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Tuesday
Nov032009

Spartathlon 2009 - Race Report

 

Apologies for how long this is. I don't really write this kind of stuff for anyone else but myself. I want to read this again in years to come and laugh at how stupid I was. I don't want to forget anything. Forgive the rambling, spelling and repeats. 

 

12 hours later


There are low points and high points to every big race I have done. They can come before, during or after the race. Last years GUCR I felt some crippling lows which were washed away by euphoric highs before the finish. I spent the days after just glowing whenever I thought about what I did. I was absolutely sure that this was the case in every big challenge that I'd put myself up against.
Last night I couldn't sleep. Despite being close to collapse on more than one occasion during the 35 hours I was plodding towards a statue I could not drift off. My body was broken, right foot swollen worse than I have ever seen, right shin felt splintered and broken. I could not lift my leg off the ground and the left was in no position to help out. Somehow I got a kidney infection which required me to get up very frequently and go to the toilet. When I did it felt like I was pissing razorblades and there was blood. The journey to the toilet was horrific. Several times I considered not getting up at all.

All the clothes I wore in the race are in the bin. 2 pairs of trainers, 3 tops (including 2 Serpie ones). I felt like I needed to burn them to cleanse myself of the race.

The pain was more than that though. I had spent 15 hours of Saturday battering my brain trying to calculate whether I was going fast enough to finish, working out worst case scenarios or "the point" where I could walk and still finish. Even after I had I still was going through all this in my head. What if I got the injury earlier? What if the sun came out on day 2? What if what if what if?

I've found that ultras have a way of breaking you into little bits and then the effort of finishing builds you back up into a greater person than when you started. This was certainly my experience in previous races, but right now I was still in pieces. I looked at my injuries and could not see how they were going to get better. I tried to think about some of the high points of the race but could not find any. The start line seemed to already be etched onto my long term memory even though I had barely slept since then, it seemed like an indeterminable time ago. 

I found it hard to accept all the congratulations I was getting from the people I was around because I still haven't come to terms with what has happened. I am feeling no joy or satisfaction from what I've done in the past 48 hours, only pain and a fear of not recovering. For the first time in my life I'm asking myself "why?" I have no answer, which leads me to think that this should be the end of it. 

The Race

Mark Cockbain, Me, Nick Lewis, Stuart Shipperly. Nick and I were the lambs to the slaughter.

We got a bus down to the Acropolis in Athens at 6am on Friday. The race was due to start at 7 from the historic centre of town. The sun was rising on what was going to be 2 hard days of running. I knew from the start that this was going to be the hardest thing I've ever attempted and that more would be between me and the finish line than in anything I have ever started before. 153 miles of non-stop running of rolling hills on Greek highways from Athens to Sparta. The temperature can get very high and there is little shade. This is unremarkable for some of the big hard ultras out there, others can boast better extremes. Badwater is run in a furnace, WS 100 and UTMB have their hills, The GUCR has Milton Keynes. However the Spartathlon is unique in enforcing a time limit which eliminates many of the field each year. 36 hours and strict cut-offs in between. In any other ultra you can go through a bad patch and slow down/stop and "take it easy", not in this one, you have to keep going, otherwise you are out.

I didn't let these things worry me from the start though. I was in good spirits. John T (4th Spartathlon) made a comment that I looked blissfully unaware of what was coming up. Like a happy dog being taken to the vets to be put asleep, stroked and fussed over like a "good boy" before being given an injection. I had an inkling of what was up ahead but little more than that. 

"Too much knowledge can hold you back. Ignorance on the other hand, that was something that could get you to the finishing line" - Mark Will-Weber

I spent the 2 days before the race feeling like "Junior". Everyone I met here is doing their umpteenth Spartathlon. Not only that but "Badwaters", "UTMBs", "Western States", "Hardrocks" and "Trans-US" were just being thrown into conversations without any hesitation or even much acknowledgement from others. It was typical for someone's running CV to read "5 Badwaters, 4 Western States, 8 Spartathlons, a Trans US and some other fun runs". My 2 canal runs felt a bit pedestrian. These were both shorter than the Sparathlon, flat and with all the time in the world to complete them. No pressure in the big scheme of things. Over the past 18 months I had got used to being one of the more "experienced" runners in events that I did, today I was a baby. John Price, an American I met had been running ultras since before I could walk. It was great to be in such good company though. 

The race started bang on 7am to a countdown of 10 and then off through the cobbled path of the park and into the city. The roads are all closed to traffic while 300 odd runners heave through the city. They all seemed much more patient than I thought they'd be. I chatted to John T about his previous attempts. This was his 4th go and was hoping for a 2nd finish. I mentioned that I'd only ever been to Athens before for the Athens Marathon in 2006. He said that he thinks he ran that one too. After some more chatting I said "I'm going to let my youthful exuberance take over" and ran on ahead wishing him luck. I went ahead and suddenly a thought popped into my head.

The Athens Marathon would normally be such an forgettable race except that it was a landmark in my own journey as a runner. It was the day when I realised that there is so much more to running than marathons. I spoke to many people along the way including a couple of British guys in fancy dress who mentioned a race they were training for called "The Sparathlon". I asked what it was and they explained and I dismissed this as idiocy. How on earth can someone run that? As soon as I looked it up it became something I had to do, but would need several years to get up to that level. I wondered whether it was John who I spoke to? Was he the person responsible for getting me into this?

