Coach’s Corner: DDNF . . . How To Ensure You Don’t DNF

1.  Introduction:  Ultrasignup, DNFs, and the Tao of Taylor Swift.

Note #1:  I usually write this weekly article on Thursdays, but I’ll be in Arizona later this week for the Javelina 100.

Note #2:  While originally I was going to write this week about weightlifting and what role — if any — it should play in running, I decided to bump that to next week, due to Ultrasignup’s recent decision to start listing DNFs on each runner’s “results” page, and the buzz that decision has created in the ultrarunning community.

Obviously, the subject of DNFs invites a LOT of strong opinions/judgments, ranging the spectrum from “DNF is a mortal sin,” through “we should finish what we start,” all the way to “it just means ‘Did Nothing Fatal'”.

I have no interest in debating whether some sort of outside judgment/morality should be attached to someone else’s DNF, because to me, that is an easy question with an easy answer:  we all run for our own reasons/motivations, and judging others on their decision to stop running at any particular race seems silly (at best).  Personally, re DNFs, I suggest we adopt the attitude of noted poet laureate Taylor Swift, and simply “shake it off” when dealing with the acrimony that tends to surround the DNF discussion.


(“Just think.  While you’ve been getting down and out about DNFs in ultrarunning, you could’ve been getting down to this. sick. beat.”)

So let the haters hate (hate hate hate hate).  Personally, I’m much more interested in exploring the ideal mindset to ensure that when you toe the line at your next ultra, the only thing “DNF” will stand for is “did not fail.”

This article assumes that you place great value on finishing your next ultra, and want to ensure that you are successful in doing so.  So we are going to discuss what mindset is best suited for that goal.  (Note:  I’m also assuming that you are properly trained physically, which leads to the “rational confidence” necessary to complete the race).

As many of the GFOB’s (“Great Friends Of this Blog”) know, I have a very good friend who has a “no excuses” rule when it comes to races; he considers DNFs to be a “mortal sin.”  To protect his anonymity, let’s call him Flondrei Banana.  For Flondrei, if you break your leg at Mile 5 of a 100-mile race, you are a failure if you do not still finish the race.

Literally-speaking, Flondrei is correct:  you either finish the race or you do not, and if you don’t, you failed in finishing the race.  His core belief, though, is that there are simply no legitimate reasons to stop short of the finish line at an ultra.

church of andrei

(“I tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones.  I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan.  I know things.  I believe in the Church of Flondrei.”)

By the way, for any of you living in or near South Florida, the Church of Flondrei meets every Saturday and Sunday morning, all morning long, at the Rickenbacker causeway to Key Biscayne.  BYOT.  (Bring Your Own Tire).

I’m not going to go in-depth into Flondrei’s point about breaking a leg and still continuing, and I don’t really have to, because almost no DNFs are caused by acute physical injury, but rather by the wrong mindset, namely a lack of proper motivation to finish the race, coupled with listening to that very rational voice in your head telling you to stop.

In other words, the best raceday mindset to ensure success has two very simple components:  (1) a strong motivation at the start line to run and finish the race, and (2) a “no excuses” attitude during the race . . . dropping out is just simply not an option open to you.

Let’s now discuss both of those, mainly through the lens of my own past DNFs.  (After all, this is a coaching blog, and one of my primary goals in coaching is to pass along the things I’ve learned/experienced in this sport — both successes AND failures — so that others can hopefully gain a tip or two as well as avoid a pitfall or two).

First, though, as an aside, I really love the mental image of Flondrei at the steps of St. Peter’s Pearly Gates pleading his case to get into heaven despite his “mortal sin” of a DNF 🙂

St. Peters

(“But it was only ONE DNF…”)

2.  DNF Case Study No. 1:  Motivation and “Carnal Knowledge . . . Of a Lady This Time.”

In 2012, I had somewhat of a “breakthrough” year in ultrarunning.  I completed my first race over 100 miles (LOST 118, 2nd overall), I finished in the top 10 in both the Palm 100k and Keys 100, and then a few months later I lowered my 100-mile PR into the “17’s” (at the Beast of Burden 100 in Buffalo, New York, which I jokingly call “Leadville East,” as it’s traditionally run on the same day in August, and is basically the exact opposite of Leadville (BoB is completely flat and run along the Erie Canal Towpath…)

In other words, up through August, I already had a good year by most objective standards.  So why did I find myself at the start line of the Javelina 100 (called the Javelina “Jundred” or “JJ” for short) out in Arizona just two months later, around Halloween?  I didn’t have anything to prove out there, and, to be honest, I wasn’t really all that motivated to run anyway.  But yet, there I was.

Well, the honest reason I was out there is that I lived in Phoenix for six years before moving to Florida, I hadn’t been back for a while, it was Halloween weekend in Scottsdale, and I was excited to see Tony, one of my very best friends in the world.  On top of all of that, my favorite college football team — Notre Dame — was playing in its biggest game in years . . . a road contest against top-10 Oklahoma.  Talk about a great weekend . . . I just thought I’d combine it all with a run as well.

Bad idea.  I made it a grand total of 50k before I decided I’d rather watch the game with my friends at a packed Scottsdale bar . . . in costume of course:

Dave and Tony

(“Daverick” and Tony . . . as a member of the band Lonely Island)

Dave and Alex

(“I don’t know, Tony.  The bet doesn’t seem fair . . . to you, I mean.  But Alex has lost that lovin’ feeling.”)

In addition to hanging out with Alex and Tony, there was that little Notre Dame/Oklahoma game on as well.  In kindness to Oklahoma native and Zwitty runner Jon Kevin Cooper, I’ll just say I don’t remember how that game turned out.

Okay, that’s a lie.  It was a 30-13 drubbing by Notre Dame that catapulted them into the national championship picture while simultaneously wrecking Oklahoma’s chances.  Ah, memories.  Sorry, Kevin 🙂

Here’s my point:  with my true motivation for being out in Arizona — which had ZERO to do with running — I simply had no business signing up for JJ in the first place.

100-mile races are hard enough on their own, folks.  It is absolutely crucial that you show up at the start line with the right mindset.  In other words, you need to be motivated to (a) be there, (b) run that day, and (c) finish the race.  If you lack the motivation, you will likely not “find it” out on the course.

3.  DNF Case Study No. 2:  Badwater Blues and the DNF World Tour.

MC Hammer

(“I’ve DNFd around the world, from London to the Bay…”)

If the first half of 2012 was good to me, the winter and spring of 2013 was even better.  After that JJ DNF, I set course records my next two 100-mile races, ran and placed well in a few others, and then “won” the Keys 100 in May 2013.  (I use quotes because I won the “male” race; Brenda Carawan, a world-class runner from Texas, beat me by 14 minutes . . . which she will never let me forget) :).

All of that was leading up to my main race of the year, Badwater.  I had a good race and a great experience out there on one of the hottest race days ever (it got up to the mid-120s), and I finished in the top-15.


(It was even hotter out there than it looks in that picture…)

The recovery from a race as “big” as Badwater is not nearly as hard physically as it is mentally.  I went “all-in” preparing for the race last year, which not only comprised of a LOT of hard training, but also a huge mental toll of constantly thinking about the race in the months leading up to the race.  When the race was over, I was completely and utterly spent; I had a major case of the Badwater Blues.

Crying at finish

(Yep, I was openly bawling at the finish line; Badwater takes it out of you and strips you to the core!)

So what did I do?  Take some much-needed time off?  Nope, not even close.  I signed up for — and DNF’d — four consecutive races in the next two months, all the while hoping to somehow “recapture my motivation” or “find my passion” for running again during the races themselves.  My performance that year at Leadville East (Beast of Burden) was indicative of those DNFs.  I made it a whopping 25 miles before I said to Alex, “I don’t want to be out here right now.  I feel completely fine; I just don’t feel like running anymore today.”  In other words, I had my Forrest Gump moment.

