Sunday, 10 August 2014

Running With The Gods. Mount Olympus Marathon.

Zeus Throne Mount Olympus.
I had first heard of The Mount Olympus Marathon when it was shown on a TV programme called Joanna Lumley's Greece. She was traveling around Greece exploring its culture and history. I said to my girlfriend at the time I wanted to do that one day. It looked pretty tough which was the attraction. I think at the time I had  just completed one marathon. The Brighton Marathon, a flat road marathon which I had found fairly easy. I had looked Into Mount Olympus Marathon a couple of years ago but felt then my experience was lacking to compete in it.

But having completed a number of marathons and ultras. I thought the time was now right.I also fancied a little holiday. It would not be everyone's idea of holiday running up 2700 meters of   mountain, but it's my sort of holiday. So I set about planning and it was very straight forward. The Olympus Marathon website has some useful info on it about how to get there.

I registered on the Friday in Litchoro and managed to sort out my taxi to the race. As luck would have it  I was able to sort out the buses for my journey back to Thessaloniki. I had to get two buses to get to Litchoro which took 2 hours. But it was cheap and not really difficult. After I registered I had something to eat then went back to my hotel to relax.
I never really have an issue with sleeping the night before a race. But whilst I had been away from hotel a load of children had turned up at the hotel and whomever was in charge was not doing a good job. I eventually got to sleep after 1am having to get up at 4.00 am. I woke up feeling a little groggy. My taxi arrived and I was off. It took 45 minutes to get to where the race started.
Race Start.

Race start was situated at the archaeological site of Dion, 3 meters above sea level. It was warm as I got out of the taxi and made my way to the start. There were other runners milling about. I found where the bag drop was. I looked around trying to spot any other British runners but could not spot any. I was enjoying the atmosphere. It was strange to be at a marathon and not know anyone. I started to do some dynamic stretching and two women came along and took some pictures of me. It was a great feeling to be on an international start line for a race. I had been feeling sick since I had gotten up but with the excitement this had gone.We all gathered at the start line, 600 of us. Music blaring waiting for the off. At exactly 6.05 am the race started.
The Start Line.
I had not got as close to the front as I had wanted.  I wanted to do this so  I would  not be slowed on the climb up. Running through Dion I felt sluggish. Maybe it was just the time. In the UK it would be 4.05am. I reminded myself the first few miles were always a bit slow. We had about 5k of road work to do before we came onto a path that started us on the Olympus foot hills and we had a good view of the mountains. ( alt.150m) we followed a path for another 1 km.

Making our way into The Mountain.
Then we started on the mountain trail that we would follow for the next 36 km.The beginning of the trail is mainly a mix of bush that goes up through a ravine of Orilas. It is a moderate trail with many twists and turns and not many rocks at this point. On most of this section a stream can be seen or heard. There are a few waterfalls. It is cool and I am finding my legs have now come alive. I like the hills!  At one of the little streams/waterfall a runner slips and cuts his hands on a jagged rock edge. He gets up and carries on moving forward.  This won't be the first cut and bloodied person I see today. The climbs are getting a bit steeper now. It is humid as I hit the second aid station. Aid station 2 Orlias is at the top of a steep climb, the drinking  water is cold and fresh and appreciated,  trip distance 8.5 km alt 740. There are plenty of red cross first aiders to hand as there is all along the route. I hurry through, everyone is moving fairly quick.
The Trail starts to climb.
The path is very narrow and difficult to get past other runners. The majority don't want to let you pass and to try and get around them quick would expend unnecessary energy. I want to save that for later. I know my endurance levels are good.  At 9km we reach a beautiful pine forest. It smells wonderful and the air here is cooling. I am on a dirt track. Pace is dictated by the person in front. But we were going at a reasonable pace at this time.  Koromilia is the next aid station just 1.9 KM away from the last, this makes a trip distance of 10.4 km reaching an altitude of 980m. 
After Koromillia we go back into the pine forest.  The smell is nice, fresh with pine scent and the air was cool although the sweat was just dripping off me and my top was stuck to me. So far my legs are ok but they were feeling the climbs. Underfoot here was soft trail with the odd rock thrown in. The path is wide here so no issues with passing people. I spend this part of the trail talking to a Greek guy. He tells me the last 12k or so is quite difficult. We head up to aid station Bara. I have some dry crackers and squash. I have been fueling on Olives so far and have a big sesame seed snap bar. The aid stations have water and a tonic, dry crackers and crisps. I grab a handful of crisps at each aid station for the salt. But I am also taking salt tablets every hour. This really helps me keep on top of cramps and being able to take enough water.