Soon we were joined by traffic and headed out of Athens along a very busy road. The heat was starting to rise and the cars whizzing past would have made it worse. I was running close to Peter Leslie Foxall (14th Spartathlon) and Mark Cockbain (4 Spartathons, 4 Badwaters, 1 double Badwater, Trans 333 and more ultras that I've had hot dinners). We were running at a similar pace but spaced apart. It was nice to have some familiar faces around.
Quite early on I had some stiffness in my groin. I'd stop every few miles and sit down to try and stretch it out. I resisted the temptation to sit at a bus stop in case people thought I was giving up already. For 3 months before the race I suffered a bit from tight achillies which would go away after a few miles. I knew that these little niggles would go away with a little warm up, like 30 miles.
The heat was rising, I was wearing my stupid looking sun hat I got from the Picnic Marathon. I commented at the start of the race that I was wearing nothing that would identify me as being British, other than just looking like a dickhead. The other Brits agreed, I did look like a dickhead, and hence I did look British. The hat was actually very very useful, each checkpoint would have a bucket of water with sponges in. I would just dunk the hat in and put it back on. I remembered to plaster my body in sun cream which I had forgotten to my cost on the canal in May. I did get quite hot (34 degrees) but I was dealing with it well.

The first marathon was completed in about 3.47. 

About 30 miles in,

Exactly 4 years ago I ran the Berlin Marathon in exactly the same time, and that was a pb and I could not move any more after that. I've changed somewhat since that time when I nervously took to the streets in Berlin. I like thinking about things like this. I imagined going back to me 4 years ago and saying at the end of the Berlin Marathon that in a few years I'll carry on running, for nearly 5 more marathons, without stopping. Back then I would have choked on my Weissbeer, now I was doing it. And loving it.

The first marathon is pretty flat, soon after the hills begin. I had a "plan" to break this race down into 3 50's (ignoring the 3 at the end for now). My dream race would be to do the first 50 in 8, second in 10 and third in 12 hours. The third 50 had the mountain and would have taken a lot longer.

At around 28 miles there was the first significant incline that I could recall. A winding road through some industrial estate with rail tracks everywhere. The day was still young and everyone was still in the mood for running. I only saw one person walk up the hill. I was still near Mark and Peter as a camera van passed me and then started to record me running up the hill. I felt the urge to run faster and shout things. By the top of the hill I had a stitch but didn't want to stop as I'd look like (more) of an idiot. Mark caught up at a checkpoint and ran straight through it. I was stopping at each one only to drink water and dunk my hat. 

I chatted to Mark and he vented his frustration of the first 40 miles of the race. "They are really boring, I just want to get through the first 40 then it's OK". It was true, the first miles were not much to look at, it was all on roads though now we were on a quiet one. There was no cover from the sun though which was taking it's toll on some. I was right about giving the niggles 30 miles or so, after that my legs felt great. On about 35 miles I decided that I was feeling good enough to up the pace a bit as I'd slowed over the hills. 

In all long ultras I have done I've experienced "purple patches", pockets of time in a race where running just feels really easy. My last one was after 70 miles of the GUCR this year where I felt like I was flying through the miles. It happened before at 125 miles, there is no reason to it. When your body appears to be working in harmony though I think it's good to take advantage and I did this after 35 miles. I said goodbye to Mark and ran on ahead, keeping a good pace for the next 15 miles.

I could see what Mark was on about, after 40 miles there are no more industrial estates but a road along the coast. The heat still bearing down but with a slight cool breeze from the Med coming across the running was a bit easier. There was still no shade though, we were always exposed. There was a rare bridge or bunch of tall trees that I would slow down in to cool down a bit. I was still dealing with the weather quite well and the dickhead hat was doing it's job. I tried the best I could to not hang around at the checkpoints.
I'd been warned that many failures in this race are due to hanging around the checkpoints too much. I've been told many times in many races to try and minimise times at checkpoints as you end up stiffening up and finding it really hard to get going again. This can affect your ability to run and potentially endanger your race. However the single biggest reason not to stop at checkpoints in the Spartathlon is because you just don't have the time.
Each checkpoint is furnished with a big board with some numbers on. The checkpoint number, how far you have gone, how far to go, distance to the next CP (all in km) and the closing time of that CP. This number is the most important for many runners, it could almost be a bus timetable. At that time a bus will come and collect anyone who happens to still be there. This in non-negotiable, you can't say "It's OK, I'll wait for the next one". If you get caught by this bus it means your race is over.

The Twat Hat - Around 40 miles

CORINTH - 50 miles 7.37

The ancient city of Corinth sits on the 50 mile point of the race and is a massive landmark of the race. The cut-off time of 9.30h is quite challenging for many, this represents a decent 50 mile time in it's own right. It's as if the organisers want to really push people at the start to eliminate those who may intend of running a constant and steady pace for the whole race. I suspect it is to clear the busy roads of runners before evening rush hour really kicks in. I got there in around 7.37, well inside the cut-off and probably faster than I have ever run 50 miles before.
Corinth is the first major aid station, it looks like a finishing area. There are chairs everywhere, food and water, massages, cameras and medics. This is the first point where those who have a support crew are allowed access to them. I sat down for 10 minutes and ate some rice before standing up and walking on. I just have to do that twice more, plus a mountain.
After 50 the route takes a more sceninc turn and goes through vineyards, still on roads. The runners are spaced out now enough that sometimes I can't see anyone infront. The route markings though are incredible, sprayed on in permanent orange paint on the road. It just shows how important this race is where the markings are made permanent, there are even big lines and crosses on turnings that you are not supposed to take. It is very hard to go wrong, though I did once and had an Italian runner to thank for shouting me back in the right direction.
I think I made 100k in about 10.30. A 10.30 100k is a qualification time to make it to the starting line in Athens. At this point I was running with a French guy who had only run 100k before. He said there was no way he was coming back to do this next year, it's just too far. It does sound crazy, 100k into a race and you know you haven't even started yet.

