Pre-Race: The Day Before
The race began at 4am on Saturday, October 7, 2017. Most of the 50k and 80k participants stayed overnight at the Troodos Hotel (myself included), which is the start, finish, and registration point for all races.
I arrived at the hotel on Friday evening at about 7:00pm to find the place buzzing with energy. I picked up my race materials at the pre-briefing in the lobby. There, I saw lots of familiar faces of those I have been running with over the last year. It certainly helps the nerves when you know others who are going to be experiencing the same thing in just a few hours.
Having stayed at this hotel for previous races (such as the Garmin Troodos Marathon), I knew better than to waste any time trying to get a decent WiFi signal or a meal in their restaurant. If it weren’t for the unbeatable location I’d advise against staying here, but it’s just too convenient not to. And with rooms going for about 50€/night, the price is right.
After chatting it up with other racers for a bit, I headed off to the room to try and get some rest for the early wake-up call. The last ultra I ran (the Two Castles 50k) also had a 4am start time, but involved taking a bus for two hours to reach the start line. This race is much more convenient in that it starts and finishes at the same place. That means I didn’t have to wake up at 1am like I did for the other race, but I still had trouble falling asleep. As soon as I closed my eyes (or so it seemed) the fire alarm in the hotel started going off. Come on! Thankfully it lasted just a minute and didn’t require an evacuation, so I could nod back off.
The alarm went off at 3:15am, and I felt like I had just fallen asleep. I had everything laid out from the night before so I slipped into my gear, grabbed my drop back, and headed to the lobby where everyone was meeting for coffee before the start.
We were allowed to leave a drop bag at the Troodos Square checkpoint, and they had a special tent just for the 50k and 80k runner bags.
Here is everything I packed for clothes and food:
I packed a spare set of all clothing just in case I somehow soiled myself one way or another and needed a change (I did change from a longsleeve to shortsleeve shirt after 55k). Otherwise, I didn’t swap out much else. Here’s my complete gear list:
- Altra Lone Peak 3.0 Shoes
- Suunto Ambit3 Peak GPS Sport Watch
- Patagonia Fore Runner Vest 10L
- Black Diamond Distance Z poles
- Outdoor Research Sun Runner Cap
- Under Armour Men’s UA Igniter 2.0 Sunglasses
- Icebreaker Men’s Strike Lite Shorts
- 2XU Compression Calf Guards
- Drymax Trail Run 1/4 Crew Socks w/ Turndown
- Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-TX10 16.2 MP Waterproof Digital Camera
Nutritionally, I have been training with mostly real food like nuts/butters, beef sticks, and PB&J sandwiches to avoid running only on carb/sugar substitutes like Gu/Clif gels. While this is definitely more enjoyable, it takes more time to consume on the go and after 10 or so hours of running it’s hard to stomach much of anything–real or not. I will say that the almond butter from Justin’s and the beef sticks from Nick’s Sticks were two things I never got sick of. Neither has any additives or other nonsense mixed in, and so they didn’t upset my stomach whatsover. I highly recommend these items for long runs!
I also brought along a couple of protein bars, a staple in my training diet, a couple of sandwiches to eat between loops, and, at the top of the picture, two tubes of my proprietary electrolyte mix – a mixture of caffeine, leucine, creatine, and taurine. I planned to mix these with water every 15 miles or so, but ended up not needing it because they had electrolytes available at all the aid stations. Otherwise, I ate pretty much everything shown except for a couple of the gels. I brought extra just in case, but ended up supplementing with more food from the aid stations than I expected to (because it was all so good!).
My plan here was to be as self-sufficient as possible and take in 200-300 calories per hour while supplementing with aid station food like bananas and electrolytes. That being said, there is always room for improvement and dialing in one’s nutrition is an ongoing process so I can’t say whether or not I’ll stick to that in the future.
Here is the map of all three loops of the course (you can toggle each loop on/off to see them individually):
Here is the run down of the race, loop by loop:
Prodromos (Loop 1)
Everybody lined up a few minutes before the start time and began fidgeting with their GPS watches.
The start was rather unceremonious, as most are, given that it was too early to be blasting music or shouting over a loudspeaker with the hotel just across the street. A lot of the stalls and event items weren’t even set up yet, as most of the other runners wouldn’t be taking their marks for several more hours. Before I even realized what was happening, we were off!
