Meghan’s 2023 Spartathlon Race Report
“I didn’t come all the way to Greece to NOT finish this race” I told myself. I was about 55 miles into this 153 mile journey called Spartathlon, and had somehow managed to work through about 10 miles worth cramping – first my lower legs went numb, my left foot flopping like a foreign appendage, then my hamstrings, and my quad with a knot the size of softball, causing me to completely stop, swear, and begin to hobble forward. At first the idea occurred that maybe this would be my excuse to quit, but each time I was able to get past the worst, I became more determined it would not be the end. I was passed by many a sympathetic runner, 2 of them insisting I take their salt tabs, which I did – I didn’t care if it was a placebo or real effect, it kept me going.
How I got into this predicament began some months ago, when my dear friend Liza Howard suggested we both try to get into the Spartathlon 153-mile race. While this had always intrigued me, I only then learned that it was somewhat affordable and manageable without crew. For around $850 you get your race entry fee, plus room and board from 2 days before the event through 2 days after the event – no trying to figure out lodging or transportation. Kind of like a package vacation where you get to spend 2 of the days nonstop running.
Now about the event itself and why on God’s earth I would want to do this is pretty simple. It is an historical journey that took place around 2000 years ago. A professional runner, Pheidippides (yes that Pheidippides) was sent from Athens to Sparta to ask the Spartan Warriors for reinforcements against the Persians who were invading Athens. It reportedly took him only 36 hours to cover the 153 miles. Wondering if such an achievement were possible, in 1983 some British RAF officers decided to retrace the route and they were able to do it in about 36 hours. Thus, a modern-day footrace was born. My personal interests were 2-fold – one – to experience the route, and two – run for help! Is there a more noble cause?
And so, 8 hours plus earlier, I and about 360 other eager runners embarked on this journey from under the lighted backdrop of the Parthenon, running for help, to save Athens.
I was never nervous about this race, but anxious about the distance. One hundred and fifty-three miles was pretty unfathomable, but I felt like I had ample time to try. “Nothing fast, nothing hard” I repeated to myself over and over, as we moved at first as a large mass, then eventually stretching into a long stream of runners. We wove our way through the streets of Athens, accompanied by spectators in cars as well as locals out on the streets, cheering “Bravo! Bravo!”
I figured running gently, I’d hit the first marathon in around 4 hours, and the 50 mile mark in roughly 8 hours. The second 50 miles, 10-12 hours (there is a substantial climb from mile 90ish to 100) and then the rest, well, I’d have 16 hours for the last 50 if things really fell apart.
A unique feature of this ultra was the number of Check Points (CP) and how close together they were – 75 of them – and anywhere between two to three miles apart. This was quite a luxury, especially compared to many mountain ultras where one can take over 2 hours to get from one aid station to the next. It gave runners the ability to travel very light. Even so, what was available at each CP varied from a banquet to fairly minimal supplies of fluids and a couple of snacks. I decided to have drop bags at roughly every 5 checkpoints, with Roctane powder, Gu gels and chews. I figured that would get me between 10 miles well enough, supplemented by what the checkpoints offered.
The first 50 miles were kind of a blur – I felt unsettled by the number and speed of cars, the crowds at some of the CPs, the busy towns we passed through. The memories were more like bullet points:
- Volunteers opening my packages of Roctane, since it seems like everything is child proof these day.
- running past fellow Americans Bob Hearn (I’d like to just call him Mr. Spartathlon – this race is as important to him as Western States is to me), Jasmine Chiaramonte, Jean Pommier, Otto Lam, Jessica Hardy, and wondering if I’d seem them later when I might be curled up in a ball somewhere.
- crossing the marathon timing mat in just over 4:00 hours.
- running alongside the beautiful clear aquamarine Aegean Sea and being so tempted to take a little swim.
- Running past some ruins but only noticing them due to the photographers.
- drafting behind a group of Brits in a twisty hilly section.
- a young woman from Indonesia, so proud to be running, taking photos of everything and everyone.
