Find Your In­ner Hero

The He­roes Ul­tra, a gru­elling tra­verse across the sav­agely beau­ti­ful in­te­rior of Crete, is a new race with an in­spir­ing wartime his­tory. RW’S To­bias Mews sum­moned his in­ner hero to tackle an epic ad­ven­ture

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents -

The He­roes Ul­tra is an epic run­ning ad­ven­ture in Crete. Do you have what it takes?

I say to my­self as I hob­ble along the beach, cast­ing long­ing glances at the blue wa­ters of the Mediter­ranean. It’s eas­ier said than done. Over the past 24 hours I’ve run right across the un­for­giv­ing in­te­rior of Crete and right now I’m feel­ing ev­ery step.

I pause to lis­ten to the waves crash­ing onto Peris­teres Beach and re­flect on the events that took place here 72 years ago. This is the in­au­gu­ral edi­tion of the He­roes Ul­tra, which re­traces the route of a dar­ing Al­lied op­er­a­tion to abduct a Ger­man gen­eral dur­ing the Sec­ond World War; the story is re­counted in Christo­pher Mcdougall’s re­cent book, Nat­u­ral­born­heroes (Pro­file Books). I imag­ine the relief Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Ex­ec­u­tive agents Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor and Billy Stan­ley Moss, and their band of Cre­tan re­sis­tance fight­ers, must have felt on reach­ing Peris­teres beach, after al­most three weeks and 100 miles of escape and eva­sion in the moun­tains. But my own jour­ney is not quite fin­ished.

I push on, fo­cus­ing on one orange course marker after an­other un­til they sud­denly dis­ap­pear. I look up and, to my hor­ror, see that the next marker is on a rocky head­land, per­haps 15m high. I know the fin­ish lies on the other side, marked by a stone me­mo­rial ded­i­cated to the mis­sion. Com­pared with the miles I’ve al­ready run through the Cre­tan moun­tains, it’s noth­ing, but in my ex­hausted state it seems as if I’m star­ing up at Ever­est.

It’s not of­ten I get an urge to run 100-odd miles. The un­der­tak­ing de­mands se­ri­ous prepa­ra­tion and Her­culean men­tal strength. It can also take a heck of a long time to re­cover from. But the back­story to the He­roes Ul­tra is truly cap­ti­vat­ing. Like many, I’d read of the au­da­cious kid­nap of Gen­eral Hein­rich Kreipe by a ‘dar­ing band of misfits’ in Mcdougall’s book. Over al­most 20 days, Ma­jor Leigh Fer­mor and Cap­tain Moss, along with bat­tle- hard­ened lo­cal re­sis­tance fight­ers, slogged through the moun­tains un­der the cover of dark­ness, dodg­ing Ger­man pa­trols, un­til they were able to ren­dezvous with a res­cue boat on the south­ern coast.

As a for­mer Bri­tish Army of­fi­cer, I knew that if I’d had sug­gested Leigh Fer­mor’s plan to am­bush a Ger­man gen­eral’s chauf­feur-driven car, drive through 22 road blocks dis­guised as Ger­man sol­diers and then hike 100 miles across Crete, with a se­verely dis­grun­tled en­emy of­fi­cer in tow, I’d have been laughed out of the room. But it was per­haps be­cause the plan was so au­da­cious, so down­right barmy, that it suc­ceeded. Be­cause no one would have be­lieved it pos­si­ble. The Ger­mans cer­tainly didn’t.

Warm glow

On the morn­ing our race be­gins there are no en­emy road­blocks to ne­go­ti­ate, but our trans­port takes us to the an­cient Vosakou Monastery un­der the cover of dark­ness. The or­gan­is­ers had cho­sen this as the event’s start point rather than the his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate but rather un­re­mark­able Drosia, seven miles to the south­east. ‘This is one lib­erty we took to en­hance the ap­peal of the course,’ says race direc­tor Panos Gonos. ‘From Ano­gia on­wards we ad­here very faith­fully to the orig­i­nal route, en­ter­ing all the vil­lages en­coun­tered in the mis­sion, com­ing within me­tres of hide­outs and mak­ing the same cross­ing over Mount Psilori­tis.’ Walk­ing through the monastery’s peace­ful court­yard in the first glow of the early morn­ing sun, I can un­der­stand the de­ci­sion.

