Uncharacteristically for me I’ve decided to publicly throw down the gauntlet to myself with these PB and GB AG Record attempts for 2021
50k (PB attempt, not record) 6hr (GB AG best performance) 50 mile (GB AG best performance)* 12hr (GB AG best performance)* 100 mile (GB AG best performance) 24hr (GB AG best performance) Spartathlon (Best V60)**
*I think I may already have the GB best according to DUV stats but I know I can do better.
**Mr Lantink will put the world best v60 out of reach for me. An incredibly inspiring runner! I’ll try to improve on GB best V60 though.
Now to start as I mean to go on and get some focused training underway!
Good luck with your own challenges everyone and let’s make this a really positive year!
I returned to Gloucester 24hr again this year despite it’s proximity to SpartathlOFF as figured since I’d managed a podium last year it was worth a shot and I was after a renewed AQ anyway.
In hindsight attempting your best a month after running the Spartathlon route will always be a big ask and so it proved.
I can’t wait for 2021 now as I was nowhere near my best at Gloucester (calling it at 12 hours) but have learned that despite that I’m currently AG GB record holder over both 50 miles and 12 hours, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what I can do when back in the groove!.
It was also amazing to finish 2020 ranked top in the World in my AG over 50 miles. Granted that’s for 2020 only, but hey I’ll take it 🙂
I’ve always been aware I’m knocking on the door of some long standing records but now I feel particularly inspired to see what I can do.
Well I was in denial until a month or so out from Spartathlon but the unthinkable happened due to Covid 19 devasting the dreams of our Greek friends, the ISA, volunteers and runners from across the globe.
Despite tireless efforts by the International Spartathlon Association (ISA) restrictions imposed nationally resulted in this epic race being cancelled for the very first time in its history.
The Greek heritage race the Spartathlon wasn’t to be for the first time in 38 years. Or was it?
Okay Spartathlon was off but surely the journey had to be made, the foot had to be kissed, the flame had to be kept alive! There had to be a solution!
…and Elias Pergantis below seemed to share that view!
Friend and fellow Spartathlete James Ellis shared the same passion as I and many others across the world do.
We could not accept the possibility that an historic deed of such magnitude would not be celebrated, not be paid tribute to, not be honoured. It was unthinkable that the greatest race on earth had been scuppered by this pesky virus and that John Foden’s legacy would be interrupted in 2020.
So James put the word out asking if anyone fancied a run across Greece and fellow Spartathlete’s soon picked up on what he was getting at. Some alternative names for our informal effort were suggested but we settled on SpartathlOFF a suggestion of Bob Hearn.
To partake was an absolute no brainer for me. I was in…hook, line and sinker. Someone had to kiss the foot and kick back at Covid-19. So the idea gelled over the next few days before our planned flight to Greece.
Although absolutely committed I had several days of indecision due to a family medical emergency at home which meant I may not have been sble to make it, but I was relieved that at the eleventh hour we decided it was still possible.
So along with my fantastically brilliant and loyal crew Gill, Kelvin and Collette aided by the wonderful Jamie Holmes (James crew) we all packed our bags and headed out for what was to prove an incredibly memorable, albeit completely unique Greek adventure.
This was to be an unknown for us all. No official support, no dedicated lane to run in as we headed out of Athens, no police escort, traffic control and no checkpoints. Were we mad? Well the ISA feared if anyone was going to try something like this it would involve some crazy Brits!
We were of course concerned not to potentially upset the ISA or any of the authorities or bodies associated with Spartathlon. The last thing we wanted to do was any harm. We wanted to pay tribute to this great race, Greek history and satisfy our own insatiable desire to complete this magical journey to Sparta once again.
To that end our plans were kept low key to avoid a potentially unmanagable group congregating at tbe Herodion Atticus which could have caused push back from the authorities due to permissions, health and safety concerns etc, especially as we were to exit Athens without the police escort we are accustomed to.
Those guys do a brilliant job of safeguarding the athletes by managing traffic control at all major junctions and escorting athletes out of the city. There was also no dedicated lane for athletes of course tbis year, which was to present a real challenge.
We arrived in Athens a day or so before James and Jamie, then we all touched base and learned that we were to be joined by at least two more runners, Cypriot Ektoras Agathokleous and Frenchman William Guillott.
We understood from the outset that William planned to run tbe first 10k with us and then head back. I believe he had an imminent race so it would have been unwise to share the whole journey.
Sadly, others that had planned to join us had to withdraw for various reasons. American Spartathlete Andrei Nana (due to his wife Claire being taken ill) Swede Anne S Johanna, fellow Spartathletes Rolando Espina and Anthony Lee due to Covid restrictions and Australian John Gregory due to an injury.
Despite our cautious approach we still didn’t know what to expect when we arrived at the Herodion Atticus at the foot of the Acropolis because we had no idea whether other groups had formed who shared the same vision.
We planned to keep to the usual Spartathlon schedule which seemed the right thing to do of course, so on the morning of Friday 25th September we all met in the foyer of our hotel at 6 a.m to allow us time to get to the start at the Acropolis.
As we ascended the path toward the Herodion Atticus it was strange of course not being surrounded by hundreds of fellow Spartathletes but as we arrived at the usual gathering point for athletes we noticed that Ektoras and William had arrived.
We were only four but it felt as atmospheric and real as Spartathlon itself, especially when Panagiotis Bonelis, Kostic Papadimitriou and Kristian Tsantoulas appeared. I should add that these wonderful guys had given up their own time to see us off and were there in an unofficial capacity.
A start like no other
Following a number of brief interviews Kostis kindly counted us down in much the same way as Spartathlon and then we were off! Magic filled the air! Our unofficial version ‘SpartathlOFF’ was underway.
Kristian Tsantoulas noted for his amazing Spartathlon filming ran along side us filming for some time until we reached the Sacred Way.
Interestingly we were also followed by a mystery runner for a few miles who we’d like to identify. All we know about him is that he was a volunteer at Ancient Nemea about twenty years ago. Perhaps someone can identify him from the video.