We followed the road out of Troodos Square and remained on the tarmac for a couple miles before breaking off on to the trail. It was pitch black and all I could see was the ground a few feet in front of me that was illuminated by my headlamp. Per usual, I started in the back of the pack so as to not get trampled by the faster runners. I chatted with a couple of Cypriots who were training for a hundred-mile race coming up in a few weeks. This was just a training run for them!
Once we were on the trail, I was warmed up and began to zone out. The runners had spread out and gotten into their own grooves at this point. This part of the trail wasn’t particularly difficult – not too rocky or steep. It was a nice start to the day, but it certainly did not represent what was to come!
I kept a slow and steady pace, making sure to look up once in a while to confirm I was on the right track. I was solidly positioned in the back and followed the E4 (European Long Trail) for several miles along the route, passing the “75km to go” sign and eventually coming to the aid station at about 9mi/15km, right where the trail met with the road.
Although it was just a small version of the main aid station back at the square, it had everything you could want including coke, water, electrolytes, Kit-Kat bars, and these incredible home-made gluten-free/vegan bars made by one of the participants that tasted amazing.
At this point, it was about 6:15am and the sun was just starting to come up. As I was leaving the aid station, the light from my headlamp reflected off a trail marker across the street which had an arrow pointing to the right. Apparently I was quite consumed with my aid station goodies, and so for some reason I interpreted this as indicating that the course continued up the tarmac to the right. It’s not completely out of the ordinary to run on the road for short stretches, as we had already done, and so I didn’t think anything of it. After about half a mile of running on the road and not seeing any marks, though, I got suspicious. I began to backtrack and even went down a short side-trail thinking it might link up with the course, but it didn’t. After a few minutes of confusion, I decided to head back to the aid station. By the time I arrived, the sun had risen a bit more and I was able to clearly see that the arrow I saw earlier was not in fact indicating that the course continued up the road, rather that it went on the trail across the street, which was directly next to the arrow. Facepalm. This mistake put me back about 20 minutes from my original pace, put in the end the difference was negligible.
When I finally got back on track I was faced with a long and steep uphill climb, the worst yet, and powered through using my trekking poles to propel me forward. After reaching the top, I was back on jeep tracks for a few miles with undulating hills. At one point, as I was on a slow and steady uphill, I saw other runners barreling past me going the other direction. I thought that either I was lost or they were lost – but in fact neither of us were! One runner mentioned that there was a small aid station at the top of the hill, and so I figured the course went up to the top and then directed runners back down. That was partially true.
At the top of the hill there was indeed an aid station, but it was not the turnaround point. Instead, we linked up the the 4mi/7km Artemis Trail which circumnavigates Mt. Olympus before returning to that point and continuing back the way I was coming. So, the runners that were passing me at that point had already completed the Artemis Trail and were at least 5mi/8km ahead of me already! No matter. I continued at my own pace and enjoyed the views along the way.
After I completed the 5mi/8km loop and was back on track, I had only a few miles left to complete the first loop of the race (18.6mi/30km total). The rest was nice and smooth trail, mostly downhill, back to Troodos Square.
When I arrived there, most of the other runners had already refueled and departed for the second loop, which means I had the table to myself!
I re-filled my water bladder, popped in a couple electrolyte tabs, ate a PB&J sandwich I had packed, and chatted with the great volunteers for a few minutes. I was about 21 miles in at this point (thanks to the extra mileage when I got lost) and starting to feel a little run down, but overall still quite strong. The weather had been fantastic so far – nice and cool – and the energy in the Square was high so that helped motivate me to get back out there.
Psilo Dendro (Loop 2)
After taking a few minutes to collect myself, I headed back out on the trail. From now on, I would be in familiar territory as I had experienced the rest of the route before during training runs. Heading back out of Troodos Square, we are quickly directed off to the left and on to the Persephone trail.
The going is easy for a couple of miles, running along ridgelines with wonderful views of the valley below.
Before too long, however, we’re back on the more rugged terrain. Following a short stint on jeep track, we’re directed down a rugged and loose path with plenty of opportunity to slip and fall.