- Jean catching back up to me, saying with his French accent “Meghan, you are keeling it!” as he glided by.
- Running a few miles with fellow country woman Stella Springer, who was having a rough bout early on, but rallied for a great finish.
- dogs, lots of dogs – domestic and roaming around streets in the villages.
And then very clear memories – crossing the Corinth Canal, starting to feel some numbness in my lower legs, and shortly after, getting into the 50-mile CP in 8:13.
Vince Chiaramonte (Jasmine’s husband and crew) saw me and guided me around to various foods. I picked up a yogurt to eat and said I wanted to get a massage, to see if that would help with the cramping that seemed to be developing. I was quickly put on a table and treated marvelously by two therapists, one per leg. I saw Amy Mower who was crewing for US’s Chris Rice, called her over to the table, while Vince went and had my bottle filled with juice and water. We chatted a bit, and then on refreshed legs, fresh bottle, and a banana, I headed out.
Suddenly the venue changed. We were off the main highway onto lovely rural agricultural lands. Grapes, Olives, narrow roads, tiny villages, and fewer runners now – this was my kind of landscape – but crap – I was seriously starting to cramp. I slowed to a walk and the seizing continued. All the runners who passed me offered sympathy. One French man insisted I take two of his salt tabs, which I gladly did. I shuffled on some more, and then the cramps were back. I couldn’t get through two CPs without having to walk. Fellow US runner Andrei Nana passed me and said “ask my wife for some potassium next time you see her!” which would have been great if I actually knew who she was. Finally, a Greek woman named Mata that I had hopscotched with for miles, saw me cramping and pulled out a small baggy of electrolytes. “Take these, please!” She too had been running between cramping, for miles. I don’t know precisely why I was cramping, because, well, no one knows precisely the cause, but I will say that the 3 main theories were all happening – dehydration, fatigue, electrolyte loss. One of the neat things about menopause is we can lose our thirst drive, which could definitely lead to dehydration. And my sports drink was becoming more and more difficult to ingest. I pulled out my phone, texted Vince “I’m cramping like a mother fucker. Can you get me some electrolytes?”
But the idea seeped into my brain that, hmmm, maybe this cramping thing will be an end to my race – not an unwelcome thought. But as the temperatures began to cool, and the cramping eventually subsided, I told myself I did not come all the way to Greece to NOT finish this race. And so, I kept going, and going, and going. Through serene countryside, small villages with children anxiously waiting for autographs, curious farm animals, and finally to CP number 29, where Vince was waiting with procured electrolytes, which he gave me a handful of. I picked up my headlamps and a warm shirt in case it became too cold overnight.
I was really looking forward to running at night. Evening time was soft and as dusk enveloped me, I welcomed the relative quietude of a world mostly gone to sleep. There were occasional headlamps ahead or behind, but I ran alone, enjoying the ambiance. CPs were smaller now, and the volunteers were wonderfully accommodating. I had multiple servings of instant soup along the way, with the occasional homemade soup that I gratefully devoured. If there was no soup, there were usually bananas, some crackers or biscuits. Having fuel available every 20-30 minutes meant I never bonked or felt low on energy.
I saw Vince one more time before heading up “the mountain” Mount Parthenion, and not knowing if I’d see him before daylight, I stocked up on more electrolytes, just in case I was revisited by the cramping demons. Then off I went up the long-paved switch backed road to the trail head that would take me up and over the mountain. I had been looking forward to this as well, a kind of landmark point in the race, at roughly 100 miles. Starting up the base on the rocky steep incline I thought, oh wow, this is going to take some time. In a bit, the trail turned to switchbacks, which made it easier, albeit a bit dicey due to the steepness and loose rocks to navigate. The only thing “holding” one back from tumbling down the mountain side was wide white tape. I didn’t think it would serve anyone well, but it did keep me very focused.
