246 kilometers in the steps of Pheidippides

Sergei Ovchinnikov
Feb 23, 2020 · 44 min read

I guess you don’t know me. Let’s talk straight. I’m an ordinary person “incapable of running 100 kilometers in 10 hours” (this was what one good coach once called me). It took me six years to realize that I was a lame runner, but it was too late to give up. I ventured too far with all those races, and there was no way back. Contending for prizes is not really my thing, and neither are pulse checks or trumpeting my VO2max results. I don’t even have a training plan, and you will never learn from me how to get ready and run 246 kilometers from Athens to Sparta in one go. Forget about your heart rate, your pace, and other sports thingies. Otherwise, you simply won’t have enough glycogen to get through to the end of this story. I am only going to tell you about Spartathlon as viewed by a regular participant. And now, when everyone has left and we are here alone, my dearest reader, I will tell you all this story.

“Dear passengers! Our plane has started the descent, and in a couple of minutes it will land in the airport of Athens,” the captain gibbered above the roaring engines. Our airliner was taking a sweep over the sea, heeling over. Sun beams were dancing around the cabin, and Anton and I were peering out towards west, along the sea shore, over the mountains with Sparta beyond them. No distinct Athenian buildings could be discerned from such a height; they fused into a smooth cloud, raveling over the web of roads. Only lone white dots of ships were visible in the blue sea. “Why didn’t they give him a horse?” I thought about the ancient warrior Pheidippides, whose steps we were going to follow. In 490 BC, he ran all the way down to Spartans to ask for assistance. Pheidippides knew that lives of his fellow citizens depended on his ability to reach Sparta on time. However, participants of Spartathlon have less ambitious challenges to complete: to scratch their ego, to make their parents happy, to meditate on some eternal things…

I first read about Spartathlon in a book by the great Scott Jurek a couple of years ago. At that time, this event seemed so grandiose and strenuous that I didn’t even consider taking part in it. It wasn’t for me. It was only for tough people. That distance was too long. I couldn’t believe I could manage a distance of 246 kilometers in one attempt. I decided to qualify for Spartathlon a few minutes before the Ultimate 100 Miles around Elton Lake in May 2018. There was no time to read Spartathlon rules; I heard my friends saying at the start that you had to run 164 kilometers faster than in 16 hours. And so I set off to qualify. An adventure at its finest. A year before, it had taken me about 24 hours to hit the same distance in similar weather. Would I manage to win as many as 8 hours from myself? Luckily, instead of this question, there was an answer to it spinning in my mind — “Impossible is nothing,” as advanced triathletes say. Alas, closer to the finish my hopes were dashed: I was 30 minutes behind, and I was unable to win them back. As soon as I crossed the finish line, I was amazed to learn that I had had it wrong. To qualify for Spartathlon, I had to complete it in under 16 hours and 40 minutes, and my timing was 16:28! Tirelessly, I leapt for joy with my sons, who had met me at the tape.

In two days Anton, I and some other cool guys from Russia would be standing on the start at Acropolis accompanied by the best runners from across the globe. Would I manage it? Was I ready? Unlike Anton, I’d never run such a distance, especially over the rugged terrain and in hot weather like that. My brain was desperately summoning reasons which could prevent me from breaking the tape. I was sitting in my airplane chair, when a sudden fear of crushing flushed through me, although I wasn’t afraid of traveling by air. “If the pilot fails to land the plane, I will never make it up to the start and will never finish the race,” thoughts tumbled around in my mind. However, if I was worried not about my chances but about such an unlikely outcome, I must have been ready for the marathon. And yet, I had a few grounds to make me feel confident. My drills were unsystematic. Occasionally, I ran from work back home, and a month before Spartathlon Anton and I had walked 180 kilometers from Vyborg to St. Petersburg — so much for the workout. I guess confidence must be a result of stupidity. When you don’t understand how dangerous something is, you feel like a young snotty-nosed racer.

A month ago, during a race in Vyborg, I had some serious digestion issues that had caused me some trouble before, too. At long distances, a strong stomach is much more important than strong legs, and it kept failing me. However, for some reason I wasn’t pondering on that matter, and I was even ready that they would lose my luggage packed with energy supplements. One of the valuable things in my bags was a book by the famous Dean Karnazes, whose autograph I intended to get before or after the finish. I wanted to give that book to Boris as a present, as we were going to run on his birthday. Although Boris didn’t run with us, I dedicated this race to my dearest friend in acknowledgement of him introducing me to the delightful world of sport.

After the bright but chilly St. Petersburg’s fall, we found ourselves in the middle of hot summer. Having gathered our luggage, we boarded a bus to Glyfada, a suburb of Athens, where all the participants of Spartathlon were staying in various hotels. We were lucky, as registration for the race and the briefing took place in our hotel. Anton and I had a suite on the 2nd floor with a view over the sea, and an open swimming pool right beneath our balcony. The hotel was buzzing with sportsmen from different countries. Some of them had already checked in, and the others had just arrived and were filling in the forms. Many of them obviously were Spartathlon veterans — judging from their T-shirts, tattoos and hugs they gave to participants from other countries.

The next day, we had to drop my stuff at feed stations and attend a briefing. In the morning, we decided to get some exercise and have a run along the seashore, which was conveniently near.

The race course went between tram tracks and adjacent beaches. A gentle breeze was blowing from the sea, and all around us were palm-trees, bushes, and sometimes concrete fences. The sun was already burning down… It was early in the morning, and yet quite hot. What was it going to be like the next day? We tried not to think about that. “Good morning!” a smiling couple passes us running. In a few seconds I realized that was the reigning world 100-mile record holder Zach Bitter with his wife. Oh, we were right to come here!

