4 Oct 13 by James Elson

Spartathlon 2013 Race Report

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.