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The Spartathlon 2013

I am going to try to convince you of something here. Let me start with a pie chart. According to a recent scan of my facebook friends and their reasons for not finishing a race this is an approximation.

However in my experience of running I suspect the story to be much more like this.

To finish the Spartathlon you need to arrive at the start line with two things. You need a fit body that is going to handle a 153 mile pounding over constantly rolling roads. You also need a running mind that will motivate you to finish the race and handle any expections that arise.

Then once you are in the race you need two things to work for you. You need that brain you have trained to excel at exception management and you need a bit of luck with the body.

So let me start at the beginning. I first ran the Spartathlon 4 years ago. I trained hard and only just finished. I was probably very physically capable, less mentally so and a fair bit of luck pulled me through.

The second time I was probably just as physically capable, much more mentally capable and managed to do better than before perhaps with less luck.

Last year I was perhaps at the peak of my mental ability, physically not so great but a bit of added luck saw me through.

This year I vowed to do many things to put myself in a better position to finish this race, perhaps in a faster time. I was going to clock up lots of miles, do some fast running, lose a load of weight and fall back in love with the feel of a good beasting outdoors and the glowing satisfaction that comes with it.

I did precisely none of that.

I felt less excited about this race than in the previous two. That was a warning sign. I have spent the last 6 months getting as many others involved and excited by this and think I managed a good job of that.

So off we strutted from the Acropolis (if you want the more descriptive versions of the race then read my other blogs). I thought I might run with James Elson for a bit but I could not keep up with what he was doing in the first 100 meters.

My calves and groin always feel a bit tight early on. I have learned not to worry too much about it and this year they were hurting less than in previous years. A bit of luck. Going into this race I had no injuries, no illnesses, no baggage issues that Paul Ali had, no equipment failures and I got plenty of sleep in the nights before. So that's 6 bits of luck in the first few miles.

I played the usual dodging game, trying to keep an eye out for where all my friends were. Keen on running my own race but it is always nice to have someone else to run with. Early on Mark Woolley and Rob Pinnington overtook and said that at current pace we were going to get to Corinth in about 8 hours. I was aiming for 8.30 and a confortable 8.30 at that but it was obvious this early on that I was struggling even with that pace. It has been obvious for a number of months now that I have become a slow runner. I used to be able to do ultras and still do some fast running but all the miles I have put in over the last 6 months have been crawling.

I got to the marathon point in around 4.10 and hoped that I could make it to the 50 in 8.30 but it wasn't going to happen. I had a few more walking breaks than I should have and just slowed down even more. Not to worry though, If I can get to Corinth before 9 I am in good shape to start chipping away at the cut-offs.

It was about 8.50 that I got there and I only stopped for about 5 minutes, a record I think for me.

The heat was easy this year, really easy. Last year I came into this point in a much worse state but a bit quicker. It was clearly a lack of training for this race.

I headed out to the “nice”” parts of the race and felt like I was pushing all the time, however I was doing that thing that I told every one not to do, I was obsessing about the time I had between checkpoints. It just wasn’t going up. I might make a minute here and there but despite my efforts I could not get the time back anymore. I was too slow to run this race.

I ran a lot of the section up to half way with Rob Pinnington, the team’s most improved player as I called him and still believe. He looked like he was having the time of his life. I didn’t let on that I was now on a different team to the one I was on last year.

How 80% of DNFs happen

I spoke to some runners after the race about a thing that I do (and was not surprised that others do it too, even elites) when a race is not going so well or you are feeling low. It’s the DNF snowball, and it can take hold of weak minds and put them out of races. It goes a bit like this.

You are suffering, which is normal for a race like this. Perhaps you have not gone as fast as you would have liked or maybe things are hurting more or maybe people you know you should be ahead of are well ahead of you. The first stage is that you start to entertain the possibility of not finishing.

It is well known that as soon as something is regarded as possible it becomes more probable, like the 4 minute mile or climbing Everest. It works the other way too, as soon as you start thinking bad things could happen then bad things are more probable.

So the thought enters your head, then the second stage starts, trying to answer the question “How would I explain this to others”?

