I thought about the streets of Sparta every day since I finished Badwater. I had made Badwater my 4 year obsession and finishing that was something that I had to do, however along the journey to Death Valley I came across a race that just blows everything else out of the water. I did not see this coming when I set out to complete Badwater all that time ago but I am very glad of the discovery. I don't want to say that Badwater didn't mean anything because it meant the world to me, but even while ascending those long passes and struggling through the heat I knew I was going to finish and hence the fear of failure was not there. Deep down I knew that this was another step on the way to the main event of the year.
It's quite hard to say what it is about the Spartathlon that has me (and hundreds of hardcore ultra marathon veterans) flocking to Athens late September every year. Maybe it's the history? Or the international field. Or the welcoming nature of the organisers and helpers of the race. Or perhaps it's the severe cut-off times that eliminate more than half the field each year. Whatever it is the Spartathlon is a fixture in the calendar of so many runners, for most including myself it is the last "big" race of the year. I had unfinished business here, though I finished last year I did not feel like I beat the race. My body was so broken I could not run to the statue of Leonidas as I had dreamed of before. This time I was back to live that dream.
The Start - Getting to Corinth
The race starts as soon as the sun starts to shine on the Acropolis of Athens, high up in the capital on a Friday morning. It really is an inspiring yet intimidating sight to see such a huge formation of rock that was present 2500 years ago when the pioneer of ultra-running Phiedippides ran the distance we were all about to start. I tried not to think too much about what was up ahead because I knew how hard it was.
It all felt very familiar as we descending the cobbles of the Acropolis and down into the city, as if I had never left this race. Perhaps I never had? I have been thinking about it so much. The concrete paths with random bollards sticking up, the police halting the rush hour traffic of Athens and then the long uphill road out of the city. I even found myself running with some of the same people as last year, a girl with a pink skort, a very large Norwegian guy with a very impressive moustache and a Korean guy who seemed to run with a load of pots and pans who jangled along like a brass band. After a couple of miles a tram crossing closed to allow a tram by but some runners just ignored and ran straight across. For the sake of 20 seconds is it worth getting hit by a tram? Well, actually sometimes those 20 seconds....
I had become seperated from the other Brits and was not too sure where everyone was. I figured Mark and Peter were up ahead. I was intending to take the first 50 miles slower than last year as I felt like I burnt out a bit doing the first 50 miles in 7.37. It was not as hot as last year (it was going to be about 28 rather than 33) but it was quite humid as it hade been raining quite a lot. That combined with the traffic and the oil refineries made breathing quite hard work for everyone. My achillies, calves and groin were already complaining just as they were this time last year. I stopped to stretch a few times but knew I didn't really have too much to worry about, just like last year I just need about 30 miles in the legs before things loosen up a bit.
The first marathon came in around 4.15, half an hour slower than last year. It was perfect in terms of time but I was worried that I didn't really feel any fresher for it, I was warm and uncomfortable and sweating hugely. I had made a decision (a good one I think) to carry a water bottle with me and the electrolyte solution which may help me avoid the kidney problems I had last year. The next 24 miles were tough too, it was getting warm and the sweat was blinding me. Miles 30-50 are along a road next to the Aegean sea, it is a beautiful blue colour and in the heat of the day the temptation to wander down and jump in is huge. There is a slight breeze sometimes but not enough to dry my face. I spend this section running close to Neil who is here despite a foot injury which has not yet caused any bother. We talk about how bloody tough the race is even though we know we are only a quarter of the way in. The sea looks so blue and there are moments when you are only a few feet away from it. The temptation to dive in is incredible.
Checkpoints become less and less busy, it becomes much easier to grab things and move on. I decided to take no personal food with me at all this year as last year I took lots and ate none of it. I was relying on the supplies on the tables which were very basic. Crisps, biscuits, fruit and drinks. There was plenty of coke which was diluted with water. I heard a girl rush up and ask for "just coke" from one of the helpers. They looked back a little concerned and said "you know it's not good for you don't you?" I nearly spat mine out.
