The British Spartathlon Team

OK. The anxiety is over. No more waiting for my Spartathlon number. I got an email last night that confirms that I will be number 65 this year. I can't believe 64 people got in before me, I was up at 3am entering my details. Anyhoo, stress over for me and many others, now is the time to get on and think about running the race.

I first toed the start line of the Spartathlon in 2009, I was a boy amongst men. I listened in awe of some of the running achievements that my fellow runners had completed. It was a magical but humbling experience that I will never forget.

I also remember looking around at the truly international field that was present. It really is. I looked at the beautiful kit of the Korean team, the Japanese, the Croatian, Hungarian, German and Brazillian. They all looked amazing in preparation for this wonderful event.

I looked back at us Brits. We had guts and experience and resilience and speed. However we looked like the cast from Shameless.

And so I thought, why don't we have our own kit? This happened first in 2011 when Peter Leslie Foxall designed a brilliant T-Shirt with the slogan on the back "What have the Spartans ever done for US?"

Last year Stu Shipperly created an amazing T-Shirt which I wore for the who race (and bled on). Suddenly The Brits were looking like a smart outfit. SHAMELESS???

This year I want to take this further. I want to create a real "team" atmosphere. I think I have done well in my own personal objective of convincing others how magical this race is and take some pride in knowing that I have at least helped convince some people to attempt the worlds greatest race.

But as we all know, starting the race and finishing the race are very different things. This is one of the few races I know where finishing is not a given. I want more Brits (or anyone really) to kiss that foot because I can never put into words just how amazing it feels.

And so I have created website (with great help from Mimi Anderson, Matt Mahoney and Mark Woolley) for the British Spartathlon team which I hope will serve as a resource for all those heading out to Greece this year. I am hoping it is something that all Brits will find useful and will want to contribute to. I want this to be a longer term project too, not just for 2013 so if you have any designs on running the Spartathlon then this is for you.

Hopefully we will get some sponsors on board that will help our athletes on their journey to the feet on Leonidas. Also we are hoping to organise a "Spartathlon Boot Camp" in Spain to get us pasty Brits in the sunshine.

I am quite excited by all of this and hope you are too. If you are a Brit who has been accepted for the Spartathlon then please let me know. Any feedback, suggestions, contributions are most welcome. The site is in it's infancy right now as I collect content and figure out wordpress. In the meantime enjoy :)

British Spartathlon Team Website


Spartathlon 2012

I had doubts about this year, more than any other. They were almost all to do with my mental state going into the race. There was nothing that has happened that has made me less capable of finishing a race that I have already finished two times now. Though physically I had not done as much training as I’d have liked I knew it would not have stopped me from making it to the end. This summer has been pretty light on the running which is not the best preparation, but on the other hand you could say I’ve been training for this for five years now and that training has gone very well. I had no worries about my body.

My head has not been in anything recently, certainly not running. Without going into detail here I have been finding it too easy to give up on races. I have been suffering a huge amount of self-doubt which has been crippling me in races (and in real life too). Though I never realistically thought I could complete Barkley I definitely surrendered too soon. I should definitely have been capable of completing the UTSW in June. I was at one stage really looking forward to it but by the time it came I just could not get my head into the right place to finish it. I dropped about 20 miles in.

Then the 10 peaks challenge, a truly brutal scramble that would have taken 24 hours to complete except that towards the end I decided that it wasn’t worth finishing, with 1 peak left I just walked into Keswick and was done with it. Another DNF.

And so my biggest fear was that I’d fly out to Greece to the race I call my favourite having convinced a load of other Brits to come along for the experience too and then end up giving it less than my all and pulling out. Making the situation worse. I have not been running through this race in my head as much as in the previous attempts, I’ve not been dreaming of kissing that foot or of scrambling over that mountain or of seeing in a new day through some quiet olive fields in the valleys.

I really hoped that this race would be different, that somehow it would transform me into someone who cares about finishing once again, someone who doesn’t try and make excuses and justifications as to why it was a good idea to hold my hands up and surrender. I was hoping that standing beneath the Acropolis and the sun rose over it to mark the start of the race will transform my brain into something that didn’t give a fuck about anything else but winning the war I was about to start.

I think more than any other year and any other race I needed this. Right now I needed the Spartathlon.

Around 5.30 in the morning the runners gathered in the London hotel to eat breakfast, there was not much more than bread rolls and fruit, no fry up that I would like to start a two day slog with. I had been laying off the coffee for a number of days now in the hope that when I really needed it, sometime around 2 am when I am trying to scramble over a mountain and keep my eyes open I’ll be able to feel the proper benefit of the coffee bean.

I met with the other Brits who had signed up for this race, some of whom I think I may have influenced into doing this. Between us all we had done a lot of races. GUCRs, Badwaters, UTMBs, Western States 100s, Leadvilles, MDSs, Ultrabalatons, West Highland Ways, Lakeland 100s, Trans USAs, JOGLEs. There were a lot of first timers here who I think were eager to experience just how special this race is. I hope I had not oversold it.

We stepped out into the dark and onto one of the coaches that would transport 350 runners and some supporters though the sleeping streets of Athens towards it’s most historic point.

The Acropolis before dawn is an intimidating sight. There is little evidence of fear here, not on anyone’s face anyway. Perhaps it is all carefully contained inside. Or I suspect that it’s either ignorance or amnesia. Those who have not been here before don’t know what is about to happen, and those who have been here have forgotten. I still remember John Tyszkiewicz's words to me before my first Spartathlon – “Look at all these first timers, fresh faced like lambs to the slaughter". I don't know whether knowing just how much it was going to hurt actually helps, if at all.

We joked with the Americans as we saw the light start to penetrate the gaps in the brickwork and light up this magnificent ancient monument where 2500 years ago a professional runner set out to run the to warrior city of Sparti and try to raise an army. In five minutes we had the same task, minus the army raising bit. I really can’t comprehend how this run was completed by the second sunset by a lone runner with no support and having to avoid hostile city states along the way. There was little time for this kind of reflection though as almost by surprise the start horn sounded and 350 wars broke out.

The first mile is a downhill melee on cobblestones, I want e dot stick with some familiar faces but it is hard whilst trying to avoid running into others and avoiding kerbs. After it flattens out and heads through the main streets of Athens I settle into a steady pace with James Elson, happy to run with him for as long as it’s comfortable to. It’s really hard to know who is ahead and who is behind after the bumblebee dance at the start. After a few miles I believe that of the Brits, David Miles, Paul Mott are up ahead, LIzzy Hawker is way up ahead and most of the others are around me or behind. It never stays that way though, over the next few miles I will pass some and they will pass me as our individual responses to the heat, the hills, the distance and the sheer size of the task are exposed.

I enjoy a few miles running with James and Peter Johnson but I am always looking around for a place to have a shit. I try a portaloo in a park but it is locked, I eventually leave them after about 5 miles and head into some trees and do what I should have done hours ago if only I had not quit coffee. As I left the partially enclosed bushes I found another runner come in to use the same spot. I found it necessary to inform him of what I had done and where, didn’t want him slipping up early.

I didn’t manage to catch James again but rejoined the race with lots of other friends. Claire Shelley, Drew Sheffield, Allan Rumbles, Lindley Chambers, Rob Pinnington and Kevin Marshall. It was all laugh and smiles now, because we’d run about 5 miles, it was before 8am and the temperature could be described as “warm”.

The police do an outstanding job of halting rush hour in Athens to let this race unfold. The locals are less than enthusatic about it though, what is this race doing getting in the way of their day? I’m going to be late for my riot.

I pushed on ahead of the Brit pack, wanting to catch up with James as I thought he would be the best match for the pace I wanted to run, and also the company would have been great. I warned everyone time and time again though that you have to be ruthless and run your own race here, no trying to keep up with those who are too fast or waiting for those who might be falling behind. The company is great but it has to take second to running your own race.

It didn’t take long for the heat to kick in. The expectation for the first 50 miles is that you should average a sub 11 minute mile pace,  which can sound quite pedestrian expect that you have the hills, the heat and of course having to save something at the end of it for running another 103 miles. I was running an average of about 9.30 minute miles which would give me a 90 minute buffer at the first major checkpoint at Hellas Can – 50 miles. The cut off at 50 miles is 9.30 hours, in my previous two runs I have got to this point in 7.37 (and felt great but fell apart later) and 8.35 (feeling terrible but recovering and getting stronger later). I was hoping for somewhere in between this time, 8ish hours and ideally to feel great AND get stronger.

The heat cranked up like it had not done before here, I hit the marathon about 4.10, bang on 8 hour pace but feeling the strain already. One marathon down and 5 to go, that was the easy marathon done, the flat one in morning while it’s cool. Now I have a very hot marathon with some hills, followed by a warm marathon with major hills, followed by a dark marathon with hills and a mountain climb, followed by another dark marathon with leg breaking down hills and then finally one more marathon, with serious hills and serious heat.

Apparently I am good at running in the heat. It didn’t feel like that way but I survived the heatwave of the USA last year and I don’t think that helped me here in an acclimatisation sense but I felt like I knew what to do, based on some reading and talking to Serge Girards crew while in the states last year. I thought it was time to test some things.

Eating early and often. My blood normally tries to do three things, pump oxygen to the muscles, shunt heat from the organs to the skin and away and finally supply the digestive system with the blood it needs to do it’s stuff. Right now I am demanding huge amounts of the first two from my body and the third right now is superfluous. There is no need to keep my metabolism going as my body thinks that obviously I am not going to be doing this for long. In a few hours I’ll stop and then I can eat. I felt that eating was the only way to stop my digestive system from shutting down and was determined to eat something as often as possible, no matter how horrible it felt.

