Written by Will Rivera - https://willrivera-ultra.tumblr.com
“Pushing your body past what you thought it was capable of is easy; the hard part is pushing yourself even further … past what your mind wants to let you. That’s what ultrarunning is all about; introducing you to a self you’ve never known.”
– Rex Pace
So here we are back in Greece for the 2018 Spartathlon!! It takes a very special place or race for me to come back but having completed this race last year and knowing that I left so much out on this iconic course (guided PR teammate Jason Romero) it was important for me to return, to really see how I would perform running at my full potential supported by the best crew I could have, my lovely wife Madeline.
Last year having the opportunity to represent my beautiful island of Puerto Rico, was very important to me especially after what had just happened with Hurricane Maria just weeks before. It made it even more special to dedicate my run to all of the people of Puerto Rico. This year I was once again honored and privileged to follow in the footsteps of Pheidippides from Athens to Sparta as part of the United States Spartathlon Team! Having served in the U.S. military this meant so much to me and I knew I had to be in the best shape of my life to represent well not only my country but all of those that have supported me along the way this year.
Training: Going into 2018, I knew I had to make a decision on which race would be my “A” race. I was on the fence between Tahoe 200 or going back to Greece for a second round. So typical of me I went ahead and put my name on the waiting list for Tahoe 200 since the race had sold out before applying for Spartathlon and not knowing I still had a auto-qualifier from my 2016 Badwater performance that is good for 2 years. Fast-forward a couple of months and here I was signed up for both Tahoe 200 and Spartathlon….could I have done both? probably, but with only 3 weeks to recover it was a “no brainer” I had to choose which race was more important to me. So I contacted Candice Burt RD of Tahoe 200 and she helped me defer my entry for 2019. (so I know now what my “A” race is for 2019). So all my focus this year was towards Sparta! I knew exactly what I needed to do to be ready. Last year my goal of sub 30 finish was sacrificed when at a last minute PR teammate Jason (legally blind) asked if I could guide him on his third attempt (DNF’d previous two years) since his official guide didn’t make it out of the Island due to the hurricane. It was a hard decision to make since I had trained so hard all year round for this race and I knew that running someone else’s pace/race/guiding would affect my personal goals/performance. Fast-forward recap; we ran together for over 112 miles, he got his first finish and I ran a strong last 40 miles to the finish with a time of 31 hours and 19 minutes.
So early every year for the past 4 years my entire focus has been on the Boston Marathon and little I knew with this year’s horrible wet, windy and cold conditions it would become perfect training conditions for this year’s Spartathlon (more on that later…) After Boston, my entire focus shift to Spartathlon, 3 key priorities were my focus on training; Volume, Strength (to run all the uphills) and a solid nutrition and hydration plan. I looked at the calendar at what races I needed to do as “Training Runs” that could simulate both the heat and type (point to point races). Lots of shorter Ultras/marathons were on my calendar this year; Lovin the Hills, Derby, Strolling Jim, Flying Pig, RUTS… just to name a few but my main two were War Hammer 100 (1st OA) and Burning River 100 (3rd OA). Both point to point ultras offering everything from heat and humidity with a nice mixture of trails and roads sections that served as excellent training races for Spartathlon. My nutrition for both was identical focusing more on a OFM (Fat Adaptive) approach using minimal calories keeping focus mainly on hydration and efficiency off the aid stations. Volume weekly miles from June to mid September (14 consecutive weeks) were an average of 100-120 miles. I knew that for my sub 28 goal this year I would need to be both ready for the heat and run ALL of the elevation (except for the grueling mountain climb) so I added lots of elevation training on the weekends to really simulate the late climbs at Spartathlon that begin after mile 80-90 mark right before the mountain base. Luckily this summer was of record high temperatures which helped on training to be ready for what a traditional Spartathlon race would be, hot and humid conditions.
