I may live to regret saying this, but right now the forecast for the WInter 100 looks good. Cold but good. That being said runners who are used to long distances in British winter and mountains at anytime will have prepared for conditions where strength wins out over speed - Richie Cunningham and Jean Beaumont epitomised that last year as they gutted out incredible times in rough weather whilst much 'faster' runners fell by the way side. It's often those without any time goals, racing the field and not the clock that persevere in poor condtions. Faster running this year will make for a fascinating race. Conditions often dictate the times in trail racing, often as much or more than an atheletes ability on the day.
Here's a preview of the front runners in both the mens and womens fields. As always, this is off the top of my head with very little research behind it so please feel free to add others using the comments field at the bottom.
Overall we have an anticipated start field of 95 with 9 x 2013 Grand Slammers going for number 4 and many Centurion Veterans returning. No doubt there will be some stories of huge strength in adversity all the way to the final cuts as is always the case with 100 mile trail events, particularly at this time of year.
For me there is one stand out runner this year, Ed Catmur. Ed, for me, would be UK UROY (others like Ricky Lightfoot and Craig Holgate have also had stellar years) but it's likely that most are unaware of his achievements in 2013, because he doesn't have a blog or twitter account. So excuse the lamenting on his achievements here but in light of the term UK UROY being used around runners achieving purely quantity over quality Ed has struck the balance of both. Ed will be looking for his third 100 mile win of 2013 at this event. He won (actually the only finisher) of a Saxon Shore 100 earlier in the year, before going on to destroy the NDW100 course record in one of the most outstanding performances of 2013, anywhere in the UK. He did it without any crew or support just off of his own back. Finally after a few years of knocking on the door of something incredible, he put the pieces together and nailed it. Amongst those things he won the Milton Keynes & Welsh Marathons and just set a PB at Bournemouth finishing 8th with a 2:34. This level of road speed in a marathon matches closely with the likes of Ian Sharman and Craig Holgate who are pushing the front line in UK ultra distance running. Believe me when I say that Ed is right up there with the best and would be competitive in most bigger/ global field 100s right now. His skill set is not limited to the road and marked trail. He's also an orienteer which is a skill that assisted him in his wins at the Saunders MM and the Ultra Tour of the Peak district. The Saunders is not a small time event, a certain Lizzy Hawker traditionally used it as a build up to many of her UTMB wins. If conditions are dry and cold as they look likely to be, Ed can go under Craigs Centurion 100 mile best of 15:11 here, I have no doubt.
Luke Ashton is an enigma. I hope he doesn't mind me saying that earlier in the year his promise as he took 2nd at a muddy, wet and cold Thames Path 100 which was a break through effort in his first 100 miler, waned away a little as he raced a lot and turned to running many events barefoot which brought down some of his overall times. If Luke comes to the Winter 100 with his game face on, he could run Ed hard, particularly if he can reduce the time he spends in CPs down, it's just a case of which Luke we'll see on the day.
Warwick Gooch stands tall amongst other men as winner of the 2012 Caesars Camp 100. In awful conditions he made it around well under the 24hr mark and jogged a comfy 50 miler there this year looking relaxed and in control. He will feature from the off.
Dave Ross, marathon man. Dave has had a great year running sub 7:30 at Comrades for the second year in a row. More importantly perhaps he managed to get his Western States monkey off of his back and finished in a great time, before building on that to a superb NDW100 run under the 18 hour mark. Alongside of those things he consistenly races marathons under the 3hr mark and recently set a PB of 2:51, something that means a lot to a man with 300 marathons under his belt. Dave's undoing will only be in his own pacing. If he can resist running the first 25 too hard he may wipe hourse off of his NDW100 time. At the TP100 he went off of the front and came unstuck in the last 20 fading to 6th in the cold. Can he pace himself from the start and hold on for another PB here? I reckon so.
Matt Winn Smith had a sterling 100 mile effort at the TP100 in 2012. As a triathlete and ultra runner he holds all the right attributes to succeed, planning, strength, speed and will have a strong race here no doubt.
Eduard Egelie ran his first 100 in 2012 at this event. He has improved week on week over the past 12 months running a very strong NDW100 for 6th overall and is prepared better than ever this time. Top 5 runner with podium potential.
Ronnie Staton produced the UPOY of this year under some careful coaching from someone who knows what they are doing ;) He ran the 200 mile Wainwright Coast to Coast route non-stop in 56 hours. I can't begin to describe what an incredible effort that is. With that behind him and having run this event and numerous other 100s before, in a mind game there is no winner against this man.
Sharon Law must sit top of the pile as the Scottish 24hr record holder, taking 8th overall at the World 24s this year with 226km clocked. She's no stranger to success on the trails either. Her sub 9hr Highland Fling time being one of many.
My Scottish contact tells me also that Charlotte Black, on route down from the Shetland Islands for this race, is one to watch. With some strong 100km performances behind her she will hopefully light up the competition here.
Wendy Shaw is 2nd overall in the Grand Slam stakes and podiumed at all 3 of our Centurion 100s so far this year. That's no mean feat. Always solid, always working and getting faster Wendy will want this for numerous reasons. Look for her to push through strong in the latter stages.
Mary Heald surprised everyone including herself it seems by winning the NDW100 this year. Mary DNFd the winter 100 at mile 83 last year, and has since gone on to put herself within 100 miles of the grand slam. Quite the comeback. Can she do it again here?
As a straight up running race, the Spartathlon is renowned as being 'quite hard'. In order for a runner to sit the right side of the incredibly thin line between success and failure, almost everything must go right - both in training and on race day. That's what made it, for me, the most difficult and consequently alluring challenge of my running career. The race is also ingrained in history and in the Greek culture. How many races out there can claim to have a course that's permanently marked on the road from start to finish?