The task of dropping my supplements at feed stations was quite challenging, as there were as many as 75 of them in a span of 246 km. Unlike with semi-autonomous trails I was accustomed to, at Spartathlon you were able to use the blessings of civilization every 3 to 4 kilometers. This was so comfortable, but so slow! It would add up to over an hour if you stopped for a minute at every station. In the end, I distributed a bunch of my gels, which amounted to 27, between 4 stops. Why 27? The magic of numbers, nothing more. The start was on September 27, and Boris’s birthday was on the same date. To qualify for the next Spartathlon for sure you had to run in 27 hours, which for me was a really desirable and yet unreachable result. So, I was going to have a gel every hour with some oranges in between, which according to marathon veterans were supposed to be aplenty at the checkpoints. I had tested the combination of energy gels and oranges, and it worked perfectly for me.

Anton took a more responsible approach to feeding, as he had on many occasions participated in 24-hour runs, where taking food was one of the most important communication channels with the outer world. Our hotel room was all strewn with various bottles of baby food that he had brought from Russia. Some of these things had to be delivered in my luggage due to weight restrictions. Those bottles were on the floor, on the bed-side table, Anton had them in his hands, and I wouldn’t be too surprised to find them on our table on the balcony. Anton systematically packed all these treasures into lots of small bags. To remember all the stations we dropped our food at, we had to put them on a separate list and consider dozens of kilometers. We imagined covering the distance, looking at a hefty chart with the race plan and trying to get a glimpse of the future.

“At this checkpoint, I should take another 6 gels from my drop bag.”

“Why not at the next point?”

“At the next point, team supporters are allowed. It will be teeming with people. You must have seen how many fans other teams have. That’s incredible!”

“If we qualify, we will have supporters next year, too. Where have you dropped our torch?”

“At the 80-kilometers’ mark. Wanted to drop it at the 120’s, but I’m afraid I won’t run that much in 12 hours. I’d better get it in good time in case it gets dark quickly.”

A chart with the race plan is an antemportem memorial to my maths teacher — Tatyana Viktorovna Dorosh. My dad loved math, and I like it, too, and Tatyana Viktorovna taught me to see the beauty of it, and kept stirring up my interest throughout my school years. It was no surprise that at university my favorite subjects were the probability theory and mathematical statistics. I made a race plan, but I didn’t intend to follow it. It was just to relieve the stress. I like numbers and magic. Long into the evenings, I pored over my chart instead of training. I studied the statistics of many successful finishers, checked the times of sunrise and sundown, the terrain, the distance between support stations, air temperatures, and many more. In the end, I knew how fast I had to run between any two checkpoints to get to the finish on time. I wasn’t going to use all the data collected though. In fact, statistics-based knowledge is just a chance to show off when you’re talking to your friends.

The briefing reminded me that I had a heart. Everything was quivering inside me. The large hall of the hotel was stuffy, all the places were taken, and lots of people had to stand. Chiseled-like tranquil faces beaming with a wild mix of energy, fear, and curiosity. What will happen the next day when all those hundreds of people ready to run 246 km appear at the starting line?

At the moment, all of them are watching an elderly grey-haired Greek, who in comprehensible English is talking into the microphone about the nuances of tomorrow’s festival. The race is to start off at Acropolis in Athens right at 7 a. m. sharp. To finish, you have to touch the foot of King Leonidas in Sparta, the famous leader of 300 Spartans that valiantly died protecting Ancient Greece from Persians. Yellow arrows on the asphalt will show the way along with other signs, including the stationary ones, which for years have been guiding participants of Spartathlon, which is taking place for the 37th time.

“NO HURRICANE, NO SNOW, NO TSUNAMI”, is what the leader of Spartathlonians writes on the flip chart. Then he draws the sun, and explains that the weather is going to be fine. The audience rises up applauding. Laughter is heard throughout the hotel, and hardly anybody pays attention to some really important information: closer to Sparta, very high humidity is expected.

After the briefing, we left the hotel to get some fresh air and took a photo of us, as at that moment we were all wearing cool black team T-shirts with a logo that Albert had come up with — the Russian flag shaped as a Spartan helmet. Some other countries had a whole battalion of volunteers — several dozens of people in cars. Every car had a distinguishing Spartathlon sign on it (those were provided by the organizers). Many support teams had specially designed T-shirts that were slightly different from the ones of the race participants’. Athletes from Great Britain stood out from the crowd — vigorous and with a large support team. There were only 10 Russians, including us, with hardly any supporters, which made us feel like one team. I hope, one day there will be enough of us for the organizers to arrange a special briefing in Russian.

Anton and I spent the evening in the hotel. Indecent sounds coming from our room alerted everyone in the hotel that we were having a good time: all the gasps and moans, and the bed squeaking. We weren’t embarrassed in front of our neighbors, oh no. Anton had brought a massage roller with him, and without any special purpose, we were kneading each other’s calf muscles. Sometimes it hurt, but in general it was endurable. The main point was not to cause much harm. In fact, we simply couldn’t find another way to relieve our emotional stress. No matter what, I couldn’t sleep well and — let’s face it — had to take some cider as a sleeping pill.

5 a.m. in the morning. Two hours to go. There was no porridge for breakfast, but we had some fruit and some infant food of Anton’s he didn’t need for the race. All the stuff was packed at night, everything was in place, so I only had to get dressed without any fuss.

5 minutes before the bus departure. It was time to check out with all our bags and suitcases, as we were going to come back in just two days.

“Anton, we really have to go right now!”

“Almost finished!”

“Catch up, I am going down to drop my stuff.”

6 in the morning. It was still dark, crisp air blowing in from the sea. A minibus with its door open stood at the hotel entrance. Two guys in dark coats and shorts were collecting our luggage to take it to Gythio, a town in the south of Greece where we were to stay for one night after the end of the race. Every year, little Sparta doesn’t have enough place to accommodate all the participants, and every time some of the teams go to the seaside Gythio. Having said goodbye to my bag, I felt totally free. My only document now was the participant’s card which I had to show to get my stuff back. In my little waist bag there were a couple of gels — my food for the first 80 kilometers. I saw the famous Irina Masanova registering her luggage at my side — she was the one who was really capable of winning the race. Together, we ran to a large bus that was almost ready to leave. The moment we got into our seats, the driver closed the door and the bus moved ahead. I looked around and saw Anton wasn’t there. “Stop, stop!” guys from the Argentinean team were the first to start shouting. This was the only bus going the direction we needed, and if you were late for it, you wouldn’t be there in time to join the race. To the disapproving hubbub and shouts from the sportsmen, the driver hardly drove a couple of meters and angrily hit the brakes. Some of the participants even fell down in the aisle, but at least everyone or nearly everyone had the chance to get on the bus, including Anton.

