I failed to finish the 2008 Spartathlon. I struggled with my ankle for six hours after the mountain before I surrendered at Checkpoint 59 and requested a ride to my crew who was waiting for me just 3 km away. I emerged from the race vehicle and could hardly make eye-contact with them. My soul was heavy. After a year of training and obsessing about the race, I did not finish despite having only 50 km to go. It was a powerful and humbling experience, and I learned some great lessons. Nearly a month passed before I came to grips with that experience. I described the lessons I learned in my blog.
At the 2008 Spartathlon awards banquet, Marios Fournaris from Greece, a multi-time Spartathlon finisher, told me he did not finish his first Spartathlon. He gave me a gift and told me to come back and try again. I struggled to hold back tears and promised then that I would be back in 2009 to finish the race.
I planned for redemption. I had nothing to prove; I just needed to finish my unfinished business. I knew I was capable of completing the race, but I also wanted to run it “well.” For me, running well meant running and finishing with gratitude and joy in my heart. No more. That was my goal.
I returned to the Spartathlon with my boyfriend Tim Englund who was with me last year. Last year, when I sprained my ankle five days before the race, he sacrificed his week in Greece for me as I attempted to heal up as much as possible before race day. Our plans of playing tourists and relaxing together didn’t happen. Instead, he was my physical and emotional crutch. He brought me ice, rubbed my ankle, and kept me smiling by telling me stories on the balcony of our hotel room. He assured me that he was there to support me, whether I was able to run or not. He never left my side. Without his love and care, I would not have had the courage to toe the start line. This year, he was back to help me finish. I owed him a finish…and a vacation. Privy to my weaknesses, strengths, and dreams, he understood my deep desire to finish this race, and to finish it well.
Also with me this year was Glenn Tachiyama, my gentle-souled friend who has never waivered in his steadfast support. He has believed in me through some difficult times in my life and also in those rare times of glory. He was part of my Badwater Ultramarathon crew when I won the race in 2007, and he was with me through the ankle disaster of last year’s Spartathlon race. Glenn, too, gave up that week in Greece last year, and instead of touring the great ruins and shooting photos, he scoured the streets of Athens with me in search of the perfect ankle brace I could wear during the race. And when we finally found the perfect brace and it didn’t fit into my shoe, Glenn didn’t waiver. With a dull knife, he gutted out the stuffing of my shoe until the brace fit flawlessly. Glenn, too, understood my desire for redemption in 2009 and he eagerly accepted my invitation to share in another attempt at finishing.
I had all I needed to finish this year’s race: Tim and Glenn, the lessons I learned and my own determination. Now, I just needed to train.
I trained harder and smarter than last year. Due to work constraints, I have averaged 25 to 30 miles a week over the past decade of ultrarunning. I knew I needed to increase that mileage to insure that I would finish well. Last year while training for the Spartathlon, I was able to increase my overall weekly mileage but I wasn’t able to sustain it. I became too fatigued and had to cut back. This year, I did my best to run more mileage throughout the year, and new to this year, I did my best to rest more. I thought often of my veteran ultrarunner friend Ray Krolewicz who, in response to my whining once, told me that there was no such thing as overtraining. I thought he was wrong. Gradually, however, I came to believe that he was right and that I have not ever overtrained; I have only under rested. I found that I was able to handle the higher mileage easily as long as I made the time to rest and recover. It required sacrifice like never before, but I kept it up as Tim reassured me that I was just paying my dues and would reap the reward on race day. So, this year I was better trained, and more importantly, significantly more rested both physically and mentally. I was in a much better place in my mind, and that freed me to push my limits physically.
