10k to go and it’s 2:30 in the afternoon. It’s an easy downhill from the Shell station, then a left turn and along to the Evrotas bridge, before the final mile and a half into the centre of Sparta and the statue of King Leonidas. A jog / walk would see me finished in another hour and a quarter.
It had been raining constantly since 7pm last night, but in the last couple of hours the wind had really picked up. Water was flowing up the road towards me, and broken branches littered the tarmac. Stronger gusts tried to blow me off my feet, and I was holding my hand in front of my face to protect myself from all the flying debris. I needed to run to stay warm, nearly tripped over my own feet as the wind blew me sideways, so resigned myself to walking. A fallen tree was blocking half the road, but a bulldozer was already trying to clear it away. I guess this is the only road to Sparta the local authorities were working to clear. The driver opened his cab door to shout at me. The wind took his words away, but I knew he was offering encouragement.
CP 73 came and went in seconds. No stopping now. Out of the hills the buildings offered some shelter from the wind, so I jogged for a couple of minutes. I suddenly had a panic I was going the wrong way. I looked around. The streets were deserted, no runners ahead or behind. I carried on for another minute, and a police car passed. He stopped, blocking a side road and waved me on. Eventually I saw the bridge and knew where I was. The pedestrian section was flooded with water ankle deep, but seemed safer than the road so I waded through, pausing to watch the muddy torrent flowing beneath the bridge.
CP74 was my final drop bag. A Union Flag for the finish. The checkpoint was abandoned, blown away by the storm. There was a bin bag by the side of the road and I could see runners’ numbers on bags inside, so rummaged through until I found mine. No child escort this year, but I had not been expecting one in the circumstances. I ran on up the main road. A few brave souls came out onto their balconies to cheer. I could see another runner a few hundred meters ahead, but no one behind. Perfect! Last time I’d had to queue at the finish, and this year I wanted King Leonidas all to myself. I could see the guy in front turn right, so walked up to the junction to give him some space. Finally I unfurled the flag, and turned onto the final avenue. A slow jog and a few cheers, but no crowds this year. Everyone was too tired, wet and cold. I heard a shout and looked up. Chris Mills and Paul Rowlinson were there cheering, and taking photos and video. I ran up to the steps and towards the plinth. My foot slipped on the bottom step and I nearly fell face first into the statue, but recovered. For a second time I could kiss the foot of the statue.
Although I ran Spartathlon in 2016, it doesn’t feel like a repeat. This was not the same race, but a completely different experience.
The start was similar enough. There was a light drizzle as runners and supporters assembled beneath the Acropolis at 6:30 on Friday morning. It was cool enough that I decided to wear a light windproof. Other runners were wearing bin bags over their vests and t-shirts. We set off steadily at 07:00 cautious of the wet slippery cobbles, and were soon out in Athens traffic. My plan was to match my 2016 pace for the first 50 miles, but finish stronger for a 32hr target (35hr was my previous time). I enjoyed chatting with a few UK runners and also saw a US runner, Otto from New York who I met at the Berlin Wall race.
The run through Elefsina at 14 miles was the first indication that this race was different. Last time there was dozens of children waiting with outstretched arms for a high five, but the streets were empty. I had a couple of drop bags early on with food supplies and managed to consume everything I had planned, and was a few minutes ahead of schedule as I came into Megara. This is marathon distance and the first crew checkpoint. My crew notes had asked for a coffee and pork pie, but being so far from Melton Mowbray I was happy with a sausage roll substitute.
The rain had stopped at 11:00, so I was just wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and really enjoying the cool weather. It was perfect conditions for running. My legs felt fine now. I’d had a couple of twinges in my right quad and left calf after about 15 miles, but that had passed, and I felt great.
