Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Rodopi Ultra Trail 2013 : 100 Miles

"Anyone can deal with victory. Only the mighty can bear defeat"

It is now almost three weeks since my traumatic experience in Rodopi, and I am still weak and unable to bear my personal defeat. I tried my best to overcome my great disappointment and to accept the outcome of my performance, but sadly, I failed. Initially, I thought my long trip to Asia a few days after the race will help me forget the bad experience and to recover from my injury. Although my physical injury seems to have healed fast, my sorrow of having failed at the race has unfortunately, continued to relentlessly haunt me.

More than 3 months ago, when my wife and I had the opportunity to host Leo (Athanasopoulos) and Nick (Petropoulos) at our home in England for 2 days, they managed to motivate and talk me into taking on another big challenge, the 100 miler of ROUT.

Nick, Leo and myself at our home in England
I knew the area very well as I have participated previously in the VFUT (107 km) back in 2011. I had some wonderful and unforgettable memories of my then "epic battle" with Bogots and Kourkourikis for the second position at that race, running through one of the most virginal and wild places in Greece, the Rodopi Mountains. The area is a famous habitat for its bears, where their tracks can be found very easily on most paths!

Bear shit on the left

I do not usually fancy the idea of running a race twice at the same area, but what made me change my mind and decided to do the ROUT was the challenge to run with some of the best ultra trail runners of Greece (Kourkourikis and Mavrikios opted to run the VFUT, while Kalofiris did not participate this year). Athanasopoulos and Petropoulos have performed extremely well in both national and international races in the last few years, and I have never had the chance to run with either of them at any of these races so far.

That was the main reason why I considered the exciting idea and in the end, made the decision to run with them and compete against one other, with my ultimate aim of beating Petropoulos' record time from 2011. So, it was on one very mild July evening in England that Leo, Nick and me made a pact to achieve what we called the "sub 24h project " in ROUT.

Since then, we have focused on this project and during my August holidays in Greece, we had the rare opportunities to run and train together on the mountains, sharing our expectations and dreams together. I must say that my recent performance at the  Western States Endurance Run (despite all the problems from a wrong choice of socks) was giving me the confidence that I can be in one of the top three places on the podium at ROUT. Despite the significant amount of climbs exceeding 8000m that will challenge me at ROUT, I was hoping that I will be able to deal with it.

With all this background of events and thoughts, and after a smooth period of training with very unusual good weather conditions in England, I arrived at Erymanthos Village, which is the headquarter of the race, as well as the location of the start and finish of the big challenge which awaits me.

Rodopi's mountains

Rodopi's mountains

Rodopi's mountains

Leo has been so hospitable to collect me and another two runners from England (Tom Sutton and Nicky Taylor) from the Thessaloniki Airport 2 days before the race. It is amazing how he managed such a successful "propaganda" of the race in England. By spending only a few days in the country, he managed to recruit 3 runners to participate at the race. I am quite sure that if he had spent more time there, he will be able to persuade another dozen or so British runners to run at ROUT!! A true ambassador indeed!

I was dead tired by the time I arrived at Erymanthos at 21:00 but the opportunity to catch and meet up with old and new friends respectively, from our small ultra trail community, kept me awake and made me feel so happy.


On the following day, more friends arrived and we spent most of the day talking, laughing and finalizing our last preparation of the gear and equipment for the race. Despite the miserable weather conditions (heavy rain) which had stopped just few hours before the start, the organizer was adamant that the weather will change to be better during the race just as they have previously predicted.

Pre-race briefing

In our chalet style wooden house which accommodates up to 4 runners, I felt as if DESTINY has placed me in the "podium chalet", considering that I was placed under the same roof as the first three winners of the race. From the very beginning, I was convinced that Petropoulos, Tsados and Ziabaras will do extremely well at the race and I will have to work hard to fight for my place at the podium against them.

Our wooden chalet
I woke up at 04:00 on race day, feeling surprisingly ready and excited for this big challenge. Katsanos has taken care to wake up all the runners by using the famous bells used at the race (the same inviting sound will also ring many hours later, whenever a runner crosses the finish line).Time seemed to fly by quickly and before long, Rigos was starting the final countdown.