I’m ac­cus­tomed to the pre­race thou­sand-yard stares of ul­tra marathon­ers, but I see few among the other 26 com­peti­tors here. Per­haps it’s the tran­quil set­ting, but while we sip Greek cof­fee and nib­ble a light break­fast there are only re­laxed smiles, hand­shakes and in­tro­duc­tory chit-chat.

‘How long do you think it will take you?’ an Amer­i­can run­ner asks as we await the count­down. Strangely, it’s not some­thing I’d thought about. The course will take us up to al­most 2,000m, but with a to­tal of 5,418m of as­cent spread across 156km, it isn’t as steep as many well-known moun­tain 100-mil­ers. The Ul­tra Trail du Mont Blanc, for in­stance, has al­most twice the elevation. And with 30 per cent of the route on as­phalt and a de­cent por­tion on 4x4 tracks, there should, in the­ory, be plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to make up time. My hasty men­tal arith­metic also fac­tors in the 30-hour cut-off point, which com­pares un­favourably with the more stan­dard 40+ hours for moun­tain 100s. So I say, ‘24 hours.’ Of course, the wise an­swer as you step into the un­known of any ul­tra race is, ‘As long as it takes.’

We leave Vosakou to calls of ‘Good luck’ and ‘See you at the beach.’ A few run­ners zoom ahead but most of us are con­tent to play it safe with the

‘You’re al­most there, just keep mov­ing’...

ter­rain, the weather and the route, un­fa­mil­iar to all but a few of the Cre­tan com­peti­tors, in­clud­ing race favourite Pan­telis Kam­paxis, a lo­cal.

I find my­self trot­ting along­side this gen­tly spo­ken run­ner as we slowly make our way up the as­phalt road away from the monastery. In an event of this type and dis­tance, and with such a small field, you ex­pect to spend a lot of time on your own, so I savour the com­pan­ion­ship. I soon dis­cover the 48-year-old has rep­re­sented Greece in the Trail Run­ning World Cham­pi­onships for the past decade and set nu­mer­ous course records in Crete and be­yond, and so I am not sure how long our time to­gether will last. For now, he seems con­tent to shuf­fle along­side me, chat­ting about the run­ning cul­ture in Crete and point­ing out lo­cal land­marks. It’s like run­ning with my own per­sonal guide as we pass ‘mi­tatos’ – the yurt-like stone huts used by shep­herds – as well as olive groves and orange trees.

Dur­ing the pre­race brief­ing the pre­vi­ous af­ter­noon, Panos had told us not to be sur­prised if some of the vil­lages pro­vided un­of­fi­cial aid sta­tions be­tween the 10 or so of­fi­cial stops. Sure enough, after only 40 min­utes we come across an el­derly lady of­fer­ing what looks to be orange squash. Or­di­nar­ily, I’m one of those peo­ple who chooses not to stop so early in a race, but lately I’ve had a change of mind­set, re­al­is­ing that con­stantly chas­ing time means I’m not able to ap­pre­ci­ate the cul­ture and land­scape I’m be­ing ex­posed to. So I pause to take a slug of squash, only to dis­cover it’s ac­tu­ally the juice of freshly squeezed or­anges, prob­a­bly picked that morn­ing from the orange tree right be­side me. Fur­ther proof, should we need it, that not all of run­ning’s re­wards are to be found on your Garmin.

As we near the first check­point, in Ano­gia, about 15km into the race, Pan­telis tells me his grand­mother grew up in the vil­lage. From my re­search, I’m aware that Ano­gia was the cen­tre of the Cre­tan re­sis­tance dur­ing the war and played an im­por­tant role in en­sur­ing the suc­cess of the mis­sion. I’m also aware that the vil­lage, along with a half-dozen oth­ers, was burned to the ground in ret­ri­bu­tion. Seventy two years later, the mem­o­ries live on, but there’s lit­tle ev­i­dence of the de­struc­tion now in this charm­ing place, with its quaint cob­bled stone streets, white­washed houses and vi­brant cafe cul­ture.

I can hear the sound of mu­sic and laugh­ter as we ap­proach the aid sta­tion. Ac­tu­ally, it sounds like a party in full swing. I’d been told of the gen­eros­ity and wel­com­ing na­ture of the Cre­tans, but it still man­ages to sur­prise me, as dozens of vol­un­teers, in­clud­ing mem­bers of Crete’s old­est run­ning club, of­fer to fill our wa­ter bot­tles and gen­er­ally fuss over us. ‘Do I have ev­ery­thing I need?’ ‘Do I want a Greek cof­fee? Noth­ing is too much trou­ble.