I really enjoyed the section by the coast, and even the stinky refineries weren’t too bad, so it seemed like no time before I was crossing the Corinth canal, and running into the less than scenic Hellas Can CP. 50 miles done in 7:58. 20 minutes ahead of schedule. This is only the second point you can meet crew, and they were here with more coffee and sandwiches. I think my notes had said frappe, but given the cool weather they had anticipated what I would need. My feet had got wet from the earlier rain, and I felt a blister forming, so Sarah took off my right shoe and sock. Mark popped and taped the blister. A dry sock and I was back on the road. F1 style pitstops in Corinth. I left the checkpoint with a fresh drink and eating my cheese and ham sandwich as I walked down the road, chatting to the other support teams. From here the scenery changes. It is all olives and lemon groves as the route moves inland.
I ran with Carl Howells for a while, but pushed on when he walked. I knew he’d catch me in Ancient Corinth when I stopped to meet my crew again. This time they had a rice pudding for me and a hot coffee. A quick sit down to eat, and then I was off again, and soon running with Paul Ali and Carl for company. The kids were out in Zevgolatio (CP29) collecting autographs, so we all stopped a signed the notebooks they offered. It’s possible to waste hours in aid stations on this race, but I really don’t mind spending 5 mins writing “David 384 UK” a dozen times.
A very quick crew stop at the checkpoint, but then on again with Paul and Carl. Running together and chatting really helped the miles pass quickly. I’d left a head torch in a drop bag at CP30, so picked it up, but it was only 6pm and still daylight. I stopped at the next major CP in Halkion to use the toilet and eat more of the food the crew had for me. They had been shopping and bought a small camping stove, so had some warm noodles prepared. More top crewing! It was 7pm, 70 miles done and I was ahead of schedule and nearly an hour up on my 2016 pace. It had just started to rain, so I was about to grab my light windproof again. However I made a snap decision to take the waterproof while I had the chance. My Montane Spine jacket only went into the bag 5 minutes before we left the house, but putting it on then was the best decision I made. I had a dry merino base layer under a goretex jacket. Bliss! It would keep we warm and dry all night.
Hat on, waterproof on and head torch switched on and I set off. There is a climb up to Ancient Nemea, and the rain was very heavy by now. I was passing runners wearing plastic bin liners over their running vests, and just hoped they had more sensible kit somewhere up the road. The roads were flooded in places, and water was coming over my shoes. Knowing that Greek roads are nearly as pot-holed as UK ones, I walked through the puddles, not risking a trip in the dark. I caught up with Carl and we pushed on together, joking about the English weather on offer this year.
Ancient Nemea resembled a field hospital. Shivering, sodden runners everywhere. A lot of people seemed to have insufficient dry kit for the conditions. Thunder and lightning rolled around the hills. My jacket was keeping me dry, but my shorts and feet were soaked, so i had to shelter in the church to apply extra vaseline while Mark held a blanket to preserve some modesty. The team had cooked up some mushroom noodles for me, so I ate quickly before leaving.
Then onwards and upwards again, before the drop down to Malandreni and CP40. My crew were waiting for me, in a small restaurant. They had a table at the back, and plenty more food: souvlaki, chocolate almonds, coffee etc. It seemed like half the British support team was there too having their dinner. From here it’s a long steady grind up towards the mountain. Somewhere after CP45 my head torch started flashing. A sign the battery is dying. I could see a couple of other runners ahead so put on a spurt to catch them before my light failed. I had spare batteries and a spare head torch at CP47, but nothing on me. I caught them – a pair of Frenchmen, just as my light failed. However at CP46 they stopped, so I decided to march on up the hill in the dark. There was just enough light to see the road, but passing traffic was a bit scary, and I wasn’t sure what drivers could see in the rain.