Race Week: Compared to last year, our trip to Greece was much better. We did not have any delays but we did encounter baggage problems not arriving with us. Luckily the airline arrange to have all our luggage delivered to our hotel by the next day. Weather was perfect that week but looking at the forecast for race day it was looking like something was brewing off the Mediterranean with lots of rain, high winds expected for the weekend. Next day, Wednesday, I checked in early to ensure I’ll be able to relax and go sightseeing around near Athens before the race.
Thursday was the main day for everyone else to register and take part of safety briefings conducted in many different languages. The English briefing was scheduled for 5pm and our team decided to meet beforehand for team photo and to accommodate team member Dean Karnazes which had a very busy agenda with local interviews. He is like a rock star among all the runners and locals evident by how many want it to take photos and autograph his most recent book “Road to Sparta”. I was one of the 15 lucky runners representing the USA Spartathlon team and meeting all of them was awesome as everyone seemed so relaxed and confident about the race. There were a few veterans, rookies and some that had DNF before and were back for redemption including world class 24 HR runner Jon Olsen. Race morning came pretty quickly with a quick trip from our hotel to Athens for the scheduled 7am start. The energy at the base of the Acropolis start was electric with competitors from all around the world mingled and going through their pre-race routines. I then met with our team for a quick team photo and to wish everyone a great race. My plan was very simple, trust my training, run my race and to let the course and conditions dictate my pace. On a traditional day, Spartathlon is a hot race during the day with harsh fast cut-offs early forcing a runner to run smart and conservative early to be able to finish strong at the end.
Being that this year was going to be different with the much cooler temperatures, I made a decision to run by “Feel” using my heart rate sensor as the indicator keeping all my effort at Zone 3 (121-137 BPM). My Hydration and Nutrition plan were also very simple, one cocktail serving (8-10 ounces) of Ucan Protein mixed with Vespa and Right Stuff every 3 to 4 hours with UCAN bars in between. This approach was used for both Warhammer and Burning River allowing me to run to my full potential keeping me relaxed at an aerobic and metabolic state allowing my body to slowly burn fats for energy. Well, as the day went on I felt incredibly strong. Maddie was spot on meeting along the way at designated checkpoints keeping me fueled and hydrated according to game plan. I was so proud of her for being at CP’s on time and a huge boost to see her for moral support as well since I knew that was a concern for her.
Compared to last year I was cruising along making it to the following checkpoints in personal best times:
C/P# / Km / Mile / 2017 / 2018
C/P No 11: 42.2 / 26.22 / 4:04:34 / 3:28:46
C/P No 22: 81.0 / 50.33 / 8:03:39 / 6:48:34 (PR)
C/P No 28: 100.0 / 62.13 / 10:11:03 / 8:46:11 (PR)
C/P No 47: 159.5 / 99.10 / 18:34:02 / 15:58:08 (PR)
C/P No 60: 195.0 / 121.16 / 24:27:28 / 18:41:08 (PR)
C/P No 69: 227.0 / 141.05 / 28:57:48 / 24:56:59 (PR)
Even though I was moving faster that last year the weather was a the big elephant in the room this year with occasional rain and wind along the way early but I knew things would start to get worse through the night and the next day with Medicane Zorba (Mediterranean Cyclone) forecasted to be making landfall during the race. It wasn’t until the sun was settling after CP 35 (Mile 78) that things started to get nasty. To top it off, that’s when the early climbing of the race begins so I was mentally getting ready for the worst. U.S. teammate Jon Olsen soon gained on me on the climbs which to my surprise I didn’t know at that point I was the first American leading the race. It was great having Jon run together for many miles but eventually he was stronger on the climbs and saw him fade away right before CP 47 Mountain base. Last year the climb to mountain was brutal with high and cold winds taking Jason and I almost 3 hours up and over so we took no chances on dressing up warmer this time. Other than the rain the temperature were much warmer with the clouds over the mountain this year helping me make it up and over the mountain to CP 52 in 1 hr and 49 minutes. I felt pretty good knowing I just ran my fastest 100 mile split ever at sub 16 hours and to have survived the hardest part of the race healthy and feeling good was a great sign.