Forrest Gump running

(“I’m tired . . . I think I’ll go home now.”  Great line for a movie, but not exactly the mindset you want to have during an ultra.)

4.  The Raceday Mindset to Avoid a DNF:  Bright Lines, Not Fifty Shades of Gray.

After my experiences in the fall of 2012 and 2013, I took some time off to regain my motivation for running 100s, and once I found it again, I adopted the stance that I would only start a race when I was fully committed mentally to finishing the race.  Today — having run 14 races of 100 miles or longer (sometimes much longer) — I don’t feel the need to “prove” anything to either myself or others, so that’s not why I’ve adopted the “if I’m not motivated, I won’t race” stance.  Rather, my position is pretty pragmatic in nature:  I have NEVER regretted gutting it out and finishing a 100-miler when I didn’t have my “A-game” that day, but I have ALMOST ALWAYS regretted a DNF to some degree or another.  (Well, except for that Javelina “50k” from 2012 . . . that was just a really fun night) 🙂

Anyway, the point is that in order to have a realistic shot of finishing an ultra — especially a 100-miler — you need to be “all in” from a mental standpoint when you start the race.  Anything less than total motivation/commitment, and you’re facing long odds.

But pre-race motivation is only one-half of the mental game.  What about during the race itself?  Let’s turn back to Flondrei and his “no excuses” mindset during races.  This is what legal scholars would refer to as a “bright-line” rule.  It’s black and white; no room for nuance or interpretation.  Either you finish (which is a success), or you don’t (which is a definitional failure).  His “no excuses” position means just that:  he QUITE LITERALLY sees no excuse or justification for stopping during a race as being legitimate.

In legal jurisprudence, the battle is often between a “bright-line” rule and a “reasonableness” standard, which takes into account all of the surrounding circumstances, the shades of gray, etc., that accompany any situation or decision.  Both schools of thought have obvious drawbacks.  First, bright-line rules, while easy to apply, can lead to absurd results (like calling someone who breaks his leg at Mile 5 a “failure” if he doesn’t finish a 100-mile race).  But the ease in applying a bright-line rule is also its strength:  it takes the guesswork out of all of the “gray” decisions (which, in ultras, are basically ALL in-race decisions).

And that guesswork is the major flaw of the “gray” or “reasonableness” school of thought, as applied to ultras, because we are part of an objectively irrational sport.  Even if you are motivated at the start line of an ultra, you will experience many moments of low motivation, desires to stop, low energy, pains (both real and imagined), etc.  In a race as long as 100 miles (or longer), there are always many, many rational reasons to stop running.

So for runners — especially first-time 100-milers — who want the absolute best shot of finishing the race, adopt the “bright-line” mindset:  simply do not allow yourself to stop; take that option off the table, right from the start of the race.  If you are willing to allow yourself to individually weigh each and every reason for which you feel like stopping during the race — and there will be many — you’ll probably fail.  If you are open to allowing for the possibility of stopping, you will likely eventually come up with a reason that convinces you to stop.  Here are just a few of the actual excuses/justifications I’ve heard over the past few years by people who have DNF’d a race:

  • “I tripped over a dog.” (Presumably the same dog that ate his homework as a kid);
  • “I had to bail my son out of jail.”
  • “I was too cold.”
  • “I got too hot.”
  • “My crew was getting bored” (i.e., the fake altruism reason)
  • “Notre Dame is playing Oklahoma and I want to watch the game while dressed as ‘Daverick'”
  • “I just don’t have ‘it’ today; I’ll just pack it in and do better next time.”

Again, I don’t care to debate whether any particular excuse/justification is “legitimate” or not.  Remember, when it comes to judging others, don’t.  Just practice the Tao of Taylor Swift 🙂

Rather, all I am saying is that if you want to finish the race, the best mindset is the “no excuses,” “bright-line” mindset.  Don’t allow your mind to be open to the possibility of stopping.  Because if you are open to stopping for some really good reason, you will almost surely conjure up that “really good reason” and DNF the race.

Of that list above, the “I just don’t have it today” excuse is one of the most dangerous, for several reasons.  First, everyone feels like shit at some point during the race, and says to himself/herself, “I just don’t have it today.”  Second, there is always another race on the horizon, so it’s easy just to say “I’ll just try it another day.”

Don’t have that mindset.  Instead, be Eminem.  Today — this race — is your “one shot, one opportunity.”  There is nothing else; just this race.

Lose yourself

(“You only get one shot, do not miss your chance . . .”)

The only caveat I would offer for the “no excuses” mindset is the case of acute injury.  Obviously if you break your leg, stop running.  If you tear an ACL, stop running.  If your injury is severe to the point you risk your running future if you finish the race, it is foolish to keep going.  But that being said, the vast, vast, vast majority of all race DNF’s are not because of acute injury.

If you just keep one immutable truth in your head for the entire race — “no matter how bad things get, I can always keep going and I’ll push through and come out on the other side” — you’ll do great.

This is a very hard sport you’ve chosen.  This shit ain’t easy.  It’s not supposed to be easy. (That’s kind of the point, right?)  You will have low points during a race.  Sometimes those lows will be unimaginably low; lower than you’ve ever felt in your life.  Those are the times when you need to focus, recognize that immutable truth up there, and just smile at the absurdity of just how low you are feeling.

At the 152-mile Spartathlon a month ago, I certainly did not have my “A” game.  (I didn’t really even have my “B” game, either.) 🙂  I had heat issues, stomach issues, energy issues, etc. etc.  I had plenty of rational reasons to stop, not the least of which I felt like crap at Mile 30 and still had over 120 miles to go.  And the “lows” just keep on coming in that race.  (There is a fricking MOUNTAIN from Miles 93-100; I mean, seriously?)  But it is precisely at those points in the race — where you are feeling your lowest of lows — that you need to smile at how hard it is, put your head down, and keep moving.  Stopping is not an option.  Even though I felt like crap, I knew I would finish and kiss the foot of King Leonidas because I did not allow myself to entertain quitting as an option.

Finish at foot

(Pilots don’t only fly when it’s sunny outside.  As spent and tired as I look in this picture, I felt 1000% better than if I would have stopped before reaching King Leonidas…)

4.  Conclusion.

Motivation in training and at the start line.  A “no excuses” attitude during the race.  Combine those two and you’ll make it to your King Leonidas at the finish line!

On that note, best of luck to all the runners headed out to the Javelina 100 this weekend, especially those with Florida ties, including local speedster Luke Smelser (running his first 100-miler and being crewed by his lovely wife Lisa), Lauren Hadley (running her first 100k), Tony Portera, Bill Wenner, Jodi Weiss, Mark Mccaslin, and Tracy Connolly (all running the 100-miler), as well as several other FUR-bies that will be there to help, including Michelle Matys, Melissa Middleton, Sergio Radovcic, and many others I’m sure.

As for me, I’ll also be running the 100-miler this weekend, and I like my chances, as Notre Dame is only playing Navy 🙂

Until next time, I hope everyone has a great week of training and racing!

Coach’s Corner: Allen Iverson Would Be a Terrible Ultrarunner (The Need for “Practice” . . . Specifically Speed Training)

1.  Introduction.

“It’s easy to sum it up if you’re just talking about practice.  We’re sitting here, and I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we’re talking about practice.  I mean listen, we’re sitting here talking about practice, not a game, not a game, not a game, but we’re talking about practice.  Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last, but we’re talking about practice man.  How silly is that?”

That, of course, was Allen Iverson’s infamous 2001 rant regarding the (lack of) importance of in-season NBA practices.  He mentions the words “practice” and “not a game” over 20 times to make the eloquent point that practices are, in fact, not as important as the games themselves.

In the NBA, for 82-game seasons, Iverson was almost surely correct.  With frequent back-to-back games (2 games in 2 nights, often in different cities), and sometimes 4-5 games in one week, NBA players and coaches place a premium on rest in those rare periods when they are not playing or traveling to the next city.  In-season practices aren’t used to develop strength, stamina, or even team cohesiveness.  Rather, all of that is primarily done during the games themselves.