After Bara we came out on a ridge. The view of the southern part of the mountain is obscured by the clouds, which at first I thought was mist. The altitude here is already 1640 meters.  I am feeling a little tired at this point. Trying to run the little bits of flat are not easy, and  the hiking is hard. I have only travelled a distance of 13 km, but the climbs have been arduous. I concentrate on fueling and running the the bits of flat I find. No one says much. We are all locked into our own thoughts. Mine are just about getting to the top!

In general the trail is well marked with red hazard tape or a little business card sign telling you, you are on track. There are also spray painted arrows. You have to keep your eyes open. As I found you will come to a point where the trail looks like it has ended. But it has not. Its just a bit hidden.After another 2km I reach aid station 5 Pestrorouga. Its hard to believe I have only traveled 15km and its taken me 3 - 4hrs. I had taken this for granted in some ways and thought I would be travelling quicker. The next section is 2.4km and climbs from 1640 meters to 2425 meters. The air is becoming thinner and my breathing gets a bit laboured. I meet fellow Brit Tim Balchin. He has done the race before. And tells me how gutty the last 12k is. And if you can get your head around the ups and downs at the end you should be ok. 

Me and Tim spend some time chatting, working our way through open forest which is rocky with trees here and there. I am convinced I hear a rattle snake at one point which hurries me on. I am sure there are no rattle snakes in Greece. We come to a big open expanse, the trail is rocky and there is a big climb in front of us. Loose stones and jagged rocks make the going hard. The Air is thinner and everyone is working as hard as they can going up. Aid station 6 Skourta is at the top of this steep trail. It is out in the open. I wonder how the people have gotten up here to man the aid stations. I just stop for water. A lady fills my bottle for me. I punch on, now we have a steep climb that is more rocky, a well trodden trail presents it self that zig-zags. It make going up a bit easier. There is wind which is cooling. 

I am now past 18km I can see the main complex of the mountain peaks. It is breathtaking. I can see Zeus' Throne, this is where I am heading. It seems far away. The views are just stunning. I do not take it in at first. Then I see the drop below me. I feel the excitement energize me and I start to run. It is hard as the altitude is affecting me. Running along the trail I feel happy and free. I take time to film myself, the views and my obvious happiness. A dream come true. But just amazing to be in a sport that takes me to some awe-inspiring places. As the race is advertised running with the Gods. I feel humbled by the sheer scale of the mountain and being up in the clouds.

A short arduous climb now presents itself, the route is covered in sharp rocks. I keep my eyes open as I have done all the whole route. This part of the trail will lead me to the 'Mousses Plateau' I am now coming up to the highest part of the mountain. This is a high altitude meadow, there are stunning views of Zeus' Throne. I am roughly at an altitude of 2500+.

