Category Archives: Running

Spartathlon 2016 race report

Spartathlon 2016
Some people have been here before

Here my race report from Spartathlon 2016 – the 153-mile race from Athens to Sparta, widely considered one of the most gruelling running races on earth.

Check point 70, Spartathlon 2016, Saturday, October 1

Never, ever take Spartathlon for granted…

I was 231.4 km into this year’s race with just 15 km left to go… less than 10 miles from a dream-like second consecutive finish in front of the statue of King Leonidas in Sparta.

It was hot. Super hot. In Greece sometimes it feels like there’s a heat storm. Everything stops. Even the cicadas give up their chirruping. Not a whisp of wind, just radiating heat bouncing off the surrounding clay cliffs and asphalt roads. I was beyond running, past even shuffling, power walking it in. Just. Keep. Going. You. Can. Do. This.

As I pulled into checkpoint (CP) 70, I glanced at the board. At 16.40 they’d be wrapping up this station and the Death Bus would be revving up to take any runners that didn’t make the strict time cut-offs to Sparta.

I’d handed my Garmin watch that I’d been using to check progress to Laura and Jamie at the last crew checkpoint to charge it up, conscious that this year I wanted the full race recorded – even if some of the data would be skewed as they powered it up in the car. Ultra-runner in-joke alert: So far, so Rob Young.

“What time is it?” I asked one of the checkpoint guys in Greek as I came in. He glanced at his watch. “24 minutes past four” came the reply.

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Hot and bothered: CP 72

If he’d picked up my slowly melting body and dragged me screaming to hell with Hades he couldn’t have done more damage.

“What? You close in 16 minutes?” He shrugged, apologetically.

I hurried out, breaking into a painful trot for the first time in an hour or so, omitting to fill my water bottle in what I’m going to call a rush but you might imagine more as a pained stumble.

My mind was scrambling for some sense of the numbers as the 31C heat beamed down from the sun and radiated up from the road.

Nothing made sense. Overnight, I’d been pushing on one hour and 40 minutes ahead of the cut-offs and though I’d slowed to a run/walk for most of the day when a simple shuffle could have seen me dent a 33-hour finish, I’d managed to keep it somewhere between 1hr 15mins and 1hr 20mins for the last few hours. I’d thought I was safe…

A minute or two down the road, I rationalised everything. I couldn’t have lost an hour… It just wasn’t possible. How slow had I been over the last three or four checkpoints since I last looked? Had I just been complacent and slowed right down in the heat.

A lady photographer from the wonderful Sparta Photography Club who document the race was snapping from the side of the road. “What time is it please?” I asked again. “3.35pm,” she said. “You have almost three and a half hours to get to Sparta.” Some people should learn to tell the time better.

Mentally, I relaxed but physically I couldn’t. I’d taken on no water at CP 70; neither in my bottle, nor over my head to cool down my overheating body. The next checkpoint and aid stop was still 2 km away – in the heat may as well have been 20.

When it finally appeared, mirage-like around a corner, I filled up my bottle, doused the hat and ploughed on, looking forward to seeing Jamie and Laura at the last crew help point at CP 72, 3 km away. I obviously didn’t do enough cooling down, because by the time I reached them, I could see worry etched in Laura’s face. “This is the worst you’ve looked in the race,” she said sponging cold water over my shoulders, “you’re struggling.”

The guys took me to one side and sat me down. Jamie found a salt cap from somewhere for electrolytes and Laura tried to get me to eat a piece of banana. I had no idea when I’d last taken some salt. Four hours? Four minutes?

They steadied me and eventually sent me on my way with a cheery: “See you in Sparta”, obviously content that the deal had been done. They’d kept their side of the bargain, now it was up to me to keep mine.

As I rounded the corner, my mouth got that awful watery taste, my head swam. Did I mention the heat? I’m never sick in races. Never. Never Ever.

I promptly put my hands on my knees, bent over and hurled, spraying the tarmac in clear watery goo that evaporated as soon as it hit the road.

Was this how it ended – an acid stench raising from the sick on the floor, unable to go on with just 8 km to go?

The Acropolis, 7am Spartathlon 2016, Friday September 30

Spartathlon 2016
Under the Acropolis

There are lots of amazing things about this race.

The team camaraderie. The testing of your limits. The crazy conversations you have in your head. The unspoken bonds with people who don’t understand you nor you them thanks to the language barriers. The running by the sea. The signing autographs for kids who mistakenly think we’re a bunch of celebrities. The CP staff…

The two very best, for me at least, are the start under the Acropolis and the end in Sparta. You can find many of those other elements in other races around the world. The Acropolis and reaching King Leonidas’ statue are unique to Spartathlon – and lets face it, their magnificent history and symbolism bookend somewhere between 24 and 36 hours of putting your body through hell.

So I was excited when we pulled up in our crew car, despite it being a challenging last 12 months on the running front.

I’d been pleased to finish last year, but it didn’t feel like a good finish. End-of-race drip and subsequent mini-depression aside, loads of other stuff nagged at me.

My Garmin had ran out of battery in the medical tent, shutting down and losing the run for my records, my pictures by Leonidas at the end were blocked by other people, and even the TV feed in the full video cut away to another scene as I came up the main road in Sparta. I couldn’t even buy a good memory from it all and have it sent to me on a memory stick.

It took me fully until December to run again. The whole experience making me decide to can ultrarunning for a while and try and concentrate on a sub three-hour marathon.

But slowly things started to nag away.

What if I controlled the blisters? What if I strengthened the quads? What if I could just go a few seconds a mile faster? How much could I shave off with a second attempt?

Crucially, could I at least finish with a sense of achievement rather than disappointment at ending up on a drip? Spartathlon 2016 seeds were being sewn… and by Christmas I was starting to think I might just apply and see what happened in the ballot.

First there was a conversation to be had.

Jamie and I had made a pact with our running buddies Darren Strachan and David Bone who’d crewed our 2015 effort: Get us through and we’ll return the favour in 2016. David had already said he wasn’t interested in coming back, but Darren was toying with the idea of a having a shot.

I rang him and asked if he fancied doing it together, saying I’d still crew if he’d rather me do that. Graciously, he was happy for us both to submit an entry and see where it took us.

When the draw came and both our names were inevitably pulled out of the hat and into the team, I put on a good face but I still wasn’t sure.

I had a low-key start to the year, unable to convince myself to get going, despite that idea of attempting that sub-three marathon in April. A succession of colds, flus and niggling injuries were bothering me – not enough to lay me low, but convenient enough to make me turn over and silence the alarm on cold winter mornings.

Some time around the end of February, I decided to get my arse in gear and put a month of decent training in before the Brighton Marathon – there was no sub-three but a PB of 3.18 seemed decent reward for little effort. The running bug was starting to kick in and I drew up a plan for Spartathlon that would culminate with the Leeds-Liverpool Canal race in August before tapering.

