The Why (one of the most common questions!)
Having read the ultra running books that Michelle had left carelessly around, I realised a few things about my ‘first love’ of running. Humans were designed to run long distances to hunt our prey before we got ‘clever’/lazy (“Born to Run” by Christopher McDoughall). In Ancient times, runners were highly regarded as messengers. The most famous example is Pheidippides’ run in 490 BC from Athens to Sparta (and return) to request help from the Spartans to defend their very existence from persecution from the Persian invasion (battle of marathon). The recreation of that run by a Brit John Foden in 1982 and subsequently establishing the 246km route as one of the modern day ‘toughest ultras’ – the Spartathlon – was brought to my attention in Vassos Alexander’s book “Running Up That Hill”. A point-to-point race with such historical significance instantly sparked my interest! Could I match the great runners of the past and follow in Pheidippides’ footsteps?
In the weeks preceding, my Dad lost his long battle with Parkinson’s and therefore the race took on heightened significance as I decided to use it as a charity fundraiser.
I found out that Spartathlon is pretty tricky to get into! In summary I needed a qualifying time and then be selected (by ballot if not ‘auto-qualifying’) to take one of the 25 coveted places on the GB Spartathlon team. Qualification times are over a number of distances and in the end I achieved the ballot entry times in the Flitch Way 12hr, Thames Path 100 and Grand Union Canal. When I had to decline a spot last year due to a clash with Kona, I thought I’d lost my chance – but riding my luck I received a place for the 2023 race!
Training had gone well over the last year, with a few solid ultras under my belt, some of the highest mileage weeks since my 20s and with best attempts at heat training. After the Grand Union Canal, I knew distance was within reach – however the high temperatures, and a mountain in the middle of the Spartathlon would certainly add challenge!
One of the great things about Spartathlon is that you are a member of the GB team, so you get some super kit, a team hotel environment and support from a knowledgeable team throughout. I also really wanted family support for this huge challenge, so we decided we would arrange for Sophie to be allowed out of school – and we would leave the boys to fend for themselves at home!
After a smooth journey out and registration complete, we were all set. My only slight concern was that I’d been feeling like I’d been fighting off various bugs that ‘back to school’ invariably brings….
The Race – Athens
The atmosphere at the start was truly electric, filled with nervous anticipation and set with historic significance by the dramatically illuminated Acropolis peering over us. At 7am we were off. For the first 10-15miles the route really brings you back down to earth (and into modern times), following busy Athenian roads out of the city and through industrial areas. Breathing in lungful’s of fumes isn’t great for an asthmatic. Despite this I had plenty of company to tick the miles off, including much of the British team running together at times. During the morning the key aims were to control heart rate and pace (to>9min/mi), fuel and hydrate well. One of the big challenges of Sparathlon are the 75 checkpoints each with a closing time which dictates a fairly quick pace from the start. It can play on your mind at the start if you are only 10mins from being eliminated from the race! The key is to stick to your pre-planned pacing plan and not to try to bag too much time early on (and pay for it later). The overall 36hr cut-off is based on the historical account of Pheidippides’ run. Luckily the morning was overcast and temperatures only in the mid 20s.
Past the marathon point I was feeling good and on target (4hr08 against the cut-off time of 4hr45) – so I was safe on both fronts – Michelle said she’d kill me if I was sub-4hrs! It was great to see Michelle and Sophie for the first time at 27 miles – they had made it safely out of Athens!
Fueling was going well – sips of Precision Fuel 90g sachets and Long Range Fuel nut butters every 10mins. But at approx 40 miles my stomach started to feel heavy and it was time to puke and rally #1! I reduced my fuel intake slightly and pushed on. The scenery had now improved – with stunning Aegean coastal views. The sea started to look more inviting as the sun started to beat down and temperatures rising into the 30s. I used each checkpoint to add ice to the pouch in my hat and drench myself in cold water. There were still plenty of people to run with including the British team and I even found a (Cypriot) Ironman triathlete to talk to! Most of the first 100 miles I ran with Lyndon Cooper who I’d shared quite a bit of time with on that cold January mad 12hr Flitch Way run.
The Race – Corinth
Passing over the Corinth Canal bridge at 50 miles (8hr18) lived up to the anticipated views and was a great first landmark as we moved onto the Peloponnese peninsula. This was also the second checkpoint where crews could assist, and represented a welcome change to quiet country roads through vineyards, quaint ancient villages and past ancient temples.
Up until about 65 miles the course is fairly flat, – that all changed from here and ultimately leads to the “mountain climb” at 100 miles. After a second chunder, this middle section was probably my ‘lowest’ time. I just kept ruthlessly focusing on the next checkpoint (especially those where I would see my crew) and not thinking too far ahead. Food desires can change through an ultra and I suddenly had an urge for savoury and especially soup (with the arrival of dusk). The offerings at checkpoints weren’t great, and even more so as a vegetarian. So chicken soup it was! Needs must and I convinced myself that cuppa soup probably didn’t have much chicken in it! Soup and cheese biscuit squares really turned a corner for my stomach, my morale and helped keep my pace going. The only issue was that the chicken soup became more ‘real’ at later aid stations – where I had to sieve out with very big chunks of breast!