So what does all of this have to do with ultrarunning?  Let’s first start with the obvious observation that NBA players are about as different from ultrarunners on the athletic spectrum as one could imagine.  They are the winners of the genetic lottery . . . fast-twiched-muscle super-humans who are much taller than us, possess jaw-dropping levels of athleticism, and stand out in ANY crowd.

Now compare that description to us.  Ultrarunners are all types of different shapes and sizes.  We compete in a sport where genetics play basically no role as to whether or not we succeed (which is one of the great things about our sport; it is as close to a “pure” meritocracy as exists today in sports).  And you can’t pick out 99.9% of ultrarunners from a crowd of people.


(Can YOU find the former NBA player in this picture??)

But genetics aside, one of the biggest differences between the NBA and ultrarunning is that instead of 82 competitions (or more) a year, most of us only race a few times each year.  So we can’t rely upon only races themselves to get us ready for the next one.  (Note:  if you’re name is Liz Bauer, Ed Ettinghausen, or Grant Maughan, and you run 30+ ultras a year, ignore this whole article; your schedule is more like that of an NBA player.  Go hit up Allen Iverson for training advice!)  🙂

For the rest of us, training matters.  “Practice” matters.  A lot.  It cannot be emphasized enough just how much it matters.  Whether you succeed/meet your goals on race day is dictated almost wholly by how prepared you are by the time race day rolls around.  Training sets the “ceiling” for your performance; when you toe the line, you have a maximum physical ability you can give that day; you cannot will yourself above and beyond that reality.  You can only come as close to that line as possible.

2.  The “Need For Speed” And The Great Training Mistake.

Okay, so hopefully we all agree that training, er, “practice” matters.  So what should that training look like?  What elements comprise it?  That bring’s us to today’s topic:  speed training for ultras.  Along with several other types of essential training runs, speed workouts are vital for performing as well as possible on race day . . . even for super-long races of 100 miles and beyond.

Let’s say you are new to ultras and have run a few marathons in around 4 hours, so about 9:00/mile.  Next, you train for a 50- or 100-miler, and you just knew that you couldn’t hold 9:00/mile for the entire ultra (your guess was that it would be closer to 11-12 minutes a mile, so you could hopefully finish in about 9-10 hours for the 50, or 20+ for the 100).  How did you train for that ultra?  When you ran your marathons, I bet you incorporated weekly speed sessions (whether Yasso’s on a track (800-meter repeats), mile repeats, or tempo runs of around 5 miles).  And I bet those speed sessions were run at a pace significantly faster than your marathon pace.

But what did you do when you trained for that 50- or 100-miler?  Did you continue to still run mile repeats on a regular basis?  Did you consistently run tempo runs leading up to your race?  Oooooorrr, alternatively, did these types of workout slowly fade out of your training repertoire?  Did you become more concerned with hitting ever-increasing weekly mileage goals than getting in your speed work because, well, because “oh-my-God 50/100 miles is a really long way and I need to run as many miles per week in training as possible”?


(“The enemy MiGs are how far away?  150 miles?  Wow, that’s a long way.  Screw supersonic.  I’ll get there when I get there.”)

Sound a bit familiar to anyone out there?  The most common training mistake I see in ultrarunners — both newbies and veterans — is becoming a slave to the Weekly Mileage Monster and only being concerned about the total miles run each week, rather than focusing on the quality of each workout.  When that happens, every workout — regardless of the distance — tends to blend in together and they are all run at pretty much the same speed.  In a very real sense, then, you develop one single speed in your legs.  And when race day rolls around, you’re either running at that speed (when you feel good), or walking (when you don’t).  There is no in-between.

Beach cruiser

(Ever see a triathlete use a single-speed beach cruiser on the 110-mile bike portion of the Ironman Kona World Championships?)

3.  Speed Workouts For Ultras.

Obviously, the exact type of speed workouts — and the frequencies they should be run — in training for an ultra depends greatly on the runner, his/her experience, his/her goals, the distance of the race, and the details of the race itself.  In other words, it’s highly individualized, and no two runners’ speed programs will look entirely alike.  That being said, there are some staple speed workouts that I use routinely with my runners to ensure that when they show up on race day, they possess more speed gears in their arsenal than “go” and “stop.”  Here are a few of them:

  • Tempo Runs:  It always baffles me how these workouts are such a staple of marathon running, yet almost wholly ignored in ultramarathon training.  These runs are so popular in marathon training for the simple reason that they work.  You cannot show up on race day expecting to run X minutes per mile comfortably when you never run X-2 minutes per mile in training.  5 to 10 mile runs, at about 2 minutes per mile faster than your goal pace; that’s really all there is to it.  (Note:  I’m often asked how times in tempo runs or shorter races correlates/predicts times for ultras.  While there are plenty of predictive charts, graphs, calculators out there on the internet, none of them are individualized-enough to provide an accurate prediction for any specific runner.  In order to get the best idea possible of a realistic goal for an ultra, it’s best to have someone who knows your running history, your current level of fitness, and your abilities on specific workouts in order to help formulate the most realistic goals possible).
  • Mile Repeats:  This is another marathon staple that is almost completely unused in ultra training.  Why?  Run at a faster pace than the tempo runs (around 2:30-3:00/mile faster than goal pace), these training runs can give your legs added strength on race day to tackle hills (“hills are just speed work in disguise,” as the saying goes), and also teach you how to run on tired legs without wearing you down too much for your other “hard” runs in your training program.
  • Progressive Treadmill Runs:  5-10 mile runs on a treadmill, starting at a challenging pace, and then increasing the pace a bit with each mile.  Yes, this workout sucks.  Yes, treadmills are basically torture devices that go against every reason that many people run in the first place (to be outside, to be “one with nature,” etc, etc.).  But do you know what else sucks?  Mile 80 of the Keys 100, when you have no energy and no earthly idea how your tired-to-the-bone legs are going to carry you those last 20 miles.  Treadmills instill all kinds of mental toughness, and teach you that yes, you can in fact maintain — and even raise — that strenuous pace even though your legs are killing you.


(I know.  I hate treadmills.  We all hate treadmills.  But I hate being unprepared even more…)

Speed work is challenging, for sure.  It’s especially challenging to do when training for an ultra and being ever-watchful of always-increasing weekly mileage.  But beware of the Weekly Mileage Monster.  Quantity matters, sure, but quality matters more.  I tell all my runners that before they lace up their shoes and head out the door, they need to have a specific purpose for their training run.  What is the point of today’s run?  And “feeding the Weekly Mileage Monster” is not an acceptable response 🙂

Speed work prepares us for race day, both physically and mentally.  It develops leg strength, the ability to power through low points, and, gives us more than one “gear” so that our race day pace is manageable, and we can compete to the best of our abilities.  Don’t show up to the start line on a beach cruiser.

4.  Next Week on Coach’s Corner.

Weight Training For Ultras . . . Beneficial For Anything Besides Being a Peacock?  

Dave MTCM 2007-001

(Circa 2007, smack-dab in the middle of running marathons in the 2:40s and 2:50s, despite or because I could bench press 300 pounds???)

Have a great week, everyone!!

Coach’s Corner: The Case For Dean

1.  Introduction.

Dean K

In past postings on this blog, whenever the subject of Dean Karnazes would come up, I’d usually simply just point out that the guy has been a bit of a lightning rod his whole career, but leave it at that.  I would never divulge my feelings on the guy, and my opinion on his place in our sport.  For instance, here is what I said about him — as well as his decision to run the entire Spartathlon this year on only figs and olives — in my preview for this year’s race:

“Shameless self-marketing/publicity stunt, or a neat way to draw more attention to the race from casual observers and maybe entice them to a healthier lifestyle? That’s the line Dean has made a career out of living on, and one that I have no interest in debating.”