Three weeks later (while admittedly a little on the squiffy side at a house party) I kicked a bed as I walked past it and cracked a metatarsal that stripped four training weeks away.

Just as I started to build distance again, Darren came up for a long weekend and a couple of back-to-back long runs in the middle of summer. On the first day, I turned my ankle in a pot hole 15 miles in. By the end of day two and another 53 miles later, if they’d used said ankle to kick off at Elland Road, you wouldn’t have noticed.

So now I was trying to nurse my way through a programme. Running, icing and strapping to degrees of varying success. I pulled out of the Leeds-Liverpool race knowing I was massively undercooked but at least the ankle was starting to settle.

Instead I tried a 47-mile run alone and came through it. The first time I thought I was going to actually make the start in Athens. It felt good. Even if I was woefully underprepared for a real go at a decent time, I felt with decent foot management I could do better than last year.

Laura was finally convinced to come and crew, and Darren and I finalised plans, ready for the off.

Spartathlon 2016
Big Team GB
Spartathlon 2016
Small Team Ellis-Strachan

The rest of the race, Spartathlon 2016, Friday September 30 – Saturday October 1

I remember taking lots of pics and chatting away with Russ Bestley about punk rock in the early light under the Acropolis, to the point where when Kostis Papadimitriou, President of the International Spartathlon Association, came to the fore and counted down the start, I was taken a little by surprise.

The morning was cool, the traffic in Athens stopped and I settled into a nice plod that felt comfortable.

It always takes me a good four or five miles to warm up, so I wanted to get through those with not too much chat, Darren was a few yards behind me and all felt grand. His trotting pace is probably a couple of strides slower than mine though, so we continued on, me opening up a gap and waiting for him for a minute or so at every fourth or fifth aid station.

I wasn’t too worried about hanging about – I know I set off too fast in 2015 and paid the price, so I figured it would give the legs some respite and reign me in a bit from attacking too much. Somewhere we went past team GB captain Rob Pinnington who was obviously battling with himself – we tried to gee him up a bit and for a while it seemed to work and he looked back on track as we pulled ahead.

Spartathlon 2016
Just 5 marathons to go: CP11

The marathon came and went in around 4.10 – bang on target as we knew time could be made up later in the race. Spartathlon forces you to run the first 80 km (or 50 miles) pretty quickly in 9.5 hours given the heat and those that try and smash that often find they come a cropper later on.

Laura and Jamie (crewing for me) and Jeff and Garry (for Darren) had learned the lessons from last year, pulled us to one side and went to work like an F1 pit team. One sponging us down with cold water, another handing drinks, another giving a rub down…. Excellent planning, even better execution.

After that first marathon (CP 11), comes what I think is the toughest but also the most beautiful part of the race.

The suburbs of Athens, the shipyards of Piraeus and the refineries of Elefsina give way to gorgeous views over the Saronic Gulf, the sparkling Aegean melting slowly into the bluest of skies… the flip side is you’ve ran a relatively fast marathon, it’s your first encounter with the heat, there’s little shade and you have some five marathons to go.

I started to feel a few tummy rumblings here… too many gels, too much salt and the heat were causing a bit of a jumble so I stripped things back. Salt tablets were pushed back to one every 90 minutes, Tailwind was dropped from my handheld in favour of water, and gels ditched in favour of fruit and biscuits at the CPs. It seemed to work.

Spartathlon 2016
50 miles in at Hellas Can

By the time we got to the next major crew aid stop at CP22 we were 35 minutes ahead of the cut-offs. Time pressures slow down a little here as the sun begins to set, and the next section allows you to put a significant dent into the closing times. At each subsequent CP we were knocking a good five minutes off – it all felt very comfortable and doable. Keep on like this, get over the mountain, avoid wilting in the heat on day two and we’d do it.

CPs came and went through the evening. I loved the run into Ancient Corinth, there’s a great atmosphere there and coming through Zevgolato, I even felt confident to stop and sign a pile of autographs for the kids.

Spartathlon 2016
Autographs signed, job still to do

As it grew darker, I came into Nemea, the half-way point, about five minutes ahead of Darren, even finding time to use a portaloo for a call of nature before we headed out, stomping up the hilly exit from town as the sky filled with magnificent stars above our heads.

Somewhere here, the course goes off road and uphill on a gravel path. I waited for Darren at the CP at the bottom… and we began to walk together at a pace. But after a few minutes, I turned to look behind me and he’d gone. With no street lights and just head torches to light the way, it was impossible to pick him out from the bobbing lanterns behind me, so I carried on, thinking we’d hook back up at the next crew aid stop at CP 40 in Malandreni.

Spartathlon 2016
Darker and harder

There’s a nice long set of switch-backs here heading down into the village and I decided to let gravity take over, pushing down thes hill to gain a few more minutes.

At the CP, I had the first inklings of blisters, so we did some work on those with Laura and Jamie, lancing them and covering them with moleskin, while also changing my socks. Five minutes perhaps passed and there was still no sign of Darren.

Paul Rowlinson came over and said: “James, too many people have DNFed waiting for pals. You need to go.” I knew he was right. I looked at Laura and Jamie, Garry and Jeff. They all nodded. “Set off at a walk and see if he catches you,” said Jamie, but I think we all knew, it was time to go solo.

From here, the road seems to rise steeply for mile upon mile to the Mountain Base CP 47 run by Adrian Kouyoufas’s Anglo-Greek team. On the way up, I passed Nick and Terrence from the British team – we exchanged a bit of chat but they were both feeling the pace, so I carried on alone, conscious of the time.

At CP 47, runners always get a cheery greeting, especially the British ones – and Adrian’s team diligently records us all coming in with a picture. Laura and Jamie checked I was okay and sent me off – it was now 3.50am and I wanted to be down the other side of the mountain as quickly as possible.

The path up to the summit of Mount Parthenio can freak you out if you pay too much attention to it. It’s a steep start up a dirt road lined with scree before a series of switchbacks. I’d advised Nick and Terrance to not look up as I’d passed them, I remembered feeling despondent last year when I’d seen a steady stream of torches seemingly stretching to the heavens.

Instead, I allowed myself to pause for water about half way up and look down. The CP seemed miles away, the sky was lined with thousands of stars and a couple even shot across the inky blue for effect…

CP 48 at the summit seems to come quicker than you expect, heralding the start of what you’d think is a blessed relief of a downhill stretch. Instead, there’s more scree and you need to be a seasoned off-roader to tackle it quickly without giving Jack and Jill a run for their money. Given I’m most certainly NOT a seasoned off-roader and run almost exclusively on roads, I took it gingerly – faster than a walk, slower than a trot, until hitting tarmac on the other side.