Success in the race boils down to handling a number of factors. The impact of the road over that distance. The heat of the first day. The cold of the night. The mountain. The heat of the second day. The ability to eat, drink, stay cool, stay awake and endure the pain that comes with the territory. But by far and away the biggest factor to weigh in to the equation of finishing, are the cut offs, and therefore speed.
On paper, Spartathlon is a very difficult proposition, but the numbers still don't reflect just how hard it is. The idea is to run from the Acropolis in Athens, departing at 7am on Friday - to reach the Statue of Leonidas in the city of Sparta, by 7pm the following evening. This mirrors the journey made by Pheidippides, the messenger of ancient Greece, who covered the same distance to request assistance from the Spartan armies, departing Athens on foot and arriving in Sparta before the sun set on the following day. The distance is 153 miles/ 245km. The course holds 8800ft of climbing, including a significant climb up an off road mountain pass at exactly 100 miles, where Pheidippides met the God Pan. The temperature during the first day is usually in the low 30sC, during the night drops right down (think breath condensing in the air cold) and builds back to the 30s again during the second day. The cut off of 36 hours is spread unevenly across 75 checkpoints but trying to average roughly 5mph for that length of time doesn't allow for any kind of significant break from running. Every checkpoint has an individual cut off time, for example the 50 mile point must be reached in 9hrs30. The 99 mile point within 22hrs20 etc etc. None of these are especially 'tight' but they are enough that if anything goes wrong, you can't afford the time to stop, rest or even significantly slow (walk). If you miss one, you're out and the death bus will pick you up. 350 runners start each year, all passing stringent qualification criteria to be there. The finishing stats say a lot. This year was a bumper year with 146 out of 350 runners making it. Last year, less than 80 did it.
After dropping at the mountain (mile 99) in 2012, this year my only aim was to finish. The cut offs and overall available time in which to finish create a unique set of circumstances. Effectively what happens is that the fastest 3rd of what is a very capable ultra field, finish, whereas the remainder will be timed out or drop for other reasons.
I slept brilliantly the two nights leading up to the race this year (11 and 8hrs respectively!). The day before the race, Team GB met up and we had our pictures taken with our team kit, kindly supplied by Keith Godden and Buff. Everything was co-ordinated by the unofficial official UK ambassador for British Spartathletes, James Adams.
Team GB. Scared. Photo c/o of Peter Ali.
When I woke up at 5am on race morning, I smiled, thankful that the pressure of waiting for the massive effort to begin was over. I had a really simple set up in terms of gear, nutrition and clothing. Plain white cotton tee that would absorb water continually poured over my head during the race in order to stay cool. Shorts with deep pockets in order to carry bags of food and gels. A buff over my head to pack with ice. A watch, some S! Caps (salt tabs) and a shit kit. Every hour I had a drop bag, containing 4 cookies and a gel. Occasionally there were more substantial additions such as pots of baked beans and rice pudding. My headlamp, and windproof were in at mile 60, and all the night drop bags contained bin bags in case I got too cold and required disposable and easy to manage options for added warmth. At one point I would have them all on.....
Gathering at the Acropolis/ start line. Photo c/o Spartathlon Official.
We ran out of the Acropolis at 7am and I dropped in to a comfy pace. Within a mile, the lead group of a dozen or so ahead pelted down a road in the wrong direction and were shouted back by a Greek runner. A couple of minutes later the same pack came past led by Mike Morton the US 2012 World 24hr champ who would later drop after hurdling a dog and putting his back out. Mike turned out to be incredibly humble and a good craic on our journey home after the race. His report is here. Robbie Britton caught up to me and we joked for a minute before he pushed on ahead with a different plan for his own race. We'd spent a week or so out in the ghettos of northern Athens 'acclimitising' for the race and we knew we'd be running apart. We made our way through the Athens streets with the usual blaring of horns and police blockades which shut the city rush hour down to allow us to pass (there is no way the UK could ever have an equivalent to this). The first 3 miles of gradual descent preceded 3 miles of gradual climbing and already by that point i'd lost sight of the lead group of a dozen or so and had nobody to follow. It was extremely difficult at times to ascertain the right route at a junction but that abated after 10km or so and we were on to the hard shoulder of the motorway westwards towards Corinth.
Around 10 miles in to the race, I stopped to answer a call of nature and when I emerged back on to the road, Mimi Anderson was there. As a multiple world record holder, Mimi's plan was not simply to run to Sparta, but to take a short break there before running 153 miles back to Athens again. Yep, you read that right.
Mimi's pace felt good and we fell in to the gradual ebb and flow of a race of this length, little did we know we were beginning a partnership that would last 90 miles. We rolled through the checkpoints efficiently whilst the heat stayed manageable, taking on food and water consistently. Mimi would drift ahead at times (while I had two more dumps) before I'd pass her and so on and so forth. At the marathon mark we were together in around 3:47, always mindful that the only acceptable pace I had in mind was 'comfy', this felt great. There is a an uphill drag at 27 miles and a little course knowledge helped here as we hiked almost the entire thing. Without making any agreement we were obviously benefitting from the easy conversation and constant dialogue re-assessing pacing and ignoring the nagging feeling that we still had to run another 125 (278) miles. The heat gets up from around 11am and we were making heavy use of the ice they had at some of the checkpoints along the coast road. It went under hats, down t shirts and shorts and in bottles. The difference it makes is astounding, from the heat forcing your pace down, everything seems to suddenly free up and allow you to move well again.
Mimi and I on the coast road from Athens to Corinth. Photo c/o Spartathlon Official.
