Πέμπτη, 25 Οκτωβρίου 2012

Flow like a river: my 2012 Rodopi Ultra Trail 100miler

Rodopi Ultra Trail was my 3rd 100miler event ever. It was also the first time I was re-visiting a course I have experienced in the past. Revisiting UTMB (my 1st 100miler in 2009 was UTMB) in 2011 was blocked by the lottery. And now, with hinder sight, I am thankful for this!

Rodopi Ultra Trail (www.rout.gr) is a 164km / 100 miles event with about 7.500m of accumulated ascent. The identity of the event is the loneliness and solitude of the runner. Throughout the whole route, we meet only once a village. And there are only 6 support stations! The route takes us through ancient dense forests of beech, oak, birch and fir trees, while the maximum altitude is a little above 1.600m. Participants usually get to experience encounters with wild animals, ranging from bears to foxes or wolves! Rodopi Ultra Trail is a genuine crossing in the wilderness of dark forests and deep canyons.
Also, it is a race with 70% of single track trails, and 25% of forest roads. There a couple of steep ascents but the majority of the climbs are somehow "runnable". The same applies for the descents!

I have done this race in 2011 as well, finishing 4th back then, even though my only goal last year was to finish it safely in order to acquire the much needed "points" to be able to qualify to more events of this kind in the future. Here is my report from 2011 "My "no plan" 100miles mountain run: ROUT2011".

My preparation has gone quite well without any major problems. It lasted 3 full months, and even though I covered about the same miles as every year (in preparation for this kind of events), it included more ultramarathon distance runs (on my own) and more weekend races of 15kms to marathon distance trail running events. Also, my tapering period was limited to only a week before the race, since I was feeling strong and did not see any reason to slow down more! Some minor pains at my achillion tendon disappeared after the first couple of weeks in my running training. They were inherited from my earlier Ironman - road bike training sessions, but did not bother me much.

Arriving in the area 2 days before the event proved to be an excellent choice since I had time to relax and enjoy the unique landscapes. Also I did carry as much food as I could to keep my usual diet habits, since it is common to deviate when travelling for an event.

Number of participants this year were as usual for this event, with 68 runners standing at the starting line. 50% of them would eventually make it to the finish line within the 42 hours available. The event is starting Friday morning at 06:00am. The route has a form of a "9" with a tail that we do at the start and finish (42kms long) and a loop of 80kms at the area of Nestos river and the famous Virgin Forest. The weather was on our side, with clear sky and temperature ranging from 4degC to 25degC during the hot hours of the day.

Following my philosophy of running without any specific time plan, I was intending to run as much as possible of the race, if not all of it! I had the confidence from my 8-10 hours preparation runs to know my "go-on-for-ever" running pace. That was the only thing I had in my mind. I did not care about distance, or time. I was just concentrating on my pace and never stopping. I wanted to flow through the course and not follow anyone or any plan. That was probably my only "stress". Some times, at the early stages, fellow runners were coming at my side and they were informing me of my pace and the distance till the next check point. I did not like that. I did not want to know. Of course I had my GPS in my pocket, which was there for one purpose only: To assist me when I had doubts about the course. It was a handheld Garmin eTrex Vista with maps and the event track pre-loaded. It proved to be useful in many points. But I did not consult any of its' figures during the race, at least not till I got to the ... 80th mile!

During the first 2 hours of the race, I had no calories intake. Only water. This is a strategy I have developed during the last year, and I believe it is helping me a lot when the pace is low for my standards. And certainly this was not supposed to be a race to start "all out"!!! Also my breakfast on race morning is minimal. I was focusing in finding my comfort pace and concentrating in keeping this feeling of flowing through the course. After the race I realized that I was moving quite fast (compared to previous years), but I had no encounters with the "wall" at any point during the race. So I was ok. At the same time fellow runners were following a different pattern. They were moving faster than me (the leader was at some point about 30 minutes ahead), but they were spending more time at CPs and support stations! My visits to the support stations was limited to 3-4 minutes max. The usual scenario was that I was coming in a CP 5th or 6th, and getting out 2nd or 3rd. And then get passed till the next one. And so on. I did not care. I was enjoying the flow through the dense forest. And always kept running. Did not walk a single step till half way (82nd km).

At the highest point of the route, which is around 82nd km, I was 4th in ranking with 2nd-3rd always in sight and the leader about 20minutes ahead. The pace was very fast compared to course record. But I was feeling strong and fresh. My hydration and nutrition was going well. I was taking 95% of my calories through liquid with a mixture of Vitargo carbs (slow absorption carbs), whey protein and normal carbs. The mixture was prepared by me and there was a ration of 3:1 (Vitargo and other carbs / whey protein). I did not get any solid food except one small sesame bar with honey and a peanut butter sandwich. All this while i was already 12 hours in the race.