There now follows part of the course where you can take more time off the checkpoints – providing you can still run. It’s long and flat, but the coldest time of the day as mist starts to form with the first rays of light. The other key thing is to keep awake. It’s dark and your body is crying out for some sleep, and there were several times when I found myself running as my eyes closed, jerking quickly back awake.

Somewhere here, I hooked up with another British runner, Duncan, and we chatted for a while but he was feeling the cold and starting to seize up.

Nestani the next major crew stop at CP52 was up next. For those of us who are mortals and can’t make the auto-qualifying times for Spartathlon, getting here without timing out is important as it renews your entry to Spartathlon ballots for a further three years. With 172 of the 248 km down, I was 90 minutes ahead of the cut-offs – 13 hours to cover 76 km or around 48 miles… Super doable.

spartathlon-2016-cp52
Ready to go leaving Nestani

I can’t remember much of day two but everything felt pretty smooth, if not a little painful, especially the route up the second long rise back up to 900m at Ardamis. Temperatures were steadily rising back to the early 30s but keeping things steady now was key.

The long descent into Sparta was eventually upon me. Like last year, I was unable to run most of it – a legacy of not getting a couple of 100-miles races under my belt in training I suspect – but my death march is a quick one allowing me to cover around 6.5 km or four miles an hour.

With 10 miles to go, I was passed by Andrei Nana of the American team who could still manage a jog. He finished one hour 15 minutes ahead of me as an indication of how much time you can gain here if you can still run.

Spartathlon 2016
It’s downhill from here

The finish in Sparta, Spartathlon 2016, Saturday October 1

You’ve probably guessed by now that after CP 72 and the bout of sickness, I pulled myself together and made it to the grand finish at the feet of Leonidas. A magical moment for a second year running – this time alone (Darren pulled out with a marathon to go but lives another day and, I suspect, will come back and smash this race). I came up the high street with a Greek flag held aloft to pay respect to this amazing country, the amazing race and the little bit of Greece in my hear from living here.

Spartathlon 2016
Coming into Sparta

Followed like a pied piper by a gaggle of kids cheering me on, there was no drip at the end and I even managed a couple of beers. I was maybe an hour or two slower than I could have been with a few tweaks, but I have no complaints at all.

What the bout of sickness shows is that at no time at all can you take a Spartathlon finish for granted. I know amazing runners who have been pulled from the field with 10 miles to go, I met one German chap this year who told me he once had nine hours to do 19 km but was shivering so uncontrollably in 30 degree heat and he was pulled out for a DNF.

Spartathlon can chew you up and spit you out if you’re not careful.

If the heat doesn’t get you, your stomach might. Otherwise your legs might seize up or blisters the size of saucers can hamper your progress. There are temperature extremes that leave your body confused, a mountain pass at relatively high altitude and the pressures of the cut offs to deal with. Then there’s pacing, refuelling, bad planning and, sometimes, even complacency.

But it’s that unique set of circumstances and variables, tied in with the historical legacy and the amazing people surrounding Spartathlon that make this one of the world’s truly great endurance races.

Spartathlon 2016
Kissing the foot
Spartathlon 2016
Laura takes on WAG duties at the finish

Thank you…

There are far too many to mention to everyone in name but I couldn’t have done this without Laura and Jamie expertly crewing me throughout. They really were the biz.

Darren for spurring me on during training, letting me renege on a promise and being the most gracious person when it came to seeing me post race about me leaving him behind. His team, Garry and Jeff, were part of my team too. Superb organisation, help and encouragement.

Rob Pinnington for getting the British team together and getting us to look and feel unified. And to the team itself, all the guys and girls, runners and crew – a superb effort. If you didn’t make a medal, come back.

Sarah Dryden for taking all the pics on behalf of the British team, and the Sparta Photography Club for all their great efforts too.

Kostis Papadimitriou and the team at International Spartathlon Association who put on this incredible festival, along with all the checkpoint staff, volunteers and places that offer us hospitality before and after the race.

Everyone in England watching and sending good vibes – how humbling to know a load of you tuned in to see me finish. WOW!

My business partner Lyndsey who held the fort in my absence.

My daughters Martha and Gracie for being front of mind all the way around. Whenever I felt low, I asked myself how I’d tell them if I pulled out… it was a conversation I did not want to have…

For more, see the official Spartathlon and British Team webpages

The principles of exercise

jamesgroup2

I was wondering what to write about this week when I went out for my morning run…. And 12 miles later, I knew what it would be: the principles of exercise.

No, I didn’t have some kind of epiphany while trudging around Bramhope and Adel in the rain, it’s just that by the end of the session, I was blowing out of my backside, which reminded me of what is probably the most important principle: ‘use it or lose it’.

It’s just two short months since I ran Spartathlon and in the lead up to that, I was probably in the best running condition I’ve ever been in – 100-mile training weeks and knocking out 40-mile runs in one go – but there I was this morning, struggling to complete a distance less than a half-marathon. That’s a long way to fall in just two months.

Even worse, psychologically, I’m finding it hard to push myself further, which means I’ll probably lose more fitness unless I can pull myself out of the rut: In short, training less has led to a vicious circle of declining fitness that I need to arrest.

We’ve all been there: We take a week or so off for any number of reasons: a cold, a big event, stress at work or whatever. Suddenly, getting back on the horse gets more difficult the longer it goes. The snooze button seems more attractive than a run… “Start again on Monday” we promise ourselves… but when Monday comes we find another excuse.

There’s no easy way to reverse the trend either, if you’re suffering from similar. You simply have to grit your teeth and force yourself to start again, though there are some techniques that can help.

  1. Tell yourself you’ll feel better after. I absolutely promise you that barring injury, you always feel better about yourself after exercising. There are biological reasons for this such as the rush of endorphins you get from exercise, but also psychologically, the fact you’ve beaten a demon will get you smiling.
  2. Set yourself a goal. I keep banging on about this, but goal setting keeps you on the straight and narrow. If you exercise to just maintain a base level of fitness, that’s fine but you are more likely to find a reason to stop than if you are exercising to achieve a specific aim. Think of what you want to achieve and set a marker. It could be a 10km race, dropping a percentage of body fat or beating a 3-minute step test result * But find something to aim for and go for it.
  3. Use visualisation. Where do you want to be in five years time? Exercise and good diet have been proven countless times to help people stay healthier, feel better and ultimately live longer. Think forward to where you want to be, then think of the alternative. Keep the ‘good’ image in your mind. Make it another long-term goal. Focus on it and use it to spur you on.

There may be other ways that work for you… but (and this is not a plea to come to classes or take up PT sessions) make sure you stay active. By sacrificing an hour of hard work NOW you could be adding years to your life, ultimately staying healthier and more active for longer.