The last few miles into Corinth are on a busy highway in the heat of the day. It goes up slightly and feels like more of an effort than it should be. I'm looking forward to the first major checkpoint of the race, 50 miles with a 9.30 cut-off, I get there in 8.35, almost exactly an hour slower than last time, which is fine as that was the intention, however I feel shattered and out of energy. I felt great at this point last year, and I was an hour ahead.
Why do people come back again and again to do this? It certainly is not for the views. I had just run through 50 miles of dirty city and industrial estates that reeked of oil and dead animals (and one human as discovered by an American on a toilet stop). If you were trying to pick an ugly 50 miles you'd do well to beat this. And so many runners come here carrying some niggles or injuries that really should prevent them from starting. But once you get the place and start getting the information through the post it is hard to stay away. Runners will start and "see how it goes", some would describe this as not being sensible. Well I think that if were were sensible we'd not apply to enter the race in the first place.
So there I was, sat down at Corinth eating rice while contemplating what I was doing there. I was there to complete an event that was ugly, pointless and stupid. This made me chuckle and get off my chair. I only half finished the rice. I said goodbye to Stu and Bob who had unfortunately dropped from the race and headed into the quiet roads through the olive fields. I spent a lot less time in that CP than I did last year.
Getting to the mountain.
Now the route becomes quite nice. The roads are much quieter and most of the traffic is that of the support crews for the race who are only allowed to start supporting after the 50 mile point. I had broken this race down into 4 parts; getting to Corinth, getting to the mountain, getting over the mountain and then getting to the statue. I was 9 hours in, a quarter in absolute time and a third in absolute distance but these meant little. I remembered that later in the race every mile can feel like 5 and minutes feel like hours. I ran with Neil for a few more miles but decided to push on as I really started to feel much better.
A support car was driving slowly and asking everyone where they were from. I heard "Korea", "Italia" and "Brasil" behind me. The car caught up to me and without even asking they just pointed at me and yelled "GREEK". I would have protested but I was sporting a beard and a tan so could easily see the confusion. If you are going to run this race I have a little gem of advice, if you run near the Brasilian team you get followed by a car full of hotties, helps to distract. Most of the nationalities sported nice matching kits for the race. Brazil, Japan, Estonia, Italy all looked very smart and could easily be identified. I commented at the start that the British turn up looking like a bunch of tramps wearing all sorts of random crap that we have accumulated from races in the UK. I was wearing the twat hat again and it was doing it's job well.
Not long after I upped the pace I spotted Mark, he looked like he was struggling. Gemma had been texting me with updates on how the Brits were doing and told me that Mark had gone through Corinth nearly an hour before me along with Emily Gelder. I chatted to him for a few minutes and walked up a short hill. I said see you later and carried on, expecting him and Neil to catch up with me again at some stage.
Around 60 miles in I started chatting to an American who seemed in really good spirits except he told me that he was shitting blood and asked me for advice on what to do. I really didn't know what to say as I didn't know how serious that is. (It IS serious). I told him about my experience of pissing blood and suggested that if nothing was really hurting then it probably was not too bad. I could not tell him that everything was fine but nor could I tell him that he should pull out of the race. I said as much and headed off again.
Soon after I passed the villiage where the kids run up to you and ask for autographs. I signed a few and they seem to really go crazy for it. Martin told me after the race that he likes to sign "David Beckham" when he does them. It's quite nice though you can't do them all and I felt guilty when I ran past a child with a pad and pen held out. Still, not as guilty as I would feel if that American died.
100k came in around 11 hours and I was still feeling really good. The field was really spacing out now and sometimes I had no one in view, ahead or behind. The roads are permanently marked so well that it is almost impossible to get lost. Not long after I catch up with Kevin who I met the previous day. He looked to be going through a rough patch just as Mark had and I told him that it would pass. Such a huge race you are going to go through several low points and I had had some of mine in the first 50 miles, but now I was making good progress and had to run my own race and press on. I said bye again, fully expecting to bump into him later on.
