Thursday, October 24, 2019

Running with the Gods - Spartathlon 2019

Spartathlon - this way...

It was a race I had never even really considered.  

I came out of my 6 day race last New Years a changed runner.  The race had been physically grueling, but even more challenging was the mental recovery.  For weeks – perhaps months afterwards, I felt conflicted about my relationship with running.  I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go with it, and it seemed in some way meaningless.  I was signed up for 6 Days at the Dome, but mentally I knew I wasn’t ready to go back and take on another 6 day that soon after ATY.  I sent out a plea on Facebook asking for races that might ignite passion.  I wanted shorter; I wanted different; I wanted new and exciting and something that was not in a loop (although I love those).  I wanted a journey.

Bob Hearn suggested Spartathlon.  He used a gentle touch… just put in the application, he said.  Even if you get accepted, you don’t need to make a decision until May.

Hmmm.  Why not.

I was at work one day and saw a text on my phone from Bill Schultz.  He was congratulating me on making the team.


I jumped online and saw Emily Collins’ Facebook post with the team pick.  Oh.  My.  God.  I was on the US Spartathlon team.  If I wanted it.

I wanted it.

I completed the paperwork; I put my money down…  and then, I began to get worried.

I am not fast.  The early cutoffs, I knew, were brutal.  Despite the fact that it has a 36 hour cutoff for the full 153 miles, the 50 mile cutoff was at a mere 9 hours 30 minutes.  My 50 mile PR at that point was a 9:10, and I’d only done that once.  And from what I’d heard, some of the early cutoffs were even worse.

There was every chance I would not be able to finish the race… not because I couldn’t do 153 in 36 hours, but because I might not be able to do 50 in 9:30.

A plan was in order.


I lined up a coach.  Shannon McGinn graciously agreed to coach me toward my goals for this event.  I started keeping a training log, which she reviewed and critiqued each week.  She urged me to build in more hills, and to work in some speed training, both of which I did.  Hills I enjoy and tackle joyfully but speed is another thing.  Fortunately I had started regularly running with my friend Katie on Mondays and Tuesdays.  Katie is fast.  On Katie days, I’d usually run about 5 or 6 miles starting at 3:30 am and meet her at 4:45 – she’d join me for 10 miles and I’d do the last 3 on my own.  These days became my tempo runs, and Katie’s slow runs.  Win win.

In addition to the regular running, I decided to throw in a 12 hour race over the summer and try to get as close as I could to 70 miles.  My usual strategy is to never run uncomfortably, but I knew to meet those cutoffs I’d need to be uncomfortable, so the plan was to run as hard as I could sustain for 12 hours.  Katie came to Ethan Allen with me and I managed to hit 67.9924 (WTF? hoping for 68) miles.  It was good enough for the win, but even better, met my goals of a hard long run.  I started feeling more confident.

Also starting mid-July, (after a year of BJ urging me to do so), I started run commuting.  This gave me the benefit of both being able to get in a few more miles, a bit more sleep, and some good downhill practice on the last 2 miles every day into DC.  

The final pivotal workout was a run with Larry Huffman.  In preparation for his Cascade Crest race we went over to Maryland Heights trail to get in some vert.  Each loop was about 3.8 miles - 1.9 up up up with 1200 feet of climb, then down down down over terrifying rocks and roots.  Our plan was 5 loops to get in about 18 miles with 6K of climb.  On loop 3 I went down, and shortly after, rolled my ankle.  There was a golf ball sized lump on the outside of the ankle later that evening, but I was thrilled to find on my run the next day that the ankle didn’t bother me at all.  My quads, on the other hand…. Clearly got what they needed. It took a few days to reap the rewards, but reap them I did.

The World Crashes in

Everything was feeling like positive forward momentum until I went to work one day 4 weeks before the race and to my gut wrenching surprise came home without a job.  It was as if my entire world had crumbled.  The air was sucked out of the room as I learned of this, and I felt a ringing in my ears.  It seemed impossible that just when I felt as on top of the world as I ever had with my running, something like this could happen.  At that moment I didn’t see how I could possibly do the race.  Suddenly the only priority in my life was to become employed as quickly and as gainfully as possible.  