The six principles of exercise

While, I’ve only focussed on one above, here are the six principles of exercise *

The Principle of Individual Differences – we are all different and therefore, we should find exercise programmes that are bespoke to ourselves. This doesn’t mean you have to go and employ a PT (but it would be nice if you did!!), but you should at least be trying things for a couple of weeks, and if they aren’t working for you change them.

The Principle of Overload – a greater than normal stress or load on the body is required for your body to adapt to training.

The Principle of Progression – there’s an optimal time where that overload will make a difference. When you hit it, you need to increase the overload.

The Principle of Adaptation – the body will adjust to increased physical demands (and to decreased ones for that matter). In short, practice makes perfect, but it’s also why you might get muscle soreness when you first start a programme for the first time in a long time.

The Principle of Use/Disuse – your muscles will get stronger (hypertrophy) with exercise and atrophy (weaken) with disuse. It’s important here to remember muscles are not just about building big biceps – probably the most important muscle you have is your heart, and by doing cardiovascular exercise, you can improve the performance of the heart and lungs.

The Principle of Specificity – exercise needs to be specific to the kind of sport you want to excel at. For instance, if you want to excel at a sport where there are lots of changes of speed and direct, training for it by running long distances is probably not the way to go. That doesn’t mean running long distances would be bad for your overall fitness, but you would not be performing sports specific training.

* Three-minute step test: Check your heart rate and note it down. Find a step and step on and off vigorously for 3 minutes. Check your heart rate again and record it. Keep doing regular aerobic exercise for a month and take the test again. See if your heart rate at the end has improved.

** Wilmore, J.H. and Costill, D.L. Physiology of Sport and Exercise: 3rd Edition. 2005. Human Kinetics Publishing.

 

Spartathlon race review 2015

spartathlon1

This is my Spartathlon race review 2015. I want to caveat it by saying I am not looking for any sympathy by including my post-race feelings first, rather than the race itself.

What I will say is that I wrote those words yesterday while feeling on the low side. Today, I ache less, feel as though I am getting back to normal and I even thought about running (with the emphasis on thought!).

I’ve said my thank you’s to my friends family and the British team and crew elsewhere, so apologies for not repeating them again but I wanted to focus on the race itself.

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Spartathlon +7 days `from the start
I can’t get you out of my head

It’s been a week now since the start of the Spartathlon as the first rays of sun peaked through the pines that surround the Acropolis last Friday morning.

That’s a week to reflect on finishing the race. A race we finished but finished badly in my opinion. I don’t like skin-of-teeth finishes. I think we’re better than that.

A week where, after the initial 24 hours of post-race euphoria, I’ve felt myself slipping slowly downhill… My ripped quads have just about healed. The saucer-like blisters under my feet are only part-way there. Walking is still difficult.

I’ve felt listless. I can’t seem to regulate my body temperature and swing from using hot water bottles to eating ice lollies with my top off. Work has been a half-assed joke. My appetite is shot: I fancy something, go to eat it and it tastes like sawdust. But I have massive cravings for orange pop. Orange pop and ice lollies – two things I seldom eat have been my staple diet. Oh, and I am SO irritable.

Aside from the fact I fall asleep randomly through the day, my dreams are mad, sprawling and immersive. They all involve a chase. That pressure of the cut offs for 36 hours in the race is unreal – so much so I can still feel the effects a week later. Last night I watched Fear of the Living Dead before bed. The zombies joined me in my dreams: fellow Spartan runners. Chase. Chase. Chase.

I’ve looked at my mashed feet often. Swollen, blue, toe nails hanging off; cankles where there were ankles. I see my dad’s feet before he died – a twisted mess. That scares me.

Laura rightly tells me I am being too hard on myself. That I overanalyse things and that I achieved my aim of a finish. But I didn’t achieve my aim of a good finish – pre-34 or pre-35 hours. I always said 35.59 would do in this most brutal of races. But secretly I longed for a 33-hour finish. I’m used to aiming at the lower end and surprising myself by doing better.

Normally, I’d be chomping at the bit to go again. Normally it would make me more determined to re-enter and do it faster. But the training I did this year alone bordered on obsessive. I don’t know I could find the time again. And, if I’m being honest, I don’t know that I dare.

I look at the pictures at the end of the race. I have no colour. There’s no energy. A vacant look in my eyes. Little wonder I was led away and collapsed. Med tent, 4 different IVs (I wasn’t alone).

The truth is. I should probably, for safety’s sake, have quit at some point. My quads were shot from 50 miles. My blisters creating a stabbing in my feet with every step from 60. That’s 100 miles running in abject pain, little wonder I feinted.

I pushed myself to finish but feel although I might not have killed myself, I may have killed my love of running. I’ve certainly, at least temporarily, lost my lack of running fear.

They say Spartathlon chews you up and eats away at you if you don’t make it. I think it can still do those things, even when you kiss the feet of Leonidas at the finish….

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Spartathlon – the start
Baby I’m ready to go

It felt good to be under the Acropolis. Very good… all the runners had been bussed up from the suburb of Glyfada with shuttles starting at 6am, and the more people arrived, the buzzier things got, the air crackling with expectation and lycra sparks.

The phoney war was over… I was ready to go. Jittery as a horse being led to the starting box, I couldn’t keep still. Bouncing, jogging on the spot, high-fiving, hugging family and fellow British Sparthathlon Team members.

I took a look around at my fellow runners. Ultra racers are a varied bunch: strapping Adonises with pumped muscles to shorter, older men. Stubble, short beards, hipster-style long beards… and that was just the women (sorry girls, I jest you all looked gorgeous).

Lots of women, especially in the Japanese team – a bigger women-to-men ratio I think than I’ve seen in any other race. Well, they do say that a woman’s psyche and pain threshold make her more suited to bridging the gender gap the longer the distance gets.

The previous two days in Athens had been a whirlwind. My running buddy Jamie and I picking up our crew David and Andy (who were joined later by Darren) from the airport at different times, visiting my sister and mum, getting massages and generally trying to avoid too much pre-race hype.

We’d met with the rest of the British team at the team meetings and done the obligatory pre-race pics. The support and encouragement of them all was immense and we made some great friendships that will last a long time.

A few minutes before 7am, just as first light was peeping through at the ruined (but magnificent) Herodus Atticus theatre, we gathered behind the start line ready to go, counting down to the gun and suddenly we were off. Racing at last… after months and months of slogging it out on training runs. (I don’t like to do too many races in training, so I tend to do lots of solo running). Down the cobbles we clip-clopped and into the early-morning commute and out to suburban Athens…

Spartathlon – the first marathon (1/6)
Slow down, you move too fast

When I say clip-clop, I should say Jamie and I bolted. We’d always planned to get the first marathon out of the way quickly, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures of the early morning… but this was quick considering we were joking after three miles we only had 150 miles to go.

