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.
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….
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.
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:
- Someone saying, don’t quit unless they pull you.
- Rob Pinnington writing ‘don’t be a c*nt’ on his arm before the race
- 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!)
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
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…