“You could have missed the start!” I exclaimed. I was really startled.

“Sergei, I was sure that if I was late for the bus, I would find another way. That’s not a problem,” Anton replied, calm and smiling.

“Oh, you’re right, my friend. Where there is a will, there is a way.”

I wasn’t an “A” student in History during my school times, so my knowledge of Ancient Greek history was lacking. However, now I had a good idea of how it felt to stand at Acropolis early in the morning, at the Spartathlon’s starting line. The picture of participants at dawn holding a banner with SPARTATHLON across it that had once got stuck in my memory suddenly became real. We were holding that damn banner. I was surrounded by smiling people, their eyes glazed with apprehension. Photo- and video-cameras were all around. Everyone was passing smart phones asking to take a picture of them. The magnificent Parthenon with the night lights on and a most beautiful crescent in the sky where the sun was going to rise soon… The start was scheduled for 7 by a person who had an eye for photography. The conditions were perfect — it wasn’t dark, but the lights were still on. Having waved our goodbyes into the cameras, we set out on our fascinating journey.

The sun rose right after we had taken the first turn. A narrow path transformed into a wide street with houses and palms in between. Hunky police officers directed traffic of cars and runners with vigor and zest. Anton was by my side. By coincidence, we were running together. Almost all Russian sportsmen remained in our sight. Some of the locals, still half asleep, were watching us, perplexed. We could tell that not all of them were aware of the event taking place in their city.

All of a sudden I remembered it was my first international start that could easily result in a finish in less than 1.5 days. There were so many people running around me, and I barely knew any of them. There were some Japanese runners, and as I had relatives in Japan, I naturally greeted them. We small talked, and they treated me as a friend, although I don’t know any Japanese. The secret was in my broad smile. Then, a British athlete passed me by. We didn’t know each other, but his face seemed familiar. I suddenly realized that I followed him on Instagram — it was Ian Hammett. We had a chat, too, and then Ian disappeared over the horizon in front of us. Some more runners eager to chat, again. Generally speaking, all of us had the same objective — to touch the foot of King Leonidas. That was the thing uniting us, and that’s why there was no fighting or pushing, only small talk that helped to fill time.

Gradually, the road took us to the seashore. On our right, there were mountains, not too high, but cliffy. On our left, there was a deep blue sea as far as the eye could see, with small ships and isles in the distance. You could feel the salty tang of the sea just by looking at them. And as you shifted your gaze back to your feet, you instantly smelt the odor of asphalt. The sea was windless and calm, and the sun was rising higher and higher. Uphills and downhills on the winding road became more frequent. The traffic wasn’t blocked off, but there weren’t too many cars, as we were running along an old road, whereas most of the vehicles stuck to the highway. Luckily, we couldn’t hear them. During one of the ascents, Anton and I parted, and I got slightly ahead of him. All of us had our own tactics of getting over the terrain.

The sun was already scorching when Anton and I drifted apart. With the breathless weather, the dark asphalt became a frying pan where all of us were starting to sizzle. All of my clothes — a long-sleeve and tight pants –were white. If my clothes could flutter in the wind, I would have made it into history as the first ghost to cover the Spartathlon distance. Well, no, even in that case I wouldn’t have been the first — some participants traditionally ran in white, and I was happy to be one of them geniuses. Anyway, wearing write wasn’t of much help. The air temperature over the asphalt was heading toward 35 degrees. They had ice and sponges at every feed station. I sprayed myself with water from head to toe, and put a sponge under my T-shirt close to my heart and some ice blocks under my cap. I had to wear it backwards so that the ice didn’t fall out through the hole at the back of my head. My forehead got sunburned at once. For a couple of times I tried to place ice packs under my armpits, close to the blood vessels, but it was way too uncomfortable. When I reached the next feed station, I was almost dry again. I couldn’t help wondering how those T-shirt wearers — who were many — were managing it under the sun that hot.

Tiny settlements met us with crowds of children. They all cheered and seemed to be happy to take part in the race as our main fans. I would have made a good cheer, too, if I had been them, as it looked like school was cancelled for the occasion. Whole classes of children lined up alongside the road, giving us high fives, watched by their teachers. One of the classes hid from the scorching sun under an overpass bridge, and apparently because of the echo, they sounded extremely loud. Some of the children asked the athletes for autographs, holding out their writing pads and pens. From our junior fans I learnt that the Greek for “Good afternoon!”was “Kaliméra” and I started to call it out to all and sundry, including the runners running at my side, their support teams, and volunteers at the feed stations.

As we progressed along the coast, ships got closer and closer. I figured that they stood in the sea in a certain order. They went one by one in a line, which started from the shore. That was the point we were heading to — the Corinth Canal connecting the two seas. The view from the footbridge was absolutely tremendous. It’s beyond me — how much soil they had to excavate and take away for ships to be able to navigate there, at the very bottom of that man-made ravine. The walls of the Canal were all dissected with lines showing layers of soil. The Canal was so deep that I felt like a lilliputian.

Right after the Canal, I saw a large feed station. That was the 81-kilometers’ mark. It was time to consult my watch and see how things were going. During a workout, you can keep an eye on your tempo, but when you have to run for over 24 hours, the fuss about a sports watch is only distracting. My watch was a most regular one, showing only local time. In many dozens of kilometers I’d only looked at it to make sure that I took a gel once an hour. There was no need to control my pace, as I ran the way I felt. My watch showed about half past three. Despite all the heat and frequent stops at feed stations, I finished the first 80 kilometers in about 7 hours and 35 minutes. This meant I was feeling great and that I had a chance to reach the finish line in about 28 hours. When I think about that estimate today, I can’t help but laugh.

