Another Ultramarathon Running Blog

2015 Spartathlon Race Report

“I marched down the high street towards the finish to the cheers and adulation of the crowd as the raw heat of the sun was starting to cool and early evening approached. The street was lined with hundreds of supporters, locals and well-wishers who were giving the finishing athletes an incredible reception and acknowledging their efforts and the end of the journey.

The emotion of finishing the event was masking the pain and stiffness in my legs which had resulted in a steady but persistent march for the second half of the race. I didn’t care at the time, I just wanted to see the finish, just wanted to see the statue of Leonidas people had spoken about, follow the tradition of kissing the foot and just finish this race.

In the crowds of well-wishers were other members of the British Spartathlon Team, some had finished, others had not but everyone was supporting their fellow country men and a fantastic sense of team spirit was prevailing.

I finally reached the statue as I was herded through the crowds and took those last few steps to the statue. I took a deep breath and placed my parched lips on the bronze statue and took a sip of water offered by the hand maidens garbed in ceremonial outfits. I turned and raised the flag with a huge grin on my face, I had done it. I had completed Spartathlon!”

2015

That was two years ago and once again I was contemplating another attempt at this race. I wasn’t sure whether I would run the event again, time away from the family, booking holidays and cost were all hurdles to overcome but when my running buddy Paul Stout said he wanted a crack at this race and asked whether I would enter, the answer was yes.

However this time it was different. I will be honest and admit that I didn’t have the same hunger as I did before. Although I think I have improved slightly as a runner since then I knew that I could not afford to be complacent at this race. Part of the reason for completing the event first time was down to my absolute desire to finish, no matter what and I genuinely felt that it was my mental strength which got me to the end when my body was suffering and I was reduced to a forced march.

Simply put, complacency would mean failure and so I set out to get myself into the best shape I could prior to this event. If I could get my body in the right condition then the layers of confidence would build with each week of training and hopefully the mind would be focussed come race day.

I had been running a solid 70 miles per week for the first half of the year but then had a couple of other races and the usual stop/start period when you taper, race, recover and start again. Race results were personally a little disappointing, I was finishing races but feeling mentally jaded and this was not the sort of attitude I wanted going into Spartathlon.

I decided to step up the training and from July to September and ran 10 x 100 mile weeks with a mixture of short, medium and long runs and no rest days but some ‘easy days’. The training wasn’t perfect and you always feel you can do more. For example some of the planned quality sessions became just general runs and I had a dip around Week 7 when I felt pretty lethargic. Learning from my experience last time, I had planned to run a marathon type event generally every 2 weeks during this period to work on the speed endurance and complete more road miles as opposed to the usual ‘plod down the canal’ type long Sunday run.

The sum of that block of training was that I was leaner and lighter than I had ever been before (I was ½ stone lighter than when I took part in Spartathlon in 2013) and I had improved both my marathon time and 50k times (despite it being an evening trail race) by some margin despite no taper for these events. I was in pretty good shape going into the event after a planned 2-3 week taper.

I just needed to get my mind focussed on the event. The pressure of a large contingency of talented British Runners, live GPS Tracking and even live streaming of the race over the internet meant there was nowhere to hide this year but I didn’t mind the extra exposure, I find it to be a good motivator when I think someone may be watching me somehow, somewhere then I feel a bit more accountable perhaps it’s because I’m going to write a race report and try to be open and honest about how it went.

History

The British have a long association with the event which started from the first reported run by RAF member John Foden and team who set out to recreate the historic journey of Pheodippides in 1983 and this run eventually led to the creation of the annual Spartathlon event the next year.

British runners have always had runners present in the race with runners like Patrick-Macke and James Zarei having some successes in the late eighties and early nineties with the fastest record British times. In more recent times our recent notable British achievements Lizzy Hawker was 1st Lady and 3rd overall finish in 2012 and a top ten finish for Pat Robbins in 2013.

