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 :)
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
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.