45 miles in and we were on a good schedule and we sensibly began to hike up the otherwise runnable motorway shoulder ascent in to Corinth, with lines of ships awaiting their turn to pass through the canal spread around the bay to the left of us. We rolled in to the 50 mile CP in 7:47, and I felt great. Mimi was doing well too, this was the first time she would see her crew (husband Tim and friend Becky) and whilst she stopped to get some food in, I had a quick chat with the first dropped Brit runner I saw, the legend Pete Johnson. Pete was thoroughly encouraging dismissing my questions of how he was and pouring ice cold water over my head. We ran out of Corinth with purpose, the first big part of the journey under our belts exactly 'on plan'.
Mimi and I working our way past Ancient Corinth (plus photobomber), mile 55ish. Photo c/o Chris Boukoros Photography
After Corinth, the heavy roads and industrial part of the course recede and evolve in to olive groves and smaller villages. At about mile 65, 4 time GUCR winner Paddy Robbins joined us, employing his usual steady pacing, gradually moving through the field fueled by rice pudding. For around 5 miles we ran together before I went through a low patch and I decided to let Pat go. Mimi hung back too and we made our way on to half way at Nemea, mile 76 in 13:05. At this point we'd just flicked our headlamps on for the first time, way ahead of where I'd been in 2012, and our time this year bettered 2012's split by 90 minutes. My legs felt great and I was starting to believe this was going to be our day. I can't explain why, but I felt incredibly calm. I had Ben Howard's Depth over Distance playing on a loop on the 'brain ipod' and it seemed to be working like a mantra. As Dylan Bowman would say 'breathe and relax'.....
At Nemea Mimi spent time with her crew whilst I raced down a can of baked beans, two cups of soup and a handful of other bits, my stomach still co-operating well. We ran some of the gradual climb out of that checkpoint whilst a car with a cameraman hanging out of the boot filmed us (or rather Mimi) running in to the night time portion of the race. On and down through mile 80-90, Mimi began to slow a little and I had to be a more pro-active in my suggestions that we run the flats and downhills, contrary to earlier where we'd hiked only the steeper grades. Mimi was experiencing pain in her quads as the road began to take it's toll, but her grit and determination were astounding. It was real teamwork as any toilet break was matched and we chatted with other runners who passed us (we weren't passing many!) One thing that did strike me here was the level of athlete we were meeting. A Swede came past and we chatted about Taby 100 in Sweden. He said he'd won that this year. A little earlier on, Florian Reus had come through. He finished 2nd in the World 24hr Champs this year. Around this time last year, Glen Redpath had been running with us - multiple time WS100 top 10 finisher. It might not have the household (read skyrunning or elite US) runners in it, but Spartathlon attracts the best of the best from a different field. Track and Road runners.
We reached what for me is quite a landmark in the race, a checkpoint around mile 91 which displays the read out showing 99.3km to go. Any other day, knowing you had 62 miles to run would be a stomach churning prospect, not least after already having covered 91 miles, but somehow at Sparta, this is a vision. These checkpoint boards always giving you a count of kms covered, kms to go, cut off and next cut off - are enough to turn your stomach.
One of the final checkpoint boards, this info is at each one. Photo c/o of Peter Ali.
The hike up the switchbacks to the base of the mountain are long but not too steep and whilst Mimi was struggling now, her spirits were still high. As we came in to the mountain CP at mile 99.3 I saw Drew who'd dropped earlier, and Mimi's crew. Mimi was only a minute or so back but I realised when she got in there from Drew and her crews reaction, that the fight to finish had really begun. To me, Mimi had seemed to be going great guns, moving fine and chatting, but sat in the CP chair, she was a distant person from the one who'd been running so strong throughout the day. Not eating had started to factor in and our incredible 90 mile partnership was looking rocky. We didn't delay however and it was with a big smile on my face that i looked up at the mountain, flashing lights rising high in to the sky, realising that I was about to pass in to unknown territory, pushing through the place my race had ended last year. I felt good, and with 18:50 on the watch, we'd covered 100 miles and passed on to the third and final part of the race, the final 53 miles.
Mimi and I at the base of the mountain. Photo c/o Louis Waterman-Evans.
The mountain was steep and rugged but easy enough to negotiate, initially I waited for Mimi but hiking hard I was sweating under my windproof which meant every time I stopped my temperature plummeted. In the end I decided just to get to the summit and see how far below the headlights behind, were. On the summit it was pretty blowy and i made the split second decision just to start the descent immediately. The downhill was way worse than the climb with the track covered in substantial scree. Twice I nearly went backwards but I managed to run the majority of the drop in to the next village at mile 104. In the checkpoint there, I passed a few other runners and dropped back on to the road, alternating between a purposeful hike and a steady 10 minute mile running pace. Then the worst happened. My trusty Petzl headlamp blinked three times at me, signalling the impending death of the batteries. It was pitch black on the road. As my torch died I ran hard to catch a runner in front with a blinking red LED on her back. Brenda Carawan a US runner with overall 100 mile wins at Graveyard and Keys behind her was running well along the country lanes. I told her my predicament and she kindly offered to let me draft her light by running alongside her. A few minutes later however, I had to stop to tend to business and with no light, I didn't initially realise but I stepped right in to the big pile of my own crap. Things weren't looking up.
Again I ran slightly harder than comfortable to catch Brenda and we made our way through a few more CPs. A half hour further down the line I reached Tim and Becky awaiting Mimi and Becky kindly swapped in her lamp for mine whilst she found me some batteries. Independent again I felt rejuvenated and was finally able to clean my stinking shoes and push on ahead of Brenda.