Cold water outside, warm water inside. This sounds like the most ridiculous thing but drinking cold water does not cool you down. In fact shoving ice cold water down is likely to increase stomach distress and result in even more eating problems and drinking problems. I filled my water bottle often and drank out of it while it was warm. There were complaints about lack of ice in the water but I reckon this was a good thing. I cooled my body by dosing myself in cold water at every checkpoint (at least when I could remember). I took electrolytes and drank lots of warm coke and isotonic drinks at the checkpoints. I made the mistake of only half filling my Elete bottle and only had enough on me for about 12 litres of water. That was silly.

Breathe through the nose. - Stops that really uncomfortable dry mouth sickly feeling and perhaps makes you go a bit slower. Warm air through the nose makes your brain warm up though.

Slow down in the shade - There is not much shade in this race at all, it's all so exposed. However there are sections where some trees cover the road and I slowed in those sections to cool down. I also ran any section that would shade even only my legs as they were getting slow roasted by the reflection of the road.

Remember how much I needed this - I didn't want to drop unless I was dead

Don’t Panic

Something I forgot was to lube my nipples. I use sudacrem as my lube of choice, it seems to work with the boys but not so well on the nipples. I felt them sting early on, within the first 10 miles and then after 20 there was blood. After 50 the blood had covered the beautiful British Spartathlon T Shirt that was made for us.

Just after the marathon point I caught up with David Miles and Paul Mott. Paul was striding up a hill with an amazing gait like I have never seen. He finished the Spartathlon last year in a great time because of this great stride and the fact that he never stopped for faffed around. David looked like the weather was getting the better of him but still looked to be moving forward at a reasonable clip. I chatted briefly to both and passed, hoping to see them again soon.

Around 50k I saw John Price standing at the side of the road, he has already been timed out at around 30k as he could not run fast enough in the heat. It was sad to see him in this way but he seemed relaxed about it and was looking forward to tracking the rest of the race.

Miles 30 – 40 can be fairly pleasant, there is a coastal road which is a joy to look at but at the same time quite tortuous for all I want to do is to dive into the water. At around 1.00 the temperature must have been 35C and with the humidity, the traffic and dust in the air it felt even worse.

The 3 or 4 miles up to Corith, the 50 mile point are hideous. An uphill slog on a busy highway when the heat is at it’s most intense. There are usually a fair few drop outs at this stage, not too many, around 50 out of the 300+ who start. Some people are spent by this point, having used everything they have to get here. Others get a little further having gone too fast and having little left, burning out in the next 10 miles. Time wise after this  point the cut offs “ease off”  little, giving anyone who has lots of energy left plenty of opportunity to make up some time on the remaining cut offs. I was looking forward to seeing Gemma for the first time since the Acropolis, she was at Corinth wating for me to arrive.

I first did this race about a month after I started seeing Gemma three years ago. I came back from that trip a broken man and swearing never to do this to myself again. I changed my mind and did it again in the following year, having a much better race and then vowing to return every year possible. I kept her away from this race until now. I wanted her to see what this means to me and what is so special about the event. I didn’t expect her to get an introduction quite like this.

I got to Hellas Can/Corinth/50 miles in 8.30 and feeling pretty rubbish. I immediately saw Lindley and Phil Smith, who I knew were behind me and hence now I knew they were out. I also saw James and Richard Webster who were just about the leave the checkpoint and continue, I was pleased that I caught them and perhaps could run with them later. I picked up some rice and sat down to eat it when Gemma came over to give me the news.

“Most of the Brits are out – Everyone, Drew, Allan, Rob, David, Lindley, Phil, Paul, Stu, Peter, Kevin, John, Bridget, Rajeev – everyone has been timed out”.

I could not believe that so many had gone, I could not believe they’d all get timed out before making it to the 50 miles. I was told of the people I knew there was only James and Richard up ahead and Claire behind me, everyone else was on the bus. I was shocked, I felt terrible, overheated and sick. I didn’t know what to say, I got up and walked out taking the rice with me and headed out to the quiet roads through the olive fields. Last time I really picked it up through here and was hopeful of a repeat.

I could see James and Richard in the distance now, they had not set out too fast which was good. I knew I would catch them at some point and right now I was trying to force this bowl of rice down me. It was not going down too easily and then a couple of miles later I walked through an area that smelled like really foul dog shit. It was enough to make me gag and spew up all the rice I had just so awkwardly consumed. I was fine though, I’d just have to remember to eat even more.

I caught James and Richard who were in great spirits despite the whitewash. We spoke about how it could have all happened and who was most likely to have suffered the most. It was a nice few miles where we started gaining some time back on the cut offs. I started to get cramp, something I have never had in a race before. I only normally get this afterwards but both my calves were cramping, causing incredible pain. I stopped many times to stretch them and took more salt. It got to a point where I had to say to the guy to leave me as I am going to have to lay down and sort this out. As I did lie down to put my feet up on a wall I wailed as both of my calves screamed. I lay down and could not move, there was no one else around to either help or at least smirk at this embarrassing situation unravelling on the floor of some dusty road. I managed to get onto my feet and plod on, knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to sit down again, which was probably a good thing.

The cramp did ease up and it took about an hour for me to catch up with James and Richard again. They were running a steady pace, walking any hills and jogging all the flat and down. It was good sticking with then and keeping the discipline of running anything that was easy to run and trying to make some time back.

I saw Gemma for the last time today at Ancient Corinth (miles away from modern polluted Corinth). It was around 90k in and I told her about my hideous cramp and general sickness. I stopped for a massage and had to explain to the lady that there was no way I way lying down, I would not get back up again. She finally understood and then massaged my calves while I stood there drinking coke.

Both Richard and James agreed that this was a race like non other. It is hard to explain what makes a dirty long hot road race the best ultra marathon in the world but I rarely find someone who has done this who does not agree. I think Richard hit the nail perfectly when describing the cut offs for this race. HE said that in other races he has done they all have had cut offs but that he has never even thought about them. “The cut offs are just not for us”.

All of the starters of the Spartathlon are seasoned ultra runners having completed other tough events before. Though they may not all be at the sharp end in races (in fact Richard often is) the big shock here is that the cut offs really are for us, they are a constant psychological menace that most of the people here have never experienced before. I’ve never been pushing the cut offs in the GUCR, Badwater or the UTMB. James was never pushing the cut offs in the Western States, Badwater or the UTMB. Richard never was in the GUCR, UTMB or in his numerous recent podium finishes.

Just as the sun started to go down I got news from Gemma that Claire Shelley had timed out. She got to 90k and was half an hour outside the cut off. The organisers in fact had let many runners through the 50 mile point after the cut off due to this extreme weather. I had never seen such a mass drop out.

The three of us resolved to finish this, that we were over the worst and nothing could stop us now. Unfortunately one thing about the heat is that once it’s got you it never leaves you alone. It was hard running those hot miles in the day but then it is equally as hard running in a warm night with burnt skin, hot blood and a mutinous digestive system. The night in the Spartathlon is long and hard.

The sun sets as the big climbs start to appear, the first after about 70 miles. We were sticking with the plan of walking anything that was uphill and running everything else, trying not to faff around at the checkpoints. My calf cramp had subsided, my legs felt better and I was really pleased to be running next to James and Richard and felt much more confident of making it to King Leonidas tomorrow.

With three of us running we all exchanged places as the person to keep us all going, it can be dangerous going too fast or too slow according to someone else’s pace but at the same time it can help to eliminate any needless walking. I was feeling great and wanting to push on, James and Richard seemed less keen on going faster so I held back a bit. I knew any spurt by me would be short lived and so it was probably a good idea to reign it back a bit. I was however worried that our current pace was not making much of a dent into the cut offs. We still only had an hour, about the same as we had at the 50 mile point. We were bearing down on the halfway point, Nemea and I was keen to keep my momentum going. I ran off from them into the second major checkpoint and sat for a while eating.

James and Richard came in about 5 minutes later. James was not stopping for long and by the time I had finished my food we were both about ready to go. Richard was on a bed getting a massage and looking very pale. I think the sun had burned him from the outside and now it was dark it was still burning him from the inside. I said I’m going to head out and James came with me but said he was going to walk until Richard caught up. I said I wanted to go ahead and we said our goodbyes and good lucks and I went on. Richard didn’t catch James again and eventually dropped out at 85 miles vomiting quite badly.

I was on my own now, as I always seem to be in this section. The race had spread out even more than usual, there are usually some people in sight or at least support cars. There is a section of gravel track where I always think I am lost as there are not many markings. Right now there are half as many people in the race as there are usually at this point and it shows, it was very lonely and dark.

I ran through some familiar sections of hills, tunnels, farms and bridges, it was like I had never left from the last time. I was running really well, feeling strong and at some point a camera van came out and spent ages following me from in front and behind with the camera trained on me. I would love to see that footage make it onto the DVD, just to see if I was actually looking as good as I felt. I hit a checkpoint in a small town which I recognised from last year as a place where a guy told me he thought I was a tourist at the start line and could not belive I was running the race dressed as I was. I was wearing a running shirt which was really cool (in a temperature sense). Just as I remembered this two guys piped up and said "Hey - you are that British guy from last time who was wearing that smart shirt". It was unreal, being recognised by the checkpoint and then chatting to these guys. As I enjoyed the conversation about how it was going it occured to me that I was very capable of a decent conversation and so was in pretty good shape. Always a good sign when you have yet to pass the "only 100k to go" point.

Around 90 miles in I caught up with a Canadian Glen Redpath and we ran together until the mountain. He was a very very fast trail runner (top 10 western states) and I felt a bit out of my league running with him but the pace was comfortable and we helped each other along quite a bit. He said he was not that great on the road but was glad to be doing this race. I know many a trail runner who dismisses this as a “road race” but I would say to all of you if you do one road race in your life do this one, no one has ever regret running this. Ever.

