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, ).
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.
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?
 Read “Six degrees of Empathy” by Simon Baron Cohen for more on this