I never ran alongside someone for an extended period. This is my preference, I can't imagine running for so long and listening to the same person, plus all those around me are foreign and it can be hard to understand exhausted English. I was however always within sight of others and we would shuffle past each other regularly, usually pausing to say a few words. I spent some time running near a Japanese and a Korean Lady as well as an older Italian man. I could not really think of much to say. I decided I was going to hold off on saying "well done" or "keep going" and similar comments until a certain point of the race. I thought about this a bit, when say during a marathon is it acceptable to say "well done" and "good job" etc? At least half way surely. It can get a bit patronising when you hear "you're doing well" at 6 miles into a marathon. I decided not to say such things until it got dark, which would be around 80 miles. After that it wouldn't sound patronising.

The weather cooled and the route continued through small villages where the children were out in force. Kids would run up beside with pads and ask for autographs. I signed a few and they all seemed really grateful, there parents just sat in porches smoking and waiting for the sun to go down. Nice relaxing Mediterranean evening for them. Not for the rest of us.

There is a carnival atmosphere at the larger checkpoints which are positioned in bars or cafes in villages. There are lots of people (normal people) sat down eating and just watching the spectacle of runners coming in, throwing themselves into a chair and getting "mothered" by the helpers there. I was still trying to resist the mothering at the checkpoints but it is hard to refuse sometimes. I didn't want to offend those who have gone to the trouble of being there and making food. There is a lot of soup and other home made goodies that the residents provide and often massages too. I was asked at about mile 70 whether I wanted a massage and I said "no - that's cheating". 

A checkpoint by day

On arriving at one such checkpoint I asked for a toilet, only to be told that is was round the corner and downhill quite a bit. I was unlikely to last another 90 miles without a stop so down the slope I went. I started to realise that my quads were not going to cope very well with the downhill, something I'm never good at. I got to the toilet and in 3 gents and 3 ladies cubicles there was not paper. I then found a scrap of (I think clean) toilet paper and felt like I'd won the lottery. I didn't really need to include this bit in the race report I know, but little lifts like this can help you through.

The sun started to set. We are surrounded by mountains and the sun disappears very quickly. I left my headlamp at checkpoint 30 along with a long sleeved Serpie top and vest. The path starts to wind up a long hill which I am still able to run up. In fact I'm having another one of those purple patches where it all seems easy. For the first time the route goes off road onto a gravel track. I pass a few people along the way I try to make the most of the diminishing light.

There were several miles of roads with trees packed at either side. From the trees I could hear growling and barking, it was quite loud. It reminded me of a race report I read a while back about a runner being followed for 10 miles by a dog. I was warned that dogs "go a bit crazy" when it's dark. Greece has a lot of feral dogs which make a nuisance of themselves but don't cause too much trouble. When faced with a dog you realise how vulnerable you are, I wasn't in a position to fight back or run fast if the thing jumping and growling at my side decided to go for me. I was less worried about it hurting me and more worried about catching something. Did they have tetanus and rabies jabs at the checkpoints? This happened several times. I think with dogs you are just supposed to carry on as you are, don't run towards them or away, don't fear either cos they can smell it. Luckily I only smelled of sweat, piss and cheesy biscuits. 

It became pitch black quite quickly as I was still running on a gravel path with pot holes. I had a small hand torch as well as a head torch to light the dark path, there were lots of pot holes and a landing of just 1 extra inch really hurt. I started to get complaints from my right shin. This was going to be unlike the GUCR because there was a lot more night time, about 12 hours, from 7 till 7 rather than the 6 hours in England in May. It's hard to make much progress in the dark.

Comparing my time and conditions to the GUCR was a constant theme in this race. In May I staggered across the finish in 37 hours. I was really pleased to finish what was a really difficult race for me and took a lot of positive learning from it, however I realised that in that form I wasn't going to finish the Spartathlon. I had a lot of work to do. It became natural for me to compare my times to the canal race. After 40 miles in May I felt exhausted whereas after 50 miles here I felt fine. It took 24 hours to stagger to 100 in Tring whereas I was going to get this done comfortably under 20. All signs pointed to a good finish, I was a different runner than I was  4 months ago.

90 miles clocked up, a long decent towards the mountain. I had managed to run for most of the route so far but was now walking out of checkpoints and stopping sometimes to sit. I thought I'd built up a sufficient lead so far to take a rest every now and then. The long shallow downhill is where I realised that the day was going to be much longer than I'd have hoped. My quads would hurt as I went down and anything steeper would have to be walked. I had a short lift when the "KMs to go" number dropped into double digits. Less than a 100k to go? Almost there? Not at all, for 60 miles I ran towards a load of mountains and wondered which one I had to climb. Now I was nearly there I could not see the mountains tops any more, just walls of rock. There were quite a few sharp downs and ups into villages but it was pretty much all downhill to checkpoint 47 - 97 miles.

There is a small camp at the bottom of a road that hairpins up one of the mountains. It lasts about 2 miles and could be run if I weren't already knackered. I was starting to feel sleepy and needed my first coffee of the race at the CP. I left pretty soon and started a slow walk up the slope. I could see the distant light of other head torches in the distance and more behind. 

