ROUT is a 100 mile ultra marathon that travels through the Rodopi Mountains National Park in Northern Greece. The mountains are wild and the forests virgin. Bears claim home in the mountains amongst other animals. last year, I crossed the ROUT finish line with my friend Jakub Hajek in 29 hours and 15 minutes, it was a wonderful experience and a testament of true friendship, so I have returned this year.
Only problem is I’ve been doing zero activity whatsoever in the last few weeks since the UTMB. The result of this laziness caused my muscles to stiffen leaving me sore and tight. Then after a series of stretches in my fathers kitchen I was unable to walk. Spending 3 days either in a wheelchair or on crutches, my future completion of ROUT seemed impossible.
It’s a little before 6am, the air is cool and the sun is yet to rise. I’m standing at the start of the ROUT. I’m risking a DNF (Did not finish) but I’m prepared for this, I am fully aware I might fail but what have I to loose. If my legs give up on me at least I’ll know I tried.
We run down a dirt road which will continue for another 7k until a right turn when we will enter the forest. I see Matthew Maday, a cool guy from America I met here last year. We chat a little before getting lost but it’s only for a short time and are soon back on track. Matt tell’s me how he had a test of faith after his 100 mile Western States Endurance run this year. He says he just couldn’t find the motivation to run afterwards and even wanted to quit ultra all together. Pressure Matt says was the reason, so treating ROUT as a group run will be his approach.
Now if I try to write what happened during the entire race you the reader I’m sure will become bored and so I will do my best to only include the significant sections of more interest.
Running downhill for so long eventually causes me to limp and my left inner thigh muscle hurts, so I decide that at the next check point (Zarkadia 1) I will retire from the race. Finally approaching Zarkadia 1 some people to my left cheer and clap as I come close to them. My mind has given up, my body is failing me and so I feel the applause is unjust, I lower my head in shame with a shy smile on my face.
I’ve travelled 40 kilometres through the mountains, Its taken me 5 hours so far and has pretty much been downhill from the start. I’m not upset nor disappointed, I was prepared to fail and that’s what has happened.
I see Xristos Tallas the race director, he’s such an inspiring guy, full of positive energy he sits me down, I tell Xristos I’m done and would like to retire. Standing in front of me Xristos puts both his hands onto my shoulders, looks at me eye to eye and say’s you cannot quit now there is a climb ahead, continue and you will find your rhythm.
His support is encouraging and so I decide to have some soup and reconsider. Then an English fellow named Owen whom I do not know comes across to me asks where I’m from. He tells me it’s interesting to see the different personalities of the runners during this point, mostly excitedly shouting and loud. Owen says how I’m calm and relaxed. Something about Owens presence encourages me and gives me strength. I decide to continue as it’s a climb ahead as Xristos has told me.
I’m running like a child, free from life’s pressures and responsibilities. Xristos was right the uphill gave my body time to adjust and I have found my rhythm. I have no pain in my body at all, in fact I feel the complete opposite, confident and have even found a new strength making my way towards 15th position. I battle with a runner as we run down the side of a mountain, I’m close behind him, we travel fast as if almost close to the finish. My adrenaline is high as the runner in front steps to the side and tells me to continue, eventually I can’t hear his foot steps, he’s lost the battle.
I ran out of food 2 hours ago, I search my backpack for a gel but find nothing. My water bottles are empty and my mouth dry. I run forwards but now and then stagger to the side almost falling over feeling dizzy. I am so stupid I packed enough food to run for about 21 hours and thats how long I’ve been running for but I still have another 60 kilometres to go. 20 kilometres ahead is Zarkadia 2 where I will find hot food, drinks and my drop bag with more gels. It’s a long way to go I’m already done. After a few kilometres I arrive at the last small checkpoint before Zarkadia 2, I tell them my race number and ask if they have any spare water. the young man shakes his head. I leave feeling sorry for myself.
The hunt is on, the runners I past before are now chasing me down like a wounded animal. I really do not know how I’m going to make it to Zarkadia 2. I can feeling my body using fat stores as energy. I think I see a runners head torch but it’s the moon’s reflection in a river to my right. Somehow the final kilometres before Zarkadia 2 pass by and I can smell fire burning ahead as well as hearing voices.
People cheers as I enter the checkpoint, I feel as if I have survived an apocalypse. Sitting down I go to work, yes I’ll have a blanket, yes I’ll have a bowl of soup. I change my socks with only 40k to go I feel its unnecessary but so anyway. I down a cup of cola whilst stuffing cold salted boiled potatoes into my pockets yuk. Other runners have arrived smiling and looking fresh, I get up and leave not wanting to be passed but know it’s only a matter of time as I still feel weak and deficit of energy.
