Spartathlon 2019 – 246 kilometers across Greece
Can you have a first love a second time? Can a magical spell lift you, shake you up, and torture you again, just like it did before? Can everything that feels familiar also be new and strange?
Running towards Sparta, I recognized every sound, smell, and scene. Yet, it felt like I’d never been there before. I was both at home and in a new, forbidden place. I recognized every turn, yet felt lost.
It’s difficult to explain love. It just exists. And every adjective you use to try to explain it just weakens it because it forces you to single out individual snippets of the magic. This love is of the children lining up for autographs and cheering you on until the wee hours of the morning; it’s of the tiny flickers of light from the torches along the mountainside; and it’s of the villages where even the priest comes out to cheer you on. This love is of the turquoise sea, the smell of the fresh grapes in the vineyards, the late-night coffee that keeps you going, the new and old friends, the eucalyptus trees, and the relics of ancient Greece which dot the land. It includes the humbleness of ordinary people, the love they send your way, and the stray dogs that join the runners and stop for a drink at the aid stations just like the humans do. The love includes the emotional exhaustion that you manage to shake off time and again, and the physical constraints that don’t really exist. And the final manifestation of that love is when you swear ‘never again’ as you stagger up to the statue of Leonidas, and then start making plans to run again a few days later.
That was my first love, but I lost it 11 years ago. We broke up, and I can’t really explain why. Maybe the passion was too intense, and it sapped my energy. Yet ignoring it didn’t work either. It left me feeling empty inside. I was last in Sparta in 2008. Like now, I ran down Sparta’s main road, touched the statue, and swore, like many times before, never to run again. Until tomorrow.
But tomorrow turned into the next day, then next week and next year. I sat on the proverbial couch with my Spartathlon medal and got stuck there. The unimaginable happened: I lost my will to run. I sat on that couch for years with a coke and bag of chips, waiting for the magic to return. The years came and went, and I stuck to my white lie that I could make a comeback anytime; after all, the Black Knight always triumphs! But as I sat, Sparta, running, and sports in general faded into a distant memory.
My 2019 Spartathlon started out on this proverbial couch. So, to me this race is only partly about running. But mostly about why you should never wait until tomorrow and why you should never stop dreaming. Without dreams, we’re just droids, after all.
The motto of another legendary ultra race used to be: “The Barkley eats its young.” The Spartathlon is even less gracious. The Spartathlon will chew you up and spit you out onto the pavement over and over again, forcing you to get up and keep moving. It makes you believe that you still have a chance, only if you dare to get up. As long as you keep going, it’s not over!
This was my mantra as I was jolted awake after crashing into the dense bushes on the side of the road. It was around 1:30 a.m., not far from Kaparelli, and I guess I fell asleep walking up the hill. I fought a losing battle to keep my eyes open, but my legs kept going. It only lasted a couple of moments but was a powerful reminder that in the Spartathlon, nothing is certain and your fortunes can turn on a dime.
Still, that little accident was also one of the highlights of the day; collapse and recovery in one. Because the Spartathlon will also show you its best side during the night. Beneath the light of the Milky Way, the night and the silent mountainside were mine. I hadn’t seen anybody for ages and the loneliness empowered and pushed me forward. Allons enfants de la Patrie, Marchons! Marchons!
We’d been on the road for about a day by then, but the Spartathlon’s bad habit is that it takes a long time to really get underway. You need to run 90K, maybe even a 100K before you feel that you are really doing it. Exhaustions and recoveries up to that point are just tests to see whether you’ve done your homework, and whether you qualify to go on. Hermes will send along a string of panic attacks to test whether you know what you’re doing and to expose the impostor. But this time I really did my homework, I swear, I did.
At the start, I did not meditate by the ancient wall, like I did 11 years ago; I didn’t bite my nails; my stomach wasn’t in knots. I didn’t have any doubts. My training was complete. I’d done everything I wanted to do so there was no reason to doubt myself. I walked around, watched the clock impatiently and took selfies with my supporter, Bogi, and the rest of my crew. I didn’t have anything left to do. I had run the start through my head a thousand times already. No, this race wouldn’t be about luck.