By now it was 5am and the temperature was through the floor. I was getting cold quickly and knew I needed a solution. I took a bin bag from the next CP and wrapped myself in it. That quickly failed to be enough and I ended up picking up further bin bags at the next three aid stations, I had one between each layer of clothing and one on top of the lot, wrapped tight around me like a blanket and up over my head. I looked like a tramp. Eventually I knew I was going to get myself in serious trouble so I began searching amongst the trash and multiple dead dogs (seriously) at the sides of the road for any items of clothing I could add to my growing collection of tramp style. I am embarrassed to say that had I seen any houses with clothes or sheets on a line outside, I would have found it hard to resist grabbing something. When the sun came up it seemed to take an age to bring any heat whatsoever, but all of a sudden i went from shivering wreck to overheating and quickly stripped off all of the bin bags, extra layers and headlamp. On to the final throws.
At this point Mimi's crew were popping up ever more regularly and I could feel that she wasn't far back. I made the decision to stop and wait for her, so that we can grind those final miles out together back in the successful partnership from earlier on. As the minutes passed I got more and more anxious and Becky encouraged me to move along. I had wrecked my race in 2012 by waiting for Rich Webster with whom I'd formed a similar partnership and I knew I had to get on with the job. It would turn out to be a significant moment in the race.
At the 200km mark, I was expecting what James Adams affectionally calls 'the second mountain'. It was a long drag up to the top, perhaps only 4 or 5 miles but at a steady climbing grade there were some tight bends where enthused Greek drivers waving frantically out of the window at us with no hands on the wheel, could easily swipe down a runner. Crossing the road to avoid this seemed a monumental waste of dwindling energy. As I crested the climb with a marathon to go, it seemed like the end was nigh. 127 miles down.
Time was pretty irrelevant at this point, I had plenty in the bank under which to meet the 36 hour cut off, I just needed to ensure I didn't overheat during this second day. Back to the old routine of ice over the head, soaking the shirt and moving ever forward. This last 50 were not fun in any way shape or form. But somehow, knowing we were in the midst of the fight to finish Spartathlon was enough not just to stay motivated but to keep moving well.
With 12 miles to go James Adams pulled up in a car and congratulated me for finishing. I told him this gradual downhill leg battering grade was without doubt the worst end to a race I'd ever endured. Undoubtedly, my Badwater was worse but right then it seemed a distant memory. Despite all that, I still had a smile on my face and felt relatively good for how late in the race it was. I jogged intermittently and hiked a lot of it as I made sure I was always working between 4 and 5mph, reducing the time left on my feet from 6 hours to 5, 4, 3, 2....
Arriving at 6 miles to go I'd been passed by two other brits running well together, Steve and Johnny and I was quite happy to let them go on for their finishes together. I toughed out 5 of those miles and found myself passing under the blue banner welcoming Spartathletes to Sparta. My mind started to fill with the thoughts of running up that final street to the statue. The same memory that I'd let build over the course of a year to keep me moving every time running hard started to hurt that little bit, and the thought I'd kept at bay for the whole race as I focused only on the next checkpoint ahead at any one time.
Finally I made checkpoint 74, 1 mile to go, 152 done. I'd been moving consistently forward with the exception of that 10 minutes reheating, for a little over 33 hours. A police bike joined me and escorted me through the streets of Sparta. I was running well at this point, turned a street after 10 minutes or so and saw quite a long climb ahead, I asked him how close we were and he said 1.5km! I swore and dropped back in to a hike without caring too much that he was forced to ride so slowly he almost fell off. When I saw the final turn and the national flags streaming in the wind along the boulevard past the waiting crowds, the British team who hadn't been so fortunate as I to make it this far, I did begin running again and this time held it to the statue. High fiving friends and being handed the Union Jack were exactly what I'd imagined for the last 12 months. Reaching the steps to the statue I took a second to walk slowly up to it and kissed the foot of Leonidas in the tradition of Spartathlon finishers from the last 31 years, started of course by Pheidippedis, whose footsteps we retraced 2500 years later.
Thanks to Drew Sheffield for shooting perhaps the only footage ever taken, of me running.
My final finish time, 33 hours 45 minutes, 2hrs 15 under the eventual cut off. 59 runners beat me to the statue, 90 more would finish before 36 hours passed and over 200 more would be beaten by the race.
In front of the statue at the finish. Sunburn City.
Kissing the foot. Photo c/o Louis Waterman-Evans.
Centurion Team conference at the finish: Robbie, Drew and myself. Photo c/o Louis Waterman Evans.
How hard was it? It took almost all of what I had, mentally and physically, to get there. I would put finishing this race as the pinnacle of my racing to date. It isn't just race day, it's the dedication of 100s of hours over the course of 12 months to running the miles you need in order to condition your body to the hammering that 153 miles on the road puts in to it. I thought about Sparta every single day, probably most waking hours of every single day. All my races this past 12 months, were designed to bring me to that point. The sacrifices you need to make are huge. Without the support of your friends and loved ones, it simply isn't possible to do what's necessary to finish. Involving them and conveying why it means so much is crucial in my opinion. I still puked one less time at Sparta than I did the previous weekend at a 5km park run though. That feels wrong?
After finishing I finally learned of the fates of the rest of the British Team. Pat Robbins, with Mimi and I at mile 70, went on to a 27:09 7th place, an astounding display of controlled pacing. Robbie, with ambitions of a stellar finish, did what I knew he would if things went south, and gutted out a 32hr finish. Behind me, Steve and Johnny (who were 45 mins or so ahead of me at the finish) came only Mark Wooley and Paul Ali, for a total of 7 finishes out of 21 starters.
As for Mimi, she pushed on until around 15kms to go, where due to the onset of hypoglycaemia, she began to struggle physically to make the cut offs. Eventually, within 10 miles of the finish, her race ended. She decided to make the wise call not to return to Athens. She will be back to attempt the impossible again.
Overall the win was taken by Joao Oliviera of Portugal in a little under 24 hours, good enough for a margin of almost 2 hrs over the rest of the field and the 11th fastest finish of all time.