One thing I love about the Greeks is it’s never hard to find out what they are thinking. And despite the snarled traffic being stopped to let 390 or so runners past, slowing their daily progress to work, I didn’t hear one unkind word. There was the odd horn blown but in encouragement, not in sustained rage.

As the road opened up, we went through suburbs where it seemed the schools had given every kid the morning off to come and watch us race. High five, high five, high five…

At Elefsina, we turned a corner and there was the glistening Aegean – probably my favourite part of the route and iconic Spartathlon scenes of runners by the water. At one point, there was an immense sunken tanker right by the shore, rust gleaming in the sunlight.

Checkpoint 11 came – the marathon mark and the first time we saw our crew (and that of others). Fergie (crewing for Isobel Wykes) and Nick Papageorge (crewing for Rob Pinnington) told us we were well fast (I think we were on about 3 hours 45 mins at this point) and in the top 20 per cent.

In honesty, from a crew perspective, we made a clusterflip of it. The boys weren’t quite ready, we were grasping at our drop bags and fighting through a congestion of runners. Instead of respite, it was just a stressy mess. We ploughed on and Jamie and I had a quick chat as to how best to handle things going forward.

When the guys pulled alongside us, they felt the same and so we quickly chatted through how best to do it next time…

Spartathlon – 26-50 miles (or about marathon 2)
Shake it off

 Too fast, getting hotter, bad crew meet… Jamie made a right call: “It’s about time we started running this like an ultramarathon, not a road race.” That chilled us out for a while.

Conventional ultra thinking is to walk as many of the hills as possible, saving your legs for flats and downhills where you can pick the pace back up. And I’d say we were doing well for another 10 miles or so until we had our first major wobbles.

At Spartathlon, there are 75 checkpoints along the way. You have to hit each one before a cut off, otherwise you are pulled from the race.

The CP staff are amazing and, in my opinion unheralded. They sit for hours on end, manually taking runners’ numbers as they enter and leave, offering advice, comfort, encouragement.

They also have some basic provisions at each one: biscuits, yoghurt, water, coke… ice if you are really lucky.

At as many as you wish, you can leave drop bags with your own supplies: isotonic gels, sports drinks etc and pick these up at the CPs, but that’s it when it comes to sustenance. Your crew is only allowed to help you at certain ones and they are allowed to offer you not so much as a glass of water if not at an official crew CP.

So where did things go wrong? Given those narrow confines, Jamie and I had wanted Darren, Andy and David to be involved as much as possible in the race, so we left our drop bags at points where we could get crew assistance. Nice idea right?

Except we put exactly the same things foodwise in EVERY one of our drop bags. When you take into account we only saw our crew twice in the first third of the race – at CP 11 (26 miles) and CP 22 (50 miles), you might see the problem…. We ran out of fuel between those two CPs, at the very hottest time of the day (31C+).

This had a pretty devastating toll as we battled to stay in the race sharing one gel between us for the last 10 miles to the CP, and battling cramp and exhaustion while running on empty.

I was obviously getting dehydrated as I stopped sweating, a cake of salt drying on my kit. I also couldn’t stomach the dry biscuits on offer at the CPs as they clogged my mouth making it harder to breathe. I took to pouring pure salt into glasses of water at each CP to get me through….

 

Spartathlon – 50-80 miles (yay, past half way)
Let the good times roll

 We’d got a message to the boys that we needed a big feed at CP22 (one of the major ones) and to their credit, they ran their race from here on in like seasoned pros. Darren had by now arrived (he only flew in that morning) which gave an extra pair of hands.

Both mine and Jamie’s families were also following us around and I could see they looked on the worried side as we came in, all the cockiness of that first marathon knocked from us. But we downed a lot of food here – albeit mainly a liquid called Tailwind – got a quick rub down from the boys and off we went again.

Mercifully, the temperature started to drop now. Don’t get me wrong, it was still super hot but we could stop sticking ice cubes in the daft (but essential) dessert hats we’d been wearing for the last five hours or so. The good news was were were still 50 minutes ahead of the cut offs.

There followed a nice stretch where it felt good to be running properly again. We caught up with Tremayne from the British Team who was obviously struggling with his quads.

Many ultra runners in Britain do more trail running rather than road and I always thought this would be to my advantage. Running on asphalt is hard on the legs but almost all my training was on roads, so I was less worried than some about its impact.

I think I’m right though that Greek roads use more aggregate to stop them melting in the sun and this makes them even harder on the legs and soon my quads were starting to burn.

Nonetheless, we knocked out some quick miles here and by the time we saw the guys as we ran into Ancient Corinth, we were back on track, 1 hour 20 ahead of the cut offs, running quickly and offering a respite to the worried looks on our families’ faces.

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Spartathlon – 80-101 miles (2/3 down)
Walking on broken glass 

We passed through Nemea – another major checkpoint and managed to eat a proper bowl of spaghetti and cheese, before another massage and moving on. By now, we were using head torches, it was dark and getting cold, so we also donned jackets. We were still a good hour and a bit ahead of the cut offs and feeling relatively good.

At some point – I’m thinking just over 80 miles – we were directed up a dirt track and were told, the mountain starts here at one of the CPs.

Now the mountain is legendary is Spartathlon – and I don’t think anything other than doing it gives you an idea of just how important a stage it is. As first timers, we had no idea how it would pan out – slow gradual climb or short but very steep?

What we did know was that at the Mountain base CP (100 miles) we would have to go off-road to scale the 1,200m summit, so it seemed strange that with 20 miles to go, we were told this was the start of the mountain section.

Nonetheless, it was an incline, so we moved back to a fast march, ploughing on up the hill and were walking so fast, when a guy running it approached us he said: “That is awesome walking pace. I’ve been trying to catch your headlights for the last hour and you made it almost impossible.”

We were, at this point, still a good hour and ten ahead of any CP cut offs and were indeed walking so fast we were actually passing people who were running – and then the real incline started.

The road suddenly felt as though it went straight up. By now we both had huge blisters and each step felt like I was being stabbed. My quads, meanwhile, were totally mashed from the relentless uphill climb.

When we arrived at mountain base – run by a team of mad Brits – it was freezing, we were aching, our feet were in shreds and we’d lost 15 minutes (in just two miles) and were back below the hour mark on cut offs. The death bus, as the coach that picks up runners who are pulled from the race is called, was revving up the mountain below us.

This was my lowest point of the race.

To know that we’d put what seemed like Herculean effort in and despite all that were slipping rapidly acted like a drain on my resolve. To compound it all, it started to chuck it down.

