SPARTA!

So finally after a long year of waiting after my first failed attempt at the Spartathlon, the time had arrived to give it another go. This time I felt a whole lot more prepared. I felt like a more experienced, relaxed and confident runner. This all leads to being a stronger runner. I also knew how the race was run and half of the course. On top of all of this, my year had been my strongest yet with consistent performances in the Grand Union Canal race and The North Downs Way race.  Recovery was markedly improved over previous years too. All in all, there was a lot of positivity buzzing around my head and this felt good. I was trying not to get too confident though as one of the many lessons learnt in Greece last year was that this was a race that should never be taken lightly. This is seen as the Ultra to finish when you speak to the incredibly experienced runners from all over the world that enter this incredible race.

Why does it have such a high attrition rate when on paper it may not seem so tough? Well, the answer is many things, but the one overriding, unusual (unique?) feature is the quantity of checkpoints. There are 72(?) of them and each of them has a board that tells you what time the cp closes. Usually being fed information like this can be alright as it can be a pretty healthy distraction, giving your mind something else to concentrate on other than the pain that is inevitable.The problem is that seeing as the cp’s are every 2-5km then you are almost constantly being informed of your progress whether that is positive or negative. Experience tells you that losing little bits of time here and there is pretty normal for a big one, but for some reason when you are constantly being reminded of this it creates a sense of panic. If you arrive at a cp to discover that you have just dropped 5 minutes since the previous one, for some reason, the need to try and make that back before the next cp seems like the only option, so you push on and reclaim the time. This in turn tires you out a bit and you will then lose time getting to the next cp! And so the cycle continues. The mental side to this race is incredibly difficult to overcome once you slip into this cycle.
Of course, the mental side to this race is not the only challenge to overcome. There is the 152 miles of mostly road that is of course pretty difficult, the heat is tough. And lets not forget the interesting challenge of the mountain that you have to drag yourself over at the 100 mile point in the thick of night.
I had booked flights from Gatwick on the Wednesday morning with a few other Brit runners. I couldn’t get in early enough on the trains so decided to travel up to London the night before and stay at some very good old school friends of mine, Rich, Si and Emily. I didn’t arrive till after 10 but we stayed up for a bit and had a drink. It was really nice to catch up. I got into bed at 3:30 and my alarm was set for 5:30. Nothing like a good bit of preparation before my biggest race of the year! When I arrived at Gatwick, I floated around the dull shops, burning time with a coffee. I soon bumped into Pete who is the British Spartathlon veteran, who I had met the year before. We chatted till our gate was called.
Now, just a quick bit of nonsense for you. My birthday is the 11 of November, or 11-11. Because of this, 11 has always been my ‘lucky’ number if I ever get asked. This year my birthday will of course be on the 11-11-11. My race number this year is, yes you guessed it, 11. The gate our flight was at had just been called. 11! I hope I don’t get to see many more 11′s around else I just may begin to think that there is something in it!

We met up with the other brits who were on the same flight. There was already a good bunch of us and I had met most of them which was cool. After a uneventful flight, we were in the airport looking for a sign that would direct us to a coach that would take us directly to the hotel. Normally you would have to use the public transport at this point, but due to the unrest in Greece because of the financial problems, they were having strikes. On the day of my arrival, the public transport was off so the Spartathlon association had put on a coach for all competitors. Fantastic!
Once we arrived at the hotel we immediately registered for the race then got a room. Another good feature of this race is that the SA book up three hotels right next to each other. They then cram you in four at a time into the rooms. You are living right on top of each other (well, almost!). This initially might not sound like the best of situations, and some people will book themselves into a separate hotel so that they can have their own space, but what it does is it creates this great camaraderie and also you really are living the Spartathlon for five days. After experiencing it for two years now, I wouldn’t want it any other way. It really develops the experience into a totally absorbing time.
I was in a room with James Adams who had decided to not start as he’d recently completed the incredibly gargantuan race across America so was going to follow the race and see it from the other side. There was a chap called Paul Mott who I hadn’t met before, and Dave Miles who is a good friend who I knew from the JOGLE. A good room. There was much hanging about before going to dinner and stuffing myself with the slightly odd meals that they concoct at the hotel. It isn’t bad though so I’m happy tucking in and drinking plenty of rather strong coffee. After an expected poor nights sleep we have the entire Thursday to just relax and get our drop bags ready. I had bought a load of energy drink powder with me and some 9 bars and some gels. I went to a garage next door and bought 12 bottles of water and then mixed my powder in. I then  taped a 9 bar to each one before dumping them into roughly evenly spaced boxes that are provided, one for each checkpoint. Finally I sorted out my OMM bumbag and clothes for the race. All this didn’t take too long which was cool as it left the rest of the day to relax before the not so relaxing day that was too follow.That evening, a few of us ate out at a nice restaurant before going back to the hotel and attempting to get some more sleep before the alarm went off at a ridiculous hour. No bother really as the night didn’t involve much sleep again and I was just waiting for the alarm!
We all sorted ourselves out and went down for breakfast before jumping into the coaches that would take us on the 30 minute drive to downtown Athens to the Acropolis where the race begins. After a bit of a wait, and a few visits to the toilet, the time had come, we were off!
I felt calm and content that at last I was running and that compared to exactly this time last year, I was a lot more confident. I knew I could do it.
We slowly snaked our way through the already quite busy streets where police were at each junction and stopped the traffic for us as we passed. No mean feat in any capital, let alone Athens!