I left a drop bag with a change of shoes and socks just before the mountain. I sat down on a bed in the medical tent to change and there was a guy who looked out of it lying next to me. I asked someone if he was having a nap and carrying on or waiting for the bus. They didn't know and almost as they said that he just turned over and vomited, still sleeping. People rushed to clear him up and make sure he was ok. I didn't see him again.

350 runners started this with 350 strategies for how to get through it. Mine was the simple 8/10/12 split which was falling apart now as I struggled through the middle section. Others would try to reach the cut-offs just in time. Afterwards I spoke to someone who was getting to the checkpoints within minutes of the deadline, when getting to this one with minutes to spare he gulped some water and food and raced on, only to stop and be sick. That was the end of his race, not the vomiting but the time wasted doing so.

The path has no lights but there is a constant stream of support cars going up. It is comforting to have such a safety net, all the drivers are well aware of the condition some of the runners may be in and drive up very slowly, stopping occasionally to cheer. It was useful to have the headlights behind me for a few seconds, that was a few seconds I would not have to use the hand torch to light the path and look for pot holes. The lightening of this mental load was welcome, although it only lasted a few seconds.

A fucking long way

100 miles - 19.30 hours - Base Camp 

It takes a sadistic race director to decide to put a mountain climb in a race after 100 miles of rolling hills. 100 miles marks the end point of what many ultra runners will do, something about a big round number that seems so satisfying. It is a landmark for sure, but at the foot of a large climb I try to get out of my head that I'm sleepy, hurting and feeling sick and still have to run the Comrades ultra. 

On getting out of another chair at the checkpoint I was pointed towards a barely visible path that departed the road. The climb is about 3k of loose rock up to an altitude of 1200m. As soon as I was on the path I was taken aback by a sea of green and red light that lit the place up like a Christmas tree. I could always see which way to go but often not the path I was treading on. Mark mentioned before the race that the mountain was a hands and knees scramble. I didn't believe him until this moment. Some of the rocks needed intervention from the hands to get over.

At least this woke me up a bit, having to concentrate of every foot landing as I scrambled up the mountain energised me a little. I was still physically tired but had a brief adrenaline spike that made this task seem easier than I thought it would. I was still going slowly and getting overtaken frequently by the European mountain goats who get to play on this kind of stuff in their back gardens. 

According to the legend this is where Phidippides met the god Pan. He went over the mountain to avoid Argos who were hostile to Athens (and also because he had no need for a new toaster). I wondered how on earth he could scramble up this mountain 2500 years ago without the lighting that I was enjoying. If he carried a flame he would have had only one had to stop himself from falling, or maybe he just ran in the moonlight. Perhaps he fashioned a head torch somehow? That would be a health and safety hazard waiting to happen, particularly as he had long hair. Distractions like this meant I got to the top quicker (in my head at least) than I expected. 

I stopped and stepped aside a few times to let people who were much faster than me get up. The path was barely wide enough for one person and I'd often kick rocks as I scrambled up then look back to make sure it didn't hit anyone in the face. Some of the rocks would bounce off the side. I had no idea whether they would hit someone at the bottom.

At the top there is a CP where you are grabbed by a helper, sat down and then covered in blankets. I struggled to free an arm to drink a very sugary strong coffee and just spent 5 minutes looking back at what I'd just done. I could see for miles. I could see the long road path up to the mountain and some dim lights crawling up. I could see at least 3 villages in the distance that I'd run through and that would be alive still with the arrival and departure of others in the race. It was a breathtaking and humbling site to look back and see so much of the course that I'd just struggled over. Turning to my right I could then see the course on which I'd yet to struggle, including a treacherous downhill section.

"It used to freak me out when I threw up, now I don't even slow down" - Unknown

I'd spent a few hours now wanting to be sick. I wasn't sure whether it was going to happen, it never has done before. I tried to induce it sometimes by downing coke, coffee, soluble aspirin and all sorts. As I got out of the chair to start going down a guy scrambled up to the top of the mountain, went off to the side and puked everywhere before holding his hand up and yelling "OK" and then running on. I found it quite funny. Vomiting is a norm in this race, you have to eat salty and sugary crap constantly and it can take it's toll on the stomach. I didn't let my sick feeling stop me from eating, to stop eating would guarantee a DNF, to vomit would just be a minor inconvenience.

The downhill was tougher than the up, my quads screaming and my footing uneasy. I slipped a few times and had to stop quite a lot. I got overtaken by about 20 runners on this, I wasn't bothered by the positions but just the fact that my abysmal downhill was being exposed. I knew that only about 150 runners would finish this, so long as I was in the top 100 I felt like I was going to make it. If I'd dropped outside I'd start to worry. The fastest time I could expect to finish this in now fell from 30 to 32 hours.

One of the runners who overtook me was Peter who looked in good spirits. He was with Lisa Bliss who looked quite strong also given the circumstances. I can't remember what I said other than "Oh, Hi Peter". I don't think I let on that I was suffering a bit and I didn't want to either for 2 reasons. I didn't want to make myself feel any worse and I didn't want Peter or anyone else to feel bad for me.

"You can be out there having the worst day, but at the same time the person next to you is having their best day. So there's really no reason for crankiness in this sport" - Suzie Lister after '98 WS 100.

 Running in a race like this can feel a bit like being stuck in a lift. The feeling of being trapped and not knowing how long until freedom starts to grate on your mind. Everything becomes an invasion of your personal space, people in the street, cars, animals and even inanimate objects. By far the biggest of these invasions is the presence of other runners. 

