“Coming into Sparta was the most wonderful feeling – just over 9km to go, I knew now I would finish. Running down the long road towards the town the views are stunning and makes everything you have done in the last 30 odd hours worth it. Getting to the last CP when I thought I only had 1km to go was beyond excitement – I was about to complete the one race that had scared me for years. Running down the street I did wonder where this statue was. People were cheering from their balconies, shops, street corners, it was a wonderful feeling. Finally I was instructed to turn right and given a police escort towards the finish.”
“It seemed the whole town had come out to support the runners, Tim and Bridget together with a fantastic group of Brits were there cheering me in, kids surrounded me on their bikes but I didn’t mind, this is what is was all about – but where was the statue I still couldn’t see it. As I passed the bar with everyone cheering, people standing on both sides of the street the statue of King Leonidas appeared – trying to hold my emotions together was almost impossible as I ran up the steps and touched and kissed those marvellous feet. I HAD DONE IT!!!”
THAT was the finish of my race in 2011, this year unfortunately my race plans were to turn out slightly differently, but I always kept the image of me running towards the statue of King Leonidas in my mind, even when things started to go wrong I kept focusing on the finish.
When I finished the Spartathlon in 2011, I was asked how I felt by one of the organisers I replied that I was absolutely delighted as now I never had to come back – fast forward to the middle of 2012 where I find myself not only considering entering the race again, but this time trying for the Double; run from Athens with the other competitors then after some rest run the return route back to Athens a total of 306 miles. It was always going to be a tough challenge, one I certainly didn’t under estimate, but that’s what I thrive on and I knew it was within my capabilities, so the planning began.
The Spartathlon is like no other race, yes its a road race but boy is it tough not only physical but also mentally. One of the rules is that runners aren’t allowed to listen to music which I personally don’t have a problem with, but for others the loneliness of running that distance without a distraction is too much to cope with. The race starts at 7am from the Acropolis, goes up and over a mountain at 160km point (in the dark) and finishes 153 miles later in Sparta with competitors running up the steps to the statue of King Leonidas and kissing his foot (I was so delighted to get there in 2011 that I virtually snogged his foot!) all this has to be achieved within 36 hours. There are a total of 74 CP’s each one tells you the distance you have run, the time it closes, how far to Sparta, then the number of the next CP, distance and when that closes. If you’re not careful you can find yourself getting into a panic by constantly checking your time and not running the race you had originally planned.
My build up to the race hadn’t exactly gone to plan, I had a niggling injury that meant taking 6 days off from running which unfortunately was my big week of training, but I still felt confident that I had the ability and the strength to do what I had set out to to.
Tim, Becky and I flew out to Greece on the Wednesday afternoon, picked up the car and arrived safely at our hotel the Four Seasons. Not the smartest hotel in the world but it had hot showers and clean beds.
Thursdays morning we walked over to the London Hotel to register and leave our drop bags. I decided that I would only have two drop bags, one at CP 11 (42km) and the other at CP16 57.7km each one had a bar and some Bloc in which would see me through to the 80km CP where I would catch up with my crew. At the start of the race I also had my inhaler, Elete Water and other food in my bumbag which would keep me going until CP11. I had done this in 2011 and it had worked well.
Later in the afternoon we had to go to the race briefing where the British Team had a photo shoot showing off our great team T-Shirts and Buffs with the fantastic design that had been done by Mark Howlett. It was a lovely feeling being part of a team.
Race day came, as usual I didn’t sleep very well and was wide awake at 4am so I got up, had a shower, coffee and breakfast finally getting dressed at about 4.45 and leaving the hotel with Paul Ali at 5.15 with my crew who drove us to the London Hotel to get the bus to the start of the race at the Acropolis. I decided that I felt more comfortable going on the bus just in case our car broke down and I didn’t make the start line – at least if the bus breaks down I’m with lots of other competitors so they would have to postpone the start! (I would hope!)
After a few loo trips and the usual nerves we set off at exactly 7am on our journey to Sparta.
As with any big race I had broken the distance up into manageable chunks, marathon, 80km, mountain and finish, this way each time I arrived at one of my milestones I could throw it away and concentrate on the next section, it also gave me a lift to know I had reached a certain point.
After the initial nerves at the start my heart rate went back to normal as did my breathing (being an asthmatic I was worried about the fumes from the traffic). I had just got into my stride when the barriers came down in front of us to let the train go past, it seemed like hours before we could go again, but I made the decision not to worry and not look at my watch or I would rush off way too fast in order to make up the time – patience!
