Ultrarunner Kieren D’Souza is the only Indian to compete and complete the 246km Spartathlon, one of the toughest foot races in the world. This is his story.
Spartathlon is a 246km (153miles) foot race held annually in Greece between Athens and Sparta since 1983. The race is usually held end of September, with a cut-off time of 36 hours. For the first time, an Indian ultra runner participated in the historic ultramarathon last year. Bangalore based Kieren D’Souza, a 23-year old ultra runner, was one of the 305 participants shortlisted for Spartathlon 2016 (30th Sept to 1st Oct).
I first read about the Spartathlon in the book, ‘Eat & Run’ by Scott Jurek. It was one of the first books on running that I bought in July 2012, a result of savings from my meagre pocket money. By this time, I had been running for almost two years, and was fascinated with the sport of ultra-running. Somewhere around the 18th of the 21 chapters is where it all started, and I dreamt of running ‘In the footsteps of Pheidippides’. In the years after that, I started following the races and immersed myself in learning about the sport. I had to meet the strict qualifications for Spartathlon, and like always, I set small targets for myself.
In August 2015, I finished the CCC in France with a stupid smile on my face. I ran the 160 km (100 miles) Salomon Bhatti Lakes Ultra in October following CCC, by the end of which it turned out that I had run ‘fast enough’ to apply for the 34th edition of Spartathlon. I had completed the 100 miles in 20 hours 32 minutes; it was only much later somebody mentioned that it was a course record run at the 160 km. After Bhatti Ultra, I took a short break from running. From November, I started training for Spartathlon, just incase I got accepted. The registrations opened in January and I applied for the race. Out of the thousands who apply, only 390 runners got selected. I spent the months from November to February mainly focusing on fast runs and short races, nothing more than a half marathon.
The Training Commences
Around mid-March, I received an email from the International Spartathlon Association (ISA) telling me, that “I was selected.” I pinched myself and realized that it was a step closer to achieving one of my goals, which meant putting undiluted fervour into training. My focus in March and April was on getting ready for the months ahead where I would be putting in massive amount of distance for most weeks. My weekly mileage consisted of around 120kms per week. The months of May, June, July and August were going to be my months of many kilometers. I started multiple runs a day, 6 days of the week, and ensured a weekly day of rest. By March, I had moved back to Bangalore, and I had joined ‘Runners 360’, enjoying the company I got there. I mostly train on my own, so it was a good change, with Shreyas Karnad focusing on so much more than just running. It gave me a good excuse to include strength training as well, something that I never really did, but now do a lot more now, on a daily basis. The months of May and June turned out to be ‘big months’ for me touching about 700kms in both.
I did back-to-back long runs, and was covering almost 30km every day. My highest weekly distance during the period touched about 210km, which means I covered a little more than 30km on some days. The first half of July was in sync with the previous months.
The second half of July saw me preparing to check out my capability and training in the 111 km La Ultra – The High, in Ladakh. This however, was not just a training run. In 2014, when I pulled out off the 111km, not having met the 7hour/48km cutoff at North Pullu, I told Dr. Rajat Chauhan (Race Director), “I would be back”, and told myself, “much stronger.” This was going to be my longest training run before Spartathlon. I spent a good three weeks, acclimatising.
The race went off well, and I completed the distance in about 15 hours and 30 minutes, slightly off the target, but I was okay with that.
By now, I had just little over a month to go for Spartathlon and I decided to do just one 160km/week. I had moved from Leh to Faridabad, with temperatures touching 36+ degrees C and humidity about 80%, I focused on making use of all the ‘free heat’ available in the region, especially since I knew that it did get hot during the race. I made sure I spent at least an hour every afternoon out on the roads. I always ran on the Faridabad–Gurgaon highway, one reason being, that there was no shade along the entire route. The longest I did was a 60km to 30km and 25km being regular.