The Spartathlon is more an exercise in meditation than running, I would argued. But you need a certain amount of self-confidence for this meditation to work. I won’t say running is not important, but it may be secondary. You can finish it after running just 1000K a year in preparation, and fail despite having 6000K under your belt. I think you only need to train as much as necessary to keep your confidence rock solid, so you can turn inward and meditate. After all, the last thing you need in the wee hours of the night, when you’re shivering on the mountainside, is to start doubting yourself.
The only thing I asked Gabi – my wife and member of my support crew – was to remind me of my 2007 race if I started thinking about quitting. I asked her to remind me of the horrible, loathsome feeling I had the next morning. I had quit because it hurt and I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t dare to keep going. Yet by the next day, when the pain started to subside, I couldn’t understand what had happened. There was nothing wrong with me and I was even ahead of cut-off time. So, why didn’t I push on? No. This time I’m not handing in my race-bib; they’ll have to rip it off me. Never again will I walk around Sparta feeling ashamed, while the others are taking selfies by the statue of King Leonidas.
I got off the imaginary couch many times since 2008. I started every year saying that I would be at the next Spartathlon. But I probably didn’t want it enough. I dreamed about Sparta’s palm tree-lined finish and the spotlight. But I didn’t want to put in the work. After all, the Spartathlon destroys you only to let you rise again. But was it still in me?
To my friends, I’m the runner. But the truth is that I only was a runner. Shame. Living with medals, plaques and race-bibs, memories of many past races; that was all once upon a time. The Olympian, who goes to his kids’ school to talk about sports, just won’t admit that he’s not the runner he pretends to be.
The years came and went, it hurt here and there, but ultimately, I didn’t put in the work needed for ultra running. I wasn’t hungry and was content with an occasional marathon. Of course I still wanted to be the man who would do an extra loop on the afternoon run to hit 42K but I didn’t want to work for it.
Four years ago though, we moved to Frankfurt, to a suburban neighborhood, next to pastures, woods, a river, and endless bike paths. If I couldn’t make a comeback here, then I couldn’t do it anywhere. This was a now or never moment, and this was where the 2019 Spartathlon started.
I started running, then stopped. Started again and got a bit further. I’d take two steps forward in my running, but only one step back. I managed a decent 100K then stopped again. It was such a mechanical, joyless process. My goal, the Spartathlon was too far away. And it was such a formidable target that all intermediate goals seemed pathetic. (I really know how to be my own worst enemy.)
Then something finally clicked last autumn. The excuses ran out and I went out running, then again, then again. I ran before dawn or late at night. If I was injured, I biked, sometimes arriving at work covered in mud.
Two people inspired me, through no fault of their own.
Ferenc Szekeres was an Olympic marathon runner back when I was still in diapers. And he is still running. He’s not getting any younger and his knees are starting to go out on him, so he’s cutting back on his distances. Still, he says that once his knees give out completely, he’ll switch to biking.
Time is infinite, but our time isn’t. Am I using mine wisely?
My other inspiration was Mark, a former track and field teammate from Rutgers University. Mark wasn’t the fastest 800 runner but he never quit and barely slowed down. He’s now (one of) the fastest men in the world in his age group.
What do these two guys have in common? They both love running.
For me, running was my first love and first loves are eternal.
So, in January, Gabi, who is a running coach in her spare time, sat down with me and took out a large sheet of paper. We then drew up a plan. We jotted down everything that I needed to do, set the major milestones and worked out the auxiliary stuff. Then I tacked this sheet up in the office to remind myself of my commitment.
Despite its start line at the foot of the Acropolis, the beginning of the Spartathlon is not particularly pretty. Potholes, impatient drivers, and highways with subtle climbs mark the start. No, this wasn’t the real Spartathlon. It is just a necessary evil, an objective circumstance that can’t be changed, and it will eat your mental energy if you worry about it. Too many runners fail because they waste their mental energy. Gabi calls it the mental $100. You start your day with 100 mental dollars and your worries, about unchangables, consume it. The bed in the hotel was too soft or the air on the flight was too dry? There were too many people at the aid stations so you had to get around a batch of cars, or the air at the refinery at Elefsfina was horrendous? Do you ever see András Lőw (21 Spartathlon finishes) worry about anything?
The refinery really is ugly. But like many things, it’s part of a compromise deal. The throng of school kids cheering you on in Elefsfina more than offsets the refinery. As one Danish runner put it: these kids beat any other adrenaline rush.