I chatted a lot with Glen as we headed up the all now familiar switchbacks up to Base Camp. We go down down down until we reach a sink where we can look straight up and see a highway. The highway skirts the mountain we later have to climb but first is the long slog up switchbacks. We pass a few people here, keeping up a good pace. In fact my uphill stride is faster than Glen's which suprises me. I saidto Glen just before we reached Base Camp that I was going to sit down there and have a cup of coffee, my first cup of coffee for 5 days. I had stopped drinking it to give my self a boost when I needed it and I thought there was no better time than the scramble over Sangas pass.

True to my word I slumped in a chair and asked for a cup of milky sugary coffee and Glen carried on, saying that I will catch him later but I am doubtful. He is likely to skip up and down that mountain like a mountain goat. I am more likely climb it like a lemon. I wave goodbye and start enjoying a massage whilst lying down drinking coffee. Every year I stop here for a little while, I usually have some time. I have about 2 hours on the cut offs now that I gained from running quite solidly with Glen. Every year I see at least one person slump down in the sheltered beds they have and ask to sleep. Depending on their state the numerous medics will suggest a time, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour. I always stare at them as I am lying on the massage table or stood around thinking that I am not going to see this person again. I don't know how many people get back up from sleeping for an hour.

I said goodbye to the checkpoint staff, many of who are Brits and head of to the start of the best bit of the best ultra marathon.

It isn't a hard climb. It isn't a big climb. I don't think it would look significant in the Lake District, certainly not the alps. The hardest thing is that you've already run 100 miles on road and in those 100 miles on road you have tried to conserve energy by lifting your feet off the ground as little as possible, shuffling along the burning highway gaining no unessesary height or grace in the motion. Now a complete change of movement was required to get me up the mountain and keep me off my face.

I never do this well. The first year I was terrible. The second was probably just as bad but it just felt faster. This time felt slow and hard again. I felt like I still had a lot of energy but just could not get any leg lift and so was tripping all over the place. No one passed me on the climb though, in fact there were at least 5 people going the other way including the two guys I spoke to earlier about having been here a few times. There were lots of cameras up there taking evidence of my slow progress. I could only make it a few rocks at a time before having torest my hands on my knees and breathe a little. I don't know why I always make such a meal of this.

But I reached the top and saw exactly what I had been thinking about for nearly two years now, two ladies in blankets by a tent and the most spectacular panorama I have ever seen in a race. Look behind and I can see as far back as Nemea, a town I ran though nearly a marathon ago. It will be closed now as a checkpoint but still alive as Greece is this time of night. Winding out from there are lights and the closer to the mountain the easier they are to identify as head lamps. There are a number of people behind me who have still got that big climb to do. I hope that two of these lights are James and Richard and that they are not too far behind.

Look ahead and it's the same, except the lights are moving slowly away. Down the steep swithcbacks of the mountain pass and then into the small town of Sangas and then on some more. These are the people who are way ahead of me, well on their way to completing the Spartathlon having done two thirds of it. Nothing is in the bag though. If I look far enough ahead I can perhaps see the point where I'll be lapped by the sun.

I stand up to leave and hear another runner scrambling up the mountain, it's the first other runner I have seen for an hour now and I am shocked to see that it's Mike Arnstien. Last I heard he was 11th in the race. I remember seeing Oz Pearlman sleeping at a CP earlier but figured Mike would be way ahead. I started the descent and he followed, quickly passing me and heading off into the distance. I got passed another couple of times going down, I am quite bad at it but was not taking any risks. This smashed me on the first year and I was not going to repeat.

The decent into the town of Sangas seemed to take a long time and on arrival my lead on the cut offs had been cut to 1.40. I was not too concerned though, I knew that was my slowest bit. I love checkpoint 49, I always leave a fresh pair of shoes there and always get offered help to put them on. There are always some very nice people there willing to chat to anyone who comes though and while I sat down changing into a fresh pair of identical shoes and faffing around to get my timing chip from one pair to another I was happy to yak away. I didn't feel sleep at all, this was a first and a very good sign. I was in good shape, full of confidence and ready to head of for the small matter of two more marathons.

I ran close to Mike for much of the next 10 miles, down familiar winding roads and into Nestani. The sky was clear and the moon was full, there was no need for headlamps here though a Korean guy we were running close to had a fog light strapped to his head which was lighting the night sky like a nuclear explosion. There is a long straight 4k section where I am running just behind Mike and I notice someone coming bounding up from behind me at great pace. I still thought I was going fast but the light was gaining like a car. I got to the checkpoint and saw that it was Oz Pearlman flying along, I thought he was out. He looked dead last time I saw him. He had just slept for a while and was back in the game.

It was great to see him and I kept with them for a while, sometimes ahead of them and sometimes behind. I reached the exact spot in a park where the sun rose that I have been for the last 3 years. My 24 hour progress seems to land me in the same spot every year, I was pleased, I was gaining on the cut offs again, having about 2 hours again. I text Gemma to ask if she is going to come back out to see me and shes says yes she will after breakfast.

I was determined to "keep" 2 hours buffer for the marathon and then take it from there. The calculations were still ringing. I was going at about 5 miles an hour on average but still worried that if it went wrong then 3 mph would be hard, particularly for a long way. I never felt safe. Mike and Oz were talking about the cut offs too, I bet they have never done any other race where the cut off times are of any interest to them at all. Mike did at some point yell "This race is kicking our ass". That's exactly what it does. It's why we come back every year.

The heat hit pretty early the next day as I rolled though the beautiful quiet village roads and in and out of Tegea where there was another major checkpoint with around 50k to go. I spoke to Chilsholm Dupree who I met last year here and he had been out supporting the Americans through the night. It was great to see him and he was always ready to help. "I can do 50k in 9 hours" I said. I hoped so.

The beautiful quiet roads we had been running on were about to come to an end. There is a turning with about 45k to go that goes onto the main highway into Sparta, it's hideous, dangerous and starts with a huge slog uphill. The only thing good about this climb is that some point on it you pass the "only a marathon to go" mark. I now had 2.30 on the cut offs, I achieved what I wanted with a marathon to go and then some more. I was more and more confident of finishing but the sun was beating down on me again, swirling my brain. I realised it had been two hours since I texted Gemma and sent her another one "Longest breakfast ever?" She apologised and said she was just leaving nowto come out and see me.

For some reason I didn't think the sun would hurt so much on the second day, I made this mistake in Badwater. It was actually hotter on the second day, I thought it would not matter as I was running much slower at this stage but it was still imense. The gaps between the checkpoints seemed to take longer, Apart from right at the start the longest gap between two checkpoints is 4.7k, this feels like an ultra in itself now though. I've got blisters in the middle of my toes and it hurts to run downhill. I also recognise the familiar tingling of my piss. I am pissing blood again. Or as Mark Cockbain later said "just a bit of kidney rattle".

Two hours passed since I last heard from Gemma and she is still not here. I send another frustrated text message "Car break down?" I just wanted to see her, I was starting to lose my mind now. The cars drive fast and there often is no shoulder to run in and makes this part of the race a death trap. I successfully navigate the road and onto 30k to go, still with over 2 hours on the cut offs and Gemma finally appears with Jon Knox who has flown out here to see that the Spartathlon is all about.

I am still running OK but I am stopping a lot at the checkpoints now, sitting down wiping my face, drinking cokes and moaning about what hurts. Nothing is really that bad I am just exhausted and have reached the stage where I want this to be over.

I get to the half marathon to go part still with over 2 hours on the cut off - I know I am there now barring getting hit by a car which is not too far from my imagination. My despondancy is lifted briefly by a lady who says to me "hey you are that guy who writes things on the internet". It's true, give mea piece of internet and I'll write on it.

With about 10k to go and still with more than two hours I decide that I can not run anymore and walk the rest of it, it will be at least two hours of plodding but I feel like I have got what I came more. My feet feel ruined. I get passed by at least 15 people as I awkwardly stagger down a huge downhill section and moan about how far the checkpoint is, 4.7k? how are we expected to cover that kind of distance?

I see Gemma for the last time at CP73 ourside a restaurant. I sob a bit, I am spent. She says she is going to the finish to see me there. I say I will be ages, it's about 5k to go. One more checkpoint and then the finish.

I head down the highway that leads into Sparta, I am alone now, I have not seen another runner for about 15 minutes. I sob again knowing that I have jsut done what I came out here to do. I didn't surrender, I made no excuses, I got through the race and soon I was going to be heading up the finishing straight of the greatest race I have ever known. I say out loudly to myself "Well done James - remember how much you fucking needed this".

I stagger across the road to the last checkpoint, filling up my water just for something to do, I'm not going to drink it. I wave goodbye for the last time this year the wonderful checkpoint volunteers that sustain us through this race. I stare up the street and start walking, no need to run, this is about finishing only this year, I can run another year. It's a longer stretch that the checkpoint distances suggest and not long after I see the first familiar face, Andrew who is out here writing an article about the Spartathlon (and Greece). He said before the race having spoken to me a lot that he was banking on me finishing. I was glad not to disappoint. I chatted about how stupid it is to run in this temperature. It's nearly over, just a few more minutes. Then ahead I see Allan Rumbles practically wetting himself with excitement. We hug and turn the corner. I am now on the finishing straight.

The first person I see here is Bando. You may remember him from New Mexico. The first thing he did when he saw me before the start was to pat my belly and say "this year you have not trained". I had not trained as much but I got through this one on want.

I then see Gemma, she has the British flag which I drape over me and she asks if I am going to run. It's one of those loaded questions, I have no choice, she is demanding that I run.