Well, I actually DO want to give my opinion on Dean, because — honestly — the “Dean issue” should not be much of a debate at all…

2.  The Typical Dean Vitriol.

The usual narrative that is recited by Dean’s naysayers goes something like this:

“It’s good we get attention for the sport, but sometimes I wonder what kind of attention is good for the sport. At times I think that some of the Dean attention can hurt athletes like myself and other individuals performing well. There are athletes like us doing all kinds of amazing things and somebody else is walking around and actually accepting these titles and awards. You wouldn’t see that in any other sport. I can’t think of a sport where this happens – maybe once in a while somebody a bit lower on the elite status might pop up there for doing something extraordinary.”

“I’m not saying it should be about me, there are runners like Nikki Kimball and Karl Meltzer, there are different distances, and those people deserve their shots too. This is a prime example of how a lot of media is working in this country these days, grabbing onto somebody who has a great publicity machine, great sponsors and media outlets. I would rather earn my titles and the recognition I deserve out on the race course. If you look at other sports, the guys that are finishing mid-pack on the PGA Tour or batting .500, they aren’t getting any publicity. Maybe once in a while they get a shot here and there. Generally, it’s the winners that are getting the attention. It’s just kind of odd that that’s happening in our sport often nowadays, where we’re just seeing one person stealing the show and winning awards. In other sports, that wouldn’t happen.”


The above quote, if you haven’t seen it already or guessed yet, was by Scott Jurek, who, by all accounts — including Dean’s — is a much more talented runner than Dean, yet has not enjoyed anywhere near Dean’s level of fame or fortune.

So is Scott right?  Despite his clear misunderstanding of the game of baseball, he is generally correct that a pro athlete who is not at the very top of his or her sport does not receive the most attention.  (A .500 hitter in the majors would get some tiny level of publicity, I’d imagine).  🙂

But Scott’s point is actually a boring one to me, as it misses the unique nature of our sport.   You cannot really compare ultrarunning to baseball, golf, or any other “traditional” pro sport because ultrarunning is NOT really a “professional” sport at all, as one cannot make a living simply by winning races.  The prize money just isn’t there.  The richest purse of any ultra is the $10,000 that goes to the winner of the North Face 50 in San Francisco every December.  And the very most prestigious races on the planet — Spartathlon, Western States, UTMB, Hardrock, Leadville, Badwater, etc. — have absolutely no prize money at all.

Ultrarunning is therefore only a “profession” for those who can manage to distinguish themselves as runners and as personalities in order to gain sponsors, a fan base, etc.  And Dean has unquestionably done that better than anyone else in the sport’s history.

So for me, the larger — and much-more important — question is whether Dean’s popularity is good for the sport overall.  The emphatic answer to that question is “yes.”

3.  Why This Blog Exists, and (Likely) Why You Are Reading It.

Dean's book

(I’m willing to bet that at least 90% of you got into this sport — in no small part — because of this book.)

I first picked up Dean’s book in 2006/2007, when I was 29-30 years old, and smack-dab in the middle of racing marathons in the 2:40s and 2:50s.  Before reading it, I had never even heard of ultramarathons, let alone Western States or Badwater.  Rather, I was a 20-something year-old who was simply interested in living a fast, work-hard, play-hard lifestyle.  I would work insane hours, then lift weights like crazy, then run like crazy, chase PRs at races, and then chase girls on the weekends.

Put more simply, I was a complete yuppie tool, to which my friends in Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Atlanta would easily attest:


(Halloween 2007 in 20-degree Minneapolis.  Hard to imagine a more toolish and ridiculous costume than Rocky!)

At any rate, along with meeting Alex the next year, Dean’s book introduced a whole new world to me, and while I’m still surely a total goofball at times today, it’s safe to say that my days of dressing up as Rocky are behind me 🙂


(Alex, in 2008, doing her Soup Nazi impression.  “Um, talk to the hand, dude.  I don’t date clowns.  No soup for you.  Come back, one year.”)

I digress.  My point here is that Dean’s book had a big impact on my life, and I’m guessing it did for the majority of people reading this article today as well.

4.  Dean Invented Ultrarunning as a Pro Sport.

Going back to Jurek’s point, is it fair that Dean has become the national — and indeed, international — face of ultrarunning despite not being at the apex of our sport?  (Note:  it’s completely inaccurate and absurd to say that Dean is not a very accomplished ultrarunner.  Complete Western States AND Badwater 10 times each, run Leadville, run Spartathlon, and then run 50 marathons in 50 days.  After doing all of that, then maybe you can question him on his accomplishments…)

I think for all of us who are not on Jurek’s level, the “Dean question” is an easy one.  He has introduced hundreds of thousands — if not more — to running.  His overall impact on the nation’s health is likely immense.

Even for those at the very top of the sport, I just don’t see how they can rightfully criticize Dean, either.  Before Dean came along, NO ONE made a living on just ultrarunning.  In a very real sense, Dean invented the profession.  He wrote a book, it took off beyond his wildest expectations, and the rest, really, is history.

Dean paved the way for others to make a living off of the sport, including Scott Jurek, who as most of you know, has basically followed Dean’s blueprint to success, by writing his own (very good) book, Eat and Run.

So the way I see it, there are only really two reasons one could be mad at Dean about his success.  First — and I think the overwhelming majority of critics fall into this group — is the “why didn’t I think of that” reason.  This group is simply driven by the very real human emotion of jealousy.  “What makes Dean so special that he got to be the one who got famous?”

I think Dean would answer that by saying “nothing.”  He’s just the first one to think of writing a book about our very unique sport.  So getting mad at him is probably akin to being mad at Mark Zuckerberg or the guy who invented putting little umbrellas in fruity cocktails.


(If you don’t like Dean, you probably shouldn’t like this guy either).

The second group of critics are the ones represented by Jurek’s quote at the top of this article.  They aren’t necessarily mad at Dean himself, but rather at the sport, and the fact that simply winning races is not enough to capture the nation’s attention and make a living. This is more a criticism of the system, but ultimately, a criticism that rings hollow.

This may be breaking news to some, but distance running — and ESPECIALLY ultrarunning — is simply not (and probably never will be) a spectator sport.  With today’s generation and 2.4-second attention spans, the general public just is not interested in spending two hours watching a marathon live on TV, let alone spending 15 hours watching the Western States 100 play out.   This is why Dean is probably not just the most famous ultrarunner in the U.S., but likely the most famous distance runner overall in our country.  (I’d be willing to bet that more Americans have heard of Dean than Meb Keflezighi, this year’s Boston Marathon winner).  I think the only distance runner in the U.S. that can rival Dean’s popularity today is Kara Goucher, who, like Dean, has not won ANY major races in her sport (the marathon), but, also like Dean, is camera-friendly and likeable:

Kara Goucher

Dean and his book just came along at the right time.  He simply took advantage of an opportunity, which seems — to me, at least — as a quintessentially American thing to do.  Combined with the fact that he seems like a genuinely-good guy, I just don’t see any legitimate legs for his critics to stand upon.

5.  My Admitted Bias.

I am obviously not an objective commentator here.  I’ve met Dean about 10 times, and two of those times were what I would call “substantial” meetings, during two of the hardest ultramarathons on the planet:  first at last year’s Badwater, and again at this year’s Spartathlon.  (The other meetings were at marathons or briefly at the beginning of other ultras).

In both “substantial” meetings, I ran with Dean for decent chunks of miles (5-10 miles at Badwater, and about 15-20 miles at Spartathlon).  And in both races, he was completely down-to-earth, very positive and friendly, and was much more interested in talking about me than telling stories about himself.  (Many of the most famous ultrarunners LOVE talking about themselves).


(Running some early miles with Dean at Badwater 2013).

2 X DK

(Sharing a laugh at around Mile 35 of the Spartathlon).

In both races, I beat Dean by a few hours, and he was nothing but encouraging the whole time I talked with him.  I came away from those experiences thinking that he is just a really good guy.