My perfectly built, scientific Spartathlon race plan worked well until the end of the first marathon. That’s where I made an almost fatal mistake, one that impacted my performance all the way to Sparta. I built a complex refreshment plan, calculating calories, carbs, proteins and salts. It worked perfectly in training. There was just one weakness: actually keeping to it. The plan relied on eating everything on schedule, whether I wanted it or not. But would I remember that? I sent food and drink in 22 care packages to various aid stations. The idea was that by the next package, everything I picked up previously should have been consumed.
Besides the food, I had my pills: food supplements, mostly salts. But there were amino acids, too, primarily BCAA. My quads are my weakest point and get tired first on long, monotonous runs, shortening my stride. But the BCAA pill seems to take care of this problem or at least buy me time. That’s fine, of course, but I Googled the effect of BCAA and found a scientific paper which concluded that it had zero impact on ultramarathon performances. Great. (Stupid people should learn not to Google everything.) Still, my belief in BCAA hadn’t been shaken, even if I now simply call it a placebo.
My pills – salt, calcium, magnesium, BCAA – were packed into smaller portions and sent along to the aid stations. Again, the idea was to consume everything from each package by the time I got to the next one. And this is where the applecart was upset. I was in a hurry and wanted to go through Megara (42K) too quickly. I forgot the pills! I grabbed the gels, the water bottle, then go, go, go!
Gabi spent months emphasizing that lingering too long at the aid stations was costly. The minutes went by for absolutely nothing. And I wanted to be a good student. I wanted to fly through Megara, showing that I was doing really well. But the truth was that I would have had time, all the time in the world. There was no point in rushing and I paid for this mistake with a panic attack.
It was hot, closing in on noon, and I was drenched in sweat. Without salt, it’s over. This couldn’t happen! This wasn’t an objective circumstance to be tolerated; it was a blunder the Spartathlon would punish severely. My legs felt weak, I couldn’t breathe. Like in the movie “Airplane,” the “OKAY PANIC” sign came on. I turned inward. The amino acid might be a placebo, fine, but without salt in 32 C degrees (90F) I wouldn’t be going far. But panic attacks aren’t really helpful either. Why had I thought I wouldn’t make a mistake? Why hadn’t I seen this beforehand? I’d become overconfident.
Meanwhile, a British runner near me was slowing to a crawl. She was really struggling, then threw up. I turned around to see if I could help but she didn’t even break a stride. To her, it was just an objective circumstance and not a source of panic. She kept on moving and passed me by.
No! There was no way that a runner who threw up could be mentally stronger than me. What had I been thinking?! That I was running in a 5K turkey chase?
OK, so I could beg other runners for salt, and the amino acid was supposed to be ineffective, anyway. I just needed to focus. Head down, face forward, run, walk, stop talking and move on. From here on, I needed to grab anything salty, even licking the bottom of a pretzel bag, if need be. I also had to slow down, not run the hills, and focus on the aid stations. No more mistakes!
Before the start, I slipped a piece of paper in my vest with a few reminders scribbled on it for a tired Balazs:
These are your best years – 45 is the new 30
The medal lasts forever, the pain is fleeting
Input = output. And you’ve done the work.
Your fate is in your own hands
You’re not alone; your friends will be watching your transponder dot on the map all night long.
András Lőw prompted me to do an honest comparison with my earlier self. Was this Spartathlon realistic or just a pipe dream?
The positives: I ran more this year than any other year, bar none. I ran 3000K (1860 miles) since Jan 1 and I kept raising the mileage. There were no missed weeks or big fluctuations like in the past. Instead, I ran five but more like six times a week. This is still important even if I accept my theory that ultra-running is an exercise in meditation. For me, this was the foundation of my self-confidence: that 45-year-old Balazs was stronger than his 34-year-old edition.
My understanding of nutrition has also improved. I tried a dozen new things this year and by August, I had a comprehensive refreshment schedule, something I didn’t have in the past. To be honest, in my two Spartathlon finishes, my refreshments were ad hoc. I only focused on some variation but had no other concept behind it. In fact, I laughed at people who tried to be more scientific about their nutrition. But this year, my blood sugar level never fluctuated, even on the longest of runs, and that was already an improvement on my younger self.