When I look back over this year, it's with fond memories. But somewhere along the way I came to realise what it truly is I want out of my running, and where it fits in to my life. The two most important things to me are being out in remote country without the pressure of time or pace. The other, is challenging myself through racing. The latter was always the more important of the two but with the passing of the years it's faded in to a distant second. I am going back to the hills and will race far less in the future, focussing only on the few races that really capture my imagination, the way Sparta did and may one day, do again.
Running the Spartathlon for the first time last year, ignited a passion for a race that I hadn’t felt in a while. It’s been a long road to get back to that long road, and one that’s finally coming to an end. The below reads like a Brief History of Time, really it is just designed to be a short story of my ultrarunning to date, and where the Spartathlon fits in to that. I'm not sure what brought this on, perhaps reaching 100 official marathon finishes according to club rules (of course) gives pause for relflection. More likely it's the thought of what's to come and looking back over things for some confidence boosting memories. Racing is only a fraction of the process of course. The days out on the hills where time/ distance were of least importance form undoubtedly my fondest running experiences to date, but racing has always been a very important part of the journey too.
When I first started running in 2005, it was in preparation for the MdS, for which I'd signed up with no prior experience with my old friend Jimmy Corrigan. One of the first ultrarunning books I read, around the time I donned my old mans tennis shoes and injured myself doing my first 15 minute jog, was Dean Karnazes’ ultramarathon man. Races like Western States, Leadville and Badwater instantly sprung on to the radar, but they seemed worlds away, dreams that would take many years of preparation to reach. Looking back, I knew I had an apprenticeship to serve, before I would be ready to attempt those kind of events. Whilst ‘training’ one day by watching running videos, we stumbled across a documentary on the Spartathlon, featuring a now friend of mine, Peter Leslie Foxall. Peter (who has 9 Sparta finishes to his credit) was filmed throughout the event and was completely fried by the finish, he had the lean going on in a big way. Jimmy and I turned to each other and basically said ‘what the hell are these guys thinking, this is beyond insane’. It didn’t appeal to me at all, in fact it looked completely freakish.
The MdS turned out to be appallingly hard for 2 complete novices with all the wrong kit and legs like matchsticks. Mistakes like packing only one water bottle, which was a small black adidas number and reachable only by reaching right around the side of the pack (or asking someone else to get it), were commonplace. But we finished.
Mds, 2006. Sand Dunes. First Desert Finish. Photo: Jimmy Corrigan.
That was always supposed to be the end of it, but after 6 months of sitting on my ass, an entry went in to the first of the 4deserts series, the Gobi March and in June 2007 we crossed the finish line of our second multi day event.
Finish Gobi March 2007. Kashgar, far western China. Photo: RTP.
We were lucky enough to meet a band of brothers in our tent mates on those events and I trained harder than ever over the next 8 months, racing regular 50 milers and throwing in a 3 day/ 400 mile cycling event around Puerto Rico, my first experience of riding in a peleton.
Vuelta Los Nos Faros, 2008. Getting dropped, again.
Eventually I ran out 5th in the Atacama Crossing in 2008, that was my first inkling that I could perhaps compete instead of just complete.
Atacama, 2008. 2nd of the 4Deserts Series. 5th Overall. Photo: Pete Bocquet.
6 months later and I found myself on a boat to Antarctica with none other than Dean himself. He had a horrible race there and faced with shocking conditions, the final stage was pulled completely leaving me in 2nd place overall, a couple of spots ahead of him! I’ll never forget riding the zodiac back to our ship from the end of a 5hr stage one day, Dean turned around and asked me how many 100 milers I’d run. When I replied none, he looked incredulously at me and said ‘NONE!!! My god!!!’. That only helped re-inforce to me where I should go from here.
I went home and did the research. What 100s were out there and more importantly, how quickly could I bag two, which at the time was the minimum requirement for entry in to Badwater. (when I first looked at it in 2005, you were required only to have completed 1 x 100km race in order to apply, it’s now considerably more difficult to qualify). I picked two ‘easy 100s’, first at Rocky Raccoon in Feb 2009, just 2 months after Antarctica, and Old Dominion 100 which was a short drive away from a US friend of mine on the east coast. I finished Rocky in 22:54, and I knew all the way around that I was going to be more proud of that finish than anything that had come before. 100 miles in One Day. That was it for me, that was where it was at. Old Dominion rolled around in June and it was a different beast, humid and with a lot more climb (14,000ft vs 5,500ft at Rocky). The cut offs were tighter and I crumbled amongst the flies and humidity, finishing in 24:58. At the end of ’09 I ticked off the final 4deserts event in the Sahara under the shadow of the pyramids. I had a bad race, tired and under prepared, but still managed a top 10 finish in a bigger field.
In February 2010 I filed my entry application for Badwater. Riding the bus to work one day the email landed, I’d gotten in. Another London based runner James Adams got in too, and we started to plan for the event. Death Valley was out of this world. I’d prepared like never before and was truly in the shape of my life. On route to the event I ran my first sub 3 hour marathon and clocked up 19 marathon/ ultra finishes in 5 months, working solidly and consistently up to the main target. I even managed to win something for the first time, the Three Forts Marathon.
Washington National Marathon. 2:58. March 2010. Photo: Official Race Images.
Death Valley was something else. This was it for me, the pinnacle, the hardest race on earth, how could anything compare with 130 degrees and 135 miles of road, uphill? Well, my luggage was lost on the way to the race, I was forced to buy all my supplies for the event in Wal Mart the day before and suffered horrendous chaffing and nausea. That definitely didn’t help, but I finished in 39 hours and change.
Death Valley 2010. Being sick at Stovepipe Wells mile 42. Finish 39:19. Photo: Frank Fumich.