Katsanos and his famous bells

While Rigos was counting down to the start of the race, I was still struggling to decide on whether to start fast or keep a controlled pace. The exciting voices and sounds from the 90 runners standing at the start line and the first 7 km of perfect downhill of forestal road (my favourite terrain!) made me go as I liked (fast). Sideridis and Tsados seemed to have the same way of thinking, while another runner (Kalikas), totally unknown to me at that time, was running at a furious pace and was getting 5' of advantage over me from the very first km!

At the start of the race

After 25km, Sideridis decided to split from our group (me, Tsados and Sidiropoulos) to catch up with Kalikas. At the first big station (Zarkadia, 41st km) I arrived together with my group and found out that Sideridis was ahead of us with 5' of advantage, while Kalikas had stopped for a while, coping with some problems. From that point of the race and up to Krousovo (69th km), I was running with Sidiropoulos (another runner unknown to me then, one who was very strong and determined to have a good performance at this race), and we were behind Sideridis, who was then leading the race. I was feeling completely fine with the pace and was even able to admire the unique autumn colors of the forest as we were blessed with a very sunny day.

Me and Sidiropoulos

Beautiful colours of the trees

Amazing autumn colours along the route
The first surprise of this race happened at Krousovo station (69th km). Sideridis, a very fast and well known runner, a favourite to win one of the first three places, had decided to stop without any obvious reason. In a very original moment of camaraderie, he was waiting for us and helped me with replenishing my water and energy supplies. I had some freshly-made chicken soup at that point which seemed to give me all the energy to make the right decisions from this point of the race.

I was by that time leading the race with Sidiropoulos, while there were at least 5 runners behind us, trying to catch up with us. I decided to keep calm and run without exerting myself too much. So far, I have been checking and comparing my time with Petropoulos' record time back in 2011 and I have been able to maintain my speed at one hour faster than his time. This comparison was giving me an idea of how fast I was going but as a principle, when I feel strong, I want to run fast so that I can gain more time.

When Sidiropoulos and myself thought that we were leading the race and everything was under control, we were greeted with a very surprising piece of information by the volunteers at the 73.5 km check point (Zagradenia) that Tsados was leading the race with a 10' of advantage over us! Both of us were shocked and were trying to understand how this could have happened! We never lost our way and Tsados certainly did not overtake us. How could it be possible that he was in front of us with with such a big difference? At that point, I totally lost control of the situation and started speeding up to catch up with  him. Sidiropoulos did not follow my change of pace and decided to maintain his speed. It took me 15 km to finally catch up with Tsados. That was while I was crossing the highest point of the race and to me, that was the most beautiful part of the race at Pyramida, almost at the border between Greece and Bulgaria. It was a very memorable moment for me.

Before I proceed to say what happened when I met Tsados there, I think it is better for me to explain the special relationship between us. Tsados has been like a brother to me since 2004, when we started running together in Volos.  I had known and respected his mother many years before. She worked at the same Department where I was doing my Surgical Training at the Volos Hospital. One day, while I was teaching Anatomy to some Paramedics students, Tsados introduced himself to me in the class and very soon after that, he accepted my suggestion to train and run together. Up to that point in time, he has never had any experience in running. He was an ex Navy Seal (proof of his determination and dedication) but he has never had a liking to running then. Since our first training together, I instantly knew he can be very brilliant at running and we spent the following 3 years training and racing together, before I left Greece to move to England. I became part of his family, and it was almost a ritual to have a delicious recovery dinner cooked by his mother after our hard training on the Pilion Mountain.

Tsados

After having introduced the kind of relationship between us, it is important to understand what happened when I finally caught up with him a few kilometres before the next big station at Gioumourlou (92nd km). For all of you who are familiar with my explosive temperament, you will not be surprised. I started scolding him and accusing him of cheating!! I asked him to explain to me how he could have gained a 10' of advantage over me and Sidiropoulos when he was all the while at least 5' behind us. Tsados was taken by surprise by my outburst but maintained his ever so sweet and kind manner and tried to convince me that he would never do such a thing. After 5' of argument and having unnecessarily spent precious resources of my energy on that, I decided to calm down and to concentrate on the race again. We had a long break at the station, eating well (soup and pasta) and were back on track just as the sun was starting to set.

