The three dreaded letters – DNF!

My build up to my first attempt at the Spartathlon had been going pretty good with no issues. I had planned to do a high mileage week and then take 2 weeks off to recover fully, as usual. The week was going to plan, then when I was running into work on the Thursday (2 training days left!), the top of my foot started to hurt, and got worse and worse till I had a bit of a limp by the time I got to work. I rested all day at work then ran home. Hmm, not the cleverest things I’ve done as it hurt straight away and proceeded to get worse. By the time I got home, I’d decided to cancel the following planned 2 days of training. My prime concern was that I had a fractured metatarsal. If this was the case, then there was no chance I’d even go to Greece. I went to the dr’s who advised me to go to the A&E the next morning. A nurse had a look and said it was a possibility but it would be best if I left it for a week and come back in if it hadn’t improved. I took it as easy as possible for the week, but it really didn’t seem to improve much. I was starting to lose faith in my chances to even start the race now, let alone finish it! When the week had passed, I decided that I needed it looking at again. This time I saw a Dr who had a feel and informed me that he believed that it was ligamentous though he couldn’t be sure. Within the hour I had a plan. My flight was on Wednesday, so I’d decided to go for a little run on Tuesday evening just to see if I could manage it. I ran for 40 mins and found that I could deal with it. Not quite 36 hours, but it’ll have to do! I was going! Finally coming to this decision was a great relief. I didn’t really fancy my chances but was happy that I was going for the experience. My confidence wasn’t completely battered, I still had a slight glimmer of hope.I had to wake at 5am to get the train to Paddington, Underground to Victoria, train to Gatwick where I met Mark Cockbain and Stuart Shipley. A few hours later, we landed at Athens and caught the bus to the London hotel. It was a hive of activity with competitors and organisers busying around. We booked in and got given our rooms. I was in a room with 3 Swiss guys. We dumped our bags off then came down for dinner. The food was a little odd, but good nonetheless. After this it was time to get into bed. I barely slept at all. I don’t think my Swiss room mates did either. The next morning I had a massive breakfast before registering. Mark, Stu and I then walked up the road to find a supermarket to buy some supplies for the drop bags. My original idea was just to have some supplies at around 4 of the 74 check points, but after chatting with Mark and Stu who both have a wealth of experience at this race I decided to have bottles of electrolyte drinks at 10 points. It was really pretty warm out, but I wasn’t too bothered. I was just happy to be there, We sorted out our drop bags for the checkpoints, then we were ready for the off. Instead of sitting about at the hotel, Stu and I got on a tram and made our way into Athens to have a very quick look around. I’d never been to Greece so even though we didn’t really have too much time, I was happy to get the opportunity. We were lucky enough to catch the rather bizarre changing of the guard outside parliament, and walk around the ruins a bit and see the stadium before rushing back to the hotel for dinner which consisted of a massive plate of dry pasta! I poured the side of soup over it to add some flavour before getting into bed for the final time before the race. The alarm was set for 0430 too give us plenty of time for the 0500 breakfast. I somehow managed to get a better nights sleep than the previous night. I had muesli for breakfast before putting our bags on the coaches and getting on ourselves. We arrived at the base of the Acropolys with around 30 mins to spare. Perfect to just take in the atmosphere which by now was buzzing. There were a few camera crews and many support crews as well as lots of people who’d come along to see us all off. There were a fair few Brits and we all chatted together and took loads of pictures. Finally the moment arrived. We were off!
I instantly focused on running at my own pace, and trying to ignore everyone elses. We ran for quite a while through the streets of Athens as countless police were at every junction stopping the traffic so we didn’t have to alter our speed at all. The sun slowly rose behind us as we slowly left the city. It wasn’t hot yet. In fact it was actually pretty good running conditions. I felt happy with my pace. My foot was hurting but I was doing my best to ignore it. One step at a time. As we hit the first few cp’s I realised that they were very poorly stocked with anything worth eating. I grabbed a few biscuits and chocolates that melted in my hands, leaving me licking my fingers as I left the cp. As we left Athens proper, we passed the industrial outskirts which were pretty grim. We then were on the old coastal road which was truly