I had my meals in accordance with the schedule. Well, I ate my gels as I had planned, but there was a problem with oranges that I had expected to add to my menu. There simply were none of them at any of the feed stations. Why had I thought they would be there? Instead of oranges, I had to have sesame and honey bars. Sesame is rich in magnesium, and after every bar, it felt as if it was easier to run. It really did.

The road turned away from the sea, and the moment I thought that the way was going to be boring, ascents came up. Toward evening, the heat subsided, but the uphills became much more arduous. At one of them, volunteers had installed a large panel for participants to leave their autographs. I wrote something nice there and ran forth. The sunset was close, and all of a sudden I saw a familiar back — it was Roman Fursayev. He wore a tank top, which was uncommon. For many kilometers we had been running together, exchanging our experiences. Sometimes Roman ran ahead me, and then I would talk to other racers. At the start of the distance, my English skills were like that anecdotic “Let me speak from my heart,” but by then, I was almost fluent (with minor mistakes, of course) telling different people stories from my life, and they understood me or at least pretended they did. At one of the flat parts of the course, a vehicle passed by, and as it slowed down, someone loudly addressed me from the window in Russian, “Karyaga!” (timber in Russian). Wow, that was a calling signal between Boris and me! That was an old story: we decided to shout that word during the SwimRun competition to warn each other of underwater irregularities. This karyaga instantly stuck to us, and many participants started to call us karyagas. If sometime you hear this word, Boris and I must be nearby, even if it is not at SwimRun or any another run. It turned out that Roman’s coach and official support Alexander Golovin was broadcasting the marathon over the web. This was a “Hi” from him delivered to me by Tatyana Maslova, a famous Russian 24-hour runner and speed walker. An invigorating karyaga, indeed.

When it got dark, we switched on our headlamps. Somehow the asphalt came to an end, and we found ourselves on a dirt road. Fan cars, which seemed to never end, passed by, rising clouds of dust. It was hard to breathe. Rays from our headlamps cut through all that dust in the night air. We couldn’t see what was under our feet, as some of the cars blinded us with their headlights.

At some point, Roma and I were joined by a participant I didn’t know, and we proceeded together. Imagine my surprise when our companion started to talk in Russian! Igor — that was his name — happened to be the only participant from Ukraine. He was a software engineer. We had such a nice conversation that we noticed the lights ahead — and above — only in a while. It was a dark southern night, and we barely saw anything. Having covered the distance of about 150 kilometers, we finally reached that mountain of about 1 kilometer high that Spartathlon veterans loved to threaten amateur marathoners with. I’d seen that mountain before in pictures, but in the dead of night I couldn’t see any of it — apart from a chain of lights siding the serpentine road ready to take us to the very top.

We started to climb the mountain without slowing down, just as I planned — well, this was how I’d love to describe our ascent, but regretfully, we were only able to move forward at a slack pace. It was absolutely impossible to run. At one of the road twists, there was a feed station that lifted my spirits with some boiled jacket potatoes. Gosh, they tasted out of this world! There even was salt. A real treat from the volunteers. I guess, that was one of those heart-warming moments we actually came there for. Closer to the end of the road, we were outdistanced by an elderly participant. And he was running! Odd as it might sound, that was possible.

We passed under a bridge, and I remembered that the ascent hadn’t actually begun yet. We reached the station named Mountain Base. It was located at the bottom of the mountain rising over 1,000 meters above the sea level and was famous for its great broth. In a couple of kilometers, somewhere at the top, swept by cold winds, there would be Mountain Top. My pals wanted to have some refreshment before the climb, but I only stopped to get a wind breaker from my drop bag and went up the path.

Uphill and downhill the mountain was the only trail part of the course. The organizers stretched barrier lines, installed torches, and engaged people to monitor the ascending participants. The path was now narrow and all covered with stones of various sizes. It was so steep that sometimes I had to help myself with my hands. Stones were likely to roll off any moment, so I had to be really stealthy. In daytime, height would have scared me, but it was as dark as pitch. This was also the reason why I couldn’t appreciate the view.

The Mountain Top station at last! Volunteers met every participant with jeers, applause, and other loud sounds. They offered me a seat, wrapped me into a blanket, poured me some real Coke and started asking me where I had come from and why I had decided to join the marathon, about my life and political situation in my country, and so on. We could have talked all night long, but someone else managed to get to the top, and I gave him my warm seat. A new conversation kicked off. I had damaged a couple of toenails during 160 kilometers on the way, and going down over the rocky path was rather painful. I had to run sideways to protect my toes from bumping into my sneaker tips.

At the bottom, there lay a tranquil small village. In the dead of night, its streets were empty and silent. In the autopilot mode, I passed by a feed station, knowing that stopping there would take a while. I wasn’t feeling well and had some heaviness in my stomach. It felt like magnesium from the sesame cookies was weighing me down. How much of them did I have? It must have been several dozen. I didn’t want anything at that moment and lost my appetite completely. Some kilometers later, I felt my legs becoming heavy, too. I had covered more than half of the distance, but there still were almost 80 kilometers ahead, and according to the route profile, they weren’t going to be an easy walk.

At one of the next feed stations I ran into Roman once again. They served pasta there, and as I hadn’t had anything to eat for a long time, I took my chance to sit there for a while tête-à-tête with my plate. There were many supporters from other countries, and some of them asked me questions, but I was feeling too dumb. Having stood up, I knew that I was in trouble. Pasta seemed to have started a riot in my stomach. My nausea worsened. Staggering, I disappeared into the night. There were a couple of hours left before the dawn, and my stamina was reducing. I could now only dream of making it to the finish line. They say, dreams come true — what an absurd notion! Dreamers don’t have any energy left to hit their goals. They waste all their vigor in dreaming. I had to abandon my dreams and do something that would make the finish line closer. The only thing I could do was stop thinking and keep moving my feet as the yellow arrows on the asphalt guided me.