I remember from last year that the big rolling hills start here, they are a bit steeper than the ones we have faced so far. The sun sets suddenly and I realise that I had stupidly left my night gear at CP35, I was only on 30. I had a good 10 miles to go in the dark with no lights. The clouds had covered the moon so natural light was minimal. I used the light on my phone when needed to keep on the road and followed any other light I could find.
This year I had gone really easy on drop bags, leaving only 4. Suncream at CP15, Night clothes and Torch at CP35, A change of shoes and socks at CP 49 just after the mountain and then daytime clothes at CP60A. I took absolutely no food and was going to rely on what was at the checkpoints. Last year I had 20 drop bags with food but ended up not touching most of them. I just kept it simple this time although I messed up the timing of the sunset.
Not long after I got my night gear, which was nothing more than a long sleeve top, a reflective gillet and a torch it started to rain. It just started with drizzle but slowly got worse until you could describe it as proper rain. On the plus side the water gushing down was acting like ice on my legs and easing the pain a little but worryingly I was starting to feel cold. It was no where near the coldest part of the night yet and I still had the mountain to climb, which is cool at the best of times. One of the guys in the checkpoint commented on my running attire. I was wearing a shirt with collars and a silly hat. He said he saw me at the start and just assumed I was a tourist following the race. He said I looked like the smartest runner out there which was funny as I was recently called the second scruffiest man in the Serpentine running club.
I worried a bit about the mountain. I didn't do a good job of it last year and if I am freezing and slipping about all over the place that will only make it worse. Almost on that thought the heavens really did open and turn the roads into streams and mud baths. I was amazed again how muddy it got as the rain coincided with the off-road section of the run at about 90 miles. It got so bad I cowered under the gazebo of the next checkpoint and stole a black bag to shelter from the pouring rain, it was horrendous. I stayed there for about 10 minutes waiting for the rain to abate as slowly more and more runners came and did the same. The cover was small and others complained of being cold.
We joked at the start about me being cursed in races and them ending up being cut short. It happened in the Marathon Des Sables and again in the UTMB. Ultrarunners (well the ones I know anyway) don't want anything to be cut short or even for other circumstances to make it easier. No one wants to do Badwater on a "cool" year or Rotherham on a dry year. I looked at the weather reports before the race and was actually a little disappointed to see that is was only about 28 degrees rather than the 30's we had last year (though the humidity more than compensated). Many of us have this perverse desire for the conditions to be really bad just to make it even tought, like 40 degrees or a tropical storm or hurricanes. The rain sure was making it hard and I was thinking about how difficult it would be to get up the mountain, but I was more concerned that they might not even let anyone try.
It finally calmed down and I started to run on again, faster for some reason as if I could outrun the next down pour. Runners covered their reflective tops with black bags and became ghosts on the road, you could not see them event while shining a light near them. It was a strange sensation not knowing whether it was a person in front of you or just a blip in your vision. I was getting tired, still a bit cold and some of the road turned into river. I was ankle deep running through some times and the darkness make me paranoid about twisting my ankles. Still the cold water on my legs was very welcome.
Before long I could see the point of the race that smashed my legs last year, the long switchbacks on the roads leading up to the rocky climb of Sangras Pass.
It looked a lot like the climbs I had seen in the UTMB last month, headlmaps heading off up into the stars except this one had a long stretch of highway building up to it. I was starting to feel sleepy and remembered that I had a Red Bull shot in my belt and was thinking of the opportune moment to take it. I managed to sleep quite well the previous night, I don't panic about not sleeping nowadays which helps and I tried to lay off the caffiene the week before. There is a CP just before the 2km climb up to "Base Camp" - CP47. I had a cup of coffee and leisurely walked up the road, the first time in the race I felt like I took it easy. I could see for miles behind me at the villages that I had been through and the small glowing lights making their way towards the mountain. It really is an astonishing sight and one that I'd like to keep on seeing every year.