When doing a race of such magnitude there is little worse than watching someone bound past you like it is no effort. Particularly if they want to chat to you about it. Only just worse than that is someone suffering more than you and complaining about it. It's hard to know what to say to people who look worse than you do.

But it works both ways. When Peter overtook me he looked fine and I felt rubbish. I didn't want to contaminate his race with my own suffering so put a brave face on it and didn't really say much. There would later be times in the race where I was on top and people around me were crawling. In these cases I would try my best not to rub it in, even feign suffering. 

"It's very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners. Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside your head that wants you to quit" - George Sheehan

I didn't want to make that voice any louder, me me or for others.

The bottom of the mountain seemed to take too long, the course went back onto the road and still carried on down. Eventually I arrived at another village and was again smothered by helpers giving me coffee and soup.

I got quite a lot of attention for being British at the CP's. Every one would have kids running around asking where I was from, I'd say London and they'd get all excited. For most of the race I was the first Brit through the checkpoints and always got into conversations about other family members who lived there. 

"Nobody should ever run a race where they are lapped by the sun"  

I was lapped as I ran on some very quiet roads surrounded by trees on all sides.  I managed to get back into a run (which from the outside looking in is a shuffle). I wasn't too concerned at this point about my pace so long as I felt like I was moving forward. I was trying to give myself as much time for the last marathon as possible. I'd feel comfortable knowing when I could just walk the rest of it. Right now It was looking like 10 hours. I could crawl a marathon in 10 hours surely?

As it got light it started to rain. I had left my sun hat behind at the checkpoint where I picked up my head torch. I had not left a replacement at any of the CP's and worried a bit about coping with the sun if it came out like it did the previous day. I had an idea to swap my head torch for a hat with some kid in one of the towns when it started to get hot. Fortunately it just pissed it down for 12 hours.

The sky was not the only thing that was pissing. I felt the constant need to go to the toilet and would stop every 5 minutes and mostly produce nothing. When it got lighter I discovered that I was pissing blood. The dehydration of my organs combined with the constant shocks of the impacts combined to shake them into bleeding. That's never happened before.

Back in daylight and in drizzle we were running on quiet roads cutting through farms. I had settled into a group of about 6 others who were shuffling at around the same pace I was. With 32 miles left I saw Peter again, I was surprised that I had caught him but he still seemed in good spirits. We had about 10 hours to make it the to end, Peter was setting off for a brisk walk and confident of making it the the end. 10 hours to do 32 miles? Should be fine.

With about a marathon to go I stopped at a CP near a house. By this time all of them are kitted with chairs and all have runners sat down and covered in blankets. I never could tell which ones were having a break and which ones were waiting for the bus. The bus was gaining on all of us. I saw a guy from Brazil with his head in his hands about to give up. He was convinced that the time we had left was not enough for him to get to the end. I then saw a German guy who I chatted to a bit kneel beside him (a manoeuvre that must have been hard in itself) and say to him "This time last year I was here and an hour behind where we are now and I walked to the finish. He said something else which I didn't hear as I was away in my own world trying to get straight how I was going to finish. The Brazilian got up and walked.

There are times when it is sensible to pull out of races. I'm not so stubborn that I'd finish any race whatever happened, risking months of inaction or worse. If I'd had been feeling like this much earlier on, say before the mountain I may have called it a day and waited for next year. However I was far enough into it now where I'd be devastated by not finishing. Watching the Brazilian guy get out of his chair and walk into the distance for a second brought the issue into sharp focus. There are only 2 ways out of this race, one is kissing a statue and the other is getting bundled onto a bus. A bus that was gaining all the time.

I overtook both the Brazilian and German and wished them luck as I did, now was the time to lavish each other in positive comments and pats on the back. I was constantly aware that the bus was catching up. I would run only to earn myself walking time. I had no idea how much more running I had in me but wanted to make some more gains on the cut-off before it got to the stage that I had to walk. The repeated argument in my head went as follows "The more you keep on running now, faster than 4mph the more you can walk near the end, but you are not going to walk because you can still run, so it's irrelevant. But just in case you need to walk, you have to run". Kind of made sense at the time, now it just sounds like a pile of shit.

The rain was welcome, at least for me as it reminded of home, however soon after my feet were blistered. I stopped on the highway to take my shoes off and put them back on again. This often works, like a placebo but didn't in this case, I had something on my left little toe that forced me to run on my left heel. I had a shin splint on the right side which meant I couldn't land on the heel. I'm not sure exactly how I managed to keep running. The toe blister would later take about half of my toe with it.

I also seemed to need to piss every 5 minutes. I was suffering a constant sensation of needing to stop to go to the loo. Most of the times I went I did not produce anything. There was a stinging sensation whenever I did and I realised that I must have picked up some sort of infection. The only positive was that as long as I was thinking about pissing I was not thinking about getting caught, for that was the most miserable and hardest part of the race.

It would go something like this. 

You see a checkpoint that tells you how far you've gone and how you've got to go. I'd then covert the kms into miles (with great difficulty, by this time I can't do division but I remember that 10k is 6.2 miles and a half marathon is 21k). I'd then try to work out what pace I'd have to run at to finish in 36 hours by only using the number of whole hours left (to make things seem worse than they are). After arriving at a number (usually around 3mph) I'd then try to work out how fast I was going but by then I'd have forgotten how far it was to the next checkpoint and could not measure this. There were km road signs which I'd try to use too but some of them were missing. Then when another checkpoint would arrive I'd look at how far it was to the next but then forget what time I'd left. 

