Race Report 2019: Sergei Ovchinnikov

Race Report 2019: Sergei Ovchinnikov

I guess you don’t know me. Let’s talk straight. I’m an ordinary person “incapable of running 100 kilometers in 10 hours” (this was what one good coach once called me). 

It took me six years to realize that I was a lame runner, but it was too late to give up. I ventured too far with all those races, and there was no way back. Contending for prizes is not really my thing, and neither are pulse checks or trumpeting my VO2max results. I don’t even have a training plan, and you will never learn from me how to get ready and run 246 kilometers from Athens to Sparta in one go. Forget about your heart rate, your pace, and other sports thingies. Otherwise, you simply won’t have enough glycogen to get through to the end of this story. I am only going to tell you about Spartathlon as viewed by a regular participant. And now, when everyone has left and we are here alone, my dearest reader, I will tell you all this story.
 
“Dear passengers! Our plane has started the descent, and in a couple of minutes it will land in the airport of Athens,” the captain gibbered above the roaring engines. Our airliner was taking a sweep over the sea, heeling over. Sun beams were dancing around the cabin, and Anton and I were peering out towards west, along the sea shore, over the mountains with Sparta beyond them. No distinct Athenian buildings could be discerned from such a height; they fused into a smooth cloud, raveling over the web of roads. Only lone white dots of ships were visible in the blue sea. “Why didn’t they give him a horse?” I thought about the ancient warrior Pheidippides, whose steps we were going to follow. In 490 BC, he ran all the way down to Spartans to ask for assistance. Pheidippides knew that lives of his fellow citizens depended on his ability to reach Sparta on time. However, participants of Spartathlon have less ambitious challenges to complete: to scratch their ego, to make their parents happy, to meditate on some eternal things…
 

I first read about Spartathlon in a book by the great Scott Jurek a couple of years ago. At that time, this event seemed so grandiose and strenuous that I didn’t even consider taking part in it. It wasn’t for me. It was only for tough people. That distance was too long. I couldn’t believe I could manage a distance of 246 kilometers in one attempt. I decided to qualify for Spartathlon a few minutes before the Ultimate 100 Miles around Elton Lake in May 2018. There was no time to read Spartathlon rules; I heard my friends saying at the start that you had to run 164 kilometers faster than in 16 hours. And so I set off to qualify. An adventure at its finest. A year before, it had taken me about 24 hours to hit the same distance in similar weather. Would I manage to win as many as 8 hours from myself? Luckily, instead of this question, there was an answer to it spinning in my mind — “Impossible is nothing,” as advanced triathletes say. Alas, closer to the finish my hopes were dashed: I was 30 minutes behind, and I was unable to win them back. As soon as I crossed the finish line, I was amazed to learn that I had had it wrong. To qualify for Spartathlon, I had to complete it in under 16 hours and 40 minutes, and my timing was 16:28! Tirelessly, I leapt for joy with my sons, who had met me at the tape.

In two days Anton, I and some other cool guys from Russia would be standing on the start at Acropolis accompanied by the best runners from across the globe. Would I manage it? Was I ready? Unlike Anton, I’d never run such a distance, especially over the rugged terrain and in hot weather like that. My brain was desperately summoning reasons which could prevent me from breaking the tape. I was sitting in my airplane chair, when a sudden fear of crushing flushed through me, although I wasn’t afraid of traveling by air. “If the pilot fails to land the plane, I will never make it up to the start and will never finish the race,” thoughts tumbled around in my mind. However, if I was worried not about my chances but about such an unlikely outcome, I must have been ready for the marathon. And yet, I had a few grounds to make me feel confident. My drills were unsystematic. Occasionally, I ran from work back home, and a month before Spartathlon Anton and I had walked 180 kilometers from Vyborg to St. Petersburg — so much for the workout. I guess confidence must be a result of stupidity. When you don’t understand how dangerous something is, you feel like a young snotty-nosed racer.

A month ago, during a race in Vyborg, I had some serious digestion issues that had caused me some trouble before, too. At long distances, a strong stomach is much more important than strong legs, and it kept failing me. However, for some reason I wasn’t pondering on that matter, and I was even ready that they would lose my luggage packed with energy supplements. One of the valuable things in my bags was a book by the famous Dean Karnazes, whose autograph I intended to get before or after the finish. I wanted to give that book to Boris as a present, as we were going to run on his birthday. Although Boris didn’t run with us, I dedicated this race to my dearest friend in acknowledgement of him introducing me to the delightful world of sport.

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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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