stunning. It was pretty hot now, but felt incredibly humid, which was making me sweat an incredible amount. The salt that was forming on my skin was a little concering. I’d sponge my self down at every cp, but by the time I’d arrive at the next cp (2-5km) I’d be covered in salt again! I tried to get lots of the salty crackers down to replace the massive salt depletion. As I pushed on I realised that I hadn’t been for a wee for hours. I was getting pretty badly dehydrated. I tried to drink more but was finding it increasingly difficult to consume solids and liquids. I went through 80 km in around 8.5hrs. This gave me a 1hr buffer which was good, but I was beginning to feel as though I’d ran a lot further than I had. My muscles were feeling pretty tender, my energy levels were pretty low and my foot was hurting quite a bit. It was as I walked away from the 80km cp with a rice pudding which I struggled to get down and hold down that the negative thoughts started entering my mind. The nausea and the dehydration were really not good at this stage of the race. Was it possible to get myself rehydrated while I continued at the same pace? I was starting to doubt it, especially with the nausea. I thought the darkness would be a welcome cooling but by this stage I was in to much of a mess to appreciate the advantage. I ran in the dark for a while which was fine, till eventually I picked up a torch at one of the cp’s. This took my mind off of things a little, but not enough.
As I was dropping painfully down a descent, the final blow came. It started to drizzle. Within 5 minutes it was really hammering it down, and in my weakened state I started to feel the cold. I stopped at a cp and considered pulling out, but this was a minimal cp. Not a good place to bale. I decided to push on till the next decent cp then reassess my situation. The next stretch of road was badly potholed so I miserabely kept treading in rather large puddles as I kept moving as much to keep warm as to keep in the race.
Finally I came down a pretty steep, very painful descent into a village with a cp under shelter. I pulled in and immediately sat down. My time buffer was down to 20 mins now and I still had almost 70 miles left! As I sat there trying to work out whether it would be worth continuing, my buffer was fast disappearing. I was broken. I had been staggering at every cp for around the last 40 miles as I felt dizzy. I was cooked! Enough.
I handed my number over and signed a form. Shortly after the coach arrived which was taking all the drop outs to the hotel at the end. I got onto the coach sad, sick but content that I’d made the right decision. On the journey back I was sick on the coach. I had covered around 85 miles in around 18.5hrs. Not good enough by a long shot. It was around 0330 when we got to the hotel. Myself and Kevin who had dropped out at nearly the same point, got a room and dragged our wrecked bodies to our room. I turned on the shower, but it instantly started to flood! Sod it! straight to bed.
Thankfully, nine days later as I write this, I still feel that pulling out was my only option. I could have carried on for another 10-20 miles possibly, but there is no way, that I could have completed considering the state I’d got myself into. Very frustrating, but I’ll chalk it down to some very good experience, and hopefully a lesson that won’t be forgotten in a hurry! As soon as I awoke from a pretty awful, sleep after my attempt, I’d already decided that I was to return next year. I feel confident that with the right preparation, I can finish. I think it needs a little more respect from me though. It’s a beast of a race and I have complete admiration for anyone that completes the thing. Actually, I think its amazing that so many people are willing to take on the Spartathlon at all!
I now have pretty much recovered fully. Just my foot to get better now, but it has improved lots, so hopefully in 1-3 weeks time it’ll be good to start thrashing again!
There’s no rush anyway, as I don’t plan to do anything else this year.
So, overall, with a little bit of time passed since the event, I feel quite irritated by the fact that I made such a simple but catastrophic error, but very happy that I made the decsion to go and gain some very valuable experience. I now have seen a great deal of the course and the layout of the event, cp’s etc. I’ve been expecting a DNF at some point and now I have it! Not great, but its all part of the constant education that this game is. I will be far better armed next year!

I do plan on trying to teach my self to run less on my heel and more on my forefoot over winter that could be challenging, which, after reading a bit into it, if I can get to grips with, could prevent some injuries.
I’ll keep you up-to-date with my progress (or lack thereof!). At the moment though, it’s all about rest and possibly popping out for a cider or two! It’s been a long year for me.
Cheers,
Happy running.

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