Once again I became quickly confused about my running.  Because the job loss had come as I continued to build up the running, the two became connected in my head and it was almost impossible to feel positive about running.  On the other hand… it is what I do.  A new routine quickly developed.  Get up early, head out for 20-22, and come home and apply for jobs.  All day.  Generally until bedtime.  Get up and do it again the next day.  And the next. 

After 2 weeks of this existence, the payoff started to come in the form of interview requests, and I started being able to breathe again.  I made the decision to continue the race despite the poor timing, and just work the job search in and around the trip. 

Headed to Greece

Sooner that I could have possibly believed, it was just a week before the race and I actually needed to plan and pack.  It had been a big decision point whether to get the vacation part done before or after the race.  I had ultimately decided to do it before, mostly because it would use up 1-2 less vacation days.  Which turned out to be a moot point, but that’s how it was that we left for Greece a full week before the race was to start.

We spent 2 days exploring Athens, another 2 hanging out on one of the islands, and then headed back to Glyfada to check in to the race hotel.  Seeing all the other runners arrive and heading over to registration, for the first time the reality that I was going to do this thing really started to hit.  I adopted my usual tactic, which was to ignore that fact for as long as possible.

Checking Out the Acropolis

BJ and the Ruins

Aegina Island was famous for pistachios

Top of Mount Lycobettus

Bob Hearn had graciously agreed to crew me, as he had just done the Dome several weeks earlier and knew he wouldn’t be running this year.  I was thrilled beyond belief to have his expertise and love of the course as a guiding force.  Interestingly I didn’t know Bob well at all prior to the race.  I had only just met him in person at D3 when I went as a fan, and then BJ and I helped to crewed him at the Dome.  I certainly got to know him a bit at the Dome, but those 2 events were the only times I’d seen him.  

Bob arrived around 10 on Wednesday night.  We talked for about an hour, then met for breakfast and a short run the next day.  Bob, BJ and I went sightseeing to Poseidon’s Temple for the day on Thursday, which allowed me to ignore the impending race for a few more hours.  And then it was pre-race meeting time and dinner, and there was no ignoring anything.  

A trip to Poseidon's Temple

Bob brought down the list of cut-off times along with “slow times” and “fast times” for me to follow.  There was an aid station every 2 miles, and each one of those stations was a potential cut-off point.  I gulped as I looked at the “slow” arrival time versus the cutoff.  As an example, the first aid station was at 2.4 miles.  Bob gave me a “fast” time of 20 minutes to arrive there, a “slow” time of 26 minutes, and the cut-off itself was 30 minutes.  Considering I often will start the first few miles of a long run or race in the 11’s, I realized I’d be arriving somewhere between slow and cutoff.  Each and every cut-off point was terrifyingly close to my normal “slow easy” pace.  Ok then.  I had to run faster than that.  For 50 miles.

Game on.

Race Day

I slept amazingly well, and we headed down to our 5am breakfast.  It was relatively light – which was good.  I’ve been known to eat too heavily before a race which can lead to some early discomfort.  We drove over to the race start and started milling around at the base of the lit-up Acropolis waiting for race start.  The amount of energy was incredible, and it was special to see all the different teams sporting their country’s uniforms. 

Bob urged me to get as far to the front as possible, noting that cutoff times were based on gun time and not chip time – I could potentially lose a few precious minutes fighting the crowd.  I got myself as far up to the front as possible.  And….  It was go time.  There was a 3-2-1 countdown and off we went down the cobblestone path.

The first mile, I was thrilled to learn, was all downhill alongside the Acropolis. Despite the fact that usually my first mile is always 10:30-11 or so, this one was in the 9’s.  As was mile 2.  As was mile 3.  Hmmmm.  This was not like me.  It also seemed like taper had worked – my 5 mile days for the past week plus an abundance of hydration gave me comfortable speed I didn’t usually have.  

I hit the first aid station well before the cutoff and kept going.  Shortly after the Acropolis we headed into a much more industrial station.  There were lots of early morning commuters out, and we ran for a ways along a busy road filled with cars, trucks, some unattractive landscape and quite a few fumes.  I don’t have a good sense of how long this terrain lasted.  We got to the second aid station and again I was still in the 9’s and still easily within the cutoff.  It might have been shortly after that that I found myself running with Nadia from Belgium.  Nadia had run the race before and had timed out shortly after the mountain.  Her goal this time was to finish.  