That sentiment was only reinforced recently when Dean went out of his way to reach out to me and send his congrats regarding the Spartathlon:

On Oct 3, 2014, at 3:13 PM, Dean Karnazes wrote:

Message for Dave:


I’m trying to leave a message for Dave to congratulate him on his Spartathlon race. I had the privilage of sharing a few footsteps alongside him and I greatly admire his unflinching grit and determination. Respect!

Thanks for passing this note along.

Sincere regards,
Dean Karnazes

On 10/13/14, 3:07 PM, “Dave Krupski” <> wrote:

Hey Dean,

Sorry — I just saw your email from a week ago. (For some reason, it never reached my inbox but went straight to the “junk” folder. Weird).

Anyway, thanks for the congrats; right back at you! That race was a bitch, wasn’t it?? :). I can’t imagine how the hell you got through that whole race without any caffeine, sugar, or other stimulant. I probably drank a case of Coke during that race!

See you “out there” soon enough I’m sure!


On Oct 15, 2014, at 1:40 PM, Dean Karnazes wrote:

You put it perfectly, that race was a bitch! There were elements of glory and elements of supreme misery and hideousness (like when a fleet of diesel trucks whizzed by inches away spewing exhaust directly into your nostrils).

Some caffeine would have been nice. For the final 70-miles I subsisted on sips of plain water only. Talk about a death shuffle!

You really pulled together a solid race. Watching your performance and the way you grunted through the tough patches was remarkable. You have a great fan in me Dave (you earned my respect).

Any thoughts on going back? I still have mixed emotions, but would like to attempt it eating something other than figs and olives!

Keep charging bro.


6.  Thank You, Dean.

Obviously, Dean was very kind to reach out to me like that.  But that doesn’t really make me special, as I have a LOT of friends that he goes out of his way to reach out to, connect with, and share common experiences.  I think it really just speaks to his character.

Personally, I don’t think we could ask for a better global ambassador for our sport.  Dean is unflinchingly-positive, even in the face of ever-present criticism.  And I know a LOT of us owe our ultrarunning careers, at least in part, to Dean.  I know I do.

So if you feel the same way I do, next time you see Dean “out there” at an ultra or marathon expo, say “thanks.”  🙂

7.  Next Week on Coach’s Corner.

need for speed

(“I feel the need, the need for speed . . . training!”)

See you all next week!  Have a great week “out there” 🙂

Coach’s Corner: The “Secret” of Ultrarunning: The Role of Rational Confidence

Note:  Starting today, I will be posting a “Coach’s Corner” article every Thursday that discusses, with some degree of depth, an ultrarunning topic for which I tend to receive a lot of questions from clients and other runners.  I hope you enjoy these articles and find them at least a little useful 🙂

1.  Of Lions and Lambs.

masquerading lamb

One of the most common questions I get as a coach is “how do I gain the confidence necessary to run the insane distance that I just signed up for?” (usually 50 or 100 miles).  This is a VITALLY important question, because without confidence, a runner — especially a first-time ultrarunner — might as well not even toe the line.  Simply showing up and “hoping” or “wishing” that “today will be the day” is not exactly the best mindset to ensure success.  You can’t go into these things as a lamb when you need to be a lion.

So, then, how does one simply “turn on” the confidence necessary to ensure success at an endeavor that he or she has NEVER done before?  How do we find that inner lion that lives within all of us?  Anyone can say, “yeah, I’m confident.”  “Yeah, I feel great.”  “Yeah, I’m going to do this.”  But how do we ensure that those words have actual force behind them, and aren’t just empty assurances we make to ourselves, or false promises we make to others through various forms of social media?  How do we transform from a lamb to a lion by race day?  Or how do we go from being a “Facebook Hero” (in the Foreigner sense of the phrase) :), to an actual success at this very hard sport?

Facebook Hero

The only answer to these questions is that we need to develop rational confidence; a sincerely-held belief that we will not only finish the race, but that we will thrive at the race.  The word “belief” isn’t really even strong enough; the feeling needs to be a truth.

So how do we get to the point where we actually know we will do well in the event when we toe the line?  The only real answer is very easy and very challenging at the same time:  CONSISTENT QUALITY TRAINING.  Only by building ourselves up physically can we develop the mental toughness needed to accomplish our lofty goals.  I often hear people talk about how much of the sport is mental versus physical.  I think that is the wrong manner of thinking of it, because the mental and the physical are completely and inexorably intertwined.

2.  The “Trial of Miles.  Miles of Trials.”

'Like lambs to the slaughter, my ass.'

I often have runners that are frustrated at the beginning of their training, because they do not see immediate tangible results after the first few days or even weeks.  The path to ultrarunning success is a process, and one that cannot be shortcutted or cheated.  If you want to be physically-prepared — and in turn develop the rational confidence (grounded in reality, not delusions) needed to succeed — you have to endure what author (and former SEC runner) John L. Parker, Jr. refers to as the “trials of miles.”

Once a Runner

In his book, Once a Runner (which you should check out if you have not read it yet), Parker discusses the training regimen that star cross-country runner Quenton Cassidy puts himself through:

“And too there were questions: What did he eat? Did he believe in isometrics? Isotonics? Ice and heat? How about aerobics, est, ESP, STP? What did he have to say about yoga, yogurt, Yogi Berra? What was his pulse rate, his blood pressure, his time for 100-yard dash? What was the secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes. The Trial of Miles, Miles of Trials. How could they be expected to understand that?”

There is NO magic pill in this sport.  There is no “secret.”  Only consistent training.  Those daily battles with the alarm clock, the daily grind of “removing the very tough rubber” from the bottoms of your shoes, the 6-mile loop around your house that you’ve run 451 times and it’s too hot/cold/whatever outside and you’d rather not run number 452 today.  Fight and win those “trials” on a daily basis, and you’ll show up at the start line ready and able to win the war against the course on race day.

3.  Daniel LaRusso and the Secret of Ultramarathons.

A few days ago, one of my runners said something along the lines of, “I’ve never been this strong physically as a runner; I can just feel myself getting better every day.  I only wish I was growing mentally as well.”  Without trying to channel too much of my inner Mr. Miyagi on her, I said, “You are getting stronger mentally; you just don’t know it yet.”

Consistent quality training is what allows us to have rational confidence that we can face our fear of the great unknown on race day.  All of those little battles we win on a daily basis in training add up, and, over time, allow us to face our own version of that big, bad Cobra Kai kid waiting at the end of the journey.

wax on

(LaRusso demonstrating the secret of ultrarunning).

Despite being unsure of himself on “race day,” Daniel defeated the Cobra Kai, as he realized during the “race” that the consistent training he endured had given him the tools to succeed when it mattered most.

The same will happen for first-time 50- or 100-milers during their own races, BECAUSE their consistent training will allow for growth and discovery of rational confidence.  They will meet their inner lions.

As an aside, with Halloween coming up, for you single guys out there, dressing up as a Cobra Kai villain is a horrible idea, unless your target audience for attention is a bunch of 30 to 40-something year-old dudes shouting “sweep the leg” and “get him a body bag” to you all night long.


(Alex and I on our first date in 2008.  So I guess, in hindsight, that costume worked out okay for me.) 🙂

mean girls

(“Uh, so like what’s that guy in the above pic like supposed to like, be?  A ninja or something?”  “Yeah, so totally not ‘fetch'”).

4.  “Ninety Percent of This Game is Half Mental.”

Former Yankee great, and philosopher extraordinaire Yogi Berra uttered that unintelligible phrase about how much of baseball is physical versus mental.  I think it perfectly sums up how much of ultrarunning is physical versus mental as well:  you cannot separate one from the other, and when people try to, they wind up sounding like Yogi.  Rational confidence is built from wearing down the rubber on your shoes, day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out.  This is the only way to gain a sufficient level of mental fortitude to complete an “insane” challenge such as running 100 miles.