I increased my training mileage in July after I had completed my post as Medical Director at Badwater. I ran as much as I could. I ran a few 60 and 70 mile weeks, which is a lot for me. When I was too busy with work or bogged down by other commitments, I reduced the mileage. Every step I ran in training was for the purpose of getting me to the finish line of the Spartathlon. I ran only on the roads to get my body used to the pavement. I imagined the Spartathlon course and my success in traversing the entire distance from the Parthenon to the statue of King Leonidas. I trained without music because it is not allowed at the Spartathlon and I started to take comfort in hearing the rhythm of my feet and breaths. I imagined that Spokane’s peach orchards were the Greek olive orchards and that the smell of apple cider was the smell of the vineyards of Nemea. I imagined that the cars on the roads that intruded into my space were the same cars I’d brush elbows with running through downtown Athens. And when the winds blew and the skies opened and dumped rain on me during my runs, I told myself I was preparing to handle any condition that could present itself during the race.
I imagined the inevitable fatigue, the possible stomach trouble, and the achiness in my hips, and I imagined that I would keep on keeping on despite these no matter what. I replayed every possible scenario in my mind and I imagined being able to work through it. I came to believe I could handle anything. I left no possibility unexplored in my mind. There would be no excuse for whining or quitting.
The last two weeks before the race I managed 80+ miles. I ran up and down Mt. Spokane. I ran back-to-back long runs without difficulty. I rested as much as I could. I was ready for the race.
Tim, Glenn and I arrived in Athens Sunday afternoon. Our Rav 4 rental car (expressly ordered with a moon roof for Glenn and his camera) was ready for us at the airport, and we drove to the hotel. Though we still could not read the street signs, the bustling streets of Athens seemed much less foreign to us this year. Instead of fearing the motorcycles that drove between the car lanes brushing our side mirrors with their handlebars, we pulled in our mirrors to give them more room. And when we could not fit our car into the parallel parking space on the street, we parked perpendicular, like the Greeks. A sense of confidence filled the air. We were ready for our Greek adventure to begin.
I had no plans to run even a step once we arrived in Greece. Except for doing the tourist stuff we missed last year, I was going to rest. We ventured to the Parthenon and climbed a thousand steps. Up, down, up, down. To my surprise, my left hip, which is a chronic problem I have managed over the years, started shooting pain with each step. I mentioned it but kept on. Finally, I let Tim and Glenn go explore while I sat on the benches with the elderly ladies. I became worried.
I iced my back and hip that night and every night after that and took some ibuprofen to quiet the pain. I wondered if, like last year, I had just ruined my race, only this time more deliberately. I wondered if I wasn’t somehow sabotaging my dream of finishing the race, of running well. It was a pang of doubt that repeatedly crept into my mind in the days before the race.
Fortunately, the hip got better as we relaxed and sunned and ate Greek salads and baklava and sipped Greek coffee. Wednesday evening, we went to dinner with the other Americans running the race: John Price, Adrian Belitu and Bob Becker and his wife Suzanne, as well as Peter Foxall, everybody's friend from the UK. Adrian Belitu joined us for the pre-race meal the evening before the race. I got fairly decent sleep, and in the morning, Tim drove us to the Acropolis and we arrived just as the buses filled with athletes from Hotel London arrived.
For the first time, I was a bundle of nerves. I laced and re-laced my shoes multiple times. I nervously hugged old friends and new friends, wished them well, and agreed to a brief interview with Radio France, thinking it would distract me from feeling anxious. I tried to chill out by telling myself that nerves were a good sign, that I had prepared well, that, in my preparations, I had left nothing to chance. I had but one mission and that was to finish this race.
After the countdown, we headed down the uneven cobblestone path. I immediately recalled my ankle debacle from last year. This year, I was careful but confident. I ran the first miles with John Price. I didn’t mention to him that my muscles felt stiff and weak even in those first miles. Instead, I kept quiet and convinced myself that it was just because I hadn’t run in a week, just because my body was finally fully “experiencing” the run. I decided it meant nothing and predicted nothing. We had a long way to go. There would be no whining. I carried on.