2015 saw a strong British contingent enter the race. Demand for the race has never been higher with the notoriety of the race appealing to hardened ultra runners looking for an extreme challenge.

The application process requires runners to have achieved certain qualifying times although this merely gets a slot in the ballot with demand outstripping places resulting in a limit of runners per country. This year we had 45 British applicants of which only 23 obtained places. For the faster athletes, a 20% faster then standard qualifying time can get you an automatic spot. In 2012 the race took weeks to fill, in 2013 it took days to fill, in 2014 it took hours to fill and in 2015 the organisers had to impose a ballot to cater for the demand for entries. This will be a race that will be harder and harder to get in and qualifying for an automatic slot appears to be your best shot.

In recent years, the British have transformed their presence in the race from a collection of individuals to a well represented team and whilst this is an ‘unofficial’ team (there’s no separate selection or qualification process on top of that for general race entries) the team concept has been organised to ensure that British participants are visible, well represented in team colours, adhere to the spirit of the race and provide a support mechanism for British participants. This activity is focussed around the British Spartathlon Website www.britishspartathlonteam.org and the Facebook group where aspiring Spartathletes can seek information and advice with race veterans.

Pre-Race

In terms of travel and logistics this was all pretty smooth (unlike my delayed luggage issue a couple of years ago). I had taken my running kit in my hand luggage and had all my drop bags packed and ready to save some time when I arrived.

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Paul Ali & Paul Stout, feeling warm.

We arrived Wednesday evening and the British Runners were assigned to the Oasis Hotel. I was allocated a room with Stouty and we met up with the other members of the British Spartathlon Team and crews. I knew or had previously met about half the team and it was nice to meet the others who I had only really been in contact with via social media/email. The camaderie, spirit and banter was great and I thoroughly enjoyed the social aspect of the week.

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Pictured with Rob and our wonderful host Kostis.

I didn’t sleep that well to be honest due the unfamiliar surroundings and was up at 4am (2am UK time) the next day. A few hours later after breakfast we headed out to the Fenix Hotel for race registration which took a while and then went and bought some bottles of water in a local supermarket to make up some energy drinks before heading back to the Fenix to handover my drop bags. I had gone with a strategy of a drop bag every 5 Checkpoints as this was easy to remember and left necessary items of kit (an extra layer, head torch etc) in bags prior to when I needed them. I did elect to carry a head torch with me (I use the Lenser SE07 which is quite small) so I had everything I absolutely needed on me in case of any issues.

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Drop bag.. bag drop

The British Spartathlon Team were very well represented over the weekend thanks to some superb looking runners and crew tops and of course everyone’s friendliness and approachability. Everyone who joined the ‘class of 2015’ accepted it for what it was and everyone (supporters included) bought into the team concept which meant the British team were one of the most visible and best supported teams which was fantastic and exactly what we set out to achieve.

At this point I would like to offer a big thank you to Sarah Dryden, Russ Bestley, Russ Tullet and Sandra Hopkins for agreeing to come out to the race and act as the official team photography crew. Several photos have been used in this report, thanks very much guys.

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The 2015 British Spartathlon Runners (Photo by Sarah Dryden)

2015 British Spartathlon Crew

And not forgetting the 2015 British Spartathlon Crew (Photo by Sarah Dryden)

We had a few hours to relax before the race briefing and then after a bite to eat retired for the night hoping for some better sleep. Unfortunately I didn’t sleep that well and awoke early, got my kit ready and wandered down to meet the other British runners before getting on the coach to the race start at the Acropolis.

The Race

This years race saw 390 runners from 42 different countries around the world attempt to make the 153-mile run starting out from the Acropolis in Athens with the aim to finish at the Statue of King Leonidas in Sparti; a journey mimicking that of the Athenian messenger Pheidippides who ran the distance in advance of the 490 BC Battle of Marathon to ask the Spartan army for help against the invading Persian forces.