I started to run and to my shock I can run really fast. I mean really fast, outrunning the others in suprise. Phil Smith, Rob Pinningtin, Jon Knox, Lindley are there. I look out for others. I see Claire and Drew, then Lawrence and Martin, Then James Elson who I only recently discovered had pulled out too. I see Bridget for the first time since last year. I high five everyone I can spot, holding the flag and then waiting for that moment when the trees stop obscuring the view and you can see in all his glory, King Leonidas, looking dismissive as always but I don't care. I have not thought about his foot enough this year, this moment almost came as a suprise. This was my best ever finish, the one I am most proud of, the one I needed the most. My favourite photo - Photo by Lindley Chambers

I just rest my head on the foot, burning my face as it's go hot. I then go through the wonderful motions of completing a Spartathlon, a handshake with the RD, a wreath placed on my head, being presented with the water to drink, having loads and loads of photos taken and then being apprehended by the medical staff for checks. I head into the tent, everyone else is lying down but my resurgence means I can just sit again, have my blisters lanced and head over to the bar.


I will get beaten by this race one year. But 2012 was not that year. For that I am very grateful.


Why We Run

Was certainly a question Drew and I were asking at 2.45am on Sunday morning while the rest of London was asleep in total darkness. We could just go back to bed and get up at a normal time, head over to the London Marathon and cheer along the carnival, possibly via McDonalds and then just drink the afternoon away. Seemed like a perfect way to spend a sunny Sunday.

However our plan was different, we were up in the middle of the night to head over to Big Ben for 4am to meet Robin Harvie; author of Why We Run, to then run the London Marathon route in reverse. Why?

Drew and I set out, along the canal where even the geese were asleep and then on down a lively Edgeware Road that was still alive and the smell of shisha and the aura of mocking washed over us. We arrived at Big Ben around 3.45 and waited for the clock to strike 4 to head off on our meander back to Greenwich Park.

There were 7 of us in total. Myself, Drew, Mark, Rob, Alex, Hugh and Robin. The first few miles along the embankment were fairly easy going though and all the mile markers were already out there. Felt odd running through 25, then 24, then 23 etc. It was already quite warm and the weather reports promised a warm and sunny marathon later on.

Rob and Mark were setting a faster pace in front and the rest of us were happy to be plodding along at 4 hour marathon pace. I got a chance to chat to Robin about running and his book and future running plans as we counted down the miles.

Why We Run - The Book

It would be easy to compare this book to Feet in the Clouds and since I am a big fan of making things easy I think I will. There are a a few similarities. Both are very well written and are from the point of view of a "normal" runner, not a super-athlete. Both detail an obsession with a brutally hard endurance event. Both stories are told alongside the histories of those who have done the same before them. The key difference here was that the obsession was much closer to home for me. It was about the Spartathlon.

Robin is a normal guy, as far as you can call ultra-running and Spartathlons "normal". His journey into Ultras is quite similar to mine (and many others I am sure). He ran a few marathons, felt like he hit a plateux in terms of time and decided to go longer instead. He picked the Spartathlon as the race to do and set about an intense and time-consuming training schedule, much of it on the river Thames. I may have crossed paths with him along that river while training for the same thing. Just passing half way around 6am

There is a great account of the ancient olympics and some of the history of great endurance runners. This fits in perfectly with his accounts on training, his own motivations as to why he should take on something like the Spartathlon and his quest to discover why we run. I thoroughly recommend reading his account. Any of you obsessed with an endurance event (and I am guessing if you are here you will be) then this book is well worth reading.

So, back to the run. Why am I doing this again?

I continued to chat to Robin about the Spartathlon and said it was great that the race was getting some recognition as being the toughest race out there. All those I know who have done this and the other so called toughest (you know what they are) agree that running from Athens to Sparta in 36 hours agree that this is on top. His recent article in the Telegraph is a great read.

Poplar high street and Canary Wharf were very quiet at 5am, in just a few hours they will be overwhelmed with loud and colourful support. Day started to break around 5.30 and from 6 at the halfway point on the Tower Bridge there were signs of life as people in high-vis jackets started to build the huge event that is the London Marathon.

Over the bridge and into Bermondsey it felt odd to be running a course that I had done 4 times before through a city that I have lived in for 7 years and finding that I just did not recognise any of it. This part of the route is fairly residential and quiet at 7am. As we approached Greenwich the roads were being closed, the water stations loaded and masses of marshalls were assembling.

I felt quite good until arond the half marathon point. It has been a long time since I have ran this distance, not since my operation and it showed a bit. I also can't remember the last time I ran this much on roads, it was probably the Spartathlon last year. All of my races this year have been off road. I am not too worried though about having to run 45 miles on a road each day for 70 days.

My "plan" for the US would be to run at about the pace we were running here, about 9 minute miles but add lots of walking breaks in there so to finish 45 miles in around 10 hours. I think not having had any sleep the night before made it harder too.

I lost count of the number of people who shouted "you are going the wrong way". We saw a guy coming the other way who was doing the marathon 5 times. Not sure how he planned on doing that as he would have ended up at the end when it started.

There seemed to be some significant climbs heading into Greenwich which probably explains why people go so fast at the start going down them. By now the water stations were fully functional and waiting for the race to start in a couple of hours time.

It's amazing just what in event this is. Unlike other events this closes down one of the worlds biggest cities to stage this event. It is awesome to see just how many lorries full of water, energy drink, fences, cones etc are needed to make every single miles of this race. Glad I was not running the other way though.

We got to the start bang on 8, bang on target. I felt really quite knackered, more so than I would usually after doing the same much faster. I was really pleased to have got up. We said goodbye to Robin who was later on the TV and we walked through the starting areas. Ha ha ha these chumps have not even run a marathon yet today. Robin and the start line we were not allowed to cross

We got more of the "you are going the wrong way" remarks as we left the starting area to leave.

I spent the afternoon handing out water at the 20 mile water station. I was tired and though it does not sound like it handing out water is quite exhausting. I've done it a few times and trying to stay focussed while zombified runners stagger over and take water or miss you completely. It is great to be involved in this race. I take the piss out of it quite a lot but I wished I was there running.

And then off to the pub. I did well to stay awake so long, call it training. I'll need this kind of endurance. It was really great fun to run the London Marathon in reverse, great to meet Robin (and his book is really really good so I suggest you buy it) and made me think about why I run? While sat outside a pub on a hot afternoon with a MASSIVE calorie deficit to deal with I couldn't quite figure it out...

Spartathlon 2010

Best dressed?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

Busy AthensThe 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.Scenic

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.

No really, it's beautiful. 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. The tempting sea

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.

olive fieldsI 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.Temple of Apollo. I completely missed this last year.

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.

checkpoint at nightThis 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.The rain

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.

From now on I ignore the big number at the top and look only at the shrinking numberI 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.Hard to get lost in this one

2-0 33.24

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.

SpartaThey 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.

No longer a lamb

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.

Spartathlon 2009 Video

Blimey this brings back some memories. I forgot how hard it rained and I forgot how dark it was in places. I also forgot just how many people there were lying down in the medic tent. Brought back memories that make me want to go back right now. 


Part 1/4. I had to do all sorts of interweb trickery to get this onto the blog but here it is. In 4 parts. I can be seen at around 8.27 with my silly hat on running into a checkpoint. 


 Part 2/4 . I am around 5.30 walking into the checkpoint at Corinth.

Sparta 2/4
Uploaded by jamesradams. - More professional, college and classic sports videos.


Part 3/4 I am around 5 minutes in, sat down. BEWARE OF THE CHAIR.


Part 4/4

Spartathlon 2009 - Race Report


Apologies for how long this is. I don't really write this kind of stuff for anyone else but myself. I want to read this again in years to come and laugh at how stupid I was. I don't want to forget anything. Forgive the rambling, spelling and repeats. 


12 hours later

There are low points and high points to every big race I have done. They can come before, during or after the race. Last years GUCR I felt some crippling lows which were washed away by euphoric highs before the finish. I spent the days after just glowing whenever I thought about what I did. I was absolutely sure that this was the case in every big challenge that I'd put myself up against.
Last night I couldn't sleep. Despite being close to collapse on more than one occasion during the 35 hours I was plodding towards a statue I could not drift off. My body was broken, right foot swollen worse than I have ever seen, right shin felt splintered and broken. I could not lift my leg off the ground and the left was in no position to help out. Somehow I got a kidney infection which required me to get up very frequently and go to the toilet. When I did it felt like I was pissing razorblades and there was blood. The journey to the toilet was horrific. Several times I considered not getting up at all.

All the clothes I wore in the race are in the bin. 2 pairs of trainers, 3 tops (including 2 Serpie ones). I felt like I needed to burn them to cleanse myself of the race.

The pain was more than that though. I had spent 15 hours of Saturday battering my brain trying to calculate whether I was going fast enough to finish, working out worst case scenarios or "the point" where I could walk and still finish. Even after I had I still was going through all this in my head. What if I got the injury earlier? What if the sun came out on day 2? What if what if what if?

I've found that ultras have a way of breaking you into little bits and then the effort of finishing builds you back up into a greater person than when you started. This was certainly my experience in previous races, but right now I was still in pieces. I looked at my injuries and could not see how they were going to get better. I tried to think about some of the high points of the race but could not find any. The start line seemed to already be etched onto my long term memory even though I had barely slept since then, it seemed like an indeterminable time ago. 

I found it hard to accept all the congratulations I was getting from the people I was around because I still haven't come to terms with what has happened. I am feeling no joy or satisfaction from what I've done in the past 48 hours, only pain and a fear of not recovering. For the first time in my life I'm asking myself "why?" I have no answer, which leads me to think that this should be the end of it. 

The Race

Mark Cockbain, Me, Nick Lewis, Stuart Shipperly. Nick and I were the lambs to the slaughter.

