Just under a year ago I was standing outside the Acropolis in Athens. It was dark and cool and there was no sense of urgency or panic amongst the 350 people from 50+ countries who were stood around like I was. I didn't really know what to expect and so I could easily clear my mind and not really think about what was ahead. I knew what it was in physical terms, 153 miles of rolling roads in the late Greek summer where is was likely to be 35C. As if that was not hard enough there was a mountain to tackle at the 100 mile mark and quite a technical one too. But I managed to keep that all out of my mind and just enjoy the calm along with some fellow first timers and some veterans. I was described as looking like a lamb to the slaughter. I knew that the race was going to be hard, but I didn't know just how close it would be to an actual slaughter.
Fast forward 35 and a bit hours. I kissed the statue which is the best possble outcome of this race. I was a mess, it took me 45 minutes to scrape my feet along the floor for the last mile. It was unlike the finish of any race I have ever done, it was supposed to be a spectacular and beautiful occassion, running up to the statue of Leonidas and kissing the feet. Instead it just marked the end of a race which for the latter part I felt terrible in and all I wanted to do was leave. I said straight after that I was glad of finishing for no other reason than didn't have to go back.
After the race had finished it got worse. The pain after a race like this can usually be laughed off, it's all part of the deal. All those around me were laughing at the funny walks and uncomfortable sitting but I just couldn't, it hurt too much. I could not sleep for the days after and I felt a contant burning sensation. I would have liked to have drank the wine at the meal afterwards but I was pissing blood and had to abstain. I was surrounded by people who did not finish and did not know what it was like to kiss that statue. I was getting congratulations from all over but I was in no mood to accept them, I just wanted them all to piss off. All I wanted was to go home back to my bed, turn the lights out and forget this ever happened. There was no way I was coming back.
This is what I ran for. Well actually I ran for the whole experience but this was the "thing" I wanted to collect to remind myself of what I had done. It sits on a random hook in my bedroom and over the past 51 weeks it has shed it's green leaves and looks pretty bleak. It's almost as though it's timed to lose it's looks in a year and hence compelling you to go back and get another one. The "never going back" sulking only lasted about a week. It took a little while for me to realise that I'd hit upon something special.
Ultra runners are often compared to drug addicts, a sometimes harsh comparison but I can see where some of the similarities lie. I'm always looking for the next "fix", often with disregard for my health and body. It's hard to say no and be sensible, the pressure from peers can sometimes drive us to do silly things. I'm always looking for something longer, harder, hotter, higher etc. I don't know enough about drugs to really compare but I would imagine I get from Marathons the same as some kids getting stoned on a saturday night, your typical 50 mile ultra might me more like a party drug such as LSD. Badwater and UTMB (diet) would have been the methdone that tided me over through the summer, but this is grade A smack. I can't imagine not doing this race every year. I know so many who go back again and again, unable to put it down. There is something about this race which is more significant than any other race I have done. I will probably never be able to say exactly what it is but that does not really matter, in a few days I'll be there for the second time and I bet in 10 years I'll be lining up for the 12th time.
It's not without it's risks though (I will leave the drug analogy alone now). I was one of the fortunate people to finish it last year. Those that don't become trapped and have to try again and again to finish. This list shows people who have attempted many times without finish. Anyone wanting to do this race should think very carefully before turning up. Finish or DNF, win or lose, it will consume you.
So what do I have to do?
I went into this race last year with no real idea of the details, which is the way I like to do things. I will never look in detail at a race profile, the competitors, the rules even. I will usually have a look at the weather conditions for the hotter ones but it is my preference to just turn up and wing it, dealing with whatever comes up as it comes. It worked last year but I can't do that again. I usually forget the details of races straight after. I did Davos for the third time this year and it still felt like a new race, I just don't remember where the hills are. It will be different this time because I remember everything about last year. I remember just how hard it was.
The website does not give much away. It describes it as "One of the most difficult and satisfying ultra distance races in the world". There are many people I know who would leave off the "one of" from that sentence. It does not give away too much more than the facts, 246km, 36 hour cut off and something about a guy who did this 2500 years ago.
The race starts in Athens at the Acropolis on Friday at 7am. The police do a fantastic job of halting rush hour and letting the 350 or so hopefuls through. Through busy streets and past some bars I recall going in after the Athens Marathon and then out of the Capital and along the "sacred way" and out to Corinth, the first major checkpoint at 50 miles. The first 50 are fairly flat and still busy. You have only 9.30 hours to get to 50 miles which is as severe a cut-off I've seen is a race of this length. Last year I arrive at around 2.30PM, the heat way approaching mid 30's. This year it will be cooler, around 28.
Having left the 50 miles it takes some quieter roads through olive fields and farms, you can smell them, it's wonderful. Runners will really space out here as they pass the Temple of Apollo and through citru orhards to Assos (100km). There is then a steady climb over 24k to Nemea, another major checkpoint. There are 75 checkpoints along the way in the Spartathlon with a few "major" ones kitted out with massagers, food, local entertainment and paramedics. Nemea is half way, but the race has barely started.
The next 20 or so miles it will start to get dark and rather inconveniently the road surface gets worse. The smooth tarmac gives way to uneven track and pot holes. With 90 miles in your legs stepping unexpectedly into a rut of just an inch in depth can feel like your whole body being shattered. There is also the intimidating sound of wild dogs from the trees to contend with. Alone in the dark and with almost 4 marathons in your legs you start to worry about having to fight a dog.
After 96 miles there is a 2 mile steep incline towards "base camp", the foot of Sangras pass. After 100 miles of battering your legs on a road you now have to climb up a mountain with no human track.
The mountain climb is actually quite enjoyable, bloody hard work but can actually feel like a break from the running. It requires hands and knees sometimes but you get the most spectacular views of the race, you can see the lights of the towns miles back that you have run though and at the top you can see the lights of the towns you are still to run.
The top is cold and someone grabs onto you and bundles you into a chair and shoves hot drinks in your hands.The decent is what broke me last time, my quads and shins felt like breaking. At the bottom I was a mess, with a double marathon to go.
The roads remain quiet as the sun rises, it is generally downhill which is worse if your shins are smashed. The sun might come out again as you make the slow descent into Sparta. The roads get very busy and you are on a highway with cars doing 60mph. There are loads of switchbacks which mean crossing the road, which is dangerous as the cars go so fast and I will be going so slow. This is the part where you get really paranoid about not making the cut-off, constantly looking at the watch and trying to calculate whether you have enough time. This drove me crazy last time. I could not get it out of my head, even after the race.
And then the end, the crowds at Sparta welcoming all those who are about to complete the race. Last year for me it was a relief, this year I want it to be more dignified. Finishing is by no means a certainty, infact the stats show it's an improbability. I just want to run up to that thing, smiling and able to enjoy the aftermath. And pissing anything but red would also be a bonus.