I’ve just hobbled up some steps onto a temporary wooden platform to take this photo. My feet hurt. They hurt a lot. Sarah, Mark and Dan are below taking their own pictures. I need a minute to myself. I’ve started crying.
My race finished 21 hours ago, when I ran up to this statue, grasping the left foot in a sweaty embrace. However it is only now, when we have stopped off in Sparta before driving back to Athens, that the magnitude of the achievement and the effort it required is sinking in. I’m completely drained, not just physically but mentally and emotionally.
Spartathlon is a BIG race. It’s not just the distance, but it has a special place in the hearts of many runners and I had invested a lot of time and energy in the event. So had my crew. I had first met Mark when he was volunteering at a Centurion race. Sarah, Mark and I were at the Jevington aid station all night and had a great time. Since then Sarah and Mark have volunteered together several times, and make a great team. When Mark offered to take time off work and help crew I was delighted, and promised his family we wouldn’t be going home without a finish.
When I set out, I only really had one goal and that was to get to Sparta in less than the 36 hour time limit. However my crew needed something a little more useful than that, so I gave them a table with my projected earliest and latest arrival times for the 16 crew points. However for myself I wanted to keep my race plan simple, and devised a 10 point checklist.
- Smile and relax
- 9 and 1
- Phone Mum
- Keep a cool head
- Don’t panic
- Eat something
- Own the night
- Be unstoppable
- Drink some more
- Do not quit, do not quit, do not f*in quit
Smile and relax
I run because I enjoy it. However I was expecting that after 120 miles or so I might need a reminder, so this was first on my checklist. The excitement at the start as nearly 400 runners gathered beneath the Acropolis was infectious. I knew that in previous years many had tried and failed, and about half of those assembled might not kiss the foot in Sparta, but despite this the mood was buoyant as we set off. Running down the cobbled slope I had a massive grin on my face and was practically giggling with delight at the atmosphere. The sense of history, and the evident pride that the Greeks have for this race made it a really special start. With Police officers stopping traffic and waving runners through road crossings I quickly discovered how important this race is to the communities we would run through. I wanted to keep this sense of happiness close and draw upon it later in the race, knowing I probably wouldn’t be quite this joyful again until the finish.
Running with a smile on my face keeps me positive and helps block out the negative voices that try and creep in when I get tired, so I was determined to smile for every checkpoint, wave back at the cars that hooted as they passed, and have as much fun as possible. The children I saw along the route made this very possible. As I ran through some villages there would be whole classes lining the street, hands outstreched for a high five. Under one road bridge there must have been 50 or more children waiting patiently for a hand slap from a passing runner.
9 and 1
This is my reminder to slow down, take walk breaks and save my strength for later. Last year I used a ‘run 9 minutes, walk one minute’ strategy and ran my best ever 100 mile races. It forces me to slow down when I’m fresh, but also pushes me to run when I’m tired. After the start I soon found myself with James and Barry, so fell into step with them for a while. However I was determined to be disciplined and after thirty minutes, I waved them off and slowed to a walk.
Keeping to this regular run walk routine, as I ran through Athens and down to the coast my walk breaks meant I was slowing down compared to the first 30 minutes, so a number of runners passed me, but it felt like a really comfortable pace for the first few hours. I had a good chat with a couple of runners from the American team, as well as with Paul and Carl.
My drop bag strategy was very simple. The day before the race I bought two dozen 500ml water bottles in the local supermarket. 12 of these I mixed with Tailwind. I then taped some food to each one and put them in every fourth checkpoint bag at race registration, so I would have something from Cp4 through to CP48. The rest I would leave with my crew, so I could adapt depending on how I felt in the second half.
This worked well, and during the hot parts of the day I was drinking my Tailwind then topping up the bottle with water at every CP.
I think it’s best to keep mothers on a ‘need to know’ basis when running stupid distances, so this particular instruction was making a one-off appearance on my checklist. Race day – 30th September – is also my mother’s birthday. She is at home looking after the children while I’m running and Sarah, my wife, is crewing. At about 11:30 during a walk break I phoned to wish her a happy birthday. This was late enough that she would be back from the school run, but early enough that I was still feeling great, and wouldn’t have to lie.