The day was starting to break. My headlamp was able to penetrate through only few meters of the dense fog. Droplets of water hanging in the air became clearly visible in its light. The road was narrow and straight, and I barely could see bushes, the odd clump of trees and some rural buildings along it. My body was falling asleep. Staggering, I slowed down to walking pace. I started seeing odd things in the fog. On the one hand, I felt it would be nice to have the sun boosting me up again. On the other hand, I knew it would make the air sizzling hot. I had almost stopped eating. At one of the feed stations, Alexander Golovin from Roman’s support team gave me a glucose tablet and told me to put it under the tongue. That was all my food and beverage. Gels in my waist bag remained unused. The good thing was that I still was able to move. High humidity made me cold, and I dropped into a run. At that moment, a car of Sergey Ionov’s support caught up with me, with Sergey’s parents on board. Great people, I had first met them at the 81st kilometer’s mark. Svetlana, Sergey’s mother, professionally managed a large camera and shared some important information about other Russian participants. From our short conversation, I learnt that I had been running like a tank.

While my tracks were rustling past a large feed station at an old church, I heard someone call out to me loudly from behind, then again and again. “That can’t be demons,” I thought and looked back to see Alexander Golovin, and a person in sneakers lying on a bench. I instantly knew what I had to do, and ran forth even faster.

“Roma, catch up!”

- (some untranslatable cursing) -

“Finish is near, come on!”

“Okaaaaay!”

Roman appeared to be a tough guy, and I don’t mean his legs now. Before Spartathlon, his longest distance was 100 kilometers, and this time he had to run almost 2.5 times as much. Basically, your feet don’t care how many kilometers you run after you pass your first 100 kilometers. For a trained ultra marathon runner there is almost no difference between 150 and 200 kilometers. It might seem odd, but it is so. Your major constraining factors are your stomach and — in particular — your head. You must have the guts to go, and Roman accepted the challenge.

Those who have seen the route profile and considered doing the Spartathlon believe that after you’ve climbed the mountain at the 150th kilometers’ mark, you can easily stay within your time limit even if you walk. We had plenty of time and zero chances of getting any medals, so when we had about 200 kilometers behind and faced another uphill, we dropped down to a walk and decided to overcome it without a fuss. The scenery became more varied and picturesque. The sun was getting hot, and the fog rolled away to reveal the nearest slopes covered with bushes and trees. The road wound its way around a mountain, and our climb seemed to take ages. It took us about three hours to ascend. At the top, we were welcomed by the bright sun, which had melted all the fog away with its hot beams. It was still very humid, and our clothes remained wet. However, it was even good for me, as for the last several hours I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything. My body was dehydrated, and I liked the idea of receiving some water through my skin. Whatever I tried to eat, it got stuck in my throat. I was unable to drink water either. The only thing I could do was take a small sip of Coke at every feed station.

Roman felt better than I did, and after we stumbled across a dead hog on the roadside, he ran ahead. I was just dragging my feet, dead tired. Kilometers stretched on forever, and every new checkpoint appeared to be a miracle. Volunteers boosted me up with their enthusiasm. The scorching sun made me resort to water sponges and ice again. Finally, I ran myself up into a state where my mind became a small point. It was somewhere ahead, at the horizon, and I kept eyeing it, looking out for another fata morgana with volunteers afar. I hadn’t eaten anything for 6 hours. If I didn’t fall unconscious because of the heat, I stood a good chance of finishing the race, as I had an ace up my sleeve.

A month before the start, after Anton and I had run over 180 kilometers from Vyborg to St. Petersburg, I figured that issues with my stomach would inevitably cause me trouble at Spartathlon. Whether I wanted it or not, my stomach was likely to let me down. That’s why 3 weeks before the start I gave up all the food and started a starvation diet. For me, such a radical carb detox had long become normal. That time, I easily lived 5 days on clear water, and then 2 days without any food or water at all. On the last day of my starving, I ran 10 kilometers in the morning and realized that I was ready for anything that could happen to me at Spartathlon. No heat, stomach issues, or ascents and descents could impair my ability to move. And now, having been barely staggering for the last several hours, I felt satisfied with how I had improved myself. It all was worth it. Leonidas’s foot was getting closer.

My dearest reader, please, don’t starve without medical supervision, it might have grave side effects! No kidding, please read this paragraph again! Thank you!

I counted on the last 20 kilometers. First of all, this last part of the race went downhill, and as long as I moved my feet, the finish line was drawing nearer. Second, before this head-spinning descent there was a large feed station where I had dropped some Guarana. It had to improve my concentration. The way I figured it, Guarana was going to give me wings.

“Sergey, how are you? Is everything okay? Care for some massage?” a fair-haired girl speaking perfect Russian appeared from nowhere, asking how I felt. I had no clue who she was. My legs didn’t ache, and no one was able to help me out with the rest of my problems. I declined her help, still racking my brains and trying to figure out who she was. At the same time, I got rid of all my gels — simply gave them away to the volunteers. I had all the energy I needed. I was still awake and capable of breathing and moving my feet. I only kept Guarana and got ready for the final dash. Leaving this checkpoint, I finally remembered that the girl was Elena, a volunteer from the physio team working at the course. We had got acquainted on Facebook, and that was our first meeting in person.

I failed to descend from the mountain directly to the finish. They somehow managed to put this mountain wrong end foremost — at first, I had to handle another ascent. Having climbed it and lost the last remnants of my strength, I couldn’t help but stop and enjoy the scenery from the top. I could see olive gardens covering hills and mountains in the distance. On a lovely sunny day like that it would be great to try on an olive wreath at Leonidas’s foot. All Spartathlon finishers are entitled to this honor.