This would spin around in my head like a sleepless night. I could not think about anything else, my mind was not allowed to wander into the usual silly things that get me through the hard times. I could not put this spinning calculation down but neither could I get it right. One time I would work out that I had hours to go and could probably start walking now, another time I'd think I was going so slow I was going to be caught my the cut-offs for sure. I'd sometimes just work it out wrong, sometimes I'd have stopped more and sometimes I just thought the checkpoints were further away than advertised. I suspect the latter was not true at all.

I didn't feel like I was going slower but I clearly was, the time between me and the closing times of the checkpoints was getting shorter. I knew it was only a matter of time before my leg would give way and not allow me to run any more. This happened with about 10k to go. 

Hobbling the last few steps

The last miles into Sparta are all downhill, really hard on my shin that felt broken. I was capable of a swift hobble which soon deteriorated into a limp. I could not lift my right leg off the floor and had to slide it along, like Kaiser Souze. I wasn't sure whether I was going to finish. I knew I was a couple of hours ahead of the closing times but now they were closing in on me. The rattling of my pace and time tore through my head worse than ever. 

Mark said to me after the race about feeling "trapped" once you have started. The difficulty of this race is forgotten over the course of the 12 months since the last time, then after about 80 miles it comes back, "oh yeah, now I remember, Now I'm stuck". If I was hurting this much before the mountain I would have given up since there was no way I would have been able to walk the rest.  I was still adamant that I'll only stop if I was stopped. Now this was looking more likely. I had a lot of time left of looking over my shoulder.

It got hotter as I slowed down, the rain disappeared and we came down back to sea level. I was still wearing 2 tops and becoming slightly more uncomfortable with the heat but not wanting to part with any clothes as I worried I might get cooler.

The last 30 miles are on a highway that gets busier and busier as the day progresses. I wouldn't ever dare to run on such a road normally, particularly against the traffic. There was a hard shoulder for most of it but there was the occasional blind corner and no shoulder which I'd have to cross the road for. I remember the green cross code as a child but now even getting to the other side of a road seemed like solving a riddle. Despite their speed most of the traffic saw the line of runners shuffling down the highway and would give plenty of space, and honk. Normally the honking would really annoy me but it was keeping me awake and alert.

CP 73 was next to a petrol station. It was supposed to be about 2.8km from the last one but it took over an hour to get there. I could not get up the kerb onto the pavement and had to look for the ramp. On getting to the table and having more coke and water I got the impression that the people there were quite concerned about me. On leaving the CP a lady took my arm and helped me down the step to get back onto the road and head for the last checkpoint. It was 1.4km to the next one then 2.5 to the end. 3.9km, well over 2 hours to do it. I can't fail now surely?

The highway went on but was now in town with buildings each side. I tried to visualise 1.4k in my head. It's about the distance from my house to Ealing Broadway station, a journey I have successfully completed many times, often when stupidly drunk. I was trying to figure out whether I was walking as slow as I would at my drunkest. Normally a 15 minute walk may take 20 if I am staggering from side to side. Can I really be going that slow? 

I looked down a straight bit of road and thought that it was at least 1.4km to the end of it. I stared into the distance and limped on. I was getting overtaken by lots of runners keen to get the race finished, every single one of them would shout something or slap my back as they passed me. Seeing them run so fast (relatively) made me feel like the end was really close. 

I'd look over my shoulder for the other Brits. I recognised a lot of people as they went past me, we'd shared lots of miles before and now they were in better shape than me and eager to finish. I too was eager to finish but my leg was not cooperating.

The first Brit to pass was Mark Wooley. He looked like he was absolutely flying, by far the fastest and most comfortable looking of all those who passed me. I said I was looking forward to kissing the statue and he said my time would very nearly come to do that. I didn't really know Mark beforehand but I found out this was his third attempt and was going to be his first finish. Despite overtaking me only 1.5 miles from the end he finished 30 minutes and 33 places ahead of me. Just shows how slow I was going.

I got to CP74, it was in the middle of an island of traffic. In 34 hours I had seen 74 identical tables of coke, water, figs, biscuits and chairs. This was the last one I was going to see and didn't make a big goodbye of it. I stayed as long as it took to cross the road.

I walked into a very busy street with people and cars. I was deafened by honking and cheering of cars and people. I was looking over my shoulder again to see if Mark and Nick were there, if they were going to finish they were cutting it fine. Then I saw Mark and the tall German guy coming up behind me with enormous smiles on their faces. Both were shuffling along slowly but twice as fast as I was. "Is this a race or is this a race?" said Mark as he hobbled alongside me. 

It felt really weird to think that I last saw Mark near the beginning of the race, yesterday. 

Mark said if we jogged then we were about 20 minutes from the end and able to finish before 35 hours. I explained that I could not jog and let them go ahead. I was glad there were people ahead, for the first time in the race I got worried about getting lost. The town was so full of screaming people and cars it would be easy to take a wrong turn. Fortunately I didn't, I took a turn and started on the home straight.

Up the slope I saw people, kids on bikes, runners and support crews all waving and cheering. I still could not see the statue but I knew that it was buried under a huge concentration of people. I watched Mark and the German guy head off and then disappear into the pile. I was there now, the threat of getting timed out was gone. It felt like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I was still walking like I was dragging a ball and chain but at least the ball and chain in my head was gone.
 