From that point on the course was going downhill. There was also a long stretch of about 6kms on forest road. Night time caught me at 92nd km while I was running side by side with Vaggelis Bakas and Gerasimos Benezis (2nd and 3rd). We covered the forest road part very fast. The pace must have been about 5:10 mins/km. But it was flat and easy. It did not feel like any major effort to me. At some point the two friends, slowed down to put on their wind stopper, while I did not feel any cold so I kept going with my t-shirt. That's the way I went through the night. As long as I was moving, I was fine just with my t-shirt. After the forest road, the route was taking us through the magnificent "Mega Rema" canyon, which is really spectacular, even though I am always crossing it at night! this is a relatively technical trail, and I run all of it. The leader of the race was about 15 minutes ahead when I entered the trail, and I passed him (very good runner Achilleas Kristanas) about 8kms before exiting the trail. He was suffering from sore knees and some stomach issues. He DNFd at the next support station, as I learned later on. All this time my pace was stable, exactly the same as I started. At the "Zarkadia" support station at km 122, I was feeling well and leading the race. It was just around midnight when I left this station after a very short stop (as always). I did not change clothes or put on wind stopper. Temperature was around 5 degC. Perfect for running.

One hint here: I run through the night with two lights on! I had my Petzl Myo XP on my forehead, and a Spark ST6 at my waist. This way I had excellent lighting, but also had ... shadows!!! The commonly used forehead torch is making the field "flat" with the absence of shadows. That was fixed with the waist light. This way I was running way more comfortably at the technical downhill trails inside Mega Rema. Keep this in mind, next time!

I run the next steep uphill of "Oxia" (about 700m of ascent within less than 4kms) and my lead expanded from 30 minutes to 45 at the top of this mountain! I was at the 129th km and still had the same pace as I started the race. I did not know any of these facts at this point, and did not care to ask! Any thoughts of ranking, distance or time were locked out of my head.

From that point on the event was taking us through some trails and forest roads without any major elevation changes. I kept moving. I had run at my pace (about 8,4km/h moving pace) all the way. As I found out later my lead increased to 1:17 as I was getting closer to the finish.

It was still night time, and I had two interesting encounters. The first one was with a bear (not so close thank God) that run by my left side for about 60 meters and then crossed the trail in front of me and headed away from me on my right side. Saw the bear only during the crossing. The galloping was very impressive to hear even though I could not see the bear at this point. But crushing leaves and branches and ground noise was unique! The second encounter was more surprising! It was with a huge cow that decided to sleep in the middle of the trail. The cow was as much surprised as me when I saw it suddenly three meters in front of me looking at me quietly! I asked permission to pass and did not seem to care too much. I guess me headlights made quite an impression!List of equipment that I have used

There was one last uphill to conquer before getting on the last stretch to the finish. "Theologos" combined with "Livaditis" climbs are intimidating, since they are posing about 800m of ascent within 5kms and all this at the 152nd km in the race! I run-walk almost all of the first part (Theologos) and was feeling perfect when I crossed the CP at the 156th km. It was still night time. And I was heading for a 25:10 finish. I was over my head for the first time in the race. They told me: "10 more kms to the finish", and I replied "they are still plenty". Like I knew! 55 minutes later I would be visiting again this station!!! At some point the course was doing a "u-turn" which I missed by just a few meters. The organizers had an "x" mark exactly for this case, which I saw. And then... I got back to the point I exited the correct route, and... headed back to where I came from, without realizing it. It was a u-turn as I said, and the two branches of the course were separated only by few meters. It was night time, and keep in mind that this part of the route is common for out and back. So there was marking in both directions. I went back down to the river till I realized that there was something wrong! Took a look at my GPS but the track was completely messed up by the multiple passes I have done. So I decided to go back to the station and catch again the correct route. So arrived at the CP, shouted "I missed you guys, and came back once more". They replied that i was still in the lead, and I got back to my running at full speed to keep my lead.

Overall I lost about 1 hour as I found out later on my GPS. I did 4kms more and about 200m of climb. It did catch up with me when I got to the top at the forest road leading to the finish line. I was completely wasted from the hard effort. Which paid off since I increased my lead from 15 minutes (after getting lost) to close to 30 minutes when I crossed the finish line. But I had to refill with 3 GU gels within 10 minutes to make sure I keep my smile till it was camera time.

During the last 2kms I had good friends at my side: Lazaros Rigos and Christos Katsanos, organizers of this magnificent race, run next to me and we were teasing each other with short bursts of speed! The finish line bells rang as I entered the little village with the wooden cabins. Finished in 26:17 establishing the 2nd fastest time ever on this race. I could have been at 25:10 but it does not make any real difference. For me it is an honour to be so close to the course record, established by good friend and excellent mountain runner, Nikos Petropoulos.

The spirit of this race is unique. It is the solitude of the runner in completely isolated trails and dense forests. I had this feeling of "flow" throughout the race. I did not care much about my pace or other "technical details". My nutrition plan worked fine. My preparation paid off. Had good friends at my side when I finished and had many conversations with myself. What else could I ask.

One last comment to those asking why we do these extreme things: happiness and effort, pain are two sides of the same coin. If we try to avoid the effort we loose in happiness as well. Also, the hardest the effort the more pleasure and happiness we get. And running is one of the purest forms of this equation. It makes us happy.

My gratitude goes to all the people who have worked hard for this event. The volunteers who manned the stations and the organizers who are taking all the risks. I owe you guys.

Keep on running!




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.