Yogi Berra

(Ultrarunning philosopher Yogi Berra).

There is one important caveat to that “no separation between mental and physical” point, however.  No matter how physically prepared you are when raceday comes along, you MUST possess the will to persevere, no matter how bad things get.  Everyone, from a first-time runner to the world’s reigning 24-hour champion, goes through super-low points during an ultra.  And everyone must ultimately make the decision at that lowest-of-the-low moment:  “Do I give in and stop, or do I put my head down, and simply keep putting one foot in front of the other until I start feeling better and I can run again?”

As ultrarunners, we need to keep an immutable truth in our minds at all times during the race:  No matter how bad things get or how badly I feel, if I keep going, I can break through to the other side and things will turn around for the better.

Obviously, I’m not saying that if you break your leg at Mile 5, you should drag it for 95 more miles; there is a difference between acute injury (which accounts for well-under 1% of all DNFs at races), or the general, garden-variety “bonking” that we all will inevitably experience — most likely multiple times — during the race.  We can always overcome that.  Always.

So that’s the secret to ultrarunning:  consistent quality training, which leads to rational confidence on race day, coupled with an unflinching will to succeed.  Then, and only then, will you meet your inner lion.

See you all for next week’s column, and enjoy getting “out there” and winning your trials of miles this week 🙂


Over The Top: 2014 Spartathlon Race Report

1.  Introduction. King Leonidas back It’s been about 36 hours since I’ve gotten back to Florida from my week-long trip to Greece for the Spartathlon.  And the one phrase that keeps coming to mind when I reflect on this trip is “over the top.”  That phrase truly describes everything about the trip: the Greek hospitality, their enthusiasm/passion for the Spartathlon, the course itself, its level of difficulty, the substantial mountain you must pass over at exactly Mile 100, and the pressure of the time cutoffs (36 hours for 152.4 miles, with 75 checkpoints in-between). “Over the top” also describes the ridiculous financial bargain of this race.  What you get for $550 is, quite simply, ridiculous.  (More on that later).

The only thing “Over The Top” really does NOT refer to here is the craptastically-cheesy 1987 Stallone movie about arm-wrestling truck drivers: Over the Top 2 (“Some fight for money . . . Some fight for glory . . . He’s fighting for his son’s love.”  Wow.  Some Hollywood exec actually green-lighted this movie.)

Okay, without further adieu, here’s my view on how Spartathlon 2014 went down:

2.  The Two Days Before the Race.

Like most international athletes, I arrived in Athens on Wednesday, and therefore had two days to relax, adjust (somewhat) to the 7-hour time difference, and prepare for the Friday morning race start. The race officials put the American team up in the Best Western Fenix hotel, which is in Gylfada, a beachside suburb about 10 miles southwest of downtown Athens.  The hotel was modern, clean, and was literally across the street from the sea. beach outside Hotel Fenix 1 (The beach across the street from the hotel was gorgeous.  The water is completely clear and jumping in for a swim a few days after the race was VERY relaxing.) beach outside hotel fenix 2 (One more shot of the beach, at a different time of day.  This was not an ugly place.) 🙂

The USA Spartathlon team consisted of Jon Olsen, the world’s reigning 24-hour champ, Rob Youngren (who has finished Hardrock 4 times and just finished Badwater in the top-10), Bryce Carlson (owner of a 16:30 100-mile PR), Maggie Beach (who has run just about every tough race out there), Ed Aguilar (a chiropractor from LA who has lived in Italy for the past 18 years), my buddy Andrei Nana (who ran the race last year in just under 31 hours), as well as Dean Karnazes, the most famous ultrarunner on the planet who was running Spartathlon for the first time.  I was honored to be included with such a group of accomplished runners and good friends.

For the trip, I roomed with Rob and probably spent the most time with Rob and Bryce.  (Andrei was there with his wife Claire, they got engaged in Greece at this trip last year, and they understandably planned a lot of “alone” time during the trip). Finish with Rob and Bryce (Rob, Bryce, and myself at the finish line statute of Gerard Butler . . . er, King Leonidas, the day after the race) With Bryce at Parthenon (Bryce and I at the Acropolis a few days after the race) Pre-race meeting (Andrei and I relaxing just before the pre-race meeting the day before the race)

After the two days of preparing and relaxing were over, we were ready and anxiously awaited the 6am bus ride from our hotel on Friday morning to the Acropolis, for the 7am start of the race.  With the task in front of us (a challenging 153-mile run with tight cut-offs, as well as the deepest field of international talent at any road ultramarathon on the planet), it was easy to feel a bit anxious.  I usually sleep like a rock the night before the race, but for this one, I was tossing and turning pretty much all night long.  By about 4 am, I just said, “screw it”, and got up…

3.  Race Day:  The First 26 Miles.

We arrived at the Acropolis about 45 minutes before the start, and at exactly 7am, we were off.  It felt good to finally be running.  I quickly settled into my pace of 8 min per mile.  I just planned on running 8’s for the first 30 miles, and then 9’s from 30-50, for a 50-mile split of around 7 hours.  (The 50-mile cutoff is 9:30, which is not terribly hard on a good day, but is a big problem if you are having issues/a bad day). By mile 2, I hooked up with Jon Olsen, one of the serious race favorites.  He also was locked into an 8-min pace, so we just ran together for the first 3-4 hours. running with Olsen (Running with Jon around Mile 10)

The first 25 miles are not particularly scenic, as you have to run out of urban Athens before you hit the sea.  Once the Saronic Gulf is reached, however, the course truly opens up and becomes quite beautiful.  So I was extremely glad not to be alone for this first section, as I generally hate the first few hours of an ultra until I get into a good running rhythm.  Jon was awesome to run with, as he is very easy-going and laughed at all of my jokes.  (Which CLEARLY means he has an impeccable sense of humor!) 🙂 Actually, we had a lot in common, such as playing a Division I sport in college other than running (baseball for me, football for him . . . he was a middle linebacker.  Or a punter.  Look at the picture above and decide for yourself).

We both also have wives who couldn’t make the trip because they just started grade-school teaching jobs at new schools. By the time we reached the marathon point (Megara), I told Jon to continue on without me, as I was starting to develop a bit of a stomach issue.  That was the last time I saw him during the race.  I crossed the marathon point at right around 3:40, so a bit over 8:00/mile.

4.  Megara to Corinth (Miles 26-50).

This section is defined by incredible beauty (of running along cliffs that overlook the sea) and then incredible dullness (of running by a succession of factories).  Once the course crosses the Isthmus of Corinth, you leave Attica and are on the Peloponnese Peninsula, and the course switches quite drastically from urban to agrarian: Sparty course (The Spartathlon course) My small stomach discomfort at the marathon mark turned into a full-blown issue by the 50k (31 mile) mark, at which point Andrei passed me. about 50k mark (Struggling a bit at the 50k mark) This is also the point, however, where we really started to get great views of the sea, which was invigorating. Megara 2 (The race road around the 35 mile mark). Megara (View of the sea from the race road; pretty decent scenery, huh?) 🙂

Andrei passed me after a few miles, and I would not see him for quite a bit later down the race.  It also started lightly raining during this time, which was really nice.  It even got a bit chilly.  A Brit named Sam Robson flew by me at this point and commented that it felt like “a gorgeous summer day in London” during this spell of rain. A few miles up the road, I ran into Dean Karnazes, and we ran together for about the next 10 miles.  He was running the entire race on only olives, figs, and cured meats — to mimic the likely diet of the “original” ultrarunner (Pheidippides) — and, along with me, he was not liking life very much at that point.  It didn’t help that after the quick bout of rain, the skies cleared pretty rapidly and the temperatures soared into the upper 80s with high humidity.