The guys pushed me toward the off-road section. A narrow path, now wet, no protection other than a strip of ‘safety tape’ to stop us from falling off. There were some race photographers, as I rounded a bend they fired off ten or 15 flashes in a row. I lost sight, lost footing, went hand over foot and swore.

When I pulled myself up, I called to Jamie: “Crack on”…

To his credit, he called me up to him and gave me a talking to. I think it amounted to: “Get in front of me, get your arse in gear and go ahead.” He saved my race at that point, when all I was thinking of was a dry back seat, a cup of hot soup and a sleep.

Again to his credit, he was right. Although your mind plays tricks on you when you see the torches of those runners ahead (or overhead), the journey to the summit was not as long as I expected and soon we were heading back down on the other side, albeit not as quick as we’d like. The rain meant we had to take care lest we suffered a fall and went out that way.

I’ve spoken before about the need for mantras and visualisation when completing a mammoth task. And I adopted a couple of them throughout the night to dig deep.

The things that stuck in my mind:

  1. Someone saying, don’t quit unless they pull you.
  2. Rob Pinnington writing ‘don’t be a c*nt’ on his arm before the race
  3. The thought of the finish line

You tend to get close to failure as soon as you start having the ‘here’s how I failed’ conversation in your head, thinking how you’ll justify it to other people, family and friends. Whenever that started to crop up, I pulled myself back mentally to those three points (mainly 2 I think!)

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Spartathlon – 101-150 miles
To the end…

 Back on road at the bottom, we felt much safer and could run/walk again for a bit until we realised we could fast-hike at 4 miles an hour and still finish in time. It meant the CP cut offs became just a tiny bit less frightening, without saying the pressure of them being there was ever removed.

I can’t remember too much about this bit of the race to be honest. I was on auto pilot, exchanging only the odd word with Jamie here and there, so as not to slow us down. We power walked through checkpoints and, mercifully, the temperatures stayed low as rain drizzled down for most of the day (although the rain did our blisters no good at all).

For the most, it was flat but I seemed to be hanging onto every race report I’d ever read saying it was all downhill from 25 miles or so on. I kept waiting for that downhill to come but it never seemed to, especially when we had a particularly horrible three-mile climb up a busy motorway with humming traffic coming in the opposite direction that saw us reach an altitude almost as high as the mountain.

We were losing maybe a minute or two a checkpoint but we knew it was still in the bag as long as we did nothing silly. I had nothing to occupy my mind, so I started humming Do You Know The Muffin Man for mile, upon mile, upon mile….

Spartathlon – the finish
Celebration time

 I’d heard about the Spartathlon finish… I had no idea it was as good as it is. As we came into town, more and more people came out to see us. Handing us olive branches, slapping us on the back and cheering us on… At the penultimate checkpoint, with 1.2 miles to go, David came to meet us and walk us in.

We’d got the guys to connect a British and Greek flag together and wrapped ourselves in it as we turned the corner into the high street…. And chaos! Kids on bikes rode besides us, the noise was deafening, and friends, family, team members, other runners and random strangers all came and hugged us as we marched on to the statue of King Leonidas, the notional finish line. You’d think we’d won the race, never mind propping up the bottom 10 per cent of the rankings.

At the statue, we both gave Leonidas’ toes a polish and a kiss, drank water from the Evrotas river and were crowned with olive garlands.

We were led away to have our feet washed. And that’s when I faded to black…

spartathlon5

The do’s and don’ts of running

running

Fancy taking up the easiest form of exercise to get fit quick and ramp up your metabolism? Here are my do’s and don’ts of running. Even if you hate the thought of running, don’t switch off, you too might learn to love to run.

Do… find it easy

People ask me why I like running so much, and the answer is that it’s the ultimate low-maintenance exercise. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard, but it’s probably the easiest form of exercise to do. For most people, going to the gym or an exercise class requires some effort – you’ve got to get dressed, pack some gear, drive to the place, maybe shower, drive home.

While that’s all good and I encourage everyone to do some form of weight-bearing training, running is the total opposite – strap on some shoes, open the door and off you go. Likewise, if you’re on holiday, you don’t need a hotel with a gym – throw some trainers in your case and there’s an instant work-out waiting for you as soon as you get to a destination.

Don’t… go too far too fast

“Running efficiently demands good technique, and running efficiently for 100 miles demands great technique. But the wonderful paradox of running is that getting started requires no technique. None at all. If you want to become a runner, get onto a trail, into the woods, or on a sidewalk or street and run. Go 50 yards if that’s all you can handle. Tomorrow, you can go farther.”

I spend a lot of time wishing I’d written the above quote, but ultra-running God Scott Jurek beat me to it, but I agree with every word. I didn’t just start running and suddenly find I could do 100 miles in one go – it took me about three years to get to that kind of distance and another two to where I am today. But six years ago, I couldn’t run for sh*t.

I’m not advocating everyone should go to those kind of lengths – but running offers the simplest way to gauge your improvement: did you go further today than yesterday?

As a rule, if you’re training for a race, you should try and up your total distance by no more than 10 per cent per week. And every five or six weeks, dial the distance back down by 20-30 per cent to give your body time to recover.

Do … follow the first rule of running club

Okay, I’m going to take the conversation down a notch here. The first rule of running club is to go for a number two before you set off. The second rule of running club is to go again! This mainly applies for people like me who like to get up and get their run for the day out of the way, but its advice worth taking, whatever time of day you set out.

Running for any length of time creates a lot of pressure on the gut. Each step will compact its contents downwards – and believe me, there’s nothing worse than being caught short and needing the toilet when you’re out running. Just in case, carry a pocket packet of tissues with you.

Don’t … be ashamed

I’m now going to assume you are stubborn and totally ignored the first and second rules of running club. It’s likely you are a distance from home and cannot wait any longer. You just have to lose your shame. If you’re in an urban area, find a shop, a restaurant, a fast-food place or a garage. Most of them are quite open and amenable to you using the facilities if you ask nicely – of course, if you storm in and just go, you’re likely to give the rest of us a bad name. At a race a couple of weeks ago, I was running alongside a female competitor who told me on a previous run, she simply went up and knocked on someone’s door and asked if she could use their loo. I kind of think this works better if you’re a pretty young girl, rather than a 14-stone sweaty bloke, but you never know.

If you’re in a rural location, you have no choice but to make like a bear – hey presto, you did listen to rule one and are carrying tissues with you. Now, yes, I know it’s not your first choice as place to answer a call of nature… but human pooh is every bit as biodegradable as the animal stuff. And fine paper like tissues and toilet roll will degrade in no time at all. BUT – for the love of God, make sure you get off the path and go and do it somewhere where it will fade away in peace, rather than somewhere that people are likely to walk on a regular basis.