Well obviously we only run for ourselves and our own personal glory and blah blah blah, bullshit, at this stage you feel the oppressive gaze of everyone you know staring at you and looking for answers. Why did he not finish? What was the reason? It is pretty narcissistic to believe that everyone is looking at you but that is certainly how it feels and what motivates us at times like this (I believe this to be true of everyone with a two exceptions, [1]).

So what do I say? What conversation can I have with the people I will see finish, with people at work, with people on forums, with Gemma, with family, with some of the random people who email me about how to run this race. What can I tell them, what will they buy? That is the key, it stops becoming about what is actually happening and more about what you can actually get away with in terms of excuses.

I now become a salesman. The problem is everyone I know knows how much I adore this race and so the job becomes more difficult than selling Gay Pride to a Daily Mail reader. But the conversations have started, I am working on my pitch, hypothetically putting it to friends and acquaintances and listening to their feedback. The problem is that everyone is so nice that I feel justified in what I am thinking “Oh well it was a great effort anyway”, “You still finished 3 times, this year was not your year” and “you have nothing to prove to anyone”. There was only one voice that told me to stop being such a pussy and get on with it, but my brain had descended into an oppressive democracy by that point.

So, stage three – looking for stuff. The thought has been planted, I have worked on my pitch to bail and now I just need to find the excuses on this road. Anything will do. Falling down a pot hole, puking up, getting lost, a slight niggle. I am clutching at anything here.

When I mentioned earlier that I was on a different side to what I was last year this is what I meant. Last year loads of things hit me. The heat was immense, 10 degrees more than here. My nipple exploded at 10 miles. I was sick at 50. I was rolling around in agony at cramp at 55. Fortunately for me I was on team Finish last year and all of these things just got batted away. Everything that came my way I was just finding a way to get through it, when I lay in the road cramping the only thing on my mind then was getting myself back up so that I could carry on running.

Now look at me, I am welcoming any problems with open arms, even a Jehovah’s Witness would feel a bit creeped out by how readily I would let something in. The problem now was, there was nothing going wrong at all. These were perfect conditions. My pace was slow but my body was fine, I had a couple of massaged which preserved my legs. I had no sickness, I had no hydration problems, my nipples were fine, I had no chaffing, no stomach problems. I had the most beautiful sleep in the two days I had ever had going into this race. I was running the best race in the world.

The tumbleweed rolling across the front door of my DNF excuses was annoying, I need a reason to get out of this race and I just can’t find one, nothing is coming in. I would take anything, falling down a pot hole, a back spasm, perhaps one of these cars would kindly knock me into a ravine or perhaps one of these dogs could trip me over.


I was running all the time, even uphill. There was nothing wrong with me except I was going frustratingly slow. The times at the cut offs were closing in a little but not nearly enough for me to get pulled out. I was going to make it to the mountain in lots of time however at around 95 I made the decision, I am going as far as base camp and then that’s it I am done.

The next day when I spoke to Martin Illot he said to me that if I got over the mountain then I could have walked the rest and would have finished. I knew this and didn’t really appreciate it being said out loud. Assuming I had no major problems (which was quite likely as I had no major problems in the first 100 miles) then I could have plodded it home.

I would love to be in a position where I could say that I was pulled off the mountain with Hypothermia, or that I got a nasty shin splint or twisted ankle coming off the mountain which reduced me to a crawl, or that I puked so much that my body went into shock and I was taken home in an ambulance. The reason for my DNF somewhat less glorious than that.

Back to the original pie chart I was hoping to change your mind on from the start. I don’t think I am unique at all in what happened here though I rarely see something like this written. I am going to put it out there that 80% of DNFs happen in a similar fashion to what I have described. I am going to call this large segment of the pie chart “lazy cowardice”.

The reason I didn’t carry on was because the thought of doing the 53 miles that remained was just too hard. I quit because what lay ahead felt too hard. That is it.