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Paul Stout, Paul Ali & Tremayne Cowdry at the start

Runners attempting the race will have to contend with a combination of factors which makes this event a challenge from the continuous non-stop nature of the race; the unforgiving heat; the tight cut offs at each checkpoint; the constant pounding of the road; the ability to eat and drink on the run and a 1200 meter ascent and descent of Mount Parthenio in the dead of night. Runners who succeed must deal with all of these elements whilst maintaining some speed to stay ahead of the cut offs and the pickup vehicle affectionately known as the ‘death bus’.

On the morning of the race, the runners gathered at the Acropolis under the cover of darkness. I studied the other runners as I waited for the race to start and noticed a range of emotions from those in high spirits; those chatting nervously whilst some were just taking a quiet moment to reflect on the challenges ahead.

At 7am on the Friday, we set off as the first signs of daylight could be seen with the sky changing from black to a shade of blue. The temperature was cool at first and I settled into a comfortable pace as we headed down the cobbled path onto the pedestrian precinct and out onto the city roads.

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Early morning run out of Athens (Photo by Sparta Photography Club)

I continued along the road, running alongside the morning commuters as we headed west out of the city centre. Some of the roads had been coned off to allow the runners to proceed and we ran under the watchful eye of the local police presence that held the traffic at the major crossings to allow us to proceed. The morning was dominated by the sound of blaring car horns and the smell of traffic fumes.

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Early days (Photo by Maria Samolada)

I was pretty relaxed in the build up to the race with the confidence of some good training under my belt. Initially I found myself in the company of a small group of British runners and shared a conversation with Jon Steele and some early exchanges of banter with Rob Pinnington, a man who lives and breathes Spartathlon and a man who was desperate to succeed on his fourth attempt.

My ubiquitous running buddy Paul Stout was a few yards behind our group as we maintained a steady pace along a gradual incline, which leads us out of Athens and onto the coastal road. I dropped back to check on Stouty but he urged me to continue on at my pace. He was looking hot and bothered and I know it’s the right decision to press on and I felt bad for doing so but I ran on leaving him to his own race.

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Paul Stout pictured (Photo by the Spartathlon Photography Club)

Pacing here is key, go out too fast and you will pay for it later; go out too slowly and you may find yourself on the wrong side of the cut offs. I was reminded of the words at the race briefing he night before “If you miss the cut off at the checkpoint, you are out the race. That is the specialty of the Spartathlon.”

I arrived at the port town of Skaramagkas after about 10 miles and turned onto the coastal road, which follows the bay of the Saronic Gulf. I had been running for 90 minutes and the temperature was now starting to rise quickly as any form of shade disappeared. There were checkpoints every couple of miles run by willing volunteers which provided some drinks and snacks and I was moving through these quickly grabbing what I needed before pressing on. With my core temperature rising and beads of sweat starting to trickle down my face I made a conscious effort to start cooling myself down at every available opportunity by soaking my hat and buff in the buckets of water, dripping a sponge full of water on my neck and chest and even putting a couple of ice cubes in my hat and allowing the ice cold water to trickle over my head.

Prevention is better than cure and if you wait until you’re too hot then it’s probably already too late. The race doesn’t give you time to sit and recover.

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Refuelling at a Checkpoint (Photo by Maria Samolada)

I ran with Rob Pinnington for part of the coastal section and we see off a few miles with some good-humoured discussion making up an ultra-runnng equivalent of the ‘4 Yorkshireman’ sketch. Rob had been trying to tease me before the race by asking me to shout a phrase in Greek which he alleged meant one thing but actually meant something else (which wasn’t complimentary to myself). Thankfully, I didn’t believe him but thought I would gain a small degree of revenge for trying to wind me up as we started to hit one or two hills on the road. I spotted the first hill which looked like a ‘walker’ judging by the fact that everyone else had started to hike it and as Rob and I hit the bottom of it I decided to run up the hill and encouraged Rob to do the same. I thought it would be more uncomfortable for Rob than me and made him run up the hill to which he replied “I am not doing that again!” (other words may have been used) as I chuckled to myself and we carried on.

