Now that Labor Day has come and gone, and the brutal Florida summer heat and humidity is starting to subside, the road ultrarunning community turns its attention "across the pond" to one of the world's most competitive long-distance road ultras . . . the 153-mile Spartathlon in Greece. (This year's Badwater 135 was phenomenally-competitive at the top of the race). And at "Sparty," there are about 50 runners who have a realistic shot of finishing in the top-15 every year . . . Europeans take their road ultras seriously!!
Traditionally, the United States sends between 5-10 runners over to Greece for the race. Last year, I think we had about a dozen, including one of Greece's favorite sons, Dean Karnazes. It was a great race and experience, and ever since getting back home, I've been looking forward to this year's race. (For my article on last year's race, click here).
This year will be especially exciting, as over 20 Americans will be making the trip, including several world-class runners as well as many Floridians. With so many of my friends going over -- as well as a few Team Zwitty runners -- this promises to be the best year at Sparty yet!!
Here is my preview of some of the Americans (and especially the Floridians) who will be competing in the race in ten short days (Sept. 26th), and hopefully earning top finishes!!
(Note: the following predictions are mine alone, and if you (or your favorite runner) is not included in the preview, consider it a good-luck omen: for my Badwater 135 preview, I correctly predicted a grand total of one of the top 5 runners (and I didn't even pick myself)! So if you are running the race and not listed below, fear not: you'll probably wind up winning the race)!
Okay, here we go:
2. The U.S. Women.
The reigning 24-hour world champion, as well as the second-place finisher at Sparty last year, Katy is one of the top pre-race favorites. The only woman who may be considered more of a favorite to win than Katy is fellow Hungarian Szilvia Lubicz, the two-time defending Sparty winner and course record-holder. (Note: while Katy is a native Hungarian, she is a naturalized U.S. citizen now).
With Katy's talent, experience, and guidance (she shares the same coach as Szilvia), she is going to be very difficult to beat this year. Prediction: Katy will be the women's 2015 Spartathlon champion, finish in the top-10 overall, and may be the top American overall at the race (male or female).
If Katy is the #1 American woman toeing the line at Sparty, Traci is #1(a); Traci finished a close second at the world championships in April, and holds the world indoor record for 48-hours (an absurd 242 miles). Traci is tough, experienced, and a consistent runner . . . all the qualities one needs to be successful at Sparty. Prediction: Podium finish (top-3 women).
The one-time American record-holder at the 24-hr race (149.3 miles), Connie is the U.S. woman with -- by far -- the most experience racing international long-distance races. She has won 11 USATF national championships, and represented the U.S. at international races for the past decade.
While Connie may not possess the raw speed as Katy, Traci, or Aly, she more than makes up for that with discipline and experience. She will always run her own race, and not be drawn into the (much too fast) early pace that seems to ruin many pre-race favorites at Sparty. Prediction: Top-10 women.
The final Sparty runner who also ran for the U.S. in Italy this year, Aly may have the most raw talent of any of the U.S. women. In 2014, she ran a blistering 14:42 100-miler at the Keys 100 (the third-fastest 100-miler on U.S. soil by a woman at the time), and then followed that effort up with a win and one of the fastest female times ever at the 2014 Badwater 135.
A road/hot weather/flat terrain specialist, Sparty should fit in well with Aly's strengths. Prediction: Aly and I used to train together when I lived in Miami, and she doesn't like when I predict how she will finish :) So I won't say anything more than if Aly is "on" and healthy in Greece, look out!!
Other Notable U.S. Women:
- Lara Zoeller: while new to international competition, Lara has run over 140 miles in 24 hours, so she is plenty-capable of a top finish at Sparty.
- Sky Canaves: another member of the world-champion U.S. 24-hr women's team in Italy, but withdrew from Sparty due to injury.
- Brenda Carawan: a top-level road ultrarunner with a ton of international experience (including finishing the 2013 Spartathlon), Brenda was also forced to withdraw due to injury.
- Amy Costa: a local Jacksonville-based runner with a ton of experience in U.S. road races, including multiple Keys 100 finishes as well as the 2014 Badwater 135.
3. The U.S. Men.
- Ivan Cudin: overall race winner 3 of the last 5 years (including last year, in the insane time of 22:29), Italian Ivan Cudin has to be considered one of the top-2 favorites in this year's race. Prediction: 2nd place.
- Florian Reus: second-place the past two years (including a sub-24 finish last year), German Florian Reus is young, talented, runs very mature for his age, and he is likely very motivated to win this year. He also won the World Championship 24-hr race this past April in Italy. Prediction: this is his year. Overall winner.
- Joao Oliviera: the 2013 winner of the Spartathlon, as well as the 2015 winner of the absolutely gorgeous 175-mile UltraMilano-Sanremo in Italy, Portuguese runner Joao Oliviera is a remarkably disciplined runner who is a strong candidate for a podium finish. Prediction: 3rd place.