Do… get a decent pair of trainers

While running is low-maintenance, that doesn’t mean you should try and do it in cheap plimsoles. Go to a decent running shop and get a pair of good trainers. They’ll likely stick you on a treadmill to see what kind of runner you are and offer you several appropriate types to try so you can make a decision. Expect to pay around £60 to £100 for a pair that should last you some 500 miles before they structurally lose the support.

Don’t … listen to the people who tell you you’ll wreck your knees

Can you injure yourself running? Yes of course you can, but you can injure yourself absolutely anywhere – former Chelsea goalkeeper Dave Beasant once famously missed several matches after dropping a jar of mayo on his toe!

Runners do get injuries – they usually come from trying to do too much too quickly. The foot is a wonderful piece of natural engineering: 26 bones, 33 joints, more than 100 muscles or tendons. The thing is, if you have not run for a while, you won’t have been using many of those muscles and they won’t be used to exercise, so you have to build up slowly.

Do… learn good technique

Many injuries can also come from bad form. If you decide to start long-distance running, it’s likely that at the end of long runs, your form will go through tiredness. But up until then, you should try and run as efficiently as possible.

There are conflicting theories when it comes to what you wear on your feet. The first advocates that people who naturally overpronate (roll their ankles when running), should wear trainers will special support to keep their feet on the straight and narrow. You may be recommended these if you go for the ‘gait analysis’ I mentioned above.

The other is to wear what are called minimalist trainers with little support that encourage you to run in a ‘bare foot’ style. The argument is that the more support you have, the less your small muscles will get a workout and that ultimately, you are not strengthening your feet enough in a natural way.

I’ve seen evidence that both work – and most people who get the running bug tend to start with a more structured shoe and over the years ‘dial down’ to a less structured one. Either way, your technique should be the same and follow these rules.

  1. Don’t overstride. By taking long strides you are likely to heel strike on the pavement as you land. This sends huge shock waves up the legs and can cause shin splints and other injuries.
  2. Take smaller steps allowing your feet to fall under your body. This reduces those pressures under the foot and encourages you to land on your forefoot or midstep.
  3. Take quick steps. Good runners have very fast cadence – they turn their legs over quickly. The best run at 180 beats per minute – that’s pretty fast but not hard to achieve. Get a free metronome app for your phone and run with headphones for a while. Start at 140 bpm and try and hit a footstep every beat… then increase the beats by 10 a week.
  4. Keep your head up and your arms relaxed and by your side. I see so many runners – even pros – pull their arms outwards as they swing. It loses tonnes of energy for no reason at all.

Finally: Do… sign up for a race

You don’t have to race to be a runner – but it acts as a great incentive. Sign up to a 5km race about 10-12 weeks after you start running. It gives you something to aim for – remember you should always set yourself fitness goals to continue improving – and offers a good way to gauge progress. Also, the incentive of a commemorative medal gives motivation, and getting it put around your neck marks your achievement. Do one, and I can almost guarantee you’ll be back for more.

Fitness motivation tips: Success starts at 5am

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 15.14.19

Looking for fitness motivation tips? It could well be that success starts at 5am…

I’ve really ramped up by training this week for the Spartathlon race in September. At 153 miles long and with a 36-hour cut off, it will probably be the toughest thing I’ll ever attempt – the culmination of four long years of hard work and thousands of miles of running.

I’d started to fall back a bit on my weekly mileage, so with a big push I managed to run 65 miles this week – 12 miles more than I did last week and my biggest weekly total of the year.

Part of what prompted me to up things was seeing the trailer for a new movie that comes out in September. The Road to Sparta follows the stories of four ultramarathon runners in last year’s race – and some of the footage is nothing less than brutal.

The Road to Sparta: Trailer from Barney Spender on Vimeo

In one scene from the video, this year’s Team GB manager Rob Pinnington is wearing a T-shirt. It says simply: 5:00am.

It’s a motivation motto many ultramarathon runners use: “success starts at 5am in the morning”.

Now I’m not expecting to turn anyone into an ultramarathon runner – it’s a daft sport after all – but I get a lot of people asking me how they can get fit, but don’t want to put in the hours or effort needed to do so.

The truth is, there are no short cuts – and I suspect most people know that. Getting and staying fit is hard work, but it’s work that pays off in spades. Fitter people feel better about themselves, generally live longer and are psychologically happier.

We all have lots of commitments to deal with. From personal experience, we have a pair of five-year-old daughters, I have two businesses to run and a mortgage to pay off, as well as trying to fit leisure time, extended family and friend commitments, and my own personal fitness goals into a loaded week. And the people I know who don’t have similar commitments I can count on one hand.

My answer to fitting more in is to simply sleep less. I get up at 4.45, am out of the house for 5am and can run 10 miles and be back for the girls getting up at 6.30am.

I understand such commitment doesn’t come naturally to anyone – and on most days even I find it hard to do. So how can you stay committed to a fitness regime? Here are some fitness motivation tips to keep you on track.

Tell yourself you’ll feel better afterwards

I often have to do this when the alarm goes off and I’m tempted to hit snooze. Forcing yourself up or forcing yourself out at other times of the day can be difficult. But post-exercise, your body will be flooded with feel-good hormones that will give you a boost.

Picture this

I shocked myself to getting fit again around 10 years ago when I saw a picture of myself at my step brother’s wedding. It simply didn’t look like me anymore. I suspect many other people might have done the same – so use that picture as a motivation tool. Print a copy off and stick it somewhere where you’ll see it regularly – tell yourself you are going to work hard to change that image.

Set a goal and visualise the future

I’ve written about goal-setting before but here’s a simple example of how it works.

Set out from your house now and go for a walk with no other thought in your head. It’s likely you’ll wander around aimlessly because you have no idea where you’re going. You might end up somewhere…  but it will be by chance, not by choice.

On another day, set our from your house and go for a walk to the shops. It’s likely you’ll get there because you know where they are. You know the direction you need to walk in – you’ve set a destination. Even if you don’t get there, you can try again the next day and and go a bit further than last time.

The same thing works with fitness. Set yourself a specific challenge: run a 5k race or a marathon, lose 2 per cent of body fat, or drop a dress size.

Make sure all your goals are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely – then you’ve got a yardstick to aim for.

Write your goal on a piece of paper and keep it somewhere you’ll see it all the time – your wallet or purse – and read it regularly to embed it.

Adopt a mantra

Once you start exercising, keeping going in a tough session can be tough, so adopt a mantra – a phrase you can say or repeat that will gee you on. It can be something as simple as ‘come on’ or ‘you can do this’ or it can be specific to the task or personal. My current one is the Greek phrase “Yia tin Sparti re gamoto” – roughly translated it means “eff it, I’m doing this for Sparta”… but in the past I’ve spent the last 60 miles of a 100-mile race humming “do you know the muffin man” when it was the girls’ favourite song.

