As I sit at my kitchen table typing this Race Report I still can’t believe what was achieved at the end of September in Greece by the British runners, some amazing results especially by Dan Lawson who placed 2nd, with a great performance.
I was proud to be part of such an awesome group of runners.
What is the Spartathlon?
Spartathlon is a 153 mile (246km) ultra marathon race held annually in Greece since 1983 and takes place between Athens and Sparta in under 36 hrs. The race starts at the foot of the Acropolis and finishes in Sparta. Along the way there are 75 Check Points all of which have their own individual cut-offs and runners are pulled from the race if they don’t meet these cut-offs, this definitely keeps your mind focused!
The Spartathlon aims to trace the footsteps of Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger sent to Sparta in 490 BC to seek help against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. Pheidippides, according to an account by Greek historian Herodotus in The Persian Wars, arrived in Sparta the day after he departed. Herodotus wrote: “On the occasion of which we speak when Pheidippides was sent by the Athenian generals, and, according to his own account, saw Pan on his journey, he reached Sparta on the very next day after quitting the city of Athens – he then ran back and died!!
Based on this account, British RAF Wing Commander John Foden and four other RAF officers travelled to Greece in 1982 on an official expedition to test whether it was possible to cover the nearly 250 kilometres in a day and a half. Three runners were successful in completing the distance: John Foden (37:37), John Scholtens (34:30) and John McCarthy in (39:00).
Described as the world’s most grueling race, the Spartathlon runs over rough tracks and muddy paths (often it rains during the race), crosses vineyards and olive groves, climbs steep hillsides and, most challenging of all, takes the runners on the 1,200 meter ascent and descent of Mount Parthenio in the dead of night.
The mountain, covered with rocks and bushes, on which it is said Pheidippides met the god Pan.In 2,500 years man has had no impact at all. There is still no pathway over the mountain that is swept by strong winds with temperatures as low as 4°C. The ascent is marked out by a trail of battery-driven colored flashing lights and its challenge is a trial for human stamina and mental strength. Over the mountain the last sections are no less energy sapping and exhausting for the runners as they follow a road that winds up and down hills before descending into Sparta.
My journey to the start line didn’t go too badly although the “over-extension” injury that happened during The Spine Race in 2014 STILL was causing issues but now with my left leg. Thankfully although painful never seemed to get any worse so I ignored it. (my Osteopath was happy for me to race)
Speed was my main concern but I had worked hard on this and felt a definite improvement so knew I could make the cut-offs if all went well.
With just over two weeks to go I picked up a chest infection that caused my peak-flow to be around 200 – not good. This meant that with my asthma I simply couldn’t run. The doctor put me on a course of steroids which still didn’t get ride of it and with under a week to go I was put on a course of Antibiotics – at this stage I was worried perhaps I wouldn’t even make the start line.
Team marvellous flew out to Athens on the Tuesday to give us time to relax properly before the race. I’m incredibly lucky having a great support team looking after me. Becky Healey, Paul George and of course HWMBO. They work well together as a team and I trust them absolutely to always make the right decisions.
My main issues while racing is managing to eat enough, my body seems to switch off and nothing tastes nice so this time I contacted my friend Louise in South Africa who put together a nutrition plan for me – this made a huge difference not only to me but to my crew – if I didn’t want to eat something Becky would say “it’s on your schedule” and I would eat (goodness I’m good at doing what I’m told!!)
Having registered it was now time to put my 2013 demons to rest and not let me crew down again. My main concern was whether my chest had cleared up enough to not cause any issues. I took a puff of my inhaler before the start and carried it in my hand should I require another puff in the first few miles.
notice my number is the distance of the race!
It was lovely to see a few familiar faces and was delighted that Mike Warden came over to said hello. After a few photos and good lucks it was time for the countdown to the start.
My aim was simple, to do the best I could and get to the finish! The first 10k is always tough, partly because it has a LONG uphill and my lungs haven’t warmed but I concentrated on my own race and didn’t worry about people running fast past me, my pace was fine. The first 81km was always going to be the hardest part for me not helped by the heat and extremely humid which I struggled with much more than usual, in-fact during this section I kept thinking “if I slowed down I would miss the cut-off and be timed out” I knew I wouldn’t but unusual for me to have those thoughts that early on – a;though tempting it would have been an easy and rather pathetic way out, I’d come here to do the double so that meant I had to finish the face. My chest was holding up nicely but my body had no energy, I put this down to the antibiotics I was still taking.
Running through Elefsina at 23km gave me a huge lift. Runners are greeted by lots of children who come out to cheer us on so lots of high fives as we run past, always makes me smile.
My favourite part of the first 42km is the coast road I always feel as though I’m on holiday looking at the beautiful blue of the sea on my left. I was obviously paying way too much attention on the sea as I tripped and went flying across the road landing flat on my face and bashing my right knee. A car very kindly stopped and asked if I needed some water, I kindly refused as I didn’t want to get disqualified! My main concern was the pain my calf muscle but thankfully after a fast walk it disappeared and my knee just gushed with blood but didn’t hurt!
CP11 at 42km at Megara is the first place where I could get support from my crew. Becky and Tim greeted me where I sat down briefly and consumed a bottle of fizzy water (this would be my luxury item if I was stuck on an island!) ate some food and was pushed out of the CP where I wouldn’t see them again until CP22.
Over the course of the next few Km I concentrated on keeping a good but steady pace and cooling my body down at the CPs by sponging water over my head and shoulders and taking a handful of ice that I popped into my buff around my wrist and ate as I ran – it tasted delicious and was a great way to quench my thirst without drinking too much.
Heading towards Corinth you can see the large tankers waiting to go through the canal, you know then you’re not far from the 80km CP! First though we had to go through one of the worst section of the race passing oil refineries – very unpleasant smells but crossing the Corinth Canal is spectacular. It’s not until you are halfway across the pedestrian bridge that you see just how deep and narrow the canal is.
Not far to the CP22 @80km. As I ran towards it I could see HWMBO taking photos, a glorious sight to behold (well for me anyway!!). This is one of the main CP’s where you can see your crew so it was once more all hands on deck getting me in and out as quickly as possible. I scuppered the plans slightly by changing my sock combination. Usually in a race I never tough my feet but they were feeling uncomfortable so I took one lay off (I usually run in a thin layer then my wigwam socks over the top, this usually works really well, but this time I had used a different pair of under socks which). All changed, fed (great team work) I was sent on my way and wouldn’t see my crew for another 13km. I was feeling much happier that I had reached 80km and still had a decent buffer.
Now for the next section of the race to get to the base of the mountain. Having left CP22 the route took us off the busy roads and onto the much quieter roads meandering through olive groves and vineyards, plus a lot of barking dogs, but it was lovely to finally have some piece and quiet. My crew spoilt me at the next meeting point with a lovely iced coffee, just what the doctor ordered, it really went down a treat and put a smile on my face.