Finally, it was time for me to head out to Greece. I was really excited and so was my mom who was to be my crew. Athens was good; we had about a week before any race related activities, so we did touristy things—visiting sites, enjoying Athens overall. We spent a few days on the Island of Santorini. I did short runs every day; the longest being on the trail between Fira and Oia, about 18km. All the runs were very relaxed, for all I wanted to do was keep those legs moving. We got back to Athens and met a couple of Spartathlon runners on the bus to the Fenix Hotel where we were staying. The first day was registration, picking up our race bibs and other race-related stuff. The second day was quite relaxed, and I met lots of interesting people. We had to check-in our drop bags, containing essentials we wanted along the 246 km route, made available at pre-selected 75 check points (CP). That works out to a CP at almost every 3.25 km, each CP needs to be passed within a certain cut off time, failing which we were out of the race! They just close down the CP and put you on the death bus. I made 5 drop bags, each contained 4 RRUNN Sachets and 2 gels from Unived. Each drop bag was placed 40km apart. I also placed my rain jacket and head torch for the night section at about 120km and a change of shoes at 160km. Thereafter, we had our pre-race briefing. I called up dad back home (India), asking him to wake me up at 4:30am, and headed to bed. I wanted to get good sleep. Luckily I slept like a baby till 4:30am in the morning; 30th September, 2016, the race day.
I had a nice breakfast of some Greek yogurt and fruit, changed into my Azani race clothes and headed to catch the bus that would take us to the magnificent Acropolis, the start line. I must add, while in Athens, before we had gone to Santorini, I was called to meet the Indian Ambassador to Greece, who had offered all help possible.
The Race Begins
At the Acropolis, 6:30 am and still dark, some of the officials from the Indian Embassy were there to greet me. It felt really great to see them. We took some quick pictures and I got ready to get going. I was excited, very nervous, and at times, I wondered if it was still a dream. At 07:00 am, (0930 hours IST), the gun pop sounded the start of the race. I enjoyed the moment; I could not believe I was actually running the Spartathlon. Anyway, I settled into a steady pace, constantly checking my Suunto (I did not want to go faster than my planned pace). The strategy was well worked out, and I had to implement it. It was cool, the little traffic that was there on the roads, stopped for us and we had people from the cars cheering us. I enjoyed every bit of it. My first target for the race was the check point (CP) number 22, a little past the Corinth Canal at the Hellas Can Factory, 81 kms from the start. I wanted to make it there in about 8 hrs and 30 mins, with the cut-off being at 9 hrs 30 min. Calculating backwards, I had decided my pace; the first 20km in about 1hr and 50 mins was a bit on the faster side, but I reached the 42km (marathon) point in about 4 hrs 15 min, which was alright. By now, we were past the industrial area of Athens and closer to running along the coast. It had started to get much hotter, but nothing compared to the heat that Faridabad had prepared me for. Once we started running on the highway with the coast on our left, I just loved it.
The water looked so beautiful with different shades of green, and I was tempted to dive in. I promised myself a swim after the race.
I ran over the Corinth canal and made it over to the 81 km point at Corinth in about 08 hrs and 15 mins; 15 mins faster than my plan. I spent all of 3mins there and moved on. I was scheduled to meet my crew (mom) at the 26th CP, 93 km from the start, at Ancient Corinth. That is where I would take a slightly longer break. I was enjoying it all, moving smoothly, feeling great. I remember telling myself that I have never felt so good at this distance in a race.
I reached CP 26 and met my mom. I had a little chat, sprayed Volini on sore muscles, ate some more food, gave her a hug and scooted off. Things could not have been going better and I passed the 100km mark in less than 11 hrs. The next major CP (35) was at Ancient Nemea, at 123 km, the ‘Half Way Mark’. On the way to Ancient Nemea, we ran through a small town with a band playing on the road, kids asking us for autographs and generally everyone having a good time. As the sun set, we ran through vineyards where I could constantly smell the aroma of fermenting or drying grapes.
This is another interesting section. I had reached 123km into the race, and it had gotten dark by now. This was also where I was going to pick up my head torch and jacket. I was supposed to meet up with mom, but she was nowhere to be seen and I did feel a little sad. Anyway, here I again gobbled up some food and moved out. Just about 50 meters from the check point, mom caught up with me, and I felt great after that. She was hitchhiking and had got delayed along the way. At the same time, I also bumped into Tobias.
Tobias and Ivan
Tobias is from Sweden and he had gotten in touch with me from the time I was accepted into Spartathlon, I was in touch with him about my training in the months leading up to Spartathlon, I got an idea about how to go about it this way. We decided to run together. It worked well for me, because I find the night sections quite hard, mentally. So it was great to have company. This was also his second time at Spartathlon, so I was assured that he knew what he was doing. I just followed everything thing he said, we ran all the down hills and flats, but even a gentle incline, we just walked it. Somewhere along the way we started running along with another Swede, Ivan, whom Tobias knew, and I had run along with him for a few kilometers earlier in the race.