The first few CP’s flew by, there was no need for me to stop at these as I had enough water to keep me going and as it wasn’t really hot so there was no need for me to dunk my bandana in the cold water. At CP3 13.8 km we are running with the sea on our left, this always makes me feel as though I’m on holiday and puts a smile on my face.
This year there were quite a lot of roadworks which we had been warned about at the race briefing, but they had stopped the traffic until a certain time so running through the road works wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Coming out of Athens is never a nice experience, but the police were excellent at stopping the traffic to let us pass (much to the annoyance of some of the Greek drivers!) There were various smelly sections along the route which quite frankly were horrid but made me run a wee bit faster to get past.
I first saw my crew at CP6 which was the 25km point and they enthusiastically waved me through and although early days I was running well, on target and feeling good although looking back I was much more reserved than I usually am, not smiling or using up any excess energy.
My memory of this race is a bit fuddled and don’t recall the exact point at which James Elson and I began our wonderful running partnership. I remember spotting him ahead of me and wondered if I should catch him up but was worried that if i did I wouldn’t be doing my own race but may get taken along at his pace (he is a much faster runner than me) but decided it was very rude not to at least say hello and that was it, we were together for approx 80/90 miles of the race. I very rarely run with anyone as I am a bit of a loner and am better on my own, but our partnership worked extremely well and luckily for James I don’t think I talked too much! It felt very easy and relaxed to be running with him.
We arrived at the marathon point in 3.47 which I was delighted with, on target and feeling good. Neither of us spent much time at CPs and we seemed to have settled into a good pace, hiking up the steep hills to conserve energy and running the flats and the downs.
Between CP 11 (42.2km) and CP 12 we ran under a bridge were the school children were lined up with hands held out for us to high five as we ran past, such a great feeling being supported by the kids, full of life and enthusiasm.
Running up to CP 13 (48.8km) was fantastic with the sea on our left we ran down a long windy hill then up again towards the CP. This was the first place that we found ice, what a godsend it was. I popped some cubes into my water bottle which made all the difference as the heat was now picking up. Still on target.
At CP17 60.9km I was still second female, although I wasn’t giving this much thought, my crew wrote it down otherwise I probably wouldn’t have remembered. Somewhere between that CP and CP20 I was overtaken by the American girl Brenda Carawan, I knew I had to continue running my own race, it was way to early to chase but I found it hard being overtaken and I think even if I had wanted to I had no oomph to out run her, a difficult moment for me but I had to pull myself out of it quickly and carry on. My quads had been extremely sore since about km 50 which caused me some concern as usually my legs don’t start hurting until much later into the race. (This was one of the first signs that Ketosis was setting in)
Onwards and upwards we continue towards Corinth passing the Oil Refinery at 69.8km – what a pong! running towards CP21 there were ships lined up as far as the eye could see waiting to go through the Canal, what an amazing sight and yet another milestone to knock off – 80km, here my crew could look after me for the first time during the race.
Becky gave me a toasted cheese and ham sandwich which tasted revolting but I ate it, she was also horrified that I hadn’t eaten everything in my bumbag, first slappy hand moment. James and I were in and out of there quickly not wanting to waste any time. We had arrived there at 7:48 and only stayed 2 minutes, slightly up on my pacing which meant I was going into the next section (up to the mountain) with a good buffer.
After Corinth the running become much nicer as we get away from the busy roads, meandering through olive groves and vine yards plus a few barking dogs. At CP26 when I could next see my crew (93km) I was treated to an iced coffee but can’t remember what I was given to eat. At about the 100km point James and I were joined by Pat Robins, it was great to run with him for a while (brought back memories of running the Viking Way with him) and enjoyed a bit of banter before letting him go as his pace was slightly faster than I felt comfortable with.
At CP32 112.9km Becky and Tim gave me my headtorch and swopped my hat for a buff ready for nightfall. By CP35 123.3 miles Ancient Nemea my pace had begun to drop, I spent 3 minutes there with my crew giving me something to eat (again I can’t remember what) and giving me my arm warmers in case it got cold. I think it was after this CP that a camera crew decided to film James and I as we ran – typically it was up a hill so we had no choice but to keep running!
By this time my legs were very painful and running was making my whole body jar, but James was brilliant at telling me to run and as I didn’t want to hold him back I did as I was told – everything was becoming a real effort but I kept focused and never once had a negative thought, as far as I was concerned my body would get me to the end.
