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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…