What it's like to be a support crew at Spartathlon!  Κύριο

Από 03 Οκτ 2014

I think it was 6-7 months ago, when I first learnt that our friend Aykut Celikbas decided to run the Spartathlon 2014. I had heard already much about this legendary race, and there and then declared that I would be willing to be on his support team. I didn’t even really think about it, my decision was instant: This was maybe a once in a life time chance to witness a close friend attempting this gigantic effort and to experience the race first hand - he would be the first ever Turkish runner to run the Spartathlon!

So, knowing his previous race performances and attitude toward the sport, I was 100% sure that he would be totally committed to do everything he possibly could to finish. In the end, it really turned out to be an absolutely incredible race, and he succeeded to finish in ’only’ 33 hours 47 minutes. It has been a real privilege and an unforgettable experience to have been part of his support crew together with Alessia de Matteis and his brother Aytug. Alessia was already a dear friend but I have won another in Aytug, and that has been another big bonus for me.

I am not really going to talk a lot about the race itself. You have to see it to believe it! Aykut has not yet published his race report but I am sure that it will make a fantastic read. Instead, I want to focus on my own experience as a support crew member for a Spartathlon runner in the hope that it will benefit future runners and supporters.  

 



Most ultra marathoners in other races run without a support crew, and at Spartathlon there were also quite a number of athletes who ran solo, opting instead to leave drop bags at many support stations (there is no dropbag limit at the Spartathlon). But this means not only a possible loss of precious minutes at check points but also that the runner has to try to predict what needs he/she might have have during the race, which is very hard to do if you do not have previous experience on this course and distance.

We were all rookies in this task. None of us had any experience as support crew, but all of us have long distance running experience. Aytug is a relatively new runner but has already ran 3 marathons in 12 months and knows the ultra mentality, Alessia is a very fast and experienced marathoner and ultramarathoner, and I managed to complete the 80k Iznik Ultra in Turkey last year. I think it would be much harder for someone without personal experience of long-distance running culture to provide the right kind of support, as it would be much more difficult to empathize with what the runner will or will not need during the race.

Aykut sent us a mail before the race telling us specifically that he wanted us to help him finish the race, not to get alarmed, not to believe him if he said he wanted to quit, “even though I could sound very convincing” :) He also warned us not to take it personally if he got short-tempered or angry. (In the end, he was always appreciative and polite, and the thought of quitting never seemed to occur to him even during very difficult moments). Also, just before the race, all of us went over the course together and he told us what he wanted to be reminded of, things to do, things not to forget, things he might need, things we should offer him and where. I think that both the mail and this pre-race meeting helped us all tremendously. The runner has to be able to trust his/her crew unconditionally. If not, it might turn into an additional challenge for the runner. Similarly, the crew must be convinced of the runner’s commitment to finish, otherwise it could be hard to make the right choice in difficult moments.

 



The 246 kilometres of the Spartathlon must be completed in under 36 hours, running mostly on tarmac, often among traffic, under the biting sun or rain, and at night on the steep mountain trail. Spartathlon runners have to have a very strong ultra marathon running experience for both distance and speed (The easiest qualification requirement is to have run 100k in 10.5 hours!) Despite this, only about 40% of all participants manage to complete it each year, some years the percentage is around 20%. This year the completion rate was quite high (!) with about 55% as weather conditions were relatively favourable.

All Spartathlon runners are soldiers with an iron will and strong discipline, though some may not look the part. Especially some of the Japanese women seemed so small and frail, it was amazing to seem them speed ahead like it was nothing. All competitors we met were really lovely people. The famous quote that “the marathon is a humbling experience” is six times as true for the Spartathlon.

All around I saw support crews simply “just being there” for their runners, quietly but efficiently seeing to their runner’s needs without making too much of a fuss. Even moral support and encouragement has to be measured and credible. I remember getting a poison look from Aykut when I told him at some point that the map showed only a “minor bump” ahead. Easy to say when you’re in a car and you haven’t just run 195k, he said, rightly :) On the other hand, a sincere motivational message from the heart at the right moment might just save the race for a runner. As our friend Pavlos said, you quickly learn to read your runner’s needs the moment he/she arrives at the station. Although we were a rookie team, we all felt we did quite a good job.

 



At the mountain base station, just before the notorious 1200 m Bey Ladder climb on Mount Parthenos at 159k, Aykut had a bit of a low point. He said he was aching badly all over, his quads were screaming, he had awful blisters on his feet, had just emptied the entire contents of his stomach, and was low on morale. Stomach troubles with vomiting and diarrhea are a common thing in ultra marathons, but Aykut was really suffering. After giving him warm clothes, a cup of lukewarm packet soup and some dressing for the blisters, we sent him off into the pitch dark mountain with the toughest part of the course still in front of him. We could do it because we were absolutely sure that this is what he would want us to do to help him finish the race.