I still had a LONG ways to go and the weather was just now beginning to get wicked. Lot of the CP’s were flooded as rain was now coming down hard. I felt very lonely running and started to feel the lowest point of the race between CP’s 52 and 60 (Mile 107-121) which I typically tend to do late at night with sleep deprivation and the accumulation of been out on cold, windy rain for hours was taking a toll on my brain and body. I started to now use coca cola at CP’s to give me quick energy and the caffeine to help me wake-up. All I kept thinking was daylight will come and we are going to run strong to Sparta! Shortly after I started feeling alive again when I saw Jon Olsen coming out of a CP on the last climbs which are brutal right before CP 69 (Mile marker 141). I quickly checked on him as I past by him, high winds, rain and the effects of Zorba were now been felt but I was still riding the wave of feeling great off my low just a few hours later and I want it to take full advantage of it. All I could think off was Boston Marathon conditions this year and what a great preparation training run that was for this race. I picked up a few positions along this stretch making up what I had lost before and was very much looking forward to the last descent down to Sparta. I kept fueling mainly on coke for the last part of the race as it kept me moving strong. Once I made it to the bottom of the long and grueling downhill (6-8 mile downhill) the CP confirmed I only had a 5K to go to Sparta. The problem was the streets were now flooded, I had water at times to halfway to my calves. So running was now difficult but I knew the Statue was just ahead and I could see runners ahead. I picked up a few more positions to include the first place female Hungarian runner that I had met earlier in the race when she flew by me on a descent.
Taking the last right turn to King Leonidas was the moment I had dreamed most for the entire race and here making the last turn when suddenly I looked to my right and I see U.S. teammate Bob Hearns also making the right turn and blowing pass me!!!! I was in shock first but then so happy to see another American at this point of the race! Before that I had only shared many miles with Jon but knew that Bob would be making his usual Spartathlon assault as he has done his previous two finishes. I quickly caught up to him and told him he was looking great, he quickly replied he wanted to achieve a sub 27 and that we were very close. I told him lets run it together!!! From that point we only had a half mile or so to go and I was running strong thinking Bob was right next to me the entire time. When I made it to the steps right before the statue I looked back and Bob was a block back, he had fallen back since he had pushed so hard on his final assault that simply didn’t have anything left on his legs.
This year’s finish didn’t have the glorious atmosphere I had last year with hundreds of supporters, locals and kids screaming following me on bikes down the stretch to the finish. Instead it was empty flooded streets, with heavy rain coming down and with no announcer calling your name repeated times. At the end I was once again touching King Leonidas feet four hours faster that I had done last year at 27:02:02 (31:19:49 last year). I was honored to be the first American to finish placing 15th Overall on a very deep international field with Bob Hearns only 41 seconds behind me. What an incredible performance!
This run would not had been possible to achieve without the incredible support of my Madeline driving all over Greece meeting me at every checkpoint keeping me fed, hydrated, dry and warm making this finish more special than any other race I’ve ever done in my life! Love you baby!!!
Thank you to all the U.S. runners and their families and crews! You all made it a fantastic experience and I was proud to be part of the U.S. Spartathlon Team. I have made some friends for life and I hope to see you all at some races in the future.
Finally a massive thank you to all of those who sent positive messages, comments and supported before leaving home and social media both for the race and my birthday. All of your positive vibes and motivation kept me going strong all through the 27 hours of this race! Thanks and much love to all of you!
Congrats to all finishers and everyone that made it to the start line. We are all winners for taking part of this iconic ultra race. I feel truly privileged and honored to have participated and I am profoundly grateful to everyone involved in staging and organizing what is without doubt the greatest and most historic ultra race in the world!
Photo credits: Sparta Photography Club
Strava link (128 miles before battery died)
Average pace 10:36 per mile (7:32 fastest pace), Average HR 125 BPM with 82% at Zone 2/3, overall average cadence at 166 (182 running)
With Auto-Qualifier hope to be back for a third round in 2020.