Badwater 2010. Owens Valley, mile 115, with Frank Fumich. Photo: Luis Escobar.
When I got back I was out of it for three months. That race took more out of me than any event I'd done before or since. It's the only time I've been on my feet for over 30 hours, although I've run over 20hrs, another 11 times. I ate almost nothing the last 50 miles. All my best laid plans went out of the window, including UTMB where I started before they abandoned the race on us (before I had a chance to abandon it myself!) at St Gervais, just 3 hours in to the event.
Later that year I felt in shape enough to run Caesars Camp 100, but suffered again with my old nemesis, the chaffing and crawled to a 27hr finish, just ahead of one Robbie Britton, just starting to find his feet in ultra land.
In 2011 I went for it guns blazing. I’d done what I’d already waited 3 years to do, gain a place on the Western States start list. I decided that I would continue spending all my available time and money, every penny, on continuing to run the international events I’d dreamed about. Without hesitation I entered the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning made recently famous by Ian Sharman/ Nick Clark, and threw in another Rocky Raccoon 100 to boot. I blew out at Rocky at mile 76 and suffered knee and shin problems, that little did I know, were the start of some serious issues. On returning home I was diagnosed with stress fractures in both tibia, I didn’t run again consistently all year.
Scan and Boot. My life for almost three months. March - May 2011.
With a place at Western and with my travel booked I trained for 2 months on a stationary bike, running less than 30 miles total. When I got to Western, I didn’t even know if I could crest the first climb, let alone make it to Auburn, but with the help of a pacer I’d never met before reaching Forest Hill, I puked and dragged my ruined quads all the way to an agonising 28:25 finish on the track.
Western States 100, 2011. View up the first climb. Finish 28:25.
3 weeks later and in no fit state to travel again to the US, let alone start another 100, I attempted to run Vermont, the second race in the slam. With massive muscle damage left over from Western, I slowed badly after an initial half decent start. At mile 51 I went badly off course and spent 45 minutes in the woods alone. I made it back on course but was dehydrated and eventually passed out cold on route to one of the aid stations. I then passed some urine the colour of charcoal. I pulled out at the next CP and flew home with the issues, which eventually subsided 4 days later. Of a handful of DNFs in my time, this one hurt (still hurts) much more than any other.
The Slam was over, but Leadville was booked and paid for and strangely enough despite the medical issues, as most slammers will tell you, I felt much better after Vermont than I did Western. Leadville was a different world to the previous two. The race went as well as could be expected with a total of 200ish miles running the preceding three months, 157 of them in two goes and I finished in 26:29. On reflection that was probably one of my better performances, all things considered.
Leadville 100, 2011. Coming in to Twin Lakes outbound mile 42. Finish 26:29. Photo: Michael Hull.
Leadville 100, 2011. Mayqueen Mile 87. Not doing so good. It was FREEZING.
I took most of the rest of 2011 off, and felt very glad that I’d been able to fulfil my dreams of finishing Western and Leadville despite all the odds.
So where was next on the journey? I dragged out the bucket list and there were really only one or two events on there, Hardrock being the number 1, but with a tight lottery and one I had (and still have) consistently failed to get through, I needed a more tangible target. James Adams had been on at me for years about the Spartathlon, and spending a lot of time in the house with two other Brits at Leadville, Drew Sheffield and Tim Adams, I felt compelled to run some events which I’d previously put off as too long or too short! An entry went in for Comrades, The West Highland Way Race, a second UTMB and…..Sparta.
Injury free in the lead up to Comrades, I had a slow to start to the year, and did myself a fair bit of dis-service in South Africa thanks to running the entire 103 miles of the SDW in one go with Neil Bryant, two weeks before. Nevertheless I teamed up with British based Terrence Zengerink and we worked and worked all day for our 7:56 finish, outside of the silver medal time but still a respectable first attempt.
Comrades 2012, with Terrence Zengerink. Finish: 7:56. Photo: Terrence Zengerink.
Two weeks later again I toed the start line of the WHW race with Drew on hand to crew me through it. Literally 100 yards after the start on Milngavie high street, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. Illness had plagued by post Comrades recovery period and I was weak going in to the WHW. At the first crew point in Drymen I told Drew it was going awful. In the end I limped in to Rowardennen, mile 27, where I puked, let loose my bowels and dropped out of the race. Not a great performance! I trained the rest of the summer hiking as much as I could in preparation for UTMB. When the race was washed out on me for a second time in as many attempts, I almost didn’t start the rescheduled 105km version, but eventually decided not to waste that time and effort and enjoy what was left of the race. Let’s just say it was incomparable to the TDMB route itself. A scant few hours before the ‘easy’ UTMB I decided to book my flights to Sparta. I’d been putting it off as I didn’t see how a summer of hiking and a very hard mountain 100 would prepare me in any way for 153 miles of road in 36 hours. I wasn’t actually even that bothered but now I needed something else on which to end the year after that dissapointment.
Sparta was a life changing event. I can’t really say more than that without going in to another 10,000 words on an already way too long blog post, so if you want to know why you can always refer back to my post on last years race here. Short story, it was the hardest thing I’d ever attempted, the only time in my ultra running career where a cut off had played a part in my race day and the only time I’ve dropped out at a race (about 99 miles in, in this case) where I knew instantly that the next job would be to go back and do it again. It was the only race I was interested in.
I took 3 weeks completely off of running on returning to the UK, and from that day to this, almost 11 months later, every step I’ve run has been about Sparta. In that 11 months I’ve packed in a lot. I’ve raced plenty, with 28 more events of marathon or ultra distance (plus Ironman) in the bag. And I’ve pushed myself harder than ever before. I’ve actually only ‘raced’ three times, events which were important to me as stepping stones but valid events in their own right. I went back to Rocky Raccoon for the 4th time and came away with a 10th place 17:32 trail 100 PB. I ran the London Marathon for the first time and set a PB of 2:52. And after years of putting it off, I finally got around to running the Grand Union Canal Race, covering the 145 miles in 29hrs10 for 1st place overall.
