Long Day’s Journey into Night (and back into day again)

karnazes nailsIt was around 11 o’clock on Saturday morning when Dean Karnazes (right) slipped past the ruins of the temple of Athena Alea in Tegea, made a left up a narrow road and emerged into the plateia.

Checkpoint number 60, 189.3 kilometres into the 246 kilometre journey between Athens and Sparta. Just 57 kilometres to run to complete the 2014 Spartathlon.

When he reached the checkpoint, his supporter-in-chief Dimitris huddled him into a shady corner. Check those feet, a change of shirt. A piece of dried meat and a fig? A shake of the head.

The Californian sat hunched in his chair, head resting in his left hand while he squeezed a wet sponge over his neck with his right. Dimitris dug his fingers into his shoulders, working the muscles back to life.

He turned to the camera crew that had been following him since the race started under the Acropolis in Athens some 28 hours earlier. He nodded a weary acknowledgement, no hint of a smile. Then looked back down at the floor.

“This….”

He squeezed the sponge once more and grimaced as Dimitris hit a knot.

“…is the most difficult race … I have ever raced in.”

A shake of the head when a bottle of water was offered.

“So damn tough….My stomach….I can’t eat. I feel so bad…you can’t imagine.”

And that was that.

ultramarathon-manKarnazes is someone that the ultra-running world admires greatly. He has competed in some of the most gruelling races in the world. Hell, he has won Badwater which is hardly a walk in the park – unless that stroll is 217 kilometres through the corruscating heat of Death Valley in California.

And with his books, television appearances and personal sponsorship deals, he is one of the few to make anything approaching a living out of running.

Given his indefatigable efforts over the years, Karno is regarded in the non-running world as a machine rather than a man. So for him to say what he did about the Spartathlon means something. The machine was on strike. The man was taking a hiding.

This, as it is every year, was a tough, tough race.

Toughest obviously for the runners, the pain and increasing fatigue in evidence at every checkpoint.

SUFFERING ON THE ROAD

We were following four of them for the film The Road to Sparta. They all suffered, even Mark Woolley who had finished the last three of his previous five Spartathlons.

Nick Papageorge nurses Rob Pinnington's feet at the halfway point in Nemea
Nick Papageorge nurses Rob Pinnington’s feet at the halfway point in Nemea

The rain posed early problems, the wet conditions a recipe for blisters; the 30 degree heat that followed increased the dangers of dehydration. Rob Pinnington was struggling with his feet, his supporter Nick Papageorge working overtime at the checkpoints to work the grease and get him back moving again.

Mark had collapsed towards the end of a 333 kilometre race in the Himalayas a month earlier and felt every stride jangling through his body while Angie Terzi was being spoonfed her dinner while taking a massage.And then battling bravely on into the night and beyond.

At times the checkpoints resembled military hospitals; prone bodies, hot soup, pus, blood, tears and wailing. And a dull-eyed acknowledgement that the only way forward was over the top and back into the fray.

For the camera crew it was slightly easier. We did at least have wheels, a choice selection of nuts, Bombay Mix and Oreos and the chance occasionally to grab a few winks of sleep. And we had music, something that the runners are denied (no ipods or mp3 players allowed). We had Tryfon and Andreas, the boys from Old House Playground, picking on the guitar and tapping on the djembe, working on the first themes of what will become the soundtrack for The Road to Sparta (see below).

Magda Gouma is one if the most willing workers in the world with a million euro smile - just don't get between her and her coffee (Photo: B Spender)
Magda Gouma is one if the most willing workers in the world with a million euro smile – just don’t get between her and her coffee (Photo: B Spender)

The only time there was a hint of revolt came shortly after we had seen Karnazes in Tegea.

Andreas leant over towards the driver’s seat and stage whispered in my ear.

“I think we need to give Magda some coffee.”

“Okay. We just need a couple of shots of Dean running and then we can head back to that taverna we passed a few kilometres back. About half an hour?”

“No, Barney, den katalavaineis. Half an hour will be too late. We must give Magda coffee. Now! ”

Magda, our “running” camera, was to be neither ignored nor denied. Coffee and tyropita were taken. Calm was restored.

Emotionally, the Spartathlon puts you through the ringer. You try to be objective, grown-up, hands-off film-makers but find yourself cheering on all of the runners.

“It’s the Hat Guy!” someone would note.

Cocktail Dress Lady (Photo: Spartathlon)
Cocktail Dress Lady (Photo: Spartathlon)
The Hat Guy  (Photo: Maria Samolada)
Hat Guy
(Photo: Maria Samolada)

“Come on Hat Guy!” we would all shout, banging our hands against the car and giving him a clenched fist or thumbs up.

It was the same story for Cocktail Dress Lady and Backwards Face.

And when you see someone on their last legs, just missing the cut-off and slumping to the ground in distress, well, it would be wrong to deny the tear in the eye and the lump in the throat. Another dream crushed on the side of the road.

THE HOME STRETCH

The finale is like nothing else I have seen in sport.

The runners, dog-tired physically and mentally, arrive at the bottom end of Sparta and slowly but surely begin to find a new lease of energy. From a distance they can hear the crowd gathered in the high street. The furrowed brows iron themselves out; there is a calm and a hint of a smile; an understanding that this incredible journey is about to come to the happiest of ends.

The Spartans arrive to pay tribute to Leonidas (Photo: Spartathlon)
The Spartans arrive to pay tribute to Leonidas (Photo: Spartathlon)

When they turn into the high street they have about 400 metres to run before they touch the feet of the statue of Leonidas. In stark contrast to the last stretch of city marathons, no one breaks into a sprint. This is their victory parade and each athlete that makes it this far relishes every single step.

Cheered by the spectators who line the road or watch from the cafés, they make their steady approach to Leonidas. Children run with them. Sometimes someone will hand them a flag. Up the steps and across to the statue. A kiss of the toes, the laurel wreath and sip of sacred water; their Calvary finally over.

Their lives will be different now because their perception of their own capabilities will change and the perception of other people towards them will change.

This Spartathlon is truly a monumental race. Just ask Dean Karnazes.

©Barney Spender 2014

Follow me on Twitter @bspender

Barney Spender’s documentary film The Road to Sparta is now in post-production. It is due for release in spring 2015. It has been funded purely by crowd-funding and by sponsorship. If you would like to contribute then contact Barney via Twitter or through The Road to Sparta Facebook page

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