I feel pretty bad about how things went but I hope this is a much needed wake up call for me to do some things different. Like I said you need to be in a good physical and mental shape at the start of this race and then to have the physical luck and mental management to get through it. I didn’t have the physical this year as much as in previous years and no doubt that affected my mental management of the race. I had plenty of luck though.

SO in summary I got what I deserved. The Spartathlon just spat me out this year, it tried not to but I gave it no choice. I didn't deserve my place in it this year.


The team.

It was great being part of the team. First of all huge thanks to Buff for providing us with lots of Buffs which I believe all got used in the race.

Big thanks to Ultramarathonrunningstore for supplying us with the T Shirts which looked amazing and were the envy of everyone there.

Another huge thanks to Mark Howlett who designed the British Team logo. I reckon that is going to be with us for a long time.

I was really pleased to see Pat Robbins do what he always does, racing from the back and being super confident in his abilities to just work his way through the field. I’ve been badgering him for years to have a go at this race and he absolutely smashed it.

Robbie came here with an ambitious target which didn’t quite work out but his respect for the race and for the sport saw him suffer some harsh times with great resilience and he still produced a fantastic time. I expect to see him back here a number of times over the next decade and I expect to see him stepping onto a podium sometime soon too.

James Elson, so pleased you came back to finish what you started last year. I don’t think there was any difference between us last year except that one mistake you made leaving Nemea. I can only imagine how much it must have hurt for those 12 months but now you can rest on that amazing result.

Steve Scott and Jonny Hall, I don’t really know you guys but blimey were you in great spirits all the way round. I had rarely seen such great spirit in the last 30 miles of that race but you guys just tore it up. Well done to you and it’s going to be great catching up with you guys after this.

Mark Woolley, first of all I’d be interested in your opinion more than anyone else about this race report, such is my respect for you as a runner. You looked comfortable throughout, the way it should be done.

Paul Ali – never doubted you would finish this first time. Your approach to racing is spot on.

And for those who did not finish, there are a few I want to mention.

Firstly Mimi, who did not make it to the end this time. When I saw her with about 20 miles to go she looked like someone possessed with the desire to finish this whatever the cost yet struggling to control her mutinous body. I have so much respect and admiration for Mimi, what she attempts (and almost always succeeds at) is genuinely on the edge of what is humanly possible. The sport of ultra running is contaminated with people claiming they have completed “THE WORLD’S TOUGHEST RACES” and dining out of that at the expense of those who do not know better. Mimi does not take things on without massive risks and this was one of those occasions where it didn’t quite work out. I think we can all learn a lot from Mimi as to how to go about this kind of stuff.

Drew and Claire, you guys make me laugh. Both of you are ready to finish this and again had another unlucky year. Lets spend the next year getting ridiculously fit so that when it comes round again we’ll be ready to smash it.

I don’t know everyone well enough to make any judgements of their performance but I will single out two more. I hope they don’t mind.

Lindley, fucking hell you have the balls and the brain for this. Dare I say not quite the body yet but that will come if you carry on as you are. That was a huge improvement from last year and to get to 110k, almost half way was incredible. The day you get over the mountain will be the day you finish because all that is required from there is the mind to stick to the job and a great big pair of balls, none of which I had this year.

Rob Pinnington – you are going to finish this next year. Just carry on as you are. Your improvement over the last 12 months has been immense. Whatever you have been doing in that time then just do it again and come September you’ll be quick enough to get to the mountain. It’s a shame you were not around there this year as I have no doubt you’d have told be to get off my arse and get over the mountain and not give in like a coward.

Call for comments

OK so I don’t want anyone commenting on this blog with words like “well done anyway” and “you still did great getting that far” and “great post – please visit our spam site with a load of links to fake watches”.

I would however be really interested in hearing what you think about my DNF and whether you have ever done anything like this. I think most DNFs are for this reason. What do you think?





[1] Read “Six degrees of Empathy” by Simon Baron Cohen for more on this

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Reader Comments (32)

Great post James and very true.