I opened my Guarana. An abrupt exhale, a gulp, and here we go! I was about to get wings. In a minute, a sudden stabbing pain pierced my stomach. Feeling dizzy, I staggered along the road, curled like an embryo. The pain was becoming unendurable. I uttered some sound and realized that my race was over. My eyes welled up. The main thing was to remain on my feet, as I wouldn’t be able to get up if I fell. I had to stay afoot! I was still conscious, hardly breathing but unable to walk.

I saw someone running toward me. The distance between us was about 100 meters. Why was he running in the opposite direction unlike the rest of the marathoners? There was a feed station behind him, which I had failed to notice. When he approached, I explained my problem. Judging from his accent, he was a supporter of one of the South American teams. Then he ran back and fetched me a small long package the size of a sugar stick. There was some liquid inside, and he told me to drink it and wash it down with a gulp of water. I obeyed, and then my life-saver explained to me what I had to do. 500 meters later, I was supposed to feel better. I had to walk 3 kilometers to the next food station and have a sip of Coke there. Boris had once told me that Coke was a medicine, provided you took it in small amounts as and when necessary. I guessed that moment had come. I thanked my helper from the bottom of my heart and went on. The best thing was that I had dropped out. That was the close one.

I felt much better now. The finish line drawing nearer gave me an energy burst. Houses, yards, gardens, and vegetable patches drifted by. The locals minded their own business. A little dirty-faced boy of about 7 was using a long stick to shepard some sheep into the yard of his house. His father and he were standing with their backs to me, so I stealthily watched their concerted efforts. A lady in a nice apron splashed some water from a pan to the ground. She must have been washing or laundering something. Some folks were offloading goods from a car in front of a shop. There was a tent near them, so I mistook them for food station volunteers and asked for a drink. It was very hot, and my mouth was really dry. They held me out a bottle of Coke. I realized my mistake and tried to return the drink, but they insisted I kept it and even ran some 10 meters by my side. The world around me was gaining some of its colors back. Sparta was getting closer. People were coming my way more and more often. Making eye contact with every new person boosted my energy. Almost all of them would cry out something supportive and clap their hands. I saw the last feed station on the horizon — number 74. I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for the last 10 hours. It seemed that I should have collapsed somewhere by then, and yet I was calmly walking toward the last mark. I had to harness all my strength to cover the last 2 kilometers running and reach Leonidas alive and kicking.

My pre-finish drop bag only contained two things — a flag of Russia and a flag of Greece. They were tied in a knot to symbolize friendship. The Greek flag was my way of saying “Thank you” to the hosts: a beautiful country and great people. I felt I was in love with Greece, and it loved me back in the person of a volunteering elderly lady. Having seen her national flag, she fell on my neck and kissed me on both cheeks. From that moment on, I knew that my two-flag trick was working.

For the first time in my life, I felt like a superhero. I rushed so fast that my magic cloak of two flags fluttered behind me even in the dead calm air. There was no fatigue in my legs, as if I hadn’t walked all those kilometers. Sparta welcomed me in a way I couldn’t have imagined. Literally everybody was shouting and applauding. People were leaning over from the balconies of houses, shooting out from the cafes, waving from the windows of buses and cars, and police officers were blocking the traffic at signal lights and saluting. Some boys were riding their bicycles near me to show me the way. Then, more kids joined them to run by my side. Bravo, bravo, bravo! I was unable to hold back my tears. The home straight was a street with shops and cafes, and green palm trees. The traffic was brought to a standstill. Lamp-posts were decorated with flags of participating countries. In front of me, there was the statue of King Leonidas. He was watching me. Behind him, I saw some more flags and trimmed trees.

The atmosphere was festive and yet homelike. I heard my name through a loudspeaker. Having swished through the last meters over the shallow stairs, I touched Leonidas’s foot and stopped to recover my breath. I was gasping for a drink, and girls in white gowns offered me a cup of water. I drank as much as I could, come what may, for my stomach. It didn’t matter any more. They put the sacramental wreath on my head and gave me a wooden tablet to take a picture with the organizers and the city mayor. My adventure had taken 32 hours and 13 minutes. This WAS Sparta!

When the short ceremony at the statue of Leonidas finished, medics took me aside, made me sit on a chair, and removed my socks and sneakers. They had a foot pan with soap water, in which they washed my feet. Then they tended my legs, paying special attention to my broken nails. I didn’t have any other blisters and my legs weren’t swollen. I instantly felt better after a couple of minutes with them. They offered me an infusion and a massage, but I refused, although those services seemed to be highly popular with the other athletes. I wasn’t in pain, after all. They gave me a paper bag with some food and took me to our guys. Irina Masanova, Sergei Ionov, Dmitry Romanyuk, and Roman Fursayev had finished the race before me. Their sunburned faces were as hilarious as mine. The handicapped from across the globe spread themselves on folding beds all around me. Many of them were having hydration infusions, but everyone wore a happy face. There were congratulations, hugs, and waving hands. I asked them about the other Russians and learnt that Albert Urbanovich and Volodya Stambursky had quit the race somewhere halfway through. As for Anton Tampel, he had admittedly withdrawn closer to the end of the course. I couldn’t believe that. What about that famous saying “Fresh as Tampel at the finish line”?! I had to have some rest, meditate on what had just happened, and then move to Gythio for dinner to ask Anton about his experience. As I collapsed on a folding bed trying to settle my mind, Valery Regetsy and Ivan Zaborsky finished the race.

At that moment, I was among the people with many whys and hows on their faces. One guy sat there, his face in his hands. He was alright, smiling and crying at the same time. His girlfriend sat near him, embracing his sunburned shoulders. People go in for ultra running, put themselves to tests… Is that really necessary? Some might say it is bad for their health, but we know it is not. Just see Spartathlon finishers aged 60+. People run such long courses as they want to be healthier and stronger. Are they supposed to simply admit they are getting older? If you don’t want to admit it, get off your backside and run! When you run, you feel young, no matter what your official age is. Experience you get makes you happy.