After all the argument and tension, we were brothers again, running together and planning strategies. Tsados knows all my strong and weak points and he advised me to follow my natural pace and to leave him behind. The next 10 km were my natural and favourite terrain of wide forestal roads with gentle downhill, ideal terrain for me to increase my gap from all runners who were behind me. We said goodbye and I started speeding up again despite the first signs of accumulation of tiredness.

When I was approaching a path leading to Mega Rema, I noticed a strong light behind me! A huge bright full moon was there as an extra help for our survival for the next crucial hours of solitary run in the darkness. Unfortunately, my shortsighted vision began to give me problem during the night.  As if that was not enough, my headlamp's battery ( PETZL MYO RXP) seemed to be running out very fast and by using it at power 6/12, I was forced to change it every 3h.

Full moon accompanying me during my run
My first crisis started between Tsataki (117th km) and Zarkadia (123rd km). The continuous change of terrain and inclination (repetitive short and steep ups and downs) started to make me feel weak and I began to slow down my pace. Arriving at Zarkadia, I found out that I was still at the first position but I had no idea of what was happening behind me. I was already feeling very anxious of not having a good light and hiking poIes for the next steep climbs of the race. I decided to have another good break and stopped to have some soup and potatoes. While I was eating, a nice runner and FB friend (Panagiotis Papazoglou) was offering me a lot of assistance. I found out that he has had some problems and had decided to stop running the race. Without any hesitation, I asked him if I could borrow his headlamp and poles and he very generously offered both to me. He even accompanied me up to the start of the climb. I wish to offer a huge public thanks to Panagiotis for his priceless help. In those moments of frustration and tiredness, your kind and generous assistance was an unexpected gift from God. You were like a God sent angle to me. Efharisto para poli Panagioti!!

After 30'' of leaving the station, I heard people clapping for the arrival of the runner behind me. I started climbing in a very  fast pace up the steep 650 mt of ascent, knowing that the runner behind me, most likely Tsados, was coming very close to me. Almost at the end of the steep climb I got the third surprise from this race. Petropoulos (not Tsados as I have initially thought) was overtaking me with a very natural and fast pace. He showed obvious superiority and good management of his energy. At that point, just by looking at his superb form, I knew instantly that nobody could take the victory away from him and he would surely break his own record without any doubt!

Despite my tiredness, I never gave up my fight for a place at the podium and I continued to give in my best. After the last station of the race (Prasinada 137th km) and after having run for 20h, my knees started to suffer from the craggy-rocky descent. During this horrible and painful experience and without a decent light, I missed a big stone and tripped. In the process, I sustained a twist on my left knee. Initially, I did not bother but after another km of slow pace of run, I knew I could not continue running for long with this excruciating pain.

While I was walking in the mountain, I heard the third runner (Tsados) arriving and he overtook me, thinking that I was still able to compete for the second position. I did not mention anything about my injury to him and asked him to continue running before the next runner behind him came along.

One km before Mylos station (141st km) and after 21h of run, I took the big and painful decision to stop my race. Despite there being only 23 km before the end of this adventure, my knee was giving me extreme pain by then and I did not want to take any risk in compromising my future training and plans by continuing the race just for the sake of finishing it.

The most dramatic moment of this race, however, was while I was waiting for rescue in the middle of nowhere. Sidiropoulos, the next runner to meet me at the path after Tsados, found me sitting on a rock and unable to move. He assured me that he would seek help for me once he reaches the next check point (Mylos). I was waiting for almost 90' in the middle of nowhere late that night, with temperature dropping to 5 degree Celsius and I know that being in a static position, my body temperature was also decreasing in a fast rate. I started shivering and was praying and hoping that help will come soon. When the Rescue Team members finally arrived, they did all their best to make me feel better by providing me with blanket, warm food and fluids. I was in their good hands for another two hours before Katsanos was finally able to get to me and to bring me to the finish line.

