - distances) are less than 12%!

I was lucky enough to follow Lizzy throughout the race (and her support "crew" = Graham) and seen the determination and deep soul digging that she is able to deliver during a race like this.

Conclusions:

  • I will try to run the Spartathlon in 2013. Hope I am more lucky with the weather!
  • This race is the most profound proof that these distances are conquered only with the brain and the heart, and not by physical training only. The real challenge of Spartathlon is not the distance or the strict cut off times. It is the mental and emotional difficulties that each runner has to overcome in order to arrive at Sparta.
  • The organization of the race should try to improve several aspects so that this race becomes an "ambassador" of Greece to ultrarunning community  
    • It is unacceptable to run in heavy road traffic. If road closure is out of the question, they should try to control or minimize road traffic (one way traffic, cones, more traffic police). 
    • On the motor ways there should be cones every 50m segregating a lane for the runners. It is a matter of safety!!! 
    • The check points should be accessible only to those involved in the race. Spectators should support from a distance! 
    • Live tracking of the athletes and intermediate results are elementary for a race of this kind!!! I really did not see the point of chip-timing! It can be easily done manually.
    • There should be at least 20 check points with live results. 300 runners spread over such a distance, consist an easy flow to track even without chips!!! 
    • After crossing the finish line, there should be better support for the runners. They need quick recovery drinks and food. It is also very important to provide personal privacy at the medical tent. Athletes in pain should not be subject to the curiosity of the spectators.
    • Maybe the organizers should also consider modifying the course to include some forest / agricultural roads if this would keep the runners out of motorways.
I have huge respect for all those who were at the starting line. I am amazed by the spirit and the determination of the finishers. Will try to be there next year. But if the organization is similar to what I saw this year, this is a race that I do not think that I would ever come back.

2 σχόλια:

  1. Excellent race report and putting the finger at the crucial shortcomings of this epic race with a rather dull course (at least the first leg to Corinth) and rather poorly organized aid-stations. maybe its all part of the Spartan challenge...

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  2. The Spartathlon Challenge is about the mental / emotional reserves and the focus / determination of every participant to get to the finish line. You must train your body to support your mind. But it is only the mind that will keep the runner going when everything around is shouting in your face to STOP! From all ultra endurance races I have experienced so far, this is the only one that is a real fight in the mind of the runner. It is not oonly about overcoming the "ups and downs". It is about genuine deep desire and faith! The finishers believed that they could walk on water... and they did! It is a soul cleansing experience.

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