Spartathlon 2016

Preamble

My knuckles turned white, I was scared. No, this wasn’t the effect of a 153 mile battle of attrition through hot, Greek air. This was the plane taking off from Heathrow just after 7am Wednesday 28th September. Even the friendly voice of fellow British runner  Marcel McKinley checking on me didn’t allay the fear of impending doom!

This was the start of my ‘Spartathlon’ story.

Spartathlon, for those that don’t know, is the renowned 153 mile footrace from the foot of the Acropolis in Athens to the foot of King Leonidas in Sparta. It recreates the journey of Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger sent to Sparta in 490 BC to seek help against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. Of course Pheidippides didn’t have the advantage of wide open dual carriageways radiating the lovely Greek sun, head torches, technical fabrics, Hokas or aid stations offering water, ice and salty snacks every couple of miles!!

I’d first heard of Spartathlon through Paul ‘the King’ Ali. He’s completed the race twice and loved it both times. I tend to be somewhat of a lemming when it comes to races that Paul has done and so, early in 2016 my entry into the ballot was confirmed. Truth be told, I never expected to get in. I’d also entered the ballot for UTMB which falls in more favourable ‘non-term’time which of course means I can sell the race to ‘she who controls the purse strings’ as a family holiday. Fate, it would seem, did not agree and I was not pulled from the hat.
And so it came to pass on March 10th, with bleary 6am eyes, my normally dormant facebook feed was lit up with praise and congratulations on my place on the start list! Start list, of spartathon, eek! Cue that icy cold feeling you get when you’ve committed to something without fully thinking through the consequences. A bit like that feeling when you buy a new pair of trainers after a couple of beers on a Sunday afternoon, knowing full well you’d promised ‘no more spending’ until payday!!

Travel Nerves and Pre-Race Logistics

Fast, forward……It’s just after 1pm Greek time, my knuckles are still white, my arms are almost dropping off, yup, we are coming into land. I hate to fly. Only the tension of Harlan Coben’s latest book could reduce the feelings of impending doom. I hate flying, I’ve never enjoyed it. I rationalise it in my own mind by assuming that so long as I survive the flight, the hard part is done! The rest is just running (and drinking beer) which I enjoy!
A shared taxi ride with the crew of the legend that is Sophie Power to the London hotel, painless check-in and it was off the registration at the phoenix! It was 2:15, it was lunch time! I sorted myself out with a frosty one at the bar and finished off the book, now it was time to register. The hall that was empty not 25 minutes before was now full with a queue stretching round the hall! An hour of shuffling later and registration was done, no going back now!!
Back at the hotel I began sorting my stuff out. My room mate for the week turned out to be  a top bloke called Duncan Cornish. It was his first go at Sparta too so we shared some of the same anxieties! We both had a similar strategy for drop bags, 1 every 4/5 checkpoints and were both to be fuelled by Tailwind cue lots of chatter about premixing or bagging! We both opted to premix and soon the table on the veranda looked like it would be more at home in a scene from the handover, covered in small bags of dodgy looking white powder! In addition to tailwind I added a couple of jackmans throat sweets, harribo and a sis go gel to random ones. These would act as nice ‘surprises’ out on the field of battle. I added 2 changes of socks and t-shirt to bags around 80 and 120 miles, a warm top for just before the mountain and spare batteries for about 110 miles in. The best drop bag I reserved for checkpoint 74, the one before the foot. To this I added a change of clothes and 40 ‘beer notes’.
Drop bags completed, it was time for a tea, chicken and potatoes i’ll have you know and a few beers!
Thursday was drop bag and briefing day. There is a large hall at the phoenix which contains 74 numbered boxes into which you put your drop bags. I would later come to learn that one of the British runners, the complete legend ‘Nick Turner’ had overlooked this step of the prep stage but true to the camaraderie of the team all was not lost before it had started!!
The briefing at half 5 was standard and then it was team photo time (below) and then off for a team meal.
sparta-team
The team meal was a good opportunity to meet the other runners and crew. I was chating with Dave for a lot of it who was full of stories of old when he helped John Fodden through the first ‘recce’ of the course back in 82 the year before the first official race. Dave and his wife popped up loads of course through the race which helped me more than I was probably able to articulate at the time. It was at the meal that I also got to speak with one of the other (many) legends of Sparta, the one, the only Rob Pinnington! Rob had successfully kissed the foot the year before and the stories of that race are still some the most emotional race reports I have ever read!

No Beer until Sparta!