The negatives: there were 11 mostly inactive years behind me. And even this year I didn’t have any very long runs. I did 75K on my own and 120K in an Ultrabalaton relay in 10 segments. In fact the only ultra race I ran, (the Balaton Szupermaraton), I quit after 3 days.
Finally: I’m 45. I think this is the best age and I’m enjoying myself. And I have friends who really make me believe that this is the best age. A decade wiser, maybe I could look after my mental dollars better than earlier. But obviously I need more time to recover than during my Olympian years.
Climbing up to the Corinth Canal (77K) wasn’t easy. But that’s a calculated hardship. A third of the race was over. (That’s a stupid way of thinking. In terms of time, it was less than a quarter of the run, but I was happy to use the bigger number.) I was dehydrating. My urine was turning dark. Not good but I could still stop it. I was nearly to the aid station where I could get my pills from Gabi. And evening was coming, too.
I kept going and stuck to my mantra: Gotta move on, gotta move on!! (Talk about, talk about, talk about movin’) But stop to look at the Corinth Canal, damn it, you’re not a droid, after all! Take your time to think at the aid station! Don’t waste time but do everything you need to do. Know what you want, keep repeating your list. No more mistakes, once you leave, you can’t turn back.
At Corinth (80K) András was waiting for me. I instinctively asked what he was doing there, but deep down immediately knew that he was out of the race. And that felt like I had been punched in the stomach. Had the impossible just happened? Had an eternal truth, a fixed point in life been wiped out? A disturbance in the force… It’s possible though that András’ streak (19 straight Spartathlon finishes) was more important to me, to us, than to him. Because we feed from our role model’s success and because we share our friends’ pain and joy…
Cal Ripken was a baseball player, not a runner, but he started in over 2600 consecutive games in over 18 years. That record will never be broken. Towards the end of the 1998 season, Ripken chose to sit out a game so the streak wouldn’t pressure him anymore and so he could finish it on his own terms. Then the next day, he played again and the world didn’t end. András: I hope that you keep finding joy in the Spartathlon.
I was afraid of Corinth. It was a dangerous check point. There were chairs, mattresses, and shade everywhere. And for hours, all I wanted was to reach this point. But I could only stay for a minute or two. A high five and I was out there again in the scorching sun.
My pills weren’t in the Corinth package, either. Damn it! But Gabi replenished me from András’ stock. I even got some placebo. I just needed to screw my head on straight. You OK, I asked? Totally. I had everything I needed so I only had to pull myself together. I had an hour’s lead on the cut-off time and my legs were fine, said I. And now the best part was coming up; the orange groves, the vineyards, the tiny villages. Finally, the real Spartathlon was getting underway.
To the left, vineyards, and the smell of fresh must. Idyllic. Kids on bikes, farms, quiet. I wasn’t really well but was getting better. It took a while to get over the panic that hit me after the Megara aid station. I was more dehydrated more than I had hoped. But it was early evening and ultimately, nothing was wrong. András was also waiting for me in Ancient Corinth (93K). He had joined my support crew of Gabi and Bogi, a family friend who was visiting from Sydney. His wretched luck became my good fortune. What a contradiction.
They fed me tzatziki then threw me out of the check point. (You have anything left to do here? You could do this on the road …) But, I wasn’t done. I stopped around the next corner, threw out my trash, packed up the fresh stuff, washed my hands, and got my gear in order. OK, go! I don’t know how many sports gels I ate but I can run forever on plastic food. Perhaps it’s my stomach that scientists are looking for: I can turn plastic garbage into bio compost.
The Spartathlon also suffers from a big contradiction: its selection process. The last time I ran, anybody who qualified got to run. In the interim the world changed. The cost of popularity is that they have to be selective. This course can’t handle more than 400 runners, or to be more precise, the support crew and cars of the 400. But the qualification system favors the fast runners who automatically qualify and get to skip the lottery. This skews the process towards the elite. And seriously, how is a sub 8-hour 100K a relevant quality? After a 100K, you’re home for dinner and even have time to watch a film. How is that going to help you at dawn, when you’re staggering along the highway?
The problem is that such a qualification system – in my opinion – threatens the innocence of the race. It has become more and more popular, so it is tougher to get in. The faster runners will get to take up more spots and fewer will be left for the ordinary ultra runners.