Dave and I in the first 30 miles.

I had already decided that I was going to run this all alone as I had to do my own pace, but soon Dave ran up beside me and we started chatting. I felt fine with Dave’s company as we had run together a great deal over the JOGLE so I knew that we had very even paces. We chatted quite a bit as we headed out of the city.  I wanted to run at a slightly higher speed before the sun rose than I planned to run later on when the heat would rise. Everything felt good and I was content with our pace as we started passing through the cp’s, one by one.

It was good to be passing through roads I recognised. Roads that were familiar to me. I found it exciting knowing that I would soon be on new road. Road that I would be unfamiliar with. As we passed through the industrial outskirts of the city that are peppered with a few too many oil refineries and the edges of the roads are heavily laden with years of refuse that has been tossed from the constant flow of traffic, the heat was beginning to rise, but to attempt to even it up, the scenery was improving, and I was finally feeling like I was set into my rhythm for the duration of the race.
We were starting to pass through sleepy villages and the roads were starting to become a little less busy than the highly dangerous madness of before. A smile appeared across my face as we ran along the beautiful peaceful coastal road and I stared out to sea trying to estimate the distance you could see before the haze took control. This was when Dave first mentioned that his stomach wasn’t feeling tip top. I of course didn’t say anything, but I wasn’t feeling too positive for his chances if this problem continued. This race took no prisoners!
Shortly after he had mentioned this, he threw up a load of water. Not good. He tried to get some fluid down again but this wasn’t happening. We continued to run together for a little while at a slower pace, before he threw up again. As we began to run again, I started to pull away gradually. I could not wait any longer as you really had to run well when you could, as sooner or later you would hit a bad patch where you will lose a little time. The bad patches had to be minimised, so having to wait for someone while feeling good isn’t the most sensible of approaches.
I was now alone on the road with my thoughts. My thoughts turned to what pains were flowing through my body. My quads were pretty sore. Maybe a little more so than I would expect for this time and distance. I guessed that this was possibly due to low electrolytes so attempted to top up using the Elete water I had in my bag. I also wasn’t finding it too easy to eat. Again, I put this down to dehydration. Soon after this I began to feel the scary twinges in my calves of cramp! This was very concerning, and reinforced my theory that that I was dehydrated and low on electrolytes. I got the Elete water out again and squeezed the salty solution directly into my mouth. Other than making my face contort with the intensity of the taste, within three minutes the twinges ceased! Incredible! This added a little more positivity to my mood.
As I ran into the first major cp at the 50 mile point, I found a bowl of rice and poured lots of salt all over it . I soon found out that I had put way too much salt on it as was disgusting, but knew that it would help. After a little sit down, I left the madness of the cp and walked off as I struggled to eat the rice. I really needed to get down and hold down as much as possible, as I knew that I was running a little empty. I kept thinking about this stage of the race a year earlier and it was good. I was definitely in better shape this time round. Ok I wasn’t in great shape or anything, but I felt in more control of my condition. I felt stronger mentally.
Soon I was near the bottom of the bowl of rice and could eat no more. I was happy with how much I had eaten, and begun running again. We were now on small country roads where the main volume of traffic was made up of race officials and other competitors support crews.
I passed fields of olive trees, vineyards, pomegranates and many other things which I didn’t recognise. The grapes were looking especially appealing in the hot sun and were weighing heavily on the frameworks that had been constructed around them, but I didn’t stop.
Around this time, a Hungarian runner asked me if I knew anyone from Bristol. I told him I live there and found out that he had lived there for a number of years before returning to Hungary earlier in the year. We chatted a bit before falling back into our own rhythms and leap frogging each other for the next few hours.
My problem with eating continued throughout the day, but had not got any worse, so I was happy. I was eating literally a very small handful of raisins occasionally which wasn’t great, but it was something and I was managing to hold them down and continue running. I was thinking that if I could just make it into the coolness of the night then maybe I would be able to fully rehydrate and this would in turn allow me to take in more food and be better prepared for the long day ahead. It was a plan that gave me hope.
It was beginning to cloud over a little which gave some respite from the sun and dropped the temperature by a few degrees which helped tremendously. As the sun dropped, I knew that I was getting closer and closer to the point that I dropped out at last time. I still didn’t feel great exactly, but was happy with my progress. I felt a confidence that I wouldn’t have dared feel this time last year. I was starting to feel a little tired so was starting to take on much coffee at the cp’s. Usually I wouldn’t really feel too much of a benefit from the caffeine during a race, but this time it was really perking me up and giving me more energy for a short period which I was really enjoying. I held off getting my torch out till I really needed it. I have got into a habit of doing this for some reason. I’m not too sure why really. It’s good to keep good night vision for as long as possible before ruining it with your bright light, but whether this holds any real advantage I doubt. Just another little game I play in my head.