We said farewell to Kristian as we hit the first of the main roads and at 10k William Guillot wished us well and began his return journey.
The roads at this stage weren’t too busy but when we hit the multi lane carriageway that heads towards Scaramanger the traffic was insane!
We had a few close shaves as cars wing mirrors brushed past us. Ektoras who resided in Athens was very protective of us along this stretch acting like guide and guardian as he chaperoned us through and alerted cars to the danger.
He was in fact placing himself in danger we thought, so as I was the only one wearing a high viz I motioned to Ektoras to drop in front of me so I would be the back marker. We all worked together from there on until we were out of danger.
Wherever there was an opportunity to use pavement we did so, but ironically it was on a stretch of pavement and not road where I sustained an injury.
I took a heavy fall hurting my ankle. I’d clipped a recklessly placed shop sign anchor. I didn’t know what damage I’d done or whether my run was over so I tentatively walked at first for a few minutes then tried to run it off. Thankfully over an hour or so the pain subsided and all was well.
As there were no aid stations of course our crew had to find convenient pull-ins to support us. I can’t remember the early stops but it was great to see the crews and random surprise appearances of fellow Spartathlete Giorgos Panos and Kostis.
Although it was relatively early in the run my legs felt as though they were holding up really well which I attribute to an immense amount of strength training focused on various unilateral leg exercises and heavy deadlifting.
I also ensured I took on milk and chocomilk in addition to my Tailwind and ate more frequently than is usual for me. I think this helped me avoid stomach issues throughout especially as I wasn’t preoccupied with cut-offs so my pace was more relaxed and hence digestion wasn’t compromised.
The heat along the saronic gulf was punishing especially without the aid of ice which is usually supplied by aid stations but of course we didn’t have that luxury, although our brilliant crews worked wonders and sourced some later in the race.
As we hit Kineta around 57k we encountered a collapsed bridge and road which Kostis and Panagiotis had warned us about.
Runners could get through but our crews had to make a major detour. My crew met us just before the detour so I took on extra water and told Gill, Kelvin and Collette I’d see them next at Corinth, which was unwise in hindsight, as that was another 24k and the water I’d taken on was innadequate in this heat.
However, Jamie had managed to double back to meet James the other side of Kineta which was a real bonus as he was in place waiting some time before James arrived but conveniently for me as I was a little ahead of James. We always ended up coming back together as a group of course.
I had been running for a while now with Ektoras and although we weren’t preoccupied with cut-offs we decided to pick things up a bit and try and hit Hellas Can within the cut off just for the hell of it. As it transpired we hit it on the nail but weren’t fussed about leaving our crew quickly, so I spent some time hydrating whilst Ektoras cracked on.
Somewhere between Hellaa Can and Ancient Corinth it became clear that due to road resurfacing some of the famous Spartathlon markings had disappeared, so this stalled me for a while as I figured out the correct route and cracked on. This was evident on other parts of the course as we progressed.
There were normal road signs of course with one indicating Corinth but you can’t assume that is the official Spartathlon route as you’d be miles off course. Alas it was here that Ektoras had gone wrong as I found out when I arrived in Ancient Corinth to learn he hadn’t arrived.
I must admit there were moments when I forgot I wasn’t running Spartathlon with its strict cut offs so a sense of urgency would prompt me to pick up the pace at various points, but to my mind this run was all about the journey, not a race and not about position. So when I arrived at Ancient Corinth I chilled out with a coffee and ice cream as Ektoras and James arrived a short while later.
Sparta Photography Club and Trifon Kyriazapoulas had given up there own free time to travel from Sparta to capture some of our journey, so when I spotted them I felt guilty for taking a break and that I should have perhaps cracked on but it didn’t feel right if we all separated too much.
I’m not much of a coffee drinker but the large one I had with an ice cream really re-energised me. It was like rocket fuel! At one point I even launched into a jig.
After an extended stop here with our crew Gill, Kelvin, Collette and Jamie we decided we needed to get a move on so we all headed out together.
The camaraderie was great and I felt part of something very, very special! I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be. I love this journey!
It was kind of Foden-esque in concept and we all felt as though we were testing out and comparing what modern Spartathlon was like in contrast to the challenges faced by the original pioneers. Of course it would have been considerable harder for them and Phidippedes himself, especially without the ice cream!
Milk, choco milk and banana was working really well for me and as temperatures cooled later I was able to take on some wraps which went down a treat. Nutritionally this was the best I’ve ever been in an ultra and I’m sure that’s down to a more relaxed pace.
It’s no secret that my biggest fear on Spartathlon is ferrel dogs and domestic dogs which aren’t under control. This fear is magnified as most of the areas we run through are quite remote so I figured if you find yourself on your own, no-one will hear your desperate screams if one takes you out.
I love dogs but it’s dealing with the unknown here and most are powerfully built breeds as was the case in ancient Greece. Every house in Greece seems to possess a man eating dog. It’s very unnerving as you come across them as they could easily tear you limb from limb.
Having said that I’m sure many that eyed me did a quick assessment and decided they’d be in calorie deficit if they chased me down and dispatched me with a few mouthfuls because that’s all they’d get. May be I need therapy because every year it costs me valuable time.
As we cracked on briefly separating here and there we seem to alert every dog in every village we came to, no matter how careful we were about being quiet especially as night descended.
It seemed so quiet apart from that, as we’re used to the party atmosphere that normally awaits runners during Spartathlon itself. It was different but still as magical as ever.
As we’d been going at an easy pace it was of course dark even as we passed through Ancient Nemea. I’m usually already thinking about the mountain climb when I pass through Nemea even though the climb to mountain base is still another fifteen miles away. I believe that in Spartathlon itself, the race doesn’t really start until you reach Lyrkeia.
The ten mile climb to mountain base never gets any easier and although it’s a real challenge there’s great satisfaction in reaching mountain base.
What I hate is the descent from mountain top. I think the key is to have the right attitude towards it and confidence in your ability. That way you descend with style and ease as I did in 2016.
