How to screw up your Spartathlon in the next 16 weeks

It's 16 weeks until the Spartathlon. This is going to be my main event of the year, just as it is pretty much every year. Just in case there was any confusion, after my disaster on the Grand Union Canal I will not be turning back from that statue. I'll save that for another year. Which actually frees me to get really excited about this race.

I think about it every day, every run, every niggle and every time I log in to my stuff (Yes my password is Spartathlon based but you'll never guess it).   As it stands I am winning 3-0. That's actually a pretty good score if I can have a moment of self congratulation. Not many people finish three in a row or have a 100% record of finishing this race. I'd like to think I've done some things right in getting this score.

That is what this post is about.

Lamb to the slaughter

16 weeks to go I want to share all I know that may help. The focus of this will be on what can be done in the next 16 weeks at may get you in the kind of shape to finish the race.  

A really brief summary of my three finishes.

In 2009 I got to the start in the shape of my life, set out too fast really hurt myself and finished by the skin of my worn out balls in 35.01. I swore immediately after that I would never do this race again, that hurt too much.   I changed my mind.  

In 2010 I did the Spartathlon on the back of only doing other big races (Badwater and UTMB). My original plan was that the Spartathlon would be a stepping stone to Badwater. I realised that I had these the wrong way round. I was not in such great shape that year but I ran what I would call a smart race and finished in 33.24.  

In 2011 I didn't start the race. I had a place but after the Trans AM I was in no state to do it justice. I flew out and supported instead. Really glad I did that, I learned a lot.  

In 2012 I probably had more doubts about finishing than either of the previous two times. I was not in great shape physically or mentally. It was hotter than it had ever been, the drop out rate was immense and yet I managed to finish again. Veterans of the Spartathlon will probably understand me if I say that in that year the race made me finish it.  

So, what did I do to get these three finishes?

I actually did three different things Each time I took a completely different approach.  

Back in May 2009 I had a pretty poor Grand Union Canal Race. Though mostly my own fault I took over 37 hours to get to Little Venice, the previous year I did it in 30.36 which back in the day was a fast time. I was hoping for under 30, it didn't quite work out. I signed up for the Spartathlon the week after and vowed to get myself into shape to do the race.   In those 4 months I lost a bit of weight and focussed on running high mileage but fairly fast weeks. I ran some marathons here and there and with the exception of the Davos K78 I don't think I ran over 40 miles in one go.  

30 miles in, you need to be able to do that fairly fast

I was running to and from work several times a week (18 mile round trip) and then usually a trail marathon at the weekend. For June and July I was doing around 50-70 miles per week mostly 9 miles at a time.   Then in August I had my highest ever monthly mileage, 520. I was quite lucky for a number of reasons. I worked for the postal services, the postmen were on strike which meant I had to help out in the sorting offices and deliver mail. I was working postman hours which I discovered were 7-12. I basically had all afternoon to run. I took advantage of this. The next bit of luck was the weather, Britain had a heatwave and often the temperature was near to 30 degrees. So I got a lot of time to run in the heat of the day.

In that August I ran 12 runs of more than a marathon, usually after work and in blazing sunshine. Not only did I get lots of good training done but I learned a lot about how my body deals with the heat, how to drink, how to eat. I stopped in McDonalds a lot and amassed a collection of 8 coke glasses that they were giving away. This month cummulated with me running 153 miles in 5 days over a scorching bank holiday weekend. What was most memorable was that the last few miles of that last run (which was about 40 miles) felt as good as any, I was still keeping up a decent pace. I felt like I could have gone on for more days, I felt great, I was really confident in my running and confident of ticking off this "Spartathlon" that people had talked about.  

On race day that confidence may have expressed itself as over confidence, I set out quite quickly, running the first 50 miles in 7.37. That was the fastest I have ever run that distance. I felt pretty good at that stage and maintained this kind of pace for at least another 20, getting through Nemea (half way) in good form. Things started to unravel though. I was hours ahead of cut-offs and moving fast but made a real shitty job of the mountain. I thought Mark Cockbain was joking when he said it's a "hands and knees" climb. Sometimes it ends up being a face climb. That slowed me massively and then on coming down the steep roads I really hurt my foot. I don't believe it was a stress fracture or anything (and nowadays the words stress fracture seem to be synonymous with "hurty foot") but it did hurt more than anything before and it did take a long time to get better. I had a lot of pain killers, pissed some blood and scraped over the finish line. I was in about 40th place at the mountain, 103rd at the finish. It took 45 minutes to do the last mile. That was no way to finish a race. But I did and so you would count that as a success.  

So in summary, I did lots of short(ish) fast(ish) training, got a lot of confidence, perhaps set out a bit too keenly but got there in the end.  

The second year I didn't really do much training as such, I just did other races. I applied for Badwater and UTMB and got into both. The lottery races are ones you have to do when the opportunity comes. It wasn't deliberate.   I finished Badwater in July in just over 39 hours. The race did not take as much out of me as either GUCR's or the Spartathlon beforehand. Two weeks later I ran the Davos 78k in 10 hours. At the end of August and contrary to all advice you'll hear I went ahead and ran the UTMB 4 weeks before the Spartathlon. I figured that race is more of a long cheese hike.