We three ran for the longest time together. We reached one of the hardest sections of the race at about the 154th km, the long climb that goes up all the way to Sangas pass, which was about 6km long including the 1.5 km trail till the top. The 154kms so far had taken us about 16 hrs and 30 mins. The short 6 kms to the pass took us a good two hours. We reached the 160 km point (100 miles mark) in about 18 hrs and 36 mins. We had to walk down on the other side of Sangas pass; it was steep lots of stones, we decided it would just tire the legs out. We walked till we got off the trail before we started to run again.
Things begin to blur here, but I do know I was still feeling good, of course as tired as one would be after running more than 100 miles, but otherwise things were alright. We reached CP 55 close to Loukas Village, about 180 km from the start, and just before getting there, I started falling asleep on the run. When we entered the checkpoint I was standing, waiting for Ivan and Tobias to get a refill of what they wanted and I just dozed off. I decided to stop here for a bit and get a nap. I told the guys at the aid station to wake me up in 5 mins, then another 5 mins then another and finally after 20 min, I just jumped out of my chair feeling fresh as ever. It was really, really cold though; because I had to cover myself with a thermal blanket to sleep. When I started moving after my nap, I was not really getting warm, but I kept moving. I was hoping to catch up with Tobias and Ivan as I just enjoyed their company so much. That was not to happen though. I was quite cold till almost 8 am. By now, I had been 25 hrs into the race and had done with about 200 km. I was quite happy as this was the first time I had run so long, the first time over 160 km and I was still moving well. But things pretty much started going downhill from here on.
I had just about a marathon more to go and this last marathon took me about 8 hrs. This was the toughest bit for me. I was really wanting to run, but just could not. I was having a lot of pain on my left shin.
The Hardest Part
Whatever little running I did, left me almost not being able to walk. I took a call, I had time, I was determined to make it, delayed, much below my target time, but I would make it. I went back to the drawing board and set, smaller and achievable targets. I decided to try and speed-walk it, at about 5 kmph and at that point, I thought it was really fast. This was the most depressing marathon distance I ever ran in my life. Initially when a few runners had begun to pass me, it did not feel that bad. I kept moving with my stops to just fill up my bottle and grab a snack. Then, the last 20 km got to be worse. It seemed like the number of people passing me during the last 20 km went up to over 20. Suddenly, I realized I had just about 2kms more. The last 2kms could definitely be the best and the worst ever. I was in Sparta, and a little girl was cycling beside me. A woman from a shop ran out and gave me some olive branches. I was gutted that I was not able to run into Sparta, it was me hobbling along on the road. I met my mom here again about 50 meters to the finish. She was holding the Indian flag out for me. I held on to one end and made her hold the other, and we both jogged down to the finish, the statue of King Leonidas.
I felt I was still in dreamland, while my name was announced as a finisher, I felt good that I made it, but disappointed that I just limped along the last marathon distance.
Becoming a Spartathlete
I was still in my dream. Pictures were being taken, I was given a drink of water from the Eurotas River, an olive wreath was placed on my head, and before I could enjoy the center stage, I was led to the medical tent, where they washed my feet and sorted out the few blisters I had. I told them about my shin and I was taken to hospital. It was nice to see the doctors were watching the race on TV. I was told I had tendonitis. They bandaged my leg, gave me meds, and I headed back at the finish line. I sat there just soaking in all the festivities going on, cheering for the people who were still coming in. Maybe this was just a long dream, who knew I would actually end up doing Spartathlon and actually doing every bit of the race on my own two feet.
This was a long race and a long journey to Sparta, and it seems like quite a long blog. Sure I did run it all on my own two feet, but I could not have done it without the support provided but many people like my mom for being my crew on the race day and every other day while at home. Dad for the updates during the race. Danica, for lending me her camera, and Swikrity for the support. Mr. Parag Zaveri, Wg. Cdr. Stanley Nazareth (Retd.), Aunty Eugenia, Aunty Ida and Uncle Otto, Aunt Margaret, Uncle Bernard D’Souza and the participants of PGDM 1517 from the National Institute Of Financial Management, for playing such a big part in getting me to Greece. Gurudev, the shoes he gave me ran over Khardung La, from Athens to Sparta and at so many other places in the last few months. In making this dream come true, I could have missed mentioning some who’ve played supportive roles, please know that your support means a lot.
Unived Sports, Azani, Volini and Suunto are the brands I thank for making Spartathlon happen for me. I am truly indebted to everyone who played a part.
Feature Image: Kieren training somewhere in the Himalayan region. Photo © UPSlope Productions