Other years and especially this year I cursed every rock, toe jab and slip as I tried to descend. It wasn’t with style I should add and I reckon Ektoras and James must have thought I had an endless supply of expletives to call upon.
I was so frustrated that by the time I’d descended, met our crews and reenergised I just put the hammer down towards Nestani or as James put it on his Go Pro video.. ‘he ditched us :-)’
Even though I knew this wasn’t a race between us and that cut-offs were irrelevant I just wanted to blitz it to Nestani as is customary. I also knew that if we did want to make up time the best places to do that is across the Plains of Tripolis…and of course the final descent into Sparta.
By the time I was within a few miles of Tegea I found myself in a predicament with some dogs ahead of me which stopped me in my tracks. I faffed around here for quite a while wondering whether to risk going ahead or waiting for the dogs to go.
In the end I was frustrated to realise that my route took a right before I would have got to the dogs anyway. Probably justice I thought for me cracking on without James and Ektoras.
However these weren’t the particular dogs I was most concerned about. Almost every year I have reached the next road junction I’ve encountered a pack of about four big dogs which have attacked previously, although not bitten me.
As my crew caught up with me I asked if they could wait at the next junction and act as a kind of chaperone passed the dogs. Jamie (James crew) also caught up and I asked him the same.
I’m glad I did as when I got to the junction, Jamie was there and drove slowly next to me as I passed through the risk area. As luck would have it the dogs must have been preoccupied eating someone elsewhere.
I finally hit the left turn that takes us on the long uphill highway to Sparta and the weather started to turn rapidly. I sheltered at various points under overhanging rocks and bushes but thankfully George Koulogiannis spotted me, alerted my crew and kindly loaned me a jacket until they could get to me.
By this point James and Ektoras had joined me and were both soaked through too and freezing cold. The weather can change in an instant here.
We cracked on meeting our crew at several points along this long punishing stretch This is no place for weak quads or hams but thankfully we all seemed well prepared.
By the time we were about 13 miles out before the descent to Sparta we became aware that we were attracting some attention and had acquired an entourage of photographers, radio and TV units.
Clearly something special was developing and Sparta had become aware that three crazy runners still intended to kiss the foot.
Emotions started to build now as we closed on Sparta and we really appreciated the fact that Sparta fully intended to welcome us home in style as our entourage grew with every mile it seemed.
We were well into the last ten mile descent and after a brief loo stop about six miles out James and I cracked on as although we were really hoping to all come in together Ektoras alas was going through a bad patch due to sleepiness I think.
We slowed and slowed and checked the tracker to see how he was doing but was assured he was fine by one of his friends and that we should crack on as he would finish.
There was never any doubt in my mind about that anyway but James and I both felt sad that we all wouldn’t be coming in together.
We crossed the Evratos River and as always that milestone always triggers even more emotion. We had no idea what we could expect of course when we arrived except that we were made aware that the Mayor of Sparta was waiting to welcome us.
To us we were just glad we could make the journey that we all love so much. That was more than enough reward. All this attention was so humbling and unexpected.
As is customary on the final approach roads in true Spartathlon tradition a young lad named Crisitiano on a cycle asked if he could accompany us to the statue. This really was feeling more and more like Spartathlon itself even though we were only three.
Overwhelmed with emotion we arrived at Leonidas to a fantastic reception of applause from all directions which blew us all away.
The MP of Laconia Mr. Neoklis Kritikos offered a beer to all three of us after James cheekily commented that he had abstained from alcohol for a full year in his quest to kiss the foot again and would anyone care to treat him to a beer.
We were also welcomed by the deputy mayors of the Municipality of Sparta, Georgia Zacharaki and Georgia Dededimou, who, in addition to the olive wreath, offered us a commemorative medal signifying 2500 years since the battle of Thermopylae.
Dimitra Karra had also kindly arranged three hand made Spartan helmet trophies labelled with SpartathlOFF 2020. What a thoughtful touch! Such kindness bowled us all over.
A few interviews followed and as usual I was a bit tongue tied. It was really humbling that some folk asked to have their pictures taken with us and it was really touching that three children had created a poster with the message ‘Bravo’ and all of their names written below it. We really hadn’t expected all of this!
A huge thankyou!
This has been a truly amazing experience, the like of which we will probably never experience again and I’d like to thank each and everyone of you for living it with us!
My fellow runners James Ellis, Ektoras Agathokleous and William Guillot.
My wife Gill, In laws Kelvin and Collette Sadler and Jamie Holmes for the amazing crew support.
Richard Weremiuk of Track Trail for the invaluable tracker support.
Elias Pergantis, Kyriaki Baliousi (Sparta Photography Club)
Alexandros Bougadis (SpartaVoice)
Kostis Papadimitriou, Panagiotis Bonelis, Kristian Tsantoulas, Spartathlete Giorgos Panos, George Koulogiannis,
The Mayor, Deputy Mayors and Dignatories of Sparta, Dimitra Karra the City of Sparta and the amazing support from home and around the world.
The various Greek publications and TV organisaton that covered our adventure.
It has been a magical journey- apart from the dogs 🙂 *joking aside – dogs are probably only an issue for me so don’t be deterred.
Thank you from the heart!
A Go Pro video courtesy of James Ellis. Please note the language is a tad colourful in places so this carries a watch with caution certificate 🙂
I will very likely add content to the report as many great photos were taken which I don’t have access to currently so it’s important the photographers are given the credit they deserve. They were all brilliant!
As is often the case too memories flood back which simply must be added.
James’ great video above contains some great memories but James and I were also both flattered to be subject of a great podcast hosted by DaznBone (below) Neither of us are legends of course but we were very fattered to be asked.
So, so pleased and honoured to be running Spartathlon again in 2020.
The road to Sparta will be difficult enough this year though without the challenges we’re all already facing with Covid 19.
It will require especially strong discipline and smart training to arrive on the start line fit and healthy this year. Let’s hope the world gets this threat under control soon, but I’m sure together we will.