For the first time in about 10 hours I could relax and start to think about what I was doing and why. Long races give you lots of time to reflect on things, usually about running but often not. Inevitably you spend a lot of time trying to justify why it is you are putting yourself through this, what are you getting out of it? If I were to remember one thing about this what would it be?
 
I had these moments before in races [link] . Alone they can make a race seem worth it and worth coming back to do it again. I was trying to think of what it was in the Spartathlon and could not come up with anything. I looked ahead towards the finish and knew that the end was going to merely be the end of my suffering rather than a moment of elation. I felt nothing except pain and tiredness. I was just looking forward to stopping and never having to go through this again.
 
About 20 hours earlier I made a decision about whether I'd do this race again. It would have been based on one of three scenarios. If I didn't finish I would return every year until I did. If I did finish and loved it then I would return just to experience it again. If I finished and didn't enjoy it I would come back and do it again just to make sure. Right now I was suffering the last scenario but had changed my mind. I wasn't going to come back.
 
It was a shame. I never thought there was a race out there that could do me over such that I would not want to do it again. This is how I felt now. Despite the cheering crowds and sight of the finish I was thinking only of lying down and sleeping. I thought about that a lot since before the mountain climb. Then, right before the end my mind was flipped again by the moment I will take away from this race and remember forever. It summed the whole event up perfectly.
 
As I limped up the slope towards the statue to roaring support and seeing some people I recognise I was grabbed firmly around both shoulders from behind. I was startled and for a moment thought it could be some crazy person from the crowd, or a policeman apprehending me or worse still a marshall pulling me out of the race.
 
His grip was strong and it seemed to last for ages, I turned around to see that it was the Brazillian guy. 25 miles and about 8 hours ago I saw him dejected and as far as he was concerned out of the race. I watched a German talk him out of his chair (in English) and then both of them head off into the distance. Before my eyes I watched a broken man get back up and carry on and now I was going to watch him finish. I could see how much it meant to him as he practically sprinted the last few meters and kissed that statue. That was the best bit of the race.
The Brazilan with a very firm grip
 
My own finish was less spectacular. I limped on and saw some familiar faces in the crowd. I saw Nick, John, Stuart, James and Peter. On seing them I felt a combination of joy and sadness. I hadn't seen any of them for a while and for the first time I felt like I was back with people I knew and who knew me (a little). However I realised that they were not going to get to kiss the statue. I asked Nick how he got on and he refused to tell me, saying this was my moment now and pointed towards the statue. John shoved a British flag in my hand and I waved in in the air, confusing some around me who thought I was Spanish. 
I thought about kissing this statue for a long time. I'd watched videos of it in the weeks building up the the event, it was practically pornographic. To now be here and about to do what I had seen in the videos was amazing. For years I'd wanted to run in this unique race, for the past few months I thought about having the olive wreath placed on my head, for the past few weeks I thought only of kissing that statue and for the past 15 hours the thing that motivated me the most was just for the hurting to stop.
I crawled up the steps and tasted the metallic rain soaked foot of Leonidas, splattered over the past 13 hours with the sweat and tears of the 102 runners who got there before me. I drank the water from the XXXXXXXX river given to me by the spartan girls and then the race director placed the olive wreath on my head and shook my hand as our photo was taken. 
DONE
As soon as the ceremonies were over I was taken by the arm by a nurse and escorted to a medical area. I had a choice of sitting down or lying down. I was in the minority who decided to sit in a chair while my shoes and socks removed, my blisters lanced and then dipped in iodine. I was then given a pair of hotel slippers to hobble away in.
I looked into the tent and saw runners who had only overtaken me minutes before. Some of them were lying on the beds completely motionless, like they had just been pulled out of a plane wreck. It occurred to me that the level of medical cover in this event wasn't a precaution "just in case" something happened. I'd heard so many stories about runners passing out in the race and being picked up by other supporters or the bus. Mark told me about passing out in a lift after his first finish, half in half out with the doors closing on him. The stories of vomiting, hypothermia and collapsing are more common than stories of statue kissing. The reason why there are so many medics at this race is because passing out is normal. On completing the race they are expecting you to collapse.
I was helped up by Nick and then took the shortest taxi ride of my life, 200m to the hotel. I had to use my arms to pick my legs up into the front seat and then out again about 30 seconds later. Nick would have to hold open the lift doors as I was unable to get in before they started closing. I was then taken to the room that I was sharing with Mark and a Polish guy who could not speak English but would nonetheless shout at us quite loud.
I slumped into bed and waited for one of two things to happen. Either I wanted to just fall asleep and not have to suffer the pain of it any more or I wanted the point of the experience to sink in. Neither would happen and I just lay there sulking in pain. My legs hurt so much that no position was comfortable to lie in. I had to go to the toilet so often and was now pissing blood. It took so long and hurt so much to get up that I considered not getting up at all. When I did piss it felt like razor blades. 
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I didn't sleep that night. A combination of leg pain and the whirling of the pace calculations was still keeping me awake and making me sweat. Any dozy moments were quickly met with a feeling of still being in the race, still having to calculate how fast I was going and whether I was going to make it. I'd wake up from the slumber and then get reminded that my legs hurt so much and that I needed a painful piss.

The next day was no better. I could not lift my right leg off the floor and I was still tired. I struggled though everything, I looked around at the others and am convinced that I was the worst one. Everyone was sporting some sort of limp but few were as immobile as me. 