Unfortunately the race surrendered to the weather and was cut short, I think I only did 2/3 of the race in the end.   I felt in good form on race day. I didn't think I was as fit as I was a year earlier but I was now a veteran of more ultras, 4 of which were 135+ miles. Of the three Spartathlons I have finished I think this was my smartest race. I knew what went wrong last time and corrected it. I didn't get carried away trying to keep up with others or worse, wait for others. I did my own thing and got my best time of 33.25. I was an hour slower reaching 50 than the previous year, I made up those 3 hours later on.  

The third year I did the Spartathlon was in 2012 and I would say that I got to the startline in the worst shape of all three. I had a summer of DNFing everything and was very short on longer runs, I ran the Thames Path 100 in March and nothing of more than 40 miles since.   So what does this all mean? Well hopefully you will see that there is more than one way to kiss a foot, as the saying goes.

I get asked a lot about how to train for the Spartathlon as if I am some sort of authority on the subject. I will gladly accept this role one day but believe I need to get to at least 6 finishes first, and some quicker times. For what it's worth this is what I will be doing and what I suggest.

The last 16 weeks.  

This race takes 2-5 years to train for. You should now be 90% of the way there to completing the Spartathlon. All you can do now is fine tune yourself and working on that 10% More often than not though I see people working on fucking up that 90%.

I think right now you need to be able to do two things, one from each of these lists;

The "Speed" list.

  • Run 100k in 10.30
  • Run 50 miles in 8.30
  • Thames Path 50 in 8.30
  • Country to Capital in 7.30
  • Comrades in 9.30

The Endurance list

  • Grand Union Canal Run (supported) in 32-34 hours, (unsupported) in 34-36 hours
  • 24 hour track distance 190k
  • Flat 100 miler (eg Track, Rocky Racoon, Thames Path, Cotswold) in 21 hours
  • Hilly 100 miler (eg North Downs Way, South Downs Way) in 24 hours
  • Badwater in 36 hours

Obviously this is geared towards the races I have done or know about. It's hard for me to factor in races such as UTMB, Western States etc however these ones are probably too different from the Greek roads to really be comparable. I think you need a combination of two things here to get through the race. Many turn up with one and not the other.

What is going to get me through this race;  

  • The 18000 miles I have run in the last 6 years
  • The 10 or so races where I have had to run through the night and day again.
  • Knowing what to do when it's hot
  • My three previous Spartathlon finishes
  • The lingering but ever fading taste of that brass foot on my lips.  

I already know that I can run 150 miles and keep moving for 40 hours. I know that I can overcome blisters, sickness, fatigue, pain, despondancy, boredom and demons to get to the finish line. The last 5 years have given me most of what I need, I just have to tinker with the remaining 10% to give myself the best chance of finishing and hopefully a good time (sub 30).  

I will be doing this in a very similar way to how trained for it the first time. I will be spending the next 16 weeks running lots of 20-35 mile runs at a reasonable pace. I am going to run when it's hot, try to run 100 mile weeks of mainly 10 mile runs to and from work with some 20-30 mile runs at the weekend.

I'll run a few night runs, up and down hills for the night time hours.

I will do park runs and shorter races wherever available.

I'll do Bikram Yoga (have not done this since before Badwater).

I'll go to Spain for a weekend and run in the heat. Mainly because I actually like the heat.

In August I will do what I did 4 years ago, dedicate the whole month to high mileage. 2-3 30 mile runs a week trying to focus on doing them at a reasonable pace.

Oh and something that I don't need to do (but suggest you may like to consider) is that I'll not be training or racing with Garmins or gadgets. I know many of you will be plotting now how you can get your 20 hour device to last 36 hours, via solar chargers, kinetic energy pads or replacements in drop bags. There are 75 checkpoints that declare the distance along the way. These by themselves are almost a curse, it's like they are drip feeding you anxiety. I can't imagine what it would be like to have this information with you constantly. This isn't just one of my usual rants but I don't know any Spartathlon finishers who use this kind of shit. But that's all I'll say.

Drip fed anxiety

OK it seems strange that I should follow the training that I did to get my slowest time, however I think my fitness in the first half of that race got me so far ahead of any danger that breaking myself later on didn't stop me. The next two times I relied on experience of the first time and now I can rely on the experience of three times to get me though it. Not many people have that and so I suggest training hard instead.

Over the years I've seen lots of friends finish and DNF this race. I've seen quicker runners than me DNF and I've seen slower runners than me finish. I've seen some different approaches and am going to list a few things that I think are bad ideas in the next 16 weeks.

  • Doing too many big races. I have none between now and Spartathlon and I suggest one more maximum. I know it's hard to say no to stuff and there is so much more out there. SDW100, NDW100, UTMB (pushing it but possible I think). You can count every 100+ mile run you have done as training for this
  • Neglecting speed - doing so many long long slow miles that a 9 minute mile feels like a sprint. Don't just run yourself in the ground trying to clock up the miles. Park runs, 10ks. It's all good.
  • Destroying your confidence - You really need to believe you can finish this. It's a bloody hard race and is not a given. You need to be confident in your ability to run. This confidence will be battered by a string of underperformances in a load of bigs races over the summer. You may be capable of a 20-24 hour 100 miler but if you are ruining yourself plodding from race to race finishing in 29+ hours you are going to feel like a shit runner. Feeling like a shit runner will not get you to the end.
  • Completely neglecting the heat. It's hard to get heat training done when we live in the UK and summer has just gone. Take any opportunity that comes.
  • Only just qualifying. the 10.30 100k is something you need to do to have the speed for the early race. If that is the furthest you have gone then you may struggle later

OK that's enough from me. See you out there on the trails in the heat :)

Seriously - I've done this three times now and I'm shit