By Mile 40, I was reduced to a run/walk (with a lot more walking than running).  Dean dropped me — as did a TON of people — during this stretch, and I knew I wouldn’t be anywhere near my 7-hour goal for the first major checkpoint of the race at Mile 50. With a few miles to go until the big checkpoint, Rob and Bryce both caught up to and passed me.  I was struggling to keep a steady pace.  This was my “low” point in the race; it was just happening really, REALLY early.  With over 100 miles STILL to go, and the cutoffs looming ever more closely with each mile that I walked, I was not in a good place mentally for this stretch of the race.  I just kept telling myself, “just get to Corinth; just get to Corinth.”

5.  Corinth to Nemea (Miles 51-77). Isthmus of Corinth (The man-made Isthmus of Corinth, providing a thru-way of the most narrow part of the Peloponnese Peninsula to the Saronic Gulf and Attica)

When I finally reached the Mile 50 Corinth checkpoint in about 8:15, I was in pretty bad shape, and I was only a little over an hour ahead of the cut-offs.  I decided to sit down for the first time in the race, take 5 minutes (which for me is an eternity at an aid station), restock some supplies (my first drop bag was at Corinth), and, most importantly, “flip the script” mentally. I was not thinking positive thoughts for the past 10 miles, and I was running defensively.  I decided right there that I needed to force myself into a positive mindset, and focus on two things:  building up more of a buffer on the time cutoffs, and passing as many people as possible for the remainder of the race.  (With the unbelievable depth/quality of this field, I was likely not even in the top-150 at this point, so I had PLENTY of “rabbits” out in front of me to catch).

When I got up and left the aid station, I had a tad over an hour on the cutoffs, but I was in a much-better place mentally, and I was going to be in “attack-mode” for the rest of the race.  I was also going to enjoy myself a lot more.  I was in the middle of the greatest international road ultramarathon in the world, after all. I probably repeated “flip the script” about 100 times to myself for the first few miles out of the aid station.  It started to work.  I quickly passed 5, then 10 people in front of me.  I was finally moving like I knew I could.  I still had 100 miles to go, but for the first time in the race, I started to feel comfortable and like I was “taking it” TO the race, not the other way around.

I’m a huge nerd, which goes hand-in-hand with being a Star Wars fan.  In The Empire Strikes Back, there is a scene where Luke tries to use “the force” to lift his X-wing out of the swamp on Degobah.  When he fails, and sees Yoda subsequently succeed, he says “I don’t believe it.”  Yoda replies, “THAT is why you failed.” THAT is ultrarunning in a nutshell.  We run these insane distances, and in races like Spartathlon, are forced to do it pretty quickly.  Self-belief and a positive attitude are the most important ingredients to success.

After I committed myself to always staying positive no matter how shitty I would later feel (which, believe me, was often), my race turned around. Scenery-wise, this section was drastically different than the first 50 miles.  While that first section was urban sprawl, we were now in the Greek countryside, going through olive groves, orchards, wine vineyards, and very small country towns: nemea One of the biggest factors in helping me stay positive throughout the race was the UNBELIEVABLE passion of the Greek people during the race, especially in the small country towns.  Scores of people cheer like crazy when you enter the town.  Hundreds of kids line up to get high-fives, and I was asked for my autograph at least a dozen times in these small cities.  (I obliged every time; while to an American, the situation may seem a bit silly — a Greek kid asking a random American for an autograph — their faces all lit up whenever we obliged, so it was an easy call). The Spartathlon is now a part of Greek history, and one that honors one of the great stories of ancient Greek history (the feats of Pheidippides).  Thus, the race has really become part of the fabric of Greek culture.  I’ve never experienced this in ultrarunning; in most U.S. races, people look at you with mild bemusement at best.  But in Greece, genuine emotion and passion was just pouring out of people.  It was really, really inspiring to be a part of such a powerful event.

6.  The Calm Before the Storm — Nemea to Lykria (Miles 77-92).

I reached the second major checkpoint, Ancient Nemea (Mile 77), approximately 14 hours into the race.  I had run well enough in the previous section to double my buffer on the cutoffs (I was now over 2 hours ahead of them).  Nemea was a party atmosphere with hundreds of spectators, bands, and plenty of warm food.  So, naturally, I high-tailed it out of there as quickly as I possibly could, for fear of getting TOO comfortable there. It was now dark outside, and this 15-mile section ending at Lykria — at the base of the most substantial mountain in the race — is pretty easy from a terrain standpoint; just a lot of rolling hills, followed by a sustained downhill into Lykria.  So I just focused on maintaining a good pace and losing myself in the race and its rhythm.

A few miles into this section, around Mile 80, I caught up to Dean again, who was surprised to see me.  “I was worried about you back there.”   “Yeah,” I replied, “I was in a bit of a rough spot, but I’m back now.”  “I can see that.”  We then hung out for the next 10 miles and traded some war stories, generally joked around, and actually had a pretty good time; despite the fact we were over 80 miles into the race, we pretty much ran that whole section.  He thanked me for “pulling him” through it, and then I pulled ahead of him around Mile 91, about a mile before the third major checkpoint in Lykria.  I was fully “in the zone” now, so to speak, and Dean was still hurting a bit, so I knew that this would probably be the last time I saw him during the race.  So I said “keep it up,” “get ‘er done,” and probably a few equally silly phrases, and was on my way.

Coincidentally, I ran with and passed Dean for good at Mile 91 at Badwater last summer as well.  I’ve said this before; Dean sometimes gets caught up in controversy, as his celebrity status/financial success is the envy of runners everywhere, but in person, he is a VERY down-to-earth and nice guy.  I really enjoyed running with him out in Greece, and look forward to the next time we share the same course (which I’m sure will be soon enough).

7.  Over the Top of the Mountain — Lyrkia to Nestani (Miles 92-108).

After the last five miles of quad-pounding downhill miles, I was actually looking forward to the eight-mile climb up to Sangas Pass from Miles 92-100, which is the highest point and toughest climb of the race.  The final mile of the climb is on a trail of VERY loose rocks and grades so steep you are literally on your hands and knees much of the way up.  Over the course of eight miles, you climb almost 4000 feet, much of it at a 20% grade. Sparty elevation chart (As you can see, the mountain is basically straight up for 8 miles)

For some completely unknown reason, over the past few years, I’ve actually developed into a decent climber during races.  (I say “unknown” because I live in Florida and do virtually no hill training).  At any rate, I was really strong on the 7 mile climb up to the final trail mile, and I hit the Mile 99.1 aid station in about 18:50.  (Originally, I wanted to be about 2 hours faster through 100 miles, but for my first Spartathlon, I’ll take it)  🙂 Start of mountain trail (At Mile 99 and one trail mile to go to the top (Sangas Pass))

The trail itself was just silly.  One mile, and about 1000 feet of vertical climb, so basically straight up.  The footing was loose and terrible, so I just put my head down and tried to get it over with as quickly as possible.  As a lot of people know, I am not at my most comfortable on rough, “technical” trails, so I just really wanted to get it over with.  Perhaps the only person I know who is less comfortable than me on trails is my buddy Andrei, who I caught up with and passed on this mile-long trail.  He looked miserable at the time, but he’s the toughest guy I know, so I was sure he would rebound and finish the race (which he did).

Once I got to the top of the race, the next mile — going DOWN the loose-rock trail on the other side — was absolutely miserable.  My energy levels were great and my legs felt fresh, but I was basically doing baby steps down the other side of the mountain until I got off the trail, for fear of falling and seriously injuring/killing myself.  I must have gotten passed by 10 people on this mile-long down trail.  I happily let them go, knowing that I would be seeing them very soon as soon as the path rejoined the road. Once we did get back on the road, I started running again for the first time since the start of the climb.  It took about a mile to get back into rhythm, but when I did, I was flying.  It felt great — I was running sub-8 minute miles for about 5 miles into the Nestani aid station, and I passed all the people who passed me on that trail, along with a few others.

When I reached Nestani at Mile 108, I had built up a 3-hour buffer from the cutoffs.  This is the point I stopped looking at the cut-off times when I got to each checkpoint; I knew they wouldn’t be a problem anymore.