Rocky Raccoon 100, 2013. 100 mile PB, 17:32.
Ironman New Zealand, 2013. Getting shoulder barged by a tank. Photo c/o: Ironman.
GUCR FInish line. Birmingham to London on foot. 145 miles in 29:10. Photo: Eddie Elson.
So where does that leave me? I feel confident about Sparta. With 5 multi day desert races and Badwater behind me, I like to think I am ok with the heat. The distance and the cut off, the two biggest single factors, are within reach after running 145 miles in under 30hrs. The climb at the 100 mile point is something I know I’ll be good with after some much more mountainous events over the years. And my training, whilst missing whole weeks at times, has nevertheless been injury free and consistent on a month by month level. I’ve enjoyed some of the incredible trails we have here in the UK like never before. The SWCP, Southern Upland Way, Lake District and of course the South Downs Way have all featured at times and I’ve fallen back in love with a lot of those places. Moving house, our own Centurion Races, Food poisoning have all thrown themselves in to the mix, but no lead up to an event is flawless, life gets in the way. All in all I’m right there where I wanted to be.
Blencathra, the Lake District. Bob Graham Round Leg 1. 2013. Photo: Neil Bryant.
But…… This is the Spartathlon. This is beyond difficult, where the start list is full of people who make my running CV look incredibly short. The road takes no prisoners and it will without doubt be the single biggest achievement of my running life, to cross the finish line. In 12 days time, the Acropolis will light up with the sounds of 350 runners, literally sh*tting themselves all over the Greek roadside in preparation for 36 hours of hell. I hope I get to meet Leonidas in person this time…..
Spartathlon 2012. Running in to Korinth mile 50 with Richard Webster. Photo: Gemma Greenwood.
I fully admit that I've run out of time to give the pre-race preview the level of attention it usually gets so please excuse even more so, the incorrect facts or missing obvious hot-shots from the below.
For me, the NDW100 is the 'hardest race' we put on. What I mean by that is that as a runner, you can expect it to take longer to complete than the TP100 and SDW100. Only historic results dating back a number of years will give us a true indication, this is just our second NDW100 on the current course.
Course Records at this event are in my opinion, fairly solid. Manuel Lago's 2012 time came with a small navigational error and loss of motivation around the 50 mile point, however he was back on track and ran pretty solid through to the end. Sub 18 hours on this course is no joke. Alice Hector just missed out on running sub 20 hours. In her first 100, it was an epic run where her only competition came from the men.
Mark Perkins: Our inaugural SDW50 champ, Three Forts Marathon Podium finisher, this is his first 100 and we all know just how different a ball game is a 100 is to a 50, but speed and talent he most certainly has.
Luke Ashton: If Luke had spent a little less time in aid stations at this years TP100, also his first 100 miler, he would perhaps have made up the 3ish minutes he gave away to eventual winner Martin Bacon. If Luke is coming in injury free and rested (he races a lot), then he stands a very good chance of walking away with the trophy.
Eduard Egelie: Super man. Eduard is one of the strongest runners Ian and I have had the pleasure of working with. He had a strong first 100 last year smiling from start to finish and has all the talent to shock the field and run away with this. He won't be in the early lead pack but he'll be right there at the end if things go his way.
Toby Froschauer: Amazingly solid Caesars Camp 100 last year, solid SDW100 on not a lot of training and a lot of travel. He's got the legs to go all the way to the podium once again.
Ed Catmur: Everytime Ed races he comes with his A game. He led this race at half way last year before losing ground in the final throws, holding on for top 10. He brings a host of wins with him including one at a 100 this year. If Ed is fit and rested he will be hot out of the blocks and can hang there all day.
Dave Ross: Dave led the TP100 for 90ish miles this year before blowing up in the cold to a 6th overall. He's more experienced at the 100 mile game now with 5 or 6 behind him. If he can eat through to the latter stages and doesn't get lost too many times he'll be a top 10 without a shadow of a doubt. He wants more....
Sam Robson: Has been struggling with injury but with his 2nd at last years SDW100, if the pain stays away he has the strength.
James Eacott: I first met James in Chile in 2008. He was new to the whole ultrarunning scene, jogging around the desert in a pair of board shorts. Last Autumn in my second week since returning to running following Sparta, I met James again at the Druids challenge. I saw a different runner there who got stronger each day and went on to get 2nd overall to a racy Justin Montague. He has one major plus on his side, a finish here last year and in a fine time too. He's my dark horse for the title.
The ladies field doesn't look too deep this year, so I'm ready to be surprised by a few superstars and eat humble pie!
Wendy Shaw: Our overall Grand Slam leader, 2nd at the TP100, 3rd at the SDW100, Wendy keeps getting stronger and stronger. It's just a matter of time before she cracks it for the win.
Helen Smith: If everyone else blows up, Helen will be there. She won't be the fastest out of the gate, or perhaps even the middle third but Helen is as tough as they come and she knows how to finish 100 mile plus races off. She's proved countless times she can do it at all distances too (she won three forts in 2011 in exactly the same way).
Follow the live updates linked on our homepage throughout race weekend, and our twitter feed for intermittent updates from out on the course.
Saturday 15th June is race day for 200 runners hoping to make it the 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne non-stop and on foot under the 30 hour limit. As usual there will be those fighting to make the cut offs, those fighting for the fabled 100 miles - One Day Belt Buckle for a sub 24 hour finish and those shooting for the title and this time, the prize money that goes with it. Petzl are sponsoring the race this year and the manufacturer of the finest headlamps in the game are putting up £500 for both male and female winners as well as prizes for second and third places.