Keep a cool head
I started the race in my team shirt and trusty Gore running cap, but at the first crew checkpoint in Megara, I swapped into an Ashmei vest and my wide brimmed hat. They have ice at the aid station, so I plunge the hat in a bucket of water, throw some ice cubes in the hat and I’m back on the road. In minutes I have complete brain freeze, and water dripping down my sunglasses.
At the next checkpoint (CP12) I was given my drop bag bottle, on which I had taped a ziplock bag with some cheese biscuits. I ate the biscuits and put half a dozen ice cubes in the bag then put this in my hat. This worked much better, and by repeating this I could remain relatively cool.
I must credit this instruction to James Adams, as I borrowed it from his blog. The race distance, cut offs, number of checkpoints and possible drop bags can seem daunting. To avoid the feeling of panic I decided to just ignore the cut offs completely. I would adhere to the old cliché and ‘run my own race’, irrespective of the pace of runners at the front, around me, or the cut offs chasing me. I would simply ignore it all and run in my own bubble. I’m a reasonably fast runner, so if everything was going well and I was following my eat, drink and stay cool instructions, cut offs shouldn’t become an issue.
This worked really well. Ignoring cut offs meant I was never stressed by trying to calculate the pace I needed to maintain. I could just run or walk as it felt comfortable. I knew if I was dangerously close to cut offs my crew would tell me, but they had been briefed to not mention them otherwise. They could do the calculations, get stressed if I slowed down and leave me to relax and run.
Running over the Corinth canal is a great experience and a landmark on the route. I pulled into CP22 knowing I’d covered 50 miles and still felt fine. This is the second CP where crew are allowed, but I couldn’t see Sarah or Mark. I grabbed a drink. Russ, crewing for one of the other British runners, helped find some ice for me while I phoned Sarah. I was concerned she had got lost, but in fact she and Mark had mis-understood the road book and assumed they weren’t allowed at this CP. A curt instruction to “Read the rules”, and I was on my way again. No panic.
The route from Corinth improves significantly, running along small country roads passing through olive groves and vineyards. I had been snacking on food at the checkpoints as well as eating the Nakd bars, nuts and biscuits that had been taped to my Tailwind bottles. However I was feeling hungry, so glad when I arrived at Ancient Corinth to find Sarah and Mark had grabbed a table in the shade at the local café. Because they had skipped the Hellas Can CP, they had been here for hours, and enjoyed a three course meal already. On first name terms with the waitress (Magda), they ordered a coffee frappé as soon as they saw me arrive. They also had a rice pudding for me as well as an ice lolly. Great work by the crew and instant forgiveness for not showing up earlier. The frappé was delicious!
I walked out of Ancient Corinth, pausing to admire the ruined buildings, and then got back into my run / walk routine. It was still very hot and my feet were aching. I think the heat was making them swell, so my shoes were getting uncomfortable.
Own the night
I have always enjoyed running into the night, and the promise of cooler conditions meant I was eager for sunset. Before the race I’d decided that if I was struggling I would just try to hang on until sunset and then pick up the pace. As it was I was in pretty good shape as I ran towards Zevgolatio. The local children were out in force and flagged me down, so I stopped and signed a few autographs for them. I don’t expect I’ll be asked to do that again anytime soon. At the CP I picked up my head torch, and clipped a flashing red LED to the back on my waist belt.
There was a short section on an unpaved road which made a pleasant change, but then it was back onto the roads. I’d changed out of my vest into a fresh top, although at this stage it was still a warm night. My crew were doing a great job of keeping ahead of me and anticipating what I would need: cheese sandwich, hot coffee etc. all ready for my arrival at the checkpoints. If only they could have moved the trip hazards- video here
As well as my mum’s birthday, race day coincided with a new moon, so the sky was especially dark and the stars put on a great show. The long trek up the switch backs to the Mountain Base checkpoint were made bearable by just looking up from time to time to admire the spectacle of the Milky Way.
I arrived at the CP and was given a hot drink by the volunteers. I couldn’t see Sarah or Mark, but a quick text message had them running over from the car park. It was about 3:40 am, and I was getting cold as I sat down to change my shoes. My road shoes are hopeless on trail, so I wanted to change to something with more grip. I also put on a long sleeved base layer, hat, gloves and jacket. I wasn’t expecting to run to the summit, or indeed down the other side, so wanted to stay warm. A change of head torch (I didn’t want the batteries running out), and I was on the move again in just a few minutes.
