It was late August 2013. Actually it was the very last day of a very hot summer. The holiday season was coming to an end. Summer time was full with mountain activities that kept the trail running community on its toes. There was still, though, this huge ultra-race event called «TeRA 2013» spanning 80 km across a very demanding and harsh terrain, situated around and over the Timfi mountain complex. A race that would be the capping stone of a great season. The Ultra was scheduled to start at 5:15 am and was planned to finish around midnight the same day. Seventy six ultra-runners stood ready and eager at the starting line and the spirits were high. I watched semi-jealously as these athletes got on their way, hitting the steep slope that awaited them just outside the picturesque village of Tsepelovo in the northern region of Ioannina prefecture. I started having wild thoughts about me being a contender the coming year, even though I knew that this was a ridiculous idea even for a dream.
Anyway, after losing sight even of the last of the runners, I started preparing for the task that was assigned to me. I took, with the help of Angela, all the participants drop bags, loaded them on a small van and proceeded to the central race station at the village of Papiggo. I arrived there, little after seven thirty and started, with the help of the local folks, to prepare and set up the station in order to be ready well before 10:30 am –the time that the first athlete was expected to arrive. Boiled potatoes, soup, pasta, watermelon, chocolate cakes, salt, isotonic drinks, Coke, and lots of fresh water were set on the two long tables under the shadow of the village church’s bell house. The drop bags were separated in tens and I asked a local teenager to help keep track of the arrival time of each participant, since our station was also a check point and had a time limit. The runners that would not be able to reach the central station under 10 hours (3.15pm) would be eliminated, and would not be allowed to go any further. I and Kostis (a runner-friend from Metsovo) were the ones to break the bad news to them.
Apart from being responsible for the organization and smooth operation of the central station, Kostis and myself, were also assigned the task to follow the last on-time runners and certify their safe passage from the Vikos gorge up until the village of Monodentri and the next and last time limit of 16 hours from the beginning of the race.
As expected the first athlete –Nikos Kalofiris – entered the little church’s grounds around 10:40 am. He was looking rather relaxed and not so tired, even though, he already had covered the first and most difficult part of the race. Climbing up the Avalos passage (2320m) then dropping dramatically near the monastery of Stomio and climbing again to reach the intimidating passage of Davalista and the Drakolimni Lake. Being the kind of person he is, he was not so concerned about himself but he was giving us advice on how to treat the upcoming runners. After Nikos, Yannis Papailias and Vasilis Tzoumakas (2nd and 3rd final) left the station we started receiving a steady stream of athletes. We helped them with their drop bags, filled their bottles with water, cheered them up and sent them on their way down the Vikos gorge. Time was flying by and without realizing it my clock notified me that there were only 15 minutes left to reach the time limit of 10 hours from the beginning of the race. I contacted the previous station and was informed that there were two last runners that passed their checkpoint and were heading our way. I knew that it would be a close call and I was hoping to skip the gruesome task of eliminating them from the rest of the race.
As it turned out those two came just in time and after a brief rest at the station they started off again. Kostis and I waited for a couple of minutes, just to be sure that everything was ok at the station and we attacked the trail following those two last men. After about half an hour I started realizing that the pace we were «running» (more like walking) would not get us to Monodentri in time to meet the final elimination limit. About half way between Papiggo and Monodentri we tried telling them that it would be impossible to be on time. We were losing a lot of time stopping now and then, for them to rest and catch their breath. That (I realized later) was a bad idea. Even though, one of them, being extremely tired from the race and the heat, came to terms with the idea that he would not go all the way, the other one exploded with curses and foul language for every and any one responsible for the race. I could certainly sympathize with him, but I could also put two and two together. The pace we were going would get him to the finish line next morning, jeopardizing his wellbeing. Anyway, to make a long story short, we were arguing, sometimes politely, sometimes angrily (from his part) all the way to Monodentri village. We missed the deadline by 50 minutes and the last safety party had left.
I had my car brought to Monodentri by a friend so I took both those men and drove them back to Tsepelovo. On the way there I kept hearing the «angry» one telling me the same things I heard all through the gorge. Call it intuition, call it a desperate try to stop his nagging, I turned my head and told him that, even though, they did not finish the race, I would ask the race director to award those two with the medal reserved for the finishers, in order to reward them for their great effort. Magically, that was it. No more nagging, no more foul language, no more bitterness. We reached Tsepelovo at about 9:30pm, had a great dinner, celebrated with the others and watched the last of the participants cross the finishing line.
Next morning, I kept my promise. I got two medals, located the «angry» one and awarded him his trophy. And then it hit me. That little piece of inexpensive memorabilia is magically turned into Jason’s Golden Fleece to the eyes of all of us hard breathing race participants. This is what we want. This is what we sweat about. Whether it’s a 100 miler or a 5k race. Not for the medal itself. But what it represents. It is the shining proof that you managed to beat your worst adversary. That little voice inside your head telling you to stop, telling you that you are too tired, too thirsty, too hungry, too disoriented. That small piece of metal or wood is worth 100 times its weight in gold to our minds.
So, dear race organizers, pretty please, with sugar on top, make sure that you have enough medals for your participants. Racers can do without technical shirts, brand bags, stickers and leaflets. But they, we, can’t do without our small personal treasure. The race participant medal.