Pre-race I usually have a couple of beers to steady the nerves and ensure a good nights sleep. Testament to how much I was shitting it at this point was the fact I elected not to have a beer. Yup, not one!! There are probably people reading this that know me well (im looking at you Alex W + M) that are now assuming this blog is all untrue but alas its true, I had no pre-race beer! Instead, I had a cup of coffee back at the hotel before bed. Duncan all week has been indicating that he ‘never sleeps’ the night before a race and so it came to pass that about 10 minutes after hitting the sack he was sound asleep whilst that one last coffee would not lie down and let me succumb to sleep. The last time I looked at the phone it was 1am something, with the alarm due to go at 4, Great!!!

To The Start!

Friday is race day. A hearty breakfast followed by a quick checkout of the rooms. Suitcases are left in reception and a van is outside waiting to take our overnight bags to Sparta! a 50 minute bus ride to the acropolis in the dark doesn’t do Athens justice when trying to imagine how bloody big it is! The acropolis itself im sure was amazing, the fear hormone was getting me and I don’t recall much from the start! I bumped into fellow Reading Jogger Barry Miller’s super crew, Ian Thomas’s super crew and fellow runner Rusty who was looking for a private bush. Myself and Duncan hung back from the front and next thing we were off! This is it, this is Spartathlon, the first few steps a stumble as the 390 runners squeeze onto the course, across the cobbles and into Athens. I didn’t know much about what was happening, just that I was here, running towards Sparta!
somewhere-is-sparta

The Race – To Corinth

I wish I could remember more about the race but as with most of my running I enter a space in my own mind and tend to stay there for the duration!

The first 10/15 miles are in Athens. Its a big place and you are running from somewhere in the centre to the edge before you emerge onto the coast. During this time I ran with Duncan, Darren S, Rob, James and probably a few more. Running up a neve rending incline we came across Rusty who was run walking from the start and would later ‘flirt’ with some early cut off’s before absolutely beasting it to come home comfortably.

Out onto the coast and I ran with legend ‘Stu Wilkie’ for a bit before hitting my stride for a few miles and catching up with David ‘the relentless’ Barker who I had ran with for a bit previously at the Autumn 100. I pushed on, ignoring all the advice in race reports about banking miles is a bad thing to do. In my mind if I could get to the Canal at Corinth (50 miles) in about 8 hours and in good shape then I would be able to slow up a little towards the mountain at 100 miles to save something for the next day, ahhhh the benefit of hindsight.

Not long after I left David I was running behind an American and an Australian. They turned out to be Bob Hearn and Matt Fryer. 2 true legends of endurance running. Bob would go on to finish 6 hours, yup 6 hours ahead of me!! Bob, I had discovered previously  also has a unique training aid, a set of blow-up trousers, full leg compression and massage if you like. There is a picture somewhere of our very own Rob Pinnington having a go in them. The verdict – they are good but probably not $1600 good!!

Corinth was reached, I even tried to take a picture but given my fear of heights my thumb got in the way and I wasn’t hanging around to retake it!

corinth

The Race – To the Mountain

After Corinth there is a major checkpoint, there may have been others before, I just don’t know. Here I met James Poole, yup the legend of Endure 12 where he covered 80 miles in 12 hours including a 90 minute last lap with a beer! I expected James to be ‘up top’ with Barry and Liverpool Leeds winner and all round running legend ‘Ian Thomas’. Id learn later than James had a stomach issue which took a while to sort out but also that he is keen on having a number of sleeps, yup he that awesome he can have a few sleeps and still stick an hour into me!! ( I have no doubt that if he came back he is more than capable of mixing it with the big boys at the sharp end).

After here the route winds into the country for a bit. I had a change of socks waiting for me around 70 miles and a t-shirt. It was hear that the emotion of the race got to me and I made my first major error! Sat down having a sock change there was a yound greek kid, his younger brother and I assume their dad! They must have been clapping every running solidly for 10 minutes. I decided that I would reward them with one of my prized GB team running shirts which I had not needed and I had another t-shirt at that aid station anyway! I called the older brother over, held the shirt up for him to judge the ‘fit’, decided he would grow into it and presented it to him! I left the checkpoint a bit sharpish as there was a lot of pollen about, making my eyes red! I got about 4 miles down the road and realised I hadn’t picked up my other t-shirt in my haste to leave and so was now faced with making it to the mountain in a tri top and not much else!

Climbing up from this valley, the sun was dipping and I started to get cold. Being asthmatic since a kid I know that the cold is one trigger I have to be mindful of. Thankfully another British crew literally saved my race and provided me with a British team crew t-shirt which I could wear inside out (due to advertising which is not allowed). This provided enough warmth for me to carry on without fear of my chest exploding, well exploding due to asthma anyway.