I carried my usual energy drinks and food in my pack. I was sure to keep up on my calories and I supplemented with fruit juice and a few other nibbles at the check points. For some reason, however, I started to develop some stomach trouble, and before long, I was making stops along the way. Many stops. I wasn’t all that concerned about the cut-offs; I was ahead of those with time to spare. I was, however, a bit concerned about whether I could run for 246 km if I couldn’t fuel well early in the race. I forced the thought from my mind and focused on the present. I was feeling well enough now to keep running, I thought, and that was a good thing. I was able to push away the negative thoughts because, well, I didn’t really have a racing strategy. I only knew my 40 km and 80 km split times from last year, and I was hoping to be somewhere around those times. It was a comfortable pace for me, and if I could run close to those splits this year, I should have enough time to finish the distance. So, in attempt to limit my grumpy stomach, I decreased my usual calorie intake dramatically and just kept moving.
I was very surprised to see that I hit the 40 km check point two minutes faster than last year. I thought I was moving much slower but apparently I wasn’t. My legs continued to feel somewhat fatigued throughout those early miles, but my mind was committed to the race and, in that regard, I was moving along well. I set my legs on auto-pilot and they responded and did what I had trained them to do – move me forward. I stayed focused on the present and therefore I felt no pressure, fear or uncertainty.
I must have been wrapped up in my thoughts for a long time because I was jolted back to awareness when I stumbled on the sidewalk that bridged the magnificent Corinth Canal. I was so thrilled to be there that I let out a joyful holler as I chose to dodge through the sight-seers on the sidewalk so that I, too, could see the canal rather than run on the street. I knew what lie just ahead and for the first time, I was eager to be further along on the course. This was Hellas Can, 80 kms into the race, and the first time I was able to see Tim and Glenn. As soon as I realized how close I was, I saw Glenn with his camera. I was flooded with joy. I had made it to Hellas Can in 8 hours and 10 minutes, ahead of my time from last year. I was glad for that, but that was the extent of my thoughts about the split time. I was just so glad to be there, to see Tim and Glenn, and to get some of my own food into my system.
I told them about my stomach troubles, but I didn’t dwell on it or dally. I didn’t come back to Greece to whine. I was comforted to know I would be seeing them again soon and about every 10 km for the rest of the race. I was so ready to experience the ENTIRE distance with them this year.
My stomach got worse and over the next 20 miles I vomited many times. That has never happened to me before in a race. I have always had an iron stomach that could tolerate almost anything on the run. Sure, I’ve had some nausea before and once I had a batch of bad energy drink, but I never before had trouble like this. Again I became concerned. I made note of my concern but I was strangely detached from it. I knew I wasn’t doing anything “wrong.” I had taken inventory many times. I was eating properly, though not enough. My legs were tired, but at this point, everybody’s were and I finally fully accepted the fatigue. I wasn’t overhydrated, I wasn’t hyponatremic. If anything, I was mildly dehydrated and feeling some muscle twitches in my quads, signs to me that I needed to drink and salt more. It was hot out but despite no heat training, I wasn’t feeling overheated. I certainly wasn’t pushing too hard; my pace was comfortable. The food and fluid just wasn’t getting absorbed from my stomach, which bloated to the point that I had to loosen my waist pack. So why was I vomiting? I didn’t know. Between episodes, I felt great. My mind was absolutely in the right place and I recalled that some elite ultrarunners get sick but keep on running. So, my conclusion was that I was having trouble because I was running one of the toughest road races in the world. I took comfort in that conclusion and, while I continued to take self-inventory of how I was feeling, I ceased worrying after that. I reset my legs on auto-pilot and kept running. The race had yet just begun.
When dusk came, I recalled the loneliness I experienced during the night last year. I remembered how much I longed for my music to purge the thoughts in my head. This year, there was to be no longing for music, no cobwebs in my head, no loneliness on the course. This year I was ready for anything… but I did not expect to be able to run with my friend Peter Foxall during this part of the race! Peter had been ahead of me, and when I saw him on the long orchard-lined road, I was delighted. “Peter? Is that you?” “Yes, it tis,” he said in his British accent. We merged missions and carried on together into the nighttime. In the months before the race, I promised myself that I wasn’t going to whine during the run. Not to my crew, myself, or to other runners. So, I paused before I confessed to Peter that I was having trouble keeping food down. He offered me some Jelly Babies; he said they could help. It was the first time I have ever tried them, and indeed, they were excellent! I ate two. They stayed down. And as we plugged along over the hills and down the road, we discussed the important and unimportant things in life. I was in good company. A while later, he offered me a few more Jelly Babies, which I gladly accepted. It was the first “food” that felt good in my stomach.