I eventually drifted ahead of Rob and passed a few of the British runners along this section including Mimi Anderson who was not only attempting to run the Spartathlon but also planning to make the return journey on foot and be the first female to complete the Spartathlon “double”. (She successfully completed her double which you can read about here)

The coastal section was a challenge with the beautiful view of the Saronic Gulf and its cooling waters teasing the runners who continued to pound along hot and undulating roads with little shade or respite, the pressure of the cut offs forcing the runners to maintain a constant pace. There were some early casualties as a couple of British runners get timed out along this section whilst others started to suffer. I left a Checkpoint about 20 miles in to the sounds of a runner being violently sick. I ran on, leaving the runner in the hands of the Checkpoint team not daring to look around.

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“Are you fit and well?” Meeting new people

My pace was fairly solid and I ran every step at that time and completed the first marathon at Megara in around 4 hours. Despite slightly better fitness than last time I was 15 minutes slower than two years ago already. I caught up with fellow British runners Jamie Holmes and James Ellis running the race together and after a quick greeting continued on at my own pace.

The road was a harsh mistress, ever-present, hard and unforgiving. It was the silent killer of the race and I could feel the impact on my quads already despite a host of tactics and preparation. I assessed my thoughts and realised that you will never run this event comfortably and a good level of preparation will simply result in less suffering. I hoped my preparation was good enough.

On this section I pass Paul Corderoy whose race ultimately didn’t go to plan. He later reported that by the marathon distance his legs were already in trouble. He was hopeful of some respite and a massage and treatment at the 50-mile point in Corinth, which he arrived 10 minutes before the cut off 9.30 cut off. The window of time too short to sort himself out and he was forced to push on, running in pain, fast marching when he had to, ever conscious of the ‘Death Bus’ which was following his trail. He gutted his way to 100km right on the edge of the time limit and was told if he wanted to continue he couldn’t stop. He ran on, his feet now on fire and with no time to stop for water or supplies. The ‘Death Bus’ eventually passed him and he knew his time was over. Paul described his emotions as relief. He hadn’t failed, he had pushed himself to the time limit and commented that “This race was tougher than I ever imagined a race could be.”

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Head down and keep running (Photo by the Sparta Photography Club)

I ran on maintaining a constant pace and was lifted by those odd moments where school children were lined up all cheering excitedly for the runners to pass them armed with banners and holding their hands outstretched for a high five. I spotted Tremayne Cowdry ahead of me, I loaned him some of my sun cream which he was appreciative off and he commented that his legs were also feeling trashed already.

Corinth Canal was a major landmark at 50 miles, it marked the end of the coastal road and a major cut off point of 9 hours 30 minutes. This was also the first point runners with support crews can receive support and as I approached I could see a presence of British Crew in their distinctive red tops waiting for the runners to arrive.

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“Hey man, where’s your other hat?” were the calls.(Photo by Sparta Photography Club)

I arrived in 8 hours having run the second 25 miles in around 4 hours. Last time I came in at 8hrs 15mins. I grabbed some pasta and immediately headed to the massage table for some work on my quads and calves. The unforgiving nature of the tarmac was starting to take its toll on my body and I felt like a 10 minute massage here would be good investment of time if it would help me to continue running further into the race.

The massage didn’t make the aching symptoms go away but I hobbled out of the Checkpoint and got back into a run and it may have had some benefit. It was now mid-afternoon and I knew I had to suffer another couple of hours of the worst heat before it started to get dark around 7pm. The early start and lack of sleep the couple of nights before were starting to take their toll on me as I stifled a few yawns. The night time wasn’t going to be pretty.

I continued along a long road passing small houses with barking dogs, yapping and jumping up at the gates. I had little company at this point with only the occasional runner visible ahead or behind me.

