Race Report 2019: Aykut Celikbas

Race Report 2019: Aykut Celikbas

The sun is finally going down and I'm running among the olive trees on a winding road which leads to the village of Halkion at around 113 km.

A few moments later, I come side by side with Dietmar Göbel from Germany. I remember seeing him almost every year. We start talking and I ask him how many times he has run the race. "I started 9 times and finished 6 of them. It's always the same race but every year it’s a totally different experience" he says. I remember his son Thore becoming the youngest finisher of the race in 2016 when he was just 18 years and 4 days old. This year they are both running again but Dietmar says Thore was very close to the cut-off at the 80K checkpoint.
 
As I'm talking to Dietmar I think about my brother Aytug, who is now also running somewhere further back. I wonder where he is and how he's doing. It's been 11 hours since we started our journey that would take us all the way from the Acropolis of Athens to the town of Sparta – 246 kilometers to be covered on foot in maximum 36 hours. On one level, I'm just trying to get my fifth Spartathlon finish in five attempts but with Aytug's presence, there's more at stake. As brothers, we are trying to achieve the rare feat of both finishing the same Spartathlon race. Plus, this is first time in race history where there's more than one Turkish runner on the starting line. Our friend Mert is also going for his second finish.
 
The three of us run the first few kilometers together until Mert decides to run a bit faster and disappears. I tell Aytug that we need to put in a couple of walking breaks during the first 10K. Even though the pace feels fine, I don't want to do something stupid when everything feels so easy. However, just after we enter the highway around 10K, my pace is just a bit faster than his. I don't want him to push himself this early because this could have catastrophic consequences later on in such a long race.
 
As we had agreed pre-race that each one of us would run at his own comfortable pace, I pick up speed and we separate, having promised each another once again to make it to Sparta no matter what. As I'm slowly moving ahead,  I have no doubt that this is the right decision for both of us. Aytug crewed for me in 2014 and 2015 and therefore knows this race well. He moved to Toronto 2.5 years ago and since then his sole training focus has been the Spartathlon. When he came to Turkey for holidays at the beginning of August, we ran 400 kilometers together in two weeks and I knew then he was both physically and mentally ready to take on this challenge. At this moment, the best thing I can do is to focus on my own race and do whatever is necessary to reach Sparta in under 36 hours.
 
Just like Dietmar said, every Spartathlon has its own story. 
 
This year’s main storyline quickly becomes obvious: Heat! It looks like it will be a hotter than average Spartathlon and, more importantly, it'll be hot for two days straight.  For the first three hours, there are some clouds to give us a little bit of breathing room but as I'm approaching the town of Megara there's nowhere to hide. The town signifies the ending of the first of the six marathons that we need to complete and I run the last kilometers with IanThomas. Going for his 5th consecutive finish, Ian is a good friend and one of the most experienced members of the British team. As the race clock shows 3:39, I see my crew for the first time. I take my handheld water bottle, some gels, and continue without stopping.
 
Suna is once again in the support crew. This is her fifth time and she knows the race inside out. Every year she gets ready with time charts, various lists and everything as if she's running herself. Caner is an old friend who's crewing for the first time. He's an experienced ultrarunner himself and also the RD of some of the biggest ultra and trail races in Turkey. He has quite a bit of experience on both sides of the sport.
 
Since Aytug was running for the first time, it was important for him to have an experienced crew. So according to the original plan, Suna and Caner would be supporting Aytug and I was going to run solo this year. But as the race date approached, my best friend Budak told me that he'd like to come to crew for me. On paper it looked like a risky decision so close to the race but since we knew each other well I knew it was going to be great. He came to Sparta with his family to watch my first finish in 2014, but he wasn't a runner at that time, so I don't think he fully understood the significance of this race. But he started running since then and has finished a number of long races, including his first 100 miler this April. He plans to run the race in the future so it was going to be a good learning experience for him, too. 

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Described as the world's most grueling race, the Spartathlon runs over rough tracks and muddy paths (often it rains during the race), crosses vineyards and olive groves, climbs steep hillsides and, most challenging of all, takes the runners on the 1,200 meter ascent and descent of Mount Parthenio in the dead of night.
This is the mountain, covered with rocks and bushes, on which it is said Pheidippides met the god Pan.

Spartathlon is the event that brings this deed to attention today by drawing a legend out of the depths of history. The idea for its creation is belongs to John Foden, a British RAF Wing Commander. As a lover of Greece and student of ancient Greek history, Foden stopped his reading of Herodotus' narration regarding Pheidippides, puzzled and wondering if a modern man could cover the distance from Athens to Sparta, i.e. 250 kms, within 36 hours.

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