Base Camp - I got there around 3am, a little behind last year but I was certainly catching up with my former self. There is a different feel to this checkpoint, there are a lot more people there and several places to lie down and have a massage. I took this opportunity and felt great afterwards. While drinking a coffee I took some time to chat to the mainly British staff. They commented on how young I was and what I was doing such races for at that age. I didn't know what to say really, what was the alternative. I've just spent 20 hours running and now I have to climb a mountain. Would I trade this for being caged up in a pen to run some road marathon somewhere?
Getting over the mountain
As soon as you walk out of the checkpoint you start the ascent, very steep, lose rocks and lit up with glow sticks and bike lights. It's sometimes hard to tell whether a light up ahead is one of the markers or another runner. Last year on my scramble up this seemed to take forever and I was passed by at least 15 people on the way up. This time no one passed me at all which must have meant I got up there a lot quicker. It certainly felt much easier and shorter this time. I had no way of knowing as I didn't time it last time and I was not wearing a watch now anyway, I decided against this as I remember how crazy it drove me last year. In what seemed like no time at all I was back at the checkpoint where last year I was bundled into a chair and wrapped in a blanket. No need for bundling this time, I just walked over and sat down.
This time last year I was the first Brit to get to this point. This year I was the first British man, there were 2 female Brits who were having an amazing race. As soon as I was identified as British the marshalls there would tell me about Emily Gelder who was having an amazing race and leading the women and not far out of the top 10. She was doing amazingly well as was Heather Foundling-Hawker who was joint 2nd female. I was really pleased to see the Brit's having a good go at it this year and hoped that those just behind me, Mark, Neil, Kevin, Peter, Martin, Colin and all would be up here soon. A lot of people get the chop here. If you arrive just short of the cut-off you then have 40 minutes to get to the top of the mountain and then 35 to get back down. Fail that and you'll be picked up by the "Death Bus". I heard lots of stories about the Death Bus.
The Death Bus hangs back from the race and crawls along at the pace of the cut-offs. Though I had never been that close to the cut-offs I had visions of this thing snapping at your ankles and trying to run you over. Once you are on the bus you join all those who fell before you. In all likeliness they are going to be an unhealthy bunch. They may have had to pull out with sickness, stomach problems, dehydration, exhaustion or injury. Sat on this bus are living (just about) examples of some of the bad things that ultras do to you. If you happen to not be in such a state you soon will be on smelling and inhaling the terrible things that slosh around the place. You will be hoping the bus arrives in Sparta quickly, except it will only start the journey to Sparta when it is full. They joked about trying to knobble runners who were flagging just to fill the bus so everyone can get out of there. I don't want to get on that bus. I don't want to be anywhere near it.
It did not rain at all on the mountain, I was amazed it was bone dry. The downpour that seemed to follow us for a few miles only got a few of the runners, some missed it entirely and wondered what the fuss was. I jogged carefully down the other side. It's not nearly as steep as the up and the path is generally good but I didn't want to put a foot wrong. I broke here last time and around 20 people passed me. Last year I felt so lame as everyone else seemed to trot down the other side with some new found energy. I was terrible at downs and I know now that I am a bit less terrible. Only 2 people passed me this time, I felt good about this, I'm not so lame anymore. I had one fall on my arse but got to the bottom without incident and went further down the roads into Siagas, checkpoint 49 where I had a fresh pair of shoes waiting.
Getting to the statue
I was glowing having got up and down the mountain without any bother at all. I continued to run and for the first time I didn't recognise any of the roads ahead, it was like I was running here for the first time. It's strange how a race with so many miles, so many twists and turns, checkpoints, signs, bridges and other furniture that you run with a constant sense of deja-vu but for the next 15 miles or so I did not remember any of this. I was running in a valley with some roads by my side and much higher up. There were lots of buildings, bridges and a nice uphill section, all quite memorable but for this bit I had amnesia. Why didn't I know any of this? Perhaps I was going the wrong way? Funny how my memory wiped this whole bit out.
I remembered the sun rising last year and it was while I was running through a park. I ran through this park in darkness this time which meant that I had overtaken my last year run. 40 miles to go.