Reward yourself

Here’s another secret… part of the reason I wanted to get fit was because I like to eat and drink! My problem has always been that I’m a real ‘moment on the lips, lifetime on the hips’ body type – and unless I watch what I eat and exercise regularly, I balloon. So what I do is allow myself the odd ‘cheat meal’ (note NOT a cheat day). Once every month, I’ll have an extra beer or a take-away as a little well done to myself and then stick to eating well the rest of the time.

Six running lessons from pop songs

running lessons from pop songs
Bossing it: Bruce tells you you were Born to Run

There are plenty of lists with suggested songs for a work out – but these six stompers offer valuable running lessons from pop songs.

Born to Run – Bruce Springstein
Forget the naysayers who tell you that running is bad for you. The Boss was right, and when The Boss talks we all should listen. Contrary to what most people think about the damage running does to your body, anthropologists today believe that the main reason homosapiens evolved to become the dominant species on the planet is because we can run. Your Achilles tendon is perfectly formed to give you the spring needed in your step, and the fact that humans can thermoregulate (control our temperature) thanks to the way we sweat are the very reasons we managed to out-evolve the Neanderthals. When the forests receded and the plains opened up, we could hunt down pray over long distances by following them at a slow run, while the Neanderthals who were used to hunting at close quarters were stuffed. There are animals that can run faster, but none that can run longer than we can. It’s only the last 100 years where we’ve sat on our backsides that we’ve regressed somewhat… baby, we really were born to run…

Sweet Dreams  – Eurythmics
There’s a two-fold lesson from this 80s synth-pop classic. On the one hand, you have the goal-achieving connotation of the title. Fitness programs are only really effective if you set yourself a goal: finishing a 5k or a marathon, dropping a dress size, putting an inch of muscle on your biceps…. If you have a specific goal, that’s measurable, achievable, realistic, and timed (SMART), you’re much more likely to succeed. The second lesson comes two thirds of the way through the track… ‘Keep your head up – movin’ on. Hold your head up – movin’ on’. The perfect running stance requires you to run as though you are balancing an egg on your head, hands tight by your sides, legs falling under your body, rather than ahead of it which causes massive stress on the body.

Twenty-Five Miles – Edwin Starr
This Northern Soul stomper by the Michigan Mouth is the equivalent of the old gag: “How do you eat an elephant?” “One mouthful at a time.” Edwin heads off to find the woman of his dreams, counting down from 25 miles until he’s home… and that’s just the way to approach any run. Break down the target distance into achievable chunks your head… and check off each one as it comes until you get to the end.

Running Up That Hill – Kate Bush
You don’t have to ‘make a deal with God’ to become a good runner… but following Kate’s advice will certainly help you on your way. Adding hill training into your regime will strengthen tendons and ligaments, reduce the risk of injury and improve overall running form. Jog from your house to the nearest hill as a warm up, then sprint up it and jog back down. Repeat the sprint up/jog down 10 or 12 times. The added bonus here is that interval training (where you do a strong burst of exercise, followed by a short rest) is ideal for both burning fat, and strengthening your heart.

Police on by Back – The Clash
Recorded by Eddie Grant’s The Equals in the 1960s, The Clash in the 1970s and Lethal Bizzle in 2007, this superb track states probably the most obvious running lesson: if the cops are chasing you, you are more likely to run quickly. In lieu of escaping the fuzz after a fatal shooting, take the chorus – “I’ve been running Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday…’ – to heart instead. It probably goes without saying that the more you run, the better you’ll get at it… but bear this in mind. If you are looking to lose weight and get in shape, if you run 40 minutes a day, you’ll burn around 3,500 calories a week. Keep to exactly the same diet and you’ll lose a pound a week. In three months, a stone is gone…

Never Miss A Beat – The Kaiser Chiefs
The Kaisers will ever have a place in my heart, simply because they are named after the first football club of one of my all-time favourite footballers, Leeds United legend Lucas Radebe. Ricky Wilson may have lost some of his indie cool since becoming a judge on The Voice, but this stomping singalong still hides a running lesson: you should never miss a beat. The way to, ahem, beat leg injuries when running is to adopt what has become known as a ‘barefoot running’ style… that is to land on the fore/mid foot with each step and to turn your steps over quickly – the less impact your foot has on the ground, the less likely you are to be injured. Think of it as a very quick pitter-patter. Want to perfect it? Download a metronome to your phone and set it for 180 beats per minute and wear it when running. Try to reach a rhythm where your feet hit the ground on each beat. Coincidentally this song is at 158 bpm, so a great place to start if 180 bpm feels too quick.

Warm weather ultramarathon training

Warm weather ultramarathon training
Not my best look – 6.5 miles in

I’m over in Athens this weekend, cramming in a high-school reunion with some warm weather ultramarathon training ahead of this year’s Spartathlon.

The 153-mile race at the end of September has to be completed in less than 36 hours – a minimum of 4.25 miles an hour in what can be blisteringly hot conditions.

The distance doesn’t phase me too much – I’ve ran 113 miles in 24 hours just last October, and while that would leave me with another 40 miles to cover, I’m pretty confident I could plod it out…. What I’m less confident about is the heat and how much it could slow me (and the other runners) down. Running hundreds of miles in balmy British conditions is a totally different prospect to running them in 30 degrees celsius.

My first foray came upon landing. My mum, who lives here, met me at the airport and jumped in a cab with my case, while I slapped on sunscreen, running shoes and headed out to run the 11 miles to her house – at 2pm in bright sunlight.

The first thing that struck me was how bright it was – blindingly white, despite the threat of a thunderstorm looming and my wearing running shades.

The second was how un-stylish running in heat is! Anyone who’s been to my Insanity classes knows I can jump around and sweat with the best of them – but that I use so much product there’s barely a hair out of place. It’s become a bit of a running gag!

One of the pieces of kit most Spartathlon runners don is a French Foreign Legion-style cap with a neck shade. Let me tell you, they do nothing in the fashion stakes, but who cares when you need to both stay cool and stop getting burnt?

I have to say, while I’m used to running 20 plus miles on a regular basis as part of my training, after 2, I was beginning to wonder what I’d let myself in for. Sweat was trickling into my eyes in 5 minutes and my lungs felt they were on fire.

After 4 miles or so, things did start to get better – the body’s ability to adapt to tougher conditions never ceases to amaze me – and by 6 miles I was running back at my normal training pace of about 8 mins 15 seconds a mile.

I made the 11 miles in around 90 minutes – a shade over what I’d like (or would normally do) but that will do as a start and I’ll do more over the next few days.

The problem is when I get back to the UK… I might just have to start running in a sauna to keep up!