It must have been July 2015 when I ordered the book “Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance”, written by Christoph McDougall. Little did I know that the book would lead me towards a new training regime and a dramatic increase in running distance (See … on a Tin of Mackerel). Even less did I know that around that time somewhere in London, someone read the very same book and decided to go to Crete to turn the harsh route taken by the featured heroes into an ultra trail run.
By December 2015, I had registered for the Heroes Ultra Crete inaugural edition…
It is Sunday morning, May 22nd. The regular cadence of my feet brings me into a state somewhere halfway between dreaming and waking, while I see the full moon setting and the first rays of sunlight tickle my tired eyes. About 125 km on my way. I am alone. And I am sure I will make it. Plenty of time. If I can get to the top of Mount Kryoneritis at this speed, all the time in the world to reach Peristeres beach. I smile when I remember the words in the HUC athlete’s manual “We would also suggest that shoe minimalists think twice before turning up in running sandals or minimally cushioned shoes due to both rocks and thorny vegetation prevalent in parts of the course. We all love a pair of nice minimalist shoes, but Crete is not the place for them.” Well, I must admit those words didn’t leave me undaunted. Usually, when one starts reading personal messages in manuals, this means it is time to have the mental health checked. But in this case, I am pretty sure the soft-spoken, ever-modest race director Panos Gonos put them there having my bold announcement in mind. The statement that I would run the Heroes Ultra on sandals, that is. My doubts are gone now, feeling happy at this point. Made it this far, and with little more than a marathon distance to go, the mission is almost accomplished. On my Luna sandals. I look back, and notice the flash of a strong headlamp on a shaded steep descent a couple of miles behind me. Wonder who that would be. Likely Timos Daskalopoulos, who seems to be picking up speed lately. Along a deserted track I stumble upon a table with water bottles and bananas in the middle of nowhere. I take one and devour it, putting the peel carefully back on the table. Maybe the word hospitality doesn’t mean anything until one has visited Crete. I have been stunned the last 24 hours… and made up my mind: I’ll be back.
My mind wanders off. Flashback. Saturday morning 6 AM. I am sitting on a bus with Olivier Verhaegen, a fellow Belgian ultra athlete. The bus groans itself up into the dark mountains on the way to the Vasakou Monastery, from where the Kreipe abduction party set off about 72 years ago after kidnapping General Kreipe, the German commander-in-chief, in broad daylight. To escape a massive manhunt. It will be the starting point for our 30 hour journey. We feel a bit worried for various reasons. Sheets of rain fall from the sky and strong gusts of wind howl around the bus, while we observe the inhospitable terrain with some anguish. We hear some of our fellow runners discuss about their time at the special forces. We seem to be the odd ones out here. A strong ultra runner with limited trail experience preparing the Spartathlon and undersigned planning to tackle the Heroes Ultra on sandals, much against everyone’s advice. Then there are the demanding cut-off times. And then the weather… Will it improve?
I tell myself I did similar stuff before. The sharp lapiaz and loose rocks of the Ultra Trail du Vercors, the thorny bushes and rocky trails during the Raid des Bogomiles in the french department of the Aude… But only up to 100 km so far. And there’s more… Joyfully leaping off an escalator in Brussels airport about 24 hours before, I sprained my ankle. Yesterday the pain got much worse. In slight despair I went to visit the health club in the Athina Palace hotel and asked for the closest thing to a sports massage, explaining what my situation was. The guy smiled, stood up, unveiled a 50 cm biceps, gave me a handshake of steel and said: my name is Alex and I’ll fix you up for that race. After the massage followed by a long sleep, my right ankle feels a bit better, but I am afraid it will play up later on. Pulling out would be so… well… disappointing.
The monastery is located in a beautiful setting. The inhabitants offer us some excellent coffee. The 27 starters are a diverse bunch. Nice to finally meet. After a short photo session with a video drone hovering above our heads, Panos and his team unleash us. The weather has improved, but the wind is still there.
There are no flats on Crete. That already becomes apparent during the first miles. After a while we sneak into the first village. It will become a recurring theme. Never will we enter the villages by main street, we only seem to climb or descend into them. First nothing but bushes and rocks, then suddenly a house. Or more. It is easy to imagine that band of heroes sneaking into the villages at night, undetected, seeking help from the local population. For us it’s easier. A lady and some older villagers serve freshly squeezed orange juice from a water bottle. Delicious. One of the many officious refuelling stations along the way. A feast.
The ankle seems to hold. What a relief. But I have to stay cautious. The terrain is rough. In an olive grove, I see a big toy elephant in a tree. Isn’t this a bit early in the race for hallucinations? We hit a stretch of bitumen road. I am in last position. Two policemen on their motor bikes drive slowly about 50 m behind me. Another observation strikes me. It looks like Panos and his team mobilised half the island. Not only did the villagers start baking and cooking for that daring band of 27 runners, also mountain rescue and police forces are overwhelmingly present… In a very friendly way. Never seen this before. Wasn’t this supposed to be a simple water point? Or is it a banquet full of local natural delicacies?