It was somewhere between 70/80 miles that I had been leap frogging with a guy wearing a canaries ultra marathon vest. I had wrongly assumed he was Spanish but it turned out he was one of the British runners – Martin Bacon. Our plod at this point was well matched and so we (I think) unconsciously decided to team up a bit.

The Mountain Conquered and Friendship Forged

We plodded on towards the mountain and after numerous switch backs on tarmac that always head up, we arrived together at the mountain base. Martin took a moment to have a warm under a blanket, poor man, while I jiggled nervously on the spot eating beautiful fat covered potatoes!!

The ascent up the mountain was harmless! I was, from reading race reports, expecting to be issued with rope, carabiners and a safety harness. Its not that bad, yes its a bit steep and loose under foot but its over before you know it. We were climbing behind an Italian that was having a tougher time. I pulled out a couple of saves Gordon Banks would have been proud of to keep him on track but it was all good!!

The top was breached and Martin took a blanket break before we tackled the descent. Im awful at descending, whether its on a bike or foot. Even Bradley Wiggins in the raid would descend faster than me! Going down the other side, the path is loose, but wider and its more sweeping so no 180 degree hairpins. At this point James Poole approached, refreshed after a kip and descended as casually as a kid skipping across the playground! I was awestruck! no sign of a fatigue or lethargy he was gone, out of sight!! Amazing!

Once down the other side we continued to plod onwards, inching closer to the foot, together!

Sleep Demons, Never had em!!

My wife will agree (I hope) that i’ve never really had an issue with running through the night and into the next morning. With the exception of this years Cotswold 24 where I had a mental wobble at least. Of course, racing beyond 24 hours is something different. I can only liken it being comfortable running 10k then being asked to run a marathon the next day.

We had been making steady progress in the valley after the mountain. This section is probably about 20 miles long. As the sky slowly turned to grey it got cold! not Greece cold (15c) but proper cold, I was freezing! 3 layers, big gloves and lots of shivering. Slowly the sun came up and the temperature started to come up a bit. Martin had been unphased by this because he’s a tough old sod.

All of a sudden, it hit me. Tiredness. Tiredness like you have never known it. Even when I stayed up on the lash the until 4am the night before Paul Ali’s summer Saturday night marathon to be awoken by my Daughter at 6, then surviving the school fete, running to meet the beast Alex W, running to the race, running the race and wining it and then staying up to watch a film with another couple of Bulmers I was not as tired as I was now. Its horrid. The vision closes into a tunnel, your plodding along and the whole earth is moving against you, which you come to realise is your head lolling and body weaving across the road! I wanted to quit. Yup I had came 120 miles, my legs were ok, left foot blister pain was bearable but I wanted to quit! Im sure when I aired this with martin he said something polite, along the lines of “don’t be a twat!!. Ok, ok point taken mate!!

Martin, a veteran of longer races said it would be ok! Easy to say!! He reached into his pack and pulled out a srip of pills. “Have half of one of these mate, give it 20 it’ll be ok!”. “Ok, I said, but I better have a whole one!”. Sure enough 15 mins later the ecstasy of pro-plus washed throughout my body! I was awake, it was like a switch had been flicked.

Feeling Raw

I love Rocky, I love warrior. I love the build up to that last round. When the combatants approach each other for the last 3 minute of pain, all barriers are gone, its raw and emotional. Warrior vs warrior. Its sentimental codswallop, I know it, you know it but i’m telling you now, that’s what Sparta does to you, it breaks you down and leaves you raw with more than a marathon to do.

20 to the last 13!

The last 33 consists of what seems like an age of dual carriage ways and long hot sweeping climbs that never end, full of false summits. The heat on that Saturday morning increased and never stopped! We were being baked from all side and underneath. It must have been bad because even martin was needing a drink of fluid between checkpoints. I stopped and walked over to some old ruins to relieve myself of some weight which left a short-lived spring in my step.

We plodded on, jogging where we could. Martin was able run father than I was but I was able to walk faster up the inclines we were to and fro’ing for a lot of this.

Looking back if I was to offer someone a bit of advice on this race is that you have to expect this section to a)hurt and b)really hurt BUT if you can c)save something for it, you can save what I think would be hours! Of course being disciplined enough to not bank miles early is another thing altogether!

Eventually we rounded the last sweeping bend where you branch off the dual carriageway and we knew what somewhere down below is Sparta!