When I arrived at Erymanthos (finish line), it was already 9 am. It was a lovely, warm, sunny day and I was thinking that this would definitely help the majority of runners to complete the rest of the distance to the Finish Line as many were still running out there in the wilderness of Rodopi.

Me arriving at Erymanthos
After having arrived at the Finish Line, I soon found out who the top three finishers were and also about the unfortunate accident suffered by Leo (Athanasopoulos). I was informed that poor Leo had slipped and fell off a bridge, landing on his back in a river. He also lost his spectacles and got wet in the process, while being unable to move due to severe pain ( He was later diagnosed with one rib fracture and some contusions in the loin area). I was suffering from too much pain on my knee to visit Leo and decided to go back to the  chalet for some rest. When I arrived, I found the three first winners and heroes sleeping/resting after their long battle. Many hours later, we found out that Nicky Taylor was the winner in the Women's category, confirming the prognostics. Looking at her pictures on Facebook (some of them offered kindly for the use of my blog) I  am quite sure she had taken it easy at the race.The rest of the day was spent on catching up with sleep and talking with friends, sharing our experience and emotions.

Nicky Taylor - the winner in the Women's category 

The following day, we had the awards ceremony. In a very emotional and family-like-gathering moment, every runner who got a podium place was asked to say a few words to express their emotions. The first beautiful moment of that day was when Athanasopoulos (being last year's champion) was asked to give the winner's prize to Petropoulos. Despite all the pain that he was suffering at that time, he managed admirably to stand up by using his poles, and rendering the act of honoring his good friend's achievement.

Petropoulos accepting the trophy from Athanasopoulo 

My next beautiful moment was seeing my "little brother" Tsados, making his way to the podium to receive his prize for being the second winner. He made me so proud and happy of his great achievement. In fact, I think this was the first time that he had really proved his ability among very strong runners and I truly believe that he deserved it after all the sacrifices he had made in his life for running.

The third winner Ziabaras, is one of the very few unique people that one will never forget once one have met him. I had the opportunity to spend 10 days with him while participating at the 2007 UTMB and I have the best memories and impressions regarding him from the time we had spent together. When I met him at ROUT this year (after 7 long years) I found that nothing has changed about him. He was the same "noisy " guy with deep thoughts about life, always laughing and talking continuously, and running at least 1000 km in ultra marathon races every year. He was the one who provided me with my next beautiful moment of the day.When he was given his award, he impressed everyone by citing his poem dedicated to me and was about our reunion after 7 years. In a nutshell, he expressed his wish that our next meeting should not be after the same long period. I was really surprised and touched by his sweet thoughts.


Ziabaras citing his poem

All these beautiful and unique moments from the awards ceremony made me forget the pain on my knee and my frustration from not finishing the race. Before I could recover from all these strong emotional moments happening one after another, I was taken by surprise yet again by  Katsanos (organizer of race), who asked me to go up on the stage to stand with the 3 top winners of race. He had made a special award for just me, as a form of recognition for my dedication to ultra trail marathon and the promotion of the Greek spirit around the world. Completely unaware of this honour, I found it so hard to say anything more than to thank him and the organizers, expressing my deep feelings, which at that point of time, was almost reaching the sky.

Me accepting my award

In this storm of emotions and events happening within a span of only 48h, I had to leave this amazing place. Many hugs and kisses ( classic Greek sentimentalism ) with old and new friends were exchanged with the promise to catch up the soonest possible. My flight back to England was due in 6h and Tsados had generously offered to drive me to the airport and by doing that, given us a few more precious hours to spend together until our next reunion.