After the finish, you feel greatly pleased that you have managed to set up a goal and achieve it after long months of training. It doesn’t matter why you needed that. You travelled such a long way both in time and space, and perfected your skill of pursuing objectives. It means now you can get things your own way in every sphere of life. Why long-distance running and other cyclic sports bring that much satisfaction? We could set a task of going to a pub and then heroically complete it. I am not sure if you would feel the same way in the morning, but I have an answer to that.

Ultra marathon running is a mysterious thing: when you are at the start line, in anticipation of the race, you can’t imagine what lies ahead. When covering the distance, you gradually fall through to another plane, where other needs matter. As soon as you are totally exhausted, the only thing you focus on is being able to breathe, drink, eat, and deal with the rest of your corporeal needs. Having overcome this crisis and seen that your health is not in danger, you move further, feeling safe. The closer you get to the finish, the more you concentrate on the idea that after crossing the sacred line you will be the one who has managed to achieve his goal. You will be able to call yourself a Spartathlon finisher. You could even write about it in your Instagram profile. You will get the status. And after that you can start pondering on personal fulfillment and lofty matters. Actually, during the race you get to the very bottom of the hierarchy of needs, and it is only thanks to your own efforts that you can manage to climb back, feeling every new level with the cells of your body. You will abandon your need to belong, become vulnerable and even pathetic. You will be at ease acknowledging your weakness in front of the others — and even yourself. When you regain what you’ve lost, no circumstances of everyday life will be able to beat you down. The transformation you will go through will make you stronger. That’s why going to a pub doesn’t bring that much satisfaction. And by the way, they have served us beer at the finish line!

The sun was burning him mercilessly. The red T-shirt and black shorts provided no protection against the scorching rays. His legs and arms were bare, and his skin was already sunburned. It’d been 6 hours from the start. In such heat, going uphill and downhill wasn’t as easy as usual. Instead of a cap, he wore a dark visor, and his bare head was most exposed to the solar radiation. The bandana that he used to put some ice in saved the situation to a certain extent.

His sport watch insisted that his heartbeat was quicker than usual. This pulse was okay for a marathon, but he had already run two marathons in a row, and there were four of them ahead. He was accustomed to running at much colder temperatures — 50 degrees lower, but he wasn’t the one to choose the weather.

It got dark. Chill came down to the road from the adjacent mountains. That top at the 100-miles’ mark lay ahead. It didn’t terrify him. If anything, that was an inspiring challenge. He had to climb it — his alpinist spirit was pushing him forward. After a day-long roast, his skin was still burning. He thought he might have a fever. He didn’t want to take the temperature, though — this info would be absolutely unnecessary. The fever was ruining his stamina, and the only way to bring down the temperature was to take off the T-shirt. Having tied it around his waist, he ran up to the mountain and only put the T-shirt back on closer to the top. He changed the loose shorts grazing his thighs to black athletic pants, taken from his drop bag. It was late at night, and if he had to wear them the next day under the sun, it would be even hotter. His body was fatigued, and he had almost no energy left to run on. He wanted to lie down, to take a breath, to fall asleep fast, and to let his body have some rest.

A large feed station was ahead, inviting to have a break. Having reached it, he spread himself over the massage table, hoping to recover his strength. A short sportive massage didn’t bring much relief. The organizers had brought some mattresses and blankets, and he lay on one of them to take a 1-hour nap and recharge his batteries. Deep in his thoughts, he didn’t notice the information board saying the feed station was closing in 20 minutes.

“I could quit. I could stay here, have some rest, and then go to the finish on their bus. But do I want to withdraw like that? I’ve covered only 160 kilometers, and now I have to get up and reach at least the 180-kilometers’ mark. I managed it a month ago! I can quit there. With the 20-minute time cushion, I should be able to do it even at a slow pace.”

This is what he thought when he got up and walked into the grey of the dawn. After a short rest, he felt replenished and step by step dropped into rapid stride, then switching to jogging. Before the start, he heard his friends saying that after the mountain the cutoff points were going to be more comfortable and it would be possible to run in at any speed, but when he reached the next feed station, he still had the same time cushion of 20 minutes. Their stories that you could stay within time limits after the mountain even if you walked were nonsense at its finest. He had to run!

Once again, he got his second wind, and picked up the pace. He was ahead of the checkpoints’ closing times: first by 5 minutes, then by 10, and so on, and so forth. That was a new game, a new day, and a new target. He suddenly realized that the 180 kilometers were not a limit. He had to move on and finish in Sparta.

The hot sun rose up in the sky. There was no place to hide from it. Walking was harder than running, but he had no stamina to run. He had to have some rest, to lie down for a couple of minutes. The only dark spot within his sight was the shadow from the road guard rail. He lay down, right at the roadside, but he was unable to stay there for long. Every runner passing by would approach him and ask how he was feeling. He saw some bushes along the road, promising shadow, peace, and strength. The main thing was that he wouldn’t be seen from the road as long as he stayed there. Every brief stop gave our hero enough energy for him to outdistance everyone who passed him during his rest. This tactics seemed to work. He was getting closer to Leonidas faster than his fellow racers. His time cushion reached 1 hour. He was trying to run even faster, but failed to win more time. Well, there was only one issue he had to deal with as soon as possible.

It was a countdown to checkpoint 74, where he had dropped his flags of Russia and Greece, which he’d forgotten to bring the flagpoles for. He had to find some on the way. Looking for sticks in roadside ditches kept him occupied for the last kilometers of his way. 1.5 kilometers before the checkpoint — ta-da! karyagas again! — he found some suitable dry branches.

In the 37-year history of Spartathlons, he definitely was the first participant ever to run toward the finish line with two large branches in his hands. At the checkpoint, a couple of boys, proud to take part in making history, put their bicycles aside to help him with the flags. When you are heading towards the finish of Spartathlon, you’re naturally overwhelmed with emotions. Running the last 2 kilometers of the race, you have a smile on your face, which actually looks like an awkward grimace through, and it’s hard to tell if you’re crying or laughing.

35 hours after the start of the race, the commentator solemnly announced over the microphone the name of a finisher, “Anton Tampel, Russia!”