Peter walked the uphills faster than I could run them. Lengthening my stride to walk fast made me aware of some discomfort in my hip, which I hadn’t been feeling, and also some discomfort on the balls of my feet on push-off. I thought of the severe blisters I suffered through at Badwater in 2007 from power walking up Towne Pass. I decided against walking. Instead, I just took small baby steps and “ran” up the hills while Peter walk powerfully beside me. We started to develop a rhythm where he would walk fast ahead and I would walk slow, avoiding the longer stride and push-off, and then I would run with my mincey steps and eventually catch him. Despite the mileage under our feet and how far we’d already come, the hours and miles passed effortlessly.
Peter stopped to change into some warmer clothes and I moved on, knowing that I too was soon going to stop to don my ankle brace and warm clothes. When I arrived at the base of the mountain, Tim and Glenn were there to welcome me. Every time I saw them, I could sense their happiness. I don’t think they ever really verbalized it, but I could see that they were confident that I was going to finish. And I knew that they knew that I knew that. In some way I actually wanted to get nervous and worried or to complain, but Tim and Glenn seemed to have created an atmosphere that shielded each of us from any negative thought.
I did my best to quickly change into warm clothes, drink some soup and switch my right shoe into the shoe with the brace in it from last year. I wondered if this would be a good idea or not, thinking perhaps I should just put on my canvas lace-up brace instead. But I had decided on the shoe/brace combo from last year because it was not only easier and safer, but because it was a reminder as to why I was back there, why I was willing to venture from the security of the roads onto the rugged trail that wound precariously to the summit 100 miles into the run. The mountain is a milestone for all runners and it certainly was for me, as it was here last year that my ankle started to give me trouble. Ready for redemption, I headed eagerly up the trail in playful anticipation of the summit.
The Mountain Base (159.5 km) to Tegea (195 km)
My legs felt heavy but not weary. My soul felt light, so I let it carry me up the trail. I chuckled several times up the climb. The lights on the trail were there to light my way, the signs to keep me smiling. The fragile roll of paper that was draped just off the ground where the trail ended and the cliff began was there to amuse me. I laughed aloud at the game. For kicks, I timed the ascent. Twenty-five minutes. I emerged from the trees and rocks at the Checkpoint on the summit. 100 miles in just over 20 hours. Without pause, I shouted my race number, and was exhilarated to be heading down the far side of the mountain. My shoes skidded down the loose skree. Adrenaline filled my body as I barely kept myself from tumbling down. I laughed aloud. This is gonna be fun, I said to myself. In fact, I’m going to experiment with running. Some runners run this, and if some can, then I can run some of it too, right? So, I tried. Sometimes I failed and slid and almost fell. Sometimes, I couldn’t slow my momentum on the steep grade and loose rock, and would go barreling past a wiser and more cautious runner. I laughed at myself because I figured I would stumble uncontrollably and fall right in front of him as I passed…to his amusement. I knew it could happen. I didn’t care. I ran and tiptoed and slid and screeched my way down the far side of the mountain in the brace that knew the mountain from last year. Every sense was on heightened alert. It was thrilling.
And as I made my reckless way down the mountain, I saw my good friend Peter again up ahead. “Peter!” I yelled. “Lisa!” he replied. We exchanged updates on how we were doing. I told him I had to keep on going and he wished me well. I hit the pavement that lead to Sangas Village and I kept on running. In fact, I felt so good and free that I ran as fast as I could without tearing up my legs. I ran and I ran. I didn’t remember this part of the course from last year. I only remembered the physical and mental pain, and I remembered the cold dampness that shrouded my body, making me feel lonely and tired and hopeless. Where was that section this year? Was it here? Or here? I kept wondering as I ran down to the village. I met my crew and I could only smile. Yep, it’s all good this time. I’m going to be ok. I love it here.