The ground was loose and my legs were shaky, so I was happy to have my trekking poles here – they definitely saved me from at least a couple of falls. At one point, there was a giant fallen tree laying across the trail which required some scrambling to get over. As I made my way over, I decided to sit for a minute and enjoy the view:
Ok, so I was actually just giving my feet a rest. Still, not a bad place to pause.
After surviving the skree, we’re dumped back on to some jeep track and eventually to a hiking trail which, at times, is hellaciously steep. By now, my wheels have begun to fall off and I am walking every hill. In this instance, the hills are so steep that it’s actually much more economical to hike them using my poles rather than attempt to run. Or so I tell myself. It’s getting to be about 1pm now and the sun is shining strong. I’m still comfortable in my longsleeve shirt, but wishing I was back in the shade.
More hills and hiking trails follow. I hadn’t seen another person since I left Troodos Square, and was beginning to wonder if I had missed a turn (which is easy to do!). Sure enough, though, the markings kept showing up to keep me on track.
The course began to descend rapidly back down into the valley, and at the 15k mark (35 left to go) there was an aid station that I was very happy to see. I replenished my supplies and took a seat on a nearby stone wall for a few minutes. I knew that the rest of this loop (“only” another 10k) would be all uphill, so I took my time getting ready.
Heading away from the aid station, the course follows a well-marked trail to Kaledonia Falls. This is a very popular hike for tourists and since it was a weekend morning, it was swamped. I walked the entire thing, both because it was steep and because there was no way I would have been able to swerve around the gobs of people. I got plenty of strange looks from tourists in flip flops who must have been wondering where the hell I came from and why I looked (and smelled) like I did.
Most people stop at the falls and don’t follow the trail back to Troodos Square – not us! Another mile or so and were back on an undulating jeep track, which was followed for another couple of miles before linking back up with the Peresphone trail that we started on.
Then, it was a simple matter of retracing my steps back to Troodos Square.
Agios Nikolaos (Loop 3)
I once again took the opportunity to have a seat and collect myself while refueling at the main aid station in Troodos Square. I had completed 55km/34mi which was my longest distance to date. I was now in the “twilight zone”, as I like to call it – uncharted territory where weird stuff happens. By now my feet were wrecked, my calves aching, and my spirit drowning. As I took a swig of coconut water, I watched the second place finisher whiz by me toward the finish line. “Wow…” is all I could muster. He was all done for the day, and I still had another 25k to go. Sigh.
I figured I should hit the road before getting too comfortable in the chair. My girlfriend was there, having already finished her 10k race, and convinced me to change out of my soaked long-sleeve shirt and into a fresh short-sleeve one. This provided more of a boosting effect than I anticipated. I scarfed down another PB&J sandwich, reloaded the pack, and took off down the road before my brain could convince me otherwise. In my haste, I forgot two things: to reapply vaseline between my legs, and to grab my headlamp. Both of these mistakes would come back to bite me on this section.
The fist mile of the third loop is identical to the last mile of the first loop, if that makes sense. In fact, I would end up running this section three times throughout the day as I retraced it at the end of the third loop as well. This loop is the second half of the 50k race and the one and only part of the 25k race. I’ve run this loop a handful of times, including last year when I ran the 25k race, and it is by far the toughest. Essentially, you start at the top of the valley, run a couple thousand feet down over the course of 12 miles, and then turn around and run right back up to the top again, covering the same elevation in just over half the distance. It’s brutal on fresh legs, and crippling on tired ones. When I jokingly asked the race organizers why they saved the best for last, they responded by saying, “we’re afraid that if we made it the first loop, nobody would continue to the next one!”. They’re probably right.
I did as much running as I could manage, which wasn’t much at this point. I vocalized all of my mantras to help get me into a rhythm, and settled on 10-second intervals of jogging and walking which eventually turned into 10 seconds of jogging and 30 seconds of walking. The timing really didn’t matter, as I was just trying to keep my mind from focusing on the throbbing pain of my lower extremities, and counting seemed to do the trick for a while.
I was trying to continue to eat at regular intervals, but could no longer even think about gels or any kind of sugary substance without wanting to heave. What never seemed to get old, though, were my trusty beef sticks and Justin’s almond butter, neither of which have any added garbage that would make me hurl. I took in as much as I could.