We ran together comfortably for miles and miles.  It turned out Nadia spoke 7 different languages.  A German joined us for a bit and she spoke to him in German.  Alex from Mexico was with us on a beautiful section overlooking the water and she chatted easily with him Spanish.  I just ran, grateful to have the company.

I was actually pretty happy with the weather so far.  Everyone had talked about the brutal heat, but it still felt like it was only in the low 80’s, not too humid and there was a breeze.  After the sticky swamp that was DC running in the summer, it was pleasant.  

The marathon point was the first place where I’d be able to hook up with my crew.  I was really looking forward to seeing BJ and Bob although at this point I didn’t need too much aid.  I flew into the aid station and it took a minute for Bob and BJ to see me.  Bob did not look happy.  “You are 17 minutes ahead of the fast time!” he chastised.  

“Yeah – I know – but it’s OK – I ran comfortably” I said perkily.  He remained worried and urged me to take more walk breaks (I hadn’t actually taken any) in order to slow down a bit.  I sucked down a cold soda, and Bob and BJ cooled me down just for a second with the ice in a bowl they’d gotten, and I headed off.  I’d lost Nadia in the aid station, but I thought that might not be a bad thing…  It was possible she had been pulling me a bit, and without her next to me I was in less danger of going too fast.

Out of Athens the views improved...
The next 24 miles continued to go well.  By mile 47 or so it was started to get really hot.  I started to build in little walk breaks and jog a bit slower since I was well ahead of 9:30 cutoff at 50 miles.  My primary race goal – the one thing I thought I had to do here – was to get to the 50 mile point and beat the cutoff.  I always figured if I could do that, I’d have it made.  I could take it a bit easier for the rest of the race and just run my “Amy” running and get it done.  

But it was, as I said, getting hot.

Coming into Corinth was like joining a big party.  It was only the 2nd time I was able to see my crew (I’d be able to see them much more frequently after this), and at this point I was in need of nutrition and cooling.  Bob and BJ were there waiting for me with my liquid nutrition – they had been unable to find protein drinks, but had found plain Kefir.  This certainly seemed to go down more easily than any of the pretty dry food at the aid stations.  I was starting to feel nauseous so definitely planned to go a bit more easily after 50.  

Those first few post-50 miles were great.  I felt euphoric – I had passed the worst of the cut-offs – they all got easier from here on in, and I was still feeling good.  For about 5 miles.  At which point I started feeling decidedly not good.  Nausea was coming in waves and sapping my energy. 2 miles from the 58 mile aid station where I could meet Bob and BJ again, I did the entire mile at a walk.  I texted BJ to let him know I was going to need something for nausea, and more chocolate milk and seltzer to get some calories.  In just a few miles I had gone from feeling on top of the world to feeling like I might drop.  It didn’t feel as if I could muster the energy to keep going.

That next aid station was pivotal.  I sat for 10 minutes while Bob and BJ attended to cooling me down, helping with nausea and getting some fuel into me.  I got something for my stomach, drank some seltzer and chocolate milk, and bathed my head, arms, neck and wrists in ice.  I headed out already feeling much better, and within about 20 minutes I had found my happy place again.  I trotted on in complete contentment.  It was getting cooler and I felt considerably recovered and ready to tackle this thing again.

Gearing up for night time

I have to say I don’t remember a whole lot from the 100K mark to the 99 mile mark.  There was one section Bob told me about saying it was a really long dirt road climb – probably steep enough that walking would be idea.  Then I’d have a good down for quite a while – until I got to the base of the mountain.  The dirt road was indeed a bit of a climb.  I saw some folks trying to run it, but I was content to largely power hike it knowing there was a down on the other side.  That dirt road climb seemed to go on and on, but eventually I got to the top and started running down.  The view on the way down was great.  First of all, the down seemed to go on forever.  Second of all, way off in the distance was a string of lights – which I figured was my destination.  Which indeed was the case.

It was dark and there were sparking lights and I was feeling good.  Dark can be a magical running time for me.  During my normal life, most of my running is in the early morning dark.  I draw strength from the dark coolness, and the lights in the distance added a sense of allure and magic. 