I spent the day after with about 4 other Brits and a few Americans. Between the 8 of us there was only one finish. Whenever someone came to our table and asked about the race I was pointed out as the one guy who got to kiss the statue. Normally I'd feel a great amount of pride, satisfaction, embarrassment and humbled at being revered by such great runners. Instead I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing, like I was without life. The only thing I did feel was physical pain, I could not stand or sit in the same position for more than a few minutes, my right foot and ankle were enormous. 

For the first time ever since I started running I was doubting why I did it. I've never suffered the "never again" cliche. As soon as I finished my first ultra I was signing up for more, as soon as I crossed the line in the GUCR I said I was going to be back next year. I just thought "why the fuck would I go and do something like this to myself". I suffered the pain, collected a head piece and felt nothing, not even after 24 hours, not even with everyone congratulating me. I was keen on getting out of there, heading home and being thankful for finishing for no other reason than it meaning I didn't have to come back. There was no way I was coming back.

Could it be that this race has actually beaten me?

The Kiss

The Next few days

The days passed, the foot got smaller, the right leg started to lift, I caught up on sleep and ate lots. The blood gave way to clear urine, the stinging became a tingle and the doctors gave me some drugs or it. I started to think a bit more clearly about what I had just done, I wrote down all the details I could remember and tried to recall them here. 

The events I enjoyed and suffered during the race came spilling out and I could finally stand back and see what I had done. I'd just completed one of the hardest races in the world.

My limited (and I would not have used the word limited before Sparta) experience of ultras is that they can have a way of breaking you into pieces and putting you back together again in a better way than before. It is normal to feel in pieces during a long race at some stage, feeling like you are not going to finish or you can't finish. My experience has taught me to remember these moments but not to succumb to them. Races are so much more satisfying when you can look back on moments you feel terrible and in despair and say that you got over it and finished the race. 

For days after I'd finished I was still in bits. If I was to compare my excitement and nerves before the race to the feeling I got from finishing I'd probably have opted to go back to the start and not bother. 

"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." - Douglas Adams 

The next few weeks I exchanged war stories and read a lot of race reports from others who have been through the same thing I have. I read reports of success stories from those with experience of not finishing. I read tales of those who didn't make it and their vows to come back again fitter and stronger and not making the same mistakes. 

I'd spend weeks talking to people who had done several Spartathlons with varying levels of success and also some who had attempted it for the first time. People don't just do this once, they do it again and again, putting themselves through all that misery. I could not figure out why anyone who had "beaten" this race would come back to prove themselves again. 

It was a truly amazing race, very well organised and flooded with amazing runners who were a joy to be around. This is a reason to do it but maybe not to do it again. The risk of failure and pain is too high. Then I realised that this is exactly why people come here again and again, because they know that one day they will be beaten by it. 

For the first time as a runner I have found a race which I am sure will one day leave me wrecked by the side of the road and tasting the bitter taste of defeat. I have yet to experience this. I'm not looking forward to it but know that it will happen one day, more than likely it will happen here. 

Within the next 20 years I imagine myself attempting this race 10 times or more. Right now it's James 1 Spartathlon 0. After 10 goes if I have won more than I have lost I will consider myself on top. One result is not enough though.

Next time more than anything I want to run up that last straight like I was finishing a 10k. I want to bounce up onto that statue and kiss those feet. Next year is the 2500 year anniversary of the original running of the Spartathlon. It would be rude not to?

"Your biggest challenge isn't someone else. It's the ache in you lungs and the burning in your legs, and the voice inside you that yells "can't", but you don't listen. You push harder. And then you hear the voice whisper "can" and you discover that the person you thought you were is no match for who you really are" - Unknown

The Olive Wreath

 

 

 



 

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Reader Comments (10)

You are a lunatic, but you know that's a compliment in the ultra world.

November 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterIan Sharman

You Nutjob, wicked report.

November 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterUme

A very splendid blog James. One of the finest Sparta reports I've come across. Many thanks for writing it up. Jackson (the other Brit in the toga, Athens 2006).

November 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJackson Griffith

Hi James,

I stumbled (sic) upon your race report - truly amazing. I was particularly taken by your comment - "Despite overtaking me only 1.5 miles from the end he finished 30 minutes and 33 places ahead of me."

I have only done one ultra (The VoTwo ONER, 2009) and am having a bit of a breather this year (more mental than physical).

Reading your race report just builds my desire to start my next journey.

Thanks,

Luke

January 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLuke

Such an inspiring piece to read.. all the best

March 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteranonym

Hey, your posts have inspired me! - I love the way you directly get to the point, and then work outwards. I’ve been trying to do figure out what I want to say about ,that would allow me to do exactly the same thing.

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July 9, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterair jordan 6

I am from Seoul, South Korea, and I read your journal through Google search as I am coming for the Spartathlon 2010.

It is just amazing how you descried the entire race so vividly. It is great help & huge support on me as this is my first time and I really would like to kiss the stature.

If you come again as you said in your journal, I wish I can shake our hands at the stature in Sparta after finishing the unforgettable race.

Again thank you SO MUCH for the wonderful story and recommendations.

My facebook id is same as my e-mail.

Sincerely yours,

Sang from S.Korea

August 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSang OH, South Korea

I have a friend running Spartathlon next week. I'll be going along as part of his support crew. He forwarded me the link to your blog yesterday and simply wrote, "This is stuff you should take time to check out so you can get a better idea of the race."
I'm glad i did. Thank you for your well written description of this mind-bending, body-breaking race.
Much respect,
Mike

September 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike Naylor

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July 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenternike free run shoes

I’ve got nothing to loose though and I’ll call it a day if I feel like it’s the wrong thing to be doing.

July 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterItalian Runner

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