As I made my way through the check points and the sky turned from black to gray, I realized that I never got cold this year. Yes, the temperature was warmer and there was much less humidity in the air, but that’s not the only reason I was warmer this year. This year I was moving. Last year I was dropping behind, getting slower and slower, carrying more and more weight on my shoulders until I couldn’t move any more and, alas, gave up. This year, I was making gains on the cutoffs. Tim would let me know I was ahead of last year’s splits or that I was increasing my time cushion, and I liked hearing that. But that’s all I needed to know…that I was ok, that it was possible to make it to the finish line. Because I knew that as long as it was possible, it was going to happen.
I slowed down as I approached Checkpoint 59. I saw it in the distance…a lonely little checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. This is where, after a mighty struggle last year, I gave up. My stomach turned in visceral recall. This is the checkpoint I crawled into last year and, before I could talk myself out of it, I told the race official that I was dropping out of the race and needed a ride to my crew who were waiting at the next checkpoint. “You sure?” He asked. “Sure you don’t just want to walk there? You probably have enough time….” “No,” I said, “I have already dropped out.” “Ok, I’ll give you a ride.” And I waited in the passenger seat of his car for him to finish up what he was doing. I wanted desperately to curl up on the floor and disappear. As we drove, I hung my head and avoided looking at the runners on the road who had passed me not too long ago, the runners, who unlike me, had the courage and strength to keep on keeping on toward Sparta. That ride to Checkpoint 60 took an eternity. I could not even imagine having to propel that distance on my own power. I knew I had tried in earnest. I knew I had given everything I had on that course. And perhaps even more than that. I knew the course beat me. I had surrendered to it.
I felt uneasy as I neared that same checkpoint. I wondered if it was in the same location as last year, if it really was the same spot where I had dropped. As it came into view more clearly, I could feel its emotional power and yes, I knew it was the same checkpoint. In some ways, however, it seemed very different to me. Still, I had the vivid image of the car and where it was parked, the tone of the young race official’s voice asking, “You sure?”
This time, as I approached, I asked, “Is this Checkpoint 59?” “Yes,” he said. “Wow. This is where I dropped last year,” I said aloud but to no one. I didn’t dally. In fact, I didn’t even stop at all. I ran passed it and was keenly aware that every step from that point was one step farther than last year and one step closer to Sparti this year. I had a pang of loneliness. It was one of those rare happy-sad moments.
My body moved on but my mind stood still. I wasn’t sure what to feel. I was now on uncharted ground. The giddiness was gone. I looked around as I ran, my legs still moving like wheels on cruise control. Before very long, I came upon some houses, and in the peacefulness of the early misty morning, I saw a young girl in her yard on the side of the road. I blinked. I rubbed my eyes. She was still there, holding a pink daisy out toward me as I approached. I was impressed by the fact that she was alone. There was no one else around for as far as my eyes could see. Surely she had been passing out flowers to all the runners who passed by her. Surely she had a whole garden of pink daisies that she tended to all summer just for the Spartan athletes. But where were they - the flowers, the runners, the other children? It was just her, one girl, one pink flower, and me. I ran towards her outstretched hand and stopped to accept the gift.
My voice quivered as I said, “Thank you, thank you so very much.” She just smiled shyly. “Thank you!" I said. "No…Efharisto!” I carefully placed the treasure behind my ear and marveled the world’s poise. I couldn’t wait to get to Checkpoint 60 to see Tim and Glenn this time with my head held high and a grin from ear to ear. As I told them the story about the little girl, Glenn snapped a picture. If not for seeing the flower in Glenn’s pictures, I would have thought the entire moment was just a figment of my imagination.