The climb was horrible. After a hundred miles of running my ankles, which have limited mobility at the best of times, were really stiff. A couple of times on the climb, I paused and wobbled, just trying to stay balanced. However I only fell once, and did no damage. The descent was as bad: loose rocks waiting for me to turn an ankle on; small rocks hiding in the shadows, waiting for me to stub my toe on. I stuck to the plan and walked down. I knew I’d lose time here, but better that than risk a bad fall that could end my race.
Mark and Sarah were waiting at Nestani, and I changed back into my road shoes. Statistically most runners who make it to Nestani ahead of the cutoffs make it to Sparta, but it’s still 75km to go, so far too early to feel safe.
Sunrise normally brings a sense of relief – the start of a new day. However for me it brought a horrible realisation that, along with the mist that had rolled down off the mountain, literally chilled me to the core. I’d been running for 24 hours now, and realistically had at least 10 hours still to go until I finished. I’ve run five 100 miles races, but nothing longer, and although I should have been prepared for this it came as something of a shock. I had to shake this thought off and focus on the present. Just keep plodding to the next CP, then the next. Don’t think of the finish.
Drink some more
It’s Saturday morning and I realise that I may have gone a little overboard on my hydration strategy. In a race earlier this year I had a bladder problem which meant I had to stop and pee every 5 minutes even though nothing came out. One suggestion was that dehydration had contributed to the problem. Today though, when I do stop its like turning on a tap. I must be irrigating every olive grove in the Peloponnese. Despite the 30 degree heat I am clearly well hydrated, so can look forward to a beer at the finish line rather than a saline and glucose IV drip.
My frequent stops take my mind off the steady climb up to Ardamis. There’s a runner a few hundred meters ahead. Every time he starts to run I break into a jog too. My feet hurt, and as the day heats up they swell some more. All I can do is loosen my shoes and keep going.
Do not quit, do not quit, do not f*in’ quit
The eleventh point in my ten point plan, and another stolen instruction. One of the runners at the Centurion SDW100 had this written on a card, and when I read her blog I decided to copy the idea. It’s so easy to forget why you entered when you get tired and before you know it you’re on a bus. You’re then wondering why you quit, and regretting the decision for a year until you can come back for redemption!
I couldn’t quit. My crew would kill me. My children would kill me. Mark’s wife would kill me. I quit.
‘Get to CP 69 and it’s all downhill’ I’d been told, so I hung on, but the downhill was worse. My feet were swollen and in agony and the increased impact from running downhill was unbearable so I quit. Well not quite. I didn’t hand in my race number. I knew I still had plenty of time. But this wasn’t going to be the strong finish or sub 34 hour race I’d been hoping for. I was walking to Sparta now.
It was a long walk, but I now had the luxury of time, so I was under no pressure. It would have been great to run in and finish sooner, but my goal was to get to Sparta and I would achieve it. I started imagining that first cold beer, and broke into a jog. It hurt – a lot. Back to a walk.
The finish itself must make this a contender for ‘Best Race in the World’. Kids on bikes escort you the final 2 km through the town of Sparta to the finish. Local residents cheer and wave from every taverna and café. As I strolled towards the line someone shouted at me to run for a sub 35 finish, so I broke into jog. (video of finish here)
At the end there is no line to run over though, instead the race ends when you touch (or kiss) the feet of the statue of King Leonidas. You are rewarded with an olive wreath placed on your head, and drink of water from the local spring. The medical staff then wash and tend to your feet. I’ll write that twice as I still don’t believe it – they wash your feet – before fetching you a beer and releasing you from their care.
We hung around, chatting with the rest of the British team, and cheering other runners home for a while, until I started shivering and Mark and Sarah dragged me off.
There is a lot about this race that I didn’t like. However it’s given me some fantastic memories, introduced me to some great new people, and for the quality of the Start and Finish alone, it’s worth the 246 km in between.
If I think of a good enough reason I’ll come back. However the best reason – to finish the race, has been used so I need another.