While the warmth of the wel­come is a pleas­ant sur­prise, the course later re­veals some­thing not so friendly. For around 45km the ter­rain has been much as I’d ex­pected – al­most en­tirely up­hill, but along a mix­ture of gen­tle sin­gle track, 4x4 tracks and as­phalt. Hard graft, but with a bit of mind over mat­ter, all fairly doable. Now, on the ap­proach to a plateau be­neath the sum­mit of Crete’s high­est moun­tain – Mt Psilori­tis, aka Mt Ida – I find it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to run on some of the trails.

Maybe it’s the heat of the mid­day sun tak­ing its toll as I slowly make my way along the rocky path, try­ing to avoid the prickly bushes that can pen­e­trate a shoe. Or maybe Ida, said to have been the birth­place of Zeus, is play­ing tricks on my mind. What­ever it is, as I watch Pan­telis bound up the rocky slope with en­vi­able ease, I feel a kin­ship with Leigh Fer­mor, who mar­velled when one of his Cre­tan com­rades, the tire­less Ge­orge Psy­choundakis, took off at night to con­tinue mak­ing things un­pleas­ant for the Ger­mans. ‘A few min­utes later,’ Fer­mor wrote, ‘we could see his small fig­ure a mile away mov­ing across the next moon­light fold of the foothills… bound for an­other 50-mile jour­ney.’

Reach­ing the sum­mit, after what feels an age, I’m hit by strong gusts of wind. Ini­tially it’s a pleas­ant relief, but it quickly turns to a chill that mo­ti­vates me to want to get down the moun­tain as quickly as pos­si­ble. I’m sur­prised to find Pan­telis, tak­ing his time on the de­scent. ‘ What took you so long?’ he says with a grin as we fall back into step.

After the slog up, the long de­scent into the val­ley below is some­thing to savour. We scan the rocky land­scape hop­ing to catch a glimpse of the cave, the Vorini Trypa, where the team took refuge. Trans­lated as ‘North Pit’, we agree it doesn’t sound too wel­com­ing and, any­way, can see no sign of it in the vast land­scape.

Bro­ken bond

Run­ning with some­one is far more plea­sur­able than run­ning alone, but it brings a po­ten­tial prob­lem: what hap­pens when one of you can’t keep up? Pan­telis is a 2:30 marathoner, so I was fairly cer­tain I’d be the one to throw this dilemma into our dy­namic, but ul­tra dis­tances are noth­ing if not un­pre­dictable. ’I’m not feel­ing well,’ he tells me as we slow to a walk. He has a stom­ach bug. We try to run again, but are soon re­duced to a walk once more. ‘You go on,’ he says, pain and dis­ap­point­ment etched into his face.

I’m very re­luc­tant to break the bond we’ve forged on the trail, but I know if I am to have any chance of

If I am to have a chance, I need to push on

fin­ish­ing I need to push on – even though it means the daunt­ing prospect of prob­a­bly run­ning the re­main­ing 100km alone. At the next check­point I tell the medics of his sit­u­a­tion, hop­ing they can help. Sadly, I’ll later learn that it will be the end of the road for Pan­telis.

The big push

The cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of pound­ing as­phalt sec­tions, push­ing up rocky as­cents and cling­ing onto branches while try­ing to keep my foot­ing on treach­er­ous dried leaves is tak­ing its toll on my body and mind. I strug­gle for more than an hour to com­plete one par­tic­u­larly tough sec­tion, which can only have been a cou­ple of kilo­me­tres long. My an­kle and hip flexor are flar­ing with the strain of overuse and the aid sta­tions have be­come more than some­where to sim­ply re­stock my sup­plies – they are now bea­cons of hope.

They are also an as­sault on the senses. Break­ing the hours of run­ning in si­lence, each aid sta­tion presents a bar­rage of cheer­ing and of­fers of wine, fruit, bread, meat and cof­fee. Even at 3am the lo­cals are so full of good hu­mour that, de­spite my ex­haus­tion I can’t help but fall in love with the place and its peo­ple.