Here's a quick run down of some of the pre-race favourites. As always facts are not checked and top of my head assumptions drawn so please excuse any ommissions, errors and please do leave a comment at the bottom with your own insights if you wish!
The exciting part about this years event is that there is no stand out candidate for the race win. There is a good sized field of very talented runners in the mens race and it's extremely difficult to see where the win might go this time around. The big gap is left by Ryan Brown last years runaway winner who unfortunately has been struggling with injuries in the early part of 2013 and will be sorely missed.
The SDW is a race that encourages faster opening stages with it's rolling and runnable terrain. As the experienced 100 mile guys and girls know, the race doesn't start until mile 60 and I think there'll be some carnage later on if the early pace is as high as it's threatening to be. Look out for some big changes throughout the day. It's going to be great to watch!
Robbie Britton: A late addition to the field and a member of our own Centurion Ultra Running Team, Robbie is one of the most talented young ultrarunners in the country. At 26 he has more 100 mile experience than most and has dedicated himself this past 18 months to going long, with 4 x 24 hour races including a 19th overall 239kms at the recent World Championships. He won the NDW100 in 2011, finished 2nd at the TP100 in 2012 with a 16:02 and has recorded 100 mile splits in the low 15s twice at recent 24hr events. He's strong on the hills, has learned how to fuel himself and is capable of anything he sets his mind to. Working in his favour he always runs his own race. Don't look to him to be leading in the early stages but rather hold his pace all the way to the line.
Warwick Gooch: Warwick impressed last year as he gutted out the win at Caesars Camp 100 in terrible conditions in 21:54. As those who have run Caesars know it is a brutal event and if he can run as strong on the SDW he will be many hours quicker than that time, putting him right in the mix.
Toby Froschauer: Toby chased Warwick all the way at Caesars in 2012 and run in to the finish looking as fresh as he started out. Again if he has maintained his form he will be right in the mix.
Martin Rea: Martin is a class act runner and comes over from Ireland with a host of ultra wins in his background including the Himalayan Stage Race, the London Ultra, Cardiff Ultra, Connemara Ultra and the old Tring to Town event. He is an Irish National 100km Team runner and leads the 3hr pace groups at London, Belfast and Dublin Marathons. He took it easy at the SDW50 and found his way to the track in 3rd overall so he has knowlege of the course for the final stages.
Justin Montague: Justin has been working his way back to fitness after an injury earlier this year that took a lot out of his running. Traditionally he would have been right at the top of the list for the win, with an incredible pedigree of short and long distance ultra success alongside is super talented brother Nathan. Justin's stand out Centurion effort was his 2nd place finish at the North Downs Way 100 last August in 18:48. If he can resurrect anything like the form he showed there, he will be a threat all the way to the line.
Paul Bennett: Paul is a superbly strong runner and has enjoyed wins and podiums at the 3 day South Downs Way VOTwo event, the Steyning Stinger and the South Downs Marathon to name just those on the South Downs itself. He lives and trains on the downs and has built up his 100 mile experience over time adding the West Highland Way and the original South Downs Way 100 to his CV amongst others. He's the first to admit he hasn't yet converted his talent in to a 100 mile performance but when he does get it right he will be hard to beat.
Martin Bacon: Martin's experience is second to none coming in to the race, both in terms of long distance (100 mile+ racing) and course knowledge. In 2012 he took a sub 18 hour third place at the TP100 and this year converted that in to the win. 100 milers aren't won in the first 100km but they are most certainly lost there and Martin's experience may well allow him to shine and pick up the proverbial pieces if, as there always is, we see some blow ups from the early leaders.
Sam Robson: Sam has it all to play for. He finished second last year in 17:23 and has publicly stated he is going for a sub 16 hour finish. If he is able to convert it would surely go down as one of the UK Ultrarunning performances of the year. Confidence is crucial to runners and Sam is going in strong.
Doug Murray: The man who seemingly smiles from ear to ear right from the get go, always a pleasure to have on the course, Doug had a great SDW50 and then ran in a superb 2nd place in the NDW50, just outside of CR pace and just 6 days after he ran 33 miles up at Marlborough. He could shock everyone coming in here.
We are very lucky to have such a deep and talent filled women's field at this years event. It's going to be as, if not more exciting than the men's race to watch unfold.
Emily Canvin: Emily comes in hot off of back to back wins at both the SDW50 and NDW50. She smashed the course record at the NDW50 and has got a huge amount of talent and natural speed. This will be her first 100 but if she can manage her effort and her fueling she might just have the legs to make it three Centurion wins out of three.
Jean Beaumont: Jean blew us away with her win at the Winter 100 in November. She looked untroubled, leading throughout and kept a smile on her face through some horrendous weather. She previously won and set the Course Record at the Northburn 100 in New Zealand, her homeland and must be the experienced favouite coming in.
Wendy Shaw: Wendy keeps getting stronger and stronger. Relatively new to the sport she has trained well all year and is looking to add her second race to her Grand Slam attempt. She took a solid second at the Thames Path 100 in March and will be looking to go one better. Another one to run her own race she knows how to pace and to fuel herself and will pick up any pieces later in the race if others start to struggle.
Nicola Golunska: For a while we weren't sure if Nicola would be in shape to make the startline after a bike crash left her on the injury sidelines for a long time. She ran an incredible race in the 2011 SDW Race taking the win and a third place overall. Anything can happen when she is on form.
Susie Casebourne: Susie lacks 100 mile experience but has competed at the very highest level in sport with 2 silver medals at the ETU European Triathlon Champs. She recorded an ultra win at the EL CTS event in March and is one to watch here.
So I think that's about it for now. Did I miss someone? Please do leave comments below if so....