The soup with meat hasn’t given me the energy I needed, eventually the sugar and caffeine wear off from the cola and I’m back to where I started before arriving at the checkpoint. I’m climbing up the last mountain before I will reach the checkpoint where Jakub will be volunteering (he’s not running this year). I know when, if I get there that’s it for me, I know I have given it my all. It’s not my body that failed me but rather my common-sense, packing food for only the first 100k was a rookie mistake.
My energy is so low now I even start to fall asleep as I proceed to go up the mountain. I hear runners behind, turning to see head torches I know this time it’s for real not the moon’s reflection.
I get passed by a runner from Cypress, he looks strong and this makes me feel even weaker. Shortly after I arrive at where my friend Jakub is, my first words are wear can I sleep. Lying in a warm sleeping bag I deicide thats it, my race is over. Jakub asks how long before he wakes me, I reply 30 minutes…. Kristian its time, I awake and ask Jakub for another 30 minutes, again as if I’ve shut my eyes having only taken one deep breath, Jakub wakes me, Please 30 minutes again. Finally Jakub wakes me and says time to go, I ask this time for just 10 minutes. I get up rested, not tired but still hungry, there is no food here and I decide to carry on till the last checkpoint with food “Prasinada 2”.
No longer tired but without energy I make my way towards Prasinada 2, I look at my watch and laugh, only 1hr and 10 minutes passed since arriving at Jakub’s checkpoint. He must have been fooling me with the sleeping time, good thing as I do not want to be passed by anymore runners, whilst I slept at least 6 runners passed by.
I have done it, I have actually somehow made it to Prasinada 2. I will now restore my energy fully, there is no other way to continue forwards. The staff here are kind and feed me traditional Greek soup, I also eat chocolate, chips, drink 3 cups of cola and finish off with a hot, sweet coffee. Before I leave the Greek man who has been looking after me fills my pack with gels and bananas, he tells me the rest of the way to the finish I can run without hiking as its mostly downhill. I leave and receive a round of applause and cheers of encouragement.
With a new battery in my head torch the ground in front of me brightly glows. I’m running now, my energy back. Thats all it was before just a lack of energy. I take over my central governor and run hard down the mountain, overriding my minds natural self preservation and safety mode. Thats what ultra is, the ability to take control of your mind, body by sheer determination of your heart and spirit.
I pass 3 runners as if Im running a 5k, utter abandonment and freedom. I have just started, the past 150 kilometres are done they no longer matter, getting to the finish is all that counts. Last year Jakub and I hiked this final section, It’s a gentle uphill of 7 kilometres. I want to run it all without any hiking. A storm fills the sky above and rain crashes down, creating small rivers of water. Up till now I have done my best to keep my feet dry but so close to the finish I no longer care as I run through the collection of puddles and streams.
I’m running uphill and having the last laugh against ROUT which has broken me already so many times. I see a runner ahead who’s walking in the heavy rain with his jacket on. I run by him smiling, he looks at me and say’s a word in Greek I interpret as crazy man. I leave him behind knowing the faster I run, the sooner I will finish. Now and then my shoulders become tight and my minds says come on enough walk this section, I look at my watch and see if I can run the last 5k in 30 minutes I will finish in under 29 hours, so fight hard against the desire to walk.
I hear bells ringing and know I’m close to the finish. I see a sign that reads 750 meters to go, I’ve pretty much done it. I turn off the dirt road and can now see parked cars and electric lights, I run the wrong way missing the finish line only to get told to run back to enter the finish correctly, I do so with complete happiness and joy.
Xristos was at the finish last year and is hear again this year. After what seems a lifetime I cross the finish line, again Xristos puts his hands on my shoulders as he stands in front of me, looking me in the eyes he says you did it, I respond, no Xristos it was your encouragement that got me here. Sofia a Greek girl comes over and places a medal around my neck congratulating me. It’s raining hard as I head over to the warm wooden cabin, opening the door I walk inside. The hot roaring fire is surrounded by what I can only describe as ultras human beings who have encountered everything that I have, I take my place next to the fire and we share stories of triumph.
Earlier towards the end of ROUT whilst passing through a dense forest I asked god a question, “If you exist god show me a sign, I want to see a bear”. For the next 30 minutes I scanned the landscape around me for a wild bear but god failed me and I didn’t see one.
After sharing stories with the other runners around the fire I return to my tent to rest. The rain has now turned into hail and beats down upon my tent intensely.
FLASH, BANG… Its the brightest light I have ever seen. The storm is directly above me. I’m certain the next bolt of lightening will strike me. I jump up and run back towards the log cabin, shouting out loud please god no more signs.