I reached the top sooner than I expected, got some aid, then began the steep descent, reportedly more difficult than the climb due to loose rock. I found it to be quite runnable, and only learned after the race that the road had been graded and quite improved. I was stoked to be running, and soon popped into the next village, got some aid, and continued into the dark mist of the night. For a long while, I saw or heard no one, and again, enjoyed the quiet solitude. I also felt a little stoked that I was now past the 100-mile mark in roughly 20 hours and still felt decent enough to run slow. I caught up to a runner who lamented that he was falling asleep, so he clung to my pace, and we soon caught fellow American Tyler Patterson, who was also falling asleep. They both took their time at the next CP, and Tyler caught back up to me. I encouraged him to go ahead, and he responded “I want to stay with you and talk so I don’t fall asleep!” So we chatted until the next CP, where his crew was, and they enthusiastically cheered us in. I stopped briefly for aid, then kept on moving. Leaving this village, a woman from Belgium trotted past rather briskly, then became confused at an intersection which we sorted out together, before she disappeared ahead of me.
Staying in metronomic running, the miles inched past. I had rarely looked at my watch, rarely calculated km to miles that were posted at every checkpoint, because I didn’t want to know how much further I had to go. The few times I did check my distance, I was naturally disappointed. However, my time was surprising me, because I thought I was taking much longer than I was.
With about another hour of darkness to go, I took my race-requisite tumble, into a pothole about the length of my body. A nice fit. It was of course full of water. Sigh. My hand and knee were scraped, but I wasn’t really worse for wear.
Daybreak finally arrived, and the landscape was still beautiful, rural countryside. Catching up to a young man (I think German) I joked “could we go any slower?”. It was a little lost in translation as he looked over and slowed down. I laughed. “No, we don’t need to slow down, I was just commenting on how slow we already are”. He responded with a laugh and said he was going so slow at one point that he got passed by someone walking. He said he was really a marathon specialist. Yikes. Running six in a row was a leap.
CPs and villages blurred together. Passing runners, being passed by runners, repassing runners, it was now a game of survival to the finish. I reached 110 miles in good form. Then it became something else. A lesson in infinity. It was heating up, and this time I paid more attention and started cooling off better with sponges and ice when available.
With about 30 miles to go, I surprisingly caught up to Jean. He had struggled in the night with getting very cold and spent a good amount of time at CP recovering. He had hooked up with a French runner, Yann, and the 3 of us teamed up to run/shuffle together. Eventually Yann would fall behind, so Jean and I muddled along together. It was my favorite part of the race honestly, spending time getting to know a friend even better. At one point he asked, “are you leaning on purpose?” Ohhh crap. I suggested it might be the camber of the road but did realize I was struggling with my footing on the left, and admitted to myself that indeed I had a list so tried hard to correct it by leaning to the right, pretty sure to no avail. We hiked the ups, and gently jogged the downs, until even the downhills were too much for Jean. He told me to keep going, and although I didn’t want to leave him, I also didn’t want to spend one second longer than I had too in this race.
Living in the moments of anything challenging in life begs one to throw in the towel, and yet, I’ve rarely quit anything hard, focusing instead on the sweet satisfaction I will feel for finishing what I started. I knew that once it was done – and it would get done – it would be like every hard thing I’ve done – an accumulation of experiences and stories to share, and sitting in a comfy chair writing about it thinking “so what’s the big deal?” But holy cow, this was hard.
With about 13 miles to go, I caught fellow US runner Julie Keyfhets, holding onto a guardrail, squatting down to stretch her quads. “Hey Julie!” She looked up and smiled and said “my quads are shredded! I can’t run downhill” to which I answered, “that is ALL I can do!” We laughed, went to the next CP, where her crew deftly stuff her sports bra with a half sleeve of oreos, topped off her bottles, and scooted her on her way. I was envious that she could still eat such sugary delights at this stage of the race. I muddled around slowly, and when I left, Julie was already out of sight, having run up a fairly long climb. I thought maybe I’d see her on the other side and run with her, but her shredded quads had more life than mine.