The Spartathlon is not an elite race. Its current legends are not particularly fast runners. It is the average runners who made this race what it is now. And I hope it can stay open to ordinary people.
Zevgolatio (102K) is one of the magical spots in the race, with the applauding priest, the cute town square, and the kids lining up for autographs. Only once before had kids ever swarmed me, asking for autographs. That was in 1998 after the European Championships in athletics. I had just run a national record on the 800m and for a brief moment, I was a star. I promised to give everyone an autograph, even if I had to stay all night. I’m still keeping that promise and wouldn’t turn away any of those kids, even if I missed the cut-off time. Those kids will be the ones keeping the Spartathlon going in a few years time so if we’re not doing something for them, then the Spartathlon really is just a selfish act.
Villages like this follow one after the other: Nemea, Malandreni, Lyrkia, Kaparelli, and Nestani are pearls in the night, shunned by main roads. And there’s a good chance that the Spartathlon is also their biggest night of the year.
Running up the Nemea valley, I gained a bit of strength gaining on the cut-off times. After every mile that I walked, I felt refreshed and able to run once again. Only my quads ached. (Where’s the placebo!?)
Around Nemea (123K), the bodies started to appear. In chairs, on mattresses. A few would get up but most would end up on the bus to Sparta that collected people who ran out of time. In an average year, only half of the starters finish. Poor Bogi, my support crew was doing her first ultra. How this must have looked! 😊
There were only few people around me by now. The field was stretched out and night had fallen. Steven, an American runner, asked where we were. At 136K, I said. No, in miles, please. Umm…..er… damn it… umm, yes! 85! Nice! I can still do math, so my brain is functioning.
In the distance, I could already see the mountain that we were about to climb. It didn’t appear too high. So, why do we all dread it? I was almost glad about the climb. I was tired and had an excuse to walk. There’s no point in running up a hill and by the time we reach the other side, the running muscles will feel rested. At the check points Gabi kept feeding me coffee and soup while András kept filling my water bottles. I was slowing but there was nothing wrong and I was increasing my lead on the cut-off times.
Going up the mountain, I kept passing people and even the trail didn’t scare me. This wasn’t right. I’d been dreading this climb for six months. Coming down didn’t feel all that great but it was a relief. I descended into the Tripoli basin which meant I’d covered two-thirds of the distance. Comparatively few people quit beyond this point. It was past 3 am. And now had hours to run the flats in the cool night.
After Sagkas (162K) a dog started to run with me. He was behind me but once I started walking, he passed me, signaling that this was not walking event. Then another runner went past me, and dog went on with him. Fine, go, you faithless! Run your own race. When I got to the next check point, the dog was being given a drink. His runner hadn’t waited for him, so he joined me again. Disloyal bastard!
It was getting cold. My crew was tired. Bogi was jetlagged and kept wanting to dress me in sweats at every check point. András was wearing Gabi’s size S sweatshirt. None of us were having fun at that moment.
I ran more during the night than in any previous Spartathlon. I found extra energy in hidden compartments and ran segments that gave me trouble in the past. But the bubble burst at dawn. As it got light, I panicked and forgot the number one rule: that you merely have to get to the next aid station and not Sparta.
It hit me that in a few hours, it would be over 30 C degrees again. I freaked out at the thought that there were still 10 hours to go and the pavement would soon be boiling again. My legs simply stopped from the shock. It never got truly cold overnight, so I stayed in my daytime gear. But I was still sweating.
Stick with Béla, a Hungarian runner who just passed me, said Gabi. Stick with him. Finally! Proof that she’s trying to murder me. But fine, let me give it a go. At this pace, my finish time will start with 33 hours. We passed Tegea (195K), turned onto the main road and I started to push the climb, like the mountain pass overnight. I was making progress but running on empty.
I slowed down and Béla left me behind. I got sleepy again. That’s impossible, nobody’s sleepy at 9:30 in the morning. My eyes closed. No! Not here! You’ll die! There are 18-wheelers whizzing by. I started walking with my eyes closed. I just had to get to the next aid station. Alive, preferably. I asked for coffee. They only had instant. How many spoonfuls? All them! burned my mouth. Damn it! The same place as last time! I pulled myself together and seemed to be holding my lead on the cut-offs. As I approached the monument (223K) I came alive and started running. Mile after mile. Easy. Right turn and food. Wow! Tuna! I packed up my stuff and moved on. My strength was back. Go, go, go! Gabi, Bogi and András have a routine by now. Water bottle out, ice water in, gels, drink in, then go!
