Spartathlon, a 246km (153 miles) race from Athens to Sparta in Greece. https://www.spartathlon.gr/en
My first ever blog post is about this great race and my DNF. This is only my 2nd DNF in 32 ultramarathons and after three weeks I am still gutted. My other DNF was Thames Ring in 2017 after 134 miles. In both cases a problem with my left lower leg seemed too much to overcome. Both are unfinished business and I will return to both races in the future.
It has taken a while to write this race report but I needed to get it down and exorcise the ghost.
I had looked forward to this race for a long time, one of the most iconic ultras in the world, inspired by the messengers of ancient Greece, the original ultra-runners. The race is a homage to Pheidippides, the messenger that ran from Athens to Sparta to ask the Spartans to help the Athenians defend against the Persians. They may have said “No”, but Pheidippides did run to Sparta and back then to the Battle of Marathon before running back to Athens again and falling over dead. He had run 358 miles in only a few days with little rest, the poor guy.
I was treating the race with respect as I considered it one of the most difficult races I have run. After the ballot in February I was on the wait list, so thought it was not for me this year. Roz Glover said “do not give up hope as people will drop out” and just as she said, I was given one of the British team’s places in May. There are only a limited number of places on the start line for each country, so as soon as I found out, I planned out the details, resolved to train hard and even engaged an ultra-running coach for the first time, Andy Brooks (https://www.peakrunning.co.uk/coaching)
Following a 16-week training plan set by Andy I felt my fitness and confidence building. We even built-in my Centurion 100-mile Grand Slam races and the Endure 24-hour race near Leeds. I had also completed 2000 running miles since the beginning of the year with peak training weeks (not counting TP100, SDW100 and NDW100) getting to 85 miles, so I felt I had the mileage in my legs. Spartathlon veterans had advised that the number one tip for success was high weekly mileage with a significant amount on road. Everything was going smoothly until I got the flu two weeks before the race, which laid me up for a whole week with no running for 5 days. As I packed for Greece it seemed like the virus had gone and I had recovered in time to run the race, but it had knocked my confidence.
Arriving in Greece
We arrived 6 days before the race and I ran with Ian Thomas behind the beach in Glyfada, a glamorous suburb of Athens, for a few runs totalling about 40 miles. It was great running and chatting with one of my inspirational idols and a Spartathlon veteran. Ian and Gill, his wife, were a large part of why I entered Spartathlon and why it became my top goal after they told me all about it at the Barcelona 24-hour race in December 2016 when Ian and others were trying to get an automatic qualifying time (AQ) for Spartathlon.
I probably overdid those runs with Ian by pushing too hard at too fast a pace, and I did suffer hamstring tightness in the days before the race because of those runs. This may have been a contributing factor to my troubles on the second day. I should have tapered and rested, but after taking a few days off because of illness, I needed to test myself in the heat. As it neared race day, it became clear we would not need any heat acclimatisation.
It was great to meet all the team as they arrived for registration on the Wednesday and Thursday and Chris Mills took this great picture of the British runners and their support crews.
The morning of the race I felt good, my training had gone well, I had slept and rested for a few days and apart from the flu two weeks before everything had gone to plan. I got on the coach at the Fenix Hotel at 6am sitting next to the wonderfully unassuming Cat Simpson, glad to share our last-minute race prep. I knew I would not see Cat again until the end, as she would be off fast competing at the sharp end. This proved true and she finished in an amazing time of 28:52:03 as 5th lady and 3rd Brit.
The thing I was most concerned about was the cruel cut-offs which ensure that only 50-60% of the field finish, despite it already being an élite ultrarunner field. Every one of the runners has exceeded the exacting entry requirements which include finishing a 100km race in under 10 hours or a 100-mile race in under 21 hours. That only qualifies you for the ballot, if you want to automatically qualify then you need to be 20% under that! I qualified by running the Grand Union Canal Race in 33 hours 11 minutes, 145-miles from Birmingham to London. Each and every one of the 75 checkpoints has a cut-off time to keep pushing you forward to make sure you finish in under 36 hours. You must reach checkpoint 11 which is 26.2 miles, the first marathon, in under 4 hours 45 minutes and you must cross Corinth Canal to complete the first 50 miles in under 10 hours. Running 52 miles in 10 hours is a decent pace, but I also have to think about the 100 miles more I need to run. https://www.spartathlon.gr/images/stories/Speed-Tables-eng.pdf
My race plan that I shared with my crew before the race was to reach CP11, 26.2 miles in under 4 hours and CP22, just after Corinth Canal at 50 miles in under 9:15. I also told Lucy and the rest of my support crew; Gareth my brother and Graeme my ultra-running buddy, that I would see them at the Acropolis. This was my first rookie mistake, as when I arrived I could not find them anywhere, so after waiting in the car park unsuccessfully for them, I walked up to stand with the rest of the British team. Generous Pete Summers swapped me one of his GB Union Jack buffs for my yellow Tour de France one, after I realised that I had nothing on me that marked me as a British runner. Thanks Pete, that really helped.