It felt great that the temperature had dropped in the night air and I had almost stopped sweating so was feeling like I was getting better control of my hydration levels. I was still not eating much, but what I was eating was obviously doing enough to keep me going for the time being. I soon approached the cp where the heavens opened last year and begun my negativity that ended in my failure.
Shortly after this point you turn off the road onto a side road. I was really enjoying the night air and the feeling of running alone in the darkness of night. I knew that this part carried on a little while before a big descent into a town where my ‘final’ cp of last year was. I couldn’t wait! Progress went well and soon enough I started the long descent. As I entered the cp I looked across at the chair which I slumped into the previous year a broad grin crossed my face. I was about to improve upon last year, and the way I was feeling I was going to improve a great deal. I sat down and drank some soup and a coffee before pushing on into the unknown. I went downhill for a while before the road levelled out. I now was certainly on a bit of a high as I raced on. I felt great and was conscious that I should take advantage of this surge of strength so pushed on pretty hard. I now felt pretty well hydrated but was still struggling to eat any great amount. My current surge was letting me know that although I hadn’t been able to eat much for many hours, it was obviously enough to keep me going which filled me with hope for the task ahead. Soon I was traveling along the valley floor which I knew led eventually to the base of the mountain. This would be a massive mental milestone for me. The top of the mountain was the 100 mile point. A large proportion of the people who get this far get to the end. I really was looking forward to the off road part to the top and descending down the other side. It would be good to get off the tarmac. This was the furthest I’d ever run on the road in one go and it had to be said that off road is definitely my thing. Trans-Europe will be interesting next year!
After a short climb I arrived in a village where I stopped very briefly to grab a soup before power walking off into the switch back turns that signified the beginning of the road section of the climb. Although I had heard and read many accounts of this climb, for some reason I couldn’t really visualise it. It begun with the turning of a corner and seeing the headlights of the runners ahead of me snaking across the valley and zig-zagging their way up the road of the mountain. What I did know was that the final part of the climb to the cp was actually off road and pretty rough. How much of the on-road there was before this section that had taken on mythical proportions in my head I was unsure, so I just leaned into the slope and kept power walking. I enjoyed this slope and it went on for quite a bit longer than I thought it would to be honest. After what felt like around 40 minutes though I have no idea how long it actually took I passed under the main road that was silent at this dead hour and followed a trail that ran parallel with the road before coming to the final cp that was being manned by a lot of British people. This was a refreshing surprise, though I was very quick to grab a soup before being directed up the mountain path which had been lit with a plethora of glow sticks, flashing lights and torches of many varieties to make sure we all made it over safely. The going was very steep and the footing was fairly loose and there was no way of running. I’d be surprised if even the gazelle-like front runners would be able to run it.
I was really warm at this point seeing as I’d been going up for quite a while, but as I got closer to the top I felt the stirrings of a chilly wind. I was wet with sweat so was thinking I’d have to get my windproof jacket out nearer the top. Sure enough as I got closer and closer to the top, the strength of the chilling wind increased creating a pleasant cooling effect. As I looked up, I saw that there was still a little way to go, enough to tell me that the strength of wind would be very strong at the cp. I sat when I arrived as a thick blanket was thankfully thrown around me protecting my sweaty body from the gale force winds howling over the pass. I again had another coffee which I drank very quickly before throwing the blanket off and beginning the rocky descent that made its way down the mountain. I hadn’t put my jacket on as I was hoping that if I was quick, I would get out of the cold wind, but as I dropped down, the wind wasn’t really decreasing so I stopped, took my bumbag off and put my jacket on before I put the bag back on over the top of the jacket. It was here that I lost my cap that I had looped around the waist strap. After around 20 minutes of painful descending, due to the rocks sticking into my very sore feet, I entered the cp that marked the end of he descent, grabbed yet more soup and raisins removed my jacket and ran off out of the village. I believe that it was somewhere around this point that some daylight began to appear.
I had conquered the mountain and passed the 100 mile point. I had just over 1 hour of buffer which I had held pretty consistently for the whole thing so was feeling pretty happy with things. I was daring to believe that success was possible.