When we are under real threat, all of our body’s wonderful natural chemical reactions kick in that anaesthetize pain, give extra strength to our muscles, sharpen our senses. But Spartathlon runners fight a ghost battle and all of the body’s natural systems are pulling the other way. Runners must therefore prepare themselves not only for tremendous physical resilience but also for mental and emotional challenges.

Aykut went up the mountain in bad shape and came down in his best shape since the beginning of the race. We saw this ‘Lazarus effect’ in other runners also, magically coming back from the dead to arrive at the next station “fresh as a flower”, as Alessia jokingly remarked. In fact, he told us afterwards that he went up the mountain quite fast and ran all the way down, overtaking at least a dozen people!

 



The human mind is a wondrous place. And so is the body. Nestani, the station after the mountain, will always have a special place among my Spartathlon memories, reminding me of the unbelievable strength people are able to muster when they really need and want to. So, never jump to conclusions just because you see a runner have a bad moment or difficulties; he/she may well recover well beyond your expectations after an hour or so of internal dialogue. Also don’t just assume that things will continue to go well - continue to be alert and supportive until the very end. I have heard several stories about runners who had to give up the race in the last few kilometres because of some sudden trouble or injury.

The Spartathlon begins at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens and ends at the foot of the Statue of  King Leonidas in Sparta. It was very, very moving to watch these last moments. All aches and pain were gone from the runners’ faces, most ran the last few metres up to the statue, feeling immense relief when they finally touched the statue after having run 246 kilometres in under 36 hours. I watched at least 30-40 finishers, including several women. None cried. But all of us did.

The organization and volunteers were wonderful and it was lovely to see how encouraging and supportive all our Greek friends were, and how generous their applause was for their first ever Turkish Spartathlon runner. Special thanks to Pavlos Diakoumakos for the wonderful advice and all the precious help; also to Dimitris Troupis of Advendure for his friendship and support at all stations.

 



Here are some notes of advice for future first-time Spartathlon teams:

Competitors:

 

  • If you have the choice, pick long-distance runners for your support crew. Make sure they have an idea of what expects them. This is a serious volunteer job, don’t just bring someone along. 
  • Agree beforehand what you expect your support crew to do for you - openly and clearly, so there is no room for misunderstanding. Even better, put it in writing.
  • Let your crew know immediately what works and what doesn’t work for you. Appreciate the help you’re getting but don’t worry about their comfort or feelings. They are there to help you make it to Sparta.

 



Supporter Crews:

 

  • Put thought into planning your support effort before the race. Try to talk to someone with previous Spartathlon experience as a supporter or runner. 
  • Sleep well before the race, you’re not going to get any during the next 36 hours. You have to be alert to help efficiently and to drive safely.
  • Good logistics are critical. A support crew must function like a mobile support station. You must have all the materials (food, energy drinks, snacks, clothing, shoes, lamp, batteries, charges, medical supplies, towel, blanket etc.) ready and well-organized at each station before your runner arrives). Cars can get really littered several hours down the road. Shallow boxes are better than bags. 
  • Make sure you know how to get from one check point to the other. There are Spartathlon signs on the roads which you can follow but it’s not always very straightforward. Have maps or GPS tracking. Don’t be late and don’t get lost.
  • There are 14 check points at the Spartathlon where support crews can supply their runners. Agree on the amount of time the runner wants to spend at the check point at the moment of arrival and remind him/her that time is up. There are about twice as many more checkpoints just for the runners with water and simple supplies. All stations had the necessary essentials but seemed a bit low on variety. If you can, arrange especially for some proper hot soup and at least one hot meal, especially during the night, and coffee on the endless hilly stretch in the last third of the course. 
  • Make a list of the things you have to remind the runner of (change of clothes, batteries, extra materials, taking of electrolytes/gels etc.) on the course list, making notes for each checkpoint. 
  • Spartathlon cuf-off points are very critical. You need to remind your runner of his/her cut-off advantage at each check point, as well as distance and maximum time to the next cut-off. 
  • Don’t downplay or exaggerate difficulties ahead. Don’t smother your runner with too much attention. Don’t reflect your anxieties or concerns. Don’t panic.  Don’t ask whether he/she has pains or wants to quit. If the runner says he/she wants to quit, give him/her time to think it over again and then again. Be alert to needs. Offer but don’t insist. Know how to get medical help or rescue if needed. Give motivation generously, stay positive throughout. And be fast.


Most importantly, enjoy the experience! The next best thing to running the Spartathlon yourself is helping someone else to do it…


Suna Altan

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