The Ireland-based Filipino runner talks about his biggest challenge

By Eloisa Lopez

The year 2010 seems like a lifetime ago as Rolando Espina looks back on what he has accomplished since. Six years ago, Espina was diagnosed with hypertension and high cholesterol in addition to a left-knee surgery he had to undergo for a basketball injury.

Sick and overweight, an Irish friend encouraged him to pull himself together from his unhealthy disposition. Running was his friend’s advice, and so run he did.

Now at 42, his legs have ran 93 marathons and ultramarathons so far, including 10 marathons in 10 days (winning third overall), five ultramarathons in five days, and five full-distance triathlon races. His next feat, a race of interminable suffering and overcoming, is the 246-kilometer Spartathlon in Greece—and Espina is the first and only Filipino to beat it.

The Prestigious Race

One of the most grueling ultramarathons in the world, the Spartathlon is respected for its difficulty and the history it carries.

Technically, any race further than 42 kilometers could be dubbed as an ultramarathon, but the ones that seem insurmountable are the ones that ultramarathoners target to race.

More than the distance, the journey to the finish line is also paved with challenges. The rough path becomes muddy. The light dims into darkness. The heat turns into rainfall. And the steep hike to the 1,200-meter Mount Parthenon is traversed in the dead of the night.

The Spartathlon goes as far back as 490BC, when Pheidippides—an Athenian messenger—was sent to Sparta to seek help against the intruding Persians. According to written records, he reached Sparta a day and a half after he left Athens, traveling nonstop for six consecutive full marathons by foot in 36 hours.

The improbability of it inspired British air force officer and long distance-runner John Froden in 1983, who took the challenge himself along with a couple of officers to see if the feat could really be done. A year after, the Spartathlon race was brought to fruition.

Meeting the Requirements

There are several ways to qualify for the 246-kilometer race. You could either finish a 100-kilometer race in under 10 hours, 120 kilometers in 12 hours, or 180 kilometers in 22 to 24 hours.

In June 2015, Espina got the golden ticket to Athens after finishing the Portumna 100-kilometer forest ultramarathon in Ireland in 9:42.

Last month, he also ran the 161-kilometer ultramarathon in the hills of Wicklow Mountains in Ireland to further his “knowledge and experience” with ultra events.

“I will have to defer from entering Ironman events in the meantime to concentrate [on] the Spartathlon race in September,” he says. He plans to run a marathon or two every month, and some 100-kilometer ultra events in some months.

Multitasking

While it seems brutal, Espina’s training is in fact far from what the other runners have planned.

Having a full-time job as a nurse in Ireland, his graveyard shift on alternate weeks has kept him from being committed solely to the race. His hours in training are almost never planned, and the idea of a “specific training week” even seems unfamiliar. Instead, he cycles to work on most days, and runs the 16.5-kilometer road to home when he can. “It’s more like if I have time, I’ll go for a run or something,” he says. “But nothing more permanent than that.”

Being a dad to three kids and two dogs, Espina has to keep his time managed for everything to be cared for.

“It really helps to have a very understanding wife and supportive children as running could be a selfish thing sometimes,” he says. For a family that lives abroad without helpers, time for running must be limited—even more, time for 24-hour (or more) races.

Self-preparations

Food being his motivation in running, Espina admits that he doesn’t have a strict diet plan. With the Spartathlon coming however, he has decided to cut down his alcohol and junk food intake.

“You can only prepare so much for any given sport,” he says. The rest and recovery are equally important, but the mental preparations “to tackle the evil when the going gets tough” is what he’s banking on.

“For me, I always wear my ‘mother and son’ necklace, and I always think of my Nanay to give me the strength and willpower to get through [the race],” Espina adds. “You just have to man up!”

On His Goals

With only an average of 40 percent reaching the end point of the Spartathlon—Espina hopes nothing but to “simply finish.” “Attempting for a good time or something else is almost like a guaranteed DNF for first-time racers,” he explains.

As for his plans after the Spartathlon, Espina prefers to take it from there. He credits his perseverance to try new things for achieving his goals, and so his future will be decided upon it.

“Just never make baby excuses, and never be afraid to explore,” he adds.