We had a long hard slog up the twisting switchbacks leading to the base of the mountain, not a particularly steep road but long, it seemed to be going on for ages but one foot in front of the other and we finally made it – another mile stone ticked off, now to get to the finish. Here my crew gave me my X-Bionic windproof jacket which was perfect. I remember seeing Drew at the CP which was lovely but sad at the same time, but I’m sure he will be back and next time successful.
I arrived at this CP later than my crew thought I would, Becky is usually pretty accurate on my ETA so was getting concerned. However, after something to eat (again can’t remember what) we headed up the mountain.
I remember not liking the mountain section in 2011, it had been extremely cold and windy, but thankfully this year it was actually quite warm. The up section I felt went really well, far better than in 2011 when I had to keep stopping to admire the view! James was much quicker than me at this section so was bounding on a head, which is exactly what he needed to do, he had to run his race not mine.
The downhill section of the mountain I hated; lots of sliding rocky switchbacks to the road below, thankfully just as I was about to go arse over tit I was rescued by the very strong arm of a Greek runner who insisted on staying with me until we reached the bottom – what a gentleman he was. I was very relieved to finally be on solid ground once more.
My memory seems to be rather lacking from this point on, I didn’t mind running on my own but did miss Jame’s company, we had found a very easy running partnership. I tried really hard to run as much as possible although this was becoming ever more painful. At some point around 183 km Johnny Hall and Steve Scott went passed me, they were walking 5 running 5 and asked if I wanted to join them boy did I try but their pace was too fast for me at that point so I had no choice but to let them go. Steve commented after the race that he was worried about leaving me as I was slurring my words and weaving about, I don’t remember doing that at all.
I had managed to stay warm through the night and the early hours of the morning wearing my arm warmers and windproof jacket, even when the temperature plummeted and others complained of feeling cold I felt fine. I arrived at CP57 186.1km at 7.02 am, 2 hours over my schedule and by the time I arrived at CP65 where I could see my crew I was still about 2 hours over and got a big telling off from Becky (well deserved). She only has my best interest at heart and knows me extremely well so I know when she tells me off I deserve it and always listen. James and Gemma were also there which was lovely but this is all a bit of a blur to me.
Everything seemed to be getting slower and slower, I remember catching up with Brenda (again not exactly sure where) who was concerned that she wasn’t going to make the cut-offs, I told her not to worry she still had plenty of time and not to panic and I continued with my own journey. It sounds very weird but I was still feeling positive, getting angry with myself for not having the strength to run faster but I was still focused on the finish and ahead of the cut-offs even though I was behind my own schedule. My body felt a bit like it belonged to someone else and wouldn’t listen to what it was supposed to do, my brain was feeling empty, I didn’t seem to have any thoughts good or bad I just knew that above all else I had to keep moving forward and get to the finish line – I must, this certainly wasn’t something I was going to give up easily.
On and on I went, up the hills (of which there are a lot in the second half of the race) but even the down hills were uncomfortable; COME ON MIMI FOR GOODNESS SAKE GET YOURSELF MOVING, STAY FOCUSED YOU STUPID WOMAN
By the time I reached CP68 223.5km I was 2hrs 40 minutes behind schedule and it was here that Becky told me that as I wasn’t listening to my crew they might as well go to the finish and wait for me there – I hadn’t realised I’d not been listening, as far as I was concerned I had been doing everything I had been told.
Somewhere between CP 70/71 my back went, it was a very odd sensation as I had no control, it didn’t “go” as a conventional back would behave, but I just lost all control of my back muscles and turned into this bendy doll and although I hadn’t realised it at the time I also had got a rather odd looking expression on my face (nothing new there I hear you say!!!) On a serious note though even though I had thought for the last however many miles that I was smiling or making movements with my face nothing was actually appearing on my face, its looked as though I’d had a stroke and the lights had gone out.
After CP71 with just under 15km to go until the finish line I was asked by one of the Doctors who drove up and down the course if I was OK and did I want to get into the car – how could he ask such a question, did he not know I was racing? so I told him nicely that I was absolutely fine thank you. The doc however wasn’t so sure so followed me and must have made a phone call to another medical car as the next thing I know I have two cars escorting me along the road. As far as I was concerned they could go away and leave me to it. However my back became more bendy, my crew had been contacted and had come up to see how I was doing, Becky said she would organise a massage at CP72 so I said that was fine and kept on going. However it soon became clear that I needed something to be done if nothing else to keep my me upright so they gave me a massage on the side of the road. All I could do was think of the time, it was ticking away and I didn’t want to miss the cut-offs – ticktock, ticktock, ticktock ……….
