athlete

Nine excruciating hours to go. The pain is unbearable. His calves are killing him, and his shins are about to pop out. Having been completely drained of energy, the last 60km just seems impossible.

“Some people were walking faster than I was jogging,” reminisced David Christopher, 37, Malaysia’s only representative (earned through time-qualification) at the gruelling ultra-marathon, Spartathlon, a 246km race run over roads and mountainous terrain in a day and a half from Athens to Sparta, in Greece. (The race has it roots in the mythology of the messenger Pheidippides, a long-distance runner who undertook that journey in over a day, to seek aid in the conflict between the Greeks and the Persians in 490 BC, before the Battle of Marathon.)

A Klang Valley native, Christopher works as a manager at an engineering and construction company. With a penchant for marathons of all kinds, he knew the Spartathlon was going to be the pinnacle of his athletic exploits. The seasoned runner devoted 14 weeks to train specifically for it, starting with once-daily single runs and gradually intensifying to two runs per day for five days a week, and culminating with over 100km per week.

“I forced myself to commit to these long runs by signing up for local ultramarathons and using these as training runs. The peak last four weeks in training comprised 161km of running per week,” he said.

Christopher races very often. Last year, he participated in 30 races. In 2015 and 2016, he took part in over 20 races each year.

His passion for running has taken him places, both near and far. He has participated thrice (in 2015, 2017, and last month) in Titi Ultra in Hulu Langat, Selangor. He emerged winner in the 100km category in 2017 and 2018.

In the 24H Ultra 2017 (a 24-hour race) in Serdang, Selangor, he ran 186.9km, the longest distance by a Malaysian.

There was also the Fraser Ultra 2017 in Fraser’s Hill, Pahang, and the Langkawi Ultra Marathon 2016. He won both races, in the 70km category and the 100km category, respectively.

The notable ultra races overseas which he has taken part in include: the Gwangju 100km Ultra Marathon 2017 in South Korea (he was the 4th place finisher), the 100 Miles Berlin Wall Race in Germany, and the Fuji 5 Lakes Challenge 2016 in Japan.

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Participants of Spartathlon 2017 preparing for the flag-off in Acropolis.

Spartathlon 2017 was punishing as he put his body through a 35-hour non-stop race. From the 361 athletes who started the race, he turned out 198th, an achievement clocked in 34 hours 57 mins and 59 seconds.

While the plaudits that came his way for completing the race were great, he remembers some of the harrowing moments of the race being truly hairy. Running at night, being subjected to temperatures 15°C and below, and the aches and pains that come with such a strenuous race, he knew, were all par for the course, but the sleep deprivation was the true killer.

He had to be up at 3.30am, after which a bus shuttled him to the race, which got flagged off at 7am.

“At the first onset of sleep, I took a caffeine tablet, which is equivalent of 2½ cups of coffee,” he said, detailing his race regimen during an interview.

He would end up popping several tablets during the race, including painkillers. “The caffeine tablets worked very well for me, they were good for a pick-me-up, and I was lucky I didn’t develop any tremors from taking them,” he revealed, sharing that caffeine has varying reactions with people.

The race began for him with the impending feeling of failure.

“I thought it was going to be a bad day. The embarrassment and pain of not finishing the race isn’t as bad as explaining why I didn’t complete the race.

“I was imagining how all the hard work, sacrifices made on food choices, and missing family would affect me. But 14 hours into the race, even with fatigue and sleep deprivation weighing him down, Christopher began to find his rhythm.

His key tactic, which saw him comfortably end the race, was all about pacing himself.

“I made a chart and worked out the timing. I calculated the latest possible times I could reach each of the 74 checkpoints,” he said, informing that runners who failed to reach check points at the stipulated times would be disqualified from the race.

The race route took in the industrial areas of Athens in the first six to eight hours, before giving way to the breathtaking view of the coastline and the eye-popping Mediterranean Sea, replete with winding, picturesque roads.

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The journey from Athens to Sparta takes in some breathtaking sights, including the Corinth Canal.

“The views from the cliffs were amazing. The nature there is beautiful. We passed a huge canal, the Corinth Canal, which cuts through Greece, and saw huge ships.”

Nightfall brought the contestants to the most difficult part of the race. “It was a stretch leading up a mountain with half a dozen hairpin turns. The uphill climb was only 4km, but it was very daunting because, even with our headlamps, we couldn’t see much through the fog, probably just 3m ahead,” he shared.

The descent called on his attention to detail the most: “The gravel road was wide enough for six people, but it was easy to slip.” Scarier than slipping was dislodging rocks and pebbles and sending them hurtling down at other runners.

“It was very cold by this point, like 8°C. I was walking like the Munsters – one step at a time by this point,” he said, plucking a light-hearted anecdote from a possibly dire situation.

But one of his most meaningful takeaways from this once-in-a-lifetime experience is the spirit of sportsmanship he encountered. “The camaraderie was really beautiful, especially in the later stages of the race. Runners were all trading positives with each other, saying things like ‘well done’ or ‘keep it up’ – encouraging words, basically”.

Support also came from children in villages they passed through, or school kids who lined the race streets. “Some of them even asked for autographs. Children’s enthusiasm is priceless.”

Undertaking a race like this could seem like an exercise in insanity to the uninitiated, but not for a seasoned ultra-marathoner like Christopher.

He always knew if there was no pain, there was certainly no gain. And to be able to raise his fist in the air as a Malaysian success story – that made this achievement all the sweeter.

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Children greeting runners at Elefsina coastal towns.

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Amid the cheers, Christopher crosses the finish line in Sparta after running 246km in 34 hours, 57 minutes and 59 seconds.