I spent a long time analysing the reasons I DNF'd on my first attempt at the Lakeland 100 and at the time I described at Death By A Thousand Cuts - there was no one thing in particular that made me pull out, there was just lots of little things that all built up until I looked a sodding great big hill and said "Nope, had enough. This is no longer fun." and pulled out. A lot of the problem was that I didn't have 100% focus on the race and let irrelevant distractions get in the way. I learned my lesson though.

October 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTom H

Thats a very honest blog post. Was just having the conversation today about people dropping at aid stations who always seem to have an excuse lined up...i pulled a muscle, i have a stress fracture, i got bitten by a rabid dog....no you are just useless and not good enough and should be ashamed of yourself for even entering the race you big useless twat.

Anyway back to spartathlon.....good effort James, you did well just getting that far and you have nothing to prove as you have finished it 3 times. Would you like to buy a watch?

October 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Webster

Very well observed blog. Totally agree with Tom H. Bryan's a bit harsh, but right about the fact you should know you will finish an ultra before you start it. I had signed up for a hundred miler, very tough cross country all the way.I Had to pull out, because I knew myself well enough to know I wouldn't finish if I attempted the race.

October 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNick Wall

At last someone who says it like it is. I think alot of dnf's are taken because at that moment In time they've found and excuss/reason that will do for them. Last year on the sdw I ran with someone for the first 40 miles when he started throwing up and was in agony. He told me to carry on but said he would finish. He was the last over the finish line and spent the next three weeks on crutches. This year I had a friend that was going great until 60 mile then pulled out with an Injury only to be running a couple of days later. The difference between the two is one wasn't going take any reason/excuss not to finish and the other took what they at the time thought was a good enough reason, they even said so in the following weeks.
Im sure you'll be back next year James with some bad luck maybe to give you a reason to finish, or you'll take another weak and fible excuss to drop. Either way I look forward to the blog (may even think of doing it myself)

October 6, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermark fox

Nick - I am not being harsh just joking about. But the point is why get to an aid station and make up an excuse when you and everyone there knows you are just bottling it. Just be honest and say I am a bit useless today and not good enough.

October 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Webster

Really interesting....you summed up the mind games to a t!... I'm a relative newcomer to ultras... 56 m the longest...but I've experience the quit phases over 10k.. Targeting sub 40...
More please on the mind games... Great piece

October 6, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter@Canteenrun

Exactly how it's gone for me on 3 of 3 such occasions. Well done.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike H.

Spot on James - that was exactly the reason for my DNF at last year's Viking Way after 113 miles.
I call it my 'Home in time for tea" syndrome - if I stop now I'll be home in time for tea/lunch/sleep etc. I have it in every ultra but it normally passes.
At VWU I spent 20+ miles planning how to stop. I had had enough and I wanted to be at home - "if I stop now I can get the train home rather than have to stay the night in Oakham, and still have time for a curry. And I have run further than ever before so that's 'good enough'. Everyone will tell me how well i did and that I'll come back stronger etc etc' And it just went on like that,snowballing.
And everyone did tell how how well I'd gone and nobody told me I was a failure - except one person who told me I'd entered a 146 mile race, and I had failed. And that tis probably the best advice I've ever had and why I felt so bad and worried after DNF at Lakeland 100 this year, even though my Achilles was hurting after every step after 5 miles - now I was worried about people feeling ill of me.
Most DNFs, especially in the ultra-long events are mental but we always manage to come up with an "escape clause" - just as you described.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichard lendon

I think this is what happened to me at my first 50-miler attempt this year. I am just barely fast enough to stay ahead of the cutoffs on a tough course, and when I started to fall behind them, I allowed it to happen instead of fighting back.

What I learned from this is that I HATE hearing my friends (especially the non-runners) say things like "Still, you made it 32 miles, that's amazing, you should be so proud, blah, blah, blah." I know they mean well, but they just don't get it.