With my medical escort I made it to CP72 236.6km where Becky made me lie down for another massage (even though I insisted I didn’t need one as I’d had one at the top of the road) but she was taking no nonsense from me, I had the massage plus was given loads of sugary food to eat, I thought I was going to throw up but Becky looked at me and just said “don’t you dare” boy was it hard keeping it down, but I knew if I didn’t eat what I was told there was no way I would be allowed to leave the CP.
For some extra-ordinary reason Becky asked me to breathe at her – why, to check I had eaten my sweets? I HAD! It was in fact to smell my breath which smelt strongly of Pear Drops a classic sign that I had Ketosis. After 13 long minutes I was allowed to leave the CP but only if one of the medics came with me, Becky (quite rightly) was worried that I would end up under a car or in a ditch) Luckily the massage guy was only to happy to accompany me along with the Doctor in the car.
I set off at a good pace getting slower and slower and more and more bendy. I wasn’t really making any sense and must have looked very odd as all the other runners who passed me asked if I was OK and did I need anything. My brain wasn’t comprehending why people wanted to help me, I just needed to get to the finish, please leave me alone.
Meandering down the road with the doctor virtually holding me up must have been a very funny sight, crews would very kindly cool me down with water WHICH I DIDN’T WANT, I was getting very frustrated. This is the first time I have ever become fixated with the time, I kept looking at my watch telling the medic that the CP would close in 1 minute, he kept telling me not to worry; of course I had to worry, I couldn’t miss it, how was I going to do this, COME ON MIMI, COME ON …….. 18:05, 18:10, 18:20 I still wasn’t at the CP, each time I asked it was another 500m. My back was becoming more and more painful, my arms were in the running position (I obviously thought they were helping me) and the medic kept suggesting I put them down and swing them, ooh look that works! 18:30 18:35, I was now half an hour over the cut-off and going so slowly I was virtually going backwards.
I asked one more time how far to CP73 and was told 500m, I couldn’t do it, nothing was working, I had tried so hard to finish, to get to the feet of King Leonidas and kiss his magnificent feet once more but it wasn’t to be there was no more to give, it was game over. If anyone tells you that 7km isn’t a long way they are lying – its a very long way!
This year my race finished with me being driven to the medical tent located right next to the statue of King Leonidas – not how I wanted to get there.
There are always lessons to be learned in a DNF and by taking everything on board you can turn a negative into a positive. There were a few things during the race that happened which for me were unusual.
Firstly I kept on forgetting silly things, not checking how far to the next CP and remembering I hadn’t checked once passed the CP, plus I didn’t ask my crew the usual questions like, how am I doing? when do I see you next, am I on schedule etc?
Becky and Tim noticed that I wasn’t my usual bouncy, chatting, smiley self when they saw me, even at the beginning of the race, I don’t remember saying Marvellous once.
My quads hurt far too early into the race and my mind seemed to be “woolly” all the time.
I usually never sit down during a race, this time I started sitting down, albeit briefly at various CPs as it was the only way I could stretch my quads.
I was convinced I was eating enough and doing as I was told, but I know now I didn’t eat nearly enough food and certainly wasn’t listening to my crew in the way I usually do.
I’m convinced that I had a low level virus that meant that my body wasn’t able to cope with the pressure I was putting it under and all this in turn meant that I wasn’t eating properly and because I wasn’t “all together” I kept on refusing food or had no desire to eat anything.
When I went back to the hotel I peed for the first time – it was BLACK! certainly not a good sign.
On a positive note I didn’t get any blisters!
A big thank you goes out to my crew Becky Healey and Tim who are fantastic, I let them down big time but it won’t happen again. I would also like to say a thank you to my amazing Sponsors Talbot Underwriting Ltd who once again believed in me and have supported me all the way.
I will be back in September 2015 to give the Double another go, I know its within my capabilities and want to prove that it can be done.
The British boys did us proud this year and it was marvellous to cheer them very loudly at the awards ceremony on the Monday evening and it was especially lovely to see James Elson go up and collect his certificate, he could now put his demons to rest. Congratulations go to:
Pat Robbins 27:09
Robbie Britton 32:09
Steve Scott & Johnny Hall 33:30
James Elson 33:45
Mark Woolley 34:29
Paul Ali 35:07
I’m proud to be British.