8.  One Last Energy Low — The Plains of Tripolis, Nestani to Ancient Tegea (Miles 108-122).

The 15 miles from Nestani to Tegea are the flattest of the course, and sunrise occurred during this section.  The 110 miles already run was beginning to take its toll on my legs and on my energy level.  I knew that once I reached the last major checkpoint of Tegea, I would only have a 50k (31 miles) to go until I met King Leonidas in Sparta, so I just put my head down and tried to get the miles done as quickly as possible.

9.  Meeting the King — Tegea to Sparta (Miles 122-152.4)

When I reached Mile 122 and Ancient Tegea — which was visually really cool — it was about 8:15 am, so a little over 25 hours into the race.  I was tired, sure, but the daylight as well as the fact that I was so close invigorated me, and made a point to only stay in Tegea for a few moments until heading out for the final push. ancient tegea (Ancient Tegea)

I unfortunately learned in Tegea that Jon Olsen, the top American in the race, had dropped out with about 20 miles to go, due to thermoregulation issues.  He’s a great guy and super-talented, and I have no doubt he will be back at some point and probably win the race.  The list of Americans who have dropped out during their first attempt at Spartathlon reads like a who’s-who of world-class ultrarunning.  Some absurdly-talented guys have dropped out of this race.  It really is that tough.

After leaving the Tegea aid station, I felt probably the best I had the entire race.  I was FLYING for a mile or so until I hit a rude surprise . . . the final major climb of the race.  It was probably about 1200 feet of vertical over about 5-6 miles, so the grade wasn’t bad, but this climb just seemed to never end. But once that climb is over, the last 22 miles are pretty much all downhill, so while this section will kill your quads, you can move pretty quickly into Sparta for the finish. mt taygetus sparta (View coming into Sparta) hills above sparta (Another gorgeous view heading into town) Sparti, Peloponnese, GreeceJune 2005 (Sparta) 5 miles to go (Last 5 miles…) When I made the final turn on the street with the King Leonidas statute at the end, it was like nothing I have ever seen in ultrarunning.  The street, lined with restaurants, bars, etc., was FILLED with thousands of people who ALL cheer wildly for you when you pass.  They make everyone feel like they won the race; it’s just insane.  And the last 100 yards or so, about a dozen kids join you and run you in to the finish.  It is just spectacular. home stretch (About to pick up my entourage of a bunch of 10-year-olds…) 🙂 Finish at foot (The race is over when you touch the foot of the great King Leonidas; I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a hugely emotional moment, after running over 152 miles…) Finish line with kids (Every finisher is presented with an olive wreath, a VERY cool medal, some water from the Evrotas River, and all sorts of other things).

I finished the race in 32:43.  Bryce, Rob, and I all finished within about 40 minutes of each other, which was awesome.  Andrei was about an hour behind, and Dean finished about an hour behind him.  Ed Aguilar also finished the race.  Of particular note, Hungarian-American runner Katy Nagy had an amazing race and finished as the second female overall, in a little under 29 hours.  (The winner, Szilvia Lubics, won for the third time, setting the course record for women, in a bit under 27 hours.  I met Szilvia at the Ultra-Milano Sanremo course this past March in Italy; there, I beat her by about 7 hours.  Here, not so much.)  🙂

While I’m sure if I run the race again, I can improve my time by several hours, I doubt any subsequent trips will beat this one for me.  Seeing the unbelievable amount of passion that is involved in the race was just really moving for everyone involved.  This is a first-class event all the way; the runners are treated like royalty for the entire week.

10.  Aftermath.

After we crossed the finish line, we were bussed about 10 miles away to a sweet resort right on the beach called the Belle Helene Hotel.  It was easily a 4-5 star resort with unreal views of the Aegean Sea: Belle Helene (Our hotel for the night after the race) Belle Helene balcony (View from our enormous personal balcony) Belle Helene Beach Water Belle Helene Beach Belle Helene (More views of the hotel beach) The next day, we returned to Sparta to pick up our drop bags, and to have lunch with the mayor of Sparta.  It was a great feast/celebration, set in a vineyard’s restaurant: Lunch with mayor (Outside the restaurant for the lunch with the mayor) inside lunch with mayor (Inside the restaurant) with Szony (With Szonyi Fenerc, a super-strong Hungarian runner who beat me — and came in second overall — at Ultra-Milano Sanremo in Italy in March, by SIX minutes!) with Eva (With Eva, one of the many race volunteers.  Eva works as a teacher for special-needs first-graders; she, along with all the other volunteers, happily gave up their entire weekends to be part of this special event)

The Spartathlon represents, to me, the pinnacle of “pure” ultrarunning.  It is run by a non-profit organization, the citizens care DEEPLY about the race, it is a formidable challenge amongst the deepest field in international road ultrarunning, and the value is . . . well, it’s just silly: The race costs $550.  Here’s what that gets you:

-Registration into the race;

-5 nights’ stay at the Fenix Hotel (4 nights) and the Belle Helene Hotel (1 night);

-all meals included; -75 fully-stocked aid stations along the course;

-all transportation to and from all race events;

-THREE post-race celebrations (an awards ceremony the night of the race in Sparta, a lunch with the mayor of Sparta the next day, and the “main” ceremony:  a more formal awards gala back in Athens on Monday after the race); and

-The swag.  As if the above is not WAY over the top, here are all the physical things they bestow upon you as well: Sparty Swag That consists of:

-race bibs;

-a particpation tech shirt;

-a finisher’s tech shirt;

-a race medal (around your neck);

-a really big race medal (in lieu of a buckle);

-an olive wreath;

-a hat;

-a finisher’s certificate with all of your splits listed;

-a celebratory certificate handmade by a local child;

-a CD loaded with pictures of you running during the race;

-a race DVD;

-photographs of your table during the awards gala, which are printed off and given to you before the night is over;

-a polo shirt; and

-shot glasses.

(The only things I had to pay for with my own money were the polo shirt ($5, seriously), and the shot glasses ($1 each)).

Needless to say, the race is by far the best deal in ultrarunning.  As one of my new Brit buddies said the day after the race, “I’d use this as a super-cheap vacation even if I WASN’T running!”

11.  The Final Day in Athens.

We arrived back in Athens late on Sunday night, and had Monday to ourselves before the awards gala at 8pm on Monday.  Bryce, Rob, and I decided to head into town and check out the Acropolis/Pantheon and then take a dip in the sea before the gala.  It was the perfect ending to the trip. at Acropolis (At the Acropolis) Gala (At the awards gala with Rob, Bryce, Andrei, and Claire) awards dinner (Receiving my finisher’s certificate and medal at the gala)

Overall, this was simply an outstanding experience, and, in my view, really represents the pinnacle of what ultrarunning is all about.  I SINCERELY hope that for those of you that are in our sport, as many of you as possible get to experience this race, either as a runner or a supporter of a runner.  It is just such a phenomenal race and experience in general. It’s unfortunate that the time cutoffs are so strict, and those cutoffs — as well as the stringent race qualification requirements — will inevitably mean that a lot of runners will not be able to qualify for the race.  But think of it as our version of the Boston Marathon; it is hard to qualify for, and even harder to finish, but when you do, boy, it sure is worth every effort made to get there. Zwitty Logo-Web To that end, for anyone who sees Spartathlon as a goal in either their short or long-term future, I would be honored to work with you and help devise a plan to help get you there and be the one toeing the line at the Acropolis for this legendary race.

I launched the Zwitty Endurance Training Program about a month ago, and the response has been overwhelming to say the least.  I still have some slots open, though, so go to if you would like more information about my coaching services. Finally, thank you to the literally hundreds of you guys who followed me and cheered me and the rest of our team on out there; I could definitely feel your warm wishes during the race 🙂  I hope you enjoyed reading about this experience even a small fraction of the amount I enjoyed living it!  See you guys “out there”!