I could still run, uphill and downhill. The aches and pains that started so early went away for a while but were back now including a soreness in the sole of my foot. This was a new injury and hence a little concerning and I thought about what could have brought this on. Not long after I remembered that I had just run about 120 miles, that'll be it.
I remembered the last 50 miles as been mostly downhill but I was wrong, it still rolls and rolls up and down. The roads are deceptive like in Badwater and I can't tell whether I am going up or down. The "50k to go" then the "only a marathon to go" points should have lifted me but I was having a low spell. I guess I should be thankful, I suffered in the first 50 but had a great 80 miles, it was time to feel bad again.
Gemma had texted me to say that Peter, Neil and Kevin were out which did not help matters. It would be a dream to finish this race and for everyone I know to do the same so that we can can sit down at the end and reflect on a job well done. I felt a bit awkward last year talking to those who didn't make it about my experience. I was still having a great race and it would have been great to clap the other guys in.
It was getting warm, it was still humid and every now and then it would rain a little but not much. The weather conditions were enough to make me feel really warm sometimes and cold at others. Hitherto I had done a good job of not sitting down too much but I was faltering now, sitting down far too easily with excuses that did not exist, "I have something in my shoe", "I need a coffee", "I need to check my phone". My momentum had gone. I had left the quiet roads and was on the highway that headed into Sparta and it was much harder than I remember.
A guy passed me while I was sat down at a checkpoint who was running like I was 2 hours ago and he climbed into the distance with great speed. He was the first person to pass me since the mountain 30 miles ago. I looked at him get smaller and smaller and felt bad because that is exactly what I was doing earlier. The roads are lethal, cars whizzing around blind corners and without much respect for the walking lane. I zig-zagged along to avoid death and would walk around corners to be safer. It was much lonlier this year, not many people around at all whereas last year there was a whole chain of us. |I thought this was possibly the most dangerous conditions I have run in. I've done deserts and mountains and they have their risks but this was something else. At any other time it would be stupid to run against this traffic. There I said it, this race is pretty stupid.
I got another text to say that Mark was out. This was a shock, he has not dnf'ed anything since this race in 2004. I had already been told that more than half of the starters had dropped out and this was normal. I didn't want to get complacent and say I was definitely going to finish but with a half marathon to do in 5 hours and still in good shape. I had no excuse to mope around really, I just had to get it done. I didn't have a finish time in mind, just a finish and a better finish than last time. I just wanted to run to the statue instead of crawling to it. A finish would still do but I really wanted to leave here loving this race, whether that was done slower than last time or faster I didn't care. I was currently ahead of where I was last year and looking strong. My legs still allowed me to run up hills and down hills, I just couldn't be arsed. I just don't remember the road being this busy or going up as much as it did. With about 20k to go there is one last big push up hill and then it's down, all the way to Sparta.
You can see Sparta from miles away. It looks busy and confusing as roads stick out everywhere and there seems to be 2 cities in the distance. I can't imagine what Phiedippidies must have seen when stood on top of this hill looking down. I guess it would have looked even more spectacular, a large warrior city surrounded by green. In fact it was on fire, there was smoke billowing out of somewhere. I can remember what all the next 4 checkpoints looked like, the one next to the petrol station, the one just before the small town, the one in the middle of a traffic island. A few people passed me again at great speed as if they had just started running, or "doing a Woolley" as I lke to call it. I was able to run again but was not going to try to pace these guys, there was still 10k to go. Something could still go wrong. In fact something did.
(You don't have to read this bit). I was have a few chaffing issues, nothing major and probably unavoidable completely when doing such a long race. It gets worse after going to the toilet though after wiping. I went one final time in some trees and obviously wiped what remained of the vasaline I had on. When I got back onto the road I felt like someone was scratching my arse with a rusty spanner, it was agony. I yelled a few times (no one was around) and almost wept as I comtemplated finsihing with a long walk again. Luckily I had some lube on me and while I would not normally use my hands in this way to avoid germs I had no choice. With complete disregard for hygene and a completely new use for my water bottle I sorted myself out. Mental note for next time - take some wet wipes and hand sanitiser. Mental note for the rest of the race - don't drink out of this bottle anymore.