The penul­ti­mate aid sta­tion is nes­tled at the edge of a tiny vil­lage, after a par­tic­u­larly tech­ni­cal and rocky de­scent. I re­fill my wa­ter, ex­change pleas­antries and ask how other run­ners are far­ing, then grab a hand­ful of nuts and or­anges and head off into the dark­ness.

On the long climb that fol­lows I catch up with an­other run­ner and we chat for a while. Euse­bio Bo­chons ex­plains how he’d been lead­ing the pack but missed a turn, do­ing an ex­tra 4km down­hill be­fore re­al­is­ing his er­ror and hav­ing to turn back up the hill. No won­der he’s suf­fer­ing. And there are more prob­lems head­ing my way, too.

Panos had warned us the fi­nal climb, 20km from the fin­ish, would be hard, but I’m still un­pre­pared for the bru­tal re­al­ity. As I strug­gle with ev­ery step I see the head­torches of other run­ners in the dis­tance, the flick­er­ing lights grow­ing ever closer. At least they’re not Ger­man pa­trols, I re­mind my­self.

With my foot and hip flexor is­sues hav­ing re­duced me to a hob­ble, I turn to look at the sun­rise and see the sil­hou­ette of a run­ner clos­ing in. He passes me with a slap on the shoul­der and a look that, I imag­ine, trans­lates as, ‘ Well done mate, but it’s over now’. Ex­cept it isn’t – there are still 14km and 1,000m of de­scent be­tween me and the coast.

That de­scent is a mul­ti­tude of off-road switch­backs tum­bling

Ev­ery stone is a huge ef­fort but it’s an ef­fort shared

to­wards the coast­line. In the light of the new day I can see the run­ner who re­cently passed me, speed­ing down with ca­sual agility. My gait is rather less grace­ful and though I try to let grav­ity help me down, by the time I reach sea level I’m a wreck. My quads, hip flexor and an­kle are stiffer than one of the many olive tree stumps I’ve passed en route. I hear foot­steps be­hind me and two more run­ners speed past. Any com­pet­i­tive edge has been well and truly blunted, though. All I want now is for it to be over.

‘At least it’s flat’, I tell my­self as I shuf­fle along the coast road. It’s not yet 8am, but I can al­ready feel the heat of the sun on my skin. And then, just a few hun­dred me­tres from the fin­ish I see the rocky mon­stros­ity that lies be­tween me and the fin­ish. It’s al­most enough to add tears to the sweat sting­ing my eyes.

‘Estás bien?’ I turn to see Euse­bio hob­bling be­hind me, look­ing in al­most as much pain as I am. I’d asked him the same ques­tion (‘Are you OK?) when I’d over­taken him four hours ear­lier and if I had the en­ergy I would chuckle at the re­ver­sal. The look on my face an­swers his ques­tion: ‘Te ayu­dare!’ he calls: ‘I’ll help you’. He ges­tures for me to lean on him as we at­tempt to make our way up the rocky out­crop. Ev­ery stone is a enor­mous ef­fort, but it’s an ef­fort shared. With an arm wrapped around his shoul­ders, one foot after the other, we edge to­wards the fin­ish­ing stone like two wounded sol­diers re­turn­ing from bat­tle, un­til fi­nally, hands held high, we touch it to­gether.

Our jour­ney fin­ished, we’re led away to be tended to by the medics. We be­gan as strangers, but as we lie on loungers wrapped in space blan­kets, I re­alise that with­out Euse­bio I might not have made it. This epic jour­ney has not only forged a friend­ship, it has added an­other name to its list of he­roes. I turn to him and say, ‘Gra­cias, amigo!’

HIGH AND MIGHTY The He­roes Ul­tra, Crete

WALL OF FAME At Vosakou Monastery be­fore the race (To­bias is seated, far left)

HE­ROES WEL­COME Com­peti­tors set off on the in­au­gu­ral He­roes Ul­tra

PART­NERS IN CLIMB To­bias tries to keep pace with Pan­telis Kam­paxis

LO­CAL CHARM Cre­tans pro­vided fan­tas­tic sup­port

AID IN FULL Wait­ing for weary com­peti­tors

SOLI­TARY STATE You need to en­joy your own com­pany

WA­TER­ING HOLE A wel­come respite

NO RE­SIS­TANCE The lo­cals were happy to get in­volved

BROTH­ERS IN ARMS To­bias and Euse­bio reach the fin­ish

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