- Piotr Kurylo ("Polish Rocky"): perennial top-10 finisher, including a 2nd place finish (behind Scott Jurek) in 2007, Polish Rocky has announced that Sparty will be his final race before retirement. He always does well at this race, despite the fact he runs from Poland to Athens (over 1000 miles) before the race every year as a "warm-up". Polish Rocky is likely extra-motivated this year for Sparty . . . Badwater was his goal race for 2015. He ran 175 miles per week, and even moved to Phoenix for two months before the race to get used to the desert heat. But race day was not his day this year, and he dropped at around 50 miles. So expect Polish Rocky to unleash his trademark intensity upon the Sparty course this year. Prediction: top-10 finish.
If any U.S. man can break into the top-5 (or even a podium spot) at Sparty, it's likely Mike. He is -- easily -- the most prolific long-distance road runner (at any distance) in the United States. The guy races -- and competes -- in around 40 races per year. His resume is replete with marathon and ultramarathon victories, far too numerous to mention here. His "sweet spot" seems to be between the 50k and 100k distances, although he does have a podium finish at Badwater 135 under his belt (3rd place in 2011).
As a former lacrosse player at Michigan State (the "Spartans"), the Spartathlon seems a natural "bucket list" race for Mike. (Personally, I grew up 20 miles away from Ann Arbor, home of the Spartans' chief rival (Michigan), so I'll just pretend that the statute of Gerard Butler, er King Leonidas, at the finish line isn't really a fabled Spartan king but really a big statute of Jim Harbaugh!! (If someone can outfit the statute in really baggy khaki pants, that would be awesome!!)
Prediction: if Mike runs his own race, he can compete for a top-5 or even podium finish. Top-ranked U.S. male runners, however, have not had much luck recently at Sparty . . . the list of elite U.S. men, just in the past 5 years, who have not finished the race could easily double as a good starting list for the U.S. road ultrarunning Hall of Fame (Mike Morton, Jon Olsen, Harvey Lewis, Oz Pearlman, Mike Arnstein, etc etc). Mike should break that trend this year, and my guess is he finishes 4th overall.
Mike is probably the only "world-class" U.S. men's ultrarunner that is running Sparty this year. (Although, again, just ask true world-class runner -- and this year's Badwater 135 champ -- Nikki Wynd, what she thinks of my abilities to accurately judge people as "world-class")!
There are plenty of other U.S. men that have a chance at a solid "sub-30" finish (which likely means a top-20 overall finish). Here are some other notable U.S. runners:
- Mark Matyazic: A prolific ultrarunner in the U.S. -- including a bunch of top-10 finishes at Badwater 135 -- Mark is a very strong and consistent runner who will not be intimidated at Sparty, and should finish with a solid time.
- Eric Clifton: Winner of the Badwater 135 in 1999 (the "Running on the Sun" documentary year), Eric was once one of the premier ultrarunners in the world. He obviously knows what it takes to succeed in a long-distance road race, and maybe he can conjure up some mojo and have a great race!
- Chad Ricklefs: Former winner of the Leadville Trail 100 and podium finisher at other races such as Vermont, Chad has plenty "front of the pack" experience, speed to burn, and if his training allows, he may be a dark horse candidate for a top-10 or even top-5 finish at this year's Sparty.
- Bob Hearn: First-time Sparty participant who has run 139.5 miles at a 24-hr race, so he certainly has the "motor" for a strong finish at this year's race.
- George Myers: Team Zwitty runner who has run 100 miles in under 17 hours (and at the hot/humid Keys 100, no less); expect George to run a smart, strong race at Sparty!!
4. Florida Sparty Runners.
Chris Roman, M.D.
One of my best friends, Chris has an enormous amount of experience in long-distance road ultras. He has run Badwater 135 twice, and has run the Brazil 135/175 multiple times as well (he is the American record-holder at both the Brazil 135 and the Brazil 175!). A remarkably consistent runner and devoted father/husband, Chris is likely the most mentally-strong runner I've ever met. Expect him to have a great race in Greece and enjoy every step of the process!
Sung Ho Choi ("Bruce")
Another Jacksonville runner -- along with Chris, Amy Costa and myself (Jacksonville is sending an incredible 4 runners to Sparty this year) -- Bruce is as prolific of a racer as we have likely ever had in Florida. He has raced in 150+ marathons, and 50+ ultras in his illustrious carrier. And having conquered the 175-mile UltraMilano-Sanremo in Italy in 2014, he certainly knows he can handle the 153-mile distance.
The only Korean-born runner in this year's race, Bruce will undoubtedly have a solid race!
Sometimes words are superfluous. Thus, as stated by the late great Bernie Mac, "'Nuff Said":
5. See Everyone in Greece!
I cannot wait to get out there and see everyone!! Only 10 days away now!!!