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Still running (Photo by Sparta Photography Club)

The support between the crews and runners was great and I was delighted to see a fantastic level of spirit and cooperation between all our runners and crews. Whilst there are strict rules on when people can be supported, all the crews were encouraging and helpful with all the runners and it felt like we had one large team.

On the course itself runners were also supportive of each other. Paul Rowlinson had been pushing some of the early cut offs and bumped in Martin Illot (5 time finisher) who was also having a tough time. Paul later said “In his thoughtful and understated way, Martin said things that made me believe again and as the sun began to sink in the sky, my spirits rose and I felt strong enough to slowly put more time between me and the cut-offs that loomed behind. By the time I neared Nemea I felt much more confident, and 100 times better than I had done at the same point in 2014”. Sadly Martin did not complete the race but his words helped Paul on his way to an eventual finish.

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He must be saying something nice, must be.. (Photo by Sarah Dryden)

A few miles later I saw some of the British Crews at Ancient Corinth where I stopped to receive another quick 10-minute massage before moving on. Rob Pinnington caught me up around the 60 mile point (much to his delight I may add) and then made a deliberate attempt to run ahead of me.. before taking a wrong turn and ending up coming into the checkpoint a little behind me. Despite the banter, Rob was having a brilliant run and looked fairly comfortable and importantly in good spirits. I was thinking this could be his year.

At that point I had been eating really well during the race, nibbling on foods at every checkpoint, taking a snack or two from my drop bags positioned every fifth checkpoint (for easy recollection) and I didn’t experience any stomach issues at all during the race. I recall a long gradual uphill section, which was the first time in the race I had marched for a long section. I kept seeing Marco Consani who was out supporting Debbie who ultimately had a fantastic race eventually finishing 5th lady in a time of 30 hours 30 minutes. Debbie probably won the quote of the race when she was asked about how she was coping with the pouring rain later in the race by a journalist and she replied along the lines of “Don’t worry, I’m Scottish”.

I reached the 75-mile point in 13 hours and it was now dark. I stopped at the next major aid station where I saw Russ Bestley and Nick Papageorge before heading out. I was trying to get to the mountain in 18 hours but this next section was a struggle and I was reduced to a run/walk as I marched this section towards the mountain and lost a bit of time here.

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Leaving the 75 mile Checkpoint (Photo by the Sparta Photography Club)

We had been warned of light rain in Sparti the next day but as I approached the ominous looking mountain pass ahead, I was witness to an amazing looking electrical storm with some circular lightning. Very impressive, until I realised I was heading in that direction!

I pushed on running where I could, marching when I was forced to. I tried to employ various mental games to keep my mind occupied from humming songs to running 50 steps on and off or walking the ups and running the downs. I was starting to feel sleepy now which didn’t help the mental focus at all.

I eventually arrived at the mountain base in just under 19 hours where I met Checkpoint Lead Adrian Kouyoufas and his daughter. Adrian and a number of other Anglo-Greek or British expatriates have run the Mountain Checkpoint for a number of years. I had met up with Adrian at registration the day before and he gave had given me a quick history of his families involvement in the race from his father who had organised the 2nd ever Spartathlon event, to his involvement and now his daughter gets involved and so the family tradition is being passed down from generation to generation.

Adrian commented that “Most of the runners are in good spirits at the mountain base which is a major landmark as the cut offs became a little more generous for the final third of the race once the mountain climb has been made”.

I took advantage of a third massage on my quads at this time before heading up the mountain pass. The pass itself is a series of switchbacks up a trail illuminated by light and marked by tape. The climb itself is not steep but after 19 hours on your feet and approaching this in the early hours, it can be a struggle.

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The Mountain Climb (Photo by the Sparta Photography Club)

I stomped up the trail as quickly as I could, pausing to catch my breath from time to time. I had to refrain from looking too far up and feeling demotivated by seeing how far I had to go but I did take the opportunity to look back and see the twinkling lights of head torches in the distance. I reached the top and grabbed a drink before quickly heading down the other side. This was more of a recognised trail but also presented its own dangers with lots of loose rock and scree meaning I was slipping on my Hokas. After just receiving a massage I made the descent cautiously trying to protect my quads as much as I could.