It was raining at the start but I didn’t really notice it, but looking at the photos of the start and the first 20 miles it was definitely very wet. I think I just forgot about it, as this early rain paled into insignificance when the storm really hit on Friday evening. I did think that was not good, as it could increase the chance of groin and foot chafing issues.
Everything was set as the crowd excitement mounted. There were photographers in the trees and loads of supporters, but just us runners behind the epic start line, as the countdown began. I have never felt tension like this at any ultra-event before.
Start to Megara
At dead on 7am we were off! Running down the narrow cobbled road before we left the grounds of the Acropolis I thought I would take advantage of the trees for a quick wee. By the time, I was running again all the runners had passed me and I was the last person to cross the timing mat at the bottom of the hill. All my best races I have started at the back and worked my way through the field, so this boded well, or so I thought.
The first couple of miles was all on traffic free cobbled roads and everyone seemed relaxed including me. Then we hit the busy rain-soaked Athens streets but thanks to all the police it is fairly stress-free as they hold back the traffic. Horns blare, not sure if in anger or encouragement, but I suspect the former, as Friday morning rush-hour was grid-locked by 387 runners. I am following and then running with Matt Blackburn and John Melbourne at this point but lose touch and don’t see them again until after the race.
I was soon working my way through the field passing Darren Strachan and James Ellis. After a brief chat, we powered up the first of many hills and we worked our way through the Athens suburbs. A taste of things to come. Here is me looking happy as I lead a group of runners up these hills near Elefsina.
We soon drop down along the coast next to the first of several smelly oil refineries, thank god there is wind and a steady drizzle. In the heat that smell would be horrendous. Around here I catch Bob Hearn from the USA, a friend of the British team, running with another fast American. I run with him for a bit to introduce myself, but their pace is too quick for my liking so I let him go. Bob finishes the race, I later find out, in 12th place in 28 hours 46 mins.
I then ran with a Finnish lady called Henrietta, past a military base with an array of old cannons and ant-aircraft guns, like an outdoor museum. I think this is around CP8.
Just before CP9 in the town of Naraki I passed Dean Karnazes, he said he had just been hit by a passing car in the crowded streets. I asked him if he was ok, he said he was shaken and it had slowed him down. I was running well and couldn’t do much for Dean, so I said my goodbyes and sped off.
Soon I was coming up the hill into CP11, Megara and I could see Graeme taking photos of me with his SLR camera and I knew would get my first hug from Lucy. I was glad to get the first marathon out of the way in 4:00:03, 15 minutes ahead of schedule
Megara to Corinth Canal
Along the coast Paul Ali and Dave Barker passed me on some short climbs during my first and only low patch. After eating and downing a gel I regained my mojo.
I played leapfrog with a Japanese runner who spoke no English but smiled every time I passed him. Somewhere around here I went throught AGIOI THEODORI CP18 in 06:21:28, 30 mins ahead.
I was glad to see and pass Paul Ali a few miles before the second crew checkpoint (CP22). It was on fairly flat section and to be honest I had been pissed-off when he cruised past earlier, but I suppressed my glee when I saw Paul’s face, as he looked like he was going through a gritty patch, even though he said he was fine.
Before long I was at the Corinth Canal, such an iconic point in the race. I was so concentrating on the crowd of people and photographers at the far end of the bridge that I forgot to look down. Luckily I have these photos to show me.
After the canal you go up a long gentle hill to reach CP22, Ancient Wall the Hellas Can Factory in 07:52:46, an hour and 20 minutes ahead of schedule! I was feeling good and not worried about the pace at all, it felt comfortable. I was glad to see Graeme taking pictures with his SLR and I turned the corner for a big hug from Lucy, captured in this lovely photo. After a quick rice pudding, I was off again.
I couldn’t believe that we had cool conditions and some light rain which had made it ideal running conditions for us British runners. I don’t remember seeing anyone from the British team in this section.