Now I was ready to run, down down down until you hit a very busy road with a checkpoint at the start. Along this road I pass a couple of people finishing in the same way I did last year, with a slow limp. I shook hands with a Hungarian guy who was over a mile from the end but I know from experience he was a good hour from the end, the race had smashed him but he was going to make it, he had loads of time.
The last checkpoint, on that island in the middle of a busy intersection. It was a glorious sight. All I had to do now was head up into the main street in Sparta, turn right after about a mile, turn right again then I'll see the end. I had no idea where these right turns were but on the other side of the road was a kid on a bike and he was there to guide me to the end. "Are you here to get me to the finish?" I said. He did not speak English but it did not matter, I just followed him as he braved the busy traffic through the town.
The last mile is slightly uphill but I was getting faster. All the pain went away. After around a mile I did the right turn and my cyclist was replaced by a Policeman on a motorbike. He would stop traffic to let me run through, the cars stopping to clap and cheers as I ran past. Another right turn and that was it, the end.
I could see the end of the road but the statue was obscured by trees. The crowd of people got denser and denser and then I spotted Lawrence, the first person I recognised since I saw Kevin about a day ago. Then I saw Mark and Peter and high-fived everyone and started to run even faster. This was the dream finish, running. There was the statue and the steps, I lept up them and then onto the pedestal of Leonidas and let out a scream. It was done and done so much better than last time.
I stepped down and went through the ceremony. Wreath, water from the river, perpex thingy, handshake, photo. I Looked over to my friends at the left and at the bar they were drinking in. They reassured me that I had a beer waiting and I was just about to head over when the medics apprehended me, like they do with everyone. I sat down and had my one blister popped and treated and she asked me if anything hurt. I had to think about it for a while before responding that nothing hurt at all. All the soreness for a few moments had disappeared, until I stood up.
Emily had come 1st in the womens race with an amazing time of just over 30.17. Heather in 32.43. Martin came in 34.19 and Colin (who I did not get to see after the race so get in touch) finished in 35.10.
Why come back?
Miles and miles of choking through the hot and noxious industrial lands of Greece made me realise just how ugly this race is. Playing chicken with fast cars on a winding highway having run 5 marathons without sleep made me realise that this race is pretty stupid too. There has to be something that draws people back?
What about the history? Well, having read so many different versions of the heroic tale of Phiedippidies the one that sounds the most likely is that he ran to Sparta to summon an army. He ran the 246km in 36 hours, a deed that would have been unthinkable at the time and even unthinkable until recently when this race was born. On arriving into Sparta Phiedippides pleaded with the Spartans to send an army to save Athens.
They said no.
By the time He got back to Athens the Athenian army had won the battle anyway. Epic though the run was is was in fact pointless. I can't imagine what he must have felt like in Sparta on hearing that he was not going to get any help or how much that played on his mind on his return journey. What reaction did he get on his return to Athens when the battle was already run?
I can imagine them all in the pub that evening celebrating the victory over the barbarians and laughing at some guy who ran 300 miles for nothing and then missed everything. "How many savages did you kill Phiedippides? oh no wait I remember you were scrambling over some mountain in the dark and even then God told you to turn bacvk as it was pointless, Ha ha ha ha ha". I suspect that to protect the man's dignity they made up the story of him running 26.2 miles and telling of victory and then dying. "Even though it's a lie at least you won't go down in history as some pointless ultra-running idiot". I'm sure he did not care about the mocking though. Whatever message he was delivering at least he had his dream job. I reckon he did not even care for the messages he had to deliver, he just wanted to run from place to place and probably ran all over Greece. It's the journey and all that. I doubt he would think people 2500 years from now would be re-creating one of his many runs every year but he would surely know that people will be doing exactly the same thing, in different places and different times. Even after cars had been invented.
So, to summarise the Spartathlon is ugly, stupid and ultimately pointless. See you next year.