I arrived at the Village of Sagas where the locals were out late celebrating the event with food and drink and cheering the oncoming runners. From that point a lot of the night was a bit of a blur. I recall following an undulating route through various villages, through underpasses and along roads. The sounds of the night dominated by either the noise of car engines driving nearby or the barking of dogs or of rumoured wolves in the distance.

Sometime during the night it started to rain and it rained hard with a heavy downpour for an hour before a period of constant drizzle for the next few hours, which led into the morning. I hadn’t carried a rain jacket as it wasn’t needed for the first day and I had the problem of trying to anticipate when I would need it.

Ultra running is sometimes ‘10% what happens to you and 90% how you deal with it’. I had planned for this eventuality and had left a bin bag in each drop bag, which I fashioned, into a tabard, which covered the top half of my body and kept me dry. The one bonus of the cool rain on my body was that it did numb my legs which made running a little bit more comfortable.

I ran-walked for a section as darkness gave way to the light of the next day. The rain continued to fall but the bonus was that conditions were cool so we would not be expecting a hot second day. Sleep deprivation was really telling now and I was almost sleep walking this section trying to fast march in a dazed state.

I followed the route through small hamlets and farmland. Andrew Ferguson kept popping up in the car giving me a wave and some encouragement as Isobel Wykes was close behind me and we eventually paired up, both of us seeing the value of some company at this time.

We worked our way through the small hamlets and eventually made it onto the main dual carriageway which led to Sparti. This was a landmark point I had been expecting and a point at which I could soon start to think about the finish. However, there was a sting in the tail as this section involves a long, gradual, motivation-sapping climb which never seemed to end.

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Izzy and I momentarily pausing for breath.. honest (Photo by Sparta Photography Club)

Isobel and I had both resigned to marching it in. My quads were pretty sore, I was feeling very sleepy and at points was stumbling onto the road and had to catch myself from time to time. 30 miles to the finish was close but at walking pace it was still an all day effort and we decided to try and run a bit just to get this done. It was nothing fancy at first just we just picked a landmark ahead and jogged to it, walked a few yards and then picked another landmark. It does show that running those death legs at the end is a case of mind over matter as we managed a stop/start trot a few miles before eventually catching up with Lawrence Eccles who had also decided to march it in but then tagged along in our small group.

At a few points the three of us separated and then got back together. Isobel was fine running the uphill sections but not on the downhill sections. I was the opposite and Lawrence just tagged along with whoever was ahead. I started to lag behind on the uphill and for fear of being left behind made a huge effort to push on. I caught the others and we all pretty much decided to stick together to the end and so we started using the ‘run to the landmark’ approach and took it in turns to pick an object and run to it.

The distance and pace of the remainder of the race did cause me to think about the cut offs. Tiredness was now taking its toll mentally and I was reworking numbers to check I was well ahead of the cut offs. In truth we were 3 hours ahead and if we could maintain short periods of running then we would stay well ahead of these.

We eventually completed the climb leaving a Half Marathon downhill section of road into the City of Sparti. The edge of the city looked deserted with few people about although we were passed by occasional cars who would beep their horns as sign off encouragement and respect to the finishing runners.

Nick Papageorge (who had been crewing Rob) passed us around this point and tried to get me to run harder by telling me Rob was just about to catch me up. For the first time in the race, I had actually checked the GPS tracker a few miles earlier (just to break up the monotony and effort of the last long climb) on my phone and had seen how the runners had spread. It was good to hear that Rob was still going and once you’re over the mountain you’ve got a great chance of finishing so this was great news.

We continued our short running approach, moving past Checkpoints without stopping aside from a quick drink or grabbing a snack just working from Checkpoint to Checkpoint. Completion of this race was almost a certainty but we needed to keep our motivation and drive.