I'm going to motivate myself during training this coming year by reminding myself that I don't ever want to hear those responses again.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKris

I also think you need to look at why you got slow in the first place. This year you've made some decision to go to the pub, drink and eat subway/kebab. I'm not saying that beer and kebabs are bad just you made a conscious decision to do this rather than a conscious decision to drink less, eat differently and train for a race. Perhaps you though you could blag it as you have done many times in the past but on this occasion it caught up with you.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Elferink

I don't run Ultra's but have DNF'd in a few races and it is, I believe, all in the mind, which seems to be what happened for you James. My mental weakness does overpower me when I'm starting to feel the pain, or not enjoying a race in that moment of time, and I too try to come up with as many excuses as possible to tell people to why I DNF'd. I have learnt that when you get to that point, it's a real struggle to get some perspective and positivity back and most of the time is game over.
But, like anything, you have to learn from your mistakes. It's that feeling of realising 10 mins after or the day after that you could have done it and you say to yourself 'why did I DNF again?' that I remember whenever I fall back into the negative state and use that as a springboard to turn it into a 'you can do this' mantra.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJo

Great read, yes reality hurts. This past summer I did the Dirty Girls 24 Hour race in Ontario Canada. Made it through 120 Km in 17 1/2 hours. I was tired, my shins were sore. You mean I couldn't make it through another 2+ km before the end. Lazy coward. I know exactly where you are coming from.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Foscarini

It's honest and it's true. Sometimes we can't escape from the negative thoughts that continually try to trip us up and sometimes it's easier to give in to them. I'm slow, have only done the one ultra, but in all my races I'm plagued with questions until the last quarter when I feel almost indestructible. Facing people after you've dropped isn't pleasant. Thanks for confirming I'm not alone in having such thoughts. Love the blog and waiting for the book. Out for Christmas?

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarl Halliday

The dark blue segment in your first pie chart stands out to me. There are times when you do need to quit. In my case, in a much shorter race, checking the weather forecast in advance and carrying a coat would have been wise.

That said, I do remember the first time I quit a race out of laziness. Orienteering when I was at school I was struggling a bit with the map and just gave up. Before that I saw myself as someone who didn't give up. After that race, seeing that nothing all that bad happened, I quit later races much more easily. I think the DNF spiral can last more than one race if you let it.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Hibbert


October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRod Hasker

I've never been really injured during a race so I cannot speak about that. At different races my mind has used bodily discomforts and pain in completely opposite ways. In my first marathon for which I was pretty untrained (been running for just 6 weeks) I ran with and pushed through shooting pain from my hip into my leg with 8 more miles to go. All I could think of was that I cannot walk on this leg for 8 miles, so I have to run and finish faster. I did. Months later at another marathon I just felt spent and tired and slow so I walked the last 4 miles rather than run. Nothing was wrong with my body, I could not bring myself to run, up to that point I was running at a Boston qualifying pace.
At my first 24h race I walked the last 40 miles on what used to be my heels but 10.5h hours into the race had come off in two massive blisters. But I kept walking. Each step was at first screaming pain, then tingling, then numbness, then I didn't even think of my feet.
My second 24h race, for which I had less speed but a lot more experience and endurance ended at 22.5h when I decided to go home. Why? I had some pain in the back of my knee. The kind of pain that did not affect my walking gate the very next day. But I didn't feel I need to prove anything to anyone. And the thought of leaving immediately, taking a warm shower at home, and crawling into bed with the friend who was staying over at my place and watching my kids was extremely attractive. So I did exactly that. I had plenty of energy for him after doing 82 miles.

I've been there, groping for reasons, hoping for that tightness in my calf to turn into a crippling cramp. I've also run threw sudden and extreme abdominal pain to only find out 3 min later that it is completely gone.

Really enjoyed your article. What I would love to read about is how do you make the shift, how do you play your mind during a race to find the drive to push threw the mental laziness rather than give in to the downward spiral of finding excuses.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRali

Excellent blog and we have all quit for this reason. However ultra running is as much a mental exercise as a physical one. As such a 'brain strain' is as likely an injury as an Achilles or Hip flexor injury. We should all be prepared to confess to this, and maybe even add some mental training to our training plans!
My DNFs have usually been because I wasn't mentally prepared and trained to climb the mental mountains<I>. I've finished a race with a stress fracture that took 6 weeks to recover from, and also quit for no real reason. Mentally strong in one and mentally injured in the other.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Barker

Yup. No where near the the same level but came close to doing this during an IM this year, good race year before, but not well prepared this year, ran through the same sequence as you describe in my head... Just Mrs D wouldn't accept it, that was what kept me from bailing.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnt

I haven't had a DNF in my short ultra-running experience... yet. When one comes, and inevitably it will, I hope I can be as honest as that about it. I recognised a lot of the feelings and thought processes you talked about, and you described them really well - even a non-runner might just about get it. So well done for that.