We got a bus down to the Acropolis in Athens at 6am on Friday. The race was due to start at 7 from the historic centre of town. The sun was rising on what was going to be 2 hard days of running. I knew from the start that this was going to be the hardest thing I've ever attempted and that more would be between me and the finish line than in anything I have ever started before. 153 miles of non-stop running of rolling hills on Greek highways from Athens to Sparta. The temperature can get very high and there is little shade. This is unremarkable for some of the big hard ultras out there, others can boast better extremes. Badwater is run in a furnace, WS 100 and UTMB have their hills, The GUCR has Milton Keynes. However the Spartathlon is unique in enforcing a time limit which eliminates many of the field each year. 36 hours and strict cut-offs in between. In any other ultra you can go through a bad patch and slow down/stop and "take it easy", not in this one, you have to keep going, otherwise you are out.

I didn't let these things worry me from the start though. I was in good spirits. John T (4th Spartathlon) made a comment that I looked blissfully unaware of what was coming up. Like a happy dog being taken to the vets to be put asleep, stroked and fussed over like a "good boy" before being given an injection. I had an inkling of what was up ahead but little more than that. 

"Too much knowledge can hold you back. Ignorance on the other hand, that was something that could get you to the finishing line" - Mark Will-Weber

I spent the 2 days before the race feeling like "Junior". Everyone I met here is doing their umpteenth Spartathlon. Not only that but "Badwaters", "UTMBs", "Western States", "Hardrocks" and "Trans-US" were just being thrown into conversations without any hesitation or even much acknowledgement from others. It was typical for someone's running CV to read "5 Badwaters, 4 Western States, 8 Spartathlons, a Trans US and some other fun runs". My 2 canal runs felt a bit pedestrian. These were both shorter than the Sparathlon, flat and with all the time in the world to complete them. No pressure in the big scheme of things. Over the past 18 months I had got used to being one of the more "experienced" runners in events that I did, today I was a baby. John Price, an American I met had been running ultras since before I could walk. It was great to be in such good company though. 

The race started bang on 7am to a countdown of 10 and then off through the cobbled path of the park and into the city. The roads are all closed to traffic while 300 odd runners heave through the city. They all seemed much more patient than I thought they'd be. I chatted to John T about his previous attempts. This was his 4th go and was hoping for a 2nd finish. I mentioned that I'd only ever been to Athens before for the Athens Marathon in 2006. He said that he thinks he ran that one too. After some more chatting I said "I'm going to let my youthful exuberance take over" and ran on ahead wishing him luck. I went ahead and suddenly a thought popped into my head.

The Athens Marathon would normally be such an forgettable race except that it was a landmark in my own journey as a runner. It was the day when I realised that there is so much more to running than marathons. I spoke to many people along the way including a couple of British guys in fancy dress who mentioned a race they were training for called "The Sparathlon". I asked what it was and they explained and I dismissed this as idiocy. How on earth can someone run that? As soon as I looked it up it became something I had to do, but would need several years to get up to that level. I wondered whether it was John who I spoke to? Was he the person responsible for getting me into this?

Soon we were joined by traffic and headed out of Athens along a very busy road. The heat was starting to rise and the cars whizzing past would have made it worse. I was running close to Peter Leslie Foxall (14th Spartathlon) and Mark Cockbain (4 Spartathons, 4 Badwaters, 1 double Badwater, Trans 333 and more ultras that I've had hot dinners). We were running at a similar pace but spaced apart. It was nice to have some familiar faces around.
Quite early on I had some stiffness in my groin. I'd stop every few miles and sit down to try and stretch it out. I resisted the temptation to sit at a bus stop in case people thought I was giving up already. For 3 months before the race I suffered a bit from tight achillies which would go away after a few miles. I knew that these little niggles would go away with a little warm up, like 30 miles.
The heat was rising, I was wearing my stupid looking sun hat I got from the Picnic Marathon. I commented at the start of the race that I was wearing nothing that would identify me as being British, other than just looking like a dickhead. The other Brits agreed, I did look like a dickhead, and hence I did look British. The hat was actually very very useful, each checkpoint would have a bucket of water with sponges in. I would just dunk the hat in and put it back on. I remembered to plaster my body in sun cream which I had forgotten to my cost on the canal in May. I did get quite hot (34 degrees) but I was dealing with it well.

The first marathon was completed in about 3.47. 

About 30 miles in,

Exactly 4 years ago I ran the Berlin Marathon in exactly the same time, and that was a pb and I could not move any more after that. I've changed somewhat since that time when I nervously took to the streets in Berlin. I like thinking about things like this. I imagined going back to me 4 years ago and saying at the end of the Berlin Marathon that in a few years I'll carry on running, for nearly 5 more marathons, without stopping. Back then I would have choked on my Weissbeer, now I was doing it. And loving it.

The first marathon is pretty flat, soon after the hills begin. I had a "plan" to break this race down into 3 50's (ignoring the 3 at the end for now). My dream race would be to do the first 50 in 8, second in 10 and third in 12 hours. The third 50 had the mountain and would have taken a lot longer.

At around 28 miles there was the first significant incline that I could recall. A winding road through some industrial estate with rail tracks everywhere. The day was still young and everyone was still in the mood for running. I only saw one person walk up the hill. I was still near Mark and Peter as a camera van passed me and then started to record me running up the hill. I felt the urge to run faster and shout things. By the top of the hill I had a stitch but didn't want to stop as I'd look like (more) of an idiot. Mark caught up at a checkpoint and ran straight through it. I was stopping at each one only to drink water and dunk my hat. 

I chatted to Mark and he vented his frustration of the first 40 miles of the race. "They are really boring, I just want to get through the first 40 then it's OK". It was true, the first miles were not much to look at, it was all on roads though now we were on a quiet one. There was no cover from the sun though which was taking it's toll on some. I was right about giving the niggles 30 miles or so, after that my legs felt great. On about 35 miles I decided that I was feeling good enough to up the pace a bit as I'd slowed over the hills. 

In all long ultras I have done I've experienced "purple patches", pockets of time in a race where running just feels really easy. My last one was after 70 miles of the GUCR this year where I felt like I was flying through the miles. It happened before at 125 miles, there is no reason to it. When your body appears to be working in harmony though I think it's good to take advantage and I did this after 35 miles. I said goodbye to Mark and ran on ahead, keeping a good pace for the next 15 miles.

I could see what Mark was on about, after 40 miles there are no more industrial estates but a road along the coast. The heat still bearing down but with a slight cool breeze from the Med coming across the running was a bit easier. There was still no shade though, we were always exposed. There was a rare bridge or bunch of tall trees that I would slow down in to cool down a bit. I was still dealing with the weather quite well and the dickhead hat was doing it's job. I tried the best I could to not hang around at the checkpoints.
I'd been warned that many failures in this race are due to hanging around the checkpoints too much. I've been told many times in many races to try and minimise times at checkpoints as you end up stiffening up and finding it really hard to get going again. This can affect your ability to run and potentially endanger your race. However the single biggest reason not to stop at checkpoints in the Spartathlon is because you just don't have the time.
Each checkpoint is furnished with a big board with some numbers on. The checkpoint number, how far you have gone, how far to go, distance to the next CP (all in km) and the closing time of that CP. This number is the most important for many runners, it could almost be a bus timetable. At that time a bus will come and collect anyone who happens to still be there. This in non-negotiable, you can't say "It's OK, I'll wait for the next one". If you get caught by this bus it means your race is over.

The Twat Hat - Around 40 miles

CORINTH - 50 miles 7.37

The ancient city of Corinth sits on the 50 mile point of the race and is a massive landmark of the race. The cut-off time of 9.30h is quite challenging for many, this represents a decent 50 mile time in it's own right. It's as if the organisers want to really push people at the start to eliminate those who may intend of running a constant and steady pace for the whole race. I suspect it is to clear the busy roads of runners before evening rush hour really kicks in. I got there in around 7.37, well inside the cut-off and probably faster than I have ever run 50 miles before.
Corinth is the first major aid station, it looks like a finishing area. There are chairs everywhere, food and water, massages, cameras and medics. This is the first point where those who have a support crew are allowed access to them. I sat down for 10 minutes and ate some rice before standing up and walking on. I just have to do that twice more, plus a mountain.
After 50 the route takes a more sceninc turn and goes through vineyards, still on roads. The runners are spaced out now enough that sometimes I can't see anyone infront. The route markings though are incredible, sprayed on in permanent orange paint on the road. It just shows how important this race is where the markings are made permanent, there are even big lines and crosses on turnings that you are not supposed to take. It is very hard to go wrong, though I did once and had an Italian runner to thank for shouting me back in the right direction.
I think I made 100k in about 10.30. A 10.30 100k is a qualification time to make it to the starting line in Athens. At this point I was running with a French guy who had only run 100k before. He said there was no way he was coming back to do this next year, it's just too far. It does sound crazy, 100k into a race and you know you haven't even started yet.

I never ran alongside someone for an extended period. This is my preference, I can't imagine running for so long and listening to the same person, plus all those around me are foreign and it can be hard to understand exhausted English. I was however always within sight of others and we would shuffle past each other regularly, usually pausing to say a few words. I spent some time running near a Japanese and a Korean Lady as well as an older Italian man. I could not really think of much to say. I decided I was going to hold off on saying "well done" or "keep going" and similar comments until a certain point of the race. I thought about this a bit, when say during a marathon is it acceptable to say "well done" and "good job" etc? At least half way surely. It can get a bit patronising when you hear "you're doing well" at 6 miles into a marathon. I decided not to say such things until it got dark, which would be around 80 miles. After that it wouldn't sound patronising.

The weather cooled and the route continued through small villages where the children were out in force. Kids would run up beside with pads and ask for autographs. I signed a few and they all seemed really grateful, there parents just sat in porches smoking and waiting for the sun to go down. Nice relaxing Mediterranean evening for them. Not for the rest of us.