The Half-Marathon to the finish became 10k, then 5k as we followed the roads downhill through the outskirts of the town as the traffic got a little busier and the beeping of horns, cheers or shouts or “Bravo!” became more regular. We arrived at the last checkpoint where received an escort from some local children on their bikes who led the way to the finish. 40 miles ago and I was virtually death marching the race thinking I wasn’t capable of running and now I was running. The body was sore, the legs uncomfortable but I could run. We ran the entire last checkpoint, drawing on the support from the locals and fuelled by the anticipation of the finish.

We hit the last couple of turns before the finish and had a quick group hug to acknowledge our efforts to see this race out together before agreeing to finish individually so each person could savour the experience themselves. Isobel ran on ahead as Lawrence and I walked a short distance to leave a bit of a gap before I went next and Lawrence waited briefly before running behind me.

My one aim was to run the last straight having hobbled to the finish in 2013 and I ran, unfurled my flag and ran strong. Tiredness, pain, discomfort were all pushed to one side I continued along the high street towards the statue and through the crowds of supporters and well-wishers to applause, cheers, shouts of “Bravo, Bravo”. Ahead I spotted the British Runners and Crews who were out in force and cheering wildly for all the British finishers.

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Hero’s welcome (Photo by the Sparta Photography Club)

I spotted my friend Paul Stout whose own race was sadly cut short but he was there to support me as I ran to the statue, trotted up the steps and gave a warm handshake to Kostis (President of the International Spartathlon Association) before taking a brief pause and then kissing the foot of the Statue of Leonidas. It was done, the race was finally over, and I had finished.

We completed the formalities at the finish including receiving a hand drawn picture from local school children each of which had been drawn a random runner and had then made them a hand made gift and card and had waited on the finish line for “their” runner. The little lad who had drawn me looked delighted that I finished and I awarded him my British Team buff as a thank you and as a token for him. Hopefully, he will appreciate it more once it has been washed and not covered in blood, sweat and tears. Lawrence trotted in behind me to receive his well-deserved finish and I was escorted to the medical area to have my feet cleaned up before joining the team.

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Kissing the Foot (Photo by Sparta Photography Club)

I’m not sure I can really fully describe my emotions. It would be easy to say that I finished on an adrenaline high in a whirlwind of emotion. Whilst I was pleased to finish I was perhaps a little dispassionate to be honest. I put a lot of training and effort into the race over the past few months and wanted ‘the perfect’ race when everything goes to plan and didn’t quite achieve that. It took me a day or two of reflection to get to a position to realise that nothing will ever go perfectly and I should be happy with what I did achieve (which was a 2 1/2 hour improvement on my last attempt).

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Handshake with Kostis (Photo by Sparta Photography Club)

I started to get news of the other British finishers. Dan Lawson had an amazing run, led for large parts of the race before eventually finishing second overall in just under 24 hours. Debbie Martin-Consani also had a fine run finishing 5th lady in 30.36. Ian Thomas at the age of 56 and the veteran of the team finished in 31.33 followed by Isobel Wykes, myself and Lawrence Eccles around 32 ½ hours with the remaining runners still to follow at that time.

Fortunately, our hotel in Sparti was local and I had a quick taxi drive to the hotel for a shower and change of clothes before heading back the square for the finish to see the other runners coming in. The real highlight of the race for me was hanging around at the finishing square, waiting and supporting the other runners. There was a carnival like atmosphere at the end and the British contingent were very supportive of each other. Of particular note was Dan Lawson who had finished about 7am in the morning and had been hanging around the finish all day just to watch and congratulate all the other British finishers, that speaks volumes of the man.