On and on it went. CP after CP. At one CP, a female runner was sitting in a chair, looking cheerful, but resting, and I thought why not join her. I hadn’t sat once other than laying on a massage table at mile 50. Her name was Line from Norway and had been leading the women’s race through 100k when she began having some problems, most disturbingly, with breathing. As we chatted, her coach approached, and it was none other than Sondre Ahmdal, an old acquaintance/friend from when we both ran for Altra. The last time I had seen him was in the Sahara Desert in Marathon des Sables. It was another little moment in a huge weekend that made my world a bit smaller. We were all chatting when one of the CP volunteers sternly advised us to get out of the chairs. Line was walking the rest of the way, and I slowly trotted off.
Now I was so sore that I started walking well before the CPs, and when leaving I played a numbers game. Walk 10 steps, run 10 steps, walk 10 steps, run 20 steps, then 50, 100. I sometimes played a guessing game of how many steps to that next random object. It was enough to get me back into a rhythm, and then I’d be at another CP. Any thoughts of embracing the pain had left miles ago – I wanted OUT of this cave.
This was taking too long. TOO LONG. AT CP 74 of the 75, with 3 miles left, I gave myself the gift of walking it in. I wasn’t sure if my lean was any worse, but I could tell it was present by how unbalanced I felt on uneven ground. I made to the last CP, just over a mile to go, kept walking, when suddenly the sky opened up, and began pouring buckets of rain. Now at the outskirts of Sparta, I could walk under the storefront eaves when they were present. When I did walk in the rain, I got soaked in seconds. The streets were rapidly filling with water, and I started to shiver. Crap. I made myself run, kind of surprised that I could. Two sharp turns, and I was heading toward the statue of Leonidas, the king of the city-state Sparta at the time of Pheidippides’ trek. Unlike the dry weather finishers who had children on bikes ushering them in, I was alone. Crossing the finish in 33:13, I was quickly escorted to the statue’s feet, directed to kiss his toe, an olive wreath was placed on my hatted head, I was offered a sip of water from the Evrotas River from a goblet, wheeled around for a posed picture, then quickly walked over to a tented area of battered runners.
The only emotion I felt was relief. A boy (teen?) and a young woman official approached me, guided me to a chair, asked if I had a dry shirt, which I did not. The boy unhooked my pack, pulled it off, then grabbed the bottom of my shirt and briskly pulled it over my head. Wow! Okay! A finishers shirt was given me, and as I pulled it on, he was removing my shoes and socks, then proceeded to gently wash my feet in a tub of water that looked like it might have iodine in it. Afterwards he slid a pair of slippers on my feet, and off he went to the next finisher. The young woman brought me a beer, and said a taxi was waiting for me as soon as I was ready. I waited for about 10 minutes, watching a few more runners finishing in the rain, signaled I was ready to go, and she walked me gently to the car. I offered to walk the one block to our hotel, but she insisted, and frankly I was glad.
At the hotel, the driver helped me inside, and I was escorted to my room. Shivering uncontrollably and quite possibly sorer than I’ve been in my life, I pulled off all my wet clothes, rummaged through my bags for everything dry and warm, pulled it all on, found a warm blanket, and making like a cocoon, I collapsed onto the bed. I could hear the race outside my window but was in no condition to move.
I dozed off, waking to my roommate Amy coming in. The race was over, I managed to shower, and we headed downstairs for some dinner. Eventually we had a table of tired Americans – Jasmine, Vince, Jean, Otto, Juergen, Amy. I managed to choke down some food, and then went back to bed and passed out. At some point I woke to fireworks and wondered what the heck was going on – only later did I realize it was the ceremony for the top finishers!
Next morning, I joined other barely moving runners for breakfast, before making my way to one more physical event to endure, and that was the Spartan “Mile” – a traditional quarter mile run in traditional attire – meaning “naked”, but that was actually frowned upon. So, clad in speedos, thongs, bikinis, or underwear, a group of fairly decrepit runners, myself included, lined up for one lap around the track. It was a bit painful, and a few souls actually ran the full mile. This was followed by a beer mile, which I only watched.