The health and safety of us all is the most important thing of course but I really hope that this great race doesn’t also fall victim to the bug.
Pre race with Eduardo El Gomez Velasco (aka the Machine)
A belated catch up…
Following Spartathlon 2019 I decided to run the Gloucester 24hr invitational track race hosted by good friends of mine Paul Katsiva Corderoy and his wife Maria, organised under the auspices of Severn Valley Events.
I knew a 24 hr was a bit risky given the proximity to Sparta and it was also contrary to my earlier comments that I’d never run a track 24 again, but I really wanted to support Paul and Maria with their new venture Severn Valley Events and it gave me an early pop at an AQ.
Gill had already committed to volunteering and I said if I wasn’t up to running I’d do likewise.
Despite the demands of Spartathlon I had some lofty goals which on reflection were unrealistic but not surprising.
Discussing Strategy with Eduardo El Gomez Velasco
I’d been informed by a friend Javi Huge to beware ‘his friend ‘the Machine’ Eduardo. Well as it transpired he was indeed a machine, smashing out the first 100k in style. Alas the British weather undermined his 24hr target so Eduardo settled for the 100 mile buckle.
I was extremely impressed with both Eduardo and Simen Holvik who eventually took the win in an amazing Finish record of 251km. Both showed amazing relentless strength and consistency.
As for me I was looking for a Sparta AQ but it became apparent early on that this wasn’t realistic when I went through 12hrs with 115km on the board. I’d normally be hitting around 123-4km at that point.
Gill was a trooper as usual supporting not just me but several other runners as well as helping to keep everyone hydrated.
I had to dig deep and stay focused as entered the last four hrs. Although I knew much earlier that a decent mileage was off the cards I learned that I had moved up the field steadily and was now sitting third. This gave me an incentive to push on and eventually finish third with over 200k. No where near my target or my PB but not too shabby.
It was great to see a few fellow Spartathletes supporting including Matt Blackburn and Ian Hammett as well as 24hr International Wendy Whearity.
I enjoyed sharing some mile’s with Mich Hardie, Simon Prytherch and Graeme Boxall. Graeme and Mich impressed with great runs!
All in all as good as I could expect in the circumstances but still disappointing as was my following 24hr AQ attempt at Athens in the following January.
It was a very difficult weekend as I lost my dad whilst I was running. His passing was imminent before I left for Greece but my family were adamant Dad would have still wanted me to go nonetheless.
I really wrestled with my emotions before and during Athens but I just did my best and am sure Dad would have cut me some slack.
January and February contained some of the most stressful weeks I can remember but I hope I’ve now turned a corner having learned I’ve been selected for my sixth consecutive Spartathlon.
Onwards and upwards everyone and thanks for your wonderful support!
As I mentioned in my previous post I managed to get a solid block of ten weeks of a hundred mile plus weeks under my belt over the winter before embarking on my do or die Sparta AQ attempt at Athens 24hr in January.
However starting with an injury I frustratingly sustained on my final run in my final week of training no less, meant it really was nearly a case of ‘die’ because developing Rhabdomyolyis as a result dam near killed me.
The impact this had on me physically but more importantly psychologically forced me to reevaluate my year, withdraw from the start line of several big races and focus totally on Spartathlon. I figured that given what I’d been through to AQ for Sparta I wasn’t about to let it all be in vain. Spartathlon is in my DNA
Coming out early to Athens allowed for the usual pre race runs I prefer and which I really enjoy. Some I ran alone along the seafront and roads away from the seafront leading to the mountains and some with Spartathlon debutants Peter Abraham, Tom Burns and Mark Bissett. These runs are always helpful to diffuse any concerns, share knowledge and build camaraderie.
I must admit to breaking a golden rule though as I had a niggling doubt that the Saucony Freedom ISO I tend to run in these days were fit for purpose, as they were unproven over such a distance.
I’d planned to try out a pair of New Balance Beacon 2 back home but couldn’t get hold of a pair. So there was only one thing for it, disappear for several hours (much to Gill’s frustration) and hit Glyfada to hunt down a shop that sold them. Eventually I hit gold and snapped up a pair which I duly ran in before the race.
The assistant did try to persuade me to spend an obscene amount of money on some Nike Vaporfly but he was dealing with the wrong guy here. Not questioning the efficacy of such shoes of course as results have shown but it’s who’s wearing the shoes that counts.
Anyway, Friday arrived and I lined up once again at the Acropolis in all its splendour with an amazing bunch of athletes who had all earned the right to start this truly amazing race.
However, this time I had no idea what to expect of myself. Not the psychological prep I’m used to but I decided I wasn’t going to put any pressure on myself other than to commit to finish at all costs of course. I’d crawl across that line if I had to.
This was my fifth consecutive finish if I succeeded along with fellow veteran James Ellis who had secured his AQ with me at Athens in January. Alas I was gutted to learn later that James’ run was undone, although I would argue primarily because of the selfishness of others. James will be back and no mistake!
As for me there weren’t any pressures/ expectations from family, friends or fellow runners on me, but this was the first time I was lining up not having a clue how my body would respond.
Many will already know that I have to believe I will cross that finish line before I start no matter what. I know others hold the view that if you know you’ll cross the line then why even bother but that isn’t my take on it.
I never presume anything in an ultra of course and certainly not with Spartathlon, but if self doubt overwhelms you before you start then in my opinion you shouldn’t even consider starting as your race is already over.
This race is full of uncertainty, and a host of variables can conspire against you, so believing in yourself is paramount.
As last year I started relatively cautiously and held back in the hope of mitigating any disasters. Not my usual strategy of course but I was pleased that this year Cyclone Zorba didn’t revisit and we were treated to more typical Spartathlon weather which suited me just fine.
I shared some miles with many familiar faces including fellow Brit Alastair Higgins who delivered yet another top drawer performance finishing fourth! The weather was hot but I was happy with that and had prepared with several weeks of sauna sessions.
Not as effective as running in a heat chamber but still useful. Plus any heat training will have an effect on blood plasma, red and white blood cells and heat shock proteins. This was a fascinating area I’d been reading up on over the last few years.