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Pictured at the finish with my new supporter (Photo by Sparta Photography Club)

Neil Cloke finished next in 34.02 before the most celebrated finish occurred when Rob Pinnington (accompanied by Sean Maley) arrived at the finish. After 3 unsuccessful attempts at this race in consecutive years, he had finally cracked it and marched down the high street in heroic fashion, Martini in hand, fist clenched and held high in the air acknowledging the cheers and applause of the crowd with a huge grin on his face. The whole team went wild with celebrations as Rob and Sean (who had been mistaken for Rob’s son on the course) finished in 34.45. I know how disappointed Rob has been in the past and how much training he put into this race and despite our race banter was absolutely delighted for him. No-one deserved a finish more than he did, well done sir.

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Rob Pinnington enjoying his well deserved finish, Martini in hand (Photo by Sarah Dryden)

The British Team still had four runners on the course and Paul Rowlinson arrived a few minutes later in 34.52. Paul later mentioned “the emotion I felt as I walked up the last 500m to the statue through raucous crowds is impossible to put into words. Kissing the feet of the King was a moment I have visualised every day for the last 2 years, ever more intensely since my failure last year.

Mimi Anderson finished next, overcome with emotion as tears streamed down her face when she ran to the finish. Mimi’s job was only half done as she was whisked away after completing the formalities for a brief period of rest before starting and completing her return journey back to Athens on foot the next day, a truly inspirational effort from her.

Our final two British finishers were the pairing of James Ellis and Jamie Holmes who had run the entire race together in 35.39 with about 20 minutes to spare.

The event was a major success for the British runners with Dan’s podium finish the standout performance, However the team had achieved the 3rd highest finish rate per country (excluding those with just one runner) of 62% with 13 finishers from 21 runners which was higher than the average finish rate of 45%. A great effort overall!

In addition, the fantastic team spirit shown by British runners, crews and supporters was amazing. The team bonded with good humour, friendliness, support and cooperation to help each other out. Unfortunately a number of runners didn’t make it to the end but the general consensus was that they would be back again to finish the race, armed with more knowledge and experience the next time and even a few offers of crew support.

2015 Spartathlon Rob Pinnington & Nick Papgeorge

Rob & Nick (Photo by Sarah Dryden)

I should add a quick thank you to Nick Papageorge who not only supported Rob as his crew but also put himself out for the entire team during the weekend, making sure our kit bags got to Sparta when they should have been left at the hotel and not taken on the coach to the start, tracking down a few lost bags and dealing with a few other minor issues. This was very much appreciated by the team, thanks Nick.

The effort of travelling 153 miles on foot in challenging conditions took their toll on some of the team with a couple of runners needing some minor medical attention and I spent some time with Paul Rowlinson after he collapsed and vomited before receiving some fluids and medication and recovering enough to be allowed to leave. (Thanks for the lovely memories Paul!)

Spartathlon doesn’t advertise itself as the longest, hardest or toughest. It doesn’t need to but all those who take part know it really is a challenging race and one that every finisher should savour. It took me a couple of days before I appreciated this thought.

The Hat!

I will finish this article with a silly anecdote. I have a lucky hat which I usually wear to my races, it’s old; battered; tatty and has a bit of history but it is my good luck charm. I was in two minds whether to use the hat in the race as I wanted to use one with a neck cover but I took it anyway.

Paul Alis Hat

Look what turned up? You can’t keep a good hat down.

Unfortunately, I accidently dropped it near Corinth Canal some 50 miles into the race and I thought it was lost, gone forever.

Rob Pinnington and Sharon Law actually came across the hat on the floor during the race and carried it for a while before Rob eventually (doing the UK Ultra running community a favour?) discarded it.

Incredibly, on her return journey back to Athens Mimi Anderson accompanied by her crew Paul George and Becky Healy (along with Tim Anderson of course) actually found the hat on her run back to Athens and picked it up for me.

How amazing, fortunate and hilarious is that?

ULTRA Magazine Issue 2

This report also appears in Issue 2 of the new ULTRA magazine. If you are interested in reading about this and other interesting ultra event reports then please take a look at the website here where you can order copies of the magazine.

 

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