20161001_145807

Down into Sparta

The last 13 are all downhill, not easy downhill but hard downhill! We were moving quite well at this point and managed to catch up and pass another couple of British runners that were working well together as a team, Carl and Jim. We ultr-slomo’ed overtook them and Martin elected to put in a massive shift dragging up from no-where a 9 minute or something mile which feels like your flying after 31 hours racing!

By this point we know hat we are going to make the foot barring serious injury or heart attacks! Somewhere down here Jim elected to put his foot down and motor on past us but we were content to let him go. Jim was running really strong still, I don’t know how he did it!

Entering Sparta itself is along a dual carriage way, onwards for about a mile until you get to check point 74, the last one. We took a few minutes here. I changed into a new t-shirt. Martin changed too and grabbed a large union jack flag which would accompany us to the finish!

The Final Stretch

From checkpoint 74 its about 2 miles to the end. Local kids accompany you on bikes its great. Rounding the last corner the foot is about 500m away.

Another bit of advice to anyone that does this race. “Enjoy these last metres, don’t rush, soak it up!”.

We unfurled the flag and held it between us as we ran up the last 200m. Kids passed under it, people took pictures of it (see the top of the page). We saw the British team/family congregated about 50m before the finish. Ian, Barry, James and Jim already done, the crew, the unlucky that this year didn’t get to kiss the foot (but will be back) and then the statue itself. Standing tall!

We had done it!! We had arrived, shattered, fooked, broken battered but intact and smiling, a friendship formed in the heat of battle!

broken

I pushed martin to the statue to have his moment first, he had earnt that moment as he carried me so much during the last 53 however unbeknownst to me the final timing mat was under the statue so he stayed there for a good 19 seconds (according to the results)! If id have known that I may have pushed in front 🙂

Martin left to get his feet attended to and I had my moment! A kiss for the foot, handshake with the RD, a drink of water from the river and that was it!

What happens in the Med tent Stays in the Med Tent!

When you finish your escorted to the medical area. Your trainers and socks are removed. Your feet and legs are cleansed and blisters sorted. I asked if I wanted a drink! “we have coffee, tea, squash…” she started. “Do you have beer please?” came my response, swifly followed by a can of the good stuff!

I was in pieces, the emotional outpouring is crazy!! I looked around me and across the medical area. There were people on beds covered in blankets, hooked up to drips and all sorts. If there had been a smoke machine wafting wisps of smoke through there it would have been a real scene from Platoon or something.

I spotted Martin having a lie down on one of the beds the lazy sod, yup, another blanket adorned him! I teased him with my beer! It was touching, there were more tears.

I waited a few minutes and after explaining that I didn’t want a taxi, I just wanted to get to the British team we were allowed out.

The Finishing Straight Bar

The next few hours were just ridiculous! I have never seen a group of strangers so closely united and together ever in my life. I put the call into my wife Hannah to let her know it was done and that whatever else happens she is coming with the kids next year.

We clapped and cheered every runner I think that came through but especially hard for the British. Seeing people finish in varying degree’s of broken’ness is humbling.

Beers were consumed, a good time was had! The words to describe these hours are beyond me and in a way I hope they always are!

The Aftermath

The next few days continued where the finishing line left off. Celebratory dinner in Sparta on the Sunday followed by a long coach ride back to Athens with a stop near Corinth and a couple more beers, lots of banter and a smiling martin Bacon, followed by a couple of nights of 4am finishes with a few more beers! its all a bit of a blur.

Before I knew it we were all going our separate ways, except the legend that is Stu who left us in a cab at 4am on the Wednesday only to reappear in the morning after having lost his passport! I hope he wont mind me mentioning it but I think he secretly fancied another night on the piss 🙂

The flight home was another white knuckle affair but thankfully I was sandwiched between 2 Greek Grandma’s that basically looked after me the whole flight back!

Thanks

So  much happened in this race both before and after its hard to mentioned people individually.

Id just like to say thanks to everyone of the British team for everything, every word of encouragement, every clap, every smile, every tear, a t-shirt, a caffeine pill!

My wife and family for allowing me to come away and all the people that offered facebook words of encouragements and texts during the ‘dark times’!!

I hope we are all there in some way shape of form next year!!

2017

2017 I will be back and running with, bullying, carrying, whatever is needed to get my new mate Rob Pinnington all the way to the foot for that elusive 2nd finish ably supported we hope by our very own Duncan Cornish! All we need to do now is rope in Martin Bacon!!!

See my spartathlon strava activity here!

Advertisements