The first check point… Another feast. As the sun has been hitting us relentlessly, it is time to take out a sun hat. Playtime is definitely over. I accelerate and start taking over other runners. Have to build up some time reserve. Being strongest uphill, I know I will lose some time later on the downhills. Especially with the ankle. The terrain gets rougher and the infamous prickly vegetation starts tickling my bare feet, while I jump from rock to rock. Proprioception, this is called. Suddenly a lovely grassy plateau. On the other side CP2, Nida.
A long climb toward Mount Ida (Psiloritis), nearly 2000 m above sea level. The climbing is fun, and suddenly I get some company from Emilia who seems to enjoy climbing too. What a view. Before we know it, we are tackling the long descent towards CP3.
But CP3 doesn’t come that easy. The trail swings into the woods and the last kilometers are a remarkable scramble through steep olive groves, a hidden valley and a rocky chaos. I am alone again. My phone beeps. It is my wife telling me I am nearing CP3. Has been following me on the internet through Race Drone, as we are all carrying a small GPS tracker. It is about 17h00, 60 km in the race… Still fine.
Jumping forward in time. The last daylight has faded and a bright full moon is rising above the mountains. A steep stony track. High above, I see a dancing light of one of the runners. Far below me another one sweeps around. CP5, the main check point with the drop bags isn’t that far away anymore.
Next to those stony tracks, we are getting some stretches of bitumen. Some things must have changed since 1944. But if you want to follow the historical route, you have no choice, I guess. But in fact I welcome the asphalt. This allows me to crank up my average speed, as the cut-off times are ruthless. Sometimes I get a feeling of relief after noticing one of the sparse orange HUC signs on this bitumen section. I have seen lights straying off the path and I suppose these are fellow runners who got lost. I wonder if I’d take out my Garmin GPS sooner or later, but so far everything seems to be under control. There is also a meditative feel to it. As long as it lasts. Time after time the trail swings off the road to clamber into tiny villages.
In the end, I don’t spend much time at CP5 in Gerikari. Take soup. Eat some of the delicious cherries, have the kine applying some Voltaren gel on my dirty calves and take a look at my heroic feet, covered by a crust of Cretan dirt.
For the first time ever, I charge my Suunto from a battery pack while running. Happy it works. Lonely stretches, but I keep on meeting the same support teams at the intersections. Seeing them tends to cheer me up too. Makes me feel a little less lonely, as finally all of the Cretan villagers seem to have gone to sleep. Only howling dogs and fiery cats eyes in the bushes. Suddenly I get attacked by two angry badgers running towards me. I swing my Black Diamond poles and they disappear, babbling some kind of angry Ewok language. Clear awake now. Trying to make some calculations about my estimated time of arrival. If things continue like this, I will be in early, but I also increase the risk of injury or exhaustion. No need to push anymore, I decide.
A couple of hours after dawn, I finally land at CP8. Getting hot already and anticipating the long climb to Mt Kryoneritis, I decide to take off some clothes and push onwards to CP9. Far from easy. The big rock lying between me and the sea looks daunting and I cannot imagine a path running over it.
Finally I get to CP9, an army vehicle parked across a steep track. The commando’s have put up some fresh drinks and water melon on their vehicle. In one hour we will close the gate here, they say. Means I have 4.5 h left to make the last 15 km.
Continuing my scramble, I hear Timos arriving at the check point below me. In the thorny wilderness -gosh what a terrain- he will eventually catch up and we stride together towards the last ridge. One last push… and there it is. A splendid view on the deep blue sea. A sigh of relief. Only 10 km to go and 3 hours left. To descend about 1000 m. I make some quick calculations, involving an average downhill speed of 6 kmph. Reality kicks in fast. My sore legs hardly make 5 kmph at most. Phew… this will take ages… In the mean time other participants start overtaking me. But time is on my side. Although I am getting impatient by this long downhill shuffle.
Finally the beach. Another mile to go along the coast line. Involves some scrambling and then… Peristeres beach. The Kreipe abduction memorial stone. People cheer. I will be the last one to arrive within the 30 h time limit. Panos hands me my well deserved tags. I am amazed my feet don’t even show a scratch. I stroll around. Ask for a beer and get it. Drink it and walk into the surf to wash my dusty feet. Find Olivier. Drink another beer. And we realise we did it. What a race.
Heroes Ultra Crete 2016. What can I say. A unique experience that I will never forget. Hats off to all fellow runners, volunteers, support crews and of course those at home who make it all possible for me. The warm people of Crete. And last but not least Panos and his crew.