I knew from Bob that somewhere around mile 94 I would start climbing – there was going to be about 2000 feet of climb over 5 miles, and then I would be at mountain base.  He suggested I walk the section up to the mountain, which I did.  By and large most of the field was power hiking this section, but there were a few beefy women who passed me and I was wondering whether I’d be better off running.  Maybe next time.

Even with the slow ascent, eventually I reached mountain base, where BJ and Bob were waiting to send me off.  It would be 7 miles before I saw them again – and I didn’t quite realize what a long 7 miles it would be.  Bob walked me up to the start of the real climb.  I looked up and saw a string of red lights which appeared to go straight up, and I swore like a sailor. Over 1000 feet of gain in a mile… but what made it even more challenging was the terrain.  It reminded me of the “Roller Coaster” section of the Appalachian trail.  Rocky and uneven, lots of loose gravel.  The trail itself was perhaps 5 feet wide, and on the right there was a ribbon strung between poles demarcating the edge of the trail.  It was certainly not a ribbon that would prevent anyone from falling off the edge, and I took care to stay as close to the inside as possible.  I wouldn’t describe the edge of the trail as a cliff per se – but it was steep enough that serious damage could be done by falling, and I took care not to do that. 
The Mountain

My legs were pretty tired at this point, and the footing, for me, as a road racer, was challenging.  I took the climb as conservatively as I could – which is to say, at a snail’s pace.  That first mountain mile took me 40 minutes.  As predicted, it got colder as I approached the top, and was downright chilly at the summit.  Fortunately I had put on warm gear at the base so I wasn’t overly cold.  I took about a 5 minute rest at the top – the volunteers wrapped me in something warm and I just sat for a few minutes until I was mentally ready to head down.  And down I went.

I had been led to expect that I wouldn’t be able to run the down, and that was absolutely true.  Although the trail seemed wider on the way down, the surface was covered with scree – loose rocks that just skittered all over the place when you landed funny on them.  I carefully picked my way down, looking for good footing – but every once in a while just skidding several feet forward.  I did not like this at all.  I heard some male voices behind me – they were laughing and having a good time.  I wasn’t sure if they were racers or hikers but what I WAS sure about was that they were laughing at my overly cautious descent.  Then, to my left, I saw a nimble runner just bounding like a jackrabbit over this killer terrain.  Lightfooted and swift, he was making this mountain his own.  I was pretty sure it was Andrew Snope – one of the Americans and a skilled and fleet trail runner.  I was envious of his magical descent as I arduously ground my way downward.

Eventually I reached terra firma again – which is to say, paved road.  I wasn’t sure how much run my unhappy quads had left in them, but I had lost enough time on the mountain that I had to try.  I broke into an easy trot and was thrilled that it felt just fine.  I had a few miles to go before I’d see Bob and BJ again but now that the mountain was behind me, I pretty much felt I was up to anything.  The 3 road miles passed quickly enough and I finally got to see my crew.  I had taken so long on the mountain that BJ was really worried.  Bob, on the other hand, knew the terrain I was facing and was pretty calm.  Going into the mountain I had been about 90 minutes ahead of cutoffs – coming out, I’d lost 20 minutes of that gain.  However, I had a bit of down in front of me and took full advantage of it.  Bob was amazed, after two aid stations, when I made up almost all of that 20 minutes.

After the mountain, there was a pretty long stretch of gentle winding and rolling country roads.  Bob had told me he hated that section because it was always super dark and not as well marked and he just zoned out and got lost a few times.  However, it was getting light as I approached that section, as I was much slower than Bob, and in the misty dawn, I adored that section.  Although the day was supposed to get hot, the morning was cool and foggy.  The country roads and the little towns reminded me amazingly of Cooperstown, New York where I had discovered long distance running.  That was one of my favorite sections of the entire course.  I was feeling good and strong and all my previous nausea had dissipated.  I was able to start eating more at the aid stations, and even though there were 35 or so miles to go, I was smelling the barn.

Sometime around 11am the sun suddenly and ferociously came out.  It went from cool and pleasant to blazing hot in a heartbeat.  More of the aid stations seemed to have ice available than on day 1, which was a relief.  I started trying to estimate my finish time based on miles to go.  

