Spring Running Report
Race report Olympia Ultramarathon
In the foot-steps of the ancient Olympic runners
Yes, I can! I can run 180 kilometers or 112 miles with no stops longer than a couple of minutes, including an elevation gain of 3.700 meters or 12.000 feet. On 19 May at 10:46am, after 20 hours and 16 minutes of running, I happily crossed the finish line of the historical “Olympia Race”. A unique and internationally certified ultra-race connecting the two biggest stadiums of Ancient Greece, from Ancient Nemea to Ancient Olympia, with its eternal Olympic flame, now on its way to London. So far, my longest run was 100km, 3 months ago in Psatha-Alepochori (see my Winter Running Report). On the last day of March, at the old airport of Athens, I tried to run my first 24 hour race in which the athlete tries to cover as much distance as possible. However I ‘dropped out'(1) after about 12 hours and 100km or so, due to knee-pain and a lack of motivation to break through the pain barrier, as I did during the Olympia Race, which is a point-to-point race in a (literally) Arcadian landscape, with no comparison to the concrete ‘desert’ of the 600m lap at Ellenikon airport, the scene of the 24 hour race. The magical Olympic stadium of Olympia worked as a huge magnet to keep me going and pull me to the finish line, right in front of the most historic running track in human history. I do not entirely exclude the possibility of running another 24 hour race (or for good measure a 48 or 72 hour race), but I will have to trick my mind to keep going that long, lap after lap.
After the first 20km, a trail section took us to the top of a hill from where we could enjoy impressive views over a small valley with crops and wild flowers. More dirt tracks followed, of which some rather challenging and climbing to the Olighyrtos Mountain pass at 1.200m altitude, where my friend Dimitris from the organizing committee (and our running club) greeted me. Then there was a fast downhill section to Kandila and CP4 at 48km. From there on a long asphalt road leading to the first big station, the village of Levidi, CP7 after 62km and at 1000m altitude. I arrived in lovely Levidi after 6 hours running in a surprising 4th position; still feeling relatively fresh and strong. Dimitris was very helpful in changing my running gear for the night and I ‘savored’ a plate of pasta with yoghurt, while being massaged by 4 hands while standing. This all took no longer than 5 minutes after which I headed out for the night and to the mountains ahead.
It was 4 in the morning when I finally reached the outskirts of Perdikoneri village, and I thought I was hallucinating when I saw a tall figure with open arms running towards me. Dimitris! My friend also happens to be responsible for CP11, 124 km or two-thirds into the race. He’s the savior of many runners arriving there! Once more he helped me with refueling and changing gear, this time including fresh socks and shoes. This took a while and required some sitting, but I thought it was important to keep the feet dry and blister-free, which is far from evident in my case (but it worked!).
I anticipated that the last third would be the most difficult part, as I entered completely unknown territory, far beyond my ‘previous’ limits and still many challenging tracks ahead before Olympia. It was good to hear that the next CP was only 3km ahead, so I would certainly make it to that point, and then would see again. At CP12 I asked for a hot tea but it was so hot I had to carry it with me, not to loose precious time. It’s quite a challenge to drink a hot tea while running downhill, believe me. Local people take care of these invaluable aid-stations and have to be praised for their free-of-charge services and support. From there a rough track led to Doxa and further on an easy and charming asphalt stretch I got to Kastraki, CP15 at 145 km.
After what see endless we finally reached Mouria, the fore-last CP at 175km. Less than 5km to go but on dead legs and under an increasingly hot sun. More will-power was needed to get those legs running once more after a last pit-stop, but we could still squeeze out a pace of around 5mins per km, or 12km/h, step-by-step closing the gap to the magical finish line at the entrance of world’s most famous running stadium, in 20 hours and 16 minutes, with my feet crossing the line some feet in front of my co-finisher Dinos, placing respectively 4th and 5th, less than 2 hours after the iron-man winner, Stergios Anastasiadis.
The award ceremony, the 4-star hotel with swimming pool, the dinner and the visit to the Olympia museums and a winery in Nemea over the following days were all very nice, but my supreme moment of joy was the popular party in the town-hall of Nemea with local food, wine, dance and above all my wife and daughter, my foremost important power-stations.
Stiffness in the legs only lasted for 2 days and I resumed light training on day 3. A good race apparently results in a smooth recovery. Although knee-pain occurred about halfway into the race, knee-support helped me through and it didn't cause any lasting injury. It was good to be prepared for the worst to happen, including pre-taping my feet to keep them blister-free, which - to my sheer joy - worked very well, even better than in most of my ‘normal’ marathons and certainly better than in my first 100km race. Another lesson learned was that it’s good to run according to your feeling and not according to an anticipated race-strategy or race-pace. I also learned that heading out pretty fast does not necessarily have to backfire later in the race, as long as you take it relatively easy on the uphill sections. Although I intended to run with a heart-monitor, I was actually lucky that I took it off just before the race, as the battery was depleted. Wearing the monitor, I might have been over-cautious and may have unnecessarily held back or become stressed about a low heart-rate. Nutrition-wise - a big concern during my previous ‘ultra’s - I finally found a better balance between isotonic drinks and ‘real’ food such as pasta, tomatoes and the ever-delicious Greek yoghurt, even in the middle of the night. Also, water with gas and coke helped to trigger the stomach. Candied ginger helped to calm my gut when needed. The only point of further attention is the upper body, with too much tension in my neck, shoulders and lower back, so I should learn to run more relaxed and loosen up from time to time.
Running a real ultra is so much more than running a race; its more like a journey, paraphrasing the great Dutch ultrarunner Jan Knippenberg. A journey to discover the Arcadian landscapes, as well a journey to discover your own body- and mindscapes. Ultra-running definitely requires a healthy - if not a slightly obsessive - mind to command a well trained body. I believe this is the true spirit of an Olympian athlete, ancient and modern.
Zeus, here I come!
Zeus, here I come!
PS: special credits go to the organizers of this great Olympia Race and in particular to Sotiris, Anastasia and Vicky; to Jan from the International Association for Ultrarunning (IAU)- not only for their positive energy throughout this event but also for a great race photos; to my friend Dimitris and other running friends of Grigora Kordonia (“Fast Laces”) for their support; to the new friends I have made during this race - Chris and Dinos in particular - and last but not least to my family for their endless support.
 Interestingly, technically you don’t drop out of a 24 hour race as the only thing that counts is the distance covered in 24 hours, no matter how long you actually run. That’s why I also ended up in the ‘finishers’ with ‘only’ 96,5 km, but which still placed me far away from the last place. As a matter of fact, I ran the first 60km or so in the first position; a clear indication of heading out too fast, also given the sun and heat during the first 6 hours of the race. At least there was a lot to learn from this event.