There is a carnival atmosphere at the larger checkpoints which are positioned in bars or cafes in villages. There are lots of people (normal people) sat down eating and just watching the spectacle of runners coming in, throwing themselves into a chair and getting "mothered" by the helpers there. I was still trying to resist the mothering at the checkpoints but it is hard to refuse sometimes. I didn't want to offend those who have gone to the trouble of being there and making food. There is a lot of soup and other home made goodies that the residents provide and often massages too. I was asked at about mile 70 whether I wanted a massage and I said "no - that's cheating". 

A checkpoint by day

On arriving at one such checkpoint I asked for a toilet, only to be told that is was round the corner and downhill quite a bit. I was unlikely to last another 90 miles without a stop so down the slope I went. I started to realise that my quads were not going to cope very well with the downhill, something I'm never good at. I got to the toilet and in 3 gents and 3 ladies cubicles there was not paper. I then found a scrap of (I think clean) toilet paper and felt like I'd won the lottery. I didn't really need to include this bit in the race report I know, but little lifts like this can help you through.

The sun started to set. We are surrounded by mountains and the sun disappears very quickly. I left my headlamp at checkpoint 30 along with a long sleeved Serpie top and vest. The path starts to wind up a long hill which I am still able to run up. In fact I'm having another one of those purple patches where it all seems easy. For the first time the route goes off road onto a gravel track. I pass a few people along the way I try to make the most of the diminishing light.

There were several miles of roads with trees packed at either side. From the trees I could hear growling and barking, it was quite loud. It reminded me of a race report I read a while back about a runner being followed for 10 miles by a dog. I was warned that dogs "go a bit crazy" when it's dark. Greece has a lot of feral dogs which make a nuisance of themselves but don't cause too much trouble. When faced with a dog you realise how vulnerable you are, I wasn't in a position to fight back or run fast if the thing jumping and growling at my side decided to go for me. I was less worried about it hurting me and more worried about catching something. Did they have tetanus and rabies jabs at the checkpoints? This happened several times. I think with dogs you are just supposed to carry on as you are, don't run towards them or away, don't fear either cos they can smell it. Luckily I only smelled of sweat, piss and cheesy biscuits. 

It became pitch black quite quickly as I was still running on a gravel path with pot holes. I had a small hand torch as well as a head torch to light the dark path, there were lots of pot holes and a landing of just 1 extra inch really hurt. I started to get complaints from my right shin. This was going to be unlike the GUCR because there was a lot more night time, about 12 hours, from 7 till 7 rather than the 6 hours in England in May. It's hard to make much progress in the dark.

Comparing my time and conditions to the GUCR was a constant theme in this race. In May I staggered across the finish in 37 hours. I was really pleased to finish what was a really difficult race for me and took a lot of positive learning from it, however I realised that in that form I wasn't going to finish the Spartathlon. I had a lot of work to do. It became natural for me to compare my times to the canal race. After 40 miles in May I felt exhausted whereas after 50 miles here I felt fine. It took 24 hours to stagger to 100 in Tring whereas I was going to get this done comfortably under 20. All signs pointed to a good finish, I was a different runner than I was  4 months ago.

90 miles clocked up, a long decent towards the mountain. I had managed to run for most of the route so far but was now walking out of checkpoints and stopping sometimes to sit. I thought I'd built up a sufficient lead so far to take a rest every now and then. The long shallow downhill is where I realised that the day was going to be much longer than I'd have hoped. My quads would hurt as I went down and anything steeper would have to be walked. I had a short lift when the "KMs to go" number dropped into double digits. Less than a 100k to go? Almost there? Not at all, for 60 miles I ran towards a load of mountains and wondered which one I had to climb. Now I was nearly there I could not see the mountains tops any more, just walls of rock. There were quite a few sharp downs and ups into villages but it was pretty much all downhill to checkpoint 47 - 97 miles.

There is a small camp at the bottom of a road that hairpins up one of the mountains. It lasts about 2 miles and could be run if I weren't already knackered. I was starting to feel sleepy and needed my first coffee of the race at the CP. I left pretty soon and started a slow walk up the slope. I could see the distant light of other head torches in the distance and more behind. 

I left a drop bag with a change of shoes and socks just before the mountain. I sat down on a bed in the medical tent to change and there was a guy who looked out of it lying next to me. I asked someone if he was having a nap and carrying on or waiting for the bus. They didn't know and almost as they said that he just turned over and vomited, still sleeping. People rushed to clear him up and make sure he was ok. I didn't see him again.

350 runners started this with 350 strategies for how to get through it. Mine was the simple 8/10/12 split which was falling apart now as I struggled through the middle section. Others would try to reach the cut-offs just in time. Afterwards I spoke to someone who was getting to the checkpoints within minutes of the deadline, when getting to this one with minutes to spare he gulped some water and food and raced on, only to stop and be sick. That was the end of his race, not the vomiting but the time wasted doing so.

The path has no lights but there is a constant stream of support cars going up. It is comforting to have such a safety net, all the drivers are well aware of the condition some of the runners may be in and drive up very slowly, stopping occasionally to cheer. It was useful to have the headlights behind me for a few seconds, that was a few seconds I would not have to use the hand torch to light the path and look for pot holes. The lightening of this mental load was welcome, although it only lasted a few seconds.

A fucking long way

100 miles - 19.30 hours - Base Camp 

It takes a sadistic race director to decide to put a mountain climb in a race after 100 miles of rolling hills. 100 miles marks the end point of what many ultra runners will do, something about a big round number that seems so satisfying. It is a landmark for sure, but at the foot of a large climb I try to get out of my head that I'm sleepy, hurting and feeling sick and still have to run the Comrades ultra. 

On getting out of another chair at the checkpoint I was pointed towards a barely visible path that departed the road. The climb is about 3k of loose rock up to an altitude of 1200m. As soon as I was on the path I was taken aback by a sea of green and red light that lit the place up like a Christmas tree. I could always see which way to go but often not the path I was treading on. Mark mentioned before the race that the mountain was a hands and knees scramble. I didn't believe him until this moment. Some of the rocks needed intervention from the hands to get over.

At least this woke me up a bit, having to concentrate of every foot landing as I scrambled up the mountain energised me a little. I was still physically tired but had a brief adrenaline spike that made this task seem easier than I thought it would. I was still going slowly and getting overtaken frequently by the European mountain goats who get to play on this kind of stuff in their back gardens. 

According to the legend this is where Phidippides met the god Pan. He went over the mountain to avoid Argos who were hostile to Athens (and also because he had no need for a new toaster). I wondered how on earth he could scramble up this mountain 2500 years ago without the lighting that I was enjoying. If he carried a flame he would have had only one had to stop himself from falling, or maybe he just ran in the moonlight. Perhaps he fashioned a head torch somehow? That would be a health and safety hazard waiting to happen, particularly as he had long hair. Distractions like this meant I got to the top quicker (in my head at least) than I expected. 

I stopped and stepped aside a few times to let people who were much faster than me get up. The path was barely wide enough for one person and I'd often kick rocks as I scrambled up then look back to make sure it didn't hit anyone in the face. Some of the rocks would bounce off the side. I had no idea whether they would hit someone at the bottom.

At the top there is a CP where you are grabbed by a helper, sat down and then covered in blankets. I struggled to free an arm to drink a very sugary strong coffee and just spent 5 minutes looking back at what I'd just done. I could see for miles. I could see the long road path up to the mountain and some dim lights crawling up. I could see at least 3 villages in the distance that I'd run through and that would be alive still with the arrival and departure of others in the race. It was a breathtaking and humbling site to look back and see so much of the course that I'd just struggled over. Turning to my right I could then see the course on which I'd yet to struggle, including a treacherous downhill section.

"It used to freak me out when I threw up, now I don't even slow down" - Unknown

I'd spent a few hours now wanting to be sick. I wasn't sure whether it was going to happen, it never has done before. I tried to induce it sometimes by downing coke, coffee, soluble aspirin and all sorts. As I got out of the chair to start going down a guy scrambled up to the top of the mountain, went off to the side and puked everywhere before holding his hand up and yelling "OK" and then running on. I found it quite funny. Vomiting is a norm in this race, you have to eat salty and sugary crap constantly and it can take it's toll on the stomach. I didn't let my sick feeling stop me from eating, to stop eating would guarantee a DNF, to vomit would just be a minor inconvenience.

The downhill was tougher than the up, my quads screaming and my footing uneasy. I slipped a few times and had to stop quite a lot. I got overtaken by about 20 runners on this, I wasn't bothered by the positions but just the fact that my abysmal downhill was being exposed. I knew that only about 150 runners would finish this, so long as I was in the top 100 I felt like I was going to make it. If I'd dropped outside I'd start to worry. The fastest time I could expect to finish this in now fell from 30 to 32 hours.

One of the runners who overtook me was Peter who looked in good spirits. He was with Lisa Bliss who looked quite strong also given the circumstances. I can't remember what I said other than "Oh, Hi Peter". I don't think I let on that I was suffering a bit and I didn't want to either for 2 reasons. I didn't want to make myself feel any worse and I didn't want Peter or anyone else to feel bad for me.

"You can be out there having the worst day, but at the same time the person next to you is having their best day. So there's really no reason for crankiness in this sport" - Suzie Lister after '98 WS 100.

 Running in a race like this can feel a bit like being stuck in a lift. The feeling of being trapped and not knowing how long until freedom starts to grate on your mind. Everything becomes an invasion of your personal space, people in the street, cars, animals and even inanimate objects. By far the biggest of these invasions is the presence of other runners. 

When doing a race of such magnitude there is little worse than watching someone bound past you like it is no effort. Particularly if they want to chat to you about it. Only just worse than that is someone suffering more than you and complaining about it. It's hard to know what to say to people who look worse than you do.