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohannes

I have DNFd twice. Once was due to similar reasons to you - I just couldn't face the effort required to finish. However the second time was injury. I was so determined not to DNF that I slogged on until I really had no option as I couldn't physically walk and had to be helped to a wheelchair and on to A&E. I really wanted to carry on & kept going for a long time telling myself it would be OK. Not sure if that provesanything or disproves anything ??

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterwendy

I think you hit the nail on the head. I quit one race this summer. I was well placed, felt good, had completed 40 of the 52 miles but just didn't fancy it anymore. I found it really hard to explain it. Was hoping for a leg pain that I could blame but there wasn't one. Boils down to, just didn't have it in me on the day...I hadn't prepared for the extra heat and wasn't prepared to suffer enough to finish.....still regret it today but will go back to the same race in 2014 and nail it (but it won't count because it won't be as hot...).
Thanks for helping me realise that sometimes there are no excuses.

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThe Bogman

What a bloody great writeup. Cruel but fair. Really refreshing to read a race report that ultimately conclude 'I f---ed up' rather than starting with sandbags and finishing with excuses. Brave, thoughtful - thank you.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoger Hanney

Totally spot on! Especially the salesman aspect. Very honestly and bravely written. And the thoughts turn pretty dark when you start to think of how you can injure yourself enough to quit the race. But you left out one element - motivation. It's not just lazy cowardice. When properly motivated, like your first time there, you can push through anything. It's tougher to stay motivated when you're running a race (even a huge race) that you've run before, better, and you're not living up to your own expectations.

And I agree with you and with Kris that the "nice friends" can be surprisingly annoying, but where would we be without them!!

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhil M

Honest post.

Think I've DNF-ed three or four times over the last 18 months (three 100 milers and um, one half marathon...). Each one at the time, I was uncomfortably comfortable rationalising it in my head with some excuse or even a small group of them but almost always, a month or so down the line, I looked back and regretted it, knowing that I would have been physically able to summon the gusto and finish, even if it was without the speed or grace that I had wanted.

However, I think that these experiences gave me the drive to finally finish my first 100 miler. I was physically drained and mentally sapped beyond exhaustion but did NOT want to go home with another excuse and another DNF so shuffled and shuffled and then shuffled some more to the finish. It wasn't graceful, it was a shambles but it was NOT a DNF.

The notion of DNF is hard to overcome once it has seeded and taken root but not impossible.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAsh

Whats that expression, its 90% mental and the other half is in your mind, or somesuch? To finish an ultra, any ultra, you have to go beyond what your body is capable of, override logic, and convince yourself that you can do it. The same only more so than 4min miles or Everest or the moon. James ive been following your blog for a long time, and i think its fair to say that your running hasnt been the same since LANY. And you just havent been enjoying it as much. Youve had several DNFs since then, and most or all of them were CBAs not Cs. LANY Just took so much emotional energy and mental strength to do, and it somehow drained you. So since then youve had less motivation for training, less mental reserve to dig into when the going gets tough, less excitement about it all. Its not exactly an injury, but its like one. So heres a radical suggestion : dont run. Gasp. Pick self off floor. Take a year off. Completely. Buy a unicycle, learn how to do butterfly, swim the english channel, climb a mountain, trek to the north pole, have kids (oops!) i dont know. Just, dont run. Do the 'and stuff' in your blog title. Youve got 30+ years of great running ahead of you, but you need to rediscover the novelty and boyish enthusiasm. A complete break and different focus, rather than chasing after it, might just do the trick.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJamesmus

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