On the last big hill, I lost power again. No problem, that’s happened before. A bit of walking, then I’ll be OK.
Jesus, where are we going? Left turn off the main road. I’ve never been here before. But there are like 15 yellow arrows. What’s happening? Erika, a Hungarian runner who kept me company last night, passes by. I’m not well and everything around me is strange. My body is burning up. It’s much hotter than yesterday. I can’t run. Everything is dry, I’m not sweating anymore. But that’s impossible. I’m eating the salts like it’s free. But the salty water is just sitting in my stomach. I try to run the downhills but it’s no use; my knees buckle. The heat radiating off the pavement is literally burning my skin. Don’t panic! I have plenty of time but unless I can cool down I’m in trouble. I’m not going to finish in less than 34 hours, but I should make it in under 35! Only I need to move…
My water bottle was full of ice. I kept spraying myself but after a few minutes, I was dry again. I realized that I was completely dehydrated, and unable to sweat or to run. But I was still moving though very slowly. I just had to keep going! There was no need to run but stopping was out of the question. I timed my pace. 11 minutes per kilometer. It didn’t matter, as long as I was moving.
I got to the gas station (236K). András inadvertently said that it took too long. I didn’t want to worry them. The last thing I needed was Gabi freaking out. I filled my vest, drenched myself, got the ice, and took off. Only 10K! Less than two hours, if I kept moving. I still wasn’t sweating but kept cooling myself with ice and water. There was more shade now and I took the longer arc on curves to help me avoid the sun for a few extra seconds. Then I ate one more gel as though it would do any good. 90 minutes to the finish, 85, 82… I was burning but moving. Kriszta, another Hungarian, passed me. She slowed down to cheer me up. Thanks! Then Kladas (241K) and the Evrotas (244K). Andrei Nana from the U.S. caught up to me. He’s got number 7! Well done, congrats. Everything was OK, I was just about there, I’ll have managed to get my third finish.
After the first turn in Sparta, I started to jog again. Applause came from every balcony, store, and street corner. Kids on bikes met me; adults patted me on the shoulder. There’s love and respect everywhere. I came to this race for these few minutes. Those moments will feed me for years to come. I pulled my hat down onto my face and swallowed my tears. I did it! Not just the 246K. But the 45 year old Balazs beat his younger edition. I never doubted myself while the younger versions were never sure until the finish line. I’m really running again and this time I won’t quit.
A hundred meters, 50, 25. And a crowd like I had never seen here before. Gabi got the first hug but I was not great company, I was so full of emotion. At the statue of Leonidas, George, like always, stepped behind me, ready to grab me if I struggled up the stairs. But I didn’t need him this time. I lay my head down in front of the statue for just a few brief moments. Everything was quiet and I relived this journey. The plaque and the wreath are just props. The moment with the statue, with my back to the crowd, is the real one. When nobody’s watching my face, when it’s just me. When I didn’t yet need to shake hands and smile for the camera. I did it!
I wrote the end of this report in my head after Voutianoi (236K), on the scorching pavement. This race has been a central part of my life since 2005. That’s a third of my life. Even during the years I sat on the couch, I dreamed of this day. Now, the cycle has ended. I fulfilled a decade-long dream so it’s time to let go and close the chapter. And how else do you say good bye to a king than with a victory?
But I didn’t manage to open the laptop on the day of the race so I never got this ending down on paper. And by the time I typed it up, it didn’t sound honest.
As Eiolf Eivind of Norway said on Sunday, puzzled by me saying never again: if it wasn’t terribly hard, it wouldn’t be the Spartathlon. And then there would be no point, either.
I can’t escape this race. It’s an eternal love affair. It’s the sort of love you want to throw the china at, but then get mad when they don’t chat you up on Messenger. It’s a love affair you’re pissed at for pushing you to the wall, but deep down you know it’s only to get the best out of you.
Godspeed Leonidas, I’m afraid we’ll meet again.