 I am running across the meadow with others. Heading towards Zeus' throne!
 I can see Aid Station Oropedio Mouson in the distance. I can hear people in the distance cheering and bells. The bells are on horses feeding on the grass. They have carried supplies up the mountain. Looking at Oropedio I am overcome with emotion. I start to well up and try not to cry. I hold it in by holding my breath. But get dizzy due to the altitude. I do not want anyone to see my emotions. I have seen and watched many times the clip on youtube that shows this part of the race. It's amazing to be here. I stop at the aid station and have some soup with rice in it. Very welcome it is too. I allow myself some time to savour this moment. 
From here I was making my way to the Zeus' Throne, being up this high I found my legs just did not want to run.  It felt odd. I could only run for short bursts. To my left on the trail was a 300ft foot drop. For some reason I never felt in  danger and even though the trail is not wide I did not worry. I could see people ahead of me in the distance under the throne. They looked tiny in comparison.  I was soon under it myself. 
The trail was less wide here and the drop was significant. I found running easier here, it was a slight downhill here. I was glad to be starting the descent. It was unbelievable but there were people at the end of this trail. God knows how they got there. But they were waiting to welcome us runners.  It looked like the trail just disappeared and we were going to walk or run off the edge on the mountain. I had reached the highest point 2690 meters.

From this point it was a lot of downhill. This was the bit I had been looking forward to. The trail was a zig-zag from here due to how steep it was. It was all loose stones and rocks. Easy to trip. I was hammering this bit and in my element. It was very technical and I was keeping my eyes on the trail. I had miles of this and I thought it could be hard work staying alert for that long. The trail kept twisting and turning. Some runners were taking it easy. I wanted to get past as I was flying, I jumped over some rocks and lost my balance. I slid on my arse for a bit then righted myself. But as I did my momentum picked up. I had no control and was now hurtling down the mountain heading right into the back of another runner. I had to grab him to stop myself. We both nearly took a tumble. I managed to keep myself upright and him. Luckily he was fine about this. 

After that I was a bit more cautious about running down these slopes. I made it down to refuge A aid station 8. The trail down had been hairy. Heading down to Prionia I was a bit more cautious. My next race, NDW 100, was more important and I wanted to be fit for that. It was good to be on the descent and I was enjoying myself. I met up with David Knell around this point. Another British runner we spoke at different sections as we met on the way down. It was getting easier to move as I came down.  The field had started to spread out. Coming back down into the alpine forests was nice. It was cooler, but the day was hotting up. 

Through Perionia which I cannot recall too much detail. I was just concentrating on my footing, but at this point I did twist my ankle badly. I stepped off this steep step as I was running and my ankle went right over. A bolt of pain went straight up into my head. Another runner stopped to see if I was ok. I said that I was fine. I sat for a few seconds until the pain subsided. I put some weight on my foot and it was fine. On some parts of the mountain on the way down there were man made steps. Trees were used for this and iron rods stuck in to the ground to hold the steps in place. Only problem was the rods came over the top of the step. The thought of slipping and getting impaled on these ran through my mind each step I took.

I met up with David again at Monastery Aid station. There was cold water running directly out of the mountain here and it was very refreshing. Leaving here I passed over a bridge and the trail was non-stop ups and downs from here. The running was difficult, you would get some flat or a downhill and come round a corner and be met with different terrain. Lots of stopping and starting I caught up with David a bit further ahead. He had some cramp and was waiting in the shade for it to go. Luckily I had some s-caps that I had been using. I offered David some and he caught up with me a short time later as I was taking some pictures. We ran the the rest of the race together. It was good to have his company. The next couple of aid stations we were grateful to reach due to running out of water so quickly. The rest of the course getting to these aid stations was challenging, loads of steps around each corner. It was like the steps at Jevington in places.

Running with David was good we knew we were going to make it and kept a nice steady pace. There was one point after aid station 12 Portes when we had a quite a climb up some rocks, the sun was beating down and we were both thinking the same, that Litchoro could not be far.  Getting to the top was such a relief as once there we could see Litchoro. The sun got to me here. I got in some shade took an s-cap and some water and headed on again. I have never drunk so much water on a race before. Running down this part of the course was great. We soon entered into the village. Children were waiting along the streets with bottles of cold water and the villagers cheered us along. I had a feeling of pride and elation. It had been a tough day, but one I had been grateful for. I had a real sense of achievement. Myself and David crossed the line together. Happy and with smiles on our faces.