The hospitality continued with a lunch with the mayor of Sparta, complete with several courses of food, local music and dance. Then a bus ride back to Athens, much of it on the very road we had run on the day before. The following day I spent at the Acropolis and the original modern Olympic track with Jasmine and Vince.
The evening ended with a Gala/Awards ceremony on Bikini Beach, with a beautiful sunset, stars, water lapping the shore, and more opportunity to make friends. Each country was called up one at a time, and each finisher received their medal. This year, 16 US runners finished, the highest number ever.
I have no regrets running Spartathon, and I will never run it again. It is a distance I’m not willing to embrace readily, nor do I want to run that far on roads with cars. I loved the countryside and the wonderful Greeks along the way and hope to return one day in a different capacity – crewing or volunteering. And I later learned from Bob Hearn that I had the fastest time in the history of the race for a 60+ year old female, although the race doesn’t recognize age groups. YAY!
As for the rest of the story – Pheidippides did not receive the help he had hoped for, and had to return to Athens, on foot, shortly after his arrival. The Athenians were able to defeat the Persians on their own at the battle of Marathon. However, it is pure myth that Pheidippides ran the 24 miles from Marathon to Athens claiming victory and collapsing to his death. Never happened. And after all he did, I, for one, am glad. Special thanks to Injinji Socks and Squirrels Nut Butter for keeping my feet blister free, and USWE Sports for the running vest!
Rachel Gets a Dog and Gets into Hard Rock 100!
On December 3rd my husband and I drove from NC to NJ and adopted a dog after our 15 year old shepherd mix passed in May. Just as we were meeting the new pup, my name got pulled for the first slot on the HardRock 100 lottery waitlist! A short explanation of the HRH waitlist if you don’t know: the lottery was cut into 4 parts; men/women and then men who have finished/men who have never finished, women who have finished/women who have never finished. I am first on the women who have never finished list, which means there are 18 women in this group, if one drops I get in.
This also means I will start preparing as if I am in the race, in the past they have gone at least 3 deep into the waitlist.
This will be a challenge I am excited for; not only getting ready to run the hardest 100 mile in North America, but also train a herding dog to run with me, and not destroy our home along the way
I am writing about this because in the next few months I hope to record all the things I do to prepare for Hardrock and the things I do to train Jackson. Perhaps, also, some of this will resonate with some of you reading.
A little background on what we know about Jackson, he is a (probably) 10 month old pup, found in Mississippi, dropped in a shelter. A herding dog non-profit found him and took him to NJ where he stayed for several months with half a dozen other herding dogs in a private home. So far he is very sweet, doesn’t know a lot of boundaries, is learning that he’s not allowed on our furniture, allowed to eat my shoes, or my dental floss…yes he chewed up a roll of dental floss, fortunately he didn’t swallow any of it. He has been in our home for 4 days now, we are learning sit and wait and look at me because he is an escape artist who will sneak out any open door and he needs to learn not to bolt, though the one time he did, he didn’t know where to go. He mostly just looked at me on the porch and then came inside when he saw the treats. Also the sit wait and look at me commands help him learn to look to me for guidance, which is important in teaching a dog good leash running manners. That way if they can pay attention to the runner, they will be more likely to be running along with you…rather than dragging you down the street following their noses, or the nearest squirrel.
In terms of starting HardRock training, much like Jackson I will be laying the groundwork for training by looking at trails and elevation that may be helpful for the terrain of HRH…yes I know, this is basically laughable as I live where the average elevation per mile is, well, FLAT! Its about 100 ft/mile if I just run without planning ups and downs. 30 min away there is a short 2.5 mile loop that if you run it repeatedly you can get probably 250ft/mile. Anything better than that is a solid 3-4 hour drive west or north. Instead I will work on getting fit, hiking with a weight vest, working with a PT and lifting heavy weights, making sure to pay attention to my upperbody for a heavy pack as well as poles and lots of step ups. I did the bare minimum for HiLo last summer and, while it was not my finest moment, I did finish the race.
I hope to write here once a week, so if you are interested, come back next week for dog updates and HRH notes as well.