Mountain Base, CP47 and almost 100 miles done in 19hrs. Still on plan. My aim here was a quick stop to sort my headtorch, a bite to eat, then over the mountain. The checkpoint team had some chicken soup, so I quickly ate some, and immediately felt sick. I staggered out of the tent, coughing and choking, but without being sick. However a medic got me to lie down in the medical tent for a few minutes while they checked my blood pressure. All good, so after a nice lie down I was up and hiking over the mountain. It seemed easier than I remembered, but at the briefing we’d been told they had improved the path, so I guess that was it. Even in my road shoes I only slipped a couple of times, and even passed someone on the way up. It was windy at the top but not too cold, however I just called out my number to the volunteers and hiked off to start the descent. It’s all wet slippery rock and I had no intention of running down the trail, and was happy to walk toward Sangas, only running when I hit the road. In 2016 I lost a lot of time between the mountain and Tevea, and I was determined to run as much as I could. An hour or two of my old 9 min run, 1 min walk was the target here, and I made good time.
I arrived at Nestani (CP52) at about 4:30 am. The CP here is in the square by another little bar, and I sat down, was wrapped in a blanket and given more coffee. Simon was here too, looking very cold and wet. A short stop and off again, with more run and walk. It’s fairly flat from here, across the Tripoli plains, and had been bitterly cold in 2016, but oddly felt warmer this time despite the rain. This section was quite lonely. Hardly anyone in sight along the long open road. There was a police car at the next main junction, to slow traffic and wave runners across. By now I was barely stopping at CPs. Just enough to refill my hand held bottle with Coke and water.
Eventually I reached Zevgolateio (CP57) which is a crew point and I could go inside to warm up for a few minutes. Dan Masters was here, so after more food I set off with him. He thought Ian Thomas was just ahead, so we were surprised when he came up behind and joined us. We ran together for the next few miles as the darkness was slowly replaced by gloomy daylight. The rain was incessant but with the night over I was hoping things would be better. We arrived at Alea-Tegea at just after 8am. My team had a choice of breakfast and a hot coffee. I sat down to eat and told Ian and Dan not to wait. Fortunately after breakfast I had a second wind, and picked up the pace enough to catch them just a few miles down the road, as the climb to Ardamis started. In good company we made reasonable progress, however as we approached the next crew point I knew my feet were in trouble. I rarely get blisters, but my feet had been wet for hours now and I knew they were macerated and blistering badly on the soles.
We stopped at Papadonis restaurant (CP63) and I asked for a change of socks and the blister kit. I also decided to put my waterproof trousers on as my slowing pace meant I was getting very cold.
While Mark lanced and taped my blisters, Sarah went the the car for dry kit, but came back empty handed. My dry kit bag was not in the car, presumably left at a previous CP, although no one was sure which one. Fortunately Mark had some spare socks I could use, so I set off into the rain with Ian. Dan had gone ahead, rather than wait and get cold. Ian was struggling with an ankle injury and I was limping with my battered feet, so we were good company for a few miles. However with only shorts on my legs were getting very cold and I could feel my quads and hips seizing up. Eventually I had to suffer the pain of running rather than risk the cold getting to me. It was still 20 miles to the finish, and a fairly lonely journey. The weather was deteriorating all the time, and the wind picked up and thunder rolled around the hills.
More marching, with short jogs to try and generate some heat. Up the final climb from the monument, then the left turn off the main road and down towards the Shell petrol station. 10k to go and I will finish this, despite Storm Zorba.
I never doubted I would finish this race. My Dad had died 6 weeks before, and he was the most determined person I’ve ever known. I knew when things got tough I’d only have to ask what Dad would do, and I’d just keep pushing forwards to Sparta. I had the best crew, the best kit, the best Dad and no excuses for stopping.
33:23 and I was finished.
Spartathlon is a race like no other I know. As soon as you get a place, you become part of the British Spartathlon Team (BST). The race is a solo effort, but the team spirit is very real and a huge support both before the race, during and afterwards – the party is as legendary as the race, and the BST are a huge presence both at the bar and on the dance floor. Thanks to everyone in the team for your support and friendship.
Special thanks to my my support crew: Sarah, Mark and Joanne Craig were superb throughout. Full of good humour and keeping me positive and moving throughout two days and a night.
One last thought. If the weather had been like this in 490BC, maybe Pheidippides wouldn’t have made it. No Spartathlon, and quite probably no Marathon either…
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