My Happy Place

Day 2 early afternoon was just steady hot progress.  Not much to comment on.  I recall a bit of up, and switchbacks.  Had to stop at least once to find some bushes for a potty stop. (Did I mention there were zero porto potties?  Or if there was one or two, they were very well hidden).  I recall going up a hot sunny hill and seeing blackberries growing on the side of the road.  I picked some and ate them and forged on.  Sometime with about 30 miles to go, Bob told me “this is where your race starts…  you are a multi-day runner.  This is where you get stronger.  Run steady on the flats and kill it on the downs.”  

So that is what I did.  Dug deep, pulled out some giddy-up, and got going. And started passing folks.  

It was hot.  Really hot.  I added a bit of mileage on to my run by crossing the road every time there was an opportunity for shade.  Doused myself with water at every aid station.  Ran on.  The next time I saw Bob, he said “you were 20 minutes faster than we expected you! “  

I said “I’m doing what you told me to do…”

Mid to late afternoon I reached the magic aid station.  Once again BJ and Bob were there.  Bob said “just go to the top of this hill, cross over the timing mat, and then it is all downhill.  For the next 13 miles. “  

Down.  13 miles of down.  


Off to my right there were craggy Alp-like mountains that reminded me of a scene from the Sound of Music.  There were gentler mountains in front.  The road wound down switch backing through little picturesque towns.  I got one more opportunity to see Bob and BJ about 6 miles from the end.  I was starting to feel nauseous again and I told them I was probably going to take it slow.  Bob said “you have a sub 34 in you, but not if you don’t run.”  Sub 34.  I liked the sound of that.  I picked up a trot and headed out to the last 6.
I saw Emily Collins about 3 miles before the end.  It was wonderful to see a friendly face. 
Coming in with Bob
She looked as hot as I felt.  We exchanged hellos and I forged on.   Down into Sparta now, and it was getting more congested.  I was running on sidewalks, over a bridge.  I knew I had about 2 km to go.  I was still throwing in some walk breaks because I wanted to make it to the finish strong and I was pretty sapped from the heat.  A more crowded street.  People cheering.  Arrows pointing to the right.  Very crowded now and I see Jean Louis Vidal who gives me a big hug.  Bob is running towards me – I am almost there.  I am so very very happy to see him.  I run on with Bob toward BJ and the finish line.  There is the station.  There is the timing mat.  I cross it… I am done.

I am done.  All that is left is to kiss the statue, drink of the chalice and receive my crown of laurels.

Crossing the Bridge into Sparta

Getting Crowned


17 Americans started the race.  8 of us finished.  I was thrilled to finish 3rd American, in 33 hours, 56 minutes.  

Hanging with Emily Collins post race

This race...  it is special.  I had expected that if I reached 50 and made the cut-offs, the rest would be smooth sailing.  Instead, this was, perhaps, the hardest race of my life.  I worked hard for a much higher percentage of time than I usually do for this distance.  But the rewards... ah, the rewards.  This race is living in my heart.  The whisper of ancient ruins in the dark... the thrill of climbing mountains, of running where the Gods once played, of being part of a race that includes participants from all over the world.  The friendships, the constant sense of discovery, the climactic and theatrical finish- there is no other race like this.  I will be back.

I have so many people to thank for their contributions to this effort.  My husband BJ who inspires me to bigger goals than I ever think I'm capable of.  My running hero, Bob Hearn, who graciously lent me his wisdom, expertise, experience and incredible knowledge of running.  My running partners Katie and Larry.  My coach, Shannon.  My family, who support me in this crazy pursuit even as they scratch their heads in puzzlement.  I could not have done it without all of you.

Post Race with my crew

Mayor's Luncheon

Bob and "The Beast" - Andras Low, 21X finisher

Big Bad Bob

Me and my running hero - Bob Hearn


  1. What a great report! So easy to read. Left me with a big feel for what you were experiencing with every word! I already have witnessed what a champion runner you are. Dare I say you are an even better writer/story teller!! Magnificent!!

  2. Awesome report, Amy! What a fantastic experience! And wow, you are a BEAST!