Corinth to Nemea
The narrow road continues on to Examilia and Ancient Corinth, descending through the centre of Ancient Corinth (CP26) with lots of crowds and dry weather. I was glad to see my crew, as I knew I would see them regularly from now on.
After ancient Corinth I passed the Temple of Apollo and continued through citrus orchards to Assos (CP28 100.5 km), with a time of 10:08:44. Here begins the ascent of the hills to Ancient Nemea. Along this narrow winding climb (351 meters in 24 kilometres) the road passes through the villages of Zevgolatio and Halkion to checkpoint 35, entering Nemea (124 km) alongside the ruins of Greece’s ancient civilization and its recently excavated stadium. I arrived at Nemea in 13:10:06, currently 10th British runner.
Many of the children come out on the streets as you pass through their village to wish you luck and most of them are brandishing autograph books. You have to stop for some of them, but you couldn’t stop for all of them. The poor children who got mine would realise the next morning that mine was worthless as a non-finisher, sorry kids.
Nemea to Lyrkia
After leaving Nemea the heavy torrential rain started and did not stop for the next 24 hours, as the Medicane Cyclone Zorba hit (a category 1 hurricane).
Continuing on a country road where conditions have changed little in the past two decades; it is easy to trip on the stones and potholes that are perpetually scattered along the road. It was now dark and the rain made it chilly. A shelter in the darkness was the village of Malandreni (140.2 Km) before another stony descent and brief climb close to the north-south E65 Trans-Peloponnese highway and checkpoint 43 at Lyrkia village (148.5 Km). Lyrkia was a lively spot overflowing with runners and supporters packed into the café and under the covers out of the pouring rain.
The roads in this area were awash with streams coming down the mountainsides and running across the road before flowing off the other side further down. The roads were rivers of brown as they carried the soil from the mountain with them. I had given up on trying to keep anything dry- I was soaked.
Lyrkia To Mountain Base
Leaving the aroma of coffee and soup behind I followed the road, which winds steeply upwards, quickly leaving civilisation behind with the main road orange light visible at the top of the valley. In the next 13 km I climbed some 960 meters (3,150 ft) to reach the head of the Sangas Pass on the flank of the Artemission range. I ran with Carl Howels quite a lot in this section until I reached Kaperelli village (95.75 miles) and I stopped briefly for a minestrone soup after mistakenly thinking we were at Mountain Base.
The climb from Kaperelli to checkpoint 47 at Mountain Base snakes up with never-ending switchbacks. It is steep, so I marched all the way up. I later learned that Alistair Higgins, the first British runner, ran all of this. Hats off to Alistair. He deserved his amazing time of 26:10:44 for 10th place. I reached checkpoint 47 at Mountain Base (99 miles) in 18:55:35
For the first time in the race I felt a bit tired and needed an extended stop to eat soup and biscuits with tea before heading back out into the rain and the steep climb up Mount Parthenion. I offended Lucy somehow, so she went to the car and Graeme tended to my needs. I was a bit apprehensive and excited as I had heard that virtually everyone that reaches the top of the mountain finishes the race.
Mountain Base to Nestani
As I left the checkpoint I was vaguely aware of a runner collapsed on one of the camp beds to my right. I later found out it was David Barker who had left shortly before me. It transpired it was only a temporary wobble because he passed later on and finished the race. I didn’t consciously notice David, as my mind was focussed on the job in hand: the climb up the single track via a series of very steep switchbacks. I was glad it was dark, as I am not good with exposure and despite the rain the path was good as long as you avoided the occasional slippery bit of mud. I did wish I had decent trail shoes in this section, as I was not confident in the my road-going Hoka Clifton 5’s for technical trails.
The mountain summit was soon reached with a lot of power walking and it was blowing a gale, so I declined any assistance or cup of tea from the checkpoint at the top. After giving my number I was off again on the long descent to Sangas village. The track on this side was wider and more runnable, zigzagging with switchbacks covered in large stones and on the corners yet more slippery mud. I ran as fast as I could but with more caution than normal. Again, thinking I wonder how fast I could have gone in trail shoes.
The downhill seemed to take longer than the uphill section, but was probably just my mind playing tricks. I tried to push the running and probably this is where my achilles injury flared up. As I ran into Sangas I felt great and elated that the worst was over, little did I know. Soon the route again joined the paved road for a fairly flat and ‘fast’ run to checkpoint 52 at Nestani (107 miles). I reached Nestani with a time of 21:22:02.
Nestani to Tegea
From Nestani I crossed the plains of Tripolis and passed through a succession of small hamlets and the village of Zevgolatio of Arcadia.
