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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!