Before making the long descent into the valley, I came by the “20k to go” sign (12mi). I had made pretty good time to that point, considering, but I knew what was coming.
After that, the descent came. Mile after mile of hairpin turns and loose gravel going further and further down into the depths of the valley. My knees were screaming for mercy and I was doing all I could with my poles to help absorb the impact. I thought for sure that I would snap one eventually, at which point I’d really be in trouble.
“How was that last section only 5k?!”, I yelled to the heavens. I would have bet my bottom dollar that I had gone at least 10. More downhill. I stop at one of the final overlooks for a photo as the sun begins to set.
During this downhill stretch, I took several short breaks to try and give my knees some relief. The insides of my thighs were on fire from the chafing, so I did what I could to keep them from rubbing together (e.g. waddle). I pushed on, knowing that the checkpoint wasn’t far away. I kept expecting it to be right around the corner, but somehow there always seemed to be another corner. Having run this section several times previously, I knew that when I reached the road the aid station would be just at the top of the hill. I eventually made it there at just after 5pm.
This was the last aid station of the race, and I knew that the rest of the course would be uphill back to Troodos Square. I was actually looking forward to a break from the downhill, although that would soon change. I topped off my water supply one last time and nibbled on a couple of snacks. I couldn’t stomach most things at this point but knew I was doing alright nutritionally (just not physically!). One of the volunteers asked if I had my headlamp, since the sun was already starting to go down and it was going to take me a while to get back. Crap – I forgot to grab it from my bag after finishing the second loop. I sheepishly admitted that I hadn’t grabbed it, but said that I had my phone with a flashlight. That would have to do! I set off up the hill for the last section of this hellacious course.
This last bit of the trail was about 6.5 miles long and took me nearly three hours. My pace rarely went below 20min/mile as I was completely spent. I power-walked the entire thing and don’t think I even did as much as jog the flat sections (not that there were many). I was completely spent and in survival mode at this point.
The course continues on jeep track for a couple of miles before it splits off to single track until you hit a stream. From there, it follows the stream right up through the valley, and the course cris-crosses it half a dozen times in the process. Here are a couple of pictures from last year’s race of this part of the trail, since I was not in the proper state of mind for photography at this point:
By now, I was racing with the sun. I was hoping that the moonlight would be enough to keep me from having to use my phone’s flashlight, as I noticed I only had about 10% battery left and wanted to save it for when I really needed the light.
Several miles, stream crossings, and mini breaks later, I hit the “5k to go sign”.
There was just enough light left to see the trail, and I thought I might make it the whole way without needing my flashlight. Wrong. With 3 miles to go and my current pace, I was looking at another hour on the trail before finishing. I pressed on, trying to keep a somewhat consistent (albeit slow) pace. Before too long, the sun completely sank behind the mountains it was dark.
The last mile and a half of this loop are the same as the first part of the loop – you’re simply retracing your steps. Once I got to that part, which is more covered than the other sections, there was no moonlight to be had. I knew I was coming up on a section with loose footing, so I fired up the flashlight on my phone and got busy. I would have been in trouble without any light on that section for sure, but by now my battery had dwindled to about 7% and I knew I didn’t have long before it completely drained. I pushed and pushed until I reached the last marking of the trail, “1km to go”.
About three seconds after I took that photo, my phone shut off. While I knew the route generally, it was a struggle to stay on track. There was absolutely no moonlight penetrating the trees and it was pitch black. I used my best guess as well as the backlight from my camera to faintly illuminate the ground in front of me, but it didn’t do much good. I was able to check my GPS watch and ensure I was on the right track, although I did wander off several times and end up in the bushes. It took me a pretty long time to do this final kilometer, but eventually I popped out right at Troodos Square and the finish line was in sight.
I trotted towards the big arch, raised my arms victoriously, and crossed.
My final time was 15h 55min with a distance of 53.1mi/85km (thanks to my little “fun run” after the first aid station). Below is my GPS data from Strava.
I came in 17th out of 21 runners, which is completely fine with me. As with all my races I’m only out there to enjoy the outdoors and to push myself, both of which I did.