I was passed by David Barker and Rodrigo Freeman during this section, as I started to feel injured with tightness in my hamstrings, calves and achilles. The worst was a intense pain from my right foot centred around the ball of my foot and toes. My feet had got so wet it felt like they were developing little splits. I was in agony. My race was quickly unravelling.
Making my painful way through flat farmland in the mist and torrential rain to checkpoint 60 at Tegea (195 km). It seemed to take forever and I could hardly walk let alone run. I think I was sobbing at this point and crying out in pain every time my right foot hit the ground. I reached Tegea at 25:29:22
At the checkpoint I dried my feet and got the doctor to treat them with magic cream, put dry socks on and some bigger shoes. After the pain from my right foot had subsided I realised that had been blocking the achilles and other tendon pain from my left ankle which was swollen and painful.
I asked Lucy to walk out of the checkpoint with me and I found I could hardly walk. After trying to run and only managing a slow hobble we returned to the checkpoint and I handed my number into the officials.
I still do not know why the hell I did not just walk to the next checkpoint and see how I felt after that, as I was far enough ahead of the cutoffs to have bloody crawled it. I think in my mind I thought I had done something serious to my achilles and I was worried I was going to do permanent damage; risking months off running.
After the Race
As soon as I pulled out I felt relief that I did not need to carry on through the pain, but I also felt very sad. Over the next two days the reality came rushing in and I realised I was going to have to go to all the celebratory dinners and prize giving as a failure. I don’t think I have felt that low. It was great to see all the British Team succeed and was great to hear about all the great performances from Alistair Higgins, Nathan Flear, Cat Simpson, John Melbourne, Matthew Blackburn, John Stocker, Dan Masters, Carl Howells, Peter Summers, David Barker, Laurence Chownsmith, Ian Thomas, James Ellis, Martin Bacon, Stuart Shipley and Darren Strachan. Congratulations to you all.
Also, commiserations to the others that did not make it Paul Ali, Matt Brand, John Volanthen, Mihalik Norbert, Russ Tullett, Peter Vermeesch and Riccardo Giussani- we shared the pain.
The team spirit and camaraderie with ultra runners is always amazing and warm, but in the British Spartathlon it was that times a hundred. I loved being part of it. I can’t believe I fell apart after such a promising start with only 20% of the race distance remaining.
61% of the field finished in those hurricane conditions. A testament to the quality of the field due to the stringent entry requirements which keep getting harder, so only the best ultra-runners in the world toe the line. I am privileged to have been one of them. I just wish I had also been one of the finishers. Only 32 miles separated me from that. Why could I not have crawled that distance in 10.5 hours? I was obviously not thinking straight.
Maybe next time I will get to wear my Welsh flag and kiss the foot of the Statue of Leonidas.
Within days my legs started to feel better and it transpired I had tendonitis where the sheath of my Achilles tendon had became very inflamed. Once all the inflammation and swelling had subsided a week later, I tried a little testing run and it went well. This meant that my final race in the Centurion 100 Grandslam was on and I would be toeing the line for the Autumn 100 in Goring just two weeks after pulling out of Spartathlon. Would having 121 miles in my legs prove too much and would I need to DNF again? Find out in my next post…
Lessons I Have Learned
- I loved the race, so I will be back. This is big unfinished business.
- Respect virus recovery, as a crippling cold/flu 2-weeks before the race will vector your immune system and mean you are not 100% fit.
- Do not go running medium or hard in race week. If I must run then very gentle jogs at Sparta pace or below. Running with Ian too fast could have contributed to my Achilles problems, as I had not got rid of the tightness in my hamstrings or the piriformis.
- Make sure I take my massage stick and foam roller for pre-race week intense massage and in-race if I have a crew.
- Put drop bags every 10 checkpoints. Every 5 checkpoints was too often.
- Include a bin liner in every drop bag in case of torrential rain.
- Carry a decent rain jacket. This was one of the things I did right this year.
- If conditions are wet then coat feet in petroleum jelly before they get wet to stop them getting wrinkly and macerated.
- Do not drop out if you can still hobble or walk and you are ahead of the cutoffs. Walk to next CP and see if it eases or gets better.
- Train to run more of the hills. People like Al Higgins, Nathan Flear and Cat Simpson have taught me that you can make up a lot of time by running those uphill sections.
- Find a savoury carb-rich food I can pack in my drop bags. Getting better, but I get fed up of the sweet stuff.
Photos courtesy of Graeme Boxall, Chris Mills and Sparta Photography Club. Thanks