As an epilogue, I will like to point out that ROUT offers a very different experience of run racing compared to the other races. The wilderness and solitude of the area, with only 6 stations in 164 km, makes the whole experience a very unique one. Your attention is always focused on how to manage your stamina in order to bring yourself safely to the next "lighthouse" station, in this vast "ocean of forests and mountains".  You will find yourself always looking forward to coming into contact with the volunteers, to get the assurance that you are still on the right track and have not lost you way. The way the volunteers welcome and look after you once you have finally met them, is an example of genuine honesty and non-profitable passion for what they are doing for the race. This aspect of the race touched me to the core of my heart.

Katsanos is definitely the SOUL of this race, while Rigos is undoubtedly the BRAIN! Both of them, with Spiridopoulos, made up a very successful team and gave us this extraordinarily exceptional race.

At the same time, they are blessed to have very capable individuals like Tsogarakis and Troupis from http://www.advendure.com/ to support the race from the media front, giving it fair and wide coverage to the running community, with very useful and welcoming live reports of the runners' performance during the entire race. Despite all the technical difficulties, they managed to stream it online, giving useful information about the developments and the highlights of the race.

Tsogarakis and Rigos 

Last but not least, I should mention the perfect marking of the race. Most of my friends know how easily I can get lost at races. In ROUT, this has never happened! Rigos and Vamvakitis  did an exemplary job with their excellent environmentally friendly markings and for this, I would like to express my gratitude for their tough and challenging job!

Clear markings of the route 

Thank you ROUT FAMILY, for giving me  all these emotions, despite the pain from my injury and the frustration for not finishing the race. Definitely, I will come back to complete what I have left unfinished in the wilderness of Rodopi.

Runners, organizers and volunteers of the race

While recounting the events which have taken place at the race to be put down in words for this blog,  I am starting to feel better and am able to accept my defeat graciously. Putting thoughts and feelings into words is always, to me, a sort of mental therapy which often helps me to eliminate my fears and weaknesses.

Hopefully, I will be stronger at the beginning of February when I will run at the most popular South American Race ( 6000 runners), the El Cruce de Los Andes in Patagonia http://elcrucecolumbia.com/. It is a 3-day race and the competitors will have to climb a volcano every day.

But for the moment, it is time to go back to the beach (for I am now on the beautiful Lagen Island in Philippines) to soak in all the sunshine I can get before going back to the miserable European winter.

PS :This is the first time I was running without the support of my photographer wife. Like I have said earlier in my blog, my decision to register for the race was an impromptu one, spurred on by both Leo and Nick who had visited us in England while they were running the Lakeland 100. By that time, my wife and I had already booked  all out tickets for our Asian Journey, where she was supposed to leave 2 weeks before me to visit her family in Malaysia and  Singapore. As a result of this,  I had to rely on some friends' photos for my blog. I will like to thank Nicky Taylor, Pavlos Diakoumakos and Leonidas Athanasopoulos for kindly allowing me to use their photos for this purpose.


6 comments:

  1. It is great to read in depth analysis and details about the emotions, strategy and effort of such a great runner like you Argiris... ROUT is made for the toughest runners and you are one of them... BRAVO Argiris !!!!

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  2. Just read it. Amazing way of expressing your adventures. Once again i must admit that i feel very lucky for you being my father's one of his good friends. Because of my need for writing expression i must tell you that your life could be a book which propably can be written by yourself with great success.

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  3. Thank you for your report.. This race can be brutal sometimes combining the wilderness and the remote places you run through. I hope some day you finish this race.

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  4. Kosta and Mast: your kind words not only make me very happy but also inspire me to continue to give my best.Really appreciate it!
    Agiofws: definitely I will be back again one day to cross the finish line and become a member of ROUT family ;-)

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  5. Αργυρή και πάλι περαστικά. Πιστεύω ότι στο μέλλον πιο σωστά προετοιμασμένος και και πιο αποφασισμένος θα τα καταφέρεις!
    Με προβληματίζει μια καταγγελία σου έστω και "στρογγυλεμένη" άλλα δεν θα σχολιάσω...

    Βαγγέλης Μπάκας

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  6. Ωραία περιγραφή Αργύρη όπως πάντα. Όταν ξανάρθεις είμαι σίγουρος ότι θα τα πας καταπληκτικά!

    ReplyDelete