I had been training for this race for about four months. Ever since my great experience at the Two Castles 50k earlier in the year, I have been focused on preparing myself for this great challenge. In the end, it was an extremely humbling and rewarding experience. I don’t mean to say that I was overconfident going in – the opposite, actually – but having finished it calcified the notion that running 50 miles is really hard.
Before this race, I looked to those who have run this distance (and further) with a sense of wonder. It didn’t seem real that they were able to do something like that and survive, much less thrive. Now having done it myself, I have a newfound respect for anyone who has subjected themselves to the rigors of endurance athletics. It’s something you can never truly understand until you’ve been there yourself – beaten, battered, exhausted, club-footed, and sore…but still smiling. In chatting with other ultrarunners, it’s clear that it never gets easier. They’ve all said that they never feel ‘good’ after a race (I’m glad I’m not the only one), but that feeling good isn’t the point. Feeling good isn’t an emotion I’m trying to elicit from these races or training, either. I am searching for, and have found, a sense of accomplishment, camaraderie, and serenity that comes from pushing past my perceived limitations, with people I admire, and in an environment that I care about. Working toward a seemingly impossible goal and then completing it provides an unparalleled satisfaction that makes all of the hard work worth it.
Aside from the difficulty of the course, I think I handled my nutrition well. I never bonked, threw up, or cramped. I owe this not only to my preparation and planning beforehand, but to the organizers and volunteers who had some seriously good snacks at the aid stations. Not only that, they were exceedingly generous by helping to refill my pack and making sure I got enough to eat. Even though I was a bit queasy by mile 40, craving savory rather than sweet, I knew that I had to keep taking in calories to avoid getting too far behind.
As I mentioned above, I made three mistakes that cost me some time and caused a bit of discomfort, but none of which were show-stoppers. First, I took that wrong turn right after the first aid station. No excuse there, it was just hard to see and I wasn’t paying close enough attention. Lesson #1: follow my GPS watch more closely – it said I was off track but I chalked it up to slight inconsistencies in the map and ignored it for too long.
Second, I didn’t reapply Vaseline to my thighs after the second loop. In all of my other races and runs, I’ve never had to re-apply because what I put on initially would work fine for those distances. I could tell towards the end of the second loop that I was getting a couple hot spots, but as soon as I sat down at the aid station I forgot all about them. Lesson #2: reapply everything, even if you don’t think you need it. Make a habit of reapplying Vaseline/bodyglide/sunscreen/whatever at set intervals and make it part of the routine, just like resupplying.
Third, I didn’t take my headlamp with me on the third loop. I left the aid station at about 2:30pm and it didn’t even cross my mind that the sun was setting at 6:30 and that I’d likely be out there after dark. Luckily I had my phone for a little while, but it got pretty tricky there for a minute. Lesson #3: Obvious, but check the time. I should have known that, given my average pace, I wasn’t going to make it back before dark. It would have taken half a second to toss the light in my bag, but it was out of sight and thus out of mind.
The three takeaways from this race are pretty obvious in hindsight, but they all come from the fact that I hadn’t experienced this distance before. I’ve never run so far that I needed to reapply Vaseline or so long that I both started and finished in the dark. I’m glad I learned these lessons early, when the consequences are minimal.
This was an incredibly challenging course that completely chewed me up and spat me out. My mistakes were 1) missing the trail after the first aid station, 2)not re-applying vaseline after the second loop, and 3) not bringing my headlamp on the 3rd loop. Fortunately, the weather was perfect and the volunteers were even better which made the day a real joy. I was pretty beat up by the end of it, but I left feeling a great sense of accomplishment. This race was great!
Just two short weeks after this race, I’ll be back in Troodos for the Cyprus Walkdown, a 21-mile team race from Mount Olympus to Happy Valley. In November, I also plan to participate in the first running of the Larnaca Marathon, which will be my first road marathon since 2014. After that, it’s up in the air. I don’t have any more ultras on the calendar for the rest of the year, but hopefully that will change. Unfortunately I will no longer be living in Cyprus for next year’s race, so I’ll have to find a new adventure.
Either way, feel free to follow along with my training, as I will continue to post updates and announcements in that space.
Until next time!