I had heard that the last 50 kms of the Spartathlon were downhill. Well, that is definitely NOT the case! The course climbs up the longest hill of the race at 195 kms during which I struggled to keep my pace and positive attitude. The hill was relentless. The rain started coming down fairly hard too, and I could see runners up the hill in the distance shrouded in the blue rain ponchos that were handed out at the checkpoints. Every car and truck that passed showered me with rain. I felt like I was making no forward progress as I climbed and climbed often reduced to a walk. And when I walked, I was barely warm enough in my light long-sleeved shirt and Houdini jacket.
I became grumpy….and then, suddenly out of nowhere, I became ravenously hungry. My stomach had long settled and I started to fantasize about eggs, bacon and pancakes. I was craving food, real food. When I saw Tim, I told him that the hill was “a cruel joke” and that I was starving. He gave me another roll of banana, peanut butter, honey in a tortilla, which I ate, and he said he would see what he could do. To my wonderful surprise, when I saw him at the next crew-access check point, sure enough, he had a warm egg and bacon sandwich made by the Artemis Restaurant. I devoured half then, and the other half when I saw them again 10 km later. It was the best tasting sandwich I have ever had! It helped replenish my lost calories and it filled my tank for the final push to the finish.
Just past the 224 km checkpoint, I found myself pacing alongside a runner from Japan. There was no verbal agreement to run together or shake of the hands, we simply started running together, knowing somehow that by sticking together we both could do better than either of us could do alone. We ran side-by-side or single-file, taking turns pacing each other. He introduced himself as Masayuki Otaki. There were very few words exchanged during the hours we ran together. Perhaps it was the language barrier or perhaps we just didn't feel like talking. Certainly, he carried himself graciously and humbly. Only when I asked did he say that he was a multi-time finisher of the race, but he never mentioned that he had won the race in 2000. I only learned that after the race. In our silence, we bonded. It was a silence rich in mutual respect and understanding as we methodically moved our protesting legs without complaint, faster I am sure than if either of us had been running alone.
I felt the pull of excitement from Tim and Glenn as Otaki-san and I pulled into the final crew-access checkpoint of the race 10 km from the finish. They efficiently assisted me with my fuel and I was ready to go, now certain that in time I would finish. But knowing that I was physically exhausted at this point, Tim said to wait just one moment before shuffling on. “Glenn and I have something for you that will take all your pains away,” he said. Yeah, right! I thought. I paused. They positioned themselves side by side. They counted down and broke into a synchronized choreographed song and dance: “Lisa’s goin’ to Sparrrrti, now it’s time to parrrrty..!” Glenn ended the ditty with a Woot! And I left them with my heart filled with joy and gratitude. I had never before been given the priceless gift of song and dance! It was just the right medicine to ease my pain and make me smile the last 10 km downhill to the finish line.
Upon entering Sparti, the air of silent perseverance between Otaki-san and I changed and became filled with anticipation. “Is this the final turn?” I asked. “OK, is THIS it?” Time was warped. My legs were moving in slow motion. My heart was flooded with excitement. A motorcycle escort joined us and led the way. People stood up from their café tables and cheered us as we ran by. Families cheered us from their balconies. We waved back and we thanked them. The crowds on the sidewalks thickened as we made our final right-hand turn to face the statue of King Leonidas. We were surrounded by cheers and outstretched hands. Children ran beside us to share in our victory. The clapping became a roar when we were moments from the steps to the King. Tim and Glenn were perched there ready and waiting for me just as they were there for me throughout the prior day and a half. With a look of great contentment and joy, Otaki-san turned to me and said, “We finish together.” The steps up to the statue were effortless. Hand in hand we clutched the foot of King Leonidas and bowed our heads. It is a finish I will always remember.
Spartathlon 2008 – DNF
Spartathlon 2009 - Finish time 32:23:26, 44th overall, 3rd place female, 1st American
(all photos are by Glenn Tachiyama and Tim Englund)