But it works both ways. When Peter overtook me he looked fine and I felt rubbish. I didn't want to contaminate his race with my own suffering so put a brave face on it and didn't really say much. There would later be times in the race where I was on top and people around me were crawling. In these cases I would try my best not to rub it in, even feign suffering. 

"It's very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners. Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside your head that wants you to quit" - George Sheehan

I didn't want to make that voice any louder, me me or for others.

The bottom of the mountain seemed to take too long, the course went back onto the road and still carried on down. Eventually I arrived at another village and was again smothered by helpers giving me coffee and soup.

I got quite a lot of attention for being British at the CP's. Every one would have kids running around asking where I was from, I'd say London and they'd get all excited. For most of the race I was the first Brit through the checkpoints and always got into conversations about other family members who lived there. 

"Nobody should ever run a race where they are lapped by the sun"  

I was lapped as I ran on some very quiet roads surrounded by trees on all sides.  I managed to get back into a run (which from the outside looking in is a shuffle). I wasn't too concerned at this point about my pace so long as I felt like I was moving forward. I was trying to give myself as much time for the last marathon as possible. I'd feel comfortable knowing when I could just walk the rest of it. Right now It was looking like 10 hours. I could crawl a marathon in 10 hours surely?

As it got light it started to rain. I had left my sun hat behind at the checkpoint where I picked up my head torch. I had not left a replacement at any of the CP's and worried a bit about coping with the sun if it came out like it did the previous day. I had an idea to swap my head torch for a hat with some kid in one of the towns when it started to get hot. Fortunately it just pissed it down for 12 hours.

The sky was not the only thing that was pissing. I felt the constant need to go to the toilet and would stop every 5 minutes and mostly produce nothing. When it got lighter I discovered that I was pissing blood. The dehydration of my organs combined with the constant shocks of the impacts combined to shake them into bleeding. That's never happened before.

Back in daylight and in drizzle we were running on quiet roads cutting through farms. I had settled into a group of about 6 others who were shuffling at around the same pace I was. With 32 miles left I saw Peter again, I was surprised that I had caught him but he still seemed in good spirits. We had about 10 hours to make it the to end, Peter was setting off for a brisk walk and confident of making it the the end. 10 hours to do 32 miles? Should be fine.

With about a marathon to go I stopped at a CP near a house. By this time all of them are kitted with chairs and all have runners sat down and covered in blankets. I never could tell which ones were having a break and which ones were waiting for the bus. The bus was gaining on all of us. I saw a guy from Brazil with his head in his hands about to give up. He was convinced that the time we had left was not enough for him to get to the end. I then saw a German guy who I chatted to a bit kneel beside him (a manoeuvre that must have been hard in itself) and say to him "This time last year I was here and an hour behind where we are now and I walked to the finish. He said something else which I didn't hear as I was away in my own world trying to get straight how I was going to finish. The Brazilian got up and walked.

There are times when it is sensible to pull out of races. I'm not so stubborn that I'd finish any race whatever happened, risking months of inaction or worse. If I'd had been feeling like this much earlier on, say before the mountain I may have called it a day and waited for next year. However I was far enough into it now where I'd be devastated by not finishing. Watching the Brazilian guy get out of his chair and walk into the distance for a second brought the issue into sharp focus. There are only 2 ways out of this race, one is kissing a statue and the other is getting bundled onto a bus. A bus that was gaining all the time.

I overtook both the Brazilian and German and wished them luck as I did, now was the time to lavish each other in positive comments and pats on the back. I was constantly aware that the bus was catching up. I would run only to earn myself walking time. I had no idea how much more running I had in me but wanted to make some more gains on the cut-off before it got to the stage that I had to walk. The repeated argument in my head went as follows "The more you keep on running now, faster than 4mph the more you can walk near the end, but you are not going to walk because you can still run, so it's irrelevant. But just in case you need to walk, you have to run". Kind of made sense at the time, now it just sounds like a pile of shit.

The rain was welcome, at least for me as it reminded of home, however soon after my feet were blistered. I stopped on the highway to take my shoes off and put them back on again. This often works, like a placebo but didn't in this case, I had something on my left little toe that forced me to run on my left heel. I had a shin splint on the right side which meant I couldn't land on the heel. I'm not sure exactly how I managed to keep running. The toe blister would later take about half of my toe with it.

I also seemed to need to piss every 5 minutes. I was suffering a constant sensation of needing to stop to go to the loo. Most of the times I went I did not produce anything. There was a stinging sensation whenever I did and I realised that I must have picked up some sort of infection. The only positive was that as long as I was thinking about pissing I was not thinking about getting caught, for that was the most miserable and hardest part of the race.

It would go something like this. 

You see a checkpoint that tells you how far you've gone and how you've got to go. I'd then covert the kms into miles (with great difficulty, by this time I can't do division but I remember that 10k is 6.2 miles and a half marathon is 21k). I'd then try to work out what pace I'd have to run at to finish in 36 hours by only using the number of whole hours left (to make things seem worse than they are). After arriving at a number (usually around 3mph) I'd then try to work out how fast I was going but by then I'd have forgotten how far it was to the next checkpoint and could not measure this. There were km road signs which I'd try to use too but some of them were missing. Then when another checkpoint would arrive I'd look at how far it was to the next but then forget what time I'd left. 

This would spin around in my head like a sleepless night. I could not think about anything else, my mind was not allowed to wander into the usual silly things that get me through the hard times. I could not put this spinning calculation down but neither could I get it right. One time I would work out that I had hours to go and could probably start walking now, another time I'd think I was going so slow I was going to be caught my the cut-offs for sure. I'd sometimes just work it out wrong, sometimes I'd have stopped more and sometimes I just thought the checkpoints were further away than advertised. I suspect the latter was not true at all.

I didn't feel like I was going slower but I clearly was, the time between me and the closing times of the checkpoints was getting shorter. I knew it was only a matter of time before my leg would give way and not allow me to run any more. This happened with about 10k to go. 

Hobbling the last few steps

The last miles into Sparta are all downhill, really hard on my shin that felt broken. I was capable of a swift hobble which soon deteriorated into a limp. I could not lift my right leg off the floor and had to slide it along, like Kaiser Souze. I wasn't sure whether I was going to finish. I knew I was a couple of hours ahead of the closing times but now they were closing in on me. The rattling of my pace and time tore through my head worse than ever. 

Mark said to me after the race about feeling "trapped" once you have started. The difficulty of this race is forgotten over the course of the 12 months since the last time, then after about 80 miles it comes back, "oh yeah, now I remember, Now I'm stuck". If I was hurting this much before the mountain I would have given up since there was no way I would have been able to walk the rest.  I was still adamant that I'll only stop if I was stopped. Now this was looking more likely. I had a lot of time left of looking over my shoulder.

It got hotter as I slowed down, the rain disappeared and we came down back to sea level. I was still wearing 2 tops and becoming slightly more uncomfortable with the heat but not wanting to part with any clothes as I worried I might get cooler.

The last 30 miles are on a highway that gets busier and busier as the day progresses. I wouldn't ever dare to run on such a road normally, particularly against the traffic. There was a hard shoulder for most of it but there was the occasional blind corner and no shoulder which I'd have to cross the road for. I remember the green cross code as a child but now even getting to the other side of a road seemed like solving a riddle. Despite their speed most of the traffic saw the line of runners shuffling down the highway and would give plenty of space, and honk. Normally the honking would really annoy me but it was keeping me awake and alert.

CP 73 was next to a petrol station. It was supposed to be about 2.8km from the last one but it took over an hour to get there. I could not get up the kerb onto the pavement and had to look for the ramp. On getting to the table and having more coke and water I got the impression that the people there were quite concerned about me. On leaving the CP a lady took my arm and helped me down the step to get back onto the road and head for the last checkpoint. It was 1.4km to the next one then 2.5 to the end. 3.9km, well over 2 hours to do it. I can't fail now surely?

The highway went on but was now in town with buildings each side. I tried to visualise 1.4k in my head. It's about the distance from my house to Ealing Broadway station, a journey I have successfully completed many times, often when stupidly drunk. I was trying to figure out whether I was walking as slow as I would at my drunkest. Normally a 15 minute walk may take 20 if I am staggering from side to side. Can I really be going that slow? 

I looked down a straight bit of road and thought that it was at least 1.4km to the end of it. I stared into the distance and limped on. I was getting overtaken by lots of runners keen to get the race finished, every single one of them would shout something or slap my back as they passed me. Seeing them run so fast (relatively) made me feel like the end was really close. 

I'd look over my shoulder for the other Brits. I recognised a lot of people as they went past me, we'd shared lots of miles before and now they were in better shape than me and eager to finish. I too was eager to finish but my leg was not cooperating.

The first Brit to pass was Mark Wooley. He looked like he was absolutely flying, by far the fastest and most comfortable looking of all those who passed me. I said I was looking forward to kissing the statue and he said my time would very nearly come to do that. I didn't really know Mark beforehand but I found out this was his third attempt and was going to be his first finish. Despite overtaking me only 1.5 miles from the end he finished 30 minutes and 33 places ahead of me. Just shows how slow I was going.

I got to CP74, it was in the middle of an island of traffic. In 34 hours I had seen 74 identical tables of coke, water, figs, biscuits and chairs. This was the last one I was going to see and didn't make a big goodbye of it. I stayed as long as it took to cross the road.

I walked into a very busy street with people and cars. I was deafened by honking and cheering of cars and people. I was looking over my shoulder again to see if Mark and Nick were there, if they were going to finish they were cutting it fine. Then I saw Mark and the tall German guy coming up behind me with enormous smiles on their faces. Both were shuffling along slowly but twice as fast as I was. "Is this a race or is this a race?" said Mark as he hobbled alongside me. 