There is a game typically played the next morning after the finish. You think the worst is already behind, but life offers you another challenge. The harder it has been before, the more interesting it is going to be. So, as soon as you get a run of luck, happy events will only keep multiplying.

Several teams, including us, lived outside of Sparta, to the south of it, an hour-long bus ride away. We only spent one night there, and we didn’t really feel like leaving that paradise. The sea was only 50 meters away, and there were sun loungers, pergolas, and a bar plus grass and coarse sand at the water’s edge. When you went into the sea up to your knees, small fish would start biting your sore feet. I hardly had almost any blisters, but the previous night I had lost two of my toenails. Love that feeling of freedom.

The organizers took everything into account and attended to every detail. Right after our sumptuous breakfast by the sea, we got on a bus. In Sparta, we were going to have a brief stop at the gymnasium where they kept all the stuff left by athletes at feed stations. Then, we had to go to a gala dinner with the mayor of Sparta, and then — right to Athens. At 10:50, we got off the bus in front of the school. That was important, because in some 10 minutes, a very special event was going to begin at the Sparta Stadium.

I had nothing to collect from the gymnasium, and when all the passengers from our bus went to get their stuff, I stayed alone outside. I approached the organizers’ rep to learn how long the bus was going to stay there, and he instantly knew I was going to do a fade. He told me that if I got lost, I would only be able to get to the mayor’s by taxi. I had no idea where that dinner was going to take place. Somewhere out of town, they said. Some 100 meters away from me, I saw a runner wearing a T-shirt, which said “Spartan Mile Finisher.” He was heading towards the place where I was supposed to go, too. I followed him. If I was late for the bus, I would find a way to get where they wanted me to be. No problem.

The Spartan Mile is an unofficial event started 4 years ago by its participants. Every Spartathlon athlete can run a mile at the Sparta Stadium as long as they are bare-footed and wearing underwear, almost naked, just like they used to do it in the Ancient Greece. There are no strict dress-code rules for women. Before the mile run, you have to take a lap around the 400-meter long course.

The person who I caught up with had already taken off his flip-flops and was running bare-footed. His name was Iannis. He was from Belgia, and it was he who had been giving out small flyers about the Spartan Mile in our hotel. We ran about 1.5 kilometers to the stadium, which was behind the statue of King Leonidas. Around the statue, there were stands for pictures taken by some locals and photos from our yesterday’s race. They were amazing!

The handicapped from across the globe were at the stadium. Over a hundred of denuded bodies were craving for a special event. Some of them were only approaching, and many of them hardly stood on their legs, numb after the race. One of the participants had his knee banded, and another one couldn’t take his clothes off single-handed. Every second one was limping. My soles were still sore from the previous day, and the brown flooring was already hot. I put on my olive wreath and took my place at the end of the queue.

After a brief greeting from the organizers, a handkerchief was thrown on the ground to start the 400-meters’ run. People were barely moving along the lap, but I saw some guys at the front end that were whirling away, and I felt I had to speed up, too. Getting closer to the leaders was a challenging task, and while I was trying to get through the slower participants at the first turn, the leaders were already running out to the finish straight. However, I was able to come 10th. Where did all that thrill of the race come from? I ran dozens of marathons over those years of my life of a runner, but I had never ran a marathon against the clock. Before that day, I had always run for fun, and all of a sudden I felt I had to contend for a medal.

We ran the next 4 laps at a steady pace. Many participants had their national flags, and I regretted I hadn’t taken mine. During the Spartan Mile, I met Ian Hammett, whom I had seen two days before during the race. Ian was the 6th to finish Spartathlon, and that was a fascinating result! As for me, I didn’t even know what place I had got.

Our dinner with the mayor took place out of town, at a large venue. At the entrance, there were envelopes with photos for every participant. Wasn’t that a nice surprise? The atmosphere was very friendly, and it wasn’t only thanks to the local wine. There were all the people I had met during the Spartathlon. We exchanged eye contact and talked like old friends. Large round tables with white tablecloths made things even more festive. All the Russians managed to sit at one table. Irina Masanova was awarded a prize, as she had finished second. The day before, they had arranged an awarding ceremony at the Sparta’s main square, but we failed to make it there from our hotel at the seaside. Before returning to Athens, every participant was given a paper bag with some local food. Made in Sparta!

Anton and I spent the next day walking around Athens. In the evening, we had to take a most difficult test — the festive gala-dinner, where they were to award medals. The open-air restaurant seemed to have seated a thousand people. The tables stood right on the grass. The sea was so close that we were able to hear the wash of the waves. Broad palm-trees lined the shore. Dinner gowns, ironed shirt collars and bow-ties faded in comparison with the traditional dresses of the Japanese team.

Before the awarding ceremony, they showed some short videos about the winners and from the race. As soon as we wiped our tears, they started to call groups of finishers from different countries to the stage to award them medals. Before that, the winners and prize-takers had received their cups and medals.

We had a substantial meal of local cuisine, and the music started to play louder, when Ivan Zaborsky said, “Watch out now!” In a few minutes, dozens of people were dancing and jumping to the music. I had never danced like that being cold sober.

The music was a mix of dance tracks with various national songs. Everybody was cheering. Girls from the Hungarian support team asked me to show some Russian national dance. I couldn’t think of anything better than the squat dance, and pulled both my thigh muscles. I hadn’t been in such a pain even during the race. The rest of the evening and the next day, I walked with difficulty.

Spartathlon is so unpredictable! It passed in the blink of an eye — and seemed to be a small life of itself. It isn’t just a competition, but a sequence of incredible events and emotions. Spartathlon brings people’s hearts and souls together. It is the place where dreams come true, and where people come up with new wishes. Thanks to this race, hundreds of people from across the globe became my friends. I look forward to seeing all of you again. Thank you!

Sincerely yours, Sergei Ovchinnikov.

Translated from Russian language by Anna Dubrovskaya.

ULTRARUNNING

Reflections of ultrarunners on ultrarunning.

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