It was sad to see someone in trouble by the time we’d exited Athens and were running alongside the Aegean coast. The heat was already taking its toll.
Somewhere before CP11 (marathon distance) I shared the road with Aykut Celikbas who was also going for his fifth finish but this year was particularly special to him as his brother Aytug was also running for the first time.
Aykut is a good friend and I’d say a great ambassador. I was delighted to learn that both Aykut and Aytug made it to Sparti. A fifth finish for Aykut!
As it transpired although it wasn’t a decent performance by me, I was nevertheless buoyed by my finish after a year of niggling doubts caused by the pasting my body endured at Athens.
It was well shy of my best finish in 2016 29:14 but still faster than the last two years so I feel I’ve turned a corner.
The finish has reassured me and has since fired me up, instilling some self belief and restoring some confidence. So much so in fact that I’ve a lofty goal now for 2020 but first I have to try for an AQ again which will prove much, much tougher this year with the revised criteria of 25%.
I attempted this at Gloucester 24hr in November but alas I think it was too close to Sparta, so on to Athens 24hr in January now for another attempt or else it will be the ballot for me for the first time in six years.
I should say that I believe the revised AQ criterion is justified and is a sensible and fair change.
I either lacked fitness, strength screwed up my pacing or else didn’t get my nutrition right.
I’m nevertheless undeterred and will compensate with adjustments to my training. More strength and speed work and a return to more road racing of 5k to marathon. It will all help I’m sure.
The jury is still out on whether conservative starts work for me, as I seemed to be struggling to hit my anticipated targets. I soon realised this this year when my usual target for Ancient Nemea was in jeopardy.
This was a problem as this is where I have historically donned night gear and picked up my head torch. I was an hour behind schedule this year and the night was drawing in.
The historical comparison below illustrates my erratic performance over the last few years and although I know the finish is what counts ultimately I still feel I’m missing something in training. I’ll get there though.
I didn’t negotiate the ascent to Mountain Base or transition over the mountain very well this year at all. I guess I just didn’t have the strength this year but not sure if that was mental or physical. One thing is for sure, I need to get my act together if I hope to return.
My crew had been great as usual but we have agreed that next year if I secure a place I will try running without a crew again as I did on my debut.
I entered Sparta more positive than last year but minus my flag which I’d misplaced, but making the decision to run in wearing my Union Jack vest solved the problem somewhat and actually went down quite well with the supporters.
The usual amazing Spartan crowds had returned this year and my fellow Brits were doing a grand job of welcoming everyone home with great enthusiasm.
Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club
As I entered the final stretch towards the King I joined hands with Gill and Collette and we ran the last fifty metres or so together.
I always feel truly privileged to run this great race and am profoundly grateful to everyone involved in staging and supporting it every year.
Congrats to all finishers and everyone that made the start line. You’re all winners! Special mention to Alastair Higgin (4th) for first Brit again, Ian Hammett for another top drawer run and 6th place and to Sarah Sawyer first British lady!
Thanks once again to my wife Gill and In laws Kelvin and Collette for their amazing support. To my fellow runners, support crews, all the volunteers, medical teams, the ISA, Sparta Photography Club and anyone else I may have neglected to mention.
I have lofty goals for this race and hope to be back to realise them in 2020. See you in Sparta!
Back in 2018 I had to withdraw from Athens 24hr due to a knee issue which finally undid my race at 19.5hrs. This was disappointing but unsurprising given I’d experienced a period of inconsistent training and a string of setbacks since the end of 2016 after Barcelona.
This year improved somewhat as I managed to win the Essex 100, put in a reasonable performance at Belfast 24hr (200km plus) and complete my 4th consecutive Spartathlon, although sustaining yet another injury and a consequently slower time than planned. Cyclone Zorba dealt it’s hand too. These were all lacklustre performances though as I knew I was capable of much better.
Following Spartathlon I realised that I was now in the unenviable position of no longer having an auto qualifier for the first time in five years, so if I wanted to avoid the ballot I would need to deliver a result good enough to renew my AQ at least for 2019, if not 2020, but this would be tough as the ISA have revised AQ criteria for 2020.
So with time now short and a desire to both secure an AQ and deliver a decent 24hr result I opted for Athens again along with fellow Spartathlete and all round good egg James Ellis. This time I was determined to be better prepared and hopefully injury free.
Pre-race build up
I was pleased to stick doggedly to the planned training schedule I had promised myself as preparation. This was a block of ten weeks of 100 miles or more, the highest consecutive block of hundreds I’d ever completed, topping out at 131.
Unbelievably on the final run of the final week of training with a week to go until Athens I tweaked muscles on the rear of my leg. It seemed to be lower hamstring/ high calf, so effectively behind the knee where the muscles cross. I was gutted and worried but didn’t panic.
I decided not to run another step until Athens and pray it would be alright. During that final week I pampered myself with saunas and hot tubs in the hope that muscles would relax and healing would be promoted.
My Amazing Wiife Gill Ready for Crewing Duties with Audrey Ellis (out of shot)
I drafted out various scenarios for Gill who was to join me as support this year and we discussed at some length how we’d approach it. This was a team effort.
I had pace calculations noted for three ambitious targets, plus the same to reflect my existing PB and Sparta AQ requirements for 2019 and 2020. These were displayed in miles, kms and lap times, with anticipated mileage broken down to 1st, 2nd, 3rd quarters etc. This would help Gill give me speedy feedback at key points in the race by reference to a reckoner.
I’d planned to try to hydrate at least every 5k and feed/hydrate every 10k. I’d also decided that everything would happen on the fly as far as possible, uncluding shirt and jacket changes. I had no intention of stopping unless I had to.
At one point whilst I was formulating my strategy I had considered the idea of utilising walk breaks but I wasn’t confident enough in that approach so it didn’t take me long before I’d largely dismissed the idea.
With the benefit of hindsight however, I may yet incorporate it in to a future race strategy. Not least in order to minimise accumulated muscle damage which is known to increase disproportionately in the second half of the race.
