Tag Archives: Spartathlon

Spartathlon -wet and windy

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.

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Although I ran Spartathlon in 2016, it doesn’t feel like a repeat. This was not the same race, but a completely different experience.
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Gallery

Photos from Spartathlon

This gallery contains 48 photos.

A selection of pictures taken by Sparta Photography Club, Sarah Dryden and my crew Sarah Barker & Mark Craig.  

Sparta – a race report

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.

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King Leonidas – Sparta

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.

  1. Smile and relax
  2. 9 and 1
  3. Drink
  4. Phone Mum
  5. Keep a cool head
  6. Don’t panic
  7. Eat something
  8. Own the night
  9. Be unstoppable
  10. Drink some more
  11. 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.

Drink

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.

Phone Mum

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.img_4261 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.

Don’t Panic!

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.

Eat something

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 Coriimg_4252nth 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.

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At Mountain Base

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.

Be Unstoppable

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.

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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.

Spartathlon training update

I’ve split my training plan into three main blocks:

July – Maffetone method base training

August – Strength training with some hills and speed work

September – race specific heat acclimitisation and taper

July

My Maffetone method training went well, and I managed to significantly increase my training volume. Historically I rarely run more than 65 miles a week, but I managed to complete a three week set of 75, 80 and 82 miles, and a total of 320 miles for the month. This is all uploaded via Garmin and synced with the ConnectStats app, which has a few good metrics, including the Performance Analysis chart shown below.

Data from ConnectStats

Data from ConnectStats

The increase in mileage left me exhausted, so I can confirm the Fatigue estimate (the red line) is probably accurate, but becuase I felt so tired it was hard to assess how it affected my fitness. At least I have survived without picking up any injuries, although there are a few niggles to monitor carefully.

To better assess fitness, I completed a MAF test at the start of July, and again on 3rd August, and these show a good improvement in fitness. At the same heart rate, my average pace is up from 7:59 to 7:34. Both tests were run on the same route.

August

The plan for this month is to add in some more strength and core training. I’ll also do some more hill reps to strengthen my quads for the long downhill road sections that feature at Spartathlon. We have a two week holiday planned, so that will be a good opportunity to add in some cross training (swimming, hiking, kayaking etc), but will probably mean a reduction in the volume of miles run, as I won’t do any run commutes.

September

I have a road marathon booked for Sunday 4th September, and will schedule a couple of tough weeks at the start of the month, before a two week taper going into the race. During this period, I’ll try to do some heat training, which may require running in woolly hats and jackets for a week or two.

 

Fear and running

Fear is a bad thing isn’t it?

In our culture, we are all encouraged to be fearless. Admitting to fear is seen as a character flaw and a weakness.

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Kids want to be Jedis, not Darth Vader

But I think fear is a good thing. Without fear, how can you develop courage – your strength to overcome your fear. To quote Hunter S Thompson “I understand that fear is my friend, but not always. Never turn your back on Fear. It should always be in front of you, like a thing that might have to be killed.”

I think this is one of the reasons I run. No, that’s not right. Running doesn’t scare me, most runs are fun. Even with races, that feeling in the pit of yoru stomach before the race, is normally just nerves. I’m not scared of the race, just nervous about whether my performance will meet my expectations.

However every year I try and seek out a race that will challenge me, scare me and force me to confront the fear of failure. This year, I think I have hit the jackpot…

Spartathlon

Dear David Barker,

You can visit the Spartathlon website and login to your account or click Here and login. Please follow the instructions to fill the Entry form of this years race. Don’t forget to update your athletes profile.

Regards
The Spartathlon admin.

A very simple email, but all of a sudden this is real. My place is confirmed and I will be in Athens in September, attempting to run 153 miles in under 36 hours. I am a little surprised just how excited (and scared) I am about this.

Last year I entered TDS (74 miles in the mountains around Mont Blanc), and after receiving confirmation of my place, I wrote a training plan to incorporate a lot more hills, and then just got on with it (ok I did faff about with shoe selection, kit, nutrition etc. but i do this for every race). However the simple email above has had me reading over a dozen race reports from 2011-2015, studying the route and profile, and generally absorbing any information I can. I don’t think I have felt quite like this about a race since I entered the Centurion North Downs Way 100 in 2012. That was my first race longer than a marathon, and I had a real fear that I would fail. I guess this is the first race since then that I have entered knowing there is a real risk of failure.

While I was a little scared by this race before, the more the learn the scarier it gets. Here are some reasons to be fearful:

  • Average finisher rate 42% – more than half the participants fail to finish, despite the tough qualifying criteria
  • In 2012 the finisher rate was 23% – three out of four runners had a DNF!
  • Even those that finish struggle against the cuts offs – 50% take more than 34hrs

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  • The 36 hour permitted time, and the cut offs at each of the 74 checkpoints force runners to keep moving, and don’t allow time for a break to recover if you have a bad patch mid race

That fear of failure is a good thing. I know it can motivate me to train harder, and focus more on my preparation before the race. However I will need to deal with that fear during the race as it will also affect how well I perform, and my decision making during the race.

One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do. Henry Ford

Training

When I progressed from running 26.2 miles to running 100 miles, I didn’t make too many changes to my training. I still do speed work, and hill reps. My training volume has increased a little but peaks at 60 miles a week. I added a few back to back long runs, and night / head torch runs. For Spartathlon, I don’t think I need to do much more running. If I increase my training volume too much I just risk injury. However running long distances is as much in the mind as the body. This is the longest race I have ever entered, so mentally I will feel stronger if I know I have trained harder. To develop that mental strength I will try and peak at 80 miles per week.

The main changes I need to make to my training are to make it race specific.

Roads – Spartathlon is a road race, with a few trail sections as you run over the mountain. I need to ensure I do more of my long runs on road, so my legs get used to the hard surface.

Heat – Greece in September has an average maximum daytime temperature of 27C, but it can easily be much hotter. The route itself is on the road and for the most part there is no shade, so on a sunny day temperatures can hit well over 35C. The race reports I’ve read are full of horror stories and DNFs caused by over heating. I’ll need to switch some sessions from early morning to mid-afternoon, and maybe wear more layers to simulate the heat.

Hills – It is not a flat race! Most reports focus on Mount Parthenio (the 1200m mountain that is climbed during the night), on which Pheidippides met the god Pan when he ran this route. That’s like running up Snowdon at the end of a 100 mile race. There are plenty of other hills too, and even the first 100km (which looks flat on the profile below) is described by most runners as undulating. Long downhills on hard roads can cause a lot of muscle damage, so I’ll need to incorporate strength training in the gym as well as downhill speed work.

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