We learn the most from the summits we don't reach
- Scott Gordon
Let me start off by saying this is not an easy post to compose. I had fully hoped to be writing a post about successfully completing my Triple Crown of Ultra-Running. I never expected to be staring blankly at my computer dissecting and analyzing what went wrong?
Spartathlon is the Ultimate Test of Ultra-running. There is no other race like it in the world. The distance is staggering - 246 Km / 153 Miles. The environment is taxing with heat, humidity and rain. The time cut-offs are surreal - the first 50 miles must be completed in 9 1/2 hours and the entire race must be completed within 36 hours. The best of the best in the world toe the line at Spartathlon, and at best 1/2 of them reach the finish line. It is a race like no other, and all those that experience it describe it as the "hardest thing I've ever done."
TRAINING: My training was OK for Spartathlon. I had completed 3 other ultras in hot environments on pavement (one of 185 miles, one of 135 miles and one of 100 miles). I had trained for heat and had good strategies to offset the negative effects of the heat and humidity. I had trained on roads to prepare my bones, joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments. I had put myself in plenty of mentally taxing situations, that could test the muster of my mental stubbornness. I did have a hiccup in training after Badwater. During Badwater, I had a plantar's wart derail my race. Although I was able to finish the race, I added about 10 hours to my projected finish time, and my foot had been severely bruised as a result of a compensating gait to avoid irritating the wart. After Badwater, I had the wart chemically burned off with beetle acid. That laid me up and stopped my running for a good 2 weeks. With about a month to go before Spartathlon, I was able to resume training. The 2 weeks of training and 2 weeks of taper felt good, but I wondered whether I lost anything as a result of the time off running treating the wart.
JET LAG: Originally, I had planned to arrive in Greece the day before the race; then, I came to my senses. I paid a heavy penalty to the airlines and changed my flight to arrive 3 days before the race. I had a tough time with adjusting to the time change. However, I did the best I could. And frankly, seeing the sights of Athens including the Acropolis was very powerful. At the end of the day, more rest could have helped….a lot.
TETHERING: Because I am legally blind, the race organizers required that I always be tethered to another person for safety purposes. I had never been tethered for a race before; however, my guide and I thought we had figured out a way to make a tether work for the race. We invented a new type of tether, and it seemed to work well. The other challenge was that we were attempting to get 2 people across the finish line. It is hard enough for 1 person to make it, let alone 2. Well I had the guide of all guides - Brandon Stapanowich (top-10 @ Leadville and Hardrock, 13th at Western States and Nolan's 14 vet, among other things).
NO CREW: Originally, I was supposed to have a crew. Then, plans fell through and I was left of go at it with drop bags. I had never ran a race using drop bags as a support strategy. I was in new territory, but I knew other people used drop bags so I figured it could be done.
CONFIDENCE: I had thought I was invincible for much of 2015 . . . thinking that guts and grit could get me through anything, and any situation. I just needed to endure the pain and push through it. About 3 weeks before Spartathlon, when I was trying to create a plan to complete the race….it occurred to me that this thing was more of a monster than I realized. The time cut-offs made this race wholly unique, special and scary. I was scared. I had respect for the race, but I found myself questioning my abilities.
THE RACE: Brandon and I worked very well as a guide and runner combination. Brandon was accustomed to trails and found the road a new experience. We made it through the first marathon with 15 minutes to spare as planned. I also had an irritated stomach, and was forced to ditch my waist belt that I was using to carry a water bottle. It was causing too much pressure on my stomach. I had also forgotten to pack a spare battery in my drop bags, so I had to carry a spare battery with me for the entire race. It became hot during the second marathon; however, I had a cool-off bandana that I loaded with ice. I was able to keep cool and hydrated. Brandon had some bouts of double vision during this time due to sleep deprivation and the heat; however, he pulled through. I was planning to eat aid station food and drink Ensure that I'd packed in drop bags. I soon realized that I couldn't stop to get a drop bag and collect my Ensure - - - I would be giving back precious minutes. I was not used to the aid station food - chips, bread, occasional fruit and luke-warm water. I worked up a vicious case of diarrhea by eating too many raisins, apples, figs and fruit. We passed the second checkpoint with 1 hour ahead of the cut-off. We were perfect according to plan. I carried a backpack with a headlamp, flashlight, some ensure and a bottle of warm Mountain Dew. One of the race organizers told me I was carrying too much and that I should dump some things. I did not listen as I should have, and I took off from the check point. There were various ups and downs over the 3rd marathon. We had expected to gain more time; however, Brandon and I found ourselves spending move minutes at checkpoints. We were running well, but wasting time at aid stations. By this time, we were fatigued, and we would tangle up other runners in our tether at aid stations. We were also getting frustrated trying to monitor whether we were gaining or losing time against the cut-off. Soon nightfall came and we were into our 4th marathon. I was in a mental funk. When it became dark, all I could think about was going blind. I prayed and prayed. I tried to distract myself with all kids of thoughts. Finally, I found myself crying and blurting out to my guide that "I don't want to go blind!" What can you say to that? Brandon did the best he could with a talk off. And actually, I felt better after saying it. But then, more excuses came flooding into my head. My final excuse came about mile 92. It had started raining a bit and I knew we had a mountain climb at mile 100 over single track with sheer drops. I reasoned that I shouldn't chance my safety, and my children needed me more than I needed to risk a fall on that mountain. We were about 20 minutes on the good side of the cur-off at that point. By the time we got to Mountain Base - mile 100 - we were 1 minute on the good side of the cut-off. The Garmin read 99.5 miles, and we wanted to make it an even 100 miles……so we continued running uphill to make a solid 100 mile run.
QUITTING: When it was over…it was bitter-sweet. It was good to not have to continue on with the pain in my feet, my body, my head, my blurred vision, etc. It was bitter to not have completed what I had set out to do. In the hours and days following the experience, I tore apart the entire experience. There were plenty of excuses for not finishing; but, none of them were the real reason I did not finish. I did not finish because I quit. It hurts to say it, but it is the truth. I could have gone on…..and sitting in my comfortable home in Denver a week after the event I know I could have gone on. Something happened in that race that stripped me down, snapped me in half and broke me into pieces. I had quit - - - OUCH THAT HURTS TO SAY!
RESOLVE: At the awards ceremony, I sat like a wounded warrior, watching others be celebrated for their heroic feat. I was very happy for them. I was very disappointed in myself. I was not hurting bad 24 hours after the race - I could have went on and finished. I ran uphill after reaching Mountain Base to make the run an even 100 miles - I could have went on and finished. I ran a 1 hour 2 minute 15k 1 week after Spartathlon - I could have went on and finished. I have done many technical trails in the dark - I could have went on an finished. An American was at the same point we were when I threw in the towel and he went on and finished - I could have went on and finished. I was not able to "overcome myself" as the race organizers indicated would be necessary to complete the challenge. I have learned much from dissecting this experience. I know I will learn more as time passes. This is a painful lesson to be learned, but it must be accepted for what it is. I will go back to Spartathlon, and I will finish that race; and I will demonstrate that a blind person can finish it. ONWARD!
Jason Romero is a highly sought after inspirational speaker and the 1st and only blind person to run across America. Jason is a member of the US Paralympic Team, holds 11 world records in ultra-running, a former attorney and business executive, and a single father of 3 children. More information can be found on Jason at www.relentlessromero.com.
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