I pushed on as hard as I could before the sun would show its power. I was in a lot of pain and was exhausted, but felt happy with things. I followed the roads along the valley floor, surrounded by the mountains, occasionally looking back to try to make out the mountain I had just been over, but not being successful. When the sun started to feel like it was burning the skin on my head, I reached around for my cap and realised what had happened when I couldn’t find it. I had a slight panic when I realised that I had no sun protection. Could I survive without? Probably not! What an idiot! Could I make a shade out of a piece of litter from the side of the road perhaps? Within 5 minutes of discovering my loss, I noticed a tatty old baseball cap discarded in a bush. I retrieved it, spent a fraction of a second wondering how long the cap had been there and who had owned it, before placing it on my head and thanking my total luck at spotting it at the exact moment.
As the cp’s went by, my time buffer still hovered around the 1 hr mark. That’ll do. Soon I came off a small back road and came onto the really busy main road that had no pavement. Not great, but I was fine with it. Maybe JOGLE had conditioned me to running on really dangerous roads. From now till about 20km from the end the road was a bit of a roller-coaster of a ride with large sweeping ups and incredibly painful downs on my poor ever worsening feet. I had been running pretty much alone since I’d left Dave behind, but you are always running in the same sort of time as a few others, and for the final 30 odd kms I was running with around 5 Japanese athletes. We often ran together. Sometimes they went ahead and other times I hobbled in front, like some race for the knackers yard.
It was pretty warm now, but I felt in control of my hydration. I still couldn’t eat very well, but was still moving. It was just a case of finishing it off now! I was now on the downhill that I was pretty sure was the final long descent into the town of Sparta where the statue of King Leonidas is situated. When you finish you kiss the toe of the statue. I was now beginning to fantasize about this simple act.
I was just on auto pilot now. Barring any freak accident or injury, I was going to finish. I was finding it difficult to keep myself running with any haste now. Soon I was at the bottom of the hill on the valley floor just entering the town and I came to the penultimate cp. I took on some water and left straightaway. Just one more cp! I disposed of the ragged old dirty cap just before the final cp and then I was running up the main streets of the town. It was a beautiful and emotional time. Every car beeped and shouted out congratulations, pedestrians shouted and clapped, shop keepers joined in too. I was feeling amazing now. People where welcoming me to their town. I felt broken but elated and pretty emotional. I welled up with tears but managed to hold them off. When I turned the final corner and ran up the avenue towards King Leonidas I saw the other Brits, those who had already finished, the ones that weren’t so lucky and those that had been supporting in some way or another all cheering me in with the rest of the crowd. The emotions running through me were intense and I was very happy. As I approached the statue, the crowd parted a little to let me through. I leapt up like I hadn’t just ran 152 miles onto the plinth at the base and kissed the enormous toe in front of me. When I came back down off the plinth it did feel like I had just run 152 miles! I was offered water to drink from the river, I had a olive wreath placed on my head and was awarded the rather cool plaque. I then stumbled over to the hospital tent to have my feet looked at and make sure I didn’t need any further assistance. Dave was there and he congratulated me. I felt for him, as it’s a pretty emotional finish, so to be watching what you should be doing must be tough. He’ll be back I’m sure. That’s what this race does to you. I then was put into a taxi which took me to the hotel. I got a room together with Paul who had finished about a quarter of an hour ahead of me, which is a fantastic feat being his first attempt! We found our room, showered and crashed out.
The next few days seemed to be dictated by the pain in my feet, but overall I had a really nice relaxing time. By the time I had to fly back, my feet felt loads better and I was feeling pretty good.
So that is one of my dream races completed. Maybe more importantly a race that had previously beaten me. I said to my self I would take 4 weeks off of running, but in fact two weeks later I raced in a local off-road duathlon. I hadn’t intended to, but it was a short ride away, and I love mountain biking, so thought it would be an opportunity I couldn’t resist. It was very tough seeing as I’m not too used to the short stuff, but I did alright coming in 6th place. Two weeks later, I was in the Yorkshire Dales and had a go at my first Fell race. I’d wanted to do one for a long time. The race was the Great Whernside fell race and this year was also the Yorkshire championships race so the field was pretty stacked with talent. It is a stiff two miles ascent, around the trig point before running like complete lunatics back down. I fell twice and ran faster than I have ever ran down hill having loads of fun. I came 38th out of 175 which I was pretty chuffed with. Need to travel up for more of these!

Garmin upload

In a couple days I’ll be running my last ultra of the year (I think). It is the Beacons Ultra, a two lap 45 mile event that I haven’t done before so am pretty excited about.
Once that is done, I will be in the winter routine in preparation for next year which is looking pretty big. Very exciting year and that’s without Trans-Europe!
I’d better sign off now as this post has gone on a little too long.
Happy running!

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