James Ellis and I Psyched up and Ready to Rock!
Gill did a brilliant job of crewing, also noting key info on my pace, nutrition etc throughout the race and also helped relay messages of support and guidance to James Ellis who of course I shared a common goal with. That is, auto qualification for Spartathlon.
Last year the course was as currently described on the event website, which was a 1km loop on a tarmac surface in front of one of the buildings that constituted the old Olympic airport. That benefited from light spill from the main road that ran adjacent to the airport. The problem with that course was that it had a hairpin turn every half km which played havoc with the hips for some runners.
I was pleasantly surprised therefore to discover that this year the course had changed. It was now a combination of tarmac, block paving and concrete but dispensed with the hairpin following an out and back route from the start point within the main building, returning to enter the main building where runners completed a loop before exiting again.
View of the internal part of the course (courtesy Association of Greek Dayrunners)
This was beneficial for crews to protect them from the elements but also psychologically for runners as I’m convinced that every time runners entered the building to complete the last 150mtres or so of each 1km lap they would have benefited from the well illuminated building which would have countered the effects of sleep deprivation.
Coming in to complete another Km (courtesy Association of Greek Dayrunners)
I was reasonably disciplined with my pace in order to follow the pace guidelines I’d advised my crew. To a large extent I managed to fall in line with 9:10-9:15 in the early stages, but drifted into a slightly faster pace over the early laps.
What did become abundantly clear was my injury which was posing problems already over the first few laps. I remarked to James that I would see how I coped managing the pain but not to be surprised if I had to call it very early. Drifting in to a slightly faster pace than was sensible was also exacerbating the pain and putting me on course for my most ambitious target which was too fast and unsustainable anyway.
On reflection I should have started at around 9:24-9:39 m/m (5:50-5:58 per lap) and still hit half way with 121 km on the board as I did, but feeling more comfortable for the second half. I will get it right I’m sure. I think the slightly faster start cost me about 90 mins between the second and third quarter.
Final splits info wasn’t available at time of writing as other events were still in progress, but based on available splits info I have gleaned from Gill (although not relevant in a 24hr) I hit 100 miles in 16:37:15 which is a new 100 mile PB for me and would have been an auto-qualifier in it’s own right if the race results gave an officially recognised 100 mile split result, but as they don’t in this case it wouldn’t have been accepted by ISA.
This was highly relevant for me as although I hadn’t planned to stop at 100 anyway as I was here to run my best 24hr, I probably would have considered it given I was running with a leg injury which I was only exacerbating by continuing. Madness really, yes but the thought of risking a no show at Sparta was unthinkable to me.
Selection of splits…
161km/100 mile 16:37
With just over two hours to go I hit 200k in 21:53 pretty much my finishing distance at Belfast 24hr, which wasn’t a PB incidentally. I still needed another 16k however and I was in real trouble with my leg and the affects of Rhabdomyolysis which of course I didn’t realise at the time.
Pre-race with James and Audrey Ellis (Courtesy of Gill Thomas)
I think it was around this point I had to pause for a few minutes and get Gill to massage my leg even if it meant losing a placing as I think I was either 2nd or 3rd at that point. I reminded myself that placing was irrelevant as the real goal was Sparta! What ensued was commical as Gill and Audrey did their best to afford me some privacy holding a towel around me as Gill tried to sort my leg out.
On reflection I see that I screwed up over the last four hours by not taking on sufficient hydration and electrolytes. I’m normally pretty diligent on hydration and think I was largely better in this race compared to previous outings, but with 4 hours to go I seemed to throw caution to the wind as I focused all my attention on hitting the target.
The problem was the extent of the muscle damage from the injury to my right leg which was compounding the load on my kidneys still further by releasing more myoglobin in to my bloodstream. I was literally dicing with death but didn’t even realise it until well after the race.
I very nearly decided to call it as it was insane running in so much discomfort and exacerbating the damage. However the magic of Sparta is too strong and as James Ellis commented I must have called upon the power of all the running Gods to find something for those last 10 miles because I don’t know how I managed it.
I was seriously hurting but still frustrated by my lack of pace given the effort I was expending. Clearly something was amiss. Yes I was tired of course but it was more than that. I couldn’t open my pace up even if I tried which was just as well really as every time I tried I could feel the burn and tear of muscle fibres in my right leg.
The closing stages…
As James and I ticked off lap after lap I just wanted this ordeal to be over. My body was in trouble but my mind couldn’t afford to yield or else all the efforts of Gill and I would have been in vain. By this time James had edged slightly ahead of me and it made me smile that he was going to nail it. He was looking strong but also in pain.
I think as we acknowledged each other over those last few laps unspeaking but saluting each others efforts with knowing looks, we knew that the prize we had worked so hard for was in sight. With just 2km to go now I had 24 mins on the clock. I started to well up but not sure if that was from the emotion of knowing we were going to nail it or the release from the discomfort I was in.
They handed us our race number blocks to drop on the floor for the partial lap measurement as the magic 24hrs approached and as I crossed the mat for 216k I looked desperately across to Gill and Αudrey for reassurance it was in the bag.
As James and I had both exited the stadium for the last time we looked at each other and thought, we’re done! We agreed not to go a step further, gave each other a victory hug, masterminded our descent to the ground and awaited the lap measurer.
Auto-qualified and Out!
It was an absolute pleasure to run with James and an even bigger pleasure to see him nail his Sparta qualifier and achieve podium. Perhaps now he’ll realise he’s a far better runner than he realised. Spartathlon will be interesting.
We were quickly joined by Gill out on the course who snapped the great pic above. Gill, Audrey and James’ sister Maria were superb crewing us and this was a real team effort. Huge thanks to them all.
It was great to meet new friends and see some familiar faces out there in Athens including Aykut Celikbas (who ran a storming 100), Fionnuala O’Mara (who placed 3rd in the 48hr) Georgos Panos, Christos Sarefelntin, Angela Terzi (who set a new hellenic 24hr record), Rex Brillantes and Andrey Vasilenko. Apologies if we didn’t get to speak or I have neglected to mention you.