It felt really weird to think that I last saw Mark near the beginning of the race, yesterday. 

Mark said if we jogged then we were about 20 minutes from the end and able to finish before 35 hours. I explained that I could not jog and let them go ahead. I was glad there were people ahead, for the first time in the race I got worried about getting lost. The town was so full of screaming people and cars it would be easy to take a wrong turn. Fortunately I didn't, I took a turn and started on the home straight.

Up the slope I saw people, kids on bikes, runners and support crews all waving and cheering. I still could not see the statue but I knew that it was buried under a huge concentration of people. I watched Mark and the German guy head off and then disappear into the pile. I was there now, the threat of getting timed out was gone. It felt like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I was still walking like I was dragging a ball and chain but at least the ball and chain in my head was gone.
For the first time in about 10 hours I could relax and start to think about what I was doing and why. Long races give you lots of time to reflect on things, usually about running but often not. Inevitably you spend a lot of time trying to justify why it is you are putting yourself through this, what are you getting out of it? If I were to remember one thing about this what would it be?
I had these moments before in races [link] . Alone they can make a race seem worth it and worth coming back to do it again. I was trying to think of what it was in the Spartathlon and could not come up with anything. I looked ahead towards the finish and knew that the end was going to merely be the end of my suffering rather than a moment of elation. I felt nothing except pain and tiredness. I was just looking forward to stopping and never having to go through this again.
About 20 hours earlier I made a decision about whether I'd do this race again. It would have been based on one of three scenarios. If I didn't finish I would return every year until I did. If I did finish and loved it then I would return just to experience it again. If I finished and didn't enjoy it I would come back and do it again just to make sure. Right now I was suffering the last scenario but had changed my mind. I wasn't going to come back.
It was a shame. I never thought there was a race out there that could do me over such that I would not want to do it again. This is how I felt now. Despite the cheering crowds and sight of the finish I was thinking only of lying down and sleeping. I thought about that a lot since before the mountain climb. Then, right before the end my mind was flipped again by the moment I will take away from this race and remember forever. It summed the whole event up perfectly.
As I limped up the slope towards the statue to roaring support and seeing some people I recognise I was grabbed firmly around both shoulders from behind. I was startled and for a moment thought it could be some crazy person from the crowd, or a policeman apprehending me or worse still a marshall pulling me out of the race.
His grip was strong and it seemed to last for ages, I turned around to see that it was the Brazillian guy. 25 miles and about 8 hours ago I saw him dejected and as far as he was concerned out of the race. I watched a German talk him out of his chair (in English) and then both of them head off into the distance. Before my eyes I watched a broken man get back up and carry on and now I was going to watch him finish. I could see how much it meant to him as he practically sprinted the last few meters and kissed that statue. That was the best bit of the race.
The Brazilan with a very firm grip
My own finish was less spectacular. I limped on and saw some familiar faces in the crowd. I saw Nick, John, Stuart, James and Peter. On seing them I felt a combination of joy and sadness. I hadn't seen any of them for a while and for the first time I felt like I was back with people I knew and who knew me (a little). However I realised that they were not going to get to kiss the statue. I asked Nick how he got on and he refused to tell me, saying this was my moment now and pointed towards the statue. John shoved a British flag in my hand and I waved in in the air, confusing some around me who thought I was Spanish. 
I thought about kissing this statue for a long time. I'd watched videos of it in the weeks building up the the event, it was practically pornographic. To now be here and about to do what I had seen in the videos was amazing. For years I'd wanted to run in this unique race, for the past few months I thought about having the olive wreath placed on my head, for the past few weeks I thought only of kissing that statue and for the past 15 hours the thing that motivated me the most was just for the hurting to stop.
I crawled up the steps and tasted the metallic rain soaked foot of Leonidas, splattered over the past 13 hours with the sweat and tears of the 102 runners who got there before me. I drank the water from the XXXXXXXX river given to me by the spartan girls and then the race director placed the olive wreath on my head and shook my hand as our photo was taken. 
As soon as the ceremonies were over I was taken by the arm by a nurse and escorted to a medical area. I had a choice of sitting down or lying down. I was in the minority who decided to sit in a chair while my shoes and socks removed, my blisters lanced and then dipped in iodine. I was then given a pair of hotel slippers to hobble away in.
I looked into the tent and saw runners who had only overtaken me minutes before. Some of them were lying on the beds completely motionless, like they had just been pulled out of a plane wreck. It occurred to me that the level of medical cover in this event wasn't a precaution "just in case" something happened. I'd heard so many stories about runners passing out in the race and being picked up by other supporters or the bus. Mark told me about passing out in a lift after his first finish, half in half out with the doors closing on him. The stories of vomiting, hypothermia and collapsing are more common than stories of statue kissing. The reason why there are so many medics at this race is because passing out is normal. On completing the race they are expecting you to collapse.
I was helped up by Nick and then took the shortest taxi ride of my life, 200m to the hotel. I had to use my arms to pick my legs up into the front seat and then out again about 30 seconds later. Nick would have to hold open the lift doors as I was unable to get in before they started closing. I was then taken to the room that I was sharing with Mark and a Polish guy who could not speak English but would nonetheless shout at us quite loud.
I slumped into bed and waited for one of two things to happen. Either I wanted to just fall asleep and not have to suffer the pain of it any more or I wanted the point of the experience to sink in. Neither would happen and I just lay there sulking in pain. My legs hurt so much that no position was comfortable to lie in. I had to go to the toilet so often and was now pissing blood. It took so long and hurt so much to get up that I considered not getting up at all. When I did piss it felt like razor blades. 

I didn't sleep that night. A combination of leg pain and the whirling of the pace calculations was still keeping me awake and making me sweat. Any dozy moments were quickly met with a feeling of still being in the race, still having to calculate how fast I was going and whether I was going to make it. I'd wake up from the slumber and then get reminded that my legs hurt so much and that I needed a painful piss.

The next day was no better. I could not lift my right leg off the floor and I was still tired. I struggled though everything, I looked around at the others and am convinced that I was the worst one. Everyone was sporting some sort of limp but few were as immobile as me. 

I spent the day after with about 4 other Brits and a few Americans. Between the 8 of us there was only one finish. Whenever someone came to our table and asked about the race I was pointed out as the one guy who got to kiss the statue. Normally I'd feel a great amount of pride, satisfaction, embarrassment and humbled at being revered by such great runners. Instead I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing, like I was without life. The only thing I did feel was physical pain, I could not stand or sit in the same position for more than a few minutes, my right foot and ankle were enormous. 

For the first time ever since I started running I was doubting why I did it. I've never suffered the "never again" cliche. As soon as I finished my first ultra I was signing up for more, as soon as I crossed the line in the GUCR I said I was going to be back next year. I just thought "why the fuck would I go and do something like this to myself". I suffered the pain, collected a head piece and felt nothing, not even after 24 hours, not even with everyone congratulating me. I was keen on getting out of there, heading home and being thankful for finishing for no other reason than it meaning I didn't have to come back. There was no way I was coming back.

Could it be that this race has actually beaten me?

The Kiss

The Next few days

The days passed, the foot got smaller, the right leg started to lift, I caught up on sleep and ate lots. The blood gave way to clear urine, the stinging became a tingle and the doctors gave me some drugs or it. I started to think a bit more clearly about what I had just done, I wrote down all the details I could remember and tried to recall them here. 

The events I enjoyed and suffered during the race came spilling out and I could finally stand back and see what I had done. I'd just completed one of the hardest races in the world.

My limited (and I would not have used the word limited before Sparta) experience of ultras is that they can have a way of breaking you into pieces and putting you back together again in a better way than before. It is normal to feel in pieces during a long race at some stage, feeling like you are not going to finish or you can't finish. My experience has taught me to remember these moments but not to succumb to them. Races are so much more satisfying when you can look back on moments you feel terrible and in despair and say that you got over it and finished the race. 

For days after I'd finished I was still in bits. If I was to compare my excitement and nerves before the race to the feeling I got from finishing I'd probably have opted to go back to the start and not bother. 

"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." - Douglas Adams 

The next few weeks I exchanged war stories and read a lot of race reports from others who have been through the same thing I have. I read reports of success stories from those with experience of not finishing. I read tales of those who didn't make it and their vows to come back again fitter and stronger and not making the same mistakes. 

I'd spend weeks talking to people who had done several Spartathlons with varying levels of success and also some who had attempted it for the first time. People don't just do this once, they do it again and again, putting themselves through all that misery. I could not figure out why anyone who had "beaten" this race would come back to prove themselves again. 

It was a truly amazing race, very well organised and flooded with amazing runners who were a joy to be around. This is a reason to do it but maybe not to do it again. The risk of failure and pain is too high. Then I realised that this is exactly why people come here again and again, because they know that one day they will be beaten by it. 

For the first time as a runner I have found a race which I am sure will one day leave me wrecked by the side of the road and tasting the bitter taste of defeat. I have yet to experience this. I'm not looking forward to it but know that it will happen one day, more than likely it will happen here. 

Within the next 20 years I imagine myself attempting this race 10 times or more. Right now it's James 1 Spartathlon 0. After 10 goes if I have won more than I have lost I will consider myself on top. One result is not enough though.

Next time more than anything I want to run up that last straight like I was finishing a 10k. I want to bounce up onto that statue and kiss those feet. Next year is the 2500 year anniversary of the original running of the Spartathlon. It would be rude not to?

"Your biggest challenge isn't someone else. It's the ache in you lungs and the burning in your legs, and the voice inside you that yells "can't", but you don't listen. You push harder. And then you hear the voice whisper "can" and you discover that the person you thought you were is no match for who you really are" - Unknown

The Olive Wreath