The Race – The Dark Mountain
Through 90 miles, the headtorch and high viz were on and the mountain climb was weighing heavy in my thoughts. Some previous spartathletes had said it wasn’t too bad. But ultimately a 1200m ascent and descent of Mount Parthenio in the dead of night was going to be a challenge at this stage of the race. It started with a constant road climb switching back and forwards – approx. 1hr40 of climbing, around 6 miles at 5.6%. I mixed this up with half run, half walk, taking the opportunity to recharge my watch. I was in reasonable spirits when I got to the top of the road section and met Michelle and Sophie at “Mountain Base”. But then it dawned on me – we were about to head off road – to what looked like near vertical trail into the heavens with zig-zagging lights leading the way! At the top was where Pheidippides apparently had an encounter with the God Pan – this only led to my feeling of trepidation! Michelle convinced me to change to my long sleeve fleece and pop a coat in my pack. I decided to keep my Alphaflys on – they had just been so comfortable up until now so it didn’t seem worth a change for a relatively short trail section. A climb always looks worse than it is, especially at night, and after a ‘hands on knees hike’ of around 30mins, the mile at 20% soon passed and I had a little sit in the gazebo at the top (100 miles in 19hr42). No God Pan tonight! After chunder #3, it was then a ‘let it go’ scramble back down, the Alpha’s holding their own quite well, before hitting the road once again.
For the rest of the night it was a chilly (down to about 8oC), foggy and very lonely run across what seemed like Ikley moor (actually the ‘Plains of Tripoli’). I recall singing ‘”On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at”” very loudly, perhaps my one ‘moment’ of insanity! It was here I had some deep thoughts about my dad, and mum too, which drove me on through the cold mist. Wild dogs have been widely reported for this race – I did see a few and maybe some hallucinations of howling ’wolves’ in dark woods!
The Race – Sunrise
At around 120 miles (24hrs21), the sun beautifully resurfaced to signal the second day of running. It was so great to see Michelle and Sophie. It seemed they too had an adventure ‘sleeping’ in a cold Opel Corsa, apparently with a wild dog circling them! I pushed on, feeling quite strong on a mix of cheese squares, some coffee, small sips of gel and back on the nut butters. The sun quickly started to warm my cold hands (forgot to put gloves on), and suddenly the temperature was rising. I was still in my long sleeve thermal and starting to cook! I got confused with where I was going to meet the crew for a change and almost had a full meltdown at CP63 when I realised I needed to wait another 4 miles. I channeled my frustration into running and chucked in a 9min mile! Once back in my ‘hot weather’ gear it was time to push on with the final section.
After another substantial road climb taking me to about 130 miles, from there it is a long decent in Sparta and I knew I was going to make it. My calculations indicated I would beat my 32 hour target. It was becoming really hot now, so it was a mix of maintaining some speed, while trying to stay cool and hydrated.
The Race – The Home straight
About 10 miles out from the finish was where I had my strongest emotional moments, about what this achievement meant and releasing everything from the last few weeks. Perhaps I was subconsciously off-loading to ensure I enjoyed the finish as much as I could. I entered Sparta and there famously the local children on bikes start to flank you into the town. I picked up the Union Jack flag at CP74, met Michelle and Sophie and ran along the loooong finish straight. The whole town are out, shouting Bravo and clapping. Lots of children were now encircling me, offering small bouquets of wild flowers and running joyously alongside. It’s amazing how (for the whole route) the local population know what this journey means to their history and support you like you are a hero. Beeping horns, clapping, shouting “Bravo” and children asking for autographs!
I reached the statute of the Spartan King Leonidas (after a few steps to contend with) and “kissed the foot”, the symbolic end of the race! I felt like royalty and a huge sense of achievement! Finishing 31hrs04 was about an hour ahead of my tentative target. First Brit male, 74th overall, 56th male. 252 of the 379 starters finished which is quite a high proportion against historical races. It had gone pretty much as well as it could of. No real blisters or niggles, and actually I didn’t have any significant ‘dark’ patches. I’m not sure I’m ever going to ‘train’ my stomach to tolerate these endurance feats. It’s always a worry when I’m retching up every last ounce of fluid in my stomach – if I don’t get nutrition back in, it will be game over. While ‘puke and rally’ may be the best I’ll manage, I’ll continue to search for the perfect nutrition plan!
As I recovered in the medical tent on a drip(!), it made me think about the perspective of Pheidippides’ run. Yes I had achieved what he had, but over very different surfaces, with modern footwear and nutrition – and without the future of a nation at stake! And he ran back to Athens afterwards! The next day I only managed the infamous 400 metre under pant run….
I have to thank and totally dedicate my run to my family. Remembering what my parents did for me, was naturally poignant for this run. And more directly, the massive support from Michelle and Sophie. Bravely driving into and out Athens, up a mountain pass (with a 3-point turn at the top) and surviving the night – all in a substandard Opel Corsa hire car! And it did not stop there – a day later I needed some looking after when I developed a chest-infection – probably a combination of breathing in polluted air and succumbing o the bugs flying around.
Of course to add my thanks too, to the organisers, volunteers, the British team, and the BST’s sponsors including Pura Collagen.
So how do I follow this amazing experience, and my lifetime goal of Kona last year? A very good question! Continuing to enjoy triathlon and running, I still think there are many more things to look forward to, even if they are less iconic. Heading for the trails and hills in 2024 – The Arc and ‘Dragon’s Back’ will no doubt offer lots more fun to come!