Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Road to Sparta - book review


My initial reaction to The Road to Sparta is mixed. "There are always ups and downs during an ultramarathon," Dean Karnazes states. The same goes for this book.

On the positive side I was happy to finally be able to read Dean's Spartathlon 2014 race report. The ten chapters (19-29) about the actual Spartathlon experience are the best part. It's all vintage Karnazes including battles with blisters, nausea, fans, journalists, traffic, air pollution, hallucinations, sleep running and out of body experiences.

It was interesting to learn how even a seasoned pro ultrarunner can find it challenging to finish those 246km from Athens to Sparta within the 36-hour cutoff time. Amazingly there is a Vertical K skyrun (a mountain trailrun ascending 1000m by night) in the middle of this road ultramarathon.

The trouble with the remaining twenty chapters is that they must pale by comparison. I found all the  historic stuff borderline boring. I couldn't help feeling slightly sleepy while tracing the genealogy of Dean's calves and stuff like that. But I appreciate it was a 'voyage of self-discovery' for him.

Also way too many pages were decorated by unnecessary adjectives, cliches, Greek words and quotations. Don't be afraid to skip a little here and there - you won't miss anything essential.

References to marathon (both the victory and the modern running race named after it) could have easily been left out. First, the distance from Marathon to Athens is shorter than 42.2km. Second, Marathon was never featured in ancient Greek Olympics. Third, there is no proof that Pheidippides ever ran from Marathon to Athens. It may have been another messenger. In any case Persians invaded Greece a decade later, so the victorious Greek nike-moment was relatively short-lived.

I found it a bit weird that to relive the Pheidippides experience, Mr. Karnazes chose to eat only authentic ancient Greek foods like figs during Spartathlon. I doubt it's so easy to make it feel the same. The roads didn't exist at the time, so it had to have been trailrunning all the way. Also the runners were barefoot or had simple gear like sandals at best, as they weren't sponsored by The North Face.

Another issue is that to really recreate the epic journey of Pheidippides in 490 BC, one would expect Mr. Karnazes to run the same way back just the way the original Ultramarathon Man did. After all, ultrarunners like Marvelous Mimi have successfully completed Double Spartathlon.

Greeks invented democracy. Unfortunately our modern democracies are in ruins much like ancient architecture. We may have saved the banks, but possibly somehow lost the concept of 'rule by people' in the process.

Dean observes: "Suddenly witness to the brutal realities pervasive in this world, I found it impossible not to recognize that in 2,500 years of conflict and warfare between men and nations, not much had changed... Like Greece itself, the Spartathlon had been a dichotomous experience."

In summary, if Dean's first book Ultramarathon Man inspired you to run longer distances a decade ago, you'll probably enjoy reading this one as well. Surely in tough times we can be a bit like Dean in Spartathlon: "I won't give up without a fight."

The Road to Sparta: Trailer from Barney Spender on Vimeo.


Monday, December 26, 2016

Die Hard 50 Mile Christmas Training Run


In a recent Talkultra podcast Zach Miller discussed (transcript of the interview by Ian Corless) his impressive victory of 2016 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships and mentioned: 'But you never go out there and race a full 50 miles in training.'



I started brainstorming right there how to fix that this Christmas. I must run a 50 Mile training run!


Christmas Day, 7:02am. I'm getting out to run 50 miles on familiar local trails. The weather is great with slightly above 0°C temps. I start my GPS, turn on my headlamp and head into the darkness. I have prepared well for this - by watching Die Hard the previous night.

Welcome to the party, pal.


Fast forward to evening, 70.8K down. I'm home for my third and last 'aid station' visit to grab food. I'm tired. My legs hurt. I crave for energy, but lack appetite. I feel like it would make sense to quit this stupid training run now. I've hit the Great Wall.

Please don't let me die.



Then I realise Die Hard's bad guy Hans Gruber represents that familiar voice in our head rationalizing us into giving up.

Happy trails, Hans.

I drag myself out to shuffle in the final 10K. I see very few people, certainly not any runners.


80.7km down. I stop my GPS. It's 9:40pm. I finish Die Hard 50 Mile Training Run in 14 hours 38 mins.

If this is their idea of Christmas, I gotta be here for New Year's.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Running Man - book review


I'm guilty of several DNFs, but this book I finished fast. I found Running Man both interesting and inspiring. What's more, Charlie Engle can write and tell a story.

I have followed Charlie Engle with some interest since Running The Sahara came out. I liked the epic documentary produced by Matt Damon. Then I found out he has has done a lot of adventure, bike triathlon and ultrarunning races.

However this is not primarily a book describing all of his races. The most compelling parts of the book are about the crazy ideas he has filled his wild life with: booze/drugs, running across Sahara, and simulating 135-mile Badwater in prison.

The main take-away point from the book is that life is all about adaptation - it's not the circumstances we are dealt that define us.

Running Man is the best endurance sports memoir since Rich Roll's Finding Ultra. Run and get it.