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October 2013

Spartathlon – Take One

by Chad Ricklefs on October 21, 2013

I’ll start off by saying “one more year”. Some of you may have heard me proclaim (again) that this year was going to be my last year of competitive ultra running. I have always thought that the Spartathlon race was the perfect race to conclude my career of ultramarathon competition because of its unique history and background. This was the plan for this year. I developed a program I thought would give me the best opportunity to not only complete the 246-km race from Athens to Sparta, but to finish on the podium.

Start at the Acropolis

After spending the summer of 2012 recovering from an injury related to my Comrades finish, I worked on getting my fitness back through some consistent training and racing in the fall of 2012 and winter 2013. I had a good run at the 2012 Bootlegger 50KM and an even better run at the Ray Miller 50KM. The Mad City 100KM in April didn’t quite go as planned but was still a good long run. Because I had not raced a 100 miler since 2003, or better yet, finished a 100 miler since 2002, I knew I needed to run one before the Spartathlon (given that the race is 153 miles). My 100 of choice was the VT 100. I wanted to do this race because I had DNF’d the first time I ran the race in 1999 and because I thought it would give me time to recover before the Spartathlon. VT went well – maybe too well. I ended up placing second with a fairly decent time. Well, that plan backfired. I should have known that VT was too close to Spartathlon. My training after VT felt labored – not a feeling you want when you are about to embark on a 153 mile foot race.

Early miles along the coast of the Med sea

Prior to heading over to Greece, I put together a race strategy to get me on the podium. Fortunately, I had the best crew one could ask for. My wife Samantha who has crewed me in almost every race I have done over my 15-year career; she is now able to tell me what I need before I know I need it! I also had Mark Plaatjes (Shirley, his wife and my masseuse was also at the race and was vital in getting me recovered so quickly) as part of my crew; my physical therapist and a marathon World Champion to boot. Everything was in place for a great “Final” race of my career, except for one thing. I was overtrained.

The race started at dawn at the foot of the Parthenon at the Acropolis in downtown Athens and headed out of the city in the early morning rush hour traffic. I immediately settled into a 7:30/mile pace to get me to the first major checkpoint at 50 miles. This was the first aid station that my crew was allowed to support me. Right from the start I knew I was in trouble. The pace I was running felt way harder than it should have and I labored my way to the 50 mile checkpoint – a sure sign of not being rested enough before the race. Luckily my crew was able to semi-revive me before I headed out through the rolling wine-country before the major climbs. I continued to push through the discomfort during this section and had eventually moved up into third place. Not bad for not feeling so hot all day. Don’t get me wrong, running for over 13 hours or 90 miles will always hurt, but not this type of hurt. Unfortunately, the effort I was giving to keep on pace took its toll and my legs eventually succumbed to severe fatigue.

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I tried pushing through the pain, eventually reduced to a walk for about 5KM before officially removing myself from the race at approximately 90 miles. My crew had passed me while I was walking in the dark and knew right away that I was in no condition to run for another 60 miles. I hadn’t even reached the major climbs yet. This year I would see the big climb in the comfort of a car while sharing war stories with Mike Morton. Mike had to abandon the race much earlier (after injuring himself while fleeing a dog chasing him) and was riding in my crew’s car. It was great to have him there to talk to. He helped me get through this difficult time of self-doubt and disappointment.

Waking up in Sparta the next day was tough. I had not even made any hotel reservations for Friday night because I was supposed to be racing through the night, expecting to finish in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning. My crew, Mike and I sat outside our hotel most of the day and watched the finishers run/hobble down the street on their way to the finish at the statue of Leonidas. I never went to the finish – the only way I wanted to see the finish was by completing the race. Watching all of the finishers was inspiring – they all were able to push themselves through some of the most agonizing pain and suffering they have felt in their life. I however, did not. I have no excuse other than not preparing properly and for not pushing through the pain. No matter how well you prepare yourself for this race, to finish you must be able to hurt and then hurt some more!!! It is never going to be an easy race – for the winner or the last person to finish.

I pretty much knew as soon as I got into the car that I needed to come back to this race again. This was not the way I wanted to end my career. The race is incredible – a challenge beyond what you can imagine. Running through such amazing country following the footsteps of Pheidippedes is awesome. The support from onlookers is amazing from the start to the end. Entering each town or village is incredible – no race in the US can compare to the atmosphere surrounding this race. Whereas in the US most of the crowd is affiliated with the race, at the Spartathlon most of the cheering comes from residents of the towns you run through or the workers in the vineyards and orchards. The ultimate ultramarathon – truly amazing.

As I stated at the start of this post, “one more year”. One more year to get myself to the start of the Spartathlon properly; one more year to finish this project properly; and one more year to close out my ultra career respectfully. Thankfully, I have the full support of Samantha and the rest of my team that supported me at this year’s Spartathlon. This DNF has left me with a similar feeling I had after DNFing at mile 95 of Leadville 100 in 2001 while in 2nd place. The next year I returned to Leadville and broke the course record……………..