Congratulations to all of the winners and record achievers, including Vladimir Todorov Stavrev (24hr) and Andrzej Radzikowski (48hr)
Don’t let your focus on the goal be at the expense of hydration and electrolytes. Hydrate consistently and sufficiently throughout the entire event and critically post race too.
Dont run with an existing injury. The additional byproducts of muscle breakdown from my leg injury compounded an already dangerous situation resulting in more myoglobin being released in to my bloodstream and other key markers being elevated to critical levels for my kidneys and heart.
This resulted in a very scary situation as I was admitted to hospital having developed Rhabdomyolysis and experienced similar symptoms to a heart attack and could have suffered kidney failure.
I had a CT scan, multiple blood tests and Ultrasound before I was eventually allowed home after an overnight stay. One more blood test the following week to check all’s well and they haven’t contacted me, so hopefully no news is good news.
It took around 10 days for my usual blood pressure to return and as I update this 14 days post race my body is probably still reeling from the hammering I gave it, although I feel so much better and have enjoyed a few glasses of red to celebrate my AQ finally.
So please be careful everyone. Be extremely diligent with hydration, electrolyte levels and don’t risk running with an injury. The prize for me was important yes, the risk I put my body through a definite no!
Have absolute faith in your planned pacing strategy and stick to it rigidly. Run more conservatively if anything, at least in the first half.
This race was critical for me to start the year off positively, secure Sparta AQ and to run my best 24hr. Well the first two I guess I achieved but the latter was undermined by my injury and a slightly too ambitious early pace but it was nevertheless my best paced 24hr. I feel I have learned from this and I’m very encouraged to get it right next time.
Thanks to the organisers for a great event, to everyone for your fantastic support and most of all to my amazing wife Gill!
Well after another mixed year due to missed training, a few niggles and losing my mojo somewhat, I’m hoping I can get some consistency back and start the New Year positively with a fresh approach to 24hr racing, so it’s back to Athens in January.
Rather than cut back in 2019 as I originally envisaged I’ve decided to plan for a big year and fashion it somewhat on 2016 when outcomes were positive and several big ultra’s under my belt served me so well, so following Athens I’m lining up the Canalrace C.I.C Canal Slam and Belfast 24hr.
Spartathlon is of course a goal race for me again but next year I may have to trust to the ballot for the first time in 5 years if I don’t secure an AQ at Athens. With the ISA having revised the AQ criterion effective for 2020 my minimum goal at Athens will need to take account of this.
Depending on how the year unfolds I may also have a crack at Mark Cockbain’s Lon Las 253m in October, but there’s a lot of bridges to cross before all these races.
It’s now less than a month until Athens 24hr and I’ve trained hard over the last couple of months nailing big miles week on week.
It’s a tad risky but I’m looking for a solid block of ten weeks of high mileage before Athens. Previously I’ve never run more than five consecutive weeks of a hundred miles or more as part of a training block, but I’ll have hit ten consecutive weeks one week before Athens peaking at one hundred thirty to forty miles.
Not a great believer in tapering but will likely have a few days off or light training before Athens.
January 2019 – Athens 24hr
May 2019 – GUCR 145m
June 2019 – Belfast 24hr
July 2019 – KACR (Avon and Kennett Canal Race 145m)
August 2019 – LLCR (Liverpool to Leeds 130m)
September 2019 – Spartathlon
October 2019 (TBA)
November 2019 – Gloucester 24hr
Well all I can do is continue to train hard, rest and sleep enough, get my unilateral leg work back on track, step up the core work and stick to my revised race strategy. Oh yes – and take on enough calories! Only the outcomes will tell if I’ve got it right.
Thanks for the miles we’ve shared everyone and to anyone that has followed or shared in my exploits, thank you! I really do appreciate it. I hope your training goes well and you have a fruitful, injury free and successful 2019!
Pre-race- Chilling with my Amazing Support at the Emmentina, Glyfada
Following a second year of inconsistent training due to niggles I found myself lined up once again at the start of this amazing, iconic but brutal race.
This will be my fourth consecutive finish if I make it and there were some lofty expectations from fellow runners, but I knew I wasn’t the same highly trained runner of 2016 (the last year I had a good run of decent performances) so I was cautious and hesitant about what expectations I should set myself.
I’ve said it many times before but you have to believe you will cross that finish line before you start or else you wont. It’s not arrogance, its just convincing yourself that you have it in you. It’s easier to persuade you’re sub conscious of this when you know you’ve put in the required training and you’ve had a run of successes, as success begets success.
Much more difficult when you’ve had neither for a while and this was my potential dilemma as I battled self doubt about what I would deliver based on last 18 months or so.
Yes I had a reasonable showing at Belfast 24hr and managed to somehow win the Essex 100 but in reality they were sub par lacklustre performances. I knew I couldn’t expect to excel and it would take all my experience and self belief just to finish Spartathlon this year. I didn’t set any expectations on time as I knew this would be foolhardy but obviously this didn’t mean I wouldn’t try to do my best.
I decided therefore that I needed to be more cautious this year, so I planned to hold back in the hope of saving something for the last third. Not my usual strategy as everyone knows.
What I hadn’t reckoned on though was being walloped by Cyclone Zorba which was to constrain my pace still further as I negotiated the torrential rain and ankle deep floods on the roads.
Whether this componded problems I was experiencing with an ankle injury I sustained around the 100 mile point I dont know but somewhere around the mountain I started to experience real pain in my ankle which was so debilitating and obviously decimated my pace.
I’m notorious for going off fast and am constantly criticised for it but as I’ve stated before I believe that regulating my pace to be slower than what feels natural to me adversely affects my gait. Whether this is what happened this year or not I dont know as other variables were introduced this year, including different shoes, cooler temperatures, incessant rain and hidden ruts in the road concealed by flooding.
As it transpired it wasn’t pretty this year as I had to basically trudge it in from around 35-40 miles out from Sparta. Not my idea of a performance or indeed a run for that matter, as I did all I could just to finish this year, but hey I will confine it to history and move on.
All I wanted to do was finish and to take Gills hand to the King. I didn’t care about anything else. I knew I couldn’t do myself justice, but I hope to put that right if I can secure a place next year. First I need to make sure I earn the right to line up again at the Acropolis though and although I have a qualifier I need to try and renew my AQ, so its back to Athens in January for the 24hr.
Brief report of how it unfolded…
Once again I found myself in the privileged position to follow in the footsteps of ancient Athenian messenger Pheidippides as I embarked on my fourth consecutive Spartathlon as part of the unofficial British Spartathlon Team, supported by my wife Gill and In-laws Kelvin and Collette.
A race that epitomises the Olympic spirit, ideals and ethics. A race that unites everyone irrespective of background, religion, race, age, wealth, politics and so on towards one ultimate goal – a finish at the feet of King Leonidas in Sparta.
On my debut in 2015 I was delighted to finish, whilst in 2016 I managed to improve by over two hours for a sub thirty finish. However, last year I had it all to do, resulting in a lacklustre performance and I felt in a similar position this year.
Aside from lack of adequate physical prep I have been lacking in confidence over the last 18 months or so due to a string of issues and inconsistent training. Well you simply mustn’t play host to doubt in a challenge of this magnitude or it will be curtains before you even hit Corinth. This race will spit you out in an instant.
Self doubt I normally dispel quite easily but I admit it was nibbling away at me on this occasion. I needed to get a grip and a few light runs in the race build up with Simon Prytherch helped settle me down as they always do.
As I’ve said before this is the greatest setting to the start of a race you’re ever likely to find, whilst the finish in Sparta is an experience unmatched anywhere.
In terms of a mileage build up strategy I’d been constrained due to the enforced downtime but also caution on my part.
Ancient Corinth – Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club
As it transpired my strategy of holding back this year resulted in me hitting Corinth (50 miles) and Mountain Base (100 miles) 30 mins and 60 mins later than my previous two years attempts, so I had managed to discipline myself. This was also confirmed by me coming across Bob Hearn much earler in the race which surprised even Bob.
However, it was around the mountain that lack of training really began to take its toll again which was compounded by a niggle I was experiencing in my ankle. From that point on this combined with the worsening storm I was largely reduced to a trudge. Not good!
My crew however believed that once again calorie deficit was partly responsible. May be, but it is an area I need to get right.
Official Splits Comparison 2015/16/17/18
Splits Km Mile 2015 2016 2017 2018
Start – 07:00 07:00 0700 07:00
C/P No 4 19.5 12.11 01:38 01:34 01:36 1:45
C/P No 11 42.2 26.22 03:29 03:22 03:25 3:42
C/P No 22 81.0 50.33 07:14 07:03 07:14 7:32
C/P No 28 100.0 62.13 09:33 09:31 09:26 9:47
C/P No 35 124.0 77.05 12:31 12:22 12:15 12:34
C/P No 47 159.5 99.10 17:44 17:41 17:43 18:36
C/P No 52 172.0 106.87 19:49 19:38 19:54 21:08
C/P No 60 195.0 121.16 23:23 22:41 24:09 25:06
C/P No 69 227.0 141.05 28:10 26:46 29:43 30:42
FINISH 245.3 152.42 31:33 29:14 33:32 34:53
The table above speaks volumes. When I hit the mountain during my best year 2016, I felt much stronger, energised and cracked on with confidence up the goat trail over Mount Parthenio, and ran down with a smile on my face. This year by contrast I was ambling, cold, lacked energy and feeling more despondent with what was developing into a dire performance, albeit outside of my control.
The Mountain – Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club
The positives for me were my support Gill, Kelvin and Collette and sharing some time with many of my fellow runners including Dan Masters and Dave Barker in the last third and coming across Carl Howells who was a breath of fresh air as he breezed along full of positive energy.
I knew this year was once again about damage limitation as last year, so I resolved to just finish at all costs. I figured the tide would turn in fortunes if I could qualify for subsequent years but new I had my own mountain to climb to return to where I wanted to be.
My crew had been great as usual but this year they were having to contend with Cyclone Zorba themselves which complicated an already demanding task. It was good to see them when I did and really helped uplift the spirits.
There were times I’m sure when they wondered if I would throw in the towel due to the Biblical conditions as it was downright dangerous out there. This was no truer than when I approached Sparta and Zorba was at its peak doing its best to thwart our efforts to reach the King.
I cursed that wind aloud as I refused to yield. I would not be denied and my crew knew that now although they had to wait an inordinate length of time for me to descend into Sparta. One step forward, three steps back it felt like as I dodged the debris caused by the storm.
I entered Sparta a pitiful sight I’m sure but just glad to finish. Gill and Collette took my arms on the final straight as we finally put this one to bed. Was I disappointed, yes of course I was, but beaten, no! No injury or Cyclone would have prevented me taking Gills hand to the King and I think Gill secretly knew that.
Many have said it was a huge achievement to finish under the circumstances and I’m grateful, but I just want to confine this to history as a washout (no pun intended) and move on.
The usual crowds in Sparta weren’t in evidence of course and understandably so, given the storm but there were still hardy souls out there and my fellow Brits welcoming everyone home with great enthusiasm one and all.
Despite my disappointment I still feel truly privileged to participate and am profoundly grateful to everyone involved in staging and supporting this great race!
Congrats to all finishers and everyone that made the start line. You’re all winners! Special mention to Alastair Higgin for first Brit and Cat Simpson first British lady!
Awards Ceremony – Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club
Thanks once again to my wife Gill and In laws Kelvin and Collette for their amazing support. To my fellow runners, support crews, all the volunteers, medical teams, the ISA, Sparta Photography Club and anyone else I may have neglected to mention.
I still have lofty goals for this race and hope to be back to realise them. See you in Sparta!
I make no apology for concluding